There is a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.

It’s just 3 O’clock in the morning and for some reason I can’t sleep anymore. I didn’t wake up to a nightmare as you may like to call it but the dream I’d had was so vivid.

It was getting dark and the sun’s reluctant retreat left a beautiful golden hue in the greying sky. I was alone in the capital city but I felt like I was being watched. I’m always alone in my dreams. I don’t dream of people, so I’m used to not meeting anyone in there. This was different. At every turn I could feel eyes on me. Into every street and alley, it was as if I had a penetrating gaze searing into my back. Yet whenever I looked back I saw nothing; no shadows, no footprints, no rustling leaves or disturbed space.

I decided to go to the top of the tallest building to see if I could get a better view. The elevators were working, lights too. The building used to be the head office of a top bank but it was deserted now. It was like everyone had put their desks in order, and then disappeared. I got to the roof where there were a few canopies with chairs under them, probably for staff who felt the need to relax in the evening after work. There was also a scope on a tripod, a possible handiwork of an inquisitive employee or director who felt a need to have a closer look at all that’s beneath him.

The scope was intriguing but I ignored it and moved closer to the edge. Looking from above, there wasn’t much to see except the scenery of concrete punctuating spaces in the skyline. I moved from one end of the roof to the other, but there was nothing. What did I even think I was going to find?  I shrugged as I stood for a few more minutes deciding on whether to go back down or just take a seat and enjoy another lonely evening. I let out a deep sigh.

Then I was pushed.

That is when I wake up at 3 AM.

The LED indicator on my phone is blinking as usual – the insomniacs in my WhatsApp group are in action. I’m pretty sure it would be Alex, Janice, Ness and Deji Burner; crazy night owls as I like to call them. I smirk as I open my pictures folder just so I can send a silly picture to interrupt their flow. The grin slowly fades from my face at the first picture I see.

It is a picture of me sleeping in the same clothes I am wearing now. I live alone.

I check the picture properties; it was taken at 2:59am, a minute before I woke up from the dream where I’d been pushed.

Shit!

***

With the way I spring up from the bed, one would think I’d been sleeping on a pin. My initial thought is that there’s an intruder in my house – my uncle’s house actually, but he’d moved abroad with his family and felt it was better for someone he knows and trusts to be in the house. He’s one of those people who believe bad spirits inhabit empty spaces; funny man. It’s a large duplex but I’ve always managed well alone since I got back from the war. I left the dust covers on most of the furniture and kept just one room and the kitchen operational. I’m usually out during the day and back at night to have dinner and sleep before heading to work the next day.

One minute is a short time for an intruder to come so close to me, take a picture with my phone and disappear. Chances are that the crook is still in the house, so I head down the stairs to start my search from the bottom up. It’s possible the person could sneak downstairs and out if I start my search upstairs where my room is and escape for good. I pull a case from under the bed and get myself armed with some throwing knives. Worst case scenario, I’ll throw one and still have a few to spare. I’m good with knives and serving in the army has helped perfect my skills. I don’t keep guns as I am convinced I’d shoot myself or go berserk and shoot innocent people before doing same to myself. The war had scarred me deeply, but it’s what happened right before the war that cut the deepest.

There are only three bedrooms downstairs, a lobby, two siting rooms, a dining room and the kitchen. I move from one room to the other. I even check the guest toilet, but there is no sign of any intrusion. Since the ground floor is clear, I think it is time to take the search back upstairs. There’s a door at the bottom of the stairs and I decide to lock it as I go upstairs. If there is an intruder in the house, he would be locked in and would have to break out, making sufficient noise which would alert me.

Before going upstairs, I check the main entries into the house. No window appear to be broken and the security bars have not been tampered with. The kitchen door has no key and I never open it. It is locked. I check the main door before the lobby, the key is in place and it is locked too, with the deadbolts in place. I however feel a strong urge to take a look outside so I open the door.

There is nothing there.

I don’t mean ‘nothing’ as the absence of a threat, I mean the absence of anything at all. No yard, no fence, no gate. I cannot even see the house opposite mine. It is as if my house had somehow been transferred from it’s normal location to the middle of nowhere. This is weird. Taking a few seconds to make up my mind on whether to forget the possibility of an intruder in the house and investigate this new development or continue my search, I finally settle on venturing outside.

I can’t.

I can see outside, despite the absence of any form of life or civilization but I can’t go out. It is as if I am hitting a brick wall that isn’t there. As calm as I’m usually seen to be, I am freaking out. This isn’t creepiness. This, in my experience is becoming a strong contender for the grand title of weirdness. I stand at the doorway wondering what the hell is going on and considering the probability that I am in the end, going cuckoo.  Then I hear my name.

Barth

It’s Sarah.

No freaking way! It’s her voice alright, but it’s impossible. She’s gone, and it’s been five years. Five years since I watched her leave for her new home that was two feet wide and six feet deep. Five years since she died and I watched the sand pile on her coffin, bit by bit till I couldn’t see it again.

But it’s her voice.

You know those horror movies you see where there’s something funny going on but the victim still walks towards the unseen danger while you’re on your seat with one hand clenching the edge, muttering, “Not that way, fool. You’re going to get killed.” I get it now. Ignorance is bliss but there are some things you can’t ignore. Not the voice of your fiancée who has been dead for five years. You just want to know even if it kills you. It’s our nature. Unfortunately we aren’t like cats who people say have nine lives even though we’ve never seen them lose one and still live.

I head back upstairs.

Together forever, in this world and the next…

Those are words I’d said. Words I’d spoke reassuringly with every fibre of my being as we were being deployed in haste to take down a small army of insurgents in a border town next to Chad. They were words I meant. Words I couldn’t keep in the end.

We won but by the time we got back we realised we’d been played on a much larger scale. Our town had been attacked, military base and all. My pregnant Sarah was dead, killed alongside the small units that stayed behind. The small army we went to confront was just a decoy. A much larger horde was right under our noses laying low and they struck when we were well clear of the base and town. A lot of people were killed before reinforcements arrived. Sarah was dead. I’d lost it all.

I buried her, mourned – I still do – and tried moving on. The incident on our base finally spurred the government into making a decision and declaring a full scale war on the insurgents. I threw myself into it, sometimes intentionally putting myself in danger just so I’d get killed and go be with Sarah. I wasn’t that lucky. Two years later we had won and finally ended the spate of terrorism in the country. I resigned from the army, moved back home and tried putting it all behind me.

But this is her voice.

I make my way up, holding the knife I have on me firmly. By now, all thoughts of an intruder in the flesh have been banished but there is someone, something up there. I reach the top and continue my search. The upper section of the house is made up of four rooms and a living room. I hear the voice again in one of the rooms but by the time I get there, the room is empty. Then I hear it in another room. I search each room. They are all empty.

Frustrated, scared and bewildered, I step out of my room as it is the last place I’d heard the voice from, only to see a lone figure in the upstairs living room.

“Oh, how I love going into character. I bet you would hand me an Oscar if you could, or one of those silly awards you people give for acting,” he sneers.

It isn’t Sarah.

In the living room is a tall dark figure with grey wings and save for the wings, he looks exactly like me.

“Oh don’t look so shocked. You’re acting like you’ve just seen a ghost,” the creature says with a smirk.

“Who… What are you?”

“Karma.”

“What?”

“Oh would you have preferred if I bowed and introduced myself as Azrael the Angel of Death?”

I can barely stand, this is nothing like I would ever imagine and I sure as hell isn’t dreaming.

“Death looks like me?”

“Oh, this is not my real face, just a front. I don’t reveal myself but this is a special occasion and I would rather not manifest with my four heads and four thousand wings. I wouldn’t fit in here, and your jaw seems to be touching the floor already even considering how ‘simple’ I look right now.”

It isn’t until he says so that I realise I’d had my mouth open the entire time.

“See why I prefer Karma? You people just watered it down to mean reaping what one sows. Sometimes I indulge, but what does one really reap if not death in the end? It’s the final verdict on life. Anyway, I’ve come to collect.”

“Collect? What do you me–“

“You of course.”

“Me?”

“Put simply, you are going to die tonight.”

I wouldn’t have thought the mention of death would rock me but I am beginning to feel dizzy, so I sink slowly into the nearest couch I can find. It is all so surreal.

“Humans can be funny. Why are you now acting like the mention of death is a hammer blow? You’ve wanted to die for years, ever since Sarah and your unborn child died. Why so shocked now?”

“But… Is this how people go?”

“No, variety is the spice of death you know. I decide how people go, some more grotesque than others. A chaotic exit here, a peaceful adieu there. That’s what keeps things interesting for me. Eternity can be boring in this my line of work. For the most part, I’m just recording lives made and taken. I write and delete, so why not jazz it up?”

I must be crazy. I’m talking to an angel who looks like me and is going to kill me. I’d asked for death, not madness and even at that, I wasn’t sure I wanted death anymore. I thought that ship had sailed until now.

As if reading my thoughts, Azrael fills me in.

“You must be wondering why you didn’t die sooner. Well, you were interesting and I was bored. Your fiancee was going to die anyway and if it means anything, I’m sorry about how I made her go. Maybe I should have just made her die at childbirth. Oh well…”

The mention of Sarah and the details of her death get to me. I know now that this being takes some pleasure in toying with mortals but he just touched a nerve. I’m not scared anymore. I am upset. No, I am mad, just as mad as I was when I held my dying love in my arms after the attack.

“How dare you!”

“Emotional much? You only know this because you’re going to join them soon. If it’s any consolation, they’re with The Almighty. I like you Barth. All the time when you were so desperate for me to take you, you never once thought of suicide. You however put yourself in harm’s way for the remainder of the war; running through minefields, confronting terrorists better armed than you. You were begging for it.

The Almighty saw this and had pity. He told me to take you but in matters like this, sometimes he lets me use my discretion and I’m keener on taking those whose numbers are up but have no idea. There’s no fun in killing you then and you were sending those hateful scoundrels over here by the numbers, so I let you carry on.”

I finally get it, why they say Karma is a bitch.

“So, now that I’m beginning to make my peace with Sarah’s death and move on…”

“Aha! And my brothers say all men are dumb. You’re beginning to find some meaning in life again so it’s more entertaining to rain on your parade now that you’re enjoying it.”

I lost it. I know it is stupid, but I throw the dagger I have on me at the ‘angel’ wearing my face. He simply brushes it aside with his wing like it is nothing while the gust of wind from that motion flings me against the wall.

“Now you’re just being rude, thus missing the moral of this lecture. You sometimes get what you’re asking for, not just when you expect. Anyway, it’s time. I’m beginning to feel like those villains in your movies who talk too much and allow the protagonists to get one over them.”

Only then do I see his sword which he raises as he glides towards me. I am still too dizzy to move and my head hurt but I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of seeing fear in my eyes. I grind my teeth and look Azrael right in the eye as he tries to strike me. But then a bright light and loud clanging noise has me turning my face and blocking my ears.

***

When I look up, I see Azrael’s sword hanging over my head. No, it is blocked by another sword and that is when I realise there is someone else, another angel protecting me from the blow meant to strike me.

“Back off this one, Azrael.”

The angel of death laughs as he glides few feet away.

“Who are you to tell me what to do, guardian? Our Father knows this is my turf and he lets me do what I like once he approves. You’re way out of line.”

“No, you’re way out of line, Azrael. Father gave him away to end his suffering five years ago. Five years! But you chose to make him suffer and toy with him. This is one time your procrastination isn’t looked on kindly. Father feels he’s suffered enough and should be allowed to live a full life.”

“No. Father doesn’t second-guess himself.”

“He’s not second-guessing himself. He’s teaching you a lesson. Next time he tells you to take someone, don’t be whimsy about it, just do it. Father can do whatever he likes. He’s The Almighty.”

Azrael doesn’t look pleased. He clenches his sword even tighter.

“You might want to rethink what you’re about to do, Az. Except you wouldn’t mind joining the Fallen.”

Azrael relaxes, looks at me and smiles, “It’s been fun ‘hanging’ with you. I’ll be back in a few decades. Well, whenever Father decides it’s time for you to come home.”

With that, a golden portal opens in the ceiling and he flies into it. I look beside me just in time to see the angel beside me flash me a shining smile before following the Angel of Death.

Then I pass out.

****************

I wake up in bed around 9 AM with my head buzzing from the impact on the wall. Rubbing it, I remember what transpired earlier and head straight for the living room.

It is as if nothing had happened.

I go downstairs and open the front door. Everything is in order. I can see my neighbour washing his parked car on the street.

I can remember everything and my hurting head gives me no illusions. It was real. But then again, you can’t always explain the supernatural.

Back upstairs, the hunger pangs that hit me has me rushing to microwave food. I set the timer and head to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I bend to spit the paste in my mouth into the sink and look up to…

“Jesus!”

It is him again. Not Azrael, but the ‘guardian’ that defended me earlier.

He chuckles, revealing a somewhat boyish grin.

“Sorry to startle you.”

I sigh. What’s it with today and supernatural beings.

“Why are you here? To collect?”

“No, I’m your guardian. My work is only done when The Father says so.”

“Okay…”

“I’m actually here to make sure you’re okay. Not everyone comes face to face with Azrael in a dream and lives.”

“A dream?”

“Yes it was all a dream. You were meant to have died in your sleep.”

“What the…”

I stop myself, realising I’m in front of an angel. He chuckles again.

“No, it’s okay. Amusing really, how you humans get to call the divine this minute and hurl swear words the next. I’m supposed to erase that dream from your memory but doing so will be painful and I think it’s fine to leave you with the consolation that Sarah and the kid are okay with us on the other side.”

“Thank you… for everything.”

“No, this wasn’t all me, really. I guess Father saw something in you. He can be unpredictable but some advice: move on, live and enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it. Don’t waste a minute thinking about the past and what could have been when there’s so much ahead of you to see.”

I sigh. There is some relief knowing the woman I loved is fine even if she isn’t with me on this side of reality. Ignorance can be bliss but a little knowledge doesn’t hurt either.

“I guess my work here is done, Barth. Well, for now. Remember I’m always looking out for you; that’s my job. But hey, don’t do anything stupid.”

“Thanks…” I trail off, fishing for a name.

“Oh my name doesn’t matter. You’ve seen and heard enough already. Goodbye, Barth.”

With that, the portal of light opens in the ceiling again and he flies through it.

And all is calm again.

Bloody hell.