Erika gasps, which is quite a feat for someone who doesn't technically have lungs. But she tries.
She sucks in as much of the outside as she can. She hobbles forward for a foot and then another, rapidly crossing the length of her shadow only to sink to the ground when she finds she can't hold her form solid enough to keep going.
For an entity that only crossed out of Heaven's misty borders a few moments ago, the desert is a harsh introduction to the human world.
Erika opens what she has of a mouth and sucks in more of the world. She had barely a moment in that horrific iron and bloodstone cage to witness the faces and forms of the creatures around her. Humans. She grapples with the idea of a physical form for beings she has only seen in spirit before.
Hair. Skin. What goes underneath? She hadn't seen that. Her shape shivers in the heat like ripples of light. Erika gasps and gasps again, stretching her mouth as wide as she can to draw in the world. The desert is so empty and provides so little. She stumbles forward. She leaps the length of her shadow, her knees -- is that what they're called? -- hit the dirt. It stings her palms -- that's what those are! -- when her hands slam into the ground and she knows in her bones -- her bones, of course, that's what goes underneath! -- that she has to get up again, she has to go forward.
If she stops she will cease.
If she stops she will cease.
She echoes it over and over in her head. Each step collects another piece of this new form. Each step brings in the far-flung pieces of her consciousness and presses it into a body that can withstand the baking heat of this world. An Erika in the physical. That is what she must be if she ever hopes to reach the edge of this wasteland.
If Heaven is mist and spirit, then the thin air and the heat and the dust of the desert is something beyond angelic comprehension. It's hard to keep your head on your shoulders when you have to remember from only a glimpse that the head goes at the top of a body.
Erika had been summoned into that cage to be kept.
She screams at the thought, her edges disappearing entirely, so her spirit stretches up toward the sun. When she snaps herself back together she's taller than she was before. Her shadow grows longer. She can't leap the whole distance any longer.
But if she stops, she will cease.
If Erika stops, she will cease. She will dissolve into lightning, dissipating entirely in this endless stretch of air the humans call a world. Without even an iron and bloodstone cage to contain her there will be nothing nothing nothing left at all.
Erika drags herself forward.
She puts on too many eyes and no ears and hair down to a waist if she had known what a waist was supposed to be. It's hard to construct a body from the knowledge gleaned in a glimpse, especially when that glimpse happened past iron bars and at people who were wearing baggy robes.
By the time she's close enough to the house to realize it is a house, she's turned her skin as black as those robes.
Erika can read without thinking: all angels can. It doesn't matter what language the words are printed in or whether they have even been printed yet at all. (This is why an angel can read into the future to prophesize, of course.)
She briefly absorbs the not-yet-there sign in front of the house declaring it a refuge for angels before she falls forward on her knees one last time.
With a c̹̫̩͈̮̻ͯ̐̄ͥr̖̭̖͚̱̙̾ͨâ̫̯̘̾͒̐̎ͥc̟̻̰̫̰ͭ̉͂ͅk͉̙̹͖͕ͬͬ͑͆ͥ̆ the air around her expands and sizzles and Erika gasps, panting, trying to draw the world in and struggling because she's full, there's no more space, but there's still some of her left, resting on the skin of this body, and glowing, and there's another c̳̭͎̹̹͈̋̌̾̉̋̎͒̾r͖̩͉̻̝͖̤̃̒̆ͮ̿̔̇a͖̩͗͆̃̀ͨc͖̙̬̙͈͎ͥ͑ͫ͐ͨͬ͑k̺̻ͥ̊̈̃͆ͬ̑͆ only this one seems louder and the air burns burns against her skin and--
"There you are," Erika says. "We tried to reach you first."
Erika reaches up her hands and is pulled to her feet by Erika and Erika.
They pull her into the house without knocking.
Josie doesn't know how they're standing up like that. Two of them, anyway. The third is slumped in their arms between them, head lolled to the side. The ones on the sides are strange shades of pale. If she squints over her reading glasses she can just guess that they might have been aiming for peach or rose or tan or a pale brown. It's like they had never really seen colors before.
The middle one, the third, the one who keeps gasping for breath, has skin the color of black silk. It even shimmers in the light some -- although, wait. She blinks. No, it's not just the third angel. All of them glow. But the third is the most distinctive, surely. Instead of wrinkling where someone might wrinkle, if they were old enough, it's skin is … folded. Like fabric. Just along the corners of the mouth and such, thankfully, but still.
Josie puts a hand over her mouth and then takes it down. She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I take it you're angels."
"Yes," one of the pale ones says. "We need to rest."
"I can see that."
Josie does have a pull-out couch. She can't pull it out on her own, though. The black angel leans up against one of the pale ones, while the pale one who spoke comes forward. It turns to grab the other end of the couch and Josie can see that it has double-layered wings. It was too hard to tell from the front, but from the side, she can just glimpse in the way the feathers are all pushed together that this angel has four wings altogether.
The four-winged angel is very strong but not very … well … it takes a good minute for it to figure out how to pull the couch mattress up and then out. Like it doesn't quite know how to work its hands. The thumb seems to confuse it in particular.
Josie tries to study the pale angels as they lay the black one down on the mattress to rest.
Angels aren't real, of course. But here they are. So she might as well deal with the situation before she makes any large changes in her worldview. They might not be real, but they do need help. She can certainly get down an extra pillow and sheet and give it to the black angel.
"Pardon me, dear," she says.
She lifts the angel's head up to slide the pillow underneath. She tries not to shudder at the feeling of silk when she expected hair. The angel blinks at her, though, and reaches up to touch the long-grayed braid hanging over her shoulder. And in an instant, before Josie can even let the angel's head rest against the pillow, the silk feeling changes to something quite like the hair she brushes each day.
Well, now isn't that interesting. "There you go," she says, blinking a few times in return. She clears her throat and moves to stretch out the sheet. Once the pale angels see what she's doing, they intervene to finish, though.
"Why do you call me dear?" the black angel asks.
Josie pats her braid, absently, half expecting to feel it silkier. "What else should I call you?" she asks, without really thinking about it. She shifts her weight from foot to foot and purses her lips together. Hmm. How do you talk to something that isn't supposed to exist -- oh, damnation. Do you offer lemonade to things that don't exist?
"I am Erika."
Josie nods once. Probably not lemonade. None of them sound thirsty. And besides, maybe there's first aid to administer. They would know better than she if one of them is sick. It's hard to tell past all the eyes and the … well … the glow.
Her grandmother had once told her that angels were given their shapes after humans came into the universe. Josie thinks it would probably be rude to ask if the being who gave these angels their shapes had ever seen a human before.
"Nice to meet you, Erika. And who are you?" she asks, turning to the other two.
They look at each other.
"I am Erika," one says. The other, "I am Erika."
Josie stares at them. Neither speak back up. She rubs a hand over her forehead. "Well, I'm not sure how that is going to work out. But we'll try."
Then she goes to get lemonade for herself, because somebody needs to have something. She ends up pulling down the whole serving set. It's probably not the done thing to put a splash of vodka into lemonade for angels. Josie looks at their glasses for a moment, and splashes in two.
They're ten feet tall, after all. It won't hit them quite as hard as a normal person.
"Here we go. A nice drink to take away some of that spring desert heat."
The serving platter goes down on the coffee table they had to move out of the way to pull out the couch. Josie sits on the edge of an armchair and sips her drink, trying to think of the best way to ask whether they've talked to the Sheriff's boys and girls yet, the Secret Police, or whether they know that the City Council says they don't actually exist. There are probably a lot of extra forms to fill out when you don't exist.
They watch her drinking with such intensity that Josie downs the rest of her glass in a few gulps. She sets her cup down and looks over at the angel on the bed: its -- no, her -- her breathing is softer and less rapid now.
"This is an angel refuge," Erika says, after a moment. She hasn't gone for the lemonade. Maybe they don't know how it works.
Erika nods, speaking for only the second time. "A home for angels."
"Now you wait just a minute," Josie says, not bothering to push her glasses back up when they slide down her nose this time.
Josie calls Cecil only after all of them have left. She doesn't know where they went. She saw them leave, but not what direction they got to. It's hard to tell where someone plans on going when they just kind of evaporate in front of you.
"What are you going to do with the light bulb?" Cecil asks.
"Oh, I hadn't thought about that."
The light bulb is in a box on the porch. Erika was a bit eager about it. Josie hadn't minded, though it did seem strange to her that after barely an hour the poor thing was on her feet again. She didn't look much different -- maybe one of the eyes had disappeared? -- but she wanted to "repay" Josie for the use of her pull-out couch. Since Josie usually had to use the step ladder to change the porch light bulb she'd said yes. Erika hadn't seemed too wobbly, so it had probably been okay to let her do it.
Josie hoped that wherever they went the other two were looking after her.
"I guess I could sell it," she finally says, thinking of the glass bulb. It's in a small box. It's also still glowing even though it is, of course, not hooked up to anything. Josie isn't sure she wants to keep that. "Would you tell people that for me, Cecil? I don't want to have to take out an ad in the paper."
"Of course," Cecil says. He goes quiet for a moment. Suddenly Josie hears music in the background, like he turned up his car stereo. "But are you sure I should talk about this on air?" he asks.
Josie stands up and walks over to turn on her own radio. She sets it to the program by the cicadas and settles down to listen to the chirping. That should block out the Sheriff's boys and girls well enough for a few minutes without them getting too antsy about not being able to listen in.
"Not the part about them being summoned here. They said not to talk about that," she says. "Apparently it needs to be secret for a bit longer."
No wonder none of the angels looked quite right. They were all basing their shapes on the first humans they'd seen: the ones who'd summoned them. They'd only seen them through cage bars and past hooded robes. Now as to why they'd been summoned in the first place, well, they hadn't said exactly. But Josie had an uneasy feeling it had to do with why Erika had been so sickly when the three of them had turned up in her living room.
"But I should mention them at all?"
"Don't you worry about me, kiddo," Josie says, firmly. Cecil makes a sound of protest, but she cuts him off. "I know exactly what I'm doing. Besides, you promised you'd help me sell that light bulb."
"I didn't promise," Cecil says, sighing. That means he still will, of course.
Josie makes sure she listens to that night's broadcast, just like she does every night. Cecil's show isn't to be missed. And maybe she's still proud of him for living through the intern period to make it onto the air in the first place, even if she wouldn't tell him that in so many words.
When he tells everyone the angels have arrived, she nods to herself.
She isn't sure yet why they want people to know. But she figures she'll work it out eventually.