“I know what it looks like to most, but he’s actually quite friendly.”
The woman named Irina laughed and tipped her head toward the toddler picking dehydrated marshmallows out of his cereal. “I could say the same for him.”
She glanced down at Angel, who lowered his head and kept his mouth closed, trying to appear as harmless as was possible for him. Angel was born of a dog, but he was…different.
“His bark is worse than his bite, huh?” Irina asked. And when Angel dared to glance up, he was surprised to find her smiling at him.
The man who was Angel’s friend reached down and mussed the fringe of scales on Angel’s head.
“Oh, he doesn’t bark,” the man said. “He never has to.”
“But he also doesn’t bite.”
“Neither does my son, usually,” Irina said.
The grown humans laughed again. Angel turned his head toward the toddler. He glowed in the afternoon sunlight that lit that half of the kitchen. The boy had emptied all the dry cereal in his bowl onto the tabletop. He hovered his hand over the cereal, which Angel could not see from his vantage. The boy clapped his hands and picked up a piece of what looked like dehydrated marshmallow.
“Sam is…a little different,” Irina said. “I haven’t yet found a caretaker who can manage him, outside of myself.” She walked over to the boy and dropped a kiss on his head. “I am the luckiest mother there ever was when it comes to worries. He’s already potty-trained. And he can feed himself. He doesn’t get sick. And he doesn’t get hurt, well, his body doesn’t get hurt.”
She leaned her face close to Sam’s. “That’s enough marshmallows for now, sweetie. Would you please clean up?”
Sam clapped his hands again. Angel couldn’t see, but based on his friend’s reaction, he guessed that the tabletop was now clean.
“I love my son and he loves me,” Irina said, then she sighed. “But we’re not meant to be joined by an umbilical for the rest of their lives. I need a break from him, and he needs to be without me, at least for a few hours to start with. And he needs to learn to respect someone other than me. I’ve already gotten him a tutor to help him learn about his special talents. But it won’t do any good if he doesn’t listen to them.”
Irina went to pour her guest another cup of coffee. Angel’s friend asked Irina how it came to be that Sam possessed such talents. As Irina spoke, Angel swished his long tail, a tail almost twice as long as his body, terminating in a caudal fin. The more delicate fins that emerged at intervals on his tail fluttered. He felt something catch his caudal fin and he glanced over to see that Sam had his hand around the tail and was examining it. The toddler was one, maybe two, heads taller than Angel. But Angel stopped moving his tail and tried to remain as still as possible. Irina said that Sam didn’t get hurt. But Angel would not take that for granted. Even his own tapered tongue had cut itself on occasion when it merely brushed past his triangular razor teeth.
“Doggy,” Sam whispered. He said no more, and he released his grip on Angel’s tail and went to sit at the kitchen table again, where his mother set out some paper and crayons.
Irina told Angel’s friend the story of Sam’s father, a warlock who was changing his ways, using his talents and skills to create instead of destroy. The warlock was doing well. He made friends who helped and guided him. Irina became one of those friends, and then something more. They had a child and they had plans. But the warlock’s past came back to haunt him, torment him, and lure him back. He resisted at first, but little by little all the progress he had made eroded until finally, he succumbed. He cut ties with his new friends. And at last, he cut ties with Irina. She had tried her best to help him, but she had failed. She feared that he would take Sam. If he did, she could do nothing to stop him. But he didn’t. He just left. And she was both glad and sorry that he did.
“The story is not as simple as that, and you are only hearing my side of it,” Irina said. “And maybe love has blinded me, love and optimism, in believing that Sam’s father can be redeemed yet again. But I can’t be distracted by that. I’ve got to think of Sam now. I worry about him, about his nature. He’s a good boy. I know it. And many children—maybe most, even—have a streak of mischief. But extra care is needed with Sam. When he does have a tantrum, it can be…explosive.”
“I take it you mean that literally.”
Irina smiled sheepishly. “Eh…sometimes.”
“You haven’t been hurt by him. Then you also have talents?”
Irina shook her head. “Oh no, I’m just an ordinary run-of-the-mill human person. It could be luck. But I think maybe somehow, by some instinct, Sam is shielding me. That’s great for me. But I’m worried about everyone else who comes near him.” She glanced over at Angel again.
“Don’t worry,” the man who was Angel’s friend said, “Angel also has his own talents. He’s small, but tough. And he’s very, very patient.”
The two spoke for a few more minutes to finalize arrangements. Angel turned his attention to Sam, who had chosen a pink crayon from a bucket that seemed to contain hundreds. Sam held the crayon in his fist and made furious circles on a piece of paper.
Angel’s friend meandered over and knelt before him. He mussed the fringe of scales on Angel’s head again. “You know what to do?”
Angel bowed his head.
The man smiled. “Then I’ll return when you’re finished taking care of Sam.”
Irina’s big plan was to go to a local carnival with a couple of her friends. She spent ten minutes walking Angel around the house to show him where there was food for Sam and for him, where to hit his paw to activate entertainment, and where to find shelter if he needed to hide from Sam.
She admonished Sam to heed Angel’s guidance and to stay in the house until she returned in a few hours. Then she paced for several minutes, checking the house to make sure she hadn’t forgotten to secure everything that needed securing.
At last, she spoke a command aloud to herself to go have fun. With a final kiss for Sam and final “good luck” to Angel, she left.
Within minutes after the front door closed, a vase found itself plummeting to the ground. Angel dove toward it, catching it with his tail and lifting it back up onto the table where it had been standing. Sam gazed up at the vase. Without a sound, he ambled away. Angel found it prudent to follow.
It was only Angel’s nimbleness that saved a number of vases from breaking and bookcases from tumbling. Angel decided that he would have to keep both eyes on the boy until his mother returned. There would be no eating, no entertainment, no respite from his charge.
And just as Angel resolved himself, he watched Sam clap his hands and vanish.
Angel’s eyes were naturally round and wide and rather large. It was one of the things that made him so fearsome to look at for most. But somehow he felt them grow even wider. Before he could begin to panic, he heard a squeal of laughter. It had come from outside. Angel dashed toward the front door as he guessed what had just happened. He burst through the door and found Sam toddling through the grass toward the sidewalk.
Angel caught up with Sam. Despite what his mother had said, Angel did not deem it necessary to risk trying to grasp Sam with his mouth. The boy looked over at Angel as Angel trotted beside him. Irina hadn’t mentioned anything about teleportation. Some gleam in Sam’s eye made Angel wonder if Irina even knew that Sam was capable of that particular trick.
Not knowing how to stop the child, Angel just followed him. Sam suddenly stopped and looked around. Angel allowed himself to feel a futile hope that the boy might turn around and head back to the house. Sam instead reached over, wrapped his arms around Angel’s neck, and lightly clapped his hands.
It felt like swimming, except that Angel never had to hold his breath in water. They were buffeted through flickering colors and rough grainy waves for what felt like a few moments, and then, Angel found himself standing in the midst of his worst nightmare.
Throngs of people moved past them. Music—different kinds of music— and sounds played from several different directions. Angel smelled food, sugar and butter and meat, and that would have been pleasant if it wasn’t for the people. He recovered himself and looked for Sam.
The boy was already halfway up the side of a booth that was selling donuts shaped like nests of serpents, sprinkled with sugar and topped with a pile of whipped cream and a circlet of sliced strawberries. Sam teetered at the edge of a fryer filled with bubbling oil.
The booth’s vendor cried out and caught hold of Sam, who clapped his hands, and vanished from the man’s grasp. Sam reappeared at the foot of the booth and dashed toward another. Angel ran after him, and he moved so fast that any who happened to see him weren’t sure what they just saw. Perhaps it was just a very ugly and mangy dog.
Angel’s every instinct was to hide himself, to leap into a shadow and stay there until everyone left. But he fought down that instinct as he slowed and approached the next booth that had captivated the toddler. In a glass case, some enchantment was at play that manifested colorful clouds of cotton, and by the alluring aroma that caught Angel’s nose, those cottony clouds were made of pure sugar.
Angel felt the saliva seeping from the edge of his lip, but he didn’t dare open his mouth to lick it away. Not in front of all those people. There was a crowd waiting to be handed these sugar clouds on sticks. Sam was again climbing up the side of the booth. He was adept at climbing, suggesting that his teleportation abilities must have been new.
There seemed no danger at this booth, save the danger of overindulgence in sugar. But again, one of the booth’s vendors spotted the boy and with a tolerant smile, she lifted Sam up and glanced around, no doubt searching for his caretaker.
While Angel tried to think of what to do next, concerned not for Sam but for the people who were coming between Sam and his desires, he saw the boy clap his hands and vanish, and reappear inside the glass case where the sugar clouds were manifesting.
The woman who’d caught him exclaimed, “Slippery little devil!” Angel then saw that it was no enchantment, but a machine that created the sugar clouds. The woman stopped the machine and reached into the glass case to grasp Sam, who was covered in little pink puffs of sugar. Angel anticipated the clapping of hands this time, and he even noted that there was a slight flutter in the air where Sam would reappear next.
He bounded after the toddler, and this time, a small family saw him and recoiled from him as he passed.
Angel did not mean to inspire horror in all who beheld his visage. But in this case, it was a boon. It meant that the crowd would not obscure his sight or block his path.
Perhaps it was the sight of humans who were more his height that attracted Sam toward his next adventure. He toddled toward the shrill mechanical sounds and bright flashing lights. The area was called an “arcade” by a group of older children who entered behind Sam and right in front of Angel. Sam meandered and gazed at the wonder before him. Angel noted that there were spheres everywhere. Some rolled down inclines and were caught by people, who then tried to toss them into hoops affixed with nets. Some rolled through inclined mazes, their movements directed by the shifting of walls, which itself was controlled by people turning knobs and flicking switches.
And there was an entire pit filled with colored spheres into which the smaller children tossed themselves and frolicked.
It was this sphere pit that most delighted Sam, who tossed himself into it. Here was an activity that seemed approved and appropriate for Sam. He was smaller than the other children, but as he could not be hurt—at least by them—Angel decided to watch for the time being. He dared not hope that Sam would remain in the pit for the duration of his duty, but he hoped the boy would spend enough time there that Angel could figure out where he was, and how he might find his way back to Sam’s home, with Sam in tow.
Angel’s heart skipped a beat when he saw Sam raise his hands as if he were about to clap them. But the boy did not clap. He just held his hand out, fingers spread. Puzzled at first, Angel soon began to see the wisps of cotton fluttering in the air before Sam’s fingers. The wisps spun together and became a cloud.
Sam was manifesting a sugar cloud in the pit of spheres.
Angel suddenly wanted Sam to lose interest and leave the pit before—
“Whoa, what is that?”
“Cotton candy! Someone brought a ton of cotton candy in here.”
The children began to notice first. And they waded toward the fluffy pink clouds that lay over the colorful spheres. Some of them began to eat the clouds. And then the grown folks outside of the pit began to notice that something was happening. But they didn’t yet see the sugar clouds, and no one yet saw that Sam was producing those clouds.
Angel had to act. He leapt onto the edge of the pit, in full view of those who stood nearby. He heard gasps as he dove into the pit of spheres. He whipped his tail to propel himself toward Sam. As he passed a sugar cloud, he checked to ensure that no child was nearby and he opened his mouth just enough to let his tongue slip past and lick up the cloud.
He didn’t have the time to enjoy the sweet delight that struck his tongue. He heard the first of the screams. People were calling for their children to leave the pit.
“There’s a pit bull in the ball pit!” someone cried.
The children saw Angel, and they began to flee. Angel opened his mouth enough to bare his teeth, but not enough to use those teeth. Children screamed and flapped their arms and were pulled up out of the pit by the scruff of their shirts.
Little Sam was somehow oblivious to the mayhem. He stayed where he was, waist-high in colorful spheres, spinning clouds of sugar. When Angel chomped a few of the clouds, it only delighted Sam more. So Angel stopped eating, and he whipped his tail through the spheres and wrapped it around Sam’s waist. The boy would clap his hands and escape, but if Angel was clever enough, he might be able give chase, catch him again, and guide the boy to where he wanted Sam to go.
But Sam did not clap his hands. And he did not keep making the sugar clouds. He glanced down at the tail wrapped around his waist and he laughed as Angel made his toward the edge of the pit.
Angel leapt onto the edge, turning to check that the child held in his tail was indeed Sam. And he finally did what he’d been longing to do. He slipped into a shadow. The day was darkening quickly. There were more and more shadows to hide in.
Angel felt the boy straining to move out of the shadow. Sam was strong, strong enough to drag Angel. The boy raised his hands, but before he could clap, Angel loosened his tail and released him. Angel feared losing sight of Sam in case the boy reappeared somewhere out of Angel’s sight.
Sam left the shadow only to return to shadow. He headed now toward a dark doorway that led into a house from which there echoed ominous laughter.
Angel followed and found himself in a horror within a horror.
He was surrounded by mirrors. Surrounded by a dozen visions of himself, his rough scales, his scratchy hair, and his bulging blood-red eyes. Angel heard the creaking of wood as unseen others walked through the mirror maze. He wanted to close his eyes, but he had to keep sight of Sam. More than that, he had to keep sight of the actual Sam and not the dozen reflections who joyfully ambled around the maze.
Angel crept as quickly as he could, hoping to avoid anyone else before he found Sam and they both made their way out of the maze. He still had no idea how he was going to get Sam home before his mother got home. By his own measure, he did not have much time left.
He turned a corner and stopped. He’d lost sight of the real Sam. He raised his head and sniffed. He sniffed past all the strong smells of cinnamon, spicy mustard, and people doused in perfumes, to find the soft subtle smell of minty powder that still clung to Sam’s skin under the sugar cloud, and the dirt, and the pungent odor of those colorful balls from the pit.
But he did not have to follow Sam’s scent.
He heard the boy’s piercing scream and he surged toward it. A terrible cracking and crashing sounded from the same direction.
Angel heard other people gasping and muttering. He turned a corner and saw Sam sitting on a pile of broken glass. He scrambled toward the boy, tilting his head to check Sam for injuries. But despite the shards of glass that clung to his hair and his skin, Sam did not have a scratch on him.
Yet, the boy started crying. He pointed, and he was pointing at Angel.
Angel backed away, realizing that he had frightened the boy. But Sam rose to his feet and pointed to Angel again, to Angel’s left front paw.
Angel looked down and saw that his paw was bleeding. In his scramble to reach Sam, he had cut himself, and hadn’t yet noticed it.
Sam suddenly stopped crying. His face contorted. Angel flinched. He saw on Sam’s face the one human expression he most feared.
Sam turned to the nearest mirror and screamed.
The mirror shattered, exploding back and shattering the mirror behind it. People began to scream. The wooden floorboards creaked and thudded as people fled the maze. Mirrors exploded all around them.
Angel leapt in front of Sam. Terror filled his heart but he whipped his tail back and forth to get the boy’s attention. Sam looked at him, and Angel shook his head. He raised his injured paw to remind Sam what harm broken mirrors could do, and again shook his head.
Sam stopped screaming, and the mirrors stopping breaking. Sam did not seem to realize the destruction he’d wrought. He ignored the sea of broken mirror shards, and approached Angel. His face relaxed. He knelt before Angel and touched his paw. Sam tilted his head one way, then the other, examining the wound and the paw. He began to stroke Angel’s paw. Angel bore it though he felt a spike of pain with each stroke. But then, the pain suddenly vanished, replaced by an intense heat, and even more intense itching, and the sound of sizzling and searing as the cut sealed itself. Angel glanced between his healing wound and the maze of mirrors. Still Sam seemed not to notice, but as he healed and sealed Angel’s wound, the mirrors too reassembled and the cracks sealed themselves up.
In only moments, there was not a single shard of mirror left on the floor. Angel offered his tail, and Sam held onto it and let Angel lead him out of the maze. With his keen eyes, Angel noted that there were the tiniest of cracks visible where the mirrors broke. But as the maze’s keepers entered to see what the commotion was about, they didn’t seem to see those cracks.
With each step, Sam seemed to shake off any feelings of anger or distress that remained. He kept hold of Angel’s tail, but when they passed a giant wheel that hovered in the air and spun slowly around as it held buckets filled with people, he stopped and pointed up.
If Angel could have sighed, he would have sighed. He stopped and hoped with all his heart that the child did not end up toppling that giant wheel. Angel observed the base that held the wheel in place and gauged whether or not his bite and his jaws were strong enough to hold it in place if Sam should strike.
But Sam looked away. And when Angel resumed walking, Sam followed.
As he walked toward a shadow, where he could rest and think, Angel felt a strange heaviness settling upon his heart, a darkness, a feeling of hopelessness. He glanced around at all the nearby people, but that feeling didn’t seem to be coming from any of them. He heard Sam groan and knew that the boy too was feeling it.
Angel slipped his tail out of the boy’s grasp.
He’d been seeking shadows ever since he landed in the field amidst throngs of people. So his eye was keen at seeing them.
A shadow descended towards them now, towards Sam. That shadow was thick and heavy. As it drew closer, so did the feeling of gloom.
An instinct surged within Angel. The instinct to open his mouth and to bite. It triggered the counter-instinct to resist. But Angel was overwhelmed by the drive to bite. He braced himself to leap. He dropped his jaw and felt his mouth open wider than it had in a long, long time.
Angel leapt past Sam and clamped his jaws around the shadow. Between his teeth he felt a dense oily something. Bitterness burst upon his tongue. Between his teeth, the shadow was tearing and breaking…and slipping away.
The shadow slid through Angel’s teeth as he landed. It rejoined and reconstituted itself behind him. Angel turned and chased as the shadow swooped towards Sam. Sam frowned at the shadow. He held out his hands, and Angel prayed that the boy would clap.
But Sam held both hands out, fingers splayed.
“Go,” he said, and the shadow burst.
Angel watched the shadow try to rejoin again, to reconstitute again. But the patches and bits of shadow that shivered and faded. The shadow vanished into nothingness.
Sam lowered his hands and approached Angel.
Angel still felt the bitterness on his tongue, and he whimpered. He stepped back from Sam, ashamed that he had bitten the shadow. It was a living thing, a living being.
And Angel had vowed to himself that he would never again bite a living being. Sam reached out, but Angel shrank from him. An unintentional whine left Angel’s throat. The shadow was gone. But his heart still felt heavy.
Sam gently grasped Angel’s head between his hands.
“Doggy!” Sam said. He brought his face close to Angel’s face.
Sam’s enchanted gaze peered into Angel’s red eyes, and saw something that none other had seen.
When Angel was born, the only being who would go near him was his mother. The only being who loved him was his mother. Even his other siblings shrank from him, no matter how gentle he tried to be. When he barked, he struck terror in those around him. For such a small creature, he had a bone-cracking bark, raw and thunderous. So he stopped barking.
One day, he was separated from his mother. She fought to keep him. She barked and she bit. But she could not stop him from being taken. And so Angel did what he’d seen his mother do. He opened his mouth wide, and with all his strength, he bit the one who held him.
Angel was small. And he was smaller still back then. He was maybe two hands long, not counting his tail. And yet, his bite cleaved the man’s arm in two. Angel didn’t mean to do it. He hadn’t known his strength. He thought he would only nip the man, the way he’d seen his siblings do. The man dropped him as others rushed to his aid.
Angel’s mother turned her barking towards him. Her eyes and her bark were full of fear.
“Run!” her eyes said. “Run!” said her bark.
So Angel ran.
And he hid.
Whenever he tried to emerge from hiding, he terrified those around him. As he grew older and bigger, as his face changed, and a new set of teeth erupted in his mouth, his visage became even more fearsome.
He had sworn to himself that he would never bark and never bite again. And he kept that promise. But it didn’t make him any less horrific to those who had the sight to see him. And even those who couldn’t see him, when they felt his rows of razor teeth, drew back and fled.
It wasn’t until he met his friend, the one who people thought was his keeper, the man some thought was his owner, that Angel received again the love he once had from his mother. It wasn’t until then that Angel received his name.
Sam dropped his hands and pulled his face away from Angel’s head.
Angel recoiled, panicked that he had unwittingly shown such an abhorrent sight to an innocent child. Sam’s eyes were brimming with tears. Irina was right. He was a good boy. He must have felt such pity and compassion for the poor man who had suffered the loss of his arm. The man had not been cruel. He had just been holding the wrong creature at the wrong time.
Angel stepped back as Sam stepped forward. Sam clamped his chubby hands around Angel’s face again. For a heartbeat, Angel feared what the little boy would do. Would Sam make Angel disappear?
Sam brought his face close to Angel’s again, tilted Angel’s face down, and kissed the fringe of scales on Angel’s head. He nuzzled Angel’s head, uttered a little grunt, and pulled away.
Sam was smiling again. The tears had spilled down his cheeks, but he was smiling now. He reached out, clumsily batted Angel’s snout, and said, “Boop!”
Angel shook off the strange crackling sensation of having his snout struck, albeit playfully.
And he considered what had just happened. Angel too had seen something when Sam gazed into his eyes, something that made him decide he must stay close to Sam. That shadow…it was a warlock. Angel didn’t know anything about warlocks. But Sam did, though he didn’t consciously remember it.
Angel would have to find some way to warn Irina, and he suddenly realized that he would have time to figure it out. His friend won’t be coming back for a while. He had known somehow that Sam would need Angel for more than just a few hours.
Sam looked past Angel and stretched out his arms again, but he was beaming. Angel turned around and with great relief saw Irina walking toward them.
“I was afraid it would be easy to find you,” Irina said. “Just follow the trail of havoc.” She picked Sam up and kissed him. “But it’s the strangest thing, darling. This time, there was no trail of havoc.” She glanced down at Angel. “Just some confusion and shaken nerves and minor injuries.” She raised her brows and smiled. Angel recognized the expression as gratitude.
Sam turned in his mother’s arms and also looked down at Angel. The boy brought his palm to his mouth, kissed it, made a fist, extended his arm, and dropped the kiss onto Angel.
“Thank you, Angel,” Irina said. “For protecting the world from my little devil.” She tickled Sam and he giggled. She set him down. “Let’s go home, boys.”
Without incident, Sam walked beside his mother, and Angel walked beside Sam.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel