When Midnight Comes, Find Shelter
Attica trembles. The moon fires arrow after arrow at my window, sinking countless broadheads fletching deep between the bricks of my bedroom wall. She’s been trying, to no avail, to garner my attention all night. I’m playing stubborn, giving her the silent treatment. Each heavy puncture hurls chunks of plaster onto my bed, as I lay drumming the rhythm of my off-balance ceiling fan on my sternum.
Bum, ba, bum… bum. Bum, ba, bum.
An arrow strikes the blacked glass, sticking this time, splitting it enough that I catch a shimmer from my periphery, but I manage to keep my eyes straight ahead. She’s getting closer.
When midnight comes, find shelter.
The voice echoes from a radio somewhere far off, in Andromeda, maybe, and I’m just the relay, blind, flipping a switch. A thick metal briefcase laughs at me from the darkness beside my bed, whispers some eternal joke and I didn’t hear the punchline. Or maybe I am the punchline.
Bum, ba, bum… bum.
I compose a symphony, percussion first, with my fingers, then the strings with my tongue. Next come the brass and woodwinds, electric in the air, circulating, each movement resting between the fan blades, spinning, spinning, then still. Now my bed spins and I spin along with it, sick to my bones and clicking my jaw to keep from spewing.
This ride is far from over, I know. I’ve been through worse, been through hell and came out the other side, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some dead Greek parade in here and make a fool of me.
“Piss off, Selene.”
I’m grateful she doesn’t talk back. Means I haven’t completely lost it, not yet.
Not tonight, of all nights. Gotta keep it under control.
The moon goddess wasn’t supposed to know I’m expecting company. Unlike other nights when I lay here, eyes sticky, dipped in amber, tonight is different. Special. My guest of honor is none other than Minerva, my admirer’s distant cousin, and it doesn’t take long for me to figure out why Selene’s this bent out of shape: she’s found out about our secret meeting, perhaps even the reason behind this little rendezvous, and she wants a cut of the profits.
I bet Jupiter let it slip, the putz. If I had to guess, I’d wager it was an email sent in error, or a telephone left on speaker a few seconds too long. Leave it to upper management to go leaking memos to the wrong recipients, burn the whole operation. Now wires are crossed, the jig is up. Selene won’t rest until she impales or implores me, I’m not sure which.
I can’t worry about that, not right now. I’ve got a shipment of merchandise that needs delivering, and without Minerva I’ve no vessel with which to ferry it across the Styx. I shudder to think what Pluto will do if I miss the deadline, not this time, not again.
I check my watch. It’s 11:47pm. Thirteen minutes; I can’t afford another fuck up.
The tap-tapping at my glass becomes a pounding, giant-fisted beating of a war drum, and before long my bed rides the vibrations the wrong way, splinters, and hits the floor like a glass zeppelin, and I’m left shaking, disoriented, the lone surviving chunk of a jigsaw puzzle scrambled and turned on its awful head.
“Thought you could use some company.”
She must’ve slipped the fence, somehow. Told them we should’ve built it higher. What’s another month’s salary spent on security if it’ll keep even the moon at bay?
She reaches down, pulls me up from the pile of splinters and freezes, motionless, a stone figure glistening in the darkling half-room. Her dress, thin and pale, the color of bone, leaves little to the imagination. It’s the only thing dampening her glow. Even then, her skin shines like diamonds on an altar, transfixed, as it were, by the stars themselves. The moonlight bracelet on her left wrist shines ghost blue, haunting, casting a dim glow across her narrow face.
“You weren’t invited,” I say, knowing full well the repercussions.
“Mind your tongue, darling, or I will take it.”
Goddess of the Hunt, now I remember. It’s all coming back to me.
“What do you want, Luna?”
At first she doesn’t answer, not out loud, not with words. Her fingers tremble on the string of her bow, nimble fingers I know too well, and her silvered eyes fall on the space between my ribs exposing a rather important fleshy wad of beating pulp and ventricles. The glare of those eyes in the moonlight, her light, sends ripples down the back of my neck. My fist clenches, non-threatening, but all too revealing. She smiles.
“I want what any woman wants.”
Her lips want to be my mother, but her eyes plan to carve a crescent in my stomach, splay my ribs like a temple veil and lay my still-beating heart out in front of me, tender, just out of reach, so I can watch her dance on it. She wants to pull the arrow from her quiver and send me screaming down the Styx, but she won’t. She needs my in with Pluto, and she knows it. As far as she’s concerned, I’m untouchable.
“You want to cut Minerva out of the deal.”
“You seem to cope fairly well with the politics of the divine,” she says, and cocks her head to the side. “For a mortal.”
“I know my place. You’re here because Jupiter thinks we can’t cut it. He planted the seed for you to step in.”
It wasn’t a question, but her silence says, yes. My skin is itching.
“What’s in this for you? Other than a blight on your relationship with Minerva.“
“You needn’t concern yourself with my agenda. Or my family ties.” She plucks an arrow from her quiver and holds it on the tip of her index finger, suspended, then lets her hand fall to her side. The arrow doesn’t move. It lingers, taunting.
“I disagree,” I say, stepping forward. Even with my height advantage, nearly a foot taller than she, I feel meek against her presence. “You’re up to something here. And you’re putting us all at risk.”
“Where is Minerva, anyway? She should’ve been here by now.”
“I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Minerva parts the shadow of the last standing wall of my bedroom like she’s parting smoke and slips through, smooth as oiled silk in a basin, hands clasped at the edges of her tight black leather jacket. She wears heavy military boots over dark skinny pants, and I have no idea how she made it in here without me hearing a footstep.
The blood owl perched on Minerva’s shoulder spins its heads. It’s got two of them, joined at the back of the skull, with four eyes and a curled razor between each set. One of the heads snaps around to look at me, then through me, then goes on about its business weighing shadows, predicting weather patterns, as if in a split second it calculated my every thought, emotion and whim, every chessboard play summed and organized and filed, tucked away to be recalled at a moment’s notice, whereupon it would rake talons through my eyes and take escape out of the equation.
“Cousin,” Minerva said, cold as Pluto’s breath at dawn. “We are out of time. You’ve tested my last good nerve. Charon won’t wait past midnight. We need to leave. Now.”
I’m getting impatient. “Did you bring the vessel?”
She looks at me in pure disgust, not as a person but a thing, wretched and futile, a six foot pair of socks made of used bandaids. I open my mouth to ask again, frustrated, flush in the cheeks, but think better of it. She stops herself from spitting on my rug and turns her attention back to Luna.
“Did you speak with Pluto?”
Pluto? She means Jupiter, surely.
“Yes,” Selene says, returning the arrow to its place in her quiver. Her hand never moves; the arrow obeys some silent command, like a loyal dog tuned to the frequency of a typhoon’s whistle. “He’s found the keys.”
“You’re sure of this?”
I’m invisible, the fly on the wall of a wolf’s den. My watch reads, 11:56pm.
When midnight comes, find shelter, child, lest ye be swallowed up, shaken limb from limb.
“I’m sure. He gave me this.” Selene produces a scroll from her quiver and tosses it over to Minerva. Before she even contemplates catching it, a small red blur snatches it out of thin air.
The owl. I forgot about the damned owl.
The bird drops the scroll gently into Minerva’s hand. She pets its neck with the pad of her finger, it lets out a soft trill shriek, then returns to its sentry position on her shoulder. She unrolls the scroll, takes one look and nods, as if some silent contract has just been signed to which I am in witness hereof.
For all I know, they’re conspiring against the whole of humanity or organizing a bake sale, anything in between. I know only so many things about the gods, but reading micro expressions simply isn’t on my résumé. I’d proffer a guess, but I’d be wrong.
“You, human.” I hear my species and respond, identifying with it on the cellular level, involuntarily raise my head to Minerva. “You will take the shipment to Pluto as planned. This changes nothing. When you cross the river, leave a bottle with Charon. He’ll give you two coins.”
“Coins, right. What do I do with them?”
Selene, sensing my confusion, steps to my right, even with my shoulder. “They will be your tokens, to leave Pluto’s domain. If you lose the tokens, you do not leave. Understood?”
“Loud and clear. Tokens, guard them with my life.”
“Good,” Minerva says, rolling her eyes. “Now leave us.”
“But, the vessel?”
“Here,” she says, and pulls a tiny bottle from inside her jacket, though from exactly where I can’t be sure. For all I know, it came from nowhere at all, literally.
“I’m not taking that shit. Where is the vessel?”
Minerva snorts. “What, you were expecting a chariot? Drawn by flying horses? You fool! The journey to Styx starts and ends here.” She touches two slender blue fingers to her temple. “Would you like to go see Pluto now, or shall I make a mosaic with your skin?”
She throws the bottle at me and I catch it, hand shaking. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Jupiter said, a mortal could charter the ferry, but only once, and he warned that getting out would be… complicated. Is this what he meant? I turn the bottle over in my hand. The warm red liquid inside the vial moves with a chilling effervescence, like blood, if you pumped it full of carbon dioxide.
I look closer at the sangria swirling in my palm. It’s glowing.
“You want me to drink Nectar? Won’t that––”
“No,” Selene says, something nurturing in her tone. Her light softens. She places a hand on my shoulder and my blood warms, the breath catches hot in my lungs. I could really use a cigarette. “You will not become immortal. This dosage will simply allow you to cross between the realms. It will not affect you the way it would a god, although you may feel a strong euphoric sensation.”
I’m beginning to warm to the idea already. It’s 11:59pm.
“One more thing,” says Luna, turning me gently towards her. “When you see Pluto, give him a message for me. Tell him we found the scytale. The bull is weeping. He’ll know what it means.”
“Now go, human. Midnight is upon us.”
The owl shrieks and beats its mighty wings, throwing gravity like sand, and Minerva vanishes. Selene lingers, smiling.
“Until we meet again, darling.”
I take the metal briefcase under my arm and flick the lid off the vial with my thumb. The liquid is sweet, copper on my throat. My tongue dances. I feel static erupt on my skin, the ripple of the walls, a tremor so deep it curls my fingers and I sweat, tears and iron roiling beneath my flesh before the world goes black and midnight takes me.
TO BE CONTINUED…