Penny went to work in a factory at sixteen. Girls did that sometimes in 1944. There was a war on, factories needed workers and Mother needed the money. Penny was tired of school anyway.
She meant to concentrate on her job like Mother said, but inevitably she met a boy. He was just there one day, walking out with everybody else when the quitting whistle blew. He fell into step beside her.
“May I walk you home, Miss Penny?” he asked.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve seen you around. I always notice the cute girls.”
She felt grubby and tired and far from cute, but Mike kept the conversation flowing as though they’d known each other forever. When they arrived at Penny’s house, he made a point of coming in to meet her mother, whom he charmed in ten minutes flat.
After that, Mike showed up every night and their time together was full of experiences Penny didn’t expect. Somehow he knew her fears. They rode the elevator to the top of Atlanta’s Rhodes-Haverty office building, twenty stories up, because Penny was afraid of heights. Dogs scared her, so Mike insisted she walk the aisles of the local animal shelter while big dogs lunged at the doors of their cages. Horror movies gave her bad dreams, so they saw every one that came to town. Penny found she would risk anything to make him hug her and call her his Lucky Penny. With each day, she felt a stronger bond, a greater desire to please him, to overcome what he called her challenges. Did he love her? She wasn’t sure. But she knew she loved him.
“How about I take you for a spin on Saturday?” Mike had somehow acquired a car and this was the first time he’d invited Penny out in it.
Penny felt a rush of happiness as she climbed into the passenger’s seat with her wicker picnic basket. The sun was shining and they were just an ordinary couple out on a date, like any other young people. In her heart, she knew this was not true. Her time with Mike never felt ordinary.
“Come on, tell me where we’re going,” she begged.
“It’s a surprise. You’ll have to wait and see.”
Eventually, the unmistakable outline of Stone Mountain appeared on the horizon.
“Is that it, Stone Mountain?” she asked, frowning.
“That’s right. Surprise!”
It was a surprise, but not a good one. Penny knew the stories about Stone Mountain, how it was a gathering place for Ku Klux Klan rallies. There was talk that the city of Atlanta might buy it and develop it into a park, but that was a low priority during war-time. The old stone quarry’s sheer granite cliff loomed over them menacingly.
“I’d rather not go there,” she said. “It’s wild and deserted and scary.”
Mike laughed and ruffled her hair. “I’ll take care of you. You know you can trust me.”
Of course she could; she was being silly, Penny told herself. They’d have their picnic in the meadow, just the two of them, and it would be fine. Romantic, like in the movies.
“C’mon, let’s hike up to the top,” Mike said, holding the picnic basket in one hand and reaching for Penny with the other.
“Please, can’t we just stay here? You know I don’t like heights,” Penny said.
“Hey, where’s my Lucky Penny?”
He sounded so disappointed that she stifled her protests. His warm, strong hand pulled her upward. He would take care of her just as he said. She trusted him.
When they reached the summit, Mike walked her slowly to the edge of the cliff. She didn’t resist. She no longer felt the familiar, anchoring tug of fear as she gazed into space. But when the earth shook, Penny turned to Mike in alarm. In his place stood a tall, glowing figure with muscular wings that swept the ground.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“I am Michael, Archangel of Death. I’ve come for you.”
His voice echoed in Penny’s head. She couldn’t look away.
“But why did you choose me? Why did you spend so much time making me love you?”
“I don’t do the choosing, only the taking. The old and sick come willingly, but you were young and your will to live was strong. It’s easier if you want to come with me. And you do, don’t you?”
Penny nodded slowly. With a long sigh, she abandoned what was left of her will.
“Did you ever love me?” she asked. It didn’t matter anymore, but some part of her still wanted to know.
“Of course. I love everyone I take. Ready?”
He held out his hand, his warm, strong hand, and she took it trustingly. She stepped into the air.