The sky was grey, clear and bright. The air was cold, and his breath formed little clouds. The grass was covered in last night's snow, and he could feel it soaking through the thin material of his shoes. And the stone angel was as large as life.
He stood in the center of the graveyard. It was empty, except for him and the dead. The tombstones poked up from the snow like grotesque flowers in an obscene garden; cold and desolate, but still somehow beautiful. He liked to think of them that way, like something alive growing from the ground like any other plant, that they had no other purpose but to fill the otherwise empty section of land. He tried not to imagine the bodies lying stiff and frozen beneath his feet, tucked away in little wooden boxes. It made him think of the ground as hollow, like the burrows of rabbits, and the thought was not a good one.
The cries of birds, thin and piercing, cut through the thick silence. He tilted his head back to look for them, longing for even a flash of color to take away from the numbing sameness of the graveyard. But he could see nothing; only the endless white of the snow and the endless grey of the sky, and the unbeautiful black-grey of the tombstones. Disappointed, he looked back at the stone angel. He stood roughly three or four feet away from it, close enough to be able to make out its features but not close enough to touch it. Or be touched by it.
It was just like any other carving of any other angel in any other graveyard in the world, he told himself. Or tried to tell himself, because it wasn't, not really. It was different, somehow. Maybe it was the eyes, pale and sightless, yet somehow all-seeing. Maybe it was in the way the wings, somehow disturbingly enormous and out-of-scale with the rest of the piece, seemed ready to smother him rather than enfold him, as was probably the artist's intent, or the way the tips seemed as sharp as a knife-point. Maybe it was in the angel's expression; he supposed she was meant to seem solemn or pitying, but this was not the case. The harsh, downward curve of her mouth seemed judgemental. Her nostrils flared, as if she was exasperated. Her cheeks were sunken in, the way the cheeks of a heard-hearted old woman are sunken in.
He shivered and stuck his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. He shouldn't be here, alone with his crazy thoughts about the stone angel, alone in the snow in the empty graveyard, without even a jacket. He hadn't planned on coming here today, he thought bitterly as an icy wind kicked up. He certainly wasn't dressed for it; his feet were numb because the snow had soaked through his shoes. The legs of his jeans felt like they were made of ice, and his thin black turtleneck was no protection aginst the cold. Yeah, there was absolutely no reason for him to be here right now. He would leave, go home and put on warmer clothes, sit in a brightly lit room for a while and wait for his mind to become rational again. And then he would come back. But maybe not today. Maybe he would come back tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now. But he needed to leave this place while he still could.
The face of the stone angel begged to differ.
"I'm not afraid of you." he mumbled, and for a second the realization of how crazy he must look struck him; a tall, too-skinny college boy standing all alone in a snow-covered graveyard, hugging his bony shoulders for warmth, talking to a statue and not even being able to look into its sightless eyes as he lied to it. Crazy. He had to be fucking crazy.
It was his room-mate's fault. He had been trying to sleep--he went home to see his folks tomorrow, Mom and Dad and the little sister--and wanted to be well-rested. The room-mate threw a party. And he was no saint; he abandoned his bed for the bawdry and laughter that only drunken college freshmen could ever truly understand or appreciate. So the drinking began, and while he was no great fan of drink, he was a fan of the camaraderie that came with the drink, and so he drank. And drank. And the other boys drank and drank, and laughed and teased and fought bare-fisted with no real malice until the night wore thin and the excitement wore thinner. And the room-mate looked at him and smiled a mischevious smile and said, "Hey, I dare you...."
And so here he was. Half-frozen and soaked, a little hung-over and unable to move from this spot, held into place by the unmoving statue's unmmoved gaze. The dare was almost over, he told himself, trying to warm himself with the thought. His watch read quarter-past six, and the dare ended at seven. And then the other boys would drive up and get him, wiping sleep from their eyes and smelling strongly of beer, grinning and laughing and slapping him on the back as they hauled his poor thin frame into the car, congratulating him as they poured cup after cup of cheap coffee into his shuddering body, congratulating him on finally becoming one of them. The dare was more than just a dare; it was an initiation.
"Hey, I dare you..." the room-mate had said, smiling and smirking as the room went strangely quiet. And he knew what the room-mate was going to say even before he said it. "All night. The angel in the cemetary."
All night, he repeated to himself in his mind. The angel in the cemetery. He forced himself to stare into its unimpassioned face. Everyone was afraid of the damned thing. No one ever admitted it, but everyone was and everyone knew. There were myths, of course. Tales and legends of deaths and disappearences that all somehow related back to the angel. But unlike any other common folktale, all of the stories were vague. They had been told in harried and frightened whispers, not the spooky but comfortable ease that other tales were told, a slow and confident telling that allowed for the adding or embellishing of details. These stories were somehow secret and dirty, like back-alley sex with an ancient whore. They were sleazy and somehow harmful to think too much about, but the kids couldn't stop telling them. It wasn't that they couldn't get enough of them, because he felt that they all could--all had, as a matter of fact. They simply couldn't stop.
"Enough!" he shouted in the silence of the graveyard, shocking himself. He was surprised and angry to find tears of some sort of bleak, desolate horror in his eyes. He strode forward, came eye-to-eye with the angel. Its face seemed to grow more menacing as he neared it, almost as if his courage entertained the damned thing. He forced himself to stare at it, really stare at it, piece by piece, feature by feature.
"You're nothing!" he yelled into its stone face. "Nothing but a statue! Badly carved, ugly, but not frightening! There is nothing to you, you old bitch!" And he spat in its face, driven into a rage by the cold and the headache that came with the hang-over, but mostly by his own deep-down terror, which survived his heated words--seemed, in fact, to grow as he said them. Chest heaving, cheeks wet with angry tears, he glared at the angel. What he saw caused his heart to miss a beat. Had...had something changed? Something had--something small, something that no one would ever notice unless they had been staring at the stone angel for an entire night and morning--as he had done. Something so small that he noticed it immediately but had to look, look, look....
The mouth. The mouth...was different. That was impossible, of course, because staues don't change, but it was. Different how? He made himself look though he did not wish to, forced himself to see what he had no desire to see.
Teeth. He could see teeth. The thin lips were pulled back from the stone teeth in a snarl. And the teeth were not grey, like the rest of the stone, but an aged and grainy black. He stared in horror, unable to move or comprehend. Changed, The statue had changed.
And continued to change. As he watched, frozen in place, the angel began to move. She flexed her erms, slowly and stiffly, like the Tin Man from Oz. The right one first; she drew it to her scowling face slowly, and wiped off his spit. Then her legs; she moved as if she had been buried to the neck in sand for some time but had finally decided enough was enough. Her jagged and spiky wings flapped slowly. Her unseeing eyes blinked and turned towards him with a stony menace. Her thin lips turned up in a smile--a smile full of sharp black teeth.
"I'm not..." he whispered breathlessly, taking a half step back, unable to tear his gaze away from those opaque but depthless eyes. And then the most horrible thing that could possibly happen, happened. She opened that mouth, parted the teeth. He could see a slimy black stone tongue. She spoke.
"Afraid?" she croaked, and that voice was horrible, awful, the worst. It was sandpaper over stone--over bones of stone. His eardrums imploded, and blood streamed down the sides of his face. He screamed, clapped his hands to the ruined sides of his head, fell to his knees, still screaming. She stepped down off her pedestal and knelt before him, the sound of her stone body scraping against itself one he could not hear, could not possibly hear with his useless ears, but he still somehow heard it, and it was driving him insane. She put a hand out and shoved his chest, knocking him to his back and shattering all of his ribs. He couldn't breathe, and blood had somehow gotten into his eyes. He saw her through a red haze, a red veil, a red shroud. A burial shroud.
The stone angel stood up again and leaned over him, smirking and grimacing simultaneously, her face so horrible that he teetered on the brink of madness. He lay there dying and teetered on the brink of madness. And then she let out a horrible screeching creaking laugh that his shredded ears could not hear but heard anyway, and he looked in her eyes, and they were not stony and sightless but human, human, but oh dear sweet Jesus lord and Savior they were not human, not at all, they were deep and dark and RED, blood RED, red with his BLOOD and they could see, they could see him, those eyes were bright red with his blood, those eyes WERE his blood, and his blood could SEE HIM. His mind broke, shattered, fled a reality it could never hope to comprehend, would never want to comprehend. And the stone angel laughed again, because that breaking tasted so sweet and good to her. She held a stone foot out over the unoccupied head and crushed it, stomped it, shattering bone and brain alike. And she laughed and laughed, and climbed back on her stone perch, and stared out into the distance as the clean white snow before her was darkened oh-so prettily by the spreading blood. There was nothing prettier than blood on snow--except, perhaps, for blood on stone.