The preacher droned on about life after death and Heaven’s glory. Hektor suppressed a sigh. Agnostic, he didn’t believe God — any gods — could do squat. Not when it counted. Not when Ellyn needed them, not when a child they supposedly loved needed them. Hektor bit the inside of his cheek. The preacher just babbled for Ellyn’s benefit. Never mind she couldn’t hear him. She was nothing but ashes now.
The preacher finished his benediction, and Hektor watched the coffin sadly for few moments Ashes to ashes and blah, blah, bite me.
His friends approached, and he accepted gentle hugs — his shoulder still ached from the gunshot wound—and pats on the back. Giving him platitudes and lies, “Lovely service” and “The doctors did all they could.”
Hektor climbed into Dad’s car and as his father drove, he stared out at the road ahead.
The doctors couldn’t do anything; the gods didn’t care. What was the point in lying about it?
“You okay, son?”
Hektor sighed. “How’m I supposed to answer that?”
Dad cleared his throat and said nothing. The drive from the cemetery to their house on Chestnut Lane dragged out like an eternity. When his father parked the car, Hektor stayed immobile. He couldn’t move. Ellyn couldn’t either; little Brad lay lifeless in the ground. Why am I still walking around?
The entire night in the hospital played out over and over in his mind. Why couldn’t he stop that stupid monitor from flatlining? Why couldn’t he keep their hearts beating, when his did, relentless, agonizingly? Tears stung Hektor’s eyes and he blinked rapidly.
David stepped out onto the porch, and spoke with Hektor’s father. His gaze turned to the car and stuck there.
Hektor frowned. Hell.
Good job. Let that bastard see you like this. He hated David with a passion. Degenerate. Hektor sniffed, and thrust the car door open.
David approached him, narrowing his eyes. He extended his hand and Hektor ignored it. “How are you, man? I’m so sorry to hear about Ellyn.”
Degenerate. “Yeah, well.”
David dropped his hand and ran it over his shaved head. “It’s been pissing bullets today, hasn’t it? Thank God it finally slacked off.” Hektor said nothing, and David’s gaze darted nervously to something behind him. Probably more mourners, but Hektor didn’t care to look.
David didn’t walk away, just babbled on, “I think I saw some rum inside, I’ll let you have the bulk of it.”
Hektor still said nothing. A soft wind blew a gust of rain and leaves over them. His frown deepened. He frowned both at his cousin and at Boreas for daring to remind him of the living world. For not destroying David where he stood.
Afraid of me, are you? Good. Not that Hektor felt the least bit inclined to follow in his cousin’s footsteps. He had two precious memories to honor. A criminal record wouldn’t accomplish that.
A dog yowled in the distance but Hektor didn’t break eye contact with his cousin.
“Dumb mutt,” his father complained from across the porch. “Shut the hell up! Don’t you have any respect for the dead?”
A great sigh forced itself from Hektor’s chest. He passed David by, accidentally bumping him on the way. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He didn’t mean his apology.
“Man,” David whined, “what do you want me to say? It’s my fault, all right? I should’ve been there, I shouldn’t’ve let you take the house; I should never have gotten involved with —”
“Right on all counts,” Hektor agreed. “But you did. What do you want, David? Do you want me to forgive you?”
“Why should you?” David’s hand went to his crown again, and he turned. “Didn’t you tell me the doc said she didn’t have long anyway?”
Hektor narrowed his eyes. “Don’t bring that into it.”
“Ellyn did have leukemia.”
“So what?” Hector grabbed him by the lapels. “Brad was a healthy baby, or doesn’t that mean anything?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this would —”
“Don’t kid yourself. This is your fault, and you know it!”
David gulped. “I’m sorry. Forget I mentioned it. I’ll never forgive myself for it. Is that confession enough for you?”
“Hektor!” his father called.
Hektor violently released his cousin and stalked to the house, hoping David not only stumbled, but fell hard, and cracked his head open. He doubted he’d do more than let him bleed. He’d done far too much for David over the years: he’d pulled bullets out of him, and sewn up fat lips and busted jaws and never once called the cops on him as he should. Hektor had been a character witness in far too many of David’s criminal cases. Some successful, some not so successful. After what happened that night, he’d never help his cousin beat the system again.
Concern danced across his father’s face. “Everything all right, son?”
Hektor blinked the threatening tears away and grunted in answer. His father nodded and opened the door. Inside, cousins, grandparents, friends filled the house, a packed room, all save the two people he was most fond of. He did his best to greet them all, then hid out in the kitchen, then when the guests infiltrated that room, his father’s game room. He kicked the door shut and skimmed the trophies and pictures lining the entertainment center.
Brad would’ve no doubt added at least one, here. Even at two years old, the boy had a hell of an arm. Hektor sniffled and turned when he heard the door open.
A young woman stood in the doorway. “Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize someone was in here.”
Hektor could’ve sworn he’d seen this woman before. Wasn’t she one of the nurses from the cancer hospital? He waved to the room. “No, it’s okay. I was looking for —” For something to break. “Nothing. Forget it. The room’s all yours.” He took a step forward. “You work at Marietta Cancer hospital don’t you?” Perhaps he was mistaken. She didn’t seem older than maybe seventeen. Maybe.
She nodded. “Been interning there for about six months.”
“You’re older than you look.”
A pretty blush spread over her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I came with one of your cousins.”
Please God, not David.
She extended her hand. “I’m Hemma. And I’m so sorry about your wife.”
He couldn’t smile, but he wanted to. “Hemi? Like in a truck.”
“Hemma,” she corrected. “It’s a nickname.” She laid a hand to his arm. “Dumb question, I know, but how are you?”
He drooped against the mantle. “I would be better, if —”
“I know.” Her bright green gaze softened, becoming almost matronly for all that she seemed a mere high school student. “Mortality sucks. Gods know, I don’t have a voice to argue with Them.” She paused, blinked as if she’d said something wrong. “What was she like, your wife?”
Hektor told her everything. It was as if, once she asked the question, he didn’t know how to stop babbling. He probably told her more than she wanted to know. More than he should’ve said to anyone. How much he’d both hoped and feared the outcome of Ellyn’s cancer treatments, how much he loved her. How much he adored Brad, though he wasn’t his son. How he blamed himself for he and Ellyn’s deaths. If he’d only gone elsewhere that weekend —
David’s voice boomed through the den door. Hektor frowned. “You didn’t come with him, did you?”
She cocked her head, studying him in a way he could only describe as inquisitive and soothing all at once. “Why?”
“Because it’s his fault.” He glanced back at her. “But you didn’t come with him, so that’s good.”
Hektor didn’t give her a chance to say more. He ducked back into the living room. Hiding at the back of the staircase, he took a deep breath.
What in the hell was that about? He’d never talked so much in his life, and especially not since the night he rushed Ellyn and Brad to the hospital. And definitely not to a stranger.
He didn’t want to talk to anyone now.
She exited the den and walked right past him. Hektor was surprised to find himself disappointed over the fact she didn’t see him.
* * * *
The last guest left, Dad fell asleep in front of the evening news. Hektor sat at the end of the couch, trying to focus. Trying to wipe the memory of Ellyn’s and Brad’s deaths out of his mind. Hopeless. Every time he blinked, he saw her. Every time his father snored, he heard all the little noises she made when she slept.
A young woman’s voice sounded outside. “Come on, boy. Come here, there’s a good boy.”
The call drew Hektor’s eyes to the front windows. Dad stirred in his sleep. “Damn it,” he muttered. “If that fool woman doesn’t keep her mutt quiet, I’m gonna muzzle him.”
Hektor could picture the trouble that might ensue if his father made good on his threat. “I’ll go talk to her.” He crossed the house and peeked out the window. A woman stood on the sidewalk before the house, leaning over something.
Hektor opened the door and stepped outside. A light breeze blew a lock of hair into his eyes. He frowned and batted it away. Narrowing his eyes across the darkness, he recognized the pretty hospital intern from Ellyn’s funeral lunch. “Hi,” she said.
“Well,” Hektor said, leaning against the doorjamb, “what brings you here? Hemma, was it?”
“Yes.” She continued scrubbing at her dog’s fluffy coat. “Nature called. I had no idea he’d drag me past your house.” Hemma stood and ran her hands down her jeans, then offered her hand.
Hektor stepped forward and shook it briefly.
“I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“No disturbance. Though I have to tell you,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “my father says he’s going to call the pound on your dog.”
She blinked, her mouth opening in surprise.
“He’s just kidding.”
She’d shed the dark skirt and blouse she’d worn earlier. Now she wore jeans and a shirt fastened at her left shoulder, the clip that held the strap in place resembling gold. Hektor didn’t know much about fashion, but the top reminded him of a costume in an old period movie. He couldn’t be certain which movie, however. The garment looked at once too old for the girl and just her style.
Hektor shook his head, and knelt beside the dog, letting the animal sniff at his hand. The dog decided he was a friend, despite what he’d said, and allowed Hektor to smooth the soft fur at his crown. “Even if he’s not kidding, I won’t let him do any such thing. I promise. Wouldn’t want to separate a girl and her best friend. Or have your father come after him.”
“He wouldn’t.” Hemma wrapped the leash around her hand, and rubbed her pet’s furry cheeks. “I remember your wife. She had Leukemia, right? As I recall, she was doing well at her last checkup.”
Hektor snorted. “I wouldn’t say that. She was . . .” How could he explain? “You attended the funeral, so let’s dispense with the platitudes.”
She pushed the clump of hair away and as she met his gaze, for a moment, he no longer believed her to be a young woman working her way through her first year of college, or senior year in high school. He couldn’t place her age, yet centuries swirled in her eyes, and spiraled out to enfold him in a warm and soft embrace. His father’s house, the street, civilization disappeared.
He stood on the top step of a vast, torch-lit temple overlooking a valley and city. A name graced the lintel: Hemithea. An ancient goddess of healing he’d never heard of before, and yet knew well.
He turned and saw the girl leaning down next to a pallet, tending to a man suffering terrible coughs that ravaged his throat. Her nurse’s uniform gleamed in the light, but the fabric billowed and flowed out in a style Hektor had never seen before. She walked to another man and knelt down beside him, touching his forehead. The man groaned.
“Tell me what harms you, my son,” the nurse said. “I’ll take the pain away.”
She moved to another. Hektor thought that surely he could see the man’s soul floating above his body. “Let go, son. Talk to me. Trust me. I’m here to help you.”
He marveled that such soothing, confident, almost motherly words came from this young girl.
Another two men stumbled in, supporting a woman on a litter. Blood stained her dress and she screamed. Just as Ellyn had screamed while giving birth to their first, and only, stillborn child.
Hektor felt himself shake, his nails digging into his palms.
There was sorrow here, accompanied by a comfort born of a history given to tending all the world’s ills. The nurse worked on with not one shred of modern equipment or medicine to help her. All she did, she did by touch, by simple medicines, by some method he couldn’t understand. “What is this?”
She nodded to the table of tools nearby. “Don’t be afraid to help.”
He moved forward, but couldn’t. He knew he couldn’t do anything to help them. He helplessly waved a hand to the suffering behind her. “I can’t.”
She laid a hand on his and smiled sadly. “Tell me what ails you so. What happened to you?”
Hektor’s front yard came rushing back. Someone sped by down the street in a souped-up hotrod. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know, Hemma. What do you want to know?”
“Your son died too. The cancer didn’t do this.”
“He wasn’t my son.”
Her gaze softened. “My apologies. He was . . .”
She blinked, staring open-mouthed for a moment. “What?”
“He was David’s son, not ours.”
“Should it make a difference?”
“No. I would’ve . . . It didn’t make a difference.” Hektor clenched his fists, trying to keep from shaking. “What could I have done? There was no warning, they just started —” He cut himself off. No, he couldn’t relate that horror to this innocent.
“Warnings are sometimes useless.”
He looked up at the moon. Such a pretty night. “Where is she now?” He thought he whispered it, but the indrawn breath of the young woman beside him gave him pause. He glanced at her, smiled and drew his fingers once more across the dog’s scruffy fur. “You don’t need to hear this. You should be thinking of Homecoming parties, and what you’re going to write in your diary tonight about your crush.”
She blew out a raspberry and Hektor smiled.
“That’s what Ellyn did, or so she told me.”
“You read her diary didn’t you?”
He stood and slapped his hands together. “I won’t incriminate myself.” He nodded toward the far end of the street. “Go on home, Hemma, it’s getting dark. Your dad will worry if you stay out any longer.”
She stood, laid her hand on his arm. “If you’re sure.”
“I know I’d be concerned if my daughter was out late talking to a man twice her age.”
She laughed. “So it would seem.” She tugged on the dog’s leash. “Come on Achilles. Let’s go home.”
Hektor blinked as she turned and disappeared into the night. He wondered if the ghosts he saw were part of his imagination, or what the hell was going on.
* * * *
Hektor mulled over the night, trying to figure out the logistics of the whole thing.
There they babysat David’s son Brad. Such a serene, warm night. They congregated on the front porch, waiting for David to return.
Ellyn rocked Brad in her arms, swinging the child over the edge of the couch and back up. “Shame we couldn’t have one of these.”
“Some day we will.” It was an empty promise. Hektor hoped Ellyn lived another six months. What time was that to have a child? If she lived that six months, he’d pray for another. He didn’t want to burden her with raising a child when she struggled just to live.
Her kerchief fell to the porch slats. Hektor remembered ducking to pluck it up for her.
The shots rang out. Ellyn gasped. Brad squealed, “Mommy!”
Hektor blocked the rest, time jumped forward to the next hour, the agonizing wait in the hospital.
“Can you tell me what happened?” someone asked. A policeman, maybe the doctor, he couldn’t be sure. “A description of the shooter, anything.”
He wished he could say. He could focus on nothing but his wife, and the life of his cousin’s child. He wouldn’t fail his family.
Ellyn, breathe. Stay with me, honey. Listen to me, you’re going to be fine. Just do what I do. Don’t think of the blood. Don’t feel the pain.
Brad, you’re not in pain, little one.
A siren blared through the bedroom wall. Hektor opened his eyes.
Why didn’t they listen? Why couldn’t he save them? That he’d failed to ease their pain didn’t make any sense. He usually succeeded; his patients usually benefited. All but the two he cared for most. Why didn’t they heed to his will?
A week passed, two. Every single morning Hektor drove out to the cemetery. Leaning against the tree near Ellyn’s gravesite, he poured all his anger and pain into the poor tree. The tightening in his chest never loosened. The scenes of Ellyn bleeding into the porch slats refused to stop. He could barely sleep at night for seeing her motionless corpse in her hospital bed, the monitors moved away, the room silent. Her chest no longer rose and fell in that comforting rhythm. The pain twisting her lovely face stilled.
Day after day, it seemed even the grass covering her tomb suffered from his grief. “Something should,” he thought at first. As the days passed, he felt guilty for harming it. The end of the second week saw him kneeling next to her grave.
He ran his hand over the engraving covering her grave marker. Ellyn Baros May 1, 1970-June 3, 2012. “I can’t do this anymore, Ellyn.”
He returned home, went back to work. He passed the morning’s first emergency well. A sick child who couldn’t keep his food down. An IV, and a prescription later, and Hektor sent the child home. The second patient of the day was a high school shop student who proved a bit clumsy with a drill. He patched up the teen’s thigh and moved on to the next.
A three-car pileup on the interstate. Hektor sucked in his fear and scrubbed into the operating room.
There a young girl awaited him. Her pretty features twisted in pain. He touched her forehead and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Fine name. I predict I’ll see it on a marquee one day. Are you an actress? No? You should be.”
She groaned and Hektor frowned underneath his mask ordering the nurse to administer more painkillers. “Listen here, now, Lynnie,” he said, looking back to the girl, “don’t you worry. You’re going to be fine.”
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
The girl nodded. He looked at the IV, he couldn’t increase the dosage. Damn. “Don’t worry, Lynnie, we’ll take care of you.”
He did his best to stop the girl’s internal bleeding and repair her torn spine. The battle lasted several hours, but he sent Lynnie on to recovery just after lunchtime. She would survive, but there’d been more damage than he’d thought. Spinal injuries he couldn’t do anything about.
With a sigh of regret, Hektor threw his gloves in the red Hazmat trash bin, and leaned against the wall.
A nurse passed and gave him an appreciative nod and thumbs up. “Good job, Doctor Baros.”
Hektor grunted his thanks and stalked to the dressing rooms. The outer doors opened again and EMS wheeled in their stretcher. Atop it, a groaning, bleeding man, early to mid-20s.
Hektor trotted after them. He looked down on the man and almost didn’t catch the curse that escaped. Dark hair, dark eyes, tattooed tear beneath his left tear duct. This guy was one of David’s friends.
“Hey, I know you,” the man said. “You’re David’s pal.” He lifted his hand and groaned. “Sorry doc. Can’t honor my manners, at the moment.”
“I see that,” Hektor said. “What happened to you?”
The man tried to explain but the paramedic cut him off. “Gunshot victim. Apparently he and his buddies lost an argument.”
Hektor took a slow breath and looked back down at the patient. “David around when this happened?”
“Nah. Not today.”
The world’s luck is on hold. Hektor hesitated. Did he really want to help this criminal? “How much coke you got in you?”
“None, doc. I swear. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Hektor tore open to the man’s shirt to see three bullet wounds and lots of blood. Let him die. The world will be better off.
Hektor took a deep breath and jabbed an IV into the Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo decorating the man’s tanned bicep. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed up.” But your fate’s ultimately in Mary’s hands, not mine. You hear me, thug?
Two hours later, the thug passed away. Hektor called time and exited the operating room to give the news to the police pacing the hall.
“Good riddance,” said one.
Poetic justice. Hektor said nothing and turned for the locker rooms. He couldn’t stand another minute here today. Should I call and give David the bad news myself? He longed to, but knew David would only say something stupid, like, “Now we’re even,” or something.
Instead, he changed into his street clothes, and crossed into the lobby.
“Doctor Baros, your father called,” said the plump African-American nurse manning the reception desk. “After I got back from lunch.”
He’d only stopped long enough to guzzle down an energy shake. The young woman in the operating room couldn’t wait. Hektor checked his cell phone. Dad’s message had dropped in his voicemail at one-fifteen. Damn. “Has he come in some time today, Nancy?”
The nurse shook her head. Hektor hit “Return call” and listened while his father’s phone rang, hoping not to hear a faint ring from the operating rooms.
The line connected. Hektor let out a sigh of relief. “You called, dad. What’s up?”
“Wondered how you were doing. Wanted to make sure you were eating,” Dad said. “Wanna get some dinner with me?”
Hektor checked his watch. “I’ll be over soon.” Hektor tried to recall what Dad had left in his refrigerator. Frozen pizza, maybe. Waffles. “What did you have in mind? I can pick something up.”
“I thought I’d meet you there. It’d be a change of pace from staring at these walls another night. I could go for a real burger and beer right about now.”
Dinner out? With Dad? “Skip the beer Dad and I say you’ve got yourself a date.”
* * * *
Twenty-five minutes later, Hektor slammed the car door and engaged his alarm. His father was already halfway to the restaurant door, an evening paper tucked under his arm. The quaint restaurant soothed his nerves with its checkered tablecloths and candles in bulbous glass jars off to one side of their small tables. The place seemed classic, stable.
They placed their orders and Dad peered at him, a question in his old hazel eyes. “You all right, son?”
Hektor shrugged. “Been better.”
“I know. When your mother died —” He shook his head. “Well, let’s say a bit of ole hooch didn’t hurt.”
He remembered. They could barely talk to each other at the time.
“You’re back to work.”
Hektor snorted. “For whatever good it will do.”
Dad shook out the evening paper. “Oh, now. Give yourself time, son. Don’t go questioning your whole life over this. You’ve got too much to be thankful for.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“I know. What would Elly think if you used this against yourself?”
Hektor stared off into space a moment. What would you think? He blinked. Ellyn didn’t think anything any longer. That was the whole problem.
Dad rustled the paper, flipping the page. A bit of the headlines peeked out, trouble in the Middle East, starvation and revolution in Africa. A revolutionary vibe in the streets of Greece.
Hektor blinked. “Dad, you know how we always talked about going to see the relatives?”
Dad lowered the paper. “I suppose if there’s any time to head north, this would be it.”
“No, I meant home.” He pointed to the page. “Greece. Why don’t we go?”
Dad turned the paper over, read the headline and shook his head. “You’ve got too much to do here; and you don’t want to spend more time with your old dad than you have to.”
Hektor tapped a hand against the table and chanced a small smile. “No, I think I do.”
“This is grief, son.”
“It’s been less than a month.”
“I know how long it’s been. Look, do you want me to stand around here throwing things at the walls?”
Dad folded his arms. “You’ve never done that in your whole life.”
Hektor pulled his cell phone from his jacket and started up the browser. “Whatever, Dad. I’m going.” He slid his finger down the display, seeking out travel sites, one eye on his father. “Stay here, if you want, but I’m going.”
* * * *
He’d paid more than he could afford but by the next morning, he was boarding a plane to travel overseas. The movie was far too boring for his tastes, but the smooth takeoff, the demeanor of the TSA agents and his fellow passengers told him this would be a pleasant trip.
Something’s missing here, he thought staring out the window at the clouds. Ellyn should be here.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to fight back the tears.
Across the way, a woman complained about her aching back. By her rounded belly, she must be seven or eight months pregnant. A man complained of his sore feet, a child cried incessantly. Teething, Hektor surmised and misery sluiced over him again. He’d so wanted Ellyn to live, to have a child. He took a deep breath and focused on the passengers.
Hear me, you’re all right. You’re all all right.
He put it down to his imagination, but it seemed soon the complaints died away.
Misery gripped him all over again. Why hadn’t he been able to help his wife?
His head pounded fiercely, as if Cerberus gnawed at his temples. The flight attendant passed by again and this time, he asked for some aspirin.
* * * *
The sun burst over the white sands of the Greek island of Mykonos and Hektor took a deep breath of sweet air. The ocean spread out before him, a healing shade of blue. If this truly was an island sacred to Apollo, he could well understand why.
He turned back to the interior of his room. A pang of regret hit. Why hadn’t he thought to bring Ellyn here? Far better than to vacation at David’s godforsaken cabin.
He cleared his throat and stalked out of the room. That was past. His intentions lay in the future and Hektor moved through the hotel eyeing the patrons he passed. There must be something he could do here.
Someone to help.
Hektor pushed the hotel’s door open. A light breeze and the soft whoosh of waves, the chatter of vacationers and the exotic lilt of natives chattering in Greek met his ears. This was a beautiful place. A place of fun, and serenity. There would be nothing to harm those enjoying the beach today.
With any luck at all, there’d be nothing more to worry about than sunburns.
He lounged in the sun for a few hours, the small crowd around him happy and enjoying their day. Why couldn’t he feel the same? A mother walked by, leading her son and he thought of Ellyn and Brad. A couple ran by holding hands and he thought of Ellyn, and his love for her.
He tried to focus on the surfers and the serenity of the scene, and when that didn’t block his grief, he closed his eyes.
The screaming woke him. A lifeguard trotted into the surf and soon, reemerged with a young man, one in much pain. Hektor rose and ran to their side. “I’m a doctor. Can I help?”
The lifeguard nodded. “Stingray, I think.”
Hektor frowned hard and helped the lifeguard lie the swimmer down.
The swimmer moaned. His skin grew clammy under Hektor’s touch. Hektor’s heart rate notched up. “Come on, pal, don’t do this. Focus on me.” Please don’t go into shock.
The skin swelled up under Hektor’s hands.
David’s voice met his ears. “What do you think you can do, Hektor?”
When the hell did he get here? Hektor glared at his cousin. “I could do more if you’d stop hogging that towel.”
David slipped it out from under his head and waggled it in the air. “This one? This is my favorite towel. Why should I give it to you?”
“Because you’re a humanitarian.” My ass you are. “Would you get over here and help?”
“Rather not. Might ruin the show.” David turned his attention to the pretty woman beside him, nuzzling her ear. “Wouldn’t it, doll?”
The lifeguard snapped his cell phone shut. “Ambulance is on its way,” he said.
“He’s going into shock,” Hektor positioned his hand over the boy’s heart. “Listen to me, son —”
David laughed. “You’d do better to step back and let the professionals take over.”
“— you’re going to be fine.”
“Ah yes, and what happened to the last son you said that to?”
“What?” gasped the distressed swimmer.
Hektor glared at David and turned back to the young man. “Don’t mind him. He’s clearly high on crack. I promise you’re going to be okay.”
David lay there, soaking up the scene, sipping on a cold beer, and keeping a running commentary to the pretty woman by his side. “See, he likes to claim he’s a doctor, but he’s really just a quack.”
Hektor tried desperately to keep his attention on the young man, but David was ruining his concentration. Shut up, or make yourself useful.
The paramedics arrived and carted the young man away. He seemed much better for their ministrations. Hektor mentally kicked himself watching the ambulance drive away in a flurry of red lights and blaring sirens.
He walked to the edge of the sea and rinsed the sand and first aid off his hands. Why couldn’t he help that young man? When once he could’ve taken a man’s pain away, the ability’s disappearance irked him. The loss had damn near kept him up at night.
What was he without that ability?
Why, again, must he rely on someone else to soothe his patient’s pain?
What the hell is wrong with me?
“Like I said,” David repeated. “Quack.”
Hektor spun to find David standing behind him, smirking. Hektor couldn’t decide whether to punch him, or strangle him. He let his hand curl into a fist, short nails digging into his palms. No matter how much he wanted to break David’s jaw, he’d promised his father he wouldn’t hit him.
And was damned sorry he’d made the promise. “You know what happened to your friend, don’t you?” he hissed.
David pointed a short, stumpy finger. “I heard you killed him.”
He grabbed David around the bicep and raised his fist. “No, I’m going to kill —”
“Hektor?” A young woman’s voice cut between their fighting words. His gaze moved to meet hers.
The girl from his father’s neighborhood, Hemma.
“Good gracious, what a small world!” Hemma shaded her eyes from the sun. “Hektor, right?”
“Who’s the kindergartner?” David said.
Hektor released his grip and strolled to Hemma’s side. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to visit some cousins; but I never thought I’d run into you.” She shifted her gaze to David and back. “Did I interrupt something? I thought I heard a commotion a few minutes ago. I thought I’d see what I could do to help.”
Hektor took a step further away from David and his companion. “A swimmer had a bit of trouble, but he’ll be all right now.”
Hemma followed. “What’s bothering you, Hektor?” she asked. “The swimmer? You did everything you could to stop his pain. I’m sure he’s grateful for it. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Hektor whipped his head around to gape at her. “How did you know?”
She passed him by and turned on her heel, walking backward as she told her tale. “My family has a story they like to tell. Ages ago, they say, this was the home of a goddess. She and her sister jumped off a cliff off Greece’s shores.” She pointed over his shoulder and Hektor glanced back but didn’t see anything of note. “The girls would’ve drowned, but Apollo took pity on them and brought them here — well, one of them.”
“Sweet story. Sad, but sweet.”
“Would be sad, if that were the end,” she said. She spun on her heel and paused long enough for him to fall into step with her. “The elder sister loved this island, they say, and she became a famous healer. Helped the dying during the Trojan War, and many other wars.”
Hektor’s gaze unfocused, the shoreline slipped away, the sunbathers and swimmers. In their place, horses and armed men ran down the shore to clash with one another. The din and crash of metal on metal resounded in the silence.
“Men died, men lived,” her voice wafted through the din. “Men learned from those teachings.”
Soldiers tangled within the fray. Strong horses hooves kicked up sand. The screams and war cries died away, and he found himself supporting a bleeding warrior, leading him across a lantern-lit tent.
“Here,” he said. “This one’s next.”
Hemma looked up at him, blood speckling her young face. ““Find a bed for him; he’ll wait.”
The man swooned and Hektor tightened his grip on him, then turned back to the young nurse. “I implore you to tend to him, Mistress.”
She waved a bloody scalpel vaguely to the corner. “There are others that need my assistance now.”
Hektor narrowed his eyes. “Begging your pardon, my lady,” he ground out through gritted teeth, “you asked me for my help. I’ve done all I can to ease his pain, Mistress. But I don’t think this man can wait for your touch.”
She cocked her head, studying the young warrior. “How long do you give him?”
“Sunset, if not before.”
Hemma nodded, and waving her hand over the midsection of the man she operated on, a bandage appeared, wrapping his wound tight. She touched the sleeping patient’s forehead. “Sleep a little longer, my pet. I’ll be back soon.” She looked up at Hektor. “Get him up on this card table; I’ll be right there.”
She paused to wash her hands while Hektor lifted the man, arranged him on the table as best he could, and stepped back. Blood gushed over the table’s edge, drenching the dirt under his feet. The precious liquid stained Hektor’s hands, and he couldn’t staunch the flow.
So much blood . . .
The soldier convulsed, taking a deep breath. Then, stillness.
Hektor pounded on the man’s chest. No! He wouldn’t lose another today.
He jabbed needles into the man’s arm, ripped open his tunic, threaded strong stitches across his chest, then compresses.
The red, bloody river ignored him.
A warm hand landed on his arm. “Enough, my son. Let him go.”
He looked over at the demur, young goddess. “No. We can stop his pain. We can save him!”
“Not all can be saved.”
He narrowed his eyes, fury burning in his cheeks and forehead, dizziness. No. What did she mean, no? “This is what we do! It’s your function, goddess!”
The scene faded and Hektor found himself kneeling in the sand. Radios blared raucous rap and metal music. Bikini-clad women passed by, ignoring him. Probably thinking him drunk.
He blinked, as Hemma’s young voice murmured in his ear. Next to him now, not before him, not tending a wounded man, just squatting there, watching. He shook his head.
“I am, and I’m not what you see,” she said.
He understood what she meant: she was no mere young woman. She was a goddess. Why then wouldn’t she help those most in need? “Then do what you’re made to do.”
“What would that accomplish? Humanity has its own rules, and not even we can break them.”
Hektor got to his feet and peered down at her. “So, you’re saying this, this death that chases us is our fault?”
She shrugged and stood up, crossed her arms, just watching him silently.
He spun and faced the ocean. I don’t believe that. “I don’t believe you. I know you’re wrong. She didn’t have to die.”
Hemma rounded him and kicked at the surf. “I think you know better.”
“And the baby? And my mother and—” He faltered. He didn’t want to think of his father’s impending future. Not yet. It was too soon to think of a world without dad. Tears stung his eyes anyway. He swallowed hard. “Then what’s the point?” his voice was rough as he asked the question.
“I’m not the one to answer that. Do what makes you happy, forget the rest.”
He scanned the beach, but saw David was gone. Forget him, that would be easy enough. Would David forget him?
“Forget what’s not important.”
Hektor frowned. He didn’t understand that statement at all. “And what is that?”
She smiled innocently and walked away.
He couldn’t stomach existential questions right now. Kill David, don’t kill David; lament Ellyn forever, move on. Exist, die, live. Help others; leave them to rot — could he do that?
He supposed little Hemma was right.
Hektor cursed under his breath and the next morning, flew home, packed up Ellyn’s things and took them to her mother’s.
* * * *
Hektor pulled into the Marietta children’s hospital. The last two months since he returned home had been a struggle. Should he keep Ellyn’s memory and the grief alive or put it away? He chose the latter; he stopped regularly visiting her gravesite, and helped his father tend to his meager property and attempted to mend the rift over his neighbor’s dog. Perhaps without success but he tried. He began going out with friends again, little by little.
He didn’t see young Hemma again and decided she’d gone on to college, now that the school year had begun. He wanted to see her, wanted to tell her he’d considered her advice earnestly. If indeed it was her advice, he still doubted. The scene on the Greek beach played in his dreams every night, and he couldn’t be certain who Hemma was anymore, or if she’d even existed. The young, vibrant girl seemed at once too old and too young to give him any attention at all.
But then, he thought, entering the children’s hospital, adults tended to give children too little credit. Certainly, they couldn’t change the world, but then, how many adults could make that claim?
Hektor smiled down at a teen bobbing her head along to something playing on her MP3 player, and strode to the reception desk. A Hispanic woman peered up at him.
“Can I help you?”
He offered her one of his cards. “I’m here to see Dr. Wagner.”
A teenaged girl walked by who reminded him of Hemma, same eye color, same cheekbones; her hair hidden underneath a scarf. The accouterment was enough to tell him the treatments she came here for were doing their job. He did a double take, but stopped himself from calling out to her. Besides, her size wasn’t right. She seemed chunkier than the girl he’d met so many weeks ago.
She rounded a corner and it seemed as if the world’s light switch shifted back on, or some invisible hand turned the volume back up.
“Sir?” the receptionist said, puzzled. “You’re here to see Dr. Wagner about what?”
Hektor turned back to the receptionist and smiled. “About the surgeon’s position.”
[Juli D. Revezzo has long been in love with writing, a love built by devouring everything from the Arthurian legends, to the works of Michael Moorcock, and the classics and has a soft spot for classic the “Goths” of the 19th century. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Things II: Cat Crimes, The Scribing Ibis, Eternal Haunted Summer, Twisted Dreams Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted stories for Haiti relief” project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter. She has also, on occasion, edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review… But her heart lies in the storytelling. She is a member of the Indie Author Network. Her debut novel, The Artist’s Inheritance was recently released. Visit her here.]