Next to Godliness

by Nora Bonner

Each morning the angels check our rooms with rags and determine
who will go to heaven. We knew they’d check the corners first, and
so we were all cleared on the first day with no reason to fear death.
The next morning they looked at the floor beneath the dresser. Two
of us, Sally and Cindy, lost out that day. Sally was especially spooked
because she has a severe egg allergy, and if she gets even a drop of
egg in her food by accident, she will die within an hour. That day, she
was one drop of egg away from hell. Cindy just cried because Cindy
always cries. I passed that test because I heard Felicity’s dresser as it
screeched above my room across her floor.

I was not afraid to die, not really, until Wednesday when the angels
checked the edges of bed skirts and I’d missed a bit of mine. I’d neglected
a wisp of dust nearest the wall, where the fabric had creased
next to the bed stand. The angel in my room that day was not as
bright as the others, and I could look her straight in her glowing face
as I begged her, please don’t report me about the bed skirt. If she had
been brighter, more intimidating, maybe I wouldn’t have petitioned.
She wrote my name and floated away. As it turned out, the other
girls had neglected their bed skirts more than mine, so relatively, I
passed. I would have made it to purgatory if I’d died that day, and
honestly, purgatory doesn’t sound that bad; it’s just that purgatory is
like starting over again in this life. I was exhausted in this life, tired
of cleaning.

Last night, I spied on the angels while they were playing cards in
their den near the laundry room. I passed by with my basket ready to
fold, still warm against my chest as I lifted it to shield my face while I
listened. I heard “light bulb,” and that is when I decided that I would
end my life the following morning after they checked mine, because
who checks for gray halos on the tops of light bulbs? Certainly they
were trying to trick us. Certainly they were planning something to
keep us from feasting with the gods. I had not known angels to be vicious,
but I knew that this could not go on, not for me anyway. I told
Sally about it while she was dusting the top of her window. She said,
“Are you sure?” but she knows I’m not one to joke around.

“How do you know that they weren’t just randomly talking about
light bulbs?” she said.

I didn’t know. I guessed she had a point. I told her as much, but
then I said, “What if it’s true? Why would they want to trick us?”

I imagined that we’d all be dead by noon; they’d record us all
doomed for the eternal fires once no one had thought of dusting the
top of their light bulb, and then—who knows? Maybe they would
line us up in front of a mass grave, or poison us, lock us in a room and
suck out all the air.

“The angels aren’t exactly friendly,” Cindy said after she’d joined
our conversation, “but they aren’t evil.”

Then there was the problem of them not working of their own volition.
Perhaps they had been told to set up this whole cleaning situation
in order to keep us from heaven. We shuddered to think that
the gods would do this to us. The three of us cleaned the tops of our
light bulbs, just in case.

In the end, I had misheard the angels. They checked the corners
again the next morning. I’d overheard one of them speaking figuratively
about getting an idea. That’s what she meant when she said,
“Light bulb went off.” In my fear, I’d heard her speak in the present.

We believe they are not the type to trick us, but still, we clean,
always wondering where they will swipe their rags next. We take special
care to survive the days we don’t pass the test. And just when I’ve
had enough, I remember that the gods don’t react well to our interferences.
We are not to take our own lives. There’s cruelty to that, I
suppose, but a certain joy in constant dustlessness.