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Abraxis sat patiently as he waited for his co-worker to arrive. He was wearing his formal halo, but had opted out of manifesting his wings. There was no need to put on airs today: his counterpart, Ezekal, was an old friend (and a real ne'er-do-well). The arch-angel was humming a hymn to himself to pass the time. I do hope we get an interesting subject today, he thought to himself. The last three have all been billionaire playboys with barely a sliver of spirit. Abraxis peeked over at the large sand-timer that sat nearby. Ezekal was nearly four hours late.
Suddenly, Ezekal burst into the room, bringing with him a billowing cloud of saltpeter. He stood unrepentant in the doorway and took a second to light his cigarette. Abraxis watched patiently until the devil was finished with his task and began to glance around shiftily. "You'll have to forgive me, you ancient bastard," Ezekal said with a sneer. "I got caught up with some light torture. I know you don't mind the wait," he said, as he trotted his cloven hooves over and took a seat at the conference table.
Abraxis adorned a gentle smile. "I would never expect any less from you than tardiness, Zeke." The devil sitting across from him didn't respond in any way, taking a long drag as dismissively as he could. "Are you prepared for today's tesimonial?" Abraxis asked in a perfectly-metered and fatherly tone. Ezekal grunted, unwilling (as always) to participate any more than necessary. Abraxas nodded, and turned to face the screen as it began to shimmer and warp. Within a few moments a crystal-clear picture of the third dimension had stabilized on the viewing screen. "Focus!" Ezekal yelled, still facing away and haplessly fiddling with his spiked tail. Abraxes ignored him and continued with his duty.
"Today's subject is a woman by the name of Penny Marshall. She lives in America in the twentieth century," he said, flipping through his dossier. Ezekal groaned. "Why do we have to do so many modern eras," he said as he rubbed his temples. Abraxas bowed his head in understanding. "Because there are so many," he replied simply. The devil rolled his eyes, and spun his seat around to face the screen. "Let's get this over with," he said.
Penny's early years went by pretty fast, as they often do. Childhood freedom, innocence. Playing in the yard and watching Underdog on Saturdays. Penny was a popular and vivacious child, strong of will and with big aspirations. Abraxis sighed. "This is always my favorite part," he said, as he watched the little girl learning to swim in a cool running creek. Ezekal pantomimed as though he was hanging himself. "And you always say that," he said, "every single time." Abraxas smiled as he knew it was true.
Suddenly, Ezekal leaned forward with a light in his eyes. "Uh oh," he said grinning. "Looks like your little girl isn't so innocent anymore..." A seventeen-year-old Penny now danced carelessly in a garish nightclub. She had gotten a fake license from one of her friends, and the two young women had been drinking together for hours. Abraxas watched on in silent contemplation. A greased and vicious young man then approached and offered the two girls a baggie of cocaine.
"Ah, I remember him," crowed Ezekal at the introduction of this new character. "David Something. What a jackass that guy was. Remember how he died?" the devil asked, pointing. Abraxas nodded. "Shot dead at twenty-three," he said in a stoic tone. He mused to himself for a moment. "Some are taken too soon, but I think David was right on time," he said. Ezekal gagged in response, as he often did to settle disagreements quickly. Abraxas continued, "but as I recall..."
Penny smirked at the stranger and shook her head. She had seen her classmates get involved with drugs in the past, seen where it left them in a matter of months. She wanted no part of that. She took her friend Sarah by the arm and led her out of the club a few minutes later. Abraxas nodded. "What are you so smug about," Ezekal asked, pouting. "She's still breaking the law." Abraxas nodded again. "Yes," he said, "but young people often rebel. At least she has the sense to know danger when she sees it. She would be homeless in less than a decade if she'd taken the blow." The angel tapped his dossier emphatically. Ezekal sneered. "So good for her," he said.
Soon years had passed, and Penny found herself at her wedding reception. Her husband, Mark, was the love of her life. Though they had only dated for a few months (scandalous at the time), she knew that she and Mark would be happy together for the rest of their lives. She sat, proud, as her best friends and family made beautiful speeches in their honor. Penny had never been so full of love. Abraxas glowed with happiness to experience this moment with her.
Penny's smile began to fade as her cousin Joey got up to make his toast. She glanced at Mark, who had the same slightly worried expression on his face. Joey was soused. God, I hope he doesn't make a fool of himself, she thought, still smiling as much as she could. But of course, Joey's toast rapidly devolved from kindness and blessing to bitter retorts. Evereyone at the reception sat mortified in place, not knowing how to handle the situation. But as he began to sing-quote his favorite Metallica song, Penny decided she had had enough. Without hesitation, she stood up and jogged towards the drunken cousin that was ruining her big day. In one fluid motion she grabbed the microphone out of his hands and struck cousin Joey across the mouth, knocking out two of his teeth in the process.
Abraxas was the first to stop laughing. "Oh, Penny," he sighed to himself. Ezekal began to light another cigarette between chuckles. "Goddam," he said inhaling deep. "That Joey really ruins everything he touches," the devil said in admiration. Abraxas clicked his tongue in agreement. "Yes," he said, "but he's got a kind heart. Poor Joey. Did he ever get his life together?" Ezekal shrugged. "If you can call it that," he said. "I don't really remember. Lots of AA," the devil said as he leaned over to nudge Abraxas.
The next few decades went by fast, even though every day was long and repetitive. Soon Penny's kids had gone off to college, leaving her and Mark alone together. The two travelled the world periodically, marvelling at the wondrous beauty of the planet Earth and its people. When they weren't travelling (which was most of the year) they lazed about their modest home in Arizona. They had a simple life, but it was enough for them. They were happy. Abraxas watched on, glad for their good fortune.
On a cold stormy day in 1999, Penny was driving her sensible mid-range sedan from Arizona to Michigan to visit her family. The weather forecast had been deceptive--a torrential downpour had come seemingly out of nowhere. Penny was just starting to get worried when she felt a terrifying sensation. The back wheels of her car had begun to drift left, and before she knew it she was fish-tailing all across the deserted street. I'm on a bridge, her panicking brain sputtered at her, I'm on a bridge. She tried desperately to correct her course, but she could not. Her car breached the roadside barriers at forty miles an hour.
She woke up in total darkness. She was cold, so cold, and water was rising into her car at a startling rate. Oh God, oh Jesus, she thought. I'm going to drown.
Ezekal laughed. "That's life, kid," he said with derision. "At least you'll leave a good-looking corpse." He flipped through his own case report, reading with enjoyment to details of her untimely death. The devil glanced to the side and lost his bemused expression as though someone had flipped a switch. "Oh dammit, don't you do it!" he shouted at the angel to his left. Abraxas was standing with a look of resolution on his face. He held his arms open wide, and whispered.
Suddenly Penny heard a voice, a voice she recognized but couldn't place. It sounded to her like her own father, but different, very different. "Don't give up, Penny," it said. "You're too strong to go out like this. Don't give up." Penny cried out as the water rose up past her neck. She looked up to the roof, and sucked in as much air as she could from the shrinking pocket above her. With mechanical precision she undid her seatbelt in a matter of seconds. She didn't know how deep she was, where the surface was. She didn't know how she was going to get out. But she knew she couldn't give up.
She grabbed wildly in the dark for something, anything. Her fingers wrapped around something heavy--a hammer. It was as though someone had pushed it into her hand. This must be from when Mark fixed Peter's shed. I told him to clean this damn car out, she thought to herself, her brain only momentarily snapping back to normalcy.
She began to flail wildly, bashing the driver's side window as hard as she could. It was a struggle against the cold black water in which she was submerged, and soon her lungs were burning for air. God help me, she thought. I'll start going to church, anything... Finally she heard the window break, a dull pop followed by a sucking sensation as the water pressure fully normalized. Penny fired out of the window, swimming as fast as she could towards what she thought was the surface. A distant sense-memory flitted through her mind; she saw herself swimming in the creek of her childhood. She could feel herself getting lightheaded. Just as she was about to black out, or instinctively suck in a chestful of water, she felt her head break the water's surface.
Abraxas smiled as Penny swam to shore exhausted. She lay on her back, feeling the raindrops gently tap, tap on her face. Abraxas watched her with pride, taking his seat again. Ezekal glared at him in spite. "What're you so happy about?" he asked, his voice dripping with anger. "Says here she's going to die of cancer in fifteen months anyway. Lymphoma," he said with emphasis. "Yes," the angel said, still smiling.
Ezekal tossed his folder of documents on the ground, trying hard to convey his displeasure. "Know what, I'm going to blow the rest of this one off. Let me know if anything interesting happens," he said with sarcasm. Abraxas simply nodded. After the devil had left the room, Abraxas settled in to watch Penny's last few days. "This is my least favorite part," he said quietly to himself.
After it was done, the angel flipped his folder open. He went, box to box, evaluating the various qualities of her life lived. He smiled to himself as he came to one of the final boxes. In bold, block letters it read: "Fighter:". He took his quill, the same he had used for millenia, and stroked a bold check in the box. "She sure is," he said.
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