Ithaca, at this time, was a rather dark place for some. While she would later regret her lack of gratitude for the roof over her head and clothes on her back, all Penelope could think about was what she didn’t have. And that was Otis. As difficult as it had been for her to watch him leave for the war, something in her heart told her that he would make it through just fine. That first year was by far the worst. Every day, her heart would swell with a hurt that only his presence and touch could relieve.
Every pity-filled beat, however, told her that he was alive and well, somewhere. She stood on their balcony every morning, day, and night, patiently waiting for that mystery ship to peek over the horizon. But the more she waited, the less her heart could take. Before long, Penelope’s mind took over and convinced her that the best antidote to her heartache was waiting at the bottom of a laudanum bottle. At first, it was.
Never had anything so bitter been so sweet. It wiped away her worries, her pains, and her inability to get a good night’s sleep. She’d never felt safer. Not even the warm embrace of Otis’s arms could have brought forth the ecstasy contained inside that deceiving little bottle—or pulled her away. Before she knew it, her cares and ambitions had been eroded, and the only task that received her full attention was making sure she procured another bottle before her current one dried out.
Eventually, the glittery glow that came with each pleasant drop became more difficult to achieve. Her feeble attempts to chase and revisit that initial burst of chemical happiness gave Penelope no more relief than before she had started taking it. At first, she blamed it on weak batches, so she took more. But as the daily doses increased, so did her tolerance. The help she sought from that bottle was no longer there, nor was it in any of the bottles that followed.
This would forever be one of the great regrets of her life. She looked back at this time and wished she could visit her younger self. She wished she could have gone back and slapped that first nip right out of her hand and smash the bottle against the wall for good measure. But she could not. She just had to live with her current self as best she could and accept the frustrating fact that she wasn’t there. She wasn’t there for herself. She wasn’t there for her people. Most importantly, she wasn’t there for her son, Mac, at a time when he really needed his mother.
He was nearing his sixteenth birthday. It should have been a marvelous time for him, as it was for most young men that age. But the political landscape that came with being a king’s sole heir had him on edge. Since Otis was no longer around to claim his throne and was widely presumed dead, Penelope was the sole heir to the throne of Ithaca. However, due to bureaucracy and ancient rules beyond anyone’s understanding, her time was limited and running low. If she didn’t choose a husband soon, a council of elders would see to it that her son would be named king.
While this may have seemed like a good thing and the most logical outcome, had it happened, Mac would have been trounced in the struggle that was certain to follow. There existed traditions and terms of honor that prevented anyone who sought the crown from hurting or killing a queen. A king, on the other hand, was always just a shallow breath away from having a knife stuck in his back. If the elders were to make it official, Mac would have been challenged nonstop by battle-hardened soldiers unwilling to bend their knee to a teenager. Mac knew this. Penelope knew this. And dozens of self-proclaimed “suitors” knew it too. They invaded the castle and made themselves at home, waiting for the sand in their proverbial hourglass.
It was a morning like most others that summer in Ithaca. Powerful ocean waves crashed into the base of a large cliff whose peak cradled Otis and Penelope’s massive stone castle. The gray, moss-covered structure was as strong as it was old and held several balconies that overlooked an endless blanket of teal sea. On one of those balconies was Mac. He was a slender yet rugged teen, and even though he wasn’t much of a morning person, every sunrise found him burrowing through a rigorous routine of push-ups. Once he’d reached the point of exhaustion, he would perform a series of pull-ups on the stocky branch of an olive tree growing near the ledge of his balcony.
To make it in this world, one has to be tough. He’d tell himself these words every morning. It was something that Penelope’s mother taught her, that mother taught her, and it was a core value Penelope had instilled in Mac since he was old enough to listen. He would go on to hold these words in exceptionally high regard, having grown up without the guidance or protection most commonly offered by a father.
On most mornings after his exercise, Mac would bathe, get dressed, and peel two navel oranges for breakfast. In recent mornings, however, slight wrinkles were added to his routine. He called them baby steps. Each one alone didn’t add up to much, but when put together, and in the proper order, these steps would potentially lead to Mac taking his own life.
It started with feelings, thoughts. What would it be like—to kill myself? Would I know? Would I regret it? Would it matter? That was the first step. The next was deciding how. Which way would be best? Which way would cause the least amount of mess, and the least amount of heartache for my mother? Soon after answering that question, he found himself in possession of a length of rope. Sitting at the foot of his bed, he’d run his fingers over the harsh twine and place it against the back of his neck, just to see what it felt like on his skin.
Some would have called Mac selfish, but the entire reason he prepared himself to die was not because he feared what the suitors might do to him. He did it so he could ease Penelope’s burden. Mac knew that she didn’t want to be with anyone but his father, and he figured that if he took his own life, the council would allow her as much time as she saw fit to choose a husband.
Mac soon found his feet clenching the narrow handrail of his balcony. After several jitter-steeped minutes of balancing, Mac stepped down onto the balcony and back into his room. It took longer than it had the previous mornings, but the rushing wave of panic that overtook his midsection finally began to recede. This day was not going to be the day.
He removed the noose from his neck and coiled it neatly under his bed before getting up and walking to the door. He gave the knob a nervous, hesitant glance, wondering what kind of torment and ridicule the suitors had in store. He was caught off guard, however, when someone on the other side began to knock.
“Who is it?” Mac asked.
The person answered with another knock.
“Who is it?” Mac asked, raising his voice.
“I’m an old friend of your father’s. I was hoping we could talk.”
Mac retrieved a dagger from his nightstand and tucked it into his right boot before opening the door and sizing up the mysterious visitor. “What can I do for you?”
“Name’s Jinni. Pleasure to meet you,” Jinni said, extending his brawny arm for a handshake. “You must be Mac.”
“Yeah,” Mac said. His squinting eyes and heavy jaw gave his curiosity away. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any rooms available here. Not sure we’re going to any time soon.”
Jinni couldn’t help but notice a striking resemblance between the young man in front of him and paintings he’d seen of a young Otis Seehus. “I’m, uh—I’m not lookin’ for a room, kid. I’m lookin’ for your dad. I asked around downstairs. They said to either talk to you or your mom. But your mom didn’t answer her door.”
“Yeah. She’s in one of her moods again. My dad’s not around. Hasn’t been for a while now. How do you know him again?”
“I’m an old friend of his.”
“Yeah,” Jinni said. “You say that like you don’t believe me.”
“No. It’s just—he hasn’t been here for over fifteen years. Most of his friends know that. Even the old ones.”
“I suppose that does seem a bit strange,” Jinni said. “But I am a friend. I was just passing through on my way to Nestor Island and wanted to say hello—meet you and your mom.”
Mac opened the door and stepped aside, easing the harsh front he’d been putting on up to this point. “I see…in that case, come on in. Can I offer you something to drink?”
“Yeah. Sounds great. Got any ale? Or whiskey?”
Mac tilted his head. “I have coffee. Or tea.”
Mac slid a steaming porcelain cup across the glass top of a table crafted from the messy knot of an olive tree’s root ball.
“This castle and everything in it used to belong to my father,” Mac said. “Three years after the war ended, he still hadn’t returned. That’s when some of the guys you met downstairs started moving in. One by one, they took over each room.”
Jinni could see a frightened sadness in Mac’s young eyes. “Whose room is this?”
“Mine,” Mac said. “I got to keep my room. And Mom got to keep hers. It’s still technically her castle.”
“If it’s her castle, why doesn’t she just tell them to get the hell outta here?”
“It’s not that easy. They don’t listen to her unless they feel like it that day. And they sure don’t listen to me. The council of elders tries to oversee certain aspects of the castle. Finances. Food. Things like that. But their authority is…really more of an illusion. Aside from tradition and a few ancient rules, there’s really nothing stopping anyone from taking over the place—if they really wanted to. So how did you know my dad? From the war?”
“What? No. I fought in a different part of Troy than where your dad was.” Jinni trod carefully over his next words, knowing the best lies were vague but carried the perfect amount of detail. “I knew him before the war. Some years back, he saved my life—and the lives of some people that mean an awful lot to me. If I knew where he was right now, I’d gladly return the favor. I heard that he ran into trouble getting home after the war ended.” Jinni took a sip and gently placed the empty cup on the table. “I didn’t realize he never made it back. A lot of guys went missing right after the war, but most of ’em turned up eventually.”
“Most, but not all,” Mac said.
“I’m sorry if my being here brings up bad memories for you. I didn’t come to pick old wounds. You just say the word, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Not at all,” Mac said. “You’re fine. We used to get visitors all the time—when I was a little kid. Old friends like you or guys that knew him from the war. They don’t stop by as much as they used to, though. Is this your first time here?”
“Yeah, actually. I was somewhat…detained…for a while. I’ve been trying to make up for lost time by traveling and seeing old friends.”
“Detained? Like prison?”
“Something like that,” Jinni said, with hesitation. “So where do you think he is?”
“I’m not sure. Everyone around here thinks he’s dead.”
Mac paused. “I really don’t know anymore. I’ve been told so many different things by so many different people. I don’t know what to believe.
“What about your mom? What does she think?”
This time of year was always the worst for Penelope. The image that Mac most commonly visualized in association with his mother was a closed bedroom door. When Penelope wasn’t in bed with the aging black Lab Grace, she was out on their balcony, only willing to spend time with two mature olive trees and a variety of pink-and-purple flowering pots and hanging baskets. Encumbered by rose-colored spectacles, courtesy of the laudanum, she’d look out to sea and imagine that it was Otis’s gentle fingers, and not the wind, brushing her dense hair. Soon after, she would snap out of it and shed a few tears. Otis. Where are you?
“I’m not sure what she thinks these days,” Mac said. “If at all. But she always speaks of him as if he’s still alive. When I was about six, the council started to put a little pressure on her about remarrying—getting a proper king back in the castle. She told them that she would be willing to remarry, but first she wished to knit a shroud for my father—in his honor. And upon its completion, she’d seriously consider choosing another husband.
“I don’t know what’s become of that shroud, or if she still works on it. But if she doesn’t finish it soon and remarry, one of two possible outcomes will unfold. Either the council will name me king and the suitors will try to kill me—and likely succeed—or the council gives my mom all the time she wants, and the suitors lose patience. In which case they’ll either kill us or kick us out on the street.”
“Damn,” Jinni said, embellishing his empathy. “That is a tough spot.”
“But if by some miracle my father shows up—everything changes.”
“So nobody has any idea what happened to him or where he ended up?” Jinni asked, rubbing his forehead.
“Nope. Just about everything after the Trojan Horse incident is a complete mystery. All I heard was that he skipped a ceremony so he could get back here sooner. He left with two other guys. I can’t remember their names offhand, but no one knows what happened to them either.”
“Hmmm. Well. I wish I had more information to share with you, Mac. But it sounds like you already know everything I know. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Mac said. “But don’t sweat it. I’m not any worse off than I was before you got here. And forget what I said about not having any rooms available. Any friend of my father is always welcome here.”
Jinni took one last sip from the coffee cup before looking out the window. “That’s kind of you, and normally I’d take you up. But I have to get going.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. My ride will be leaving, with or without me, come sundown. Thank you for your hospitality, Mac. Take care of yourself.”
“Will do. Thanks for the visit. Don’t be a stranger.”
As Jinni wandered down the stairs and into the commons area, he took a closer look around and grew disheartened at the lack of respect shown by virtually everyone in sight. Drinks and food were spilled and carelessly trampled into a slippery mush. The crashing sounds of breaking glasses from different parts of the room were constant and usually met with laughter.
Once Jinni reached the front door, he turned around for one last look and let out a sigh. “Godless heathens,” he said under his breath. “Good luck, kid.”
Upstairs, Mac had just finished drying the coffee cups and was about to stow them away when another knock interrupted his peace. As it was an unusual occurrence for someone to knock on his bedroom door, Mac assumed it was Jinni again.
“You forget something?” Mac asked, opening the door with a grin.
“Who was your little friend?”
Mac was both surprised and terror-stricken when he found out Jinni was not the one who knocked. Casting a shadow over Mac with his tall stature and V-shaped frame was a man named Eury.
Eury considered himself the premier alpha male among all suitors and likely to be the next king. He was a dashing man with handsome, masculine features. But he was as mean as a young rattlesnake—and less predictable. He was the only suitor who wasn’t originally from the area and one of the few who was independently wealthy. Still, that didn’t stop him from enjoying a free room, meals, ale, and anything else he could get his grubby hands on. And tormenting Mac was his favorite sport. It gave him a strange relief, like scratching a mosquito bite or releasing a deep sneeze.
“Sorry, Eury,” Mac said, shuddering. “I didn’t know it was you.”
“So who was it?”
“Don’t get cute with me, boy.” Eury glared, causing Mac to look away. “Who was it?”
“Nobody. Just some old friend of my father’s. Came here for a visit.”
Eury stepped forward and grabbed Mac by the front of his shirt. “Don’t give me that bullshit. I know that he wasn’t some old friend of your father’s. He’s a Lost Boy.”
“What?” Mac asked, lowering his eyebrows. “No way. He looks like he’s in his forties.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that he came here on a Lost Boy boat. He’s been all over town asking about your dad. So I’m gonna ask you one more time. And this time you’re going to tell me the truth. Who was he?”
“I told you already,” Mac said, trembling. “He’s nobody. Just some old friend of my father’s. From before the war.”
“If you think, for one second, that getting rid of me or any of those guys downstairs is going to be as easy as hiring a Lost Boy crew, you’re sadly mistaken, Mac.”
“I swear. On my mother. I didn’t invite him here, and I didn’t hire any Lost Boys for anything.”
Mac felt Eury’s grip loosen, and Eury took a few subtle steps backward.
“That’s good,” Eury said. “Good boy.”
Mac’s heart was nearly bursting from his chest.
“I know I’ve told you in the past what will happen if you ever try anything like that. But while I’m up here, maybe I should show you.” Eury stepped forward and jabbed Mac twice on the cheek with his right fist. Mac hit the floor, sliding. Eury shut the door behind him. Mac’s still-pounding heart began to sink as he heard the lock latch shut.
Eury picked him up and slugged him two more times. The only thing keeping Mac upright was Eury’s grip on his shirt.
“Please, Eury. I know. I won’t. I won’t do anything.”
Slug. Slug. Slug. Mac took another hard spill onto the floor. He was beginning to lose consciousness but happened to glance to his left and see the noose still neatly coiled under his bed. For a moment, he wished that today had been the day.
Simultaneous drops of blood and tears rolled off the curves of his smooth cheeks and onto the floor.
“Please don’t, Eury.”
Eury bent over to pick Mac up, but he, too, caught a glimpse of the noose. “Well, well, well. What do we have here?” Eury asked, reaching under the bed and pulling out the coil. “Coward’s way out. Big shocker.”
Mac’s vision became blurred while the rest of his senses were scrambling to run or hide. Suddenly, he felt a familiar feeling. The rope was around his neck. “It’s brilliant, actually,” Eury said, dragging Mac like a dog toward the balcony’s handrail. Using his free hand, Eury wrapped the other end of the rope around the balcony handrail and gave it a firm tug. “I’ve been thinking of ways I can kill you without getting on your mother’s bad side, and here you were about to do it for me.”
Mac’s fight, strength, and will were depleted. Through two swelling eyes and a mouthful of blood, he begged one last time. “Don’t. Please.”
“Nice knowing ya, Mac.” Eury grabbed Mac by the shoulders and threw him off the balcony.