You can hear me read ‘Angel’s Heart’ on the Halloween episode (#71) of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast. The prompts for this episode were “October/Halloween”, and this photo of the abandoned Pilgrim State Psychiatric hospital:
This was a difficult prompt for me. The photo is very evocative, but it took me a while to find a story idea I really liked. In the end, what I ended up with was rather different than what I set out to write…
It’s Halloween and for the first time, Angel’s going trick-or-treating without Mama or Grandpa. He’s going with his cousins instead, Ray and Mary.
Angel wears the outfit Mama’s made him, a bloodied doctor’s coat, the front stained red with Kool-Aid.
“Nothing scarier than that,” Mama says, hands shaking when she buttons up the coat.
She gives him a knife, too when Grandpa isn’t looking. Not big, but sharp.
“What’s it for?” Angel asks, but Mama only holds him close.
“A devil stole my heart when I was seventeen, but he won’t get my angel,” she whispers when she hugs him, and like always, the way she croons the words makes Angel think of the songs Grandpa sings along to in the truck.
When he was little, Angel would check if Mama had a heart, would put his head against her chest to hear it beating. He does the same tonight, hears the familiar rhythm, slow and sure.
Grandpa tells Angel and his cousins to stick to the streets they know, not to wander. Mama says nothing, just sits down by the window, right hand scratching at her chest as if searching for that heart she thinks she lost.
“Your mom’s weird,” Ray says while Angel lights the jack-o-lanterns outside.
Mary slaps him, but Angel just turns to see Mama almost-smile in the window.
The children walk around the block once, get their bags half-filled with candy, then Ray says:
“I know a great haunted house, Angel. Come on.”
“Don’t be such a jerk,” Mary says, but Ray’s the oldest, and in the end, they do as he says.
They walk so far Angel’s feet get tired, so far, he doesn’t know where he is.
Finally, Ray stops in front of a brick building bigger than Angel’s school. Almost as big as the jailhouse where he and Grandpa picked up Mama once.
“This is where they kept the crazies, including your mom,” Ray says, grinning. “Knock, Angel. I dare you!”
Looking up at the broken windows fanged with jagged glass glinting in the night, Angel wonders which room was Mama’s when she lived there.
He’s not scared, not really, walking up to the front-door, but there are no jack-o-lanterns, no decorations, and he knows you usually don’t get candy from a house like that. Angel looks again, and thinks he sees a faint light inside.
He knocks. Knocks again. Keeps knocking until the door opens with a burst of heat as if it were Grandpa’s barbecue. The man in the dark doorway wears a devil’s mask and smells like fiery coals and burnt pork roast.
“Trick or treat!” Angel croaks and the man looks down at the doctor’s coat, the pink-red stain.
“Angel,” he says, smiling with all his teeth, “didn’t think I’d see you so soon.”
Angel doesn’t know what to say. He just wants his candy.
“Your mom used to live here,” the man says. “Want to see her room?”
Angel isn’t sure if he answers yes or no, but next thing he knows he’s inside, following the man up the stairs, through endless hallways and broken doors.
It’s the strangest haunted house Angel’s ever seen. Most rooms are on fire, but not all.
In one room there’s a woman wearing a jacket with the sleeves tied around her so tight she cannot move. She peers at Angel through her stringy, dark hair, but he looks away before he can recognize her face.
In another room, three doctors wearing white coats stand around a woman on a bed, each doctor wielding a bloody knife.
And in a doorway, a pair of bare feet and legs freckled like Mama’s legs dangle slowly as if someone’s suspended from the ceiling just inside.
Angel walks on, clutching the knife in his pocket.
The last room is small, with nothing in it but a metal bed, bolted to the floor. Angel sits down on the soiled mattress.
“Did you steal Mama’s heart?” he asks, and he’s not sure why he feels like crying, sitting there on Mama’s old bed.
“No one stole her heart,” the man says, leaning down, his mask so close Angel feels the singeing heat and acrid smell of each word. “She lost it.” When he smiles, Angel has to look away from the yellow eyes peering through the mask.
“You haven’t given me any candy,” Angel whispers. “I said trick or treat.”
The man’s smile turns to rasping laughter.
“Brass and innocence. Not bad. Look under the bed. If you find something, I’ll take you back outside. Otherwise, you can stay here with me.”
The linoleum is dirty, cracked, and warped, but Angel shimmies in under the bed to get a better look. Nothing there. He works a loose corner with his fingers until they bleed, then slips the knife from his pocket and pries the warped tile-piece loose. Pawing through the grime beneath, he finds a small golden heart on a silk-cord.
Angel puts the heart in his bag and follows the man out. This time, he doesn’t look anywhere but straight ahead.
“Come back anytime,” the man calls as Angel runs into the night. “And say hello to your Mama.”
Mary shrieks when Angel comes tumbling down the path.
“Ray ran away, and I…”
Then she sees Angel’s face, and goes all quiet. They don’t speak, but Mary holds his hand the whole way home.
Mama’s still sitting in her chair by the window when Angel steps inside.
“Where have you been?” Grandpa asks, face pale with worry.
Angel doesn’t know what to say. He leans his head on Mama’s chest to hear the familiar rhythm, slow and sure. He wipes his face on the doctor’s coat stained with dirt and Kool-Aid. He pulls the heart out of his bag and slips the silk-cord around his Mama’s neck.
She doesn’t speak, but her hand clasps the pendant and does not let go.
© Maria Haskins 2017.
Note: the artwork used for this story is a painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, “An Angel Leading a Soul Into Hell“.