Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

3~1: If You Like Hellfire

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."

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And to the haunted.

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