I walked across the frozen football field, Foster in tow. The weather was markedly warmer than it had been this morning, which was kind of funny. I’d heard the phrase ‘too cold to snow’ and thought it was silly, but this kind of proved it I guess. I glanced back at Foster to see him taking in the snow with wonder, and a goofy attempt to catch a snowflake on his tongue.
“Works better if you stand still.” I told him.
He glanced at me and froze, mid step. It was almost as if he were a robot, some sort of near human automaton who had suddenly lost power. I looked him quizzically until he lowered his foot and said to me, with a serious expression, “That was not any easier.”
I sighed, he took everything so literally. “I meant it’s easier if you aren’t walking. Like this,” I demonstrated, tilting my head back and catching a few drifting snowflakes. I glanced back at Foster to see him with his face turned towards the sky and his mouth open. He then giggled in delight as his eyes met mine, “I got a few!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I smirked at him, ‘c’mon.”
“Will you show me Luigi’s?” Foster asked.
“Sure, maybe later.”
“Later? There may not be a later.”
“There is always later, Foster.”
I felt his hand on my shoulder, and I turned to face him as I kept walking backward.
“There is not always later, Illya. Now is always better.” He said this with such seriousness, such sincerity that I found it near comical. It was very melodramatic, but then inmy minds eye I saw my brother lying in his bed at home and realized that for him, there may not be very many more ‘laters’. I sighed and smiled at this lost puppy, Foster Lloyd, and looped my arm over his shoulders.
“Well, if you liked that crappy school pizza, you’ll love Luigi’s. Come on, pizza boy.” I smiled at him. He returned the smile and walked beside me.
“The snow, where do you think it comes from?” He asked.
“It’s frozen water. You get the right conditions it comes down as snow instead of rain.”
“Hoping it was god sprinkling a snow cone on us?” I smirked. He tilted his head in confusion. “Mormon’s believe in god, right?”
He appeared to think on this for a moment, measuring his response. “Yes, Mormons do.”
“You guys get married more than once right? Have a bunch of wives?”
“Why do you ask? Do you want to marry me?” He asked. I burst out laughing and he smiled, but not as if he understood why I was laughing.
“We just met; I think we’d better know each other a whole lot better and get some laws changed to get married.”
“Laws, yes.” He muttered and went silent again.
We left the field and turned west, towards the river. Like all these old eastern towns, the city was laid out in a grid, single digit streets running north and south while the one hundred streets ran east and west. Down to Fifth Avenue and One Hundred Fourteenth Street was Luigi’s, the best pizza in town.
Opening the door we were engulfed in the smells of cheese, pepperoni, sausage and freshly sliced vegetables. Heaven on earth that was my thought and the idea was mirrored on Fosters’ face. His eyes took in the whole room, and I felt bad again that the kid had never experienced pizza. I then recalled that he had no money.
I sighed as he looked longingly at the slices in the display, and honestly it was the cutest thing. I was reminded of my little brother, before he got sick, when I’d walk him home from Middle School and he’d beg me to stop here. I reached into my pocket with that vision in my head and ordered up two slices.
We sat on high stools matched to an equally high table and observed the traffic struggling through the heavy weather. The going was slow, the roads clogging as the snow swirled in great billowing clouds. I thought about my brother, how we both looked forward to snow days; deliciously unexpected holidays from school. I never really thought about it in terms of ‘us’ until he was home sick all the time.
“Here, ‘Nova, you need napkins?” the ordinary fellow said as he placed the paper plates on the table. “I’ll grab them Vic, thanks.” Illya replied.
“How’s your brother doin’?” Vic said as he leaned on the table next to ours and crossing his arms.
“’Bout the same,” I replied, “They keep treating him and he keeps looking worse to me. I dunno how much more he can take.”
“He’s a strong kid, stubborn like his brother. I doubt he’s going anywhere unless he wants to,” Vic smiled and patted me on the back before turning back towards his ovens. “Lemme send him home a slice, just in case he’s having a good day.”
I glanced at Foster who was watching me. “What?”
“You’re brother is…unwell?” Foster had all his attention on me, and I was partly annoyed and partly comforted, though I couldn’t tell you why.
“Yeah, he’s real sick. He’s at home right now, but…” I shrugged. I didn’t feel like going into it all again. I could feel Fosters soft eyes on me, enveloping me in a cocoon of empathy. I wiped my eyes quickly and pointed Foster to his pizza. “Eat, it’s best while it’s hot.”
Foster seemed to suddenly remember his pizza, his face broke into the most beautiful smile and his eyes grew as he looked down at the slice. He lifted it, and then began to balance it from hand to hand, this slice being much warmer than the one he had at school. The tip of the pizza went into his mouth and the grin, if possible, became wider.
“Ogh, mfth iff mich bieggher,” he mumbled with a mouthful of pizza. I couldn’t help giggling at him.
“Chew, swallow, and then talk.”
“Oh, this is much better!” he said, after complying.
“Told ya. Luigi’s is the best in town.” I tore into my slice as well, and was amused by Fosters all consuming love affair with his own slice. Glancing out at the window the wind picked up and the snow swirled, and in my minds eye I saw that light again, the flutter of huge wings and Whalen walking through the parking lot. What was it? The details quickly danced out of my minds eye and I was left grasping for a fleeting thought, a gossamer memory.
Once done, we headed back out, extra slice in a Styrofoam container. We trudged in silence, as the wind got harder and the snow began to obliterate objects more than half a block away. Street lights came on as the day dimmed under the kiss of winter. Finally, feet freezing and fingers feeling like icicles, we reached my front door. My mother didn’t allow us to use the front door in the winter; instead we went around to the back of the house to the mudroom. After kicking off our shoes and hanging our jackets up we entered the back of the house.
The warmth engulfed us, pulling the chill away. Closing the door my mother’s voice rang out from somewhere in the house.
“Illya, don’t think about making puddles on my floor! Sweats are in the dryer!” I stopped and wheeled around, almost bumping into Foster. I muttered a quick ‘excuse me’ and stepped behind him to open the accordion doors that hid the washer and dryer. Stacked on top of the dryer were several sets of sweats, what we normally wear in the house, especially if my mom is making us work.
I grabbed two sets of pants and turned to Foster, who looked at me quizzically. I set the sweats on the table and pointed to the bottoms of his pants, wet now with the melting snow that had been caked to them.
“Mom has us wear sweats in the house to keep the floors clean, otherwise water gets everywhere as we melt, she says.”
Foster seemed to consider this a moment, almost as if he were a computer retrieving information from a hard drive.
“I understand,” he said. He unbuckled his pants, unzipped and dropped them right there. I stared at his well formed legs, unable to tear my eyes away. I think it was equal parts that and the fact he’d dropped his pants in my kitchen that had me rooted in place. Foster reached over and took a pair of sweats from the table and as he unfurled them to get dressed he noticed my imitation of a statue.
“Did I…misunderstand?” he asked, eyes full of gentle questioning. Everything about Foster was gentle, a curiosity like I had never known. The concern is his voice was evident, the look on his face troubled. I smiled at him.
“No, I just wasn’t expecting you to drop your pants here, that’s all. Put the pants on.”
“I am being immodest,” he said with certainty and turned away from me, bending over to put the sweatpants on. Good lord, my face must have gone fire engine red but there was no way I was gonna take my eyes off his behind, until it disappeared behind the fabric of the sweats.
“You are not changing?” he asked. I blushed even more and then decided, what the hell? I dropped my pants and pulled the sweats on. I concentrated on the sweats though, so I have no idea if he was surprised, pleased or indifferent. I was embarrassed, still, but soldiered onward. I gathered our clothes and placed them on the dryer. Gathering the pizza slice and moving towards the door, he followed me as we left the room, entering the den. The den was a small intermediate room connecting the kitchen and the front hall, with a side door to the dining room. We passed through to the front hall, the living room to our right and the stairs to our left.
“Illya, would you bring me a…oh, I didn’t realize you had company,” My mother said, as she came down the stairs.
“Mom, this is Foster,” I made introductions.
“You are beautiful,” Foster blurted. I went red again.
“Well thank you,” my mother laughed, a small joy on her tired face. In fact, that smile brought home the weight on her shoulders, the ache in her soul that made her so bone weary. Foster fixed his eyes on me.
“I can see the family resemblance.” Oh, I thought I’d die right there.
“Yes, my oldest has been turning heads since he was a baby,” my mother ruffled my hair. What? There was no comment about this? A guy had just compared me to my mother’s attractiveness!
“Illya, would you please get me a couple of washcloths and some cool water? Micah is burning up; we may have to go to the emergency room later.”
“Sure, mom.” I headed for the kitchen, leaving Foster with my mom. She was looking out the large piece of glass in the center of our front door, lamenting the weather. I heard her ascend the stairs and I quickly filled a large bowl with cool water and then snagged a washcloth from the clean laundry basket before heading back towards the front of the house. Foster was in the front hall, looking at the family pictures.
“This is Micah?” he asked.
“Yeah, last year, just before he got sick.” I hesitated, and then continued, “Before they diagnosed him anyway. I guess he’d actually been sick for a little while.”
vWe looked at him in silence, he looked a lot like me I’m told, but to be honest he always looked like Micah to me. “Want to meet my brother?’ I asked.
“I would, very much.” Foster replied.
We ascended the stairs, the third one creaking in turn as we stepped on it. Twelve steps up then a sharp left on a small landing that presented three more steps and opened into a small hall that held four doors; three bedrooms and the bathroom. Turning to my left we entered a small room with a proportional bed against the right wall. Micah lay trembling but awake; I wasn’t sure that was a mercy. Beads of sweat stood out on his brow, his face was flushed as though he had been heavily exercising. My mother leaned on the side of the bed, stroking his hair away from his forehead and murmuring meaningless mumbles of comfort.
I placed the bowl and the washcloth on the nightstand opposite my mother and dipped the washcloth in the cool water. Wringing it out I folded it and placed it across Micah’s forehead. His eyes opened, the glacial blue that we inherited from our father searching out my own. He gave me a weak smile, “I smell Luigi’s”.
“Vic sent you home a slice, just in case you were feeling up to it.”
“I’d just throw it up,” his eyes shimmered as he looked up at me, “I’d give anything to go down there and be able to eat again. It’s torture to smell it and not eat but…would you bring it up anyway? It really does smell good.”
“I’ll get it, I need to go downstairs for a bit anyway, get dinner started. I’ll zap it and bring it up, sweetie.” Mom brushed Micah’s hair back once more and, lifting the cloth briefly kissed his forehead and then headed out of the room, her face troubled.
As the door closed Micah focused on me, “I overheard her today; the insurance has run out, Illya.” His eyes closed and he let out a ragged breath. I blinked back tears, knowing we didn’t have the money to pay for Micah’s care. St. Peters still had to treat him even if we couldn’t pay, something called indigent care, but that didn’t make it any better. I’d heard my folks talking about the money late at night, the only reason I had enough money for pizza today was from shoveling snow; normally bag lunches were what I had, and I didn’t complain.
v“Hey, don’t worry about money. I’ll knock over a bank if we need it.” I tapped his shoulder, a sad reminder of how we used to punch each other in the arm for emphasis.
“That sounds unlikely,” Foster said.
“Holy crap, I forgot you were here, I’m sorry.” I looked at Foster who was looking at me quizzically, and then to Micah. I looked down and my brother was studying Foster with a look I can only describe as wonder.
“Illya, can you see it?” He whispered.
“See what? Foster? Yeah, I see him. Foster, this is Micah, Micah this is Foster Lloyd, he’s new.”
“But do you see it Illya? He’s…glowing.”
“Foster? Naw, he’s not an alien or…” my words died on my lips as my mind once more tried to grasp the barely seen apparition in Whalen’s office. I looked at Foster who suddenly seemed to radiate gentleness and calm, along with his endearing curiosity.
“But Illya, I see it…if you can’t, are my eyes screwed up now?”
“Hello, Micah Baranova. My name is Foster Lloyd and I can see your brother loves you very much. Do you know that his love is so great that he would take your place if he could?”
My eyes went wide; I had said as much in my silent prayers to a god I didn’t believe in.
“Illya’s always protected me,” Micah replied calmly. “Are…are you glowing?”
“I may appear that way to you, yes.”
“Why? Are you an angel?”
“No, though I have been called that before by others.” Foster smiled at Micah and his smile was more beautiful than I can describe. Seeing it my chest swelled with an incredible lightness of being, my heart thrummed and my eyes watered, tears of joy running down my face. Hope broke in my chest.
“Who are you really?” Micah asked, struggling to see Foster better. His cheeks still looked flushed, and I absently wet the cloth and reapplied the compress, my hands moving from memory as I continued to be enthralled with Foster.
“I have no name where I come from.”
“What,” Micah endured a coughing fit and I did my best to comfort him. At last he settled and began again, his voice rough. “What are you?”
“I am a guide. When life ends here a guide will come to you to take away your pain and make sure that your energy is able to move to the next step on your journey.”
A sudden cold fear gripped my heart and I stepped in front of Foster, placing myself between him and Micah. As I got closer I saw a faint glow emanating from him.
“You can’t have him!” I snarled, “Take me if you need to have someone, but you can’t have my little brother! He’s…” my voice hitched as a strangled sob surfaced, “he’s just a kid.”
“Dear Illya,” Foster reached a hand to my cheek, soft, light and warm as a summer breeze and I felt some of my tension leave me. “You have been so kind, you have been a guardian of the highest order for you brother. My job is to guide, but right now I am not…on the job?”
“I don’t understand,” I said, the surreal quality of the situation was not lost on me, this convoluted conversation and the glow that was steadily building from Foster, the waves of joy that were passing through me.
“I know, Illya. When someone leaves this world, when the guides meet them they are often upset, confused and angry. Sometimes their grief or anger is so strong that they may become lost, a guides worst possible outcome.
“To be a guide we must understand the beings we are guiding. Before I met you I did not know what it felt like to suffer, the difference between the emotional pain you and your mother feel and the physical that Micah feels.” His thumb began to stroke my cheek, “I also did not understand love. The love a mother has for her son, the love a brother has for a brother and the growing possibility of love you were feeling for me.”
“Then…if you aren’t here for Micah…are you the answer to my prayer? Are you going to take me and let him live?” I spoke in a near whisper.
“No!” Micah said as loudly and forcefully as he could, “Illya you can’t. Foster! Don’t you dare take him from my mom. Illya please, please…” he broke down weeping, his tired body slumping into his mattress.
“I’m not here to guide anyone. I am here to learn, and I have learned much in the time that I had.” Foster stroked my cheek once more and then moved past me to Micah’s side. “I have learned love; I have learned worry for others. I have learned about pizza.”
I barked out a laugh. Foster glanced at me, a questioning look on his face.
“Most people wouldn’t put love and…pizza in the same...category…” I muttered, my face coloring.
“They are not equals, but they are things I have learned.” Foster looked down at Micah and reached for his hand. I felt tears fill my eyes again, though I didn’t know why. Foster was aglow and behind him large wings protruded, giving him a graceful, serene appearance.
“I will learn one more thing before I go, for my time is short. I will learn relief and joy.”
Foster lifted Micah’s hand, bending down and placing a kiss on Micah’s knuckles Fosters wings slowly moved out, spreading to surround Micah’s bed. The glow grew in intensity and I found my eyes drifting to the open window, but I forced myself to turn back, I had to make sure Micah was all right.
Micah’s face was a mask of peace; an expression that could only be called beautiful now showed where pain and sickness had been etched for months. Slowly his eyes closed and I suddenly panicked. He was killing Micah! He was taking him from me! I moved forward to yank Foster away when Micah’s voice stilled me.
“Illya, I don’t hurt anymore.”
“I feel tired, but…I don’t hurt Illya.”
Tears that had been threatening now flowed freely as I slowly sat down beside Micah. I took his other hand and looked at Foster. “Is he dying?” I whispered.
“Yes,” Foster replied, “like all of your kind his life here is finite.”
“But,” I was sobbing openly now, lifting Micah’s hand to my face, “You…you said you weren’t here to guide him. Why is he dying?”
“You misunderstand me, Illya Baranova. You too are dying. As time passes you all move closer to the hour of your death. Micah will die, one day; humans are not immortal. This disease will not kill him, however. He will die an old man, beloved by many.”
I couldn’t seem to stop sobbing, as I looked down on my little brother. His face was calm, relaxed and his chest rose and fell in even sleep. Healthy sleep. His breath didn’t come in the ragged gasps I can become used to, but deep even breaths. I looked back at Foster, whose wings were mere ghosts behind him now and more and more he looked like inquisitive, quirky and oddly endearing Foster Lloyd, new kid and pizza lover.
“Illya, I have one thing I would like to learn of before I go, as I said my time grows short here.” He spoke to me as he slowly moved around Micah’s bed and to my side.
“What…what do you want? You’ve given me my brother back, anything you want…is yours.” My tears were slaking off; I pushed the wet tracks from my face with the heel of my hand.
“For most of the day you have been wondering what it would be like to kiss me. I would like to know also.”
“What?” I couldn’t help it, I began to giggle. “Are you serious? You’re like some kind of gay angel or savior or something? A gay healing supernatural apparition? Am I actually in a mental hospital somewhere with you in my head?” I asked him, but as I spoke my voice had slowly trailed off until my final word was unheard.
“You seem to think it would feel good, and I wish to feel good too.”
I stared at him, and then slowly leaned in, placing my lips on his tentatively. I ended the kiss, and immediately went in for a second, placing a hand behind his head as I kissed him fiercely. I felt Foster mimic my hands, his fingers deep in my thick hair. At last we separated, breathing heavily and I stared into his eyes.
“Well?” I breathed.
“It was better than pizza.”
vI laughed and pulled him close, holding him. I don’t know how long I held him, feeling his warmth and the aura of comfort he seemed to radiate. My hands roamed up his back, across his neck and into his soft hair, and I felt him mirror my movement. I gradually became aware of him feeling less…there. I leaned back and looked at him and he seemed to be fading.
“I must go.”
I felt my heart break a bit as I realized that the first boy I kissed, someone I could love was leaving.
“Will I see you again?”
“One day, dear Illya, many years from now I will come for you. I will bring all that is you through dimensions and on to your next experience. And I will be there when that experience should end. And one day we shall guide together, one day our energy will be as one. Love is powerful, and my love for you will burn through every universe on every plane of existence.
"Live well and do not be afraid to love Illya. Never fear the end for I will be there to welcome you.”
“Is that the only time, Foster? Just when I die?”
“I was sent to learn, not to stay. But I will make you a vow, my dear Illya. If I should be in the position to see you before that day I will take every opportunity.
“In the meantime, tomorrow you will meet Foster Lloyd, a young man who will need a strong soul like you.”
"Wait, what? You are Foster Lloyd!”
“No, I merely have his form. I will not be remembered, but these words will stay with you. Foster is what you seek, dearest Illya.”
Foster was barely visible, a mere wraith at this point. I desperately asked him one more question.
“If there is a real Foster Lloyd, how will I know if you come to see me?”
A wave of sweet joy, so bright and uplifting filled me; I felt as though I was glowing like Foster had before.
“You will know.” Fosters voice whispered.
I held the feeling as long as I could, and savored the memory. My mother came up shortly and was relieved to see Micah’s fever had broken. Micah continued to breathe normally and sleep deeply. No mention was made of Foster, or the missing sweatpants he was wearing. His pants were in the kitchen, and were my size.
As I laid my clothes out that night I made sure to tuck a few of my hard earned shoveling dollars in my wallet for school the next day. If the real Foster Lloyd liked pizza, I was going to need it.