“Psychopomp,” Ella repeated disbelievingly, glancing at her
brother in the mirror where he was perched cross-legged on her bed already in
his pajamas. “There’s no way that’s a real word.” She managed to keep a smirk
from her mouth.
“I’m gonna tell dad that you’re not doing your homework,” Jeremy informed her solemnly.
“And how do you figure that?”
“This is your textbook,” Jeremy announced, gesturing to the book open on his lap. “And according to your syllabus, you have a quiz on this chapter tomorrow.”
Ella couldn’t help but laugh cheerfully. “For your information, little brother, that syllabus is subject to change. We had that quiz yesterday, and I aced it.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a paper that was already crumpled. She waved it flauntingly in Jeremy’s face. His eyes didn’t focus on the rapid movement, so she laid it on the book for him to peruse at his discretion.
She rummaged in her closet, pulling out a copper colored dress with a wide scooped neckline which was gathered at the waist with a rope belt. While she was hanging it on the full-length mirror, Jeremy spoke again. Ella was slightly surprised that it was so soon.
“You got a 100,” he said accusingly.
“I did,” she responded smugly, digging in her closet for a pair of strappy sandals that wrapped up her calf.
“Even the psychopomp question,” Jeremy continued doggedly.
“That doesn’t mean I think it’s a real word,” Ella retorted from her position on hands and knees as she tried to tug one of the sandals from where it had managed to get wrapped around three other shoes. “It sounds like what you should call a schizophrenic egomaniac.”
The sandal released its hold on its comrades, and Ella fell back with it clutched victoriously in her hand. She tossed it and its pair so that they sat next to the mirror. She clambered gracelessly to her feet and made her way over to her dresser where two jewelry boxes rested.
One was a sleek, ebony affair with different velvet lined compartments for different types of jewelry and a mirror on the inside of the lid. That one was empty, a graduation present from a well-meaning great aunt or second cousin or something. The other was amateurishly made out of clay with her name carved into the front and a clumsy ouroboros on the top. This one was filled with a tangle of chains and pendants of many different metals that gleamed in the light from the open closet door.
Ella fished out the end of a chain and unwound it slowly from the Gordian knot, glancing over at Jeremy as she did. He was quiet, but that wasn’t uncommon with him.
“Remember when you made this?” she asked casually, picking at a metallic tangle. Jeremy jerked his head in a brief nod. Ella returned to her task. When it was revealed, the necklace had an owl in the center that extended its wings to frame the throat. Like the chain, the owl glinted in the light with the brilliance of a new penny.
“I hated that camp,” Jeremy volunteered a few minutes later, startling Ella. Normally he wasn’t one for reminiscing, much less sharing his feelings about something. Knowing better than to pursue that line of questioning, Ella just returned the clump of jewelry to its box and hung the owl from the corner of the mirror.
“I’m just going to pull back my hair into a low ponytail,” Ella warned Jeremy who had returned to browsing her comparative mythology textbook.
“Not authentic,” he muttered sullenly.
“Jeremy, I am happy to take you; I am willing to dress up, even, but you want to be there at 9:00 sharp. So, I am not getting up at the crack of dawn to copy a hairstyle from a two thousand year old statue that would take two hours and four hands to get right. The Greek women who were immortalized in marble had slaves to do their hair, for Pete’s sake. Besides, all the frat boys will be hung over, and that’s hardly authentic, is it?” Ella tried to reason, knowing that it was useless and that she would just have to do what she wanted and live with the pouting that would follow.
“Actually, a Greek symposium bore a remarkable resemblance to a modern keg party,” Jeremy informed her dispassionately.
Ella snorted. “Well, the history department did say they wanted realism. I think the Classics department tried to warn them.” She checked the time. “Alright, Mom’ll be up soon to make sure you go to bed. You may as well make a preemptive strike. I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll leave at 8 :00 so we can beat the traffic and I can get some coffee before we get there.”
Jeremy didn’t say anything, just clambered off the bed and left, the door’s snick the only reply she really expected. Her quiz sat on her bed, but her textbook had, predictably, gone missing. Ella just smiled indulgently; she’d reclaim it from him before class on Tuesday.
Grabbing a pill bottle from her nightstand, Ella headed downstairs. Her hand skimmed lightly along the broad maple banister. A wave of nostalgia washed over her for the times when she would have ridden it down rather than walk. Biting her lip to hold in an impish impulse to giggle, Ella tucked the pills into her pocket and hopped up onto the smooth, sturdy wood. The ride seemed shorter than it had when she was a kid, but it was just as exciting and liberating. She landed with a light hop, flushed with delight.
An amused cough sounded from the hall behind her. Ella whirled around, the glow of joy quickly turning to a blush of embarrassment. Kind brown eyes twinkled at her from behind square wire-rim glasses.
“I’m pretty sure your mother would want me to scold you to be more careful. You could hurt yourself,” her dad drawled calmly.
Ella bit back the bitter retort that sprang quickly to mind. Instead she said, “I’d remind her that she was the one who taught me how in the first place.”
Her father laughed. Unbidden, a grin sidled onto Ella’s face. Neither of her parents laughed enough anymore. She knew it was hard to laugh with everything that they had to deal with, but there were times when she wanted to shake them and remind them that all of this worry would only make Jeremy worse.
“Your mother means well,” Ella’s dad urged her, the laughter draining too quickly from his face.
“She hasn’t talked to me in two weeks,” Ella reminded him. “Ever since I said I wanted to take Jeremy to school tomorrow.”
“That’s true. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t worry. About you as well as your brother. This has been hard on her, and she’s afraid that if Jeremy goes to school, he’ll be picked on.”
“He’s picked on because he doesn’t go to school!” Ella exclaimed before reigning herself in. This wasn’t her dad’s fault. It wasn’t even her mother’s fault. Ella had gotten so frustrated with the persistent doom-saying that fell naggingly from her mother’s lips that Ella had demanded her mother not speak to her, and for once, her mother had listened. Ella supposed this was a lesson about being careful what you wish for, or some such rot.
“And think of how much worse it would be if they had access to him all day at school,” her dad replied, positively unruffled by her outburst. Ella sighed. He had a point. She should probably talk to her mom, apologize. But that would have to wait until tomorrow. It was getting late and she had to sleep or she wouldn’t be conscious when she needed to get Jeremy to campus. And the only thing worse than an upset twelve year old was an upset twelve year old without the ability to control his frustration.
“He can’t stay home forever, dad. He wants to go to school. You’ll see. He’ll be fine tomorrow,” she urged.
Her dad smiled. “Of course he will. You’re there. You’ve always taken exceptional care of him, pumpkin.”
Ella squirmed under her father’s approbation. She never had been good at taking a compliment. “I, uh, I gotta take these,” she said, taking the pill bottle out of her pocket and giving it a shake. Before she could escape into the kitchen, her dad grabbed her arm and pulled her into a sudden hug.
“I love you, Ella. Your mother loves you. Talk to her. Soon. Please?” he asked, his voice slightly rough.
Ella relaxed into her father’s embrace and nodded against his shoulder. “I will dad. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” Her dad didn’t let go. “I promise. But if I try tonight, it might wake up Jamie and Sarabeth.” Her dad still didn’t let go. “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Her dad released her.
“Take your meds and get some sleep,” he said gently.
Ella nodded and scuttled into the kitchen, knowing that the next day would bring a lot of changes.
The campus wide event had undergone several names before settling for “Grecian Time Warp” which was quite possibly the worst of the lot. The classicists, whose initial idea it was and who were remarkably bad at naming things for a group of people who studied language and literature, had wanted to call it “Classics Day.” However, the classics department was also tiny and underfunded, so they turned to the history department for help. The historians hadn’t liked being so dismissed by the name, so they suggested the name “Classical History Day.” But as they planned bits of plays from twenty-four centuries ago were performed, and an attempt at an authentic Olympic competition was held on the quad, and between classes students could participate in a mock archeological dig. There would even be students LARPing as Greeks and Romans. The scale of the endeavor had soon proved beyond even their conjoined forces
That had been when the fraternities had been called in.
Ella had never really understood the point of fraternities, but she did know that alumni gave them way too much money in an attempt to recapture their glory days of cutting class, carefree alcoholism, and casual sex. For them, college was recalled as a magical time where everyone was their bro. To those who existed outside of the Greek life, it seemed a miracle that half of them passed. It was. That miracle was named cash.
Fortunately for those who had already put so much into this event, there were members of the fraternities who did attend class and care about their studies. And they knew how to play their brothers. All it took was for the Greek lettered powers that be to hear that it was a day dedicated to the Greek and Roman lifestyle for them to throw their support into the day. Grateful for the money and the help, the classicists relinquished naming right. Ella supposed they should all be grateful the word “bro” wasn’t part of the title.
Ella got dressed quickly that morning in the attire she’d selected the night before. She threw a quick glance in the mirror to make sure her hair looked presentable and was pleasantly surprised. The copper chiton was unexpectedly flattering. Ella was, if she said it herself, average. Her hair was the color of sand along the banks of the slow creek in a dark forest: not yellow enough to be blonde, not brown enough to be brunette. It had a couple strands of red thrown in to confuse the issue, and Ella would swear she’d even seen grey before she’d viciously plucked it out. Her skin was too dark to be pale, but too pasty to be tan, or mocha, or olive or anything so exotic as to warrant an adjective. But the metallic cloth made her skin seem to have a healthy pink glow, and her hair shine a bit more.
It wasn’t a preternatural transformation. It was rather subtle, in fact, but it gave Ella the boost of confidence needed to go out in public in this get up. She fastened the sandals and tied the rope around her waist, which she was happy to note flattered her figure, which was neither slender nor fat but curved appropriately. Ella smiled and went to collect Jeremy.
The drive was uneventful, with Jeremy calmly kicking the underside of the dashboard rhythmically. He had chosen to go Roman, with a toga, made from white woolen cloth and a thinner, knee-length tunic underneath. It had to be sweltering, but Jeremy wouldn’t hear of using cotton, because the Romans wouldn’t have. His short, brown hair was combed forward as Caesar’s had been.
Ella wasn’t sure how long this would last since the folds that hold on a toga make it so that the wearer must keep his left hand folded against his chest. Normally, Jeremy wouldn’t tolerate being so restrained, but he hadn’t complained yet, so she held on to hope. As they got out of the car, Ella was glad that March was still growling rather than bleating. It was nippy enough that Jeremy would be reasonably comfortable.
They walked through a campus transformed by revelry. A typical Saturday morning was quiet; commuter students didn’t come in except to research in the library, and most of the students who lived on campus were nursing their hangovers. Today, the place was alive with delights long dead.
On one corner, people could sign up for a spot reading some of Homer’s Odyssey aloud. A poster said this was to break a world record, so there were quite a few people waiting their turn. A booth sold cookies based off an Egyptian recipe. Ella bought a bag with trepidation.
“I don’t think cookies should have caraway seeds on them,” she murmured to Jeremy, letting him be the guinea pig and try the first one.
“There’s so much honey in them, that they’d taste too sweet without them,” he declared after some deliberation. “But they’re dry.”
One student had dyed his hair grey and put on stage make up to look old. “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam,” he proclaimed forcefully as they passed.
Ella didn’t even try to work that one out. “What was that, then?” she asked her brother.
“Cato the Elder. Wanted to destroy Carthage. Ended every speech like that. Brought about Third Punic War,” Jeremy told her in short bursts of words. The crowd was getting to him.
Ella pulled him to a hill overlooking a grassy bowl where a stage had been set up. She sat him on a retaining wall where they could see and hear, but there weren’t many other spectators around. The actors had on huge plaster masks with ridiculously over emphasized features and giant gaping mouth holes. They looked like a 3rd grader’s attempt at caricature.
Quickly glancing around, Ella found a sign declaring it to be Aristophanes’ Frogs. She leaned back and settled in, hoping this would calm Jeremy. She gave the action only cursory attention, her eyes fixed on the stage, but her awareness on her brother. Slowly, Jeremy relaxed. His eyes never strayed from the man rowing a boat across an imaginary lake, arguing with off-stage amphibians.
A knot in her gut that Ella hadn’t noticed began to slacken. Today had to go well if Jeremy was going to stand the chance of going to school with other kids next year. His doctors and therapists thought he was ready; they just couldn’t convince her mother. If Jeremy could traverse a college campus crowded with drunken idiots, then he could surely handle a small school devoted to students like him. He was twelve, and Ella wouldn’t be around this time next year. She just wanted to know that he would see more people than just their parents on a daily basis when she was gone.
The death glares her mother had given her when she’d proposed a family outing to this tragically titled affair had prompted her to declare that this was for siblings only. Jamie and Sarabeth, both as ensconced in teenage disinterest as any seventeen and fourteen year olds could be, instantly declined. So, Ella had stuck her chin out and refused to back down, heedless of her mother’s plans. She had seen the light in Jeremy’s eyes, and she wouldn’t be the one to put it out. Picking a fight with her mom might not have been her intent, but she was stubborn enough to have put off apologizing for a fortnight.
Both of her parents doubtlessly had Jeremy’s well being at heart. Ella, Jamie, and Sarabeth had made it easy for them, just bright enough to do well in school without drawing unwanted attention from bullies. But Jeremy had been in kindergarten for ten minutes before he was the target of ridicule from other children who didn’t realize what they were doing. And now they were under more stress than ever. They were doing everything they could, and her mother in particular was getting frustrated with the futility of everything they tried.
A breathy sound issued forth from Jeremy, startling Ella from her ruminations. Ella grinned. That was about as close to a laugh as Jeremy ever came around strangers and was a rare treat. A weight rolled off her shoulders, like Sisyphus’ boulder, never to rise again. Jeremy would be okay. Ella settled back to watch the rest of the ancient absurdity that held her brother’s rapt attention, content in the knowledge that she wouldn’t be condemning her brother to what amounted to a suburban prison.
When the play ended, they resumed their exploration of the campus. Jeremy willingly climbed into a pit of sand to partake in the mock-archaeological dig; frat boys tried to throw a javelin for an Olympic competition; the ROTC marched in lock step around the quad with fifteen foot spears and little leather skirts, to a chorus of giggles and cat-calls; Jeremy watched in rapt fascination as philosophy majors debated Stoicism, Epicurianism, and Peripateticism.
At an armor exhibit, a freshman plonked a helmet on Jeremy, which he declared acceptable because the plumage went sideways across the skull rather than front to back in what Jeremy insisted on calling a transverse crest. While he examined some replica swords, Ella snapped a photo with her phone and texted it to her parents, not out of spite or superiority, but just so they could see that joyful little grin when he picked up a wasp-waisted gladius in his right hand, a vitus clutched firmly in his left, his toga drooping precariously.
It was a day entirely devoted to enjoyment. Ella had played a part in preparations, but she’d warned everyone quite fiercely that she was doing no work the day of, she had set it aside for time with her brother. As they were leaving the armament display, Ella’s foot hit something that skittered across the sidewalk. She looked down to see a pocketknife, one of the red ones that had thirty attachments that guys tended to carry for one of two reasons: they actually knew how to use them and had need of them or they wanted to look more useful than they were. She pocketed it. She’d turn it into the university’s lost and found tomorrow.
As the festivities wound to a close, the siblings headed back for the car, a content silence between them. She stood at the crosswalk, waiting for the light and was almost able to ignore when a small group of college students on their way back to the dorm darted between traffic in the nature of college students everywhere, oblivious to the screech of tires and the blaring horns.
Ella had always known that her classmates took their lives into their own hands when they crossed the street. On her darker days, she’d figured it was only a matter of time before someone was killed. As the dark blue SUV swerved to miss an Olympic victor and jumped the curb where the siblings were waiting, Ella realized she’d never thought it would be her.
Her last words were too foul for a gravestone, but she felt better for having said them.
There was more blood than she expected.
No, that wasn’t quite right. There was more blood than she’d expected coming out of her. There was almost none coming out of Jeremy.
No, that still wasn’t right. There was more blood than she’d expected coming out of the her that was lying twisted on the concrete. And almost none of the Jeremy that was prostrate next to that her. There was another Jeremy next to this her.
Trying to make sense of what she was seeing, her head hurt in a way that had nothing to do with just being run over by Ford Explorer. He was sitting silently, staring intently at the ground, rocking. Ella recognized this as what she called his “waiting for the world to make sense again” dance. She thought seriously about joining him.
Ella sat next to Jeremy, waiting for the panic to set in. It refused to come, leaving her uncertain whether she was unusually adept at keeping herself together or if she was so far in shock that she had come out the other side, and she watched. She briefly thought of the pocketknife she’d found. It would never find its way home, now. A burst of laughter bubbled up, but she suspected it would result in hysterics, so she pushed it down.
Instead, she watched the driver examine their bodies and then retch into the shrubbery that lined the sidewalk. His face was unnaturally pale, and she could see freckles stand out sharply against the waxen white. Surprisingly, she felt sorry for him. He had tried not to kill one person and had wound up killing two. He would never get this image out of his head. Ella hoped he knew a good therapist.
She watched the ambulance try to fight through the traffic that had been caused by rubberneckers slowing to catch a glimpse of the drama. Ghouls, she thought bitterly at the passing vehicles, drivers and passengers alike blanching at the spectacle and speeding away as if trying to escape their own mortality as well as hers and Jeremy’s.
She watched the paramedics sprint towards them, toting medical equipment of untold variety and quantity. They reached Jeremy’s body first. One of them, a pale-skinned boy who didn’t look much older than her, checked for a pulse.
“I can’t find anything,” he told the other, a middle aged woman with wrinkles that spoke to her having seen some terrible things in her life. The younger one was straightening Jeremy’s neck, which only now did Ella notice was at an unnatural angle.
“Don’t bother with CPR, Johnny,” the woman said calmly, turning now to Ella’s body. “There’s a deep laceration all the way down his leg, but too little blood. He died the moment he hit the ground, maybe when the car hit him. Even if we could bring him back, it’s been too long; he’d be brain dead. He’s gone”
Ella only realized she was charging the woman when she bounced off an invisible barrier.
“Save him, you son of a bitch!” she screamed at Johnny as he looked uncertainly down at his own hands, no longer moving to help anyone. Ella’s voice was hoarse with tears she hadn’t known were flowing freely, drenching her chest and turning the copper of her dress into dull, red clay. Johnny gave Jeremy’s body a slow, sad glance. “Why are you just sitting there?! Do something! He’s not fucking gone! He’s sitting right here, so fucking save him! That’s your job, isn’t it?!”
Oblivious, Johnny looked over at the woman who was pressing her fingers to Ella’s neck. He told her softly, “I’ve never lost one before, Clara.” He got up and came over to where Clara was kneeling, careful not to step in the pool of blood. Ella viciously threw herself at him, trying to force him to turn around, to go back and do his job, but he was just as impervious to her tampering as Clara. Taking a few steps back, Ella launched herself at Johnny, trying to tackle him. She hit the barrier and fell to the ground in a heap.
Clara didn’t look up from her task. “You didn’t lose him, kid. You didn’t get the chance to try.” Apparently feeling what she was searching for, Clara smoothly shifted into practiced, efficient action, grabbing one of the bags and pulling out an IV. “You had to know this day would come, Johnny. It happens to every paramedic at some point. Now, get the stretcher. She’s still alive.”
A look of kind determination crossed Clara’s face, surprising Ella with its fierce tenderness. “Don’t you quit on me, girly. I’m gonna get you through.”
“Not likely,” a dry voice said from just behind where Ella was still crumpled on the ground. Ella jerked around to see a young man crouched next to her, watching the spectacle, but clearly speaking to her. Ella jumped to her feet, keeping herself between this strange man and Jeremy, who was still rocking silently.
Lithe as a snake, the man stood. His eyes were still fixed on the paramedics, who were now strapping her to the stretcher.
“You’re not going to want to see the rest of this. We should get going before it gets bad.” Without waiting for Ella’s response, the man reached his hand out towards Ella’s stomach. She jumped back, but was pulled to a stop by something tugging at her navel.
“What the hell?” she exclaimed, looking down to see a red cord coming through her shirt from where her belly button was. “What is that? And, while I’m at it, who the fuck are you?”
The man looked similarly perturbed. “That’s not right. It shouldn’t still be solid.” He let go, and the cord disappeared. He pushed past Ella, heading toward Jeremy. Ella grabbed his arm and hung on, trying to keep this strange man from her brother. Then she noticed that she could grab his arm, unlike with the paramedics.
“Seriously, who are you?” she demanded. An edge of panic leant her voice the power to pierce through Jeremy’s inward reflection. He looked up and scrambled to his feet at the sight of the man. His face wasn’t afraid, though, just interested.
The man pulled his arm out of Ella’s grasp, and he reached out to Jeremy’s stomach the same way he had with Ella. Jeremy didn’t retreat, just stood and let the man approach him. The man’s grasp came up empty.
For the first time since Ella had noticed him, the man looked at one of them in the face. Jeremy didn’t meet his eyes, but that was to be expected. “That’s interesting,” the man said softly, perusing Jeremy’s face. “One sibling whose cord is intact, and one whose has already completely disintegrated.” He turned to face Ella, when his eyes met hers, he was noticeably startled. “You two are quite a pair.”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a full-sized clipboard. Ella thought of wondering how he managed it, but decided she didn’t have the energy. Instead, she finally examined his appearance. He was tall, with long, almost lanky limbs. His hair was as black as the clothes he wore. His suit was about a decade out of date. His sharp chin was clean-shaven. Even when inspecting the form on the clipboard his dark eyes were quick, darting around like a startled hummingbird, not settling anywhere. All told, he resembled noting so much as a security guard, comfortable in himself, but constantly aware of his surroundings, ready for a threat.
While the man continued to pour over the contents of what seemed to be enough paperwork to make an IRS agent’s eyes light up, Ella went over to Jeremy. She ached to pull him into a hug, to protect him from whatever this was, but she knew that he never responded well to physical touch when stressed.
“It’s going to be okay, Jeremy. I’m going to protect you,” she whispered fervently.
“Mercury won’t hurt us. He doesn’t pass judgment,” Jeremy told her calmly. A clatter brought Ella’s attention sharply back to the man in black. His clipboard had fallen to the ground, and his eyes were firmly fixed on Jeremy. Ella, pushed her brother behind her, shielding him from the man’s scrutiny.
“What did you call me?” He demanded, his face paler than seemed natural. Jeremy didn’t respond, but watched as his body was zipped into an opaque black bag. “What did you call me?”
“In general,” Ella intervened, “if he doesn’t answer you the first time trying to force him to respond will only make him shut down further.”
Mercury, as her brother had called him, looked at her with a fury that seemed deeper than a person should be able contain. “Why would he call me that?”
“Only he can tell you that. Jeremy’s brain works in a way that no one really understands. Now, why don’t you tell me what you want? Jeremy thinks you won’t hurt us. If you disappoint him, believe me, I will make you regret it.”
“Honestly, you humans get more and more impertinent every generation.” He turned his face skyward as if beseeching someone. “Is it too much to ask for a little cowering? And here I have a pair which is supposed to be freshly dead, yet one’s cord is still pulsing with life, and the other is completely disintegrated.”
“What do you mean disintegrated?” Ella asked, panic rushing back to the fore.
“I would think he’d been dead for years rather than minutes. The cord takes time fade after death, unless it is severed. In rare instances, it never fades, leaving the dead trapped until it is severed.”
“Why is his gone, then?”
“I can’t tell you.” Mercury responded simply. Ella narrowed her eyes, thinking maybe can’t was really won’t. After several seconds of uneasy silence, Mercury calmly asked. “Has your brother had any near death experiences?”
“Wouldn’t you know? Have you ever seen him before?”
“I have seen so many humans as to be sick of the sight of them, but I don’t come for those near death. Only for those dead.”
“I’m not dead,” Ella reminded him, gesturing towards the ambulance that was driving away.
“Yes, I noticed. But,” he bent and retrieved his clipboard, “You’re supposed to be. It says so, right here. That’s why you’ve been expelled from the shell. It will remain inoperable until it expires.”
“What does that mean? You make me sound like a computer.”
“I think your doctors would call it a coma. One you won’t waken from.”
“What? No! No, I’m not supposed to die yet,” Ella insisted. “You have to put me back.”
Mercury raised a sardonic eyebrow. “You think you’re the first one to ask that? Your time has come.”
“No! It hasn’t!” Ella cried.
“Like you would know?”
“I do know! I have another 18 months!”
Mercury blinked at her, his superiority fading instantly. “That’s oddly specific,” he said, curiosity clearly getting the better of him, before he squashed it, gesturing imperiously towards his clipboard. “I have it right here, in the proverbial black and white: Ella Marie Covington dies at 5:17 today, four minutes after her brother, Jeremy Edward Covington, despite the efforts of paramedics. What makes you so sure that you still have time left?”
I just know,” Ella told him stubbornly, “And if you won’t listen to me, then I need to speak to your supervisor.”
“She won’t be able to help you,” he informed her blithely.
“You think that I’ve never heard that line before? Please. I grew up watching my parents argue with teachers, vice principals, principals, superintendants, and state representatives. And the last two years I’ve been fighting with my insurance company so that they’d pay out like they’re supposed to. If you’re so sick of mortals, why don’t you try a line that isn’t so human?”
Mercury shrugged uncaringly. “Very well. We should be heading out, anyway. Follow me.” He headed off with long, ground-eating strides. Jeremy fell into step behind him. Ella briefly considered yelling after them. She considered even more briefly being careful what she wished for, but it was too late now. With many backwards glances, Ella followed after them.
It didn’t take Ella long to realize they were heading to the Foust building. It towered over the rest of the campus on a hill near the center of campus. It looked like an Edwardian architect attempted to build a castle out of brick, complete with twin turrets and a large, arched front door where a drawbridge and portcullis would feel at home. Ella had fallen in love with the building the first time she’d seen it and would have happily paid whatever exorbitant housing fee the school would charge, if only they would turn it into dorms. Unfortunately, she’d never been inside. It was declared unsafe because of a shifting foundation. It being the oldest building on campus, it was also historically protected, so they were only allowed to fix it if they didn’t upset the building itself. Apparently, they had figured out how to do so and would be starting restoration next year. But, until then, the building was blocked off so that no one would obtain injuries from crumbling brickwork or uneven flooring or whatever else had gotten the building condemned.
Heedless of the posted notices declaring the building unsafe, Mercury strode up to the front door. Ella hesitated at the bottom of the steps, her mouth open to warn him of the building’s forbidden status, but Mercury just walked through the door.
Without opening it first.
Ella’s hesitation grew into a full stop of shock. She didn’t know what she had expected. But whether it had been for him to pick the lock or break down the door or what, she hadn’t anticipated him to become incorporeal. Jeremy walked up to the door and looked at it for a moment. It must have been a moment too long, because Mercury strode imperiously out of the door, impatience clearly written across his face.
“For someone who was so impatient to speak to my supervisor moments ago, you are tarrying unnecessarily,” he declared domineeringly. Ella felt her jaw set stubbornly.
“I, for one, an unaccustomed to breaking and entering private property,” she retorted.
Mercury’s eyebrow once again rose derisively, Ella was beginning to suspect it was his default expression. “I broke nothing,” he replied superciliously.
“Only the laws of physics,” Ella muttered mutinously.
“I didn’t break those, either. Surely you are aware that matter is more void than stuff. An atom is mostly empty space. I merely moved between that space. “
“Bullshit, and you expect me to do the same?”
“You’ll find it comes remarkably easily.”
Ella rolled her eyes. Whatever the truth of it was, she needed to get this over with. She glanced back to the street where her body had lain. Where traffic, no longer aware of why it had so drastically slowed, was blaring its frustration to the world. There was no going back there until she had regained access to her body. So, she straightened her spine and threw her shoulders back. Striding the steps to the door, Ella didn’t pause but rushed at it, convinced that she would, at any minute, slam headlong into the old oak of the door.
The sounds of the outside abruptly vanished, leaving only her breath in her ears. Not even her footsteps echoed. She opened her eyes and looked around. The floor was a pattern-less mosaic of polished tiles of varying shades of eggshell. Dark, ancient wood made up the ceiling and the trim, and the walls were neither robin’s egg nor sky blue, but something paler and more delicate than either of those. It was probably the result of decades of fading, but it struck Ella with an odd mix of peace and eagerness. She wanted desperately to explore it. She ran her hand along the railing of the nearest stairway, reveling in the silken feel of the wood smoothed by generations of students grabbing it as they rushed heedlessly to their next class. She barely held herself back from scurrying upstairs to see what was there, but instead contended herself with closing her eyes and soaking it up.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to feel it,” Mercury remarked, “most people don’t.”
Ella’s eyes popped open, a squeak of surprise escaping before she could squash it, “Feel what?”
“This is a special place. Different cultures have called it various things. Sanctified is a popular word; so is haunted. In America, you used to call them fairy circles.” Ella smiled at the name; it seemed to fit this place, as if magic hid just out of sight. “We call them Panels. Basically, they’re a thin spot, an entrance place where the Underworld is a little easier to access, where the walls separating the two worlds are more like permeable membranes, and things can enter and exit with little effort.” He seemed content to leave it at that, but Ella gestured for him to continue, and he did so with a sigh.
“There are two types of Panels: the Untouched and the Reclaimed. The Untouched are rapidly dwindling as you humans spread ever further across the world. A few remain in areas you either have found it too difficult to inhabit, or have seen fit to set aside with temples or shrines. The Reclaimed are all like this building. Places that man has been, on which they’ve placed a distinctive mark, but that mark has been lost to time, people have left it alone until the silence that rules where humans are not has gained the strength to soften the noises of any humans who rediscover it. Most people are oblivious to it, or if they can sense it, they find the Reclaimed Panels unsettling; they feel the weight of the unknown pushing upon them. ” His piercing eyes transfixed her like a bug in a collector’s display. “But not you.”
Ella shrugged, trying to mask her discomfiture under his attention. After a moment more of his scrutiny, he released her, turning to lead the way down into the basement.After a few hundred yards, they came upon a rather large drainage grate set into the floor, and Mercury dropped into a crouch in front of it
“You have got to be kidding me,” Ella protested. “A sewer?”
“How else does one get to the Underworld other than by going underground?” Mercury asked calmly, flipping through numberless keys on a key ring that seemed far too small for the vast number it contained.
“You’re leading us to the underworld?” Ella asked, though her words were directed more towards herself than to the strange man who had yet to tell her his actual name. “That makes you literally a psychopomp,” she continued, having already put it all together but unwilling to believe it, “So, Jeremy was right. You are Mercury.”
“That’s not my favorite name,” Mercury responded with some distaste, inserting a gold-colored key into a keyhole that had been unnoticeable before. “But it beats Morrigan. Or worse yet, Brunhilda” Abruptly, he spun to face her. “Honestly, do I resemble a large, Germanic woman to you?” he demanded crossly, flinging the grate up with such irritated force that it flipped several times through the air before bouncing off the wall and landing with an echoing clang.
Surprised by the protean burst of emotion from one who had been consistently indifferent so far, Ella answered unguardedly, “Well, does one expect accuracy from people who drank the urine of their superiors to get the effects of hallucinogenic mushrooms? You’re probably lucky not to have been described as a talking rutabaga.”
Mercury gaped at her. A chuckle escaped him, and, though he quickly smothered it, Ella felt an answering smile rise unbidden to her lips. Without warning, he seemed almost approachable. He held out his hand to her, his posture stiff and uncertain, but almost endearing in that moment.
“You’ll need help down,” he explained, his eyes not meeting hers.
“I have to go first?” Ella asked, eyeing the hole distrustfully.
“You or Jeremy. I’ll close it when I go through.”
Ella sighed and stepped forward, but Jeremy pushed past her. He walked up to the hole and looked down into it. Without a word to either of them, he sat down with his legs dangling in the hole. Shooting a quick, excited glance to Ella, he pushed off the floor and disappeared from view. Ella hurried to the edge, but when she looked in, she saw nothing but a blackness that resembled the void of space without stars to alleviate it.
“Jeremy?” Ella called.
“He can’t hear you or see you, nor you him, until you’re on the other side of the Panel.”
“Is he safe over there?”
“This Panel is still guarded,” Mercury told her cryptically.
Ella closed her eyes and pulled her shoulders in. She muttered darkly, “I better not break a leg from this fall.” Bracing for impact, she stepped forward and let herself fall through the hole.
Ella had hoped for an Alice in Wonderland sort of fall. For her skirt to billow out and slow her descent, allowing her to peruse what she passed. Instead, there was nothing to peruse and her skirt swept up, causing her to shriek and try to hold it down in something approaching modesty.
“I’m not Marilyn fucking Monroe!” she screamed to no one in particular. No one in particular answered her, but Mercury did.
“Obviously not, as she enjoyed this part,” he commented mockingly from a few feet above her, “but maybe that was because she thought we did it just for her.”
“You knew Marilyn Monroe?” Ella asked, gobsmacked.
“I did,” he responded uninterestedly.
Ella opened her mouth to question him further when the blackness abruptly ended, dropping her in an unceremonious heap next to Jeremy, who sat cross-legged, clearly waiting for them. As she untangled herself, she noted with envy that Mercury had looked as if he hadn’t just fallen through…”What was that, anyway? Was it some sort of, I don’t know, trans-dimensional portal or something?”
“Panels are neither so complicated nor so simple.”
Ella rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth. As if dying wasn’t bad enough, she had to deal with close-lipped psychopomps. Reigning in her temper, she finally took in her surroundings. The first thing she noticed was a man standing a few feet away. He didn’t so much as look in their direction. He was wearing a stark white toga, it’s billows carefully arranged into artful folds that would be completely undone if he moved his left arm. And yet, he was also equipped with the full complement of weapons which the average Roman soldier would have. A bit of information bubbled up, trying desperately to make sense of what she was seeing. The Praetorian Guard, who had alternately guarded or assassinated the Roman emperors, sometimes wore togas as if to prove that they were deadly even with one arm pinned to their chest. What was really striking about him, though, was the predatory confidence that he exuded despite his gladius being sheathed.
“He guards this Panel,” Mercury commented from behind her. So surprised by him offering information, Ella didn’t think to question it.
The only light was a pale green that came from a moss that covered the entirety of the clearing they were in, save for what looked like either a large path or small, overgrown road.
“What is this?” Ella asked, tempted to run her hand along the moss, but afraid that the glow could be something untoward. Maybe it was the ghost of moss killed by toxic waste.
“Bioluminescence,” Mercury responded, “This species has been extinct on your planet since the beginning of the last epoch.”
Assured of its safety, Ella allowed her fingers to test the softness of the moss. It was cool and springy and it felt like childhood summers, playing in the woods behind her grandparents’ home. Ella squeezed her eyes closed and reveled in the memory, the normalcy of that time and place, when a smug psychopomp wasn’t smirkingly confronting her with an afterlife she was completely unprepared for. She remembered lying on the moss-covered forest floor, watching the beams of sunlight dance through the leaves.
“Is there even a sun down here?” she asked, her eyes shooting open.
“There is. Sunrise is in about 2 hours,” Mercury responded blandly. “But we should not wait until then to move forward. “
She stood stiffly, brushing her hands off. The moss had stained her hands so that they now glowed faintly. She moved over to where Jeremy had remained motionless since she’d landed. He was staring up at the skies, his lips moving silently. Examining the sky herself, Ella realized that she didn’t recognize any of the stars. There wasn’t a single recognizable constellation.
“We do need to be moving, now,” Mercury said impatiently.
Ella bit back the retort on her tongue and went over to her brother. “Jeremy, we need to head out,” she said softly. Jeremy lowered his heavenward gaze and nodded. Mercury had already strode off down the trail, apparently uncaring whether or not the siblings followed.
Ella set off at a brisk pace, fully ready to tell him off. She heard Jeremy coming along more carefully behind her.
“Hey, Merc-!” she began, only to be cut off by the ground when her foot caught on an exposed root easily upending her.
“Merc?” he asked, that imperious eyebrow raised again. “I know the formalities have been allowed to become lax, but surely I at least warrant the use of my full name. Well, one of them, at any rate.”
Ella glared up at him, spitting out a bit of dirt. “I’m so sorry that my physical distress wounded your dignity. You wanna give me a hand up?”
“How would that benefit me?”
“Wow, self-involved much?” Ella huffed, pulling herself up and gently wiping her hands off, hissing at the abrasions on her palms. “You know, Merc is probably the perfect nickname for you. Short for mercenary,” she snapped. Jeremy walked over to her, concern evident on his face.
With those two words, the bubble of anger that had buoyed her almost since the car had swerved towards them, deflated. She wanted it back almost instantly, its warmth and vibrancy. Instead, she took a cool, steadying breath, and smiled at her baby brother.
“Not really. You?”
“I don’t know,” he told her calmly. Ella nodded sympathetically. “We should be going, though.”
Ella nodded again, this time more briskly. She wanted to take his hand, but knew better. She turned back towards Mercury to see him watching them quizzically.
“I’m still going to call you Merc,” she said sullenly, as much to herself as to him.
“I’m coming to expect nothing less from you.” His normally scathing voice sounded oddly warm, but he turned and led the way without another word, leaving Ella and Jeremy to fall into a plodding step behind him.
About an hour later, Ella was seriously considering being miserable. They had left behind the faint glow from the moss for the intense darkness of thick forest. She’d had four branches hit her in the face, she had tripped another two times (though she’d not wiped out as she had the first time), and she had even run right into a spider web. Given that she was following closely behind Merc, she wasn’t sure how she’d managed that. Jeremy was faring better, though whether that was due to his taking more care or her warning him of all the dangers by finding them herself, Ella didn’t know. Mercury strolled along ahead of them; if Ella were feeling more spiteful, she would say his step was jaunty.
For the first twenty minutes, Ella had entertained herself by trying to determine whether the trail were a path or a road. Her musings were interrupted when a twig snapped and Mercury’s head snapped up. He motioned for Ella and Jeremy to stay still. A tightness in Ella’s chest made her think it would be pounding if it still resided there.
He gestured for them to get behind one of the towering trees that lined their way. Ella grabbed Jeremy’s hand, heedless of his typical aversion to touch and pulled him with her to cower beneath the low hanging boughs of the conifer.
Silence reigned with a heavy oppressive hand.
Ella wondered what the unknown terror could do to her if she was already dead. From the murky depths of her imagination stirred the images of exactly what it could do, and she tried desperately to think of something else. Her heart wasn’t in her throat. It was pounding with the speed of a snare drum, painfully and persistently reminding her that it was in her chest.
A distant sound, part growl, part mournful wail bounced off the trees. Jeremy was looking around in fascination, completely un-cowed by their immortal peril. The same, eerie noise, much closer, drove Merc in beside them. Ella heard him unsheathe a blade of some sort, but didn’t look down to examine it. She had squeezed her eyes shut tight. The branches moved around them. Unable to bear the suspense further, Ella opened her eyes to see what had moved them.
It looked like it had a dog, somewhere in its ancestry, but it was the size of a Buick, and its fur was matted where it wasn’t bald with scar tissue. Its eyes glowed an angry, unnamable color, that was neither purple nor green. A viscous saliva was dangling from its twitching jowls. Mercury, having placed his body between the creature and them, glared up at it with undisguised hatred. He was poised to attack. Jeremy had fearlessly raised a hand as if to try to pet it. The creature peered past Mercury at Ella. For a split second, it felt as if it looked into her, pouring its malevolence like poisoned tar into her psyche. Something in her rebelled against the invasion.
The creature recoiled almost instantly. Mercury’s head whipped around to gape at her open mouthed. Ella wanted to question him, but he shook his head when she opened her mouth, clearly indicating the need for silence. He motioned for them to get back on the road and then led them off as if nothing had happened.
In fact, Ella was just beginning to wonder if nothing had happened, if she hadn’t imagined or hallucinated the whole thing while they trudged onwards towards destinations unknown. She noticed a rock the second before she stepped on it and quickly redirected her foot. Then she realized it was finally light enough for her to see, however dimly, the forest floor.
Raising her face from the ground, she saw that Merc’s shoulders had relaxed, and she couldn’t help but think that maybe the danger of the night was passed. She tried to look around at her surroundings as tension began to leach out of her own shoulders.
And so she thought it particularly cruel when Merc’s voice appeared from right beside her with carefully controlled menace. “Do you want to tell me why the Garmr ran from you?”