This story won first place in the first inaugural Short Fiction Competition.
Miranda knew it was a bad idea to hire the angels, but Mr. Wallingford had insisted.
“Book the buggers if it’s the last thing you do,” he told her, a little spittle flying towards her desk.
It was not an empty threat. Heather had been asked to pack up her things the previous week, and the rest of the staff the week before. Only Miranda and Mr. Wallingford were left on the Palace’s Events and Hospitality Team – and even they were barely employed. The angels were a bad idea, but they were also the best option to save the Palace from bankruptcy.
The fee Miranda offered was embarrassingly low, a consequence of the same budget cuts that had axed the rest of the team. The angels were probably offended. At the office, Miranda daydreamed about the ways that slighted angels would hex her. She began looking for signs: for two weeks, she watched her trains pull away while she ran to the platform. Her favorite Haribo, the peach rings, were always sold out at the shop by her house.
She didn’t hear from them for months. Then, two weeks before the Gala, Miranda received a brief email confirmation:
CASH. UNDER THE TABLE. PROVIDE DINNER.
“A bang without the buck!” Mr. Wallingford had crowed. “The Americans will be so impressed.” He clapped her on the back. She cringed.
“We’re paying them peanuts,” Miranda complained to her boyfriend during her recent nightly ritual: an entire bottle of wine, a sleeve of Waitrose water crackers, and half a tub of cream cheese.
“Maybe you should look for other jobs,” her boyfriend said, as he did towards the end of every night. She always shrugged him off, mostly because he lived off her salary and in her apartment. Besides, by that point in her day, she was too drunk to apply for anything.
“Anyway, not much good being an angel if you can’t stand up for yourself, right,” he said. “I hear they’re taking anything these days.”
“Don’t believe what the papers say,” she said, though of course she had read the same thing. The Sun reported that the Home Office could not figure out which visa to give the angels – were they Exceptional Talent Immigrants? Refugees? Due to the months-long bureaucratic muddle, the angels were stuck in immigration limbo without work permits. The article quoted a number of events organizers who said that the angels would do any work, for any money, that they were greedy, that’s why they had been ousted from paradise. As the Gala drew closer, Miranda found herself scanning the tabloid newsstands for headlines about the angels. FREEFALL FROM HEAVEN LEAVES ANGELS FREELOADING. ANGELS’ SONG HYPNOTIZES AUDIENCE. ANGELS CAUGHT STEALING ON CCTV! The buzz around the angels was undeniable – even if notorious. And the Palace needed a win. Miranda needed a win.
At least, that’s what she told herself as she watched the angels quivering in the lawn on the evening of the Gala. They arrived too early, filing out of a yellow school bus just as the sun was setting on the Palace grounds. The landscapers were still finishing their work, but the Palace was grand even in its shabbiest state. The Baroque stone towers of the Palace’s royal apartments and staterooms rose from the 2000 acres of English gardens and manmade lake surrounding it. It was spectacular, of Regency-era television shows and little girls’ fantasies.
In front of the Palace, the angels looked a bit disappointing. Miranda expected them to glow, radiate warmth or divinity. Standing there in matching Primark down jackets, leaning into each other, they looked pitiful, too thin. They did glitter lightly, in a disorienting way, like driving on the motorway late at night.
“We are very hungry,” they said. They spoke in an eerie dissonance. Their mouths hung open, dark black Os framed by small, pointy teeth. Miranda gazed into the holes.
“Would you like your dinners now?” Miranda asked.
“No,” they said. “We are hungry to be in the presence of high achievement.”
Miranda shivered. Maybe that’s just how ethereal beings talk, she thought. No need to be xenophobic, or whatever. Miranda’s walkie-talkie emitted staticky panic from the staff in the Palace. The florist had not yet delivered the bouquets for the Ballroom table. The kitchen was three plates short of the vegetarian meal. The downstairs toilet was oozing a concerning, foaming substance.
“It looks rabid,” someone reported on the radio.
“I’m coming,” Miranda responded. “Pull the bus around that way,” Miranda said to the angels, pointing towards the empty lot by the Palace crypt where the guests would not be blinded by the bright yellow eyesore. “If you’ll excuse me…”
“Please,” the angels said. “It is very cold. Unseasonably, for October. May we go inside?”
“Right,” Miranda said. “Alright. Please, go in, use the facilities. Make yourselves comfortable until the guests arrive.” Miranda thought to tell someone inside to keep an eye on them – but the Palace was already understaffed. They were angels, after all. It wasn’t right to believe the tabloids.
The Trustees had told Mr. Wallingford that the Gala was the Palace’s last hope. The tourism reports confirmed what the Palace team had long known: visitors to the Palace were at an all-time low, as British vacationers preferred to book RyanAir flights to Mallorca rather than tour their own crumbling buildings. The Trustees could no longer afford the taxes that preserved the Palace as an Historical Site, and the benefactors had lost interest, eager to invest in sexier properties instead. According to Mr. Wallingford, a private developer was courting the Trustees with promises of luxury residences and coworking spaces that would replace the Palace, a plan to revitalize the rural county with a glittering remote work metropolis.
“The only thing that can save us now is social media,” Heather had said in her last days as Communications Manager. “The Americans will Instagram the shit out of the angels. People will freak out, flock to the Palace. New followers. New revenue streams. Historical Status taxes have got nothing on the Internet.” Before she left, Heather gave Miranda detailed instructions on live streaming. Miranda had practiced the stream several times on her personal account.
“Nothing will go wrong,” Heather promised. The technology was set. Miranda was only banking on the angels. And the Americans.
The final strategy to save the Palace was to attract new American donors, the other Atlantic elite whose nostalgia drove their trips to the Old World. All the guests who attended special events at the Palace felt entitled to the pomp in some way; but Americans, in particular, were thrilled by the glamour of defunct opulence. The Palace was the birthplace of Britain’s most famous Statesman, who the Americans idolized for his heroic defense of Western liberalism against assured evil. There was a special charm for them – they, whose country had only existed for a handful of years – to be so comfortable, lounging within the pillars of ancient, established hierarchy.
The Gala’s guest list boasted celebrities in sports, music, and politics (with millions of collective followers, as Heather had pointed out). The Chief Guest was the most celebrated General from America’s least successful war, who had been invited to give short remarks in honor of the partnership between the US and the UK. It was undoubtedly the most illustrious event the Palace had hosted in years – certainly in Miranda’s eight year tenure — and one that plunged the Palace further into debt than they had ever been before. If this went well, they could recover their losses, keep their jobs — it would reign in Palace legacy alongside the Queen’s visit 35 years prior.
The guests began to arrive shortly after sunset, sniffing out canapes and cocktails and compliments with the determination of hunting dogs. In the reception room, the guests challenged each other to pithy duels of networking, doling out veiled brags. Miranda found this part of her events rather soothing, because no matter what group it was, no matter what language they spoke, it all boiled down to who could be holier than who – who could assert their power faster. Many of them had already brandished their phones, snapping selfies or swapping phone numbers. Miranda’s heart rose to her throat.
“Remember to tag the Palace,” she said, hoping she did not sound as pitiful as she felt.
The incidents that occurred were to be expected. A Hollywood B-lister – most famous for voicing a beloved cartoon 20 years earlier – lost his tiny, white dog. Miranda found the dog shivering in the Statesman’s former study. The dog looked her in the eye as he wet the original pre-War carpeting. Miranda carried him back to his owner before evicting an underage Olympic gymnast and 80s rockstar from one of the upstairs bedrooms, saving them all from a salacious and potentially illegal scandal. Miranda blotted wine stains off of a starlet’s white jeans – which, according to her research, cost about double her monthly salary – while the owner hid in the washroom. And the General was running late: “another 30 minutes, at least,” according to his assistant, who had left Miranda on Read for the greater part of the hour. The kitchen staff grumbled, gesturing at the tenderloins that glistened under their heat lamps. Mr. Wallingford glared at her as she left the kitchen, pointing at his watch.
Miranda stepped outside to calm her nerves. The angels were huddled together in the center of the gardens. Someone must have moved them to the courtyard when the guests arrived.
The angels’ strange heads swiveled towards her. They rubbed their hands together and pressed them into each other’s armpits for warmth, their long fingers already turning blue. Their eyes searched for something far away.
“Sorry,” Miranda said to them, unnerved. “The guest of honor is running late, so we’re pushing everything back.”
“We need to eat soon.”
Oddly demanding for angels, Miranda thought. “Should I bring your food out to you now?”
“We will wait,” the angels said, staring through her.
To avoid their insistent gaze, Miranda refreshed the Palace’s Instagram page, examining the 47 likes underneath her post promoting tonight’s livestream surprise. She hoped the angels would look good on video. Now that it was getting dark, they were starting to glow more.
After Heather was fired, Miranda gave the Palace tours. Heather had been trained in a drama school; Heather always made the Palace seem more exciting than it was. Miranda doesn’t have that charm. She loved the history of the twentieth century, but preferred to read it rather than tell others about it.
But Miranda had no choice. Since the budget cuts – and the recent Historical Status rumors – Miranda had quietly taken on social media, tours, and communications on top of her Events Coordinator duties. At first, she had to follow a script, guiding sparse groups of tourists with a sheaf of papers in her hand. Eventually, Miranda learned the stories well enough to recite them.
The tours begin at the front gates of the Palace. Miranda ushers the visitors up the grand staircase, stopping every few feet to let them admire the lavish foyer, the plush carpet under their feet, the way the banister curved delicately under their hands.
These are not the entitled guests of her events – these are people who pause, just for a moment, to imagine themselves living in this lauded reality, one in which even the stairs caress them back.
Miranda stops respectfully under the portrait of the Statesman on the top of the steps, where he grimly monitors everyone who enters and exits his childhood home. She talks about his achievements, his way with words, the way the country flourished under his leadership, even in the darkest of times. Her boyfriend had rolled his eyes at this part of the tour – “you don’t even mention what he did to your people?” – and Miranda shrugged. “I wish you didn’t have to gloss over the colonial shit,” he sighed. But as she gives the speech – the world in disaster, saved by the great Statesman – she wonders where she would fit it in. Besides, she thinks, it wasn’t her people who were starved out, left to die in famine; her people got on boats to England and never looked back; her people have accents as thick as the generations they’ve been here.
She opens the door to the model washroom where the crowds imagine the Statesman lounging in the bathtub with his famous cigar. She leads them down into the basement – the war rooms that most had read about in history textbooks – recreated, of course, all fake, but captivating nonetheless.
Miranda talks about the War. She talks about victory. Mostly, people nod. Some roll their eyes, hiss about the bodies that pave these walls, the souls that are embedded in the gold crust of the lip of the tub. Those, she can brush off. History is not always clean. But it’s the others who look at her, try to catch her gaze, see her, and in those looks they say “I know you, I know where you have come from,” and she reminds herself that no, they do not.
Miranda gestures vaguely towards the crypt as they cross the gardens. The Statesman and his family were indeed buried in the tomb beside the Palace, but Miranda rarely ventured that way herself. People are always curious if the stories of the hauntings are true.
The tours end in the Ballroom, the magical centerpiece of Miranda’s events. The tour groups marvel at the vaulted ceilings, the giant blooms of flowers, the single, long table, that runs the length of the room – seating 300, comfortably. They try to imagine the luxury of dining at the Palace, the swirl of waitstaff, the tenderness of the meat between their teeth. They cannot come close.
Miranda studied History because of a tour group like the ones she conducted, a school trip to a less significant palace near Bradford. As a child, she had been haunted by the emptiness of the walls, the ghostly shapes. She was so entranced by a recreated bedroom that her class left her behind, and a teacher had to search the palace for her so they could leave. Years later, her family drove the coast of Scotland, stopping to sightsee dramatic cliffs and hollow castles. Miranda ran her hands along the sharp stone, read the little plaques out loud to her cousins. The wind howled louder than she could speak.
The Palace hadn’t had a school group in a long time, not since the virtual tour became available. If the Palace was destroyed, like the one near Bradford, all that would be left would be photos on the Internet. In a way, Miranda feels responsible for this piece of history. She does not tell this to her boyfriend, or anyone else.
Miranda’s favorite moments in the Palace are right before they open the doors for an event like the Gala. She lights the Ballroom candles herself, watching the flames flicker over the golden candelabras. The wax holds its shape for the requisite four hours and then gently disfigures. Miranda takes these home, sticks them in empty wine bottles, and leaves them burning all night.
The guests began the Gala dinner in the Ballroom without the General present. Miranda placed them according to her seating plans, watched them chat with each other, get predictably drunk. They snap pictures of the gold ceilings, slow videos panning over the ornate table settings, the flowers that mercifully arrived in time. No one seemed to mind the tenderloin – at least, no one sent it back. It was almost peaceful.
Miranda’s team had just ushered seventy-two plates of berry mousse and wafers into the Long Room when the General staggered out of his car. Miranda rushed to greet him. From the threshold of the Palace, she heard the angels hum, warming up, as if a sigh of relief.
The General reeked of alcohol and leaned against Miranda as he stumbled up the stairs. His security detail trailed vaguely behind him, and then disappeared into the Palace. “We’re going to have a good night,” the General slurred to her as he searched his pockets for his remarks.
The night before, as Miranda finished spreadsheeting the details for the Gala, her boyfriend read aloud from the General’s Wikipedia page. The General had recently been removed from office because of a very public extramarital affair. A leaked video had been splattered over the Internet. Her boyfriend watched part of it. As the General leaned into the podium, Miranda noticed that his pant legs were a little long.
“No cameras,” the General sputtered as guests lifted their phones. “I don’t want any cameras.” In his speech, he rambled about his admiration of the Statesman, how he modeled his own strategy after the Statesman’s own tactics some 50 years prior. The General made some vague claims about the greatness of his own legacy. He conveniently skirted around the failure of his own war.
As a child, Miranda watched the General’s war on the nightly news – the first to be so intimately televised. She sat on her family’s faded brown couch, tucked next to her father, who drank two cans of Guinness over the course of the news hour. She remembered flinching at the bombings, the violence piped into her living room, and then, after a few weeks, no longer flinching. She witnessed the destruction that the General had commanded, the number of people who had been killed under his orders, under the gaze of the cameras, under the gaze of nightly-news-watchers everywhere.
The audience clapped generously, and the General stumbled into his seat.
“Thank you for those inspiring remarks,” Mr. Wallingford said. “We have one more surprise waiting for you. Please, if you will follow me outside.”
Miranda’s heart pounded. In moments, around the world, people would be watching the angels, the Palace. Miranda opened the double doors at the center of the Ballroom, leading the guests outside. The angels glittered in the early darkness. The courtyard stretched between the Gala attendees and the angels, magnifying their glory in the distance. The angels inhaled together, and the guests inhaled too, and the angels emitted a vowel so pure, so holy, yet unheard by human ears. It felt like their song had been hanging there in the courtyard throughout history, waiting for the right listeners.
The YouTube samples did not do them justice – hearing them live, Miranda felt like they were singing into her own lungs, like the soft tissue of her body was filled with their sounds. Her organs vibrated in relief. She exhaled, finally. Her walkie talkie buzzed, and she ignored it. As if by design, a light snow began to fall.
Even the Americans were so enchanted by the angels that momentarily, they forgot their devices. But such attention cannot last long. One by one, the guests drew out their phones, framing the angels in videos that beamed around the world. They watched the chorus from the screens in front of them. Miranda too broke from the trance, tapping quickly into the Palace Instagram. She held the phone steady on the angels and watched as the number of viewers grew, first a few hundred, then thousands, then ticking upwards so fast the app could barely keep up with it. The angels opened their mouths wider, as if they could swallow the world.
“Miranda,” Mr. Wallingford said, tapping wildly at her shoulder with his walkie talkie. “We have a situation.”
The door to the crypt was, indeed, open, just as Mr. Wallingford had said. Miranda peered into the cold stone chamber.
“Hello?” she called. “You can’t be in here. This is not part of the event.” She shone her phone flashlight into the crypt. “Hello?” If she could have seen in the dark, she would have noticed that the lead-lined lid of the Statesman’s coffin was slightly ajar.
The yellow school bus was parked haphazardly next to the crypt. She rapped on the glass pane to wake the bus driver, but he was fast asleep. Miranda’s knuckles stung. The temperature had dropped quickly since the sun set.
Miranda heard the applause from the courtyard, signaling the end of the angels’ performance. It was all over. She knew she should rejoin the event, thank the Trustees, one last opportunity to impress the American donors, quickly tally up the number of viewers and calculate the chances that the Palace would be saved. Instead, Miranda sank into the damp ground. She leaned against the crypt’s stone wall and lit a cigarette, imagining the candles slowly curving around themselves in the Ballroom.
Miranda saw the glow before she saw the angels. They moved in their usual huddle, but there was a vitality to them now. Maybe a performance high, she thought.
“Congratulations,” Miranda called from the darkness. “It was beautiful.”
“We are not satisfied,” the angels responded.
“No, it was really amazing,” Miranda said. “And so many people saw it – not just the guests – we had you live-streamed, everywhere, tens of thousands –“
“Not nutritious at all,” the angels said. They floated as a mass. As they approached her, Miranda saw that they cradled a body in their arms. The legs of his trousers gathered over the top of his feet.
They paused in front of her, a funeral march.
“Are you religious, Miranda?” The angels said.
Miranda considered lying but shook her head.
“How do you recognize holiness?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try,” they said, patronizing.
They laughed. “Holiness is beyond worshippers – one soul can follow many these days. Like your lunchtime salad – chopped, meager – hardly filling. We thought we could feed too. But your livestream did nothing for us. Empty souls, divided too many times. Even tens of thousands. Not good enough. The worship is diluted.”
The cold of the earth seeped into Miranda’s legs.
“No,” the angels said. “Holiness is total possession.”
They shiver in anticipation.
“Up there, we only got one soul at a time. But we knew we could have more.” Their heads tipped upwards, the snow falling onto their faces.
Miranda looked towards the crypt, a hopeless Historical Status.
“You did this?”
“We tried. Your Statesman has been gone for too long. The souls he possessed from his War are now dry. Brittle. But this man –” The angels sighed collectively, and Miranda can see hunger glinting in their wide, lidless eyes. They moved a little closer to each other, to the General lying in their arms.
“The destruction of entire nations – it all compounds in him. He is rich. So thick with souls. So nutritious –” They smacked their thin lips. Drool fell to the pavement. Miranda bowed her head.
In the weeks that would come, the media would attribute the General’s last sighting to the Palace Gala. Police would arrive, followed by special investigative teams from both nations. Guests were contacted. Footage was checked, but the security cameras had been turned off to comply with the General’s demands. Nothing was found. Mr. Wallingford was asked to take an early retirement, and Miranda took over the Palace’s Events team. Her fresh-faced staff was reinvigorated by the new interest in the Palace. On their tours, they dropped quotes from the #1 true crime podcast in the country, The Missing General.
Miranda no longer gave tours. But every once in a while, on a lunch break, she crossed to the other side of the Palace, where she had watched the angels file into the yellow school bus with the General stirring gently in their arms, like a sleeping child. That night, before rejoining the Gala, she had stubbed her cigarette out against the edge of the tomb. She ground with a little extra effort into the side of the stone. The mark would barely be visible in the morning.