PROLOGUE: Setting Up Fate
The sun was already high above the panoramic skyline. The warmth that slipped through the pink curtains forced Michael Maxwell to roll onto his back. He finally freed himself from his groggy stupor hours later, rolled onto his side, and finally removed himself from the bed. While rolling, his nose brushed against the pillows that smelled like artificial strawberries. The scent almost chained him back to the bed until he saw a piece of paper on the bedside table. He sat on the edge, grabbed the note, and read it: "Went home after work, saw you were still asleep, made you breakfast before I went back out. It's on the stove. I'll be back later. Call or text if you need something."
Mike chuckled and smiled. He rubbed his eyes until his sight focused even more. It was still a few more minutes before he could actually execute his will to stand and leave the bed. He dressed. As he pulled on his pants, he felt something in his pocket poke at his hip. It was another note: "By the way, I WAS going to wash your clothes, but I got lazy. Owe you dinner tonight." The crudely drawn smiley face at the end made him laugh aloud.
When he managed to flail his arms with a shirt in his hands until he got it over his head, Mike paused. Looking at only the inside of his black T-shirt seemed as if he were looking through pure darkness. When he pulled his head through his shirt, Mike smiled at another note he had missed that was stickered to the window sill. He reached over the bed for its words: "ANOTHER by the way, I knew you'd find this last note, well… LAST (duh). Promise it's the finale."
Mike closed her bedroom door behind him as quietly as he could. He immediately regretted leaving her room, though. He preferred her fruity shampoo and light perfumes over the obnoxious assault of thick cigarette smoke. On his way to the kitchen, he stopped in the living room to retrieve his zippo from the dark space in between the sofa cushions. He gazed at the lustrous silver with an angel wing etched into each side. When Mile lifted his head, his entire body jolted so violently that he almost fell over the coffee table in front of the sofa.
Over the ledge that separated the kitchen from the dining area, the sight of her world-weary father leaning on the counter and smiling at Mike made a chill shoot up and down Mike's spine. Mike frowned at the sight of the pale sickly yellow plastered to Mr. Langley's large teeth.
Mr. Langley said, "She's not attracted to smokers."
Mike gulped. "I don't smoke, sir. This is just a lucky charm."
"Then here's some advice. Make sure you have that on you at all times. You weren't lucky enough to have completely closed the door last night."
Mike's face turned a bright fire-engine red as he cringed while he cupped his hand over his eyes and slid his palm down his face to his chin. "Mr. Langley, I'm so sorry. It won't happen again."
"You can call me Allen, and I won't accept your promise. You two are still kids; it's going to happen again. Trust me. I'm old, but I still remember my own teenage years and college days."
"That's still disrespectful even if you allow it. Both first-name basis and, well—"
"Don't worry. You don't need to suck up to me, and you don't need anyone's permission other than hers whether it's dating or sex." He chuckled. "She really likes you."
Dumbfounded, Mike asked, "How can you be so sure, sir?" Mike's eyes snapped opened and gawked at him. "Er, Allen! How can you be so sure, Allen?"
Allen shrugged very casually, and Mike's eyes carefully followed Allen's next movements. He removed a paper towel from something on the kitchen table. When he lifted what was under it, Allen revealed a plate of food. He smiled as he placed it in the microwave and set the timer for it. Allen turned his head to gaze through the kitchen window. The sunlight that highlighted the wrinkles on his pale rectangular face and the clumps of gray in his brown hair. His ghostly white skin glowed, too.
"She likes you enough," Allen said, "to leave these cutesy notes for you. She isn't this playful with just anyone. She wouldn't bring you home either if you weren't some kind of special. I think you and my daughter are fated to be together, and I'm sure you believe in fate considering you have a lot in common with my wife, so trust fate a little bit more."
Mike's heart plunged into icy dread. "What do I have in common with your wife?"
"You're both the kinds of angels who love my daughter very, very much." Allen extended his arm and beckoned for Mike by flapping the note. "That's just how fate is."
That somber delivery, the slight wavering in his gruff voice that had been sandpapered by years of heavy smoking—Allen's words impaled Mike's heart. Allen turned around and extended his arm to hand Mike the note. Allen smiled, yet something about the dull blue in his eyes made Mike frown. When the microwave started beeping, Allen opened the door midway through the second beep. He removed Mike's breakfast and waved it at him, the thin steam wafting from it.
Mike cupped his hand over his eyes and slid his palm down to his chin. When he removed his hand from his face, he counted how many ashtrays were placed throughout the living room. There were two ashtrays on the dining room table, too, for a total of twelve; all were overflowing with butts and ashes. Next to the front door, there were eight sixty-four-gallon-sized trash bags that were totally full. The size and shape of the bulges indicated all of those bags were filled with cans and bottles.
Mike finally joined Allen at the kitchen table, and Allen placed the plate in front of Mike. Mike picked up a slice of toast with one hand and was about to use his other hand to shovel the eggs into his mouth. Then, he realized that there was a fork on the table. When he lifted up the fork, he noticed a tinier piece of paper underneath it that had yet another smiley face drawn on it.
"So you're in college?" asked Allen.
Mike swallowed and nodded. "Yep."
"What're you studying?"
"Pre-law and psychology."
"What're your plans after college?"
"Finding a job."
"Do anything else besides school? I assume you work, too."
"Where? Doing what?"
Mike glared at Allen, shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth, and swallowed. "Allen, I'm really not trying to date your daughter. You don't need to vet me."
"I guess you're here for family for the winter break, then?"
Still glaring at Allen, Mike shrugged and resumed his fascination with his breakfast.
"You know," Allen said, "my wife always prayed that our daughters have their own guardian angels. She believed in those things. It was cute. My youngest had that in Renata, and I guess Renata has that in you. I didn't think my wife would get a literal angel for the job."
Mike swallowed his next bite of the toast hard. "I'm the least angelic thing."
"I think you have the fiery spirit for it."
Mike froze completely in place. As the anxiety from Allen's words burrowed into his eardrums, Mike asked, "What exactly do you know about me?"
Allen shrugged. "Whatever my wife has told me about you, so I'm glad we get to have this little time together. I don't know what life you had to have. I only know from my wife that you have to endure some kind of hardship which I assume is true from your guarded tone and short replies, so let's cut the crap. You're going to give me real answers now, okay?"
Mike had not noticed the sound of his own voice and the answers that it had carried to Allen, mostly due to him having just woken from a long night and partly because the sound of munching on a filling breakfast was more pleasing to his ears.