Karen Woods woke with a scream. Bolting upright in bed, she pressed her hand over her chest as she breathed deep and hard. Her pajamas were drenched with sweat, and her heart was pounding so fast that it felt as if it were about to race straight through her.
"Karen, Karen, what is it?” Grandma Shields flipped on the light and hurried into the guest bedroom.
The twelve year old sobbed once and held out her arms, needing comfort.
It was a dream she’d had before. Lots of times.
Her grandmother sat on the edge of the mattress, gathered Karen in her arms, and held her close. Karen knew she was too old to be cuddled this way, but just then she needed someone’s arms around her.
"What is it, child?” Beverly Shields asked her softly, smoothing the damp hair away from Karen’s brow. "You’re trembling something terrible.”
"I had a bad dream,” Karen managed to say.
"The same bad dream you had the last time you stayed overnight?”
"Do you want to tell your grandma about this dream that frightens you so much?”
Karen shook her head. The nightmare was bad enough without having to tell anyone else about it. Some parts of it she didn’t even remember, and one main part she did and wished she didn’t. Every time she thought about the dream, she wanted to crawl under the blankets and not come out for a long time.
"Dreams can be real scary sometimes,” her grandmother said gently, continuing to stroke Karen’s brow.
"Don’t leave, okay?” Karen asked. She felt like a wimp, needing her grandmother in bed with her, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to be alone. In a few minutes she’d be okay, but not just yet.
Since her mom and dad’s divorce, Karen had spent a lot of time by herself. She didn’t mind that as much as she had when her parents used to fight. Before her father moved out of the house they’d done that almost all the time.
"Do you miss your mother?” Beverly asked. "Is that the trouble?”
Karen shrugged. Her mother’s job as an auditor for one of the big Los Angeles banks often took her out of town. Karen didn’t mind staying with her grandparents on the nights her mother was away. It was kinda fun.
"When I was a girl I sometimes had nightmares,” Beverly told her.
Karen twisted around so she could see her grandmother’s kind face. Even when she was only a little kid, she had liked her grandma Shields better than anyone.
"I dreamed a man with an ax was running after me, and no matter how fast I ran, he ran faster,” Beverly Shields said, "and when he finally caught up with me, the ax would be rubber, and the murderer was my older brother. Then he’d laugh and laugh and laugh because it had been so easy to frighten me. That’s when I’d wake up, shaking and afraid, and really mad.”
"Did…did you go back to sleep?”
"Sometimes. I learned that if I closed my eyes and talked to God, I felt a whole lot better. I found talking to God works in a lot of situations.”
"Do you do it often?” Karen asked.
"Oh, sure, all the time. Any time of the day or night I feel like it.”
Karen studied her mother’s mother once more. "No one suggested you see a counselor or anything like that?”
Her grandmother laughed outright. "Why would they suggest that?”
"Grandma, think about it. People don’t exactly go around conversing with God, you know.”
"Sure they do, but generally it’s called prayer.”
"Oh.” Karen had pictured her grandmother carrying on a one-sided conversation with people listening in and thinking weird things about her. It was bad enough that Beverly put that fake hairpiece in her hair sometimes and stuck it there with bobby pins.
"I was thinking we might say a prayer together now, just the two of us,” Beverly said softly.
"Mom and me used to go to church,” Karen said, her voice dropping a bit, "but that was before the divorce and for a little while afterward. Then one Sunday Mom said she didn’t want to go anymore.”
"Yes, I know, but don’t fret about that—you don’t need to be a regular church attendee to pray.”
Karen felt a little better knowing that. "Will you say the words, Grandma?”
"Some of them,” Beverly Shields agreed. "But then you should say some of your own, too.”
"Do we have to speak them out loud?”
"No, you can whisper them in your heart, too.”
Karen closed her eyes and bowed her head. Then, remembering the pictures she’d seen in religious books, she gravely folded her hands. She wasn’t entirely sure why people laced their fingers together when they prayed, probably so they wouldn’t get distracted and wind their hair around their fingers or that kind of thing.
Her grandmother whispered a prayer, but Karen couldn’t understand all the words. She did hear the part about asking God to "comfort Karen” and "calm Karen’s fears.” Grandma Shields went on for what seemed like a long time. After a while, Karen opened one eye and peeked and noticed her grandmother’s lips were still moving.
Karen closed her eye again and waited. When the time seemed right she decided to pray, but she didn’t trust God to hear her if she said the words inside her heart.
"Dear God,” she prayed, whispering like her grandma had done, only louder. "It’s me, Karen Woods. How are you? I’m fine. Well, sort of. I have bad dreams. Actually I don’t mind the dreams so much, ’cause if you’re listening, I’d rather ask for my mom. You see, she and my dad got a divorce. It was a messy one. But that was over two years ago, and my mother still hates my dad. And now my dad hates my mom. She’s mad because, well, because my dad left us. Could you help Mom not hate my dad so much? And God,” she said, speaking faster now, thinking she’d better cram in everything she could while she had his attention, "I’d really, really, really love it if you could see fit to give me a horse.”
"A horse?” her grandmother echoed, sounding surprised.
Karen opened her eyes and nodded enthusiastically.
"What in the name of heaven would you do with a horse?”
"I want to learn to ride,” Karen supplied eagerly. The answer should have been obvious, one would think. "Horses are the most beautiful creatures on earth. More than anything in this world, I want to ride like the wind.”
"Does your mother know about this?”
Karen lifted one shoulder. "I talk about horses, but all she says is that we live in the city and there’s no possible way for us to own so large an animal.”
"That’s true enough.”
"But Mom’s told me a thousand times that where there’s a will there’s a way.”
"That’s true, too,” Beverly Shields agreed.
"Mom thinks if she gets me a cat, I’ll forget about wanting to learn to ride, but she’s wrong. I don’t even like cats all that much.” Karen yawned when she’d finished. "Well, I do, but I like horses a whole lot better.”
"You’ll sleep now?” Grandma shields asked.
Karen thought she would. She scooted down into the thick blankets, and her grandmother covered her shoulders. After a moment, Karen closed her eyes. She did feel better. Maybe she ought to talk to God more often.
Karen’s prayer intertwined with that of her grandmother and drifted effortlessly heavenward, steered by love, directed by divinity, toward the splendor of paradise, ushered into the very throne room of God. It arrived fresh with the sincerity of a child’s heart, weighted with unspoken pain, and bright with honesty.
"Karen Woods,” the Archangel Gabriel murmured, writing the twelve-year-old’s name in the cumbersome Book of Prayer. He ran his finger down the brittle antique white pages until he found Beverly Shields’s name, sighed heavily, and leaned back on the high-backed chair.
Beverly had prayed often for her daughter, Maureen Woods. The thirty-three-year-old woman had been trapped in a bog of bitterness since her divorce. Beverly’s prayers had been stymied by Maureen’s stubbornness and pride. The woman’s resentment of her ex-husband had festered into a wound that had infected her entire life.
Gabriel was concerned about Karen and the girl’s repeated nightmares. Setting aside the large quill pen, he closed his eyes in an effort to think of the best way to help Maureen Woods.
"I don’t think we should disturb him.” The soft, lilting voice belonged to Shirley, a prayer ambassador and former guardian angel.
"Don’t be ridiculous. He’s probably just resting, waiting for us.”
Gabriel kept his eyes closed. This was Goodness. A delightful emissary and known troublemaker.
"I do hope he’s considering sending us on another mission. It’s been almost a year since our last one.”
December was the busiest month of year. Gabriel should have anticipated meeting up with these three. If anything, he should have been surprised it took them this long to make their appearance.
"You did mention that we were most interested in working in Los Angeles this year, didn’t you?”
"Ah, not exactly.”
There was no help for it. Gabriel opened his eyes and looked up to find the trio standing on the opposite side of the table, their wings folded back neatly, looking as perfect as a Christmas card.
"We’re back,” Mercy said excitedly, flinging her arms enthusiastically into the air.
"So I see.” Gabriel wasn’t one to reveal much emotion. For one thing, he couldn’t offer them prayer assignments. The truth was, he didn’t trust the trio to stay out of trouble. What had happened the previous year was a prime example of the kind of mischief they got themselves into. Goodness didn’t think Gabriel knew of her little shenanigans, but he did. The prayer ambassador had given in to her penchant for technical things. More than once.
He cringed every time he thought about Goodness giving advice to a human through the screen of a television set. That wasn’t the worst of it, either.
Gabriel had heard plenty about Mercy on the escalators in Nordstrom’s department store. And Shirley, the one he considered the most responsible, why, even the former guardian angel had become involved in a few escapades of her own.
"We understand you’re shorthanded again this year.” This was Goodness, excited as a child about the possibility of returning to earth.
"Things aren’t as hectic as last year,” Gabriel informed the trio, not allowing any emotion to steal into his voice. Despite all the hassles they’d given him, the archangel had a soft spot when it came to these three.
"That’s not what we heard,” Shirley said. "Rumor has it you’re as overworked as ever and in need of a little help from your friends.”
"We’ve come to volunteer our services.” Mercy stepped forward eagerly, nearly colliding with the table.
"But we’d like to work in Los Angeles this time,” Goodness informed him. "I’m right fond of California, and it seems to me the City of Angels could do with our help.”