The coffin carrying Anastasia’s body descended to its final resting place. With each moment George wavered and quivered, just like his heart did, as if giving up. From time to time he shook his head in denial. He never stopped touching and turning his wedding ring. The sunglasses he wore did little to hide his sorrow, the inconsolable sobs. Pats of condolence from their friends and her family did even less to comfort him.
At some point he stretched his arm as if to caress an image of hers, visible only to him but stopped short. His guilt fuelled his tears. A summer breeze waved the ribbons on the wreaths as if to answer his outstretched arm. Everything had slowed down for him. His whole world was now resting under the soil.
They had been together five and a half years, ever since he was brought to the hospital where she was visiting a family member. Total Long-term Memory Loss, was his diagnosis. Anastasia had paid him several visits before she decided to help him out. He had seemed so lost back then. Now, that same sense of loss and emptiness returned, enveloping George.
Two nights ago, on the way home from her school reunion, he had lost control of their car. Their last happy day together. They had laughed at the old jokes, congratulated her friends on the achievements in their lives; envied the ones who showed her photos of their children. During a spin on the dance floor, George had told her it was time to try for a baby. The tears she shed then were tears of joy.
“You crazy impulsive fool,” she had said smiling, drowning him in kisses.
Her elation had made him love her more and his joy for her happiness made him drink a few extra shots. That was the reason the police had given for the accident. No one believed he had seen a dark hooded figure and that he had swerved to avoid it. Everyone admitted, though, that her airbag should have opened regardless. It mattered little.
George had woken up a couple of hours later in a hospital’s emergency room, unscathed – a ‘divine intervention’ the doctors called it – and somehow he knew. An unheard voice kept repeating what he feared the most. The doctors, faces sullen, merely confirmed the truth. He wailed, collapsed, and eventually woke up in the same hospital bed, alone.
* * *
When he got home after the funeral, the deathly silence and the emptiness of the house pressed hard on him. He stood looking at their bed, that empty cradle of their love and dreams, with swollen and tear-laden eyes. Come morning, he woke up curled into a ball at the foot of her side of the bed.
The door bell rang and after several rings he forced himself up and went downstairs. Struggling to compose himself, he answered the door and saw a young woman clad in black. She wore a pair of big sunglasses that hid half her face.
“Mr Montrose I presume, yes?” she asked, dragging the last word, as if it was no more than a boring formality for her.
George sighed and tried hard to word a response.
“I’m sorry but this is not a very good time for –”
“George Montrose, the recently widowed, yes?” she lowered her sunglasses enough for him to get a glimpse of her grey eyes. Her stare caused him to take a step back. A knot formed on the back of his throat. In the recesses of his mind, something acknowledged her as vaguely familiar for the briefest of moments, yet try as he might, he couldn’t tell for sure.
“Come, we have much to talk about you and I,” she said as she made her way into the house. He stood in the doorway dumbfounded, gawking.
“My name is Mrs Chalings,” she said and gave him a business card.
“Umm, listen, I’m not sure you have the right person,” he said as he took her card. The velvet on it matched the colour of her clothes. In golden letters it read P. Chalings, Post-mortem related services, Assistant Managing Director.
She looked around at his house and moved closer to the window.
“Really? You are George Montrose, married to Anastasia Hornsby, who died in a car accident four days ago, yes?” She removed her glasses in a swift motion. Her gaze sent shivers down George’s spine. Where had he seen her before?
She moved the curtains slightly and had a peek at the garden Anastasia had been tending with so much love.
“Lovely garden,” she said and sniffed. “Where I live I can’t seem to be able to keep anything like that alive for long.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes tight. He exhaled audibly, then cleared his throat.
“What do you want, Mrs Chalings? As you said, there’s been a death in the family and I’d rather spend some time alone if you don’t mind.” He opened the door wider, signaling for her to leave.
“You blame yourself for her death, yes?”
George’s eyes bulged.
“It makes sense after the way you drove. Had one too many shots, yes?” She walked slowly towards him and the opened door.
With each step she took, his heart pounded faster. He wanted to say something, to protest but his mind and mouth did not obey. Cold sweat covered his body. Her grey eyes made him shiver and he, reflexively, squeezed the doorknob with a sweaty hand.
She reached up and cupped his cheek. Her touch – colder than ice – made him jump back, startled. Her eyes penetrated his very existence, reached his core and brought back glimpses of fleeting images and a vague sense of knowing.
Who is she?
“Wouldn’t you do anything to get her back to you? Don’t you want to be with Anastasia once again in person? I know you do.” She stood next to him before the opened door – too close. She smelled of spring flowers. “You know you do, George.” She nodded at her business card, still in his hand. It shook slightly, the flesh under his fingernails white from holding it so tightly. “Come by this address tomorrow, if you are as interested in seeing her again, as I’m sure you are.”
She put on her over-sized glasses. George saw his haggard reflection on both lenses, bent and distorted. Each mirror image looked into his soul, stripped him of any insecurities and uncertainties he had about her and left him naked for everyone to judge him.
You did it, his reflections screamed at him in unison, as cold and boneless hands seemed to make their way into his mind. It’s your fault. And he knew it was true; it was his fault. He should’ve let her drive that night.
“Good day, George.” She glanced at the sunny world outside. “I had almost forgotten how bright this place is.” She entered the black stretch limo that waited for her and drove away.
* * *
The next day found him stiff from a troubled night’s sleep on their couch that didn’t come until the small hours of the new day. He had used her pillow to sleep, savouring her aroma. His eyes landed on the black business card that woman had given him. He picked it up, examined the velvet feel of it between his thumb and forefinger and reminisced about the last thing she said.
Seeing her again.
The words played back in his mind over and over. What could she mean by that? The more he thought of her, the more he remembered the unease she had stirred within him. He couldn’t shake the notion that he knew her somehow. Just thinking about her, made his hair stand.
He looked at the silver frame that held a snapshot of him and Anastasia on their summer vacations. She was smiling, as always, and had her cheek pressed on his. He recalled how much she hated being scratched by his stubble and by the fact that he never shaved during weekends. During vacations he never went near a razor and she always pretended to chase him around the room with shaving cream; the chase always ended with them making love.
I’m so sorry, baby!
His eyes welled up, his breathing quickened. He brought a trembling hand before his eyes, as if to cover them from the pain the cold metal frame caused him. His gaze rested once again on the card on the table. He picked it up again along with the photograph.
“Anything,” he whispered. “I’d do anything.”
* * *
The clock on the wall of the lobby showed ten minutes past twelve.
“I’ll let her know you have arrived, Mr Montrose,” a smiling lady said. “Please, have a seat. She will be with you shortly.”
George sat at the edge of the sofa, tapping his foot rapidly. A few employees came and went. They all looked at him for less than a heartbeat and turned their attention back to whatever they were supposed to be doing. Near the entrance to the building, on each side of the door, there were three ceramic black dogs on their hinds, as if they guarded the place.
By the time it was twenty to one, he had started pacing back and forth, glancing outside the windows at the scarce passers by. Nobody walked along the sidewalk in front of the building. Once, he even reached for the door and contemplated leaving but something urged him to wait a little longer.
“Will she be long?” he asked the receptionist, tension edging in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Mr Montrose. She’s had meetings with clients all day long. I’m sure she will be with you soon.”
George looked at the main entrance. No one had walked in or out for the past thirty minutes. He started walking towards the sofa again, ran his hand through his hair, when the phone on the front desk rang.
“Yes, he is here… Yes, I’ll send him to you now, Mrs Chalings.”
George took Anastasia’s photograph out of his pocket and held it gingerly in his hand, trying to caress the contours of her face.
“Mr Montrose? Mrs Chalings will see you now, sir.”
“What am I doing Anastasia?” he whispered.
George turned around, still holding Anastasia’s photo in his hand.
“This way sir.” The receptionist pointed at an elevator. “It will take you to her office. It’s her personal elevator.”
A massive dark suited man with a solemn expression operated the elevator. He made a deep bow. George cast a puzzled look at the smiling receptionist.
“Mrs Chalings’ aide will escort you.”
* * *
Once their ascent ended, the aide gestured politely for George to step outside, without saying a word. The aide then proceeded and opened the double mahogany doors with the elaborate carvings of crows and interwoven lines that formed complex geometrical shapes. As George took a few steps into the enormous office, the doors closed behind him. The room was cold. George shivered slightly.
“I’ve been waiting for you Mr Montrose.” At the far end of the main office, the silhouette of Mrs Chalings stood and bid him come in. He took a reluctant step, his legs almost refusing to obey his will.
The walls of the foyer of the office were hung with Renaissance-style paintings, showing the life and death cycle. Antique busts of ancient gods and warriors sat on columns between them. Their unblinking eyes stalked George as he walked to the inner office.
Similar in style to the foyer, the walls of the inner office depicted reliefs showing ancient battles, scenes from rural life and ancient burial rituals; lots of burial rituals. There were no windows. The gloominess of the office was amplified by the black marble floor, streaked with white veins, resembling lightning. At its centre was a mosaic portraying some girl’s abduction by a man on a chariot. Behind her desk hung another renaissance painting; it covered the entire wall’s surface. Hell – it was the only possible option for what it illustrated. George stared at it, speechless. He caught his breath, as a burst of visions stored in his mind made him stop for less than a heartbeat. It was hard to concentrate. He had been here before; he knew it, even though he couldn’t remember it. He blinked his eyes back into focus and continued.
“I had started thinking you were trying to avoid me,” he said. “You had me waiting quite a while there.”
A faint smile on her face. Her grey eyes assessed every move he took.
“I am a very busy woman, Mr Montrose. Besides, I had to make sure about you.” She sat back on her chair but continued studying him.
The burial rituals on the wall made his mouth go dry. He pressed his lips and subdued a faint quiver of his lower lip.
“About what?” he asked.
“About whether or not you are up to it. Whether or not you had actually put some thought into coming here today. About whether or not you knew what is asked of you. Whether or not you truly love Anastasia as much as you say you do.”
Anastasia’s name drew his attention like a hound follows its prey.
I’ve had enough of your games.
He clenched his jaw, crossed his arms in front of his chest and exhaled. He eyed her with a cold stare.
“What is it that you want of me, Mrs Chalings?”
“For you to be with her.”
“She is dead,” he said in a strained voice.
A half-smile appeared on her face. “Yes and you blame yourself for it.” She paused. “You seek atonement, yes?”
He crumpled onto the chair in front of her desk, lowered his head, his eyes fixed on something unreal. Even in this cold office, beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He put his hand in his pocket and took out the small photo of Anastasia and tilted his head slightly. His finger ran along the flat coloured surface. He brought his hand to his lips and pressed hard, trying in vain to stifle his tears.
“My fault,” he whispered.
“You can go see her, you know. You of all people should know that.”
He turned his head and met her eyes. She hadn’t taken them off of him, searching for something unknown to him through layers of lost memories.
George shifted in his seat. His mouth fell open, he arched his eyebrow quizzically and tried to say something but the words eluded him. He momentarily forgot all else, when she stood up.
She cleared her throat and moved towards the painting behind her. She captured his attention with the way she moved, graceful as the wind, as if her feet never touched the ground.
“She is there,” she said pointing at the painting. “And she is very much alone and lost.”
Transfixed, George stood up slowly and walked towards the painting. The part of it she pointed at showed a small figure, no more than a tiny blot, barely visible even if someone studied the painting closely.
George glared at her. “Are you mad? What are you talking about?” he said. “I just lost my wife. We were planning to have a child and you –”
“I assure you, it’s quite real. Look closely and you will see her. She is trapped there.” She pointed at the painting again.
For a few long moments moments, he just stood and stared at her, breathing heavily. Eventually, he relaxed, sighed, shook his head, then looked at the painting again.
To his astonishment, the figure was no longer there; it had moved an inch away. To his even greater astonishment, the entire painting shifted and changed. Tiny painted eyes watched him; arms stretched out of the canvas and moved towards him. Painted fear and torment came to life, staring at him.
He yelped and jumped back. His eyes darted from one grotesque figure to the next and finally to Mrs Chalings. His breath came short. Madness unfolded before him, focused on him, beckoned him. He wanted to scream but no sound came out. He had seen this before but how and when? His heart raced furiously, as if someone or something had got a hold of it and squeezed. Taking frantic steps backwards, he fell onto his rump.
Then he saw the entire room had come alive. Every painting and relief and sculpture moved. Every being gazed at him with dead eyes, their mouths open in silent screams yet he knew they called for him. He stood up and spun around his axis. Every muscle in his body tensed like a spring about to release its energy.
“Demons! What is going on?” he cried.
“This,” she said pointing at the painting, “is Erebos, the domain of the dead. The painting is a means to enter it.”
George stood there, trying to make sense out of all this.
“Why hold a crumpled piece of paper,” she said gesturing to the photograph in his hand, “when you can actually see her in person, yes?”
He looked at his hand. In his panic he had crushed her image. Her perfect facial contours had been destroyed by angular creases. Her smile had faded. The photograph looked back at him. He swallowed hard, his brows came together in a pained expression. He closed his eyes.
What am I doing?
“C… Can it be done?” he asked.
“Yes. See for yourself.”
He drew a deep, pained breath and took uncertain steps towards the painting. He wiped sweat from his palms on his trousers, as eyes, both from the painting and from the sculptures, followed his every step. Cold from the painting touched him, raising goosebumps.
“Who are you?”
“You know me. I am Persephone,” she said, giving him the same half-smile as before and a pat on the back. “Soon you will remember… George.”
He took his first step into another world.
* * *
George woke up in a cold and barren place. Somewhere to his right the sound of rushing water reached his ears, probably a river. In the distance there were mountains and valleys, gorges and canyons, deprived of all life. The place was bereft of colour; everything was grey. The air smelled of sulphur and rot. Screams and sobs echoed in the distance. Occasionally, an animalistic howl echoed, making the ground shake and the screams died out. Then, more sobs would follow.
There were sheer cliff sides dotted with hundreds of caves. The mountains ended in jagged upthrusts. Fumaroles filled the bleak environment with fumes. They drifted upwards and surrounded the mountain tops, as if trying to hold them down and prevent their ascent. When he lifted his eyes upwards, he nearly retched.
The entire place folded in on itself, as if it resided within a hollow pulsating sphere. There was no sky above him, only jutting rocky spirals and mountains pointing down towards him that pierced through grey clouds. The ground, along with everything on it, rested upside down, bent upwards at the end of the horizon, making a farce of the laws of gravity. Moving forms looked at him from above, that were simultaneously near him and far away. If he had gotten a glimpse of madness in Mrs Chalings’ office, he was now staring right at the eye of it here.
George’s head whirled and he struggled to push himself up. He drew a shuddering breath which came out in a small cloud that hung for a moment then disappeared.
People of different ages, had massed around him, starring at him in awe. Others cowered from him, scampered as fast as they could. They all kept their distance from him, forming a circle around him.
He had no idea where he was but something buried deep inside told him he had been here before, a strange déjà vu. The more he tried to recall something specific, though, the more it eluded him.
George’s thoughts filled with Anastasia and what had transpired in that dreaded office. He had to find Anastasia and get her back. Somehow, he had to get her back.
He clenched his jaw and although he was still dizzy and disoriented, he set off. The few people that had accumulated around him earlier had turned into a throng. Their murmur dominated everything. Every time he looked at them or tried to show them Anastasia’s picture, though, they ran away in terror, then slowly reassembled, leaving him with more questions.
He had no idea where he was going but something inside him told him he was headed the right way. The longer he remained on a path he did not know, the more intense the flashes in his mind became. Images flooded him: a bony throne, an ancient helmet of power untold, torture and death. There were cries of pain, the bitterness of being unfairly treated, and a young woman’s shrieks as she was dragged into the darkness below. The images mingled with Anastasia’s and Mrs Chalings’. Screams, pain, suffering and pleasure, all mixed in a thought-provoking stream of memories that were not his own yet he knew he had experienced them. At some point, he succumbed; his legs gave way and collapsed on the ground, tasting the ashen soil.
He rolled on his back, panting heavily. The pulsating, overturned surroundings made things worse and he rolled on his side again. Grunting, he propped himself up on his elbow, ignoring his pains.
As he rose stiffly to his feet, he saw her.
Anastasia wore the same clothes as the day of the school reunion. Her face was sullen, her cheeks sunken. Her once radiant skin was now a match to the surrounding greyness. Whatever that crazy woman in the office had done, it had worked. She was within arm’s reach. George radiated a smile at her and let out a muffled cry filled with joyful tears.
“Please, no more pain, please,” she said, her chin almost touching her chest. “I’ve been good. You can tell her to stop, please.”
“Anastasia? What are you talking about? It’s me, baby.” He took a step closer to her but she recoiled and stepped back.
“No more, please, I’m begging you.”
He stretched his arm to her, trying to touch her, to assure her that all would be alright, the way he had always done when she was upset.
“What are you talking about? Anastasia, look at me. It’s me, George. We have to get out of here. I came to get you out.”
She lifted her eyes slowly. Black rims encircled them and gave the impression they floated in their sockets. Tears smeared the once smiling face. Beauty had yielded to pain and terror. Her lower lip trembled.
“I do as the lord of Erebos commands,” she said crying.
More flashes sprang to his mind, pushing their way through to the surface. Dizziness assaulted him and he sagged to his knees.
The figure of a man. Around him, terror and grief fused together, forming the man’s very core. He saw powerful rulers of antiquity soiling themselves at his approach. He saw the man’s grotesque face twisting into a virulent snarl. His mouth, instead of teeth, had bars of fire. His smile caused pain untold to mothers, children and warriors alike. He saw hundreds, thousands, millions even, bowing their heads in his presence. He saw the man’s existence when Time itself was but an infant. A dark haired woman with grey eyes stood by his side, sharing his reign of agony and terror.
The images faded. He was on his hands and knees, crying, looking at Anastasia for answers. The animalistic howl reverberated in the distance and made everything around him shake. Somewhere above his head, the clatter of large boulders filled the air. He lifted his eyes to what should have been the sky and saw human souls staring at him. Time stood still.
“Wh…who am I?” he managed to whisper.
Not far from him, a dark flame came to be. No more than a spark at first, it quickly grew in size, until it dwarfed the adjacent hill. George saw Mrs Chalings – Persephone – inside it.
Anastasia – her face a mask of terror – took a few steps back, stumbled and landed on her back. She clutched her knees tight to her body and started rocking back and forth, whimpering.
Persephone stepped through the dark flame, as if floating and stood between the couple. She looked at Anastasia, saw her broken and whimpering and laughed. She then glared at George.
“I told you, you would remember, yes?” She cupped his face with her icy cold hand. The hair on the back of his neck stood; more flashes of memory attacked him, causing him more pain. He screamed.
“I’m guessing you are now experiencing the aftermath of your impulsive behaviour, yes?” she said kneeling in front of George. “And we both know where that leads my dear, don’t we?” she said addressing Anastasia, full of scorn. Anastasia shook her head and continued shaking.
“The pain you feel,” she continued, “is the result of your mortal body and mind, trying to understand your divinity’s true nature.” She stood up and walked towards Anastasia. “You traded eternity for this,” she barked and pushed Anastasia with her foot. The girl cried and lay prone on the ground.
“It… It can’t be.”
“What? That you are Hades, Lord of Erebos?” she glared at him. “Do you remember anything of what has happened?”
He shook his head slowly.
“Let me fill you in, then, yes? A few years back, you got bored of Erebos; and me, apparently,” she said glowering at Anastasia, “and decided you wanted to spend some time alone in the world of the living. You wanted to see why mortals curse the day they enter your domain and why they loved their world so much. But,” she continued, “you couldn’t really experience it while you were still truly divine. It would make no sense. Shape shifting wouldn’t be enough this time. You had to become a mortal as well, yes?”
George shook his head in disbelief. He had his eyes fixed on Anastasia, who was still sprawled on the ground, crying, looking at him. The ashen ground fed on her tears. Everything here fed on pain.
Another pang of pain, another memory restored. George screamed. The ground shook.
“I … I remember. The demons … in the office. They helped with the transformation. I remember leaving the building, then… nothing.”
“So, you remember, yes?” she said mockingly.
Each resurfaced memory brought back a malice and hate that was mirrored by Erebos. Each heartbeat made him more Hades than George. Terror and grief coursed through his veins once again. The god had awakened.
“I lost track of you,” Persephone continued. “It took me a while before I managed to find you again.” She stopped behind Anastasia. “When I did, you were married to her,” she said, her voice dripped with venom and contempt. “I had to get you back where you belonged. I admit, claiming her soul the way I did, was not the best thing I’ve done but I did manage to get you back, yes?”
Hades lifted his eyes and shot her a look full of hate. All the pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place.
“It was you. You were the figure I saw and drove off the road. You killed her!” He jumped to his feet and moved towards her.
Within a heartbeat, Persephone threw Anastasia in the air, her limbs shackled in fiery bony bondage. She screamed, wailed and thrashed at her bonds. Hades stopped abruptly before Persephone’s raised index finger. Her grey-eyed stare could have cracked stone and pinned him where he stood. He wanted to squeeze her throat, make her pay for what she had done to him and Anastasia. He would torment her eternal soul ‘til the end of Time.
“Why are you doing this?” he said through gritted teeth. His fists shook at his sides, his nails digging deep into his palms. Erebos’ foundations shook. His anger bubbled like a smouldering volcano. The souls of millions of dead searched for shelter wherever they could find it. Hades’ wrath was not to be trifled with.
“Why?” she cried. “You take me from my life, bind me here with your trickery, then you abandon me here and marry a mortal woman and you dare ask why?” Dark flames swallowed Anastasia’s body. Her restraints tightened further, pulling her apart. She screamed and cried in agony. “Why did you leave?” Persephone cried.
Hades looked up at Anastasia’s burning soul, then bowed his head.
“To feel – I wanted to feel. There had to be more than just pain and suffering.” He reached out and held Persephone’s hand gingerly, locking his gaze with hers.
Anastasia’s screams subsided and she sank gently on the ground. Erebos stopped shaking. There was silence all around. Only Anastasia’s sobs broke it.
He reached up to touch his face. Tears brightened it, making their way to his soul. Grunting, he clutched his chest, lost his footing for a moment, then balanced himself again. For the first time in countless millennia, Hades experienced the same pain and anguish that mortals feel when they lose someone they love. The first tear – it made its way to the blackest part of his existence. It burned and tormented him more viciously than anything he had ever inflicted on any mortal soul.
Slowly, the colour of his skin changed, turning to grey, mimicking the world around him. Black flames enveloped him, creating a dark halo around him. His eyes burned feverishly with it, as he gazed at his domain.
Hades walked over to Anastasia and knelt beside her. A new tear made its way down his face, extinguishing the flames of hate.
He tried to touch and caress her face but she recoiled from him, pushing herself away with her heels. Her eyes, wide with fear and disgust. He lowered his head. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
[Chris Sarantopoulos studied Geology and Business in the UK and Greece respectively. He is a member of the Scribophile community. He lives in Greece and his newest endeavour – writing – has proven to be the most enjoyable for him so far. His work has appeared on Beyond Imagination and is expected to have another story published on Voluted Tales before the end of 2014. Currently, he writes in English, a language not native to him. Readers can connect with him athttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Chris-Sarantopoulos/566020323527396 and at http://csarantopoulos.wordpress.com/]