The Angel Age
by Val Howlett
Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature
It always comes full-on, the memory. Complete with scenery—the beige rug, the mauve seats of the auditorium. I don’t just get an echo of the pumped-up slow-mo feeling of looking at Dani Aguilar. I see you, consumed by that feeling. Squeezing the cushion on the flip-bottom of your seat. It’s like you had coffee, you’re so awake.
It isn’t the first time you ever saw her, but it’s the first time you’re really watching. It’s one of the early stage crew meetings, and four eighth graders run the crew and she’s the only girl. She’s sitting on the stage’s edge, leaning back on her arms, talking to the eighth grade boy in charge of the meeting, who is taller than your grandpa. Between her thighs she holds a bag of Chex Mix that she occasionally plunges an arm into and scoops a handful from, like it’s totally fine to inhale a big bag of anything onstage in front of three rows of sixth grade girls. Everything seems brighter, louder. She is making the boy smile and popping those Chex pieces into her mouth over that full bottom lip.
She’s a million roundnesses—linered, crescent eyes, kid cheeks, tiny zigzag curls that fall to where her breasts start to curve back into her. You’re not thinking the word “breasts,” but you’re staring. For a good long minute before you catch yourself and it’s all why are you doing that? What’s wrong with you?
No one is looking at Dani Aguilar like you. You get that, right away. You’re surrounded by fellow sixth grade girls and they’re texting, waiting for the meeting to finally start.
The girl who played Cinderella last year, in fifth grade, is sitting right by you. One seat away. You were the evil stepmother. Her backpack’s on her lap and she keeps finding reasons to rummage through it. She pulls out her phone and checks it, slides a compact mirror onto her lap and checks her face for who knows what. She doesn’t look like she’s wearing makeup. Her hair is glossy as ever.
Then, from the stage, the boy who runs things—Cole Something—calls out in his guy croak, “Listen up, stagehos!”
He’s grinning. What is he talking about? He’s talking about you. The group of you. Stagehos—like stagehands but not. Actor-hopefuls, actor girls who only joined crew so Mr. Rosen will remember your faces when he casts the play next year. There’s an awkward giggle rising up from some of the girls in your group. Definitely not you.
You’re queasy. You’ve got that same uneasy nausea that came about a week before, when you walked into your room and lying at the foot of your bed was a thin book, paper bag brown. You knew it wasn’t yours right away, knew from its prominently subtle placement on the bed that someone had left it for you.
The title was in faded scripted pink. You had to lift it close to make out the words You Are Changing.
There were those frantic moments of wondering who the culprit was. Of looking for a written name on the inside cover, a note scribbled on one of the musty pages, any sign that it had once belonged to someone else.
It didn’t seem like something Mom would leave you. Mom was a nurse. Her explanation of where babies come from got you in trouble in kindergarten. If she wanted to talk to you about body stuff, she would just talk. Probably.
Which left Gran. Or Grandpa. It seemed like the kind of book Gran would save. And she probably didn’t mean it like that, but having to approach the book and read the words You Are Changing was like finding a mean note taped on your locker. Like You Are Changing and the Whole World Notices. Even your Gran is thinking about your zits, or your BO, or your boobs growing, or something. There must have been some reason she left you that book.
And being called “stageho” is like the same thing is attacking you again—that something everyone must see when they look at you, except you. You can’t see what it is.
Cole Something is still chuckling at his own joke. Dani Aguilar’s mouth is wide open with laughter. She says a word to Cole, then punches him in the arm, a playful punch. There’s a half-second when her dark eyes glance out at you—all of you, all the stagehos—at once, on their way down to her Chex Mix bag. That’s how much you mean to her. You’re not worth watching, not even if someone makes a joke about you and you’re right there. Dani Aguilar only cares about the people on the crew who are for real.
So when Cole asks if anyone wants to go up to the loft where the prop room is and look for things from his list, you say, “I will!”
Everyone is suddenly looking at you. Cole says, “Woah, alright.” You didn’t just volunteer—you shouted. Like a little kid who wants ice cream. You can’t bring yourself to meet Dani Aguilar’s eyes. You pull the list from Cole’s outstretched hand and practically run backstage left.
When you get to the prop room—ascend the ladder to the loft and walk three steps to the wall and open the groaning door—you see an angel. It lies hunched on the rug, its head slightly, shakily lifted, its black coils of curls tangled in the dirty, ragged feathers of its wings.
What if I could break right through my memory and talk to you then? To you, at the very start of The Angel Age. You, A.A.
The girl who had gasped and backed out of the prop room and swayed standing on the platform, who while waiting on the school steps, while riding home with Gran, was stuck in that recognition moment—the dawning that what was in front of her wasn’t an animal (even though its limbs were splayed on the ground, its head lifted like a colt). The girl who couldn’t stop seeing that dirty robe, the hairy human leg kicked out underneath it, the head that was like a person’s but not round enough—too oval, with too-long lips. Yellow owl eyes. Dark feathers drooping off the long thick bones that protruded from its back.
The girl who is wondering who she even is.
Back when you were rehearsing for Cinderella, you always hammed up the scene where you and the stepsisters had just returned from the ball. You danced around the room as you told Cinderella about the ball, speak-singing in an opera-ish voice, so everyone who watched you laughed. Then one day, Cinderella interrupted you, breaking character and freaking out. “Stop it, stop it!” she’d shrieked. “Why do you have to be so crazy?”
You had laughed with the stepsisters for a full month about how jealous she was. But now the Angel Age you is hugging your pillow, letting Cinderella’s question loop and loop around your head.
Why do you have to be so crazy?
What if you are crazy? What if the normal part of your life is over? What if you wind up in a mental hospital, trapped in never-ending fantastical nightmares that only exist in your mind like Dorothy in Return to Oz?
There’s a lot I could tell you. But I don’t know if telling you would make a difference. Don’t worry about the angel? How many things have you been told to not worry about, and when has that ever made you worry less? I could tell you not to go to the loft again, but now, I can’t imagine life without the angel.
I think it would have appeared somewhere else anyway.
The only advice worth giving would be small, I think. Suggestions of things to avoid so your life won’t be worse than it has to be. Like don’t hop on the computer and google “seeing angels” and then spend an hour trying to figure out how to erase the browser history. None of the adults in your house actually check the browser history. Don’t stare in the mirror for an hour trying to figure out if your face is what an insane person’s face looks like.
And don’t, definitely don’t, look for answers in You Are Changing.
You Are Changing, introduction:
It all started when the flat lips on your chest puckered—the first sign of your breasts beginning to blossom. Or perhaps it began when you stopped playing kickball with the boy next door . . . and started wondering if he liked how you looked.
You are changing. You are in the midst of that ever-confusing, heart-flutteringly exciting phase of life between childhood and adulthood. And that’s where my little book comes in.
Perhaps you picked it up because you’re eager to become a woman. You’re the type of girl who wonders when your menses will finally arrive, who dreams in exquisite detail about your first kiss. You want to get each and every question answered, all the whys and, of course, the when.
You might, however, be the opposite—a girl who prefers to live in the past, who doesn’t understand the change. You might cry at night, wondering where the former you has gone, the girl who used to play with toys and didn’t spend hours in front of a mirror. You might not even have purchased this book yourself, but instead received it from a concerned parent or trusted friend.
If you are the latter, I say: chin up, young lady! There is so much to love about this new phase of your life, when your beauty starts to emerge—inside and out! It’s a time of discovery and gaiety, too, a time when you start to become who you truly are.
When you wake up the next morning, you decide that none of it happened. That all of it—the angel, your ensuing panic, was imagined—a hazy result of an off-mood, bad cafeteria food, something.
In the kitchen, you greet Gran and your sister with midday hyperness. You slather cream cheese on your bagel and drop blueberries and grapes on top. You listen to your sister’s stories about fourth grade, nodding with a full mouth. You are aggressively normal.
But sooner than you’d like, it’s time for stage crew and it’s harder. Walking to the auditorium, it hits you that you never returned to Cole Something and Dani Aguilar yesterday with props from their list. They might be angry, or waiting for you.
You hover outside the auditorium double doors, read the fliers taped to them, the cast list. All those seventh and eighth grade names you barely know. The hallway is emptying. You could go home, drop stage crew, and forget about the angel, but the list’s right there with roles listed in order of importance and real people’s names next to them. Your name could be there next year if you stay.
You push the doors open, walk down the aisle where actors are standing tall, singing melodic ah-ah-ahs. No one’s looking for you. No one from crew is even there.
You head backstage right—the opposite side from the loft—and eventually think to push through the double doors to the adjoining tech room. There are the sixth grade girls, surrounding a giant table covered by a canvas. They talk to each other mostly, half-heartedly painting the canvas dull beige. The eighth graders aren’t there.
You sit on a stool near Cinderella, who is in a group of girls from a different elementary school. She doesn’t look at you when you sit, but one of the girls gives you up-down eyes. You wonder if there’s something wrong with your outfit.
You lift a paint roller, dip, roll.
Then Dani Aguilar enters with the boys. They are wearing black, talking urgently, looking important. You bend close to the canvas. Their voices grow.
“Rosen’s gonna talk to us tomorrow about our design for the recess scene.”
“He better like it.”
“He probably hasn’t looked at it.”
“Oh, the Rose-man. Rose-dawg.”
“The prettiest flower.”
“He’s probably just gonna ask about props.”
A groan from one of the boys.
“Hey,” says a thick, loud girl voice. “Didn’t we send someone on a prop run already?”
They’re quiet. They don’t know who went, you realize. They don’t know your face. You all look the same to them.
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
Dani Aguilar’s standing over your shoulder.
You turn and your eyes are in line with her chest. You have to tilt your head up at an unnatural angle to meet her gaze.
She recognizes you.
“Yeah,” you hear yourself say.
“Well?” asks Cole Something. The boys are behind her, but you can’t focus on them with Dani Aguilar looking at you. You can’t tell if she’s mad. She’s not smiling. Her hair is falling forward, curtaining her cheeks, so you can only see the middle of her face, her pursed lips. “Did you find anything?”
You didn’t actually set foot in the prop room. You try to picture what was beyond the angel staring from the floor.
Shelves. You saw shelves. Probably there were props on them.
“Yup,” you say, for some reason. You sound like your grandpa.
Cinderella’s girl-group is watching you now. Cole Something is annoyed. “Why didn’t you bring them down?”
“It—there was too much to carry.”
Cole Something looks at Dani like you are an agonizing chore, like why are we even talking to this stageho?
“Alright, alright,” Dani says to Cole, as if they have been arguing. Then she turns to you. “I’ll go with you.”
It takes you an extra minute to understand, to recover from the fact that Dani Aguilar is talking to you.
“We can bring them down together,” she says. She’s not smiling, but she doesn’t sound mad about it either.
Then Cole asks, “You think you can get it all?”
“What?” Dani Aguilar’s voice turns sharp. “You think I can’t?”
Cole makes surrender arms. “Just asking a question.” He’s smiling, like he’s used to this, but Dani is giving no hint that she is not actually angry.
“Who brought out all the fresnels yesterday?”
The other boys are laughing.
“I’ll give you a hint,” she goes on. The ends of her lips curve into a slight smile. “It wasn’t someone named Cole.”
You’re standing up. You’re so in love with this universe, this You and Dani Aguilar Against the Haters universe. You picture yourself in the prop room, just with Dani—no boys allowed—joking while you scan the shelves. Lifting heavy things together. You’ll be strong, loud like her, the exact opposite of how you felt when you saw the angel. You’re already amused about yesterday, like you can’t believe you actually imagined an angel and worried about it through the evening into your nightmares.
But then a cool voice says, “I can help.”
It’s Cinderella, polite and nonchalant. She’s smiling that infuriating smile that had been on her face throughout the whole ball scene last year, the tiny one, with her eyebrows raised, like she was making fun of the prince.
Why does she even want to come? She’s been texting her way through every rehearsal. She doesn’t even care about stage crew.
If anyone’s a stageho, it’s Cinderella.
Dani Aguilar should see that, but she doesn’t. She takes in you and Cinderella like the two of you have blended into this single amusing thing and says, “Sure!” all huge. She faces the boys. “The more the merrier!” she says, and once again they’re laughing and it feels like they’re laughing at you but you can’t put your finger on why.
“Come, stagehos!” she cries, raising her arm with actor flourish. She marches backstage, leaving you and your rival facing each other, struck.
You turn away, follow Dani. You don’t need to share a moment with Cinderella.
The backstage lights are off. The actors are in shadow, lit only by the faint glow of the house lights onstage. You tunnel around them, trying to keep up with Dani Aguilar, but Cinderella has somehow gotten ahead of you, her shiny hair swishing beside Dani’s curls. When you have to pass single file behind the stage to get to backstage left, she’s between you and Dani. She’s not even keeping her voice down. There’s a rehearsal going on right in front of you and she’s still talking as if she’s the star of the show.
“Have you been in stage crew since you came to this school?”
“Did you have Miss Hart when you were in sixth grade?”
She’s trying to annoy you.
And Dani Aguilar is answering like Cinderella is normal instead of awful. She’s murmuring, so you can’t hear what she’s saying, but her murmurs sound friendly.
It doesn’t make sense, because she called you stagehos just a minute ago. Cole Something asked her in a totally polite way if the two of you could carry all the props and she freaked out, but now she’s being nice to someone she doesn’t even know.
You turn the corner to backstage left, which seems darker, for some reason. Maybe because it’s less crowded? It’s just two actors, waiting by the front to go on, and the loft ladder before you, looming in a shadow.
Dani Aguilar stops at the ladder and just stands there, watching Cinderella wander toward the actors, looking around like she’s lost.
“I can’t see anything,” she says, too loud. “Can someone turn on the light?”
The actors stare at you.
“Shh,” you want to say, but Dani Aguilar says it first. The sound is soft, velvety, like something you could eat.
She’s laughing to herself. Her face looks different when she smiles—sweeter. Like she’s not so much older than you.
You walk toward her so when Cinderella turns, she’s looking at the both of you, side by side. She seems genuinely confused, like she really doesn’t know why Dani shushed her.
“You have to be quiet backstage,” you explain.
She doesn’t respond. She gazes up at the ladder. “That’s where the prop room is?”
It looks so different with the lights off. Like a reverse ocean, dark-to-black as it moves up. You can’t even see the top.
“Yeah,” says Dani, “You’ll see the door on the side, right when you get to the top of the ladder. But if you go back farther, the loft takes you to the catwalk. You can walk over the stage on that.”
“We’re supposed to climb that ladder without any light?” Cinderella asks, her voice more wavery now.
“You scared?” asks Dani Aguilar. It’s less taunting than it is surprised, like she’s wondering if Cinderella is real.
“You want me to go first?” you offer with sugar concern. “I’ll go first.”
You step onto the first thin ladder rung, then the second, and that pole feeling against your shoes brings you right back to the angel. And you’re sweating. You can smell your own stench as you lift each arm to climb closer to the angel, because what if it is there? You were so stupid to volunteer to return after last time, to think one day could cure you of your crazy, to think you could be anything like Dani Aguilar. Now there’s no light and you’re still you. You’re more you than ever. A sloppy body, kid-scared of the dark.
Your foot hits the platform with a soft clang, and then you bring your other leg up, hoist your body into nothingness. You know from yesterday that there’s about seven feet of platform from the ladder to the prop room door, so if you step to the left you should be fine, but you still feel like you’re on the edge when you do, like you’re hovering over the stage.
Between you and the door, something is moving.
You can’t step back, because then you’ll be blocking the ladder, but what if it’s the angel? It doesn’t sound like the angel. It’s softer. Rustles. Suctioney sounds.
Dani Aguilar steps behind you, so close that if you lean back a little you’ll fall into her.
The rustles stop.
“Someone there?” A girl’s voice.
The sound is a person. People. Thank god. The darkness starts to form their shapes, now that you know what they are. The girl is so much shorter than the boy. They are pressed against each other and the prop room door.
“Nobody,” Dani stammers. “We’re just here to get props.”
The couple rustles as they move so that your path to the door is clear and they are deeper in shadow. You take a step, but you don’t want to walk beside them, so close. Dani doesn’t seem to either. She stops next to you, half-whispers, “Your friend’s still climbing.”
“She’s not my friend,” you say, then regret it immediately.
Dani Aguilar lets out a laugh. “Woah.” But then she says, in a to-each-his-own sort of way, “Okay.”
She’s right there, hand-holding distance, breathing distance. The couple is kissing a foot away. You and Dani Aguilar are listening to their lips.
Cinderella clangs onto the platform. There’s a pause for a moment before she asks, shrill, “Are those people making out?”
No one answers. Then Cinderella shakes her mane and says, “Ew.”
It’s amazing how easily her judgment comes, like it’s almost automatic, like there’s no question in her mind that she’s on top and can say things like that.
“What’s your problem, princess?”
Dani Aguilar has whirled around. Her roar is punishing. You almost feel like Dani is yelling at you. It’s startling, how fast she turns.
“You don’t have to be up here if you don’t want,” she goes on. “You can just climb on down that ladder.”
The making out couple has stopped. They’re listening too.
“You gonna get those props or what?” says the guy. The girl giggles.
Cinderella doesn’t say another word. You just feel her moving away from you, the soft pats of her shoes whimpering down the ladder. Your stomach rolls because now it’s just you and Dani, and it’s what you wanted, and it’s scarier.
Dani Aguilar barrels toward the prop room like she wants to get away from all of you, throwing open the door, flicking on the dull yellow light. It makes the shadow-couple more contrasty, with dark bits and light bits. Now you can see that the girl is standing on her toes, lifting herself up. Her head’s tilted back, her lit hair swaying like a flag in the darkness because their heads keep moving, fast-then-slow. You’ve never seen anyone kiss like that in the movies—so messy. You can see their tongues.
“Prop Girl!” you hear. Dani Aguilar’s voice.
Is she talking to you? Are you Prop Girl?
You walk into the prop room, shut the door.
She is standing by the shelves, the angel at her feet. The angel. It’s there, on the dirty floor, holding itself up with its arms so the wing bones are its highest part. It’s looking at you, right at you, with its too-round yellow-black eyes that make you want to run.
But you don’t, because Dani Aguilar is right behind it, looking at you too. She’s marvelously angry, standing with her weight to one side, her arms crossed under her breasts. Her face looks like a model’s, impatient and a little pouty, with her hair up except for one perfect calligraphic curl curving in under the silver hoop in her ear.
“You gonna show me what you found?” she asks.
She doesn’t see the angel.
You are the only one.
Below her, horror movie slow, the angel stretches out one milk-white too-long arm. Toward you. So disgusting your eyes start to water.
You almost pivot out of the room, but you can’t. Dani Aguilar asked you a question. She’s waiting for you, and if you don’t answer, if you walk away, it’ll make her notice, it’ll make your craziness real.
You force yourself to look up at Dani, to step in a wide circle around the angel toward where she is standing in front of the prop shelves. Because for some reason, she thinks she needs you. She sees something inside you that’s not the angel, that’s the opposite even, something you don’t see. And whatever it is has caused her to raise you up above the mass of stagehos and crown you Prop Girl.
From You Are Changing, Chapter 4: Boy Ups and Boy Downs:
It may seem, at times, that all your girlfriends have found a steady and you can’t get a boy to look at you. Every woman feels that way at one time or another. And in those times, it is important not to focus solely on your personal appearance. While it never hurts to look presentable, your personality can also factor into a boy’s attraction for you. It is true that not every young lady (or grown-up lady, for that matter) is beautiful. But loveliness is something we can all strive for.
Of course, there are young ladies with the opposite problem, who do not yet have feelings for the opposite sex. If you are one such character, I say: don’t be perplexed by your friends’ new fixation. In time, boys will become a hobby of yours as well. It’s simply inevitable. Meanwhile, your girlfriends will appreciate your support, and will return it in kind when they are dating and you finally experience that uncomfortable first crush.
When you were in the prop room with Dani and the angel, you could barely speak, let alone remember what props were on Cole’s list and look for them on the shelves and point them out to Dani as if you had found them the day before. The angel hovered by the doorway and Dani stood so close her presence almost engulfed you—her powdery smell, her leftover roughness from yelling at Cinderella—so you only pointed out three props. Three. You could have carried them yourself. Climbing down the ladder after Dani was like feeling her disappointment rise up and settle into your skin.
Upon getting home, you tear apart your backpack and coat pockets, looking for the prop list. If you could only find the list to work from, maybe you could find more props somewhere else.
But the list isn’t anywhere. You wind up making your own, sitting at your dining room table, combing every page of the script. Your little sister wants to watch talk shows and Gran asks you to set the table for dinner and you tell them both, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to do all this work for my show.”
You gobble your dinner and return to the task. It is slow, soothing work. It’s easy to list the props—what takes awhile is finding and recording the scenes when each prop is used. But at least all the information is there, in a packet in front of you. All you have to do is find it.
You switch to homework shortly before your mom comes home from the hospital. You’re hastily scribbling equations as she stands behind you for a minute, looking down at your work.
“Long day, huh?” she says, but it sounds like she’s talking to herself.
It’s hard getting Dani Aguilar alone. She’s chatting, businesslike, with another crew boy, then with a candy cane thin actor girl. They part and she starts to walk backstage and you have to work against your muscles that don’t want to move toward her, your heart doing puppy beats you can feel.
“Hi,” you say. She’s looking at you, surprised. Does she recognize you? Is it possible that even after yesterday, she doesn’t remember who you are?
You hand her the paper without even explaining. She looks down like it’s alien and you rush to say, “I made a new prop list. I mean, I know you have one, but I noticed a few things were missing from your list…”
You follow her dark eyes as she reads, her long lashes starting to cover them as she gets to the bottom of your paper. You can feel yourself sweating. Again. You have to take a non-obvious small step back so she doesn’t smell you. How can you live in a world where she also exists, with her so gorgeous and you so disgusting? Not that you’re attracted to Dani Aguilar in a crush type of way. It’s just that she’s one of those magnetic people that you want to be friends with, that you can’t stop thinking about.
She turns toward stage right. “Hey Cole,” she calls. “Come see this!”
Cole Something strides out. Dani hands him the paper like she forgot you’re here.
“It’s a prop list,” she says. “It’s better than yours.”
His eyes slide across a few lines. Then he says, uncomprehending, “Who did this?”
“Her,” says Dani Aguilar.
And now their attention is all on you. Cole looks at you for a moment before turning back to the list, and that look tells you he doesn’t understand who you are, why you made this. He doesn’t like you, either.
Dani grins as if you’re a kid trying to act grown-up, like she’s barely repressing a laugh. You were so stupid to think she’d be impressed by your work. It was too much. The list is too much.
But she says, “This is good.” To you.
Cole is still staring at your paper.
She says, “You think you can find some of this stuff upstairs?” and loses some of that awful smile.
You nod before it sinks in, what she’s asked you. You’ve been sent back to the prop room.
You go. Backstage left, up the first rungs of the ladder. You have a strategy in mind for the angel. You’re just going to walk around it, fast, like it’s not even there. Focus on the props. But someone’s already on the platform, above you. More than one person.
It’s not like the softness you heard from yesterday. There’s more sound. Low animal groans and the same high note again and again—mmm, higher than a girl’s voice should be.
You don’t move. You can’t interrupt. But then you’re even more creepy, just frozen on the ladder, listening. You climb as softly as you can, one foot above the other, slower than the rhythm of the sound.
But then your feet hit the platform like cymbals and everything stops.
It’s the same girl from yesterday, breathy. She was making that too-high sound. You’re frozen for a full minute before you can choke, “I’m just here for props!”
“It’s Prop Girl!” The boy.
“Oh, hey Prop Girl!” The girl, laughing. How can she laugh like that, like what she’s doing is normal, like it’s fine that you heard it up here, the three of you standing above the entire cast and crew?
You practically run into the prop room and slam the door and when you turn on the light, you’re not ready for the angel. Its eyes snatching at you, its arm outstretched.
Walk around it. Don’t look, you tell yourself, maybe out loud, and somehow you’re doing it, heading for the shelves. You take the list out of your pocket. You just have to be fast.
And then there’s a screech, a piercing scream that makes you jump, that makes you look, it’s coming from the angel. The angel is moving toward you, kneewalk-crawling in white-and-gray jerks. You back up, round a shelf to the next row. You’re panting.
Another rabid high cry. You can’t help it. You glance. It’s rounded the shelf, it’s coming down your row, eyes cutting you open, its black hair dragging with its robe in the dust of the floor. It can’t touch you, you can’t let it. You flee again, yanking the prop room door open so hard the making-out couple turns. You hear the girl call, “Bye Prop Girl!” as you climb down the ladder.
The angel is not going away. It is getting worse. You are getting worse. You can never go into the prop room again. Never ever ever ever ever.
You have to tell Dani you want to find props somewhere else. Our props are cheap-looking, you could say. You could say you don’t mind buying new ones. Props you buy yourself can be changed. You can paint them bright colors, so the audience will see them better.
Maybe you’ll sound dedicated—like the opposite of a girl who sees angels in lofts. Maybe Dani will be impressed, start including you in crew meetings. Maybe.
You begin that evening. You rummage through your basement, searching for props on your own. But it’s hard to focus when you keep hearing sounds in your head, those mmm moans of the making-out girl. It’s their realness you can’t shake, their untouchable private-ness. Like if you made a sound like that in class, everyone would make fun of you. The guys. Girls, at all levels of popularity. You heard something no one else was supposed to hear, except for maybe the making-out guy, and if girls can actually make those sounds in places besides the movies, in real life, can you?
You go upstairs to the bathroom and lock the door, turn on the shower and step into the steam, listen to the shh sound of the water which drowns your voice as you try to make the sound, yourself, in your throat. A moan. Finally.
You don’t sound like the making-out girl. The sound is lower, foreign in your mouth, like something inside you is being twisted loose.
I am so screwed up, you think, and moan again. It’s a quiet sound but it feels too big for standing still. You press your hands on the glass, even slide them down a little. It is so unsatisfying. You wish there was something in the shower you could actually hold—an edge, a handle. You need to grip, clutch, tighten.
You can’t put your quest for Dani Aguilar’s approval into words, but I can. It’s about her contradictions, the boy and girl of her, the meat of her voice coupled with the way the white stitching on her black hoodie rounds her shoulders and circles toward her waist.
Plus there’s the inherent danger of getting on her bad side. If Dani Aguilar was all over you, if she lauded your ideas with enthusiastic approval, if there wasn’t that unclear note in the way she calls you Prop Girl, that faint hint of maybe derision, would you care so much?
Because when you present your prop-gathering idea, she doesn’t finally see your brilliance. She looks at you like you’re a little weird, again, and says, “Well, yeah, you could do that, but it’s a lot more work. You really want to do all that work?” Her frown is inscrutable, and maybe beautiful because of that, like there’s this whole Dani Aguilar you still don’t know.
So you don’t give up. You don’t quit crew or fade into the white noise of the other sixth graders, barely trying. You say, “Yes. Yes I do,” like a soldier. And you get to work, so there’s no danger of her ever calling you princess.
Over the weekend, you convince your grandpa to drive you around so you can scan the streets for yard sale signs. You visit three. Grandpa buys a bookshelf from the second place. You buy a bucket of children’s toy food, two wiffle ball bats, three brooms, and four baseball bats.
You ask Gran to drive you to school Monday so you can bring it all in. You get there early, thankfully, so most people don’t see you hauling garbage bags full of props to the auditorium. Mr. Rosen doesn’t seem to know who you are, but when you explain, “These are props for the show,” he blinks, then smiles. “Leave them in the tech room,” he says.
After classes, you sprint to rehearsal, so you can be painting props when Dani Aguilar comes in. Everyone looks at you—the stagehos, all confused. Cinderella comes in with a few friends and takes in the bats lying on the tech room table, you are painting one of them red. “Is that, like, our job right now?” one of her friends asks, and you shrug, because you’d rather Dani Aguilar see you doing it on your own.
She finally strides in, swigging a Diet Dr. Pepper. You keep your head close to the table even as you watch her gaze move from the spread to you. It’s a lot of props.
“You can get paid back for that stuff, you know,” she says, and that hint of critic in her voice pulls your eyes right to her. Her attention is all on you, her soda bottle dangling forgotten at her side. “We have a budget for props.”
“You do?” you ask, like an idiot.
But then Dani Aguilar walks around the table over to you and you can smell her powder and she says, “That’s a good color. Can you make all the bats that color?”
“Sure,” you say, and your nonchalance comes out perfect this time and Dani Aguilar doesn’t walk away. She says, “Or maybe, like, the bats for one team that color and the bats for the other team different, like blue or something?” And Cole Something walks in at that moment, sees the two of you talking, and nods as he passes. He’s nodding at both of you.
It’s the smell and the nod that carries you through two weeks of staying late to paint props and going home and sending out emails to the stagehos begging them to look for props you still need and doing your actual homework late into the night. Of rubbing your eyes and inhaling all those paint fumes as the stagehos sit near you and gossip and text and the stage crew boys walk by you too. Of Cinderella asking, “So are you like a crew person now?” sounding almost nice she’s so relieved.
The angel haunts you. In the rare moments when you have to go backstage left, you hear faint screaming coming from the loft ladder. It’s almost as if the screams are coming from the ladder itself, as if the angel is shaking it so hard it hurts.
But you don’t look. You barely look. Looking would mean thinking about the angel, and you want the sight of it stumble-crawling—feathers quivering—with those yellow eyes steady on you to dim into a nightmare impression, until it doesn’t seem like it really happened.
When your props are mostly present and painted and Dani Aguilar says, “It’s probably time to set up the prop table,” you say, “Let’s put it backstage right,” as far from the ladder as possible. She pulls her neck back and stares at you. You’re not sure if she’s surprised by your confidence or the fact that you know the difference between stage left and stage right.
“There are more props for actors who enter on that side,” you explain, and she says, “Okay, Einstein,” and looks into your eyes when she smiles.
She lifts one end of the table and you lift the other. She hollers, “Coming through!” and you share a grin as the actors and stagehos scatter, just like that.
She walks backward so you’re looking at her the whole time. The weight of the table strains your arms but you bend your knees and hold it up like Dani, and the resistance makes you feel strong. You’re almost sad when it’s time to set it down.
“Sunday is tech day, you know,” Dani Aguilar says. “So you got to wear black.”
From You Are Changing, Chapter 8: Down in the Dumps:
Young ladies, you must cling to your optimism! Even in the midst of your loneliest, grumpiest mood swing. Mother Nature herself is optimistic. You only need observe flowers blooming after a brush fire or a rainbow following a storm to understand that Providence wants you to go on.
I am not so naive as to think you will turn to my little book to solve every problem that flits through your adolescent life. There are situations that may seem complex or specific, that you may need to talk to someone else about. I certainly endorse conversation! You might even find, after a good long gab session, that other people’s problems are not unlike your own!
But don’t just turn to your friends for advice. Consider your parents. I know you want to say, “Those fogeys don’t know anything about my modern concerns!” But I guarantee you’ll be surprised. Remember, parents were teenagers once. And not in the dark ages, as you might think!
But if your mother and father are not available for one reason or another, I recommend finding another adult—a clergyman, perhaps, or a teacher—that you can trust.
On the evening before tech day, you can’t sleep. You keep thinking about your only black pants, jeans from last year. What if they look too fifth grade? You get up, grab the pants, and step down the stairs toward the bathroom to try them on.
You start to pass through the living room, but Mom’s on the couch. She turns from the TV and calls your name, pats the cushion next to her.
You sit. She smiles at you like you’re a friend she wants for company.
She’s watching a hospital show. It feels good to take it in—safe. The doctor characters walk very fast in scrubs and have dramatic conversations with the other doctor characters.
“This is not what it’s like,” Mom says, which is what she always says during every hospital show. She raises her eyebrows and looks right at you, like you’re adults sharing a sarcastic secret.
You want to cuddle up to her, put your head in her lap, have her tangle her fingers in your hair while you pour out everything about the angel. You want her to laugh in her hearty, sympathetic way and tell you it’s normal to see angels, that everyone does at your age, that she’s sorry she didn’t warn you. That you’ll grow out of it in time.
But you don’t. You can’t. You watch a doctor duck into a side room and covertly kiss a nurse. The kiss is passionate and pure—their heads perfectly tilted, the music swelling to crescendo—and you know you’re supposed to sit there with your mother and appreciate this moment instead of anxiously hooking your fingers in and out of the loops of the pants on your lap, wondering if that’s what love is supposed to be.
Early in the morning, before the actors show up, Dani Aguilar helps you set up the prop table. She shows you how to divide it by scene by sticking masking tape around an edge, then pulling the roll in long quick strips to make boxes. You label each, covering index cards in clear tape and then pressing them into their making tape squares, small squares for scenes with two or three props, a huge block of space for the baseball scene.
You put the props on top and take a step back and just stare at your table, your work. After all those hours of researching and scrounging and emailing and painting, it’s weird how it only takes up one little rectangle of space.
Then Dani Aguilar assigns you a job: to stand by the table all day like a guard, making sure the props return to their correct places.
“The actors’ll mess them up,” she says, “If you’re not here.”
She claps you on the back and strides off to her job. She’s working lights with the boys. You’re still feeling that hand press as the actors trickle backstage and the lights are turned off. The dark is thicker than it’s ever been, because onstage there’s no more big generic light—there are special lights, spotlights and lights on focused spaces. You hear Cole Something’s voice calling to the actors, “Move a little to the right… stop” and then muttering tech jargon back and forth with the boys and Dani Aguilar before the light onstage shifts slightly. You’re so far away from it, next to your table against a wall, that even the actors don’t see you. They walk past you in a different dimension. It’s like you’re dissolving into the darkness, like the agony and secrecy of it are overtaking your physical body. You’ll separate soon, spread apart, until you’re nothing but floating anxious feelings in the dark.
The silence grows. You listen for Cole Something’s voice and don’t hear it. You’re the only person backstage right.
Maybe everyone took a break and forgot to tell you?
You inch forward, taking baby steps toward the stage to peek out. There’s a spotlight onstage. It looks like there’s a girl sitting in the spotlight—maybe rehearsal isn’t over? Maybe it’s a solo scene? You’re not sure if you should be this close to the stage. You’re supposed to be by your table. Someone in the audience could see you—what if Dani Aguilar is watching by the light grid and sees your head poke out of backstage and thinks, “Stupid actors, don’t they know not to inch up that far?” and then notices it’s you and regrets everything she’s done for you?
But you don’t want to be backstage by yourself. You’ll just look for a second.
The girl in the spotlight is leaning back, twisting to see you. It has yellow eyes.
It’s the angel.
It has been looking for you.
It starts animal-running toward you, on hands and knees. It’s rodent fast. You back up toward the prop table but you don’t want to be pinned. A screech hits you and you run, sprint, behind the stage to backstage left.
There’s no one there either. Empty except for that stupid loft ladder. How did the angel get down that ladder? You’ve never seen it stand up, let alone fly.
You step on the first rung as you hear the angel turn the corner, scamper toward the ladder. You climb faster, feeling for the rungs above you. You can’t see anything.
You’re getting near the top when you hear a familiar rough voice.
You freeze. It’s not the making-out girl. It’s definitely Dani Aguilar.
“We gotta go down soon,” she says. “Break’s almost over.”
“Okay, okay!” Cole Something’s voice—gruffer and easier than you’ve ever heard. “Hey, where’s your shadow?”
Aguilar laughs. “She’s probably, like, painting the whole stage for us or something.”
They’re talking about you.
“You know what I think?” Cole’s voice. “I think she has a crush on you. I think you have, like, a little lesbo follower.”
“Ew,” Dani Aguilar squeals. “You have a sick mind.”
“She wants to take you to the prop room and scissor.”
“Stop it!” she squeals, the way Cinderella would squeal. The way girls say stop when they don’t mean it, when they really mean keep going.
You hear her giggle as you climb down two, three rungs before you stop again. The angel’s at the bottom. There’s nowhere you can go.
And you’re so stupid. Stupid and crazy. Any normal person who sees an angel would run away, but you had to stick around. You had to get yourself noticed by Dani Aguilar. You should’ve known she’d never like you. That you could never be like her.
And the worst part is she’s still beautiful. Her voice still makes you picture her face, her cheeks, her lips, and your body is responding like she’s the whole world, like you still want so desperately for her to like you. But she doesn’t. And now you know she doesn’t, and you know why. You’re so crazy, you’re a joke, and Dani Aguilar knows you’re a joke, and that truth is so unbearably ugly.
You look down. The angel is waiting for you at the bottom of the ladder. It straightens and pulls its head back when it sees you, like it’s prepping for another bird roar.
You could roar right back. You look down at its purple pale face and you see red. Because why you? Why this angel? Why couldn’t you have gotten one of those nice angels you read about on Google, who know how to speak and tell people things like, “Be not afraid?”
Your angel would never say that, even if it could speak. It would probably say the opposite. It would probably say, “Be afraid. Be afraid of everything around you. The boys, the girls, changing. When you are changing, it’s not just you—everyone around you changes. The way they see you changes. There are intimidating angels you don’t want to talk to and beautiful angels you want to talk to but can’t and glorious angels that get in the way of everything. When you are changing, everyone around you looks a bit like me. And they all kind of make you want to scream.”
This is it. The moment where I actually could change things, if only I could talk to you.
Because I know this moment in The Angel Age so well. I know that right now, your biggest wish is for your consciousness to disappear, evaporate into dark.
I know you’re going to climb down the ladder as quietly as you can so Dani Aguilar and Cole Something won’t hear you, and when you get to the bottom where the angel is rearing, you will look the other way, you will walk fast in that direction, and when the angel screeches, you’ll run.
I want to tell you that you don’t have to run.
You don’t have to unofficially quit stage crew by never setting foot in the auditorium again, or to choose not to audition for the school play next year in an effort to avoid the angel. And when the angel comes looking for you, when you inevitably see it in classrooms and hallways and the cafeteria, you don’t have to look up away, pretend not to hear it screaming for your attention.
You don’t have spend high school distracting yourself with homework and bad dates, telling Mom and Grandma and your kid sister that everything is okay when it’s not. You don’t have to turn away every time the angel appears, until the middle of college when you’re exhausted from finals and a hangover and just can’t do it anymore.
Instead, when you reach the bottom of the props loft ladder, you can look down and meet the angel’s animal eyes.
It won’t hurt. It’ll surprise you with its softness, actually—that first moment of looking. The angel will stop screaming just from the shock of your met gaze, close its lips. Closed, they won’t look so uncannily long. They’ll just look like human lips, purpler than most—like the angel is a homeless person watching you walk on a frigid night. Stark. Entreating.
Don’t turn away. Stand there. Look. Even though fixing your gaze makes your body feel rigid and too too open to fear and heat and revelation. Even as the angel’s cold bird eyes turn into something else, something so beyond human sympathy that your eyes fill to teeming. Even as you realize you’re shaking.
The angel won’t break its gaze, but it will move, slowly getting to its knees, lowering its spider hands to the floor. And at first you will recoil like it is going to crawl toward you, but instead it will push itself back onto its feet and rise.
And rise. And keep rising, until it’s taller than you—Cole Something tall, tree-tall. So tall that the dim backstage light will seem to have ascended with it—the angel should be shrouded in darkness, but it’s not. It looks down at you with its boy-thick jaw and delicate mouth, its curtain of curls falling toward you. If it were stern, it would be monstrous, but it’s not. It seems concerned, like it’s wondering how you’re doing with all of its glory, if you’re okay.
You will realize that you are.
You will feel yourself smile as the angel’s wings stretch out and lift it up and you will laugh because the wings are whole new miracle. How wide they are, how marble white in the middle, how their former dusty raggedness has become a grand outer layer now that you can see the long ovular shape of each individual grey-black feather. The swooping thunder rhythm of their beat. How it looks like they are constantly changing colors, but it is really the light that’s moving, rolling along the wings in shimmering waves. You will understand that beauty is continuous movement, is one thing flowing into the next—lights changing on a stage, in-and-out kissing, a girl doing cartwheels, a dance.
If you want it to, the angel can put firm hands on your waist, lift you up, fly you above the ladder to the loft where Cole Something and Dani Aguilar are laughing at you. They’ll stop laughing when they see you in the air, hovering above their heads like a vision. They’ll scream. You can say things like, “You are the worst!” and “You are not actually in charge!” and “I am not a stageho! I am not a prop girl either!” You can tell them your name.
And when you’ve said your peace, you can bellow, “Do you understand?” like you’re God.
And you will get to hear their chorused reply, that single, deep note that will reverberate through your body until it is a part of you: an immediate, pleading yes.
by Val Howlett
Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature