Harry woke with a start. His eyes flew open as panic overtook him. He gasped for air, unable to get his breath. No matter how hard he struggled, he couldn't breathe. The pain intensified, suffocating him.
Blindly reaching for the small bottle he kept at his bedside, he popped a nitro pill under his tongue and waited. This had happened before in the early hours of the morning. It felt as though he was immersed in water and couldn't get any air.
Could this be his time?
It almost seemed that God intended to take him right then and there. Quelling the panic, Harry surrendered his life to God and then all at once, the ache lessened and his lungs filled with glorious air. The relief was instantaneous. He dragged in a second deep breath and realized he'd had a narrow escape yet again.
Wide awake now, Harry watched the jerky movements of the second hand on the old-fashioned alarm clock by his bedside. Rosalie had a clock radio, but he continued to use the one he'd always had. It needed winding every couple of days, but had served him well through the years and he could see no reason to change. The ticking was a familiar comfort.
Two minutes passed and he was still breathing normally.
His close call reminded him that he wouldn't be around for Rosalie much longer; naturally he wanted to get her settled before he left her. She was determined to spend Christmas in this old house. Harry couldn't deny his wife that. But while he sympathized with her feelings, Harry didn't have that kind of time. His fear was that when he was gone, Rosalie would just keep putting off the move. Harry couldn't let that happen.
First thing after New Year's, he'd make the arrangements, he decided, praying God would give him that long.
Harry sat up in bed.
"Harry?" Rosalie was instantly awake. The slightest movement on his part seemed to alert her. Similarly, when their girls were small, she'd wakened at the tiniest sound. Harry had never understood it because his wife was usually a sound sleeper. Not when their daughters were young, though, and not with him now.
He'd disturbed her sleep far too many times. After the full day they'd had touring the assisted-living complex Rosalie was exhausted, and Harry didn't want to interrupt her rest tonight.
"I'm fine, sweetheart," he whispered.
Her eyes drifted closed and she went back to sleep. Harry lay very still and listened to the regular cadence of her breathing. Twice his own went shallow and then regained an even consistency.
It went without saying that God had granted him yet another reprieve. Death would come. Not now, but soon - sooner than he would've liked.
When it became apparent that he wasn't going to fall asleep immediately, Harry slowly shifted the covers aside. He might as well empty his bladder, which he needed to do two or three times a night. Darn nuisance it was, but that was another symptom of age and his body's growing demands.
Once he'd finished, he started back to bed and remembered that he'd left his walker in the other room. Since he hated having to use the contraption, he sometimes forgot it. He knew he was in trouble; the short trip to the bathroom had depleted his strength and without the walker, he couldn't manage even the few steps back to his bed. Weak as he was, he leaned his shoulder against the wall, considering his options. There weren't any. He needed help and he needed it now.
"Rosalie," he called. His voice was barely a whisper. As soon as he'd reassured her that he was all right, she'd gone back to sleep. So much for the highly sensitized hearing he'd credited her with a few minutes earlier.
Despite all his resolve, all his determination, Harry began to slide toward the floor. Rosalie wasn't strong enough to help him up. If he fell, he'd stay that way until morning. If he survived until morning....
"Is this it?" Mercy cried, wringing her hands. "Is Harry going to die now?" She needed direction. Her initial response was to hold him upright, to help him. Angels routinely made physical appearances on Earth, but it was important to go through the proper channels, to get permission first. She didn't have time for that. She'd certainly bent the rules on occasion, but she couldn't risk interfering with God's plan for Harry.
"Gabriel," she shouted helplessly toward the heavens. "I don't know what to do."
A second later, the Archangel was at her side.
"Is it Harry's time to come to Heaven?" She pleaded for an answer before daring to take matters into her own hands.
The Archangel seemed strangely calm; Mercy was anything but. She hovered close to Harry, anxious to do what she could, awaiting word from Gabriel.
She could tell that Harry's strength was draining away. As she watched, the old man's eyes widened and he placed one hand over his heart.
"Gabriel," Mercy shouted. "Do something." Hurriedly she revised her request. "Can I help Harry?" And because she'd come to genuinely love this old man, she added, "Please."
Gabriel nodded. "Take him back to bed."
"Thank you," Mercy whispered, greatly relieved.
Harry's eyes widened again. Only this time it wasn't his heart that worried him. Standing directly in front of him in plain view was a woman dressed in white. A woman with...wings. An angel? She regarded him with a gentle, loving look.
"I could use some help here," he said. In other circumstances Harry might think he'd died. The continuing ache in his chest told him otherwise. The pain intensified with every beat of his heart.
The beautiful angel stepped toward him and silently slipped her arm around his waist. She didn't seem to have any trouble handling his bulk. The next thing Harry knew, he was in bed and his rescuer was gone. Vanished. She'd disappeared as quickly as she'd come.
Grateful to have averted a catastrophe, or what had seemed like one a few minutes ago, Harry tried to figure out what had just happened. The angel might've been a figment of his imagination except for one thing. He'd been slumped against the wall with no strength left, no ability to stand upright. His walker rested next to his chest of drawers, where it had been all along. But now he was safely tucked into bed, next to Rosalie.
Harry blinked to clear his eyesight and picked up his glasses. Maybe then he'd be able to see the angel a second time. He peered into the darkness, resisting the urge to turn on the light.
She was gone. Truly gone.
Still, Harry was convinced she'd been there. She'd helped him back to bed. What a beauty she'd been, too. He'd always wondered about angels, and now he knew with certainty that they were real.
"Will he be all right now?" Mercy asked, leaning over the slumbering Harry.
"Harry will sleep comfortably for the rest of the night," Gabriel told her.
"In the morning will he remember any of this?" Part of her felt it might be best if the incident was erased from Harry's mind. Then again, she wanted him to know that God was looking down on him, and that he was deeply loved. The mighty angel Gabriel himself had come to Harry's aid.
"He'll remember. This close to death, the separation between Heaven and Earth is only partially veiled," Gabriel explained.
"It's almost as if Harry has one foot in Heaven and one still on Earth."
"Exactly." The Archangel began to leave, then paused. "I'm proud of you, Mercy," he said.
"You are?" She beamed, but she wasn't sure what she'd done to warrant such high praise. Gabriel didn't issue praise often. He was a strict taskmaster but a fair one.
Apparently reading her mind, Gabriel elaborated. "You didn't take it upon yourself to make a decision on the matter. You turned to Heaven and to me for help. That shows a new maturity."
Bubbling with pleasure at his words, Mercy fluttered her wings. Thankfully the Archangel hadn't been around when she'd sent Shirley scrambling in the electric cart.
"You did give me cause for concern at the Safeway store, however."
So Gabriel knew.
As if his words had summoned her, Shirley appeared.
"I knew Mercy was responsible for that unfortunate event," she cried, glaring at her friend.
"It w-was all in jest," Mercy stammered, embarrassed now. At times, especially while on Earth, she adopted a more human nature than an angelic one. As a human might have said, Shirley had been asking for it.
"Shall we discuss this elsewhere?" Gabriel said, gesturing down at the sleeping Harry and Rosalie.
"By all means."
The three of them moved to the living room. When they got there, Mercy saw Goodness on top of the Christmas tree Harry and Rosalie's son-in-law had set up in a corner of the living room.
"Actually, I'm glad to see you, Gabriel," Shirley said. "I'm having the worst time with my assignment."
"Are you, now?" Gabriel asked, eyebrows raised. Mercy and Goodness exchanged a sly glance. They had both agreed that Shirley's was by far the least complicated of the assignments.
"It's Carter," Shirley said after a moment's hesitation. "He's found a stray dog."
"And the problem is?"
Shirley shrugged uncomfortably. "The problem is that his father still insists the family can't afford a dog. I was trying to work around that."
"How?" Gabriel asked.
"His father worked overtime this evening and that money will come in handy for Christmas." Shirley rubbed her hands together nervously. "Only..."
"Yes?" Gabriel pressed.
Mercy had to admit she was curious, too, and apparently so was Goodness, because she'd left the Christmas tree to join them.
"Rusty, that's the dog, followed bus number seven home, just like Carter instructed him to."
Gabriel frowned. "Do earthly canines generally understand such detailed instructions?" he asked.
"No," Shirley cried. "That's just the point! I was afraid you'd think I had something to do with it and I promise you I didn't."
"You didn't?" Goodness asked skeptically.
"I'm innocent," Shirley said.
Actually, Mercy would've thought better of her friend if she had been involved.
"Every bit of information I've received indicates that Carter is not supposed to have this dog."
"You're sure about that?" Gabriel murmured, and his brow furrowed. "Where's the stray now?"
"This is another problem," Shirley said. "Carter and his mother have put Rusty in the laundry room. Like I told you, David - that's his father - worked late on Friday night and Carter convinced his mother to keep Rusty hidden until morning."
"So the dog's inside the house?"
"For now," Shirley said. "I didn't think Laurie would let him keep the dog for another minute but I was wrong." Shirley shook her head. "I don't know what to tell you about this dog. Not only is he able to read - "
"He knew which bus was number seven, didn't he?"
"Don't you think he might have seen which bus Carter boarded?" Mercy suggested.
"May I please get on with my story?" Shirley asked in dignified tones.
"Don't let me stop you," Mercy muttered. Gabriel sent her a quelling look.
"Not only that, this dog instinctively seems to know who's his friend and who isn't, and he has an uncanny way of making himself scarce when necessary. It's almost as if...as if he has heavenly qualities."
"I find that interesting," Gabriel murmured. "Report back to me on any further developments, will you?"
"Yes, of course."
"Goodness?" Gabriel said, turning to the third angel. "How are you doing?"
"Great! Beth and Peter are about to meet. Isn't it wonderful?"
"Excellent work." And with that, Gabriel returned to Heaven.
Harry woke and saw that Rosalie was awake. "The most astounding thing happened last night," he rushed to tell his wife.
Still sleepy, Rosalie blinked several times. "Did you have another of your attacks?"
"Yes, but that isn't what I want to tell you about."
His wife raised herself up on one elbow. "For heaven's sake, Harry, what's got you so excited?"
"I saw an angel!"
"I know what you're thinking, Rosalie, but it's true."
His wife frowned, and Harry sensed that she wanted to believe what he'd told her but had difficulty accepting it as the truth.
Later that morning, Harry heard his wife chatting on the phone with their youngest daughter. "I'm not sure what to think, Donna. Your father's telling me he saw...Well, he swears he saw an angel."
Harry was sorry now that he'd mentioned this event to Rosalie. She'd apparently concluded that he was losing his mind.
"Yes, yes, I agree," Rosalie said, keeping her voice low. "Please do."
A few minutes later, she hung up and then joined Harry in front of the television. "I was on the phone with Donna," she said conversationally, as if he hadn't noticed. Harry knew exactly who was on the other end of the line.
Nevertheless he didn't comment one way or the other.
"She's going to come early for Christmas. Isn't that nice?"
If the story about the angel had made his youngest daughter decide to come home early, then all the better. His angel had done him even more good than he'd realized.