Caleb sat in the shadow of a building within sight of the Cocytus, still trying to collect his nerves after his horrific crossing of the river. He knew they needed to move forward, now more than ever since they'd finally reached Elysium, but he needed time. He needed to get away from this place, but that was impossible.
Opening his eyes, he glanced at the nearby city square, where Orpheus played his guitar to a large crowd surrounding him. The sweet melody danced across the air to tantalize Caleb's ears, but he didn't feel like dancing to it. Instead he watched Orpheus, studying the psychopomp and trying to figure him out.
Even though the people laughed and clapped along to his music, the smile on Orpheus face was forced. His eyes remained dark and contemplative. His posturing remained that of a man who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet did so with the determination to carry it where it needed to go.
Orpheus was not a simple man, though he tried to pass as one. Caleb wondered how much Orpheus really saw, if there remained a single mystery left to uncover for him. Perhaps that was why he stayed, Caleb reasoned. Orpheus stayed because he felt there was nothing left to discover.
The backpack straps on Caleb's shoulders were beginning to chafe, and so he shrugged out of his pack and felt the weight shift inside as he set it down next to him. His mind quivered as he remembered what rested inside: Ethan's journal.
With trembling hands, he unzipped the large pocket of the backpack and peered inside. He reached in and withdrew the small, red book, holding it in front of his eyes as he considered the wear on the cover and the fading gold script embossed on the front. He wondered how many secrets were kept within these pages, how many times Ethan had asked the same questions the image of him had asked at the Cocytus.
Why do you love me?
The words echoed in Caleb's mind once again, the last words the river had spoken to him directly. He wanted to hide from them, and for a moment he considered tossing the journal as far from him as he could manage, but in the end, he couldn't. In the end, he opened the cover and began to read from a random point in time.
Today could've gone better. I was supposed to meet Caleb and Liz at the library to study, but my Mom said I had to clean my room. I don't know why she doesn't want me to succeed in school when I could clean anytime. Or maybe it's something else. Maybe she knows how I feel and doesn't want me to see Caleb.
No, I don't think that's true. If she knew, I'd probably be dead already, or at least homeless. Dad would never let me live in his house if he knew I was gay. Still, I should probably be more careful.
The handwriting was practiced and precise, even though the date of the entry was over two years ago. Two years. Caleb let that thought sink in. Ethan had loved him for at least that long, and yet they'd never spoken about it. All that time they could've spent together if either one had found the courage to speak.
He skipped to an earlier entry and read on. As he realized the subject, his breath caught in his throat.
So...so I learned something today. Something...I don't think I can admit this to anyone but you. I don't...Fuck, this is hard. Way harder than I thought it would be. I'm scared. My parents, my friends, especially Caleb, I don't know how they're going to react to me, you know?
We were sitting at the park, like usual, and Caleb was talking about how we should go swimming, and then he took off his shirt, saying he needed a tan, and I was like...I couldn't believe how good he looked. He was so cute! It wasn't just his body, you know. He'd just gotten his cast off from breaking his leg, and he'd spent so much time inside so he was so pale, but his smile, the way the sun lit him up. I just wanted to touch him. I wanted to.
Am I gay? Is that what this means? I don't want to be gay. But I want Caleb. I can't deny that anymore. I guess I've wanted him for a while. What should I do?
The entry ended without Ethan finding an answer, and Caleb's fresh tears joined the ink on the page. Four years. Ethan was thirteen when he fell in love, and he'd held onto the secret for that long. It was no wonder that there'd been so much tension between them. So much unresolved emotion.
Caleb nearly closed the book, but he decided to read the latest entry, hoping it would give him one last piece of insight into Ethan's feelings.
It seems I'm going to be alone now. Caleb is leaving town after summer is over, and Liz will probably be busy with other things. We've never been quite as close as I am with Caleb or as she is with Caleb, and I don't know if our friendship is going to survive without him here. Does she even care about me? I don't know. Certainly not in the same way she cares about him. I've seen the way she looks at him, the way...Maybe I really am jealous?
Yeah, but so what? What right do I have to be jealous? It's not like Caleb ever had a chance of being in love with me. I'm sure he's straight as an arrow. I can't be jealous of a feeling he can never direct at me. I've seen the way Caleb looks at Liz, too. Like there's always some secret between them that I've been excluded from.
I'm just so tired. I don't think I can do this alone. I think, when school starts up again and Caleb leaves town, I'm going to take my mom's pills or slit my wrists. I haven't decided which. Maybe both? Maybe that way if anyone finds me they won't be able to stop it.
If love is attainable, why should I care about life?
And maybe, if you're reading this now, then I went through with it. And, if it's you, Caleb, know that I've loved you for as long as I can remember. You're the first person who ever treated me like it was okay to be myself. I only wish I could've been honest with you.
The journal fell into Caleb's lap as his fingers lost the ability to hold anything. He wrapped his arms around his chest as it heaved with sobs. His mind raced across the miles and the weeks to the last time he saw Ethan, and he tried to picture what life would've been like if they'd simply opened up to each other.
But all he could pull up was the image of Ethan standing at the Cocytus, begging to know why Caleb had done as he'd done, and Caleb had no good answer. It was time to move on, to move forward, and to try and put the past lament behind him. He placed the journal back inside his backpack and glanced around for Orpheus, finding the psychopomp still at the gathering in the nearby square.
Caleb stood and stretched, tired muscles protesting the movement. He picked up his backpack and slung it back over his shoulders, then started toward the crowd, intending to collect Orpheus so they could resume their journey. Orpheus noted his approach and stopped mid-song; the crowd barely seemed to notice. They returned to their own lives almost instantly, laughing and playing in some other direction.
"Are you going to be okay, Caleb?" Orpheus asked when the guitar once more rested across his back. His eyes took on a sympathetic look again, though Caleb noted they remained as dark and contemplative as ever.
"I think so. Maybe. No," Caleb said. Shrugging deeply. "I don't know."
"The Cocytus is awful for those who are not ready to cross it," Orpheus said, clasping Caleb on the shoulder. "And yet you made it."
"I wasn't ready to cross it?" Caleb asked, drawing on the implied statement.
"No, I bet not," Orpheus replied. "You carry far too much guilt, and far too much attachment to your life before."
"I'm here to rescue Ethan," Caleb said. "That comes with attachment, and I'm not going to give it up."
Orpheus nodded. "Yes, I know. I didn't say your attachment was unwarranted. I only meant to say the attachment is what created your difficulty. I am impressed you made it across." He released Caleb's shoulder and commenced walking deeper into the city with Caleb mutely following beside him.
They walked through several city blocks with Caleb lost in introspection. He knew now that the image of Ethan came from him, but somehow that bothered him even more than thinking it was real. He didn't know what it said about him, to have conjured an image so helpless and demanding, an image which begged for love and yet, in the last minute, asked why Caleb loved it.
Caleb had to ask himself if that was how he truly saw Ethan. Had he always seen the helpless boy, crying for help and love? Did he love Ethan's need, or did he love the boy who needed? He needed answers, which seemed in short supply.
But there remained one to talk to who saw more than anyone else. Caleb stopped and turned to Orpheus. "Did you see him?" He asked.
"Hmm?" Orpheus asked, stopping as well.
"Did you see what I saw?" Caleb asked. "At Cocytus?"
Orpheus sighed. "Do you want to know what I see?"
"Well, you've stated before that because we are traveling together, this is as much your afterlife as mine. I'm curious if you get to see what I see."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I see everything the same way," Orpheus replied. "I am different. I'm a psychopomp, and you? You're a mortal who is in the Land of Death for the first time. If you'd spent a couple thousand years here as I have, then you'd see things differently, too. As it is, you've only spent a few months here, and that mea-"
"What?" Caleb asked, momentarily distracted from his earlier question. "It's only been a few hours!"
Orpheus' mouth quirked weirdly to the side as he asked sheepishly, "Did I neglect to mention time works differently here?"
Caleb crossed his arms and glared angrily at his guide. "Yes. Yes, you did."
Orpheus shrugged as if the news was completely irrelevant, which only served to irk Caleb more. Before Caleb could say anything to the shrug, however, Orpheus continued. "For some it's shorter, for others it's longer. You've been here roughly five or six months, I believe. My own ability to track the time of the outside world is limited. I follow Death's clock and answer to no other master of time."
Caleb growled deeply. "You're an asshole. All this time I thought I was trying to get there as fast as I could, so I could send Ethan back to Liz in the cave. Now what? Is Liz going to check back every so often, or will she move on? Has she completely forgotten about me?"
"I don't know," Orpheus replied. "I have little knowledge of the affairs of the living."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Caleb asked.
"It slipped my mind," Orpheus said weakly. He smiled, and Caleb frowned. With a sigh, Orpheus explained, "The general rule is not to tell those who've come here to die, so I usually don't mention it to the souls I guide, but in your case...I'm afraid the lines are blurred. I only mentioned it at all because it came up in conversation."
"I need a minute. Something to drink..." Caleb stepped away from Orpheus and looked around. He saw a fountain in the middle of a large plaza directly ahead of them. "Is that fountain safe to drink from?"
"If you like the taste of hellfire," Orpheus replied. "That's Phlegethon."
Caleb raised an eyebrow. "I thought you said it was a river?"
"And Elysium is a field," Orpheus said. "In your case, it's a city. Makes sense you'd make a river into a fountain. That plaza probably serves as an access to the Grand Tribunal, where souls worthy of it are cast down to Tartarus."
"That's great and all, but where can I get something to drink?" Caleb asked. "It's been hours, or months, since I've had anything to drink. Or to eat for that matter." He felt hungry, but he realized he wasn't actually famished. By his recollection, he hadn't eaten in at least twenty-four hours.
"You shouldn't drink anything here unless you're ready to embrace the side effects," Orpheus said, shaking his head firmly. Drink from any of the rivers and you'll have issues, though Lethe is the one which ends the journey. Eat any food? Then you belong here forever, and you'll begin to accept your fate. Happened to Persephone, and that's why you have seasons. Well, according to the myth, anyway, though there's truth to eating the fruits of death. They'll keep you."
"I'm just supposed to stay hungry and thirsty forever?" Caleb asked.
"You don't need to eat or drink," Orpheus explained. "You just habitually think you do. Eventually you'll realize it and then won't be hungry or thirsty anymore."
Caleb sighed and began walking forward again, toward the plaza. He kept a wary eye on the fountain as he approached. The people in this quarter of the city seemed less happy than in other parts, though they still seemed to be enjoying themselves in one way or another. Instead of smiles he saw sneers and roguish smirks, as if these inhabitants were planning nefarious schemes of some sort.
He paused at the fountain, examining the red, semi-transparent water. It shimmered like oil, and he wondered if he used his matches if the fountain would burst into flames. There was so much to learn here, so much to absorb. It seemed like around every corner there was something new to explore. Orpheus, although he'd withheld information, had also gone to great lengths to explain all the different twists and turns associated with the afterlife as they encountered them.
But there remained an inconsistency, and Caleb believed it needed to be addressed. "You keep going back and forth. On the one hand, you want me to let go, and on the other, you keep telling me things to help me survive and retain a sense of who I am. Why?" He asked.
"Caleb, I know you think I'm an asshole. A lot of people do, but I'm really just doing my job," Orpheus replied, keeping his own eyes locked on the fountain. "That being said, in certain cases, like when a person enters The Underworld as a living person the way you did, things are different. You are different. You can see behind the scenes already, and even if you somehow made it back to the living world and then died the normal way, when you returned you'd still be able to see behind the scenes."
"So, I'm special, but that doesn't completely explain why you can't make up your mind about me," Caleb said.
"Doesn't it though?" Orpheus asked. He sat down on the edge of the fountain and pulled the guitar from his back. He didn't play it though, he just rested it in his lap, staring at it. "Resting in the afterlife is good for people. You'll never have that chance unless you seek it directly. You'll always know, as I do, that there's something beyond the curtain. I could just let you eat the food, drink the waters, and go the way of everyone else, or I could try to make you become like me. You could become something down here, live forever as you study the mysteries of the afterlife."
"You want me to become a psychopomp like you?" Caleb asked.
Orpheus nodded, then looked up at Caleb. "I think you have the right mentality for it. Don't you?"
"Doesn't that mean I'd have to walk across the Cocytus again?" Caleb asked, staring at the pavement beneath him. The blackness reminded him of the dark waters, calling his name. He looked up to avoid letting his memories pull him back into his inner lamentations. "Every time I had to guide someone across, I mean."
"You'll find that no walk across the Cocytus is remotely as difficult as the first fording," Orpheus said. He pointed back the direction they'd come. "In fact, look."
Caleb looked where Orpheus pointed and saw that they'd walked far less than he'd expected. The black waters of the Cocytus still rushed past the town, but instead of the river it had been when he'd crossed it, it was now a small stream, like the first tendril of the Styx he'd crossed.
"It's barely a trickle," he whispered in awe and then noticed the road no longer ended at the river, either. A large stone bridge now crossed the small stream. "And now there's a bridge."
"You faced your fears, and so they have decreased," Orpheus said. "Your mind built the bridge out of your courage to face your inner demons. The waters will still call to you, but not nearly as strongly."
Just looking at the water reminded him of Ethan's gaunt form. "But I can still remember," he muttered.
"I said before, letting go is not the same as forgetting," Orpheus replied.
Caleb nodded, letting the memory of the river fade as he looked away. Before he completely let go of the thought, however, he remembered the cat-eyed dogs sitting on the boulders and staring at him. He'd yet to ask Orpheus about them, and when he tried to reason why, he realized that every time he'd tried to remember they'd slipped from his conscious mind. Their image remained frozen in his mind, now. He'd learned enough, gained enough control of his own perception, that he could control it to some degree. He was learning.
"What about the dogs?" He asked.
"The dogs?" Orpheus echoed, then nodded in sudden understanding. "Oh, you must mean Cerberus. Yes, I see..."
"You see?" Caleb replied.
"Well, I can't see him as you see him," Orpheus said, "not in this case. Cerberus is a manifestation of the land itself. He guards the way back. He allows entrance but not exit. He is a representation of your knowledge that you are dead."
"How do you get past Cerberus?" Caleb asked.
"I'm a psychopomp," Orpheus said, shrugging. "The Ruler allows Underworld guides access. There are other ways, but they're all tricky. Stay and learn; you'll find some of them."
"I'll consider it," Caleb said, then adjusted the straps on his backpack and took a determined step away from the fountain, looking toward the heart of the city. "But first, we need to find Ethan."
"Of course," Orpheus said, replacing the guitar on his back. "That's why we're in Elysium, isn't it?"
Caleb looked down at Orpheus and said, "How do I find him?"
"You love him, don't you?"
"More than anyone," Caleb confirmed, then smiled in recognition of the answer to his earlier question. He loved the boy who needed, not the needing.
Orpheus nodded once. "Use that."
Ethan had stopped visiting Liz and Jake. He didn't want to see either of them ever again, not until he'd succeeded at bringing Caleb back, anyway. They didn't understand anymore. They didn't live in his world, they lived in the world of the living, a world Ethan felt he had transcended long ago.
He spent a month outside the city cemetery, watching the patterns of those who worked in and around the place. He paid careful attention to the movements of law enforcement in the area, using a couple of spells he'd learned from Jake to make himself seem more inconspicuous.
After he was sure he'd found a window of time that he wouldn't be disturbed, shortly before dusk when the caretaker of the cemetery went home for the evening, Ethan sneaked into the cemetery, shovel in hand. He knew that, somewhere in the rearrangement of history after Caleb switched places with him, a grave marker with Caleb's name had been inserted into the graveyard. What Ethan had been surprised to learn was that it rested in the same spot where his own body had once been interred.
Ethan felt a strange sense of romance, thinking that he had lain where Caleb now rested, as if it connected them in yet another mystical way, adding an extra layer of nuance to their already complicated existence together. Hopefully, Ethan mused, within the next few days, neither Ethan nor Caleb would have to worry about laying there again for a long time to come.
He spied a familiar form standing atop a nearby hill and slowed his approach. A flick of a lighter illuminated Jake's face as he lit the joint hanging between his lips. Ethan stopped at the base of the hill, shovel in hand, staring up at his former friend. "What are you doing here, Jake?" Ethan called.
Jake nodded upward in acknowledgement, and blew out a large cloud of pot-infused smoke. He bent down and picked up a 4-compartment cup holder with two occupied slots. "I've been tracking you through a scrying pool I made out of a kiddie pool a while back, waiting to see when you came to dig up Caleb's body," Jake said as he descended the hill. "I thought you might want some coffee if you're going to be staying up all night digging a hole."
At the bottom of the hill, Jake pulled one of the white cups from the holder and handed it to Ethan, taking the other one for himself, dropping the cup holder to the ground. Ethan looked at the cup, then took a sip. It was sweet, but strong, just the way he liked it. He took a second sip then gestured with the cup, asking, "You're not going to try and stop me?"
"And let you do to me what you did to Liz?" Jake asked, shaking his head firmly. "Hardly." He laughed and added, "I did consider calling the cops, though, but I realized that would be a bad idea."
Ethan rolled his eyes, taking another sip of coffee. After swallowing it, he asked, "You, of all people, almost called the cops on me?"
"Yeah, but I realized you weren't going to be dissuaded, and even if I'm not too fond of local law enforcement, it's not like I want them dead." Jake sighed and shrugged. "I admit, I'm a bit afraid of you. Lately you've been, uh, shit...unpredictable?"
"You should be afraid," Ethan said. He took another sip and then put his back to Jake, walking toward the grave. He stopped, planting the shovel in the ground and placing the coffee in the grass next to it. When he straightened, he crossed his arms over his chest and asked, "Why are you really here?"
Jake took another long drag on his joint before answering. "Because, even though I'm afraid, I have to let you know..." He paused to meet Ethan's eyes. "There's a lot of pain coming your way if you continue down this road. Not from me, not from Liz, and not from anyone else but you."
Ethan let out an exasperated sigh. "Why can't you just let me do this in peace?"
"My old man, he was the real deal, like you," Jake said. He took another drag. "He had a knack for magic like few have ever had. He could think and it would be done. That didn't protect him from being stupid one day and getting shot. The thing about death, it's going to happen either way. You can't live forever, and no one should."
"Eternal youth," Ethan said. "Why'd you take it?"
"Because I was young and stupid. Shit, dude, I'm still young and stupid," Jake laughed, but the laughter quickly faded to coughing on pot-smoke. He took another drag anyway, and after he released it, he continued. "Liz makes me want to be smarter though. Did you know she convinced me to enroll in college? I'm starting in the spring semester next year..." He shook his head with wonder. "Shit, dude, I'm a thirty-year-old druggie who dropped out of high school fifteen years ago, and then again seven years ago, and then again four years ago. I keep going back, but I hate school, and yet, now I'm finally going to college. It's the first time I've gone to college, man..." He took another drag and then dropped the joint to the ground, crushing it beneath his heel. "It's my first time, and I'm fucking terrified, you know?"
Ethan sighed. If Jake's plan was to distract him from digging up the grave by talking all night, he was about to find out just how impatient Ethan was. "Why'd you take eternal youth, Jake?" He asked.
"You think you know what life is, you think it's so simple," Jake replied. Ethan realized Jake was referring to both of them in that statement and listened intently. "It's all just give and take, the natural order of things, survival of the fittest. Who wouldn't want to be young forever, right? But then you realize that everyone else is aging and you can't relate. Everyone else is growing up, and you're just an old man in a young man's body, and you think you somehow have a handle on the world because of it." Jake shook his head, then met Ethan's eyes, and he seemed more lucid than he ever had before. "But you don't know, and you don't have a handle on it."
"I don't, huh?" Ethan asked. "What makes you think you and I are the same?"
Jake smirked. "Come on, I'll help you dig," he said. "I brought an extra shovel, but I left it up by the tree. Give me a sec."
Ethan raised an eyebrow and asked, "What makes you think I'll accept your help?"
"Because it sucks to dig a hole all by yourself, especially when you'll have to fill it right back up," Jake replied, grinning. "I've dug enough holes in my life to know." He walked away without waiting for another word from Ethan.
Ethan shrugged to himself and picked up the coffee, taking another sip before moving it out of the way, then picked up the shovel and started to dig at the grave. He only managed to move a few shovelfuls of tough sod before Jake came down the hill and planted a shovel in the dirt.
They dug together in silence, moving at an almost feverish pace. The great thing about the eternal youth both had gained was that their bodies could endure a great deal more exertion than other's could. They were in their prime, and with a little nudge from caffeine, they managed to get down to the top of the coffin in no time at all.
Ethan's shovel scraped against the wood, and he looked up at the sound, seeing Jake standing over his shovel, watching him expectantly. Ethan bent down and removed a couple more shovelfuls of dirt before turning to look at Jake again. Jake remained unmoving.
"Do you want to know what really pisses me off?" Ethan asked.
"Sure," Jake replied immediately.
"It pisses me off that Liz has moved on," Ethan says. "It's like she's forgotten Caleb."
Jake shook his head and moved a few shovelfuls of dirt away from the top of the coffin, then started digging at the side to free up the lid. "No. She hasn't. In fact-"
"What?" Ethan snapped. "What can you possibly tell me that-"
"Let me finish, dude," Jake said, holding up his hand. He dug around the lid some more as he talked. "I promised I wouldn't say anything, but...she's pregnant, Ethan. We're going to have a baby."
This immediately stopped Ethan from digging, earning his full attention. "Holy shit, why didn't she say anything?"
"She wanted to, but she didn't want to..." Jake sighed and looked at Ethan. Ethan saw the anger in Jake's eyes, but he also saw empathy, and he hung his head in shame. Jake had every right to be angry, after what Ethan had done to Liz, but despite that, here was Jake, helping him dig the hole his girlfriend had been against digging. "She didn't want to pull you away from what was important to you. She cares about you, more than you may ever realize."
"But..." Ethan punched the dirt wall in front of him. "Fuck, I feel like such an asshole. I threw her against the wall. Is the baby all right?" he risked a look up to Jake, who seemed pleased by this question.
"Yeah," Jake said softly. "He's doing fine."
"He?" Ethan asked. "It'll be a boy then?"
"Yeah," Jake laughed. He wiggled his eyebrows and added, "We're more certain than the doctors are. Did a little divination."
"We're going to name him Caleb," Jake said gently.
Ethan bit his lip uncertainly. "Why?"
"Because moving on doesn't mean forgetting," Jake replied. "It just means things are different, because that's what life is."
Ethan looked away, tears threatening to escape his eyes. He hadn't cried in months, it seemed. He'd been too angry to, too obsessed. But Jake was trying to put Ethan in touch with his humanity, to make him feel something other than his obsession. Ethan couldn't allow that, and so he distracted Jake the best way he knew how. "She doesn't know you're here, does she?"
"How'd you figure that out?" Jake asked, smirking.
"Because once she let me go, she moved on," Ethan replied. "You should, too."
Jake stared at Ethan for a long time, so long it seemed the world stopped to witness it. And then he nodded, smiling sadly. He put a hand on Ethan's shoulder and clasped it gently, then threw his shovel out of the hole. He climbed out after it, and Ethan returned his attention to the coffin.
Opening it proved to be more difficult than he expected, but he finally managed to find the leverage just as Jake picked up his shovel and turned to go. Before Jake had even taken a step, he stopped as Ethan said, "Fuck."
Ethan peered down into a completely unused coffin, his eyes misting over completely as tears streamed down his face. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. "It's empty," he whispered. "The goddamn thing is empty."
"Ethan?" Jake said.
"Yes?" Ethan sniffled.
"I know you're going to go forward anyway, so let me save you some trouble."
Ethan looked up at Jake, despite meaning showing his emotional state. "What do you know?"
"From what I understand, Liz summoned Orpheus, right?" Jake asked.
"I'm a bit rusty on my Greek, but I believe Orpheus walked physically into The Underworld. Caleb probably did, too. Finding his body is going to be a dead end."
Ethan snorted derisively and closed the lid of the coffin with a resounding thud. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"Ethan. I mean it," Jake said. Ethan looked up and saw that he did indeed mean it. There was nothing but sincerity in Jake's eyes. "You need to look elsewhere, bro." He nodded when Ethan remained silent, and then turned to go.
"Jake?" Ethan called after him.
Jake turned back once more. "Yeah?"
Ethan smiled sincerely for the first time in months and nodded. "Thanks."
Jake laughed awkwardly and said, "You know, maybe I'm going to be a lowlife forever, but I have hope for the future."
"You're going to have a kid. I think that comes with the territory," Ethan replied.
"Yeah, and you know what?" Jake asked. "Liz chose his middle name, too." He paused for effect and then said, "Caleb Ethan Sanders." Ethan looked away, not wanting Jake to see how the name affected him. "She loves you, Ethan. I hope, even as you continue to distance yourself from us, you'll see that."
"You're not as tough as you think," Ethan said, forcing his voice to remain steady. "You're getting soft, family man."
"No," Jake confirmed. "Never was as tough as I thought I was. We never are." He turned to go again, but once more Ethan stopped him.
"Aren't you going to stay and help me fill in the hole?" Ethan asked.
"No," Jake replied. "But I think it'll do you some good to do it the manual way. You should get home and warm after that, though. It's getting cold."
"Goodnight, Jake," Ethan said, nodding his appreciation once more.
Jake inclined his head in response. "G'night, Ethan."
And then he was gone, and shovelful by shovelful Ethan covered the grave once more.
"Ethan?" Caleb called. "Ethan!?"
"You're calling to him?" Orpheus asked. "Interesting tactic. There's what, billions of people in this city? I'm sure he'll hear you."
Caleb glanced darkly at Orpheus. "You're not helping. Where's that guidance you promised?"
"I told you," Orpheus replied, "use love."
"And how exactly should I go about doing that?" Caleb asked.
"Reach out with your heart and find him," Orpheus said. "That's the best thing you can do."
Caleb was about to protest that this, too, didn't really help, and then he realized he'd done it before. He'd done it the day Ethan died, when he'd read Ethan's text and knew exactly where he'd be. He knew in his heart that Ethan would be somewhere he felt a connection to those he loved, and if Caleb attached himself to that connection, he could find Ethan.
Looking within himself, Caleb closed his eyes and felt for something familiar, searching everything around him for something Ethan would be drawn to. A warmth overtook him, and he stepped toward it, then opened his eyes. The street ahead seemed familiar somehow, and he knew the path would take him to answers.
"This way," Caleb said, walking down the street toward the warmth.
"That's the spirit!" Orpheus said exuberantly.
They walked for a couple of blocks, and the buildings began to shift around them. As they proceeded, the road began to curve, and suddenly they were on small-town suburban streets.
"Where is this?" Caleb asked, then glanced at a familiar street sign, amazed at its presence. "Wait, how'd we get here?"
"You're in your hometown," Orpheus said. "Figures it would be around here somewhere. After all, it's still your afterlife."
"Yeah, but now where do I look?" Caleb asked. "I can't feel his presence anymore."
At Orpheus suggestion, Caleb began walking through the familiar streets of his hometown. He knew how to get to his house, Ethan's house, Liz's house, and the park from anywhere in town, and it didn't take him long to navigate the streets to arrive at the Pallet residence.
No one occupied these streets as they had in the rest of Elysium. This place appeared to be entirely a construction of his own mind, uninhabited except by the ghosts he placed there. The problem was, the house felt almost as dead as the town did.
"He isn't here," Caleb said, shaking his head. "I know he isn't here."
"Why?" It wasn't really a question from Orpheus, more like a suggestion, getting Caleb to think about the rules of the land. Caleb recognized its purpose, and tried to step outside the issue and see it differently. The answer clicked almost immediately.
"No, of course he's not here..." Caleb said, turning to look in the direction of the city park. "I need to go somewhere important to him. Somewhere he'd be happy."
"You're learning," Orpheus observed. "Good."
They walked in silence. Seeing the streets so deserted was surreal to Caleb, yet not entirely uncomfortable. He'd often wondered what his town would look like if no one lived there anymore, if he and Ethan and Liz had the place entirely to themselves. He walked past places where he and Liz had ridden bikes together, and the first and last place he'd ever used a skateboard when he broke his leg.
He took the long way, remembering that time flowed differently here, and he walked past the high school, seeing it was just as empty as the rest of the town. He considered walking through the halls, getting lost in the empty feeling as he remembered all the different things he'd done and seen in those once crowded halls.
A short way from the school, he kicked a pebble and was brought back to the present. He smiled, and ran the rest of the way to the park.
"What's with the park?" Orpheus asked when Caleb pulled up short a few yards away from the maintenance shed.
"This is where he died, but it's also where we spent a lot of our time together," Caleb explained, heading around the back of the shed. "Just around the shed here, there's a secret spot-"
. . . He could hear Ethan laughing before he approached, the delighted sound of a twelve-year-old having the time of his life. Liz giggled in response, and it made Caleb rush toward the break in the hedges, wanting to know what all the excitement was about.
As he came bustling through the bushes, he saw Ethan sprawled against his favorite tree, a comic book in his hands, Liz lying next to him, reading over his shoulder. Ethan heard Caleb's approach and lowered the comic book before Caleb could see what it was.
"Hey, Caleb!" Liz said, standing to greet him. "We thought you'd never make it!"
"Yeah, about time, slowpoke," Ethan said, holding out the comic book to him. "Check this out!"
Caleb took the comic, his eyes widening in shock. It was the new issue following their favorite shared superhero. Ethan never had the money for such things, and his parents rarely approved, so to see it in Ethan's hands was a thing of wonder. "You have the new issue? No way!?"
"Yeah. My parents actually bought it for me," Ethan said, holding his hand out to take the book back. Instead of giving it back, Caleb sat down next to Ethan and opened it up so they both could see. "Strange, since it has demons in it and stuff."
"No way, demons?" Caleb asked. "That's wicked! He's never fought demons before!"
"You two are hilarious," Liz said, rolling her eyes. "Demons don't exist. And I would know, I'm studying magic."
"Shut up, Liz," Ethan scolded.
Liz crossed her arms and said in a huff, "Maybe I should just leave you two alone with your superheroes."
"Don't be a spoilsport. It's not like we're trying to exclude you. Just a second ago, you said you didn't like it," Caleb replied.
"Caleb, check this part out!" Ethan said excitedly, drawing both Caleb and Liz's attention back to the page. It showed a clear image of the hero bashing the face of a monstrous demon in with his fist.
"Man, that looks so cool!" Caleb said.
"Boys!" Liz exclaimed.
They continued to read the comic, Caleb inching closer until his shoulder touched Ethan's. He became acutely aware of the thin pieces of fabric separating them along with the distinct scent of strawberries touching his nose. He breathed in deeply, realizing the scent came from Ethan's hair, and was accompanied by a touch of sweat and the earthy scent of the dirt around them. He smiled, amazed at how good the mixture smelled, and then smiled even wider when Ethan turned his head toward Caleb, his eyes dancing in the morning light...
"What do you see, Caleb?" Orpheus asked as the memory faded.
"It's just a memory."
"Yeah. It's the day I fell in love with him," Caleb said, breathing deeply. He could still smell the strawberries. "I remember, we sat there, reading that comic book together, and we leaned into each other. His shoulder touched mine; I could smell the scent of his soap mixing with his own scent and the scents of the world around us. When he looked at me, showing me the part he was so excited about, those eyes...so full of life and happiness. It was a perfect moment, ya know?"
Orpheus nodded, looking around the park. "Maybe he's here."
"No," Caleb said, "it's just a memory."
"It's not always that simple," Orpheus replied. "Stay awhile, reach for him."
Caleb did as instructed, and soon another memory took hold of him.
. . . Caleb looked up as Ethan came around the corner of the shed. He'd grown a lot in the last year, but he was still skinny and short for a fourteen-year-old. His size didn't matter to Caleb, though. It was the way he smiled and the way his eyes lit up whenever Ethan talked about one of his interests that really had hold over Caleb's heart.
He loved the way Ethan moved, loved everything about him. "Hey," Caleb said, "Liz isn't going to make it today."
"So it'll just be you and me?" Ethan asked.
"Yeah," Caleb replied as Ethan sat down at the tree across from him. "She said she has homework."
"She should really do that before summer vacation to avoid summer school," Ethan replied, snickering. Caleb realized, however, that the laughter didn't quite reach Ethan's eyes. Something was bothering him. Caleb could always tell when something bothered Ethan, because he knew what to watch for. He couldn't stop watching.
"Yeah," Caleb said, coughing as he pulled his knee up to disguise his quickly tenting crotch. "So, what do you want to do?"
"Just talk," Ethan said.
"Really?" Caleb asked, trying to sound less interested than he was. If he let out the amount of exuberance he felt about just talking with Ethan, Ethan would think he was high.
"Yeah..." Ethan said. "Do we have to do something?"
"No. I just find it a little surprising," Caleb replied, trying to cover up his awkwardness. "You sound like something's bothering you."
"Yeah, something is," Ethan admitted. He was silent for a moment, then he plucked a blade of grass and started fidgeting with it. "Hey, do you think I'm some kind of Jesus Freak?"
"No," Caleb replied firmly. "You don't act like most of the kids at your church."
"Yeah..." Ethan said absently, looking away, staring at the back of the shed as he ripped the blade of grass in two. "I don't think I believe in that stuff."
"Really?" Caleb asked. "I don't go to church, so you probably already realize it, but I don't think I believe in it, either."
Ethan nodded. He returned his attention to Caleb and said, "Yeah. I'm pretty certain I'm an atheist."
"Wow, really?" Caleb asked.
"Yeah. I don't..." Ethan shook his head forcefully. "I think if there's a God, he pretty much has to be a real asshole."
"Shit," Caleb laughed, "Ethan, you never swear."
"Why worry about swearing if there's no God?" Ethan asked, smirking. "No afterlife? Nothing? Who's gonna punish me, my parents?"
"I don't mind," Caleb replied, smiling encouragingly. "Hell, I think it's pretty cool."
"Thanks, Caleb," Ethan said, grinning wide. "I'm glad I can talk to you about things like this."
That grin almost sent Caleb over the edge. He wanted to hug Ethan and let him know everything would be all right, but instead he held back, adjusting the position of his legs again and realizing if he got up anytime soon, Ethan would immediately know just how cool Caleb thought it was...
"Is everything all right?" Orpheus asked.
Ethan was an atheist. The thought reverberated through Caleb's mind like a voice in a cave. He had no other thought. He knew what that meant. "Yeah, just..." He shook his head. "He's not here."
"You're sure," Orpheus observed.
"Yeah," Caleb replied. "Let's move on." He'd left Ethan in the Warden's care, wandering in the darkness without even going toward the light. Ethan had never entered the afterlife, never even saw the rivers or Elysium or endured the trial at Cocytus. Ethan was left in darkness, and Caleb had abandoned him once again.
"Don't you want to keep looking in your hometown?" Orpheus asked. "If he's anywhere, he's going to be here."
"No. I..." Caleb said. Goosebumps appeared across his flesh, his body began to shake. "I need to escape."
"What do you mean, you need-" Orpheus began, but then his expression shifted to one of pure annoyance. "Hang on. I'm sorry, Caleb, but I have to take care of something."
And then Orpheus folded sideways and disappeared from sight, leaving Caleb alone in the park he'd created from his own mind. Caleb didn't care, he wanted to be alone anyway.
As he walked, his foot kicked at a small pebble, but he didn't notice. The pebble bounced and landed inside of his shoe, coming to rest underneath his heel. It hurt, but Caleb didn't care. At least the pain meant something.
Orpheus. Ethan had skirted around the issue from the beginning, but Jake's words had opened a door in his mind. He tackled Greek mythology with a vengeance, learning everything he could about the one Liz had called upon to bring him back to life in exchange for Caleb.
As he studied, his resolve firmed up more than ever. He could do this, could do one better than Liz. He didn't even need the body, not if Caleb already possessed his body in the afterlife. All he needed was to exert his will, powered by his pure emotion.
It took him another month of meditation to prepare himself mentally for the trip up to the mountains. He drove there in silence, watching every turn of the road with deadly focus. It was late December, and the higher canyon roads were closed due to high snowfalls, but he didn't care. He came to the gate which blocked the upper reaches during winter and stopped only for a moment.
He stepped out of the car and walked up to the gate to see the chain which held it shut then lashed out with his telekinesis to break it. He'd quickly surpassed Liz's ability with the skill, a fact exemplified when he pushed the heavy metal gate open with his mind. He then climbed back into the car and drove forward.
When he reached the snowy areas, he used his mind as a plow, his focus serving to clear the road ahead of him. He never slowed the car, just kept driving, trusting with perfect faith that he could clear the path before he reached it.
He repeated the process until he reached the Cherry Creek Cave trailhead. He parked in the snowbank and stepped out of the vehicle. The mountain air was cold, well below freezing, but Ethan hardly noticed. Focusing agents had mostly lost meaning to him, but he reached up and touched the small pendant he now wore. Clutching the crystal, he imagined a crystalline shell of energy around him, protecting his body from the elements. As he willed, so did it become, and the wind bent around him.
With enough layers to keep him warm even if the spell failed, he started out onto the trail. He glanced at the first marker only briefly, but then ignored the rest of them. He could sense the trail beneath his feet, the residual energy of all those human feet which had traveled this way before. He knew where to go; getting there would be no problem at all.
The hike didn't take long. He remembered one of Liz's first lessons, that magic required energy, but he had learned months ago that he could feed off the energy of nature itself to fuel both his body and his spells. The trees fed him as he walked past, losing some of their color and health, but not enough to kill them. They would rebound, gaining their energy back with the sun. He hadn't yet learned to feed from the sun itself, but he would in time. He knew it could be done. All things could be done.
When he reached the cave, he found it spoke to him, telling him of all that had come before its cavernous mouth. He reached into the stone, seeking to understand. He went back six months, then a few more days, then a few more hours, until he found the moment in question. He could see two people, Caleb and Liz, sitting down and preparing to cast a spell to bring Ethan back to life.
With a flick of his wrist, Ethan ripped branches from the nearby trees with his mind. They floated toward him as if on water, guided by the current of Ethan's will until he arranged them in the exact spot Caleb had built the fire six months before.
His eyes flashed, channeling the pure fire of his soul, and the wet wood dried instantly, then flamed to life. A roaring blaze reached toward the high ceiling of the cave's mouth. Ethan walked toward the front of the cave, so he could peer through the flames toward the back of the cavern.
With a voice full of power, he spoke, his words resounding and fearsome.
"Orpheus, Lord of Music, child of Muse and man, I beseech you," Ethan called. He held his arms out wide as Liz had done, showing his openness as he beckoned to the beyond.
"I call on you as one who has died, one whose soul was guided." Ethan continued, surging with the emotion of his devotion to Caleb. He could feel Caleb's presence there, the last place on Earth where Caleb had been alive. He drew on the strength from that presence, let it fill him with the conviction he needed.
"You will answer my call, Orpheus, as it was answered on my behalf. You will grant me the soul of my love. You will grant me the resurrection of Caleb Nield!" Ethan roared, his words bouncing off the walls and making them shake. The whole Earth seemed to respond to the power of Ethan's decree.
The fire went out as quickly as it had started, and where it had burned, a man in a black suit and tie stood in its place. He wore a guitar on his back and sported long, chestnut-brown hair. "You called?" Orpheus asked, his eyes flashing with annoyance.
Ethan reached deep within himself, pulling on every ounce of binding magic he knew, and the rock exploded beneath Orpheus' feet. As the dust cleared, it revealed a perfect circle carved into the stone, a circle built of ancient Sumerian runes. A binding circle more ancient than Orpheus himself.
Ethan smirked and opened his mouth to begin listing his demands, but Orpheus waved him away with the back of his hand. The air picked Ethan up and carried him hard into a tree, where he landed in a heap. "Pesky warlock," Orpheus growled, "I'm in the middle of something, and I won't have you messing it up."
It wasn't long before Caleb realized he was lost. He saw many people throughout Elysium, but he didn't feel approaching them would get him anywhere. None of them paid him any heed, they only seemed concerned with whatever pleasant images they saw ahead of them.
He, on the other hand, remained fixated on the memory of Ethan's declaration. Ethan was an atheist.
Ethan remained in the dark. 'How long had he been in the Underworld?' Caleb wondered. Had it been years? Centuries? Time passed differently for everyone in the afterlife, and for Caleb it now seemed as if he'd walked for an eternity without answers.
Only one person ever seemed to have answers, and he no longer knew if that person could be trusted. Had Orpheus not sworn that Ethan would be here? Had he not said that Caleb would find him here? But now Orpheus, too, had abandoned him. Caleb had called out to him, so many times he'd lost count, but there'd been no reply.
Be that as it may, as he struggled through a part of Elysium he had never seen before, he called yet again. "Orpheus? Orpheus?"
"You're looking for Orpheus, are you?" A woman answered. It was so surprising to hear a response, it took a moment for Caleb to realize the sound hadn't been within his own skull. He looked to the source of the words, a beautiful, raven-haired woman dressed all in white. She sat at the edge of a fountain. Grey, murky water poured from the eyes of a statue at the top. The statue also had the form of a woman, similar in build to the woman which sat before him.
"Who are you?" Caleb asked, taking a defensive step back from her.
"You know me," the woman said gently. Caleb studied her face and saw that her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying for some time. Her cheeks were dry, however, as if she'd stopped a few minutes before he arrived on the scene. "Come this way," the woman beckoned, patting the stones next to him.
Caleb's eyes lit up with recognition. "You're the woman who follows Orpheus around, aren't you?"
"Yes. My name is Eurydice," The woman replied sadly. "He doesn't see me anymore."
Caleb approached cautiously, stopping a few feet in front of her. "What? How come?"
"He's afraid to look back. To see what he's lost," Eurydice replied. "It's something the two of you have in common, though by all appearances, it seems you're now looking back and wondering."
"How do you know about me?" Caleb asked. "We haven't met."
"I can see it in you," Eurydice replied. "I, too, have drunk from the Mnemosyne. Though now..." She gestured at the fountain beside her.
"What is this?" Caleb asked. He felt he could trust her, and so he came and sat beside her as she'd originally beckoned.
"The River Lethe," Eurydice said. She reached out and ran her fingers through the water of the fountain, cupping her hand to catch some and then letting the water fall through her fingers. "Can you not see it?"
Caleb shook his head. "Not as a river. I see it as a fountain."
Eurydice nodded in understanding. "And I sit upon its edge and not the riverbanks. I see. You're a man of the modern age, surely. I can see it in how you see things."
"Yes," Caleb replied. "I've only been here for..." He sought for some understanding of the reckoning of time, but he found no knowledge waiting for him. "I don't know, not anymore, but less than a year, I imagine."
Eurydice nodded and fell silent, giving Caleb an opportunity to consider the water. It felt familiar, like the comfort of an old friend. The water wanted to embrace him, to bring him into the sweet enveloping bliss of oblivion. He remembered what Orpheus said the water could do, that it could erase the memory and with it the pain of the past. Without Orpheus to guide him, he felt he'd never find The Ruler, never free Ethan from the darkness, never be truly at peace. His mouth felt dry. He wanted to drink.
"I spend all my time here, these days," Eurydice said, staring into the water as she stirred it with her hand. "I consider drinking from the water, but I never do."
"Why what?" Eurydice asked. "Why do I consider, or why do I not drink?"
"Either, I suppose."
"To drink means an end to this. It means I'm ready to commit my soul to oblivion and forget. It means..." She sighed and met his gaze. Their eyes communicated their mutual sadness, their common despair, and he understood her pain. Despite this, she continued, accenting her emotion with words, "it means that I will no longer love as I have loved, and no longer weep as I have wept for my love. I suppose it is really the same answer to either question, when it comes right down to it."
Caleb nodded, feeling that he, too, should give voice to his doubts. "I've learned my whole journey here has been a lie. Ethan was never here. I must have left him back in the very beginning."
"Ethan?" Eurydice asked.
Caleb nodded. "My true love. I came here to rescue him from the afterlife."
"No wonder Orpheus likes you," Eurydice replied, her sad smile returning to her lips. "He must see himself in you."
"He told me I'd find Ethan here, but I no longer believe that," Caleb explained.
"You don't need to find him to rescue him," Eurydice replied, placing her hand on top of Caleb's. He could feel the River Lethe on her skin. It felt like the lull of a quiet, deep slumber. It felt like the foggy realization that you have dreamt a pleasant dream, but can no longer remember. "You can still ask The Ruler to exchange your life for his, if that is your desire. You need not find Ethan to make the exchange, for Death knows all his subjects, though he does not know his own heart."
Caleb cocked his head to the side, considering Eurydice. "You speak for Death as if you know him intimately."
"I have been here as long as Orpheus," Eurydice said. "You learn a few things after so much time."
Caleb nodded, and considered the water once more. It promised a release, a release he now felt he might desire after all. "What if I reach the end and cannot achieve what I want?"
"Drink from Lethe, and you'll move on. It's what I would do," Eurydice replied.
"Then I'll take some of the water," Caleb said. He withdrew his canteen and opened it, then remembered he had already acquired the waters of the Styx. He poured them out on the pavement, letting go of the hateful waters. He then placed the canteen under the water, loving the way the water splashed over his hand like a gentle caress. Once the canteen was full, he closed it and replaced it in his backpack. "A suicide pill, I guess, should I be unable to accomplish my mission."
"Seems reasonable," Eurydice replied, smiling. Caleb stood, and she followed his movement with her eyes. "Are you going, then?"
"Yes. I go to seek The Ruler. You were right, I'd given up too easily," Caleb replied. "Even if Orpheus isn't here to guide me anymore, I can still accomplish my mission. Can you point me in the right direction, Eurydice?"
"You seek the Styx, at the far edge of Elysium," Eurydice replied. "Simply seek the edge, and you will find it. When you cross the Styx, you will be at the seat of The Ruler."
Caleb bowed his appreciation, "Thank you for your kindness."
"You are most welcome," Eurydice replied. "May you find the peace you seek." She turned away from him then and cupped both her hands beneath the water, then lifted them up to her face.
"What are you doing?" Caleb asked.
"I'm drinking the waters of Lethe," Eurydice replied. "You gave me my choice."
"My love is gone, and I remember, so what choice do I have?" Eurydice said. She smiled the saddest smile Caleb had ever seen. "Death knows all his subjects, but he does not know his own heart." She met her hands with her lips and drank deeply, letting the water slide down her throat.
Eurydice's shoulder slumped, her face glowing as her eyes fluttered opened and closed. She started to fall and Caleb reached out to catch her. "Eurydice?" He asked.
Her eyes opened slightly and she murmured, "Who, who are you? Who is...who is Eurydice?"
"I'm sorry for your loss," Caleb said. His arms felt light, and suddenly she was gone, disappearing as if she had never existed. But she remained in Caleb's memory, a fragment of a ghost he'd carry with him as he moved forward. He looked up, fresh tears in his eyes as he imagined the edge of Elysium and walked toward it.