She wore wings but was no angel, yet that was her name, Angel Jones, 26, flight attendant for Kazakhstan Airways. She had a boyfriend named Grega, 53, a former professional rugby player, who lived high in the hills that surrounded Slovenska Bistrica, Slovenia.
When she visited him, he made her čevapčiči, an oversized sausage sandwich popular in that part of the world. It was usually topped with blocks of raw onions and a mild pepper sauce, but Grega used his own recipe for the sauce, Habanero peppers, a dram of whiskey, and a teaspoon of opium paste. And when Angel Jones bit into it, she confused the burning sensation on her tongue with love.
Grega had not intended it to have that effect but was happy for it because she supplied the opium, and he wanted her to return often. He liked her company but it was the opium he pined for, almost to the point of drooling. Of course, when Angel Jones saw the look of his face as he opened the door to let her in, she confused his desire for the opium she had hidden up her skirt with a desire for her.
After the čevapčiči, she kissed the bullet scar near the top of his spine. She did it gently because the bullet was still there, lodged behind the cervical vertebra, and any jarring motion there might result in instant paralysis, brain damage, or death.
And every time Angel Jones kissed Grega there, she said, “Thank you… thank you, Baby.” The lodged bullet had been meant for her. It had been one of seven that had entered his body, but the only one that had remained because it had been too dangerous to remove given its proximity to the spine. It was out of gratitude that she risked her career and her freedom to smuggle the opium for him to quell the pain that wracked his body. It was a story she repeated often. He had no reason to disbelieve her account but still asked questions, sometimes the same ones.
Although they slept in the same bed during her visits, they did nothing else either because any form of activity caused him sharp pain or because he was so medicated he could do nothing but stare blankly into space. She slept peacefully with her head on his shoulder, and he snored at times like a wet tin whistle and at other times like a trumpet with a stuffed valve.
One morning, as the misty Slovenian light filled, the room, she pulled back the bedsheets. She had wanted to pass her hand along his body before he woke, to enjoy him in a way that caused no pain. She started at the neck with the tip of her finger and drew an invisible line that connected all of the scars, the round ones caused by entry wounds and the long vertical and diagonal lines left by the surgeon’s scalpel. Two lines that ran perpendicularly along the shoulder blades looked oddly like the kind of scars that might be left on an angel whose wings were cut.
Later when he woke, she helped him into his wheelchair and pushed him into the kitchen where she packed his opium pipe and made him scrambled eggs with diced franks, diced cherry tomatoes, and served with a 7-inch wiener.
“You are so good to me,” he said dimly, as she put the mouthpiece between his lips. He ate without relish and blew smoke rings between bites.
“You saved my life,” she replied.
“I don’t remember it,” he said. “Sometimes in my dreams a detail emerges but I can’t connect it to anything else. I write them all down but they don’t make sense, none of it makes sense. The gunshots, so many of them, the sound of breaking glass, things crashing on the floor… moaning. And you holding a smoking broom, as if you had swept the fireplace and caught some live embers in the straw. And I am on the floor staring at a set of dead eyes.”
“It was a robbery,” she said.
“Right,” he said. “That’s what you told me a year later when I came out of the coma.”
“It was two years, Baby. I was there when you woke up, holding your hand.”
“But there was something about it,” he said with hesitation, as if reaching into a dark hole where an animal with sharp teeth might lurk. He looked out the window as he struggled to complete the sentence, to remember the incident that ended a promising athletic career. The hilltops cast long shadows down the slope, into the long flat valley, and into the town. “There was something about it that does not make sense.”
“What matters is that you saved my life, and that I’m grateful,” she said.
“Just how did I save your life? Tell it to me again,” he said.
“You jumped in front of me as the robber began to shoot,” she said.
“Right, right… that’s how it happened. And tell me again how he died,” he said.
“You had a gun too and shot him in the head. One shot, one kill. It was like in a movie.”
“If it had been a movie, I’d still be able to walk,” he said.
“Smoke your pipe and don’t think about it,” she said.
“Yes. That’s best. What else is there?” he replied. “But there is something that does not fit. I don’t remember ever learning to shoot a gun. I never had a need for one.” He made boxing moves with his arms, a jab and an uppercut.
“You picked a gun up off the floor and shot wildly. But you hit him square in the forehead. The bullet sent parts of his brain through a window.”
“How was there a gun on the floor?”
“Baby, why do you do this to yourself? We’ve been through this.”
“Tell me again, please.”
“I surprised him while he was going through my closet. He was trying on my dresses. The gun was on the floor with his pants. You dove for it and he tried to wrench it from you. And you shot him. That’s it.”
He frowned and looked away. “I remember a dress covered in blood.”
“I’m sorry…” she said.
“But it doesn’t explain how I ended up like this… if I shot him in the head… with one shot…” he said.
“Oh, Baby, I’ve explained it a thousand times,” she interrupted. “Why can’t you remember? He shot you a few times first.”
Her answer left him more perplexed, and he decided to change the topic though he found it hard to do, “This morning. I felt a hand roaching across my back, connecting the scars.”
“That was me.”
“I thought I had dreamt it.”
“It was me. The real me. See how confused you get?”
“Yes, but as the hand connected the scars, images flashed across my mind—of you standing in front of me when the shooting began, the robber was behind me screaming.
“It was a dream… a bad dream. Let me fix you another pipe,” she said.
“No… no. I need to think this through,” he said.
She stood behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders, and began massaging them. “Can you feel my fingers, Baby? Can you feel how much I love you?”
“I can feel only the pain of your fingers are causing. Please stop,” he said.
“How do you know that you are not dreaming this? How do you know that you are not passed out on the couch? You’ve smoked over a kilo since my arrival. It amazes me you can keep your eyes open.”
“I’m not passed out,” he said. “My eyes are open… wait! The dress, the person in the dress…”
“Yes, Baby, I can feel the tension rising in your neck,” she said with a deeply tired voice, feeling for the little bump made of scar tissue that indicated the location of the bullet fragment lodged along his spine. After finding it, she began to massage it into the spine. In moments, Grega’s brain was disconnected from his body, and the only working muscles were those of his face, now contorted in full recollection, horror, surprise, realization.
“It was I who shot you,” she whispered in his ear. “You remember now don’t you? It was an accident of course. I was trying to shoot the person behind you, the person you were trying to protect. You could not have loved your wife if you could forget her so quickly and for so long. I was surprised at how easy it was to convince you she was a robber! But she was just that, a robber. She had robbed me of your time…” She laughed at her own wordplay.
A year later, Angel Jones, 34, former flight attendant and full-time caregiver, was feeding Grega via an IV tube. His brain function had deteriorated, quickly at first, then more slowly, to that of a crawling insect. Yet he cooed like a baby when she passed čevapčiči, made from his original recipe, under his nose and put a dab of the burning sauce on his tongue. And he cooed and cooed. And she wiped the drool that ran down his chin with the jersey of his old rugby uniform.
And they lived happily onward in those hills, two dark angels who had cut off their own wings to be together.