Desolate Angel

Prologue

A man lies dying on the grime-encrusted floor of an abandoned house on the banks of the Delaware. The air is heavy with the stench of human detritus and the whiskey sweat of fear. The man knows that he is dying, but after the first hot shock of bullet burrowing through flesh, he feels no pain. Instead, he feels the world falling away. Every ache he has ever felt, every regret he has ever ignored, every sorrow he has ever mourned—they evaporate into the ether. He does not care. He does not care about the man sprawled dead at his feet or the heavyset man breathing bourbon in his face. He does not even think of the wife and sons he will leave behind, nor of the badge that presses against his chest, inches from the bullet’s entry wound.

Instead, he stares at the ankles of the man bending over him, seeing every thread of a frayed pants hem that has been, improbably, stapled back into place. He memorizes every crease in the worn leather shoe beneath it.

A crack has opened up in the shoe between leather and sole. It fascinates him, that tiny gap of darkness. It beckons him like an invitation. He stares at the sliver of darkness and thinks of one thing only, his death, like his life, defined by the same single, unanswerable question. He thinks, How did it come to this?

Chapter 1

I never recognized my wife’s beauty when I was alive. Distracted by shining eyes and an all-forgiving smile, I married her and stayed married to her for twenty-three years, never noticing when the shining eyes and forgiving smile faded, casualties of the burdens that came with loving me. But not once, in all the years of sharing the very air we breathed, did I recognize her true beauty.

I had to die before I saw it. I had to die before I realized how her stubborn love for me, and her infinite love for our sons, made her splendid beyond human comprehension.

I can see it now—and so much more. I can see the light that surrounds her when she holds our boys in her arms. I can see how the world surrenders before her when she shares that love with others. I have watched her stop to talk to the old man who lives alone next door and seen him smile to himself as he shuffles away afterward, his day brightened by more than memories. I have watched her eyes linger on strangers in the store where she works, noting their slumped shoulders and grim faces. And I have seen her smile at them from across a room crowded with racks of clothes—her smile instantly easing the weight of their unknown disappointments.

It is astonishing to me now that she stayed with me and loved me all those years. She deserved better. Through no fault of her own, I came to see her love as a burden, rather than a gift, and drank to forget that she loved me. When that did not drive her away, I sought out women willing to drink beside me in hopes of forgetting their own failures. I destroyed everything Connie had ever loved about me—and I don’t why. And yet she loved me still.

I know that now, and so much more, for now that I am dead, I have little to do except ponder what I have lost. What else do you do when you realize, too late, that you once had all you ever needed but refused to see it. What do you do? You try to hold on to what