Paper Angels

A Novel


By Billy Coffey

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 9, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Andy Sommerville seems no different than others in his rural Virginia community, but what sets him apart is that his best friend is an angel. The angel is God’s answer to a childhood prayer Andy offered to a twinkling star that his deceased mother once called “the door to heaven.” The first angelic proclamation instructs Andy to find the wooden keepsake box in his grandparents’ attic. Over the years, he directs Andy to fill it with apparently meaningless objects from twelve people with who Andy randomly crosses paths.

Andy’s world is turned upside down when a brutal attack leaves Andy burned and the boy he loved as a son dead. At this crucial juncture, the angel abandons him to loneliness and pain. All that remains is the wooden box Andy has always kept safe, and a new angel, who will use its contents to reveal truth to him as a result, he discovers the defining truth of his life, new hope in the community he loves, and greater trust in the God who sustains him.

The story is told from Andy’s hospital bed, where he awakes feeling God has abandoned him. Without being preachy or saccharine, the author brings the small town to life and reveals a spiritual secret–the presence of angels–that helps a wounded man discover the defining truth of his life, place new hope in the community he loves, and trust totally in the God who sustains him.



In the Black

It was a point of pride to the citizens of Mattingly, Virginia, that our town was the most boring twenty square miles on the planet. The running joke was that Mayor Jim Willis should have that printed on a sign at the town limits for everyone to see. Something simple and honest, just as we all were—Welcome to Mattingly, Where Nothing Ever Happens. What had happened the previous weekend had never occurred in our town, and thank God for that. That's why the headline in the following Monday's Gazette was the size normally reserved for catastrophes and political elections (which, to Mattingly folk, were usually one and the same). ONE DEAD, ONE SOUGHT IN GAS STATION ROBBERY, the banner read. The subtitle—SHOCKING ACT LEAVES OWNER HOSPITALIZED—summarized the 893 words of the piece that took up the entire front page and most of page two as well.

It was much later that I read the article and the two dozen or so others written over the weeks and months after the incident. I still have them pasted into a scrapbook that sits on the shelf in my living room. The facts of the story are all there, the who and what and when. Not the why, though. Like most things in this life, the why came later.

At the time I was giving no thought to headlines or justice. I was in the black then, left to wander through a strange land spread out inside me, an in-between place that was not as bad as hell but not as good as heaven. Confusion and unconsciousness didn't imprison me as much as they provided comfort. They were another bandage to cover another wound that could have just as easily festered into death. Many of the townspeople trickled in and out of my room during that time. They sat with me and prayed for me and gave their own account of what had happened. I heard them as if we were on opposite sides of a closed door, not clear but understood well enough. I found the near death that gripped me no different than the near life I had lived. I said nothing to my neighbors and gave no indication I was aware of their presence. I felt a pain worse than that of my flesh, a pain even now I doubt can be fully spoken.

When I finally awoke it was to a different sort of darkness, this one lighter but colder. Emptier, even. The lights above me dimmed and rippled. Everything felt heavy, like I was being held underwater. Noises entered through an open door to the hallway—phones rang, voices gossiped. Labored coughs echoed from a distant room. Shadows walked past. Then my nurse appeared to officially welcome me back to the world.

Kimberly Simms was a regular in my gas station. She stopped by every morning for her bottle of juice and a newspaper, both of which she said she never finished because work got in the way. A pretty brunette just two years out of college, she already carried the strong soul and slumped posture that seemed a requirement in the health-care profession. I always thought doctors and nurses were soldiers in a war where often a stalemate was the closest thing to a win.

"Well now," she said, "my night's starting off right. Nice to see you in the land of the living."

I looked up at her, which was all I could do. Anything more seemed impossible. "Wish I could say the same," I answered, and then smiled in an attempt to make Kim believe I was kidding. "What time is it?"

"Little after seven in the evening. You've been out quite a while, Andy. Days. Thought I was gonna have to start going to the Texaco every morning."

"Timmy'd like that," I told her.

"He's already been by." She moved closer to check my monitors and me with the easy grace of practice. "Trust me, he wouldn't like it. Poor guy was a wreck. How are you feeling?"


It was her turn to smile, a small grin that couldn't help but grow into a soft laugh despite herself. For years I'd seen Kimberly Simms the customer, the young girl who visited me every morning and whom I'd known since she was in pigtails and carrying around her dolly. She was a kind soul even then, and it was no small feat that she had managed to hold on to that kindness through her teenage years and now into life as an adult. Yet in that hospital room I saw for the first time the girl I'd known as the woman she had become. No wonder the young guys in town were jumping over themselves for the chance to put a ring on her finger. For the moment, Owen Harlow was the lead horse in that race. He and Kim had been dating for about seven months.

"We'll take care of your burns," she said. "You're now my official project. Well, you and Mr. Alexander down the hall. I'm not letting either one of you out of my sight."

I tried to lift my head. Gravity took hold and pulled it back to the pillow. Streaks of silver light shot across my eyes. Kim pushed a button to raise the upper part of my bed and asked me not to move.

"Keeping an eye on me shouldn't be that much of a problem," I said. "I don't feel like I'll be up and running anytime soon."

"Don't you worry," she said. "We've bandaged up your face and your right hand. Your burns weren't as bad as they could've been, which is very good. But you have a pretty good bump on your noggin, and that's not so good. The doctor will stop by a little later on. He'll talk over some things with you and we'll change your bandages. You'll be seeing some other people too, specialists and whatnot. I'll make sure you're fixed up good as new, Andy."

"I know you will."

Kim's smile turned into a look of concern that bordered on remorse. She cleared her throat in the hope it would make it easier to say, "Jake wanted me to call him as soon as you woke up, night or day. Guess I'll go do that."

"No," I said. "Please don't. I don't want to talk to Jake right now."

"I know you don't, Andy." She put her hand on my shoulder. "But it's part of his job. He needs to get a statement from you as soon as you're able. He's got the tape from that video camera you put up, but he's still gotta talk to you. Whole town's in an uproar over what happened, especially since one of them's still on the loose."

I smiled and shook my head. A few years ago my insurance guy told me I had to put one of those video cameras in the store. Some kind of new regulation or something. I'd laughed at him, mostly because the only thing it'd be good for was watching me sit there by the register all day. Turned out I was wrong about that.

"Just give me a bit, Kim," I told her. "Please? No need to bother the sheriff until tomorrow. I won't be forgetting what happened anytime soon. I just don't want to talk about it right now."

The thoughtfulness that ruled Kim's personality was now working against her. I could see the emotions scuffling in her eyes. Which was more important, her job or her friend?

"I'll get in trouble, Andy. You don't want that, do you?"

"No," I said. "No, I don't want that. 'Course, I coulda said the same when a certain sixteen-year-old girl ran outta gas up near Happy Hollow and asked a certain owner of a gas station to help her out so her daddy didn't catch her out where she wasn't supposed to be."

"You're never going to let me forget that, are you?" Kim's shoulders slumped as she said that, proof that sometimes our sins don't just find us out, they find us out again and again.

I shrugged and managed a grin. "Not if it comes in handy."

"Okay," she sighed, "I suppose I can bend the rules a bit. But only if that makes us even."

"Even Steven. Thank you, Kimmie."

She took a step back and regarded me. "Are you in any pain?"

"Some," I said. Which was a lie. But it was nothing I couldn't handle and nothing Kim or anyone else could fix.

"We have some pretty strong meds going into you, so they'll help. Might make you a bit loopy, but I don't think you'll mind." She gave me a wink that either said she was kidding or she was not. "You up for some food? Might do you some good."

"No, but thanks. Not very hungry right now."

"Okay. You get some rest then. I'll be right outside, and I'll check on you in a bit. In the meantime, you just hit the button there if you need me."

I nodded. Tried, anyway.

Kim gave me a last squeeze on the shoulder and lowered my bed, then moved toward the door. She stopped just before leaving and turned toward me. The dim lights seemed to focus on the tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Andy," she said. "I truly am. This shouldn't happen to anyone, and especially someone like you. I just don't…" Kim tried to finish her sentence, but she couldn't find anything to add that would make things better.

"Thanks, Kim. And don't feel bad. I don't understand much right now, either."

She offered a weak smile and walked out toward the direction of a pained and elderly cough from a nearby room. I settled into my pillow and let my eyes gaze upward. My thoughts dwelled on all the other people who had over the years found themselves in this bed. People separated by age and beliefs and circumstance, but who had all found a common bond in staring at that very ceiling and repeating the same words I'd just said.

I don't understand.

Instead of letting myself try, I let the medicine sink me back into unconsciousness.



When I woke again, evening had given way to darkness and night had settled in. My head felt like old leather that had been stretched and then pinned under the sun to harden. I was swollen from the neck up, held together by tape, gauze, and a thin layer of ointment I assumed was supposed to soothe my skin but only made me feel like it was crawling. Kim had said they would change my bandages the next morning. I began counting the hours.

A horrible thought came to me then, one that in the midst of the shock and darkness I had not considered. I inched my hands toward my face. Bandages began at my chin and ended at the top of my head, leaving me with openings at my eyes, nose, and mouth to exercise my senses. Poetic, I supposed, that I would become the invisible man. I pushed down harder on my face. Then my head.

Nothing. I felt nothing.

The fire had incinerated my beard and hair.

There are times in life when so many big things pile up that it takes only one small thing to tumble them all. Realizing I'd lost the hair I'd had my entire life and the beard I'd worn almost as long was that small thing. The guy who torched me had failed to kill me, but he had succeeded in rendering me naked before the world. I would have preferred the former to the latter.

"It'll grow back, Andy. If you want it to, that is."

I jerked my head to my left and winced as skin wrinkled around my neck. There in the wooden chair not three feet from my bed sat a woman. A denim shirt rested untucked over her faded khaki pants. Long brown hair was held in a ponytail by what looked like a leather tie. A thin strand of gray had escaped to the front of her right ear, wanting nothing to do with its less experienced kin. She watched me with her legs crossed, exposing a thick pair of nurse's shoes that hung untied from her feet. The one propped in the air made a smooth circular motion, as if she were waiting for something to happen.

I tried to clear my eyes. "Caroline?" I asked.

"No," the woman answered. "Who's Caroline?"

She shifted her weight to the left and scraped against the vinyl seat, watching me with a look of someone who had seen too much but chose to hope anyway. Her gaze then turned downward to a folded piece of paper in her left hand. She pulled a pair of scissors from her shirt pocket and began cutting.

I watched as small white slivers fell onto a wooden keepsake box that sat balanced on her lap. The hinges looked worn and rusted by age, and the wood—I could make out the look of oak even in the shadows—had been worn smooth. Pockmarks and dings decorated the sides and top, marks of use rather than decoration. It was not a large container but neither was it small, just enough for whatever means most. Such boxes were common in the South and often passed down from one generation to another. I had one myself. Actually, one very similar to that one. Very similar indeed.

"Where'd you get that?" I said.

"There now," she said. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"What?" I asked.

"Talking. From what I understand, getting you to do that has been quite a chore since you got here. But you spoke a little with Kim. That's a good start."

I followed her eyes through the cracked door toward the hallway. Kim was sitting at the nurse's station talking on the phone. I couldn't tell what she was saying, but her words were clipped and to the point. I heard an exasperated "Owen" and thought of the few dozen young men in town who would love to know there might be trouble in paradise. She looked up in our direction and then down, covering her forehead with a hand.

I turned back to the woman beside me. "You give me that box," I told her. "You don't have any business with that. That's mine."

"I didn't peek," she said. "Promise."

The slivers continued to fall, one, three, seven.

"Stop that," I said.

She did. Both the paper and the scissors disappeared into her shirt pocket. She looked at me again, waiting.

"Where'd you get that box?" I asked.

She motioned to the table with her eyes and said, "It was sitting right there when I got here. Someone must have dropped it off for you."

Jabber, I thought. It had to have been Jabber.

"Well, it was left for me," I said. "Not you."

I rubbed my hand against my leg to try and calm the imaginary needles that pricked it. The woman leaned forward in her chair and placed her hands on the box. "You're right," she said. "I'm sorry, Andy. I just needed to borrow it."

"So you could do what?"

"Get you to talk."

I balled a fist and took a deep breath. The pain of both calmed me. I looked through the door again at Kim. She sat watching us.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"My name is Elizabeth Engle." She stuck her hand out as she said it. Mine remained at my leg. "You can call me Elizabeth."

"Well it's very nice to meet you, Ms. Engle. Now would you please do me the courtesy of returning my property to the table here and explain what you're doing in my room? Or would you rather I push this here button and have Kimmie kick you out?"

"Oh, Kim wouldn't kick me out," she said. "I'm here for you, Andy. You're my job."

I snorted through the gauze around my mouth. "And what job is that? Sneaking into patients' rooms, rummaging through their stuff, and then scarin' them half to death?"

"I snuck in because I didn't want to wake you," she said, raising one finger, "and I apologize for making you jump"—two fingers—"and I said I didn't peek"—three fingers.

Elizabeth rose from her chair and returned my box to the table. She set it down carefully, almost reverently, and patted the top of it twice. Then she returned to her seat beside me and leaned forward.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"To make you feel better."

"You a doctor?"

"No, not really."

Elizabeth left her answer vague. A wave of nausea washed over me. As if being Kentucky Fried Chickened wasn't enough, now I had to have my brains scrambled, too.

"You're a shrink," I said.

"More adviser than shrink."

"Well I don't need an adviser, I just need to go home."

"You will," she said, "when you're ready. Which isn't quite yet. There are wounds no one sees, Andy. It's the job of the doctors and nurses to mend the ones that are visible, and it's my job to mend the ones that aren't."

"I have invisible wounds, huh?" I asked. "That you're gonna mend?"


"And how are you gonna do that?"

"By listening to you."

"You're gonna sit there and listen to me and play with your scissors and paper?"

"That's right," she said.

I grunted. "You're crazy, lady. I'm not in the mood for any New Age psycho bull. I don't share my feelings, and I'm not gonna get in touch with my inner self. I don't wet the bed, I don't dream of my mama, and there is no way, no way on God's earth, that I'm gonna talk to you about why I'm here."

I expected her to say something smart, something gooey with kindness and understanding, but Elizabeth said nothing. She simply reached forward and gently put her hand on my own.

"You don't have to talk about any of that, Andy," Elizabeth said. "You can just talk about whatever you want. I promise."

When she smiled it was a beam that fell on me like cool rain on a hot day, the sort of shower that makes you lean your head back and stretch out your arms so you can gather in as much of it as you can. A rare smile. Caroline's smile. And in that moment Elizabeth managed the impossible. She melted me and yet held together what little of my heart was still alive. I had never seen this woman, didn't know her, and yet I felt as though she had always known me. I would have been frightened to death if it hadn't felt so good.

But just as quickly as she had drawn me out, my hurt drew me back in. The anger that had gripped me refused to let go and dug its claws into what was left of my flesh, reminding me that I was right to feel its hotness. That I deserved it. That it was mine.

I drew my hand away from hers. "There's nothing you can do for me," I said. "I'm not going to talk to you."

"Yes, there is," she said, "and yes, you will. Who's Caroline?"

"That's none of your business," I said. "I appreciate you stopping by, Elizabeth, but I don't want you here. I don't want me here. All I want to do is be left alone until someone tells me I can leave."

"Well, see, that's the thing." Elizabeth straightened herself and crossed her legs again. "Turns out I have a lot of say in how long you stay here. Those invisible wounds can be pesky."

"That's bull," I said.

"You really think so?" Elizabeth smiled again, teasing me. "Try me. I'll keep you here until the Rapture if I have to."

I started to offer the sort of bullish grunt men are famous for, the kind that saves them the trouble of actually having to say Who do you think you're talking to? But at that moment Elizabeth took hold of my hand again and squeezed, and the snort I was about to offer lodged itself halfway up my throat and refused to budge. A mild panic began to build. Half of me saw her as just someone else to keep at arm's length. The other half, the half that not only let her take my hand again but keep it this time, whispered that her presence could be all that was keeping me tethered to whatever hope was left in my life.

Then I considered what had happened and whose fault it was. His—the Old Man's. And God's by proxy. But I decided that I shared much of that fault, not through my actions but through my trust. For letting Eric inside.

I turned away from her and looked at the wall in front of me. For the next hour neither of us spoke. Elizabeth returned to her paper and scissors. I was tired and angry and hurt. Elizabeth didn't need to be a counselor to see that. What she didn't see, what she couldn't, was why. When I finally spoke, it was more out of surrender than acceptance.

"We talk about only what I want to," I said without looking at her. "And if you tick me off or try to ask me stuff that's none of your business, I'll throw you out of here myself. I wasn't much of a sharer before, and I ain't one now. Especially to strangers. I'll do what I have to just to get back home and away from here. But I'd rather stay mad because I have good reason to be mad, and I'd rather feel guilty because I should feel guilty. Those are my choices to make."

Elizabeth shrugged. "Deal."

Silence again. More staring and cutting.

"What now?" I asked.

Elizabeth set her scissors and paper aside and pointed to the box on the table. "How about that?" she asked. "Seems pretty special. Might be a good idea to start with what you think really matters before we go talking about what you think doesn't."

I looked at her and shook my head. "No offense, but that's one of those things that ain't your business. It wouldn't make much sense to you."

"It doesn't have to make much sense to me, it just has to make sense to you."

I was about to refuse again but then heard a noise from down the hallway, a small echo that both mixed with and stood out from the calm commotion of chatter and ringing phones. Someone was whistling. I thought at first it was my imagination, a consequence of returning to the world. But it persisted, grew louder as it approached.

"Do you hear that?" I asked her.

"Hear what?"

The melody was both oddly familiar and not, like a memory that had yet to occur. I knew that song. No, I thought, not song. Hymn. One I'd last heard sung by my grandmother nearly fifty years ago—

Shall we meet beyond the river,

In the clime where angels dwell?

Shall we meet where friendship never

Saddest tales of sorrow tell?

The whistling stopped and morphed into a shadow that loomed just outside the doorway. For a moment I thought Death itself had come for me. "Mercydeath" is what came into my head, though I had no idea what that meant. But the face that peeked around the corner was not Death. It was worse.

The Old Man walked through the door and leaned against the foot of my bed, then let out a slow and painful exhale. His faded hospital gown was just one prop among the many I'd known. I supposed he had designed that one in order to offer me some sense of unity, like the people I once saw on television who had shaved their heads in support of their cancer-stricken loved ones. He dragged an IV line behind him, though the pole it should have been connected to and the solution bag that should have hung from it were missing. A visitor name tag was stuck to the gown in the middle of his chest. OLD MAN had been written on it in blue crayon.

"Hiya, Andy," he said.

Fury that had wedged in a dark place inside me for three days kindled then sparked.

"I'm sorry it had to be like this," he said, "but I'm not sorry that it had to be. Do you understand?"

"No," I muttered. "No…I…don't."

"Andy?" asked Elizabeth. "Are you okay?"

Her words were mere echoes in my mind, another voice from the other side of the door. The Old Man looked at her and then to me.

"I know you're mad," he said, "and I know you're hurt."

"Andy?" came the echo.

"I need you to trust me one more time. I've never given you cause to doubt me before, have I?"

"Andy, who are you talking to?"

"Everything I've shown you from then until now, every little thing, comes down to this."

"—Andy," I heard Elizabeth say, "I need you to—"

"—listen to me," the Old Man finished. "I need you to let this lady—"

"—help you," said Elizabeth. "Whatever's happened, you still have—"

"—now. That's what matters. God sent her."

"Stop it," I moaned. "Please just stop."

Elizabeth took her hand from mine and muttered an echoless "I'm sorry."

"No," I told Elizabeth, then I reached out for her hand without realizing I had done so. "Not you. Not…it's him." I pointed a trembling finger of my bandaged hand toward the end of my bed. "You did this," I shouted to him. "This is your fault. Where were you?"

Elizabeth returned her hand. "Andy," she said, "please try to relax. You'll bring Kim back in here, and I need you to stay with me. Okay?"


  • "Paper Angels is like a rare all-night conversation with an old friend. It reminds us of who we are and what matters to us, and gets us up the next morning with new strength and purpose. Billy Coffey understands the secrets of the human heart, and writes a compelling story full of insight and redemption. Paper Angels glows with poetry, heartbreak, and deep faith, reminding us that even after our most painful trials, hope never fails. Readers will be touched by Billy Coffey's ability to find beauty and meaning in every day, in every soul. He portrays small town life with an energy, charm, and humor that few contemporary novelists can match. Imagine Garrison Keillor, then add a moving story of faith and lyricism that brings you bakc to the most beautiful summer days of your childhood, and that's Paper Angels."—Rosslyn Fay Elliott, Author of Fairer than Morning
  • "In his second novel, Paper Angels, Coffey once more shows his talent for using simple lessons to reveal profound truths. His writing hooked me with the first pages, and didn't let me go until the last secret was revealed."—Richard L. Mabry, MD, Author of Lethal Remedy and the Prescription for Trouble series.
  • "Combining a country-boy's sensibilities with a storyteller's imagination, Billy Coffey imparts grace to his readers. PAPER ANGELS is a troubling tale of a tender people navigating difficult times in a tenacious place, where hope digs in its spurs and flat-out refuses to quit. PAPER ANGELS is a testament to community as a healing place."—Karen Spears Zacharias, author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? 'Cause I need More Room for My Plasma TV

On Sale
Nov 9, 2011
Page Count
256 pages

Billy Coffey

About the Author

Billy and his wife, Joanne, live with their two children in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A product of his small-town locale, Billy counts as assets his rural authenticity, unwavering sense of purpose, and insatiable curiosity–all of which tend to make his front porch a comfortably crowded place.

Learn more about this author