“son of a bitch,” keli said, plucking the feather from the tip of her wings. it licked up the sunlight, edges curling inward. she could feel its warmth through her hand, soft and inviting, as gentle a lull as the way BabyTodd’s eyelids drooped when he got sleepy.
“what’s wrong?” asked norma, poking her head into the nursery. she glanced at where BabyTodd was kicking idly at his mobile. “did he poop?”
keli held up the feather.
norma raised her eyebrows. “....very pretty?” she offered after a moment, voice pitching up in question at the end of the word. “i didn’t know they grew in colors other than black. i thought that was like, the whole vibe.” her brow furrowed suddenly. “oh--is that like--the demon version of a gray hair? are you getting old?”
keli was older than time itself. she was called into creation by the unexpected voice of the blackest heaven, pieced together by the inverse desire of the too-small things which would become men. she watched them grow from the very first pieces of matter, and waited in moonlight for them to evolve enough to hear her voice, and follow it.
she had explained this to norma many times.
“no, norma,” she said, somewhat patiently, but also somewhat like she was saying how many fucking times do we have to go over this, norma? “this is not a demon gray hair. it is an angel feather. here, listen.”
keli ran her fingertip along the edge of the wing and the feather sang out, a soft and lilting tune like a harp, but also like the sun filtering through the leaves of lush, green trees. the song that david wrote, that night so many years ago when he had sat on the floor and loved god the only way that he knew how.
“oooooo,” said norma. “neat. can i touch it?”
keli handed the feather over, and norma strummed it a few times. even keli had to admit the song was beautiful, although it wasn’t exactly pleasant for a demon to listen to. “this could make top 40 radio, easy,” norma mused. “like, throw in a baseline and some peppy lyrics about being single for the summer and you’d make bank. new music friday all the way, baby.” she frowned suddenly, then narrowed her eyes at keli. “did you kill an angel to get this?” she asked. “because we have talked about this. i am not bringing BabyTodd to visit you if you go to jail.”
“no prison can hold my dark power,” keli said. “norma. i need to know that you understand this, because we really have gone over it a lot and i’m starting to think that maybe you don’t listen to me when i talk to you.”
“well, i’m not bringing BabyTodd to visit you in hell, either,” norma answered placidly, “because hell is no more a place for baby than prison is.”
keli pinched the bridge of her nose. “i didn’t kill an angel for it,” she said on a sigh. “i grew it. by accident.”
“you grew it?” norma’s eyebrows rose. “like ... on your body? yours? the demon one?”
“but you’re a demon.”
“no, but like, if you’re a demon, how can you grow an angel feather?”
keli waited a few seconds, until norma got it.
“holy shit,” norma said. “holy shit, you’re turning into an angel! holy shit! your redemptive love for BabyTodd is making you a warrior for god!”
keli slumped into the rocking chair and covered her eyes with one hand. “not if i can help it,” she said grimly.
in brief, what happened was that eighteen-ish months ago, keli found BabyTodd in a dumpster. she had thought it was a weird place for somebody to leave a baby, but then, keli had never had a baby and didn't understand a lot of human caretaking practices, so who was she to judge?
in all honesty, she probably would have left BabyTodd there if it weren't for the fact that he'd woken up, suddenly, and stared at her in ringing silence with his big dark eyes. she'd held his gaze because looking away felt like losing a fight.
after a few minutes, BabyTodd had broken into a smile, and lifted his arms, and keli had bent down into the dumpster and pulled him up.
“right,” she'd said. “okay. i have a baby now.”
there were lots of evil things a demon could do with a baby, but given his house of origin keli felt that the first order of business should probably be to make sure he had all his shots, or whatever. probably demons couldn't catch human illnesses if they were bitten by their spawn, but it was always better to be safe than sorry, and anyway, keli thought it was funny to watch babies get shots. she especially liked the way the internet lit up afterwards with mommy bloggers screaming about how vaccines give babies other, less fatal diseases, which was a genius bit of demon work that keli wished she'd thought of herself.
keli brought BabyTodd to the nearest hospital, where a short nurse with plum-dark skin and frizzy red hair simply said, “...huh, interesting,” when keli told her honestly that she'd found the baby in a dumpster and was planning to keep him, “probably for nefarious purposes, but it's still early days, so nothing concrete is planned yet.”
“when you say 'nefarious,'” the nurse who keli did not yet know was named norma said, “are we talking child endangerment? or just like, using the baby to get back at your dad?”
“i don't have a dad,” keli had explained. “i have the dark voice voice of black heaven, who called me into existence.”
not-yet-norma nodded, pulling her mouth into a thoughtful frown. “preach, girl,” she'd said. “big same. dads can be pretty fucked up. it does sound a little bit like maybe you shouldn't be trusted with this baby, though, so i'm gonna vaccinate him and then maybe we can talk about your options.”
“yeah, like, maybe adoption? maybe child service can come look after him for a few days while we get you sorted out. you know. mentally.”
keli had clutched BabyTodd to her chest. she had won the staring contest. that meant he was hers. that's how being a conqueror worked. she let the dark fire of hell light up her eyes as she stood, towering over not-yet-norma in her green scrubs, and said, “i found this baby in a dumpster and that means he's mine and not you or god or a whole regiment of angels will take him from me.”
norma had blinked up at her.
“ohhhhhh,” she'd said. “oh you really meant it when you said your dad situation was kind of vague.”
keli deflated a little. “i don't want to talk about my dad anymore," she'd snapped. “i just want to find out what babies eat so i can take this one home.”
norma winced. “well, clearly child services aren't going to be able to help any of us out,” she'd said, and sighed. “so, okay. i get off in five hours. come back then.”
she'd given the baby his shots, said, “you gotta name this baby, i think we should go with todd,” and then ushered keli out the door.
within three months, keli was living in norma's two-bedroom, which she was renting from her aunt denise at a very discounted rate, and BabyTodd had acquired all the trappings that a human being could possibly need. keli was not 100% sure how this happened.
what she was sure of was that nothing and no one would ever approach BabyTodd with any kind of malicious intent, because he was one of two human beings worth anything at all, and also, keli was like, his mom, kind of.
“well, you have custody, anyway,” norma said, holding up the document that keli had blackmailed four different city clerks into forging for her. “i mean, 'mom' is kind of a loaded word.”
as for the worrying development of the angel feather, keli suspected it has something to do with the way that BabyTodd looked at things in the world and sometimes--almost--understood them, in a sad way. they'd been at the park and saw a man shove away a kid trying to hug him, and although keli used to think that kind of thing was funny, BabyTodd had seen it and started crying.
probably it was a coincidence, because norma had assured keli many times that BabyTodd's brain capacity wasn't enough yet to understand the concept of emotional rejection, but she hated the sound of his crying, so she'd sent a teeny, tiny little bit of hellfire at him, just guilt, overwhelming in its intensity, and when he'd knelt down beside the child and given her a tender hug, BabyTodd had smiled.
it wasn't goodness for goodness's sake. there was no reason for anybody to start throwing feathers around.
"it was one dad," keli whined, holding the feather up for the judge to see. "or like, a couple dads. and a mom one time. and a few pretty gross foster parents. and--fine, that kid robbing a bodega, but i only did that because i wanted to buy some wine and you can't use your credit card during an active robbery. come on, man."
the judge, whose name was abadon, shifted in his robes, squinting at her. to the rest of the court, he looked like a middle-aged white guy with a pathetically patchy mustache, but keli could see his real face, shining and dark and sparking like a wire in water. he ran his finger along the edge of the feather to make it sing.
"god that's such a bop," he muttered. "david was an unbearably self-righteous prick but the man could compose. listen to that. is that a perfect third?"
"can we focus, please," said keli. "i want an injunction."
"i don't know! you're the one who's supposed to know!"
"why would i know? why would anybody give me that kind of information?"
"well, there's got to be somebody!"
"onoskelis," abadon began, and keli interrupted, "it's 2018, donny. we have nicknames now."
"you can't get an injunction against heaven," abadon said. "even if you could, which you can't, i couldn't give it to you. or--i guess if you could, which again, you cannot, i would be the one who could give it to you, but i wouldn't do it, because it is my job to punish those who go against god and frankly, this seems like it would be an excellent punishment for you. also, it's very funny."
"you can't punish somebody by making them an angel," keli argued. "surely that kind of logic is also against god, because it acknowledges that angels are the worst."
abadon hummed thoughtfully, toying with the hem of his robe. "... well," he said after a moment. "angels aren't god, they are just one of his many creations. so it's not exactly against god."
"but!" keli protested, snapping her fingers, "by acknowledging they're the worst, you're admitting that god's creations are not perfect, and therefore god itself must not be perfect, which is definitely a big no-no for those guys, theologically."
"not really," said abadon. "god created man, and we all saw how that turned out."
keli dropped her head on his desk. "okay," she said. "tell them to give me two weeks. i'll prove to them that i'm not getting all angelic just because i adopted one human baby."
"and a nurse," abadon pointed out. "one human baby and a human nurse."
"i didn't adopt norma, she's my landlord."
"you have two weeks to prove that you're not going soft for the nurse and the baby, but that's just because i'm bored and this is the most interesting conflict i've had in this courtroom in weeks," abadon said. he picked up his gavel and knocked it against the desk. "now get out."
norma did not think the two week stay was good news. norma was very clear that any demon business was to be kept outside of the apartment, and more importantly, away from BabyTodd.
keli rolled her eyes. "it's not dangerous," she said. "i'll just seduce a few good men, start a couple small riots, break a few knees, and boom! no more angel feathers."
"riots are no place for a baby," said norma, firmly.
"riots are no place for a baby," keli echoed, pitching her voice up an octave. "you're such a nag."
"i'm not a nag, i'm your landlord," norma said, "and my word is final on this point."
keli rolled her eyes. "i could snap my fingers and turn you into dust," she pointed out. she was really pretty sure at this point that she had not gotten through to norma that she was an agent for black heaven and her powers were immeasurable in comparison to what norma was bringing to the table.
"yeah, but then you'd be homeless," norma answered, unruffled as ever. "hey, play the feather song again, BabyTodd likes to listen to it to go to sleep."
keli played the feather song, and BabyTodd gurgled a happy, baby sound. she was supposed to be letting him go to sleep, but instead she cuddled him close to her chest and pretended to bite his cheeks. they were so fat and so round and she wanted to put the entirety of him in her mouth so that nothing could ever touch him except for her and sometimes norma, when norma wasn't being a tyrant.
"keli," norma scolded, gently. "put BabyTodd down so he can nap."
"he can nap right here," keli muttered. "what does that crib have that i don't?"
"oh look," norma said, pointing at the wings that keli had curled around her front to keep BabyTodd nestled and warm. "there's another feather."
"fuck," keli said.
the problem was that keli's hellfire wasn't working right. it kept getting things slightly wrong, no matter how hard she tried, and she couldn't figure out why.
the riot she tried to start turned into a peaceful protest for better labor practices, and even the knees she broke weren't any good, as both of the belonged to what turned out to be a fairly corrupt cop.
the first three men she seduced turned out to be rotten anyway, and their wives were more than happy to take all their money in loud, messy divorces that kept them in the lives to which they had become accustomed. the fourth turned out to be lying about his age, and instead of her hellfire obeying her command to ruin his young life, instead he ended up crying at the foot of the hotel bed, still fully clothed, telling her about things he really needed to be telling a therapist about instead.
"give him my friend gabe's number," norma advised when keli called her from the bathroom, in a frantic whisper. "gabe's great with kids."
"okay, first of all, watch your tone, and secondly, kid is an unfair term to use in this scenario," keli said. "he's -- a teen."
"right, so a kid," norma said.
"'kid' means 'child'. he's not a child."
"child is an age-inclusive term. BabyTodd is a child and also an infant. your new friend is a teen and also a child. if he can't vote, he ain't grown."
"fuck you, norma," keli said, without heat, and hung up.
(she gave the kid gabe's number.)
when abadon checked her file at the end of two weeks, he laughed so long that keli thought about going to get a coffee until he was done.
"you're gonna be great at being an angel," he told her, "i mean it. you're doing good work out there."
"it's not funny," keli said. she was plucking two or three feathers a day, now. her wings were going to go bald at this rate. "i can't become an angel. i can't. that's my worst nightmare."
"oh come on, your worst nightmare?" abadon asked. "what about getting stuck back in hell? what about losing your looks? what about losing baby todd?"
keli frowned. "first of all it's not baby todd, it's BabyTodd," she corrected. "and secondly--okay, fine, top five worst nightmares, which is still too high on the list for me to consider it as an option."
"look, i gave you two weeks to do some evil and all you managed was to help fast food workers unionize," abadon pointed out.
"but that wasn't my fault! it was an accident!"
"explain that to whoever's in charge of your feathers," abadon said with a dismissive shrug, and clapped his gavel.
"but i don't know who that is!"
he smiled at her, his mouth wide and sharp and sparking with dark light, and said nothing.
it didn't get better. in fact, if anything, it got worse. keli couldn't use her hellfire at all without it lining all her bad intentions with silver. it was worse when she was with BabyTodd, who she'd taken to wearing in a little backpack-looking baby carrier. she liked to feel his breathing, and she liked the stupid little baby sounds he made.
"aw, you are a mom," norma said.
"shut up, norma," keli answered.
every morning, she sat in the V of norma's legs while norma plucked the feathers out. when you strummed all of them at once the apartment filled with an orchestra riding waves of light, all the colors of everything brightening. BabyTodd loved it. he was constantly reaching for the feathers to touch. norma rigged a couple up like a mobile over his crib, and half the time that keli came home to him she'd find him in a warm cocoon of music.
keli supposed she was glad that he was glad. if she was going to have to lose everything she was and become the worst thing she could imagine, at least on her journey out she was giving something good to BabyTodd, who could play the feathers forever and remember that he had a mother and she ... was fond of him.
"when i'm gone, you have to take care of him," she ordered norma, lying on the floor of the kitchen. she'd had a lot to drink. she wasn't sure if angels were allowed to drink so she was trying to get her fill of it now. the room was spinning. "you've gotta be the mom."
"i'm already his mom," norma pointed out. "we're both his moms. it's on the document you got signed."
"yeah but you gotta be the mom," keli said. "the only mom. just the one."
"oh-kay, babycakes. maybe that's enough whisky for you, huh?"
keli shook her head. "you don't understand," she said miserably. "angels can't be moms. they're too busy being angels."
norma raised an eyebrow, squatting down so she could gently pull the bottle of whisky from keli's hand. "oh, and demons are highkey into adoption?" she asked.
"no. maybe. i don't know. i conquered him in the staring contest and that's why i got to keep him."
norma smiled. she sat down and ran her hand through keli's hair. "no, kel," she said, her voice soft. keli squinted at her. norma wasn't soft very often. norma preferred to have sharp edges. "that's not why you got to keep him. those aren't the rules of the staring contest."
norma pressed a kiss to keli's forehead and didn't answer except to take a long swig from the whisky bottle. she lay down next to keli and they both watched the ceiling spin round and round and round like the mobile of angel feathers above BabyTodd's crib.
keli stopped trying to use her hellfire, except for little things around the house. she stopped--trying to do most things, really. norma kept plucking the angel feathers but they kept growing back, and eventually they both gave up.
they were beautiful, keli had to admit, her nearly-all ivory wings. they worked a little better, too, spreading out further and lifting her up more easily. flying hadn't really been an option before; she'd mostly just coasted downward off things. but the ivory wings were stronger and could lift her from a standstill.
sometimes she took BabyTodd up for little flights over the city, but then norma found out, and she had to stop. apparently it was "dangerous" for him to "fly without a seatbelt," and even though keli assured norma that she didn't have an engine and therefore couldn't crash, she switched to just taking him for tiny flights around the neighborhood, low enough to the ground that a fall wouldn't hurt either of them.
the day her last black feather fell out, keli woke and held BabyTodd close to her chest for a while. she hummed him a few chords from the feather song, because her throat could make that sound, now. she could sing the whole song if she wanted, the entire cacophony, but she didn't. she held him until she heard abadon's gavel pounding, somewhere in the distance, a drumbeat to the thrum of the voice that had called her into creation.
she put BabyTodd down. he gurgled up at her, beaming.
"i love you, BabyTodd," she said, and BabyTodd said, "I know."
"wait," said keli, as she was ripped from the room. "what?"
abadon was laughing. her dark father's voice was laughing. BabyTodd was laughing, his sweet baby laugh, but his eyes were sharp and sparkling.
"hold up," keli said. "it was you? you were the one changing my feathers?"
"yeah," admitted BabyTodd. "sorry."
"the whole time?"
BabyTodd shrugged, which was a weird thing to see on a baby. "well ... not really. just sometimes. there's a real baby in here, but he's napping right now. mostly i was curious after that first day when you were all, 'oh, this is my baby now.' i was like, 'i gotta see where this goes.' i kind of got distracted after a while, and--actually, the feathers were an accident."
"an .... accident."
"well--sometimes i'd just look at you and ... look, i honestly didn't know that an angel being impressed by someone had these kinds of repercussions. nobody ever told me that!"
keli groaned. she dropped her head in her hands. "of course you're a fucking angel," she snapped. "you're the worst. you're all the worst."
ONOSKELIS, her father's voice scolded.
"it's keli, actually," abadon corrected mildly. "we're all doing nicknames in 2018."
KELI THEN, her father amended, sounding somewhat apologetic. DON'T TALK TO YOUR SON THAT WAY.
"he's not my son!" keli snapped. "he's an angel masquerading as my son. give me BabyTodd back!"
abadon and BabyTodd shared a glance. "well," abadon hedged, "it's ... more complicated than that, now that you're ... uh." he gestured at her wings. "but we've made arrangements. BabyTodd can live with norma and they'll both be left alone."
keli looked away. "but not me," she guessed. "i've gotta go do ... angel things. or whatever."
I'LL MISS YOU, her father said. BUT YEAH, THAT ESSENTIALLY SUMS IT UP.
keli was going to cry. she'd never cried before.
"holy shit," said abadon. "are you--?"
"this is some real bullshit," she sniffed.
"please be careful," BabyTodd said, wincing. "angel tears are no joke. nobody touch them. does anyone have a bowl or something we can collect them in?"
"can i just -- can you get out of BabyTodd so i can say goodbye?" keli asked miserably. "then i'll come."
COME ON, DONNY, her father's voice said. YOU CAN GIVE HER FIVE MINUTES.
abadon sighed. he pushed his chair out from behind his desk. "fine," he said. "five minutes. i'll find a bowl for you to cry in."
it was strange, watching the angel fade back into BabyTodd's brain, to watch BabyTodd come back. keli wasn't sure how she'd never noticed it before. maybe she was a bad mom, after all.
"hi, BabyTodd," she murmured, poking at his tiny hands with her finger. "you'll be okay, little monster. norma will look after you, and i will too, although you won't be able to see me, probably. i don't really know the rules yet. i wasn't exactly consulted about this."
BabyTodd kept her gaze. he didn't blink. keli tried not to blink either, tried to win the staring contest again, tried to be strong enough this time so that she could keep him forever, but then her eyes began to prickle and she had to close them to keep the tears from spilling out.
ONE YEAR LATER
norma woke slowly, to the sound of music.
she knew this song. she'd heard it enough times to sing it herself, if her throat were capable of making the sounds.
she threw off her comforter and sprinted into BabyTodd's room. probably it was time to start calling him LittleTodd or ChildTodd, but neither one had the right ring to it.
he was sitting up in his bed, his pajamas bulging out around his little belly and sleeves curled around his hands, and he was laughing.
norma could tell by the way her shoulders were vibrating that keli was laughing, too.
"you're back," norma said, somewhat dumbly. "i thought--wait oh my god, your wings?"
keli stood and scooped up BabyTodd in one motion, settling him on her hip.
"angel tears are no joke," she said. "they, uh, are capable of fully dissolving anything alive that touches them. pretty weird party trick for an angel to have, huh?"
norma reached out to gently press her fingers against keli's shoulder blade. "holy shit," she said. "did it hurt?"
"like the devil," keli admitted. she rubbed her nose against BabyTodd's. "of course, they'll grow back. but it'll take a while. seventy or eighty years at least."
norma's eyes snapped up. keli was smiling, smiling, smiling.
"momma," BabyTodd said, gazing at keli with a bigger smile than norma