Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

3-8: Life After Death

Ethan arrived on Liz's doorstep, shivering from head to toe. He'd barely made it out of the mountains alive, wrapping himself in the emergency blanket his mother kept in the car. The roads had been treacherous, and he'd been forced to take them slow, as he could barely move his fingers and toes to operate the vehicle.

Several times he'd had to stop and let the heater warm him up just to be able to move, and in those moments his emotions had nearly overwhelmed him. He'd had to drive to escape himself, for movement was better than letting the reality of his situation overwhelm him.

When he arrived back in town, Liz's was the only place he could go. He didn't know who else to see, who else could give him some measure of clarity. He hated himself for going to her, but survival instinct took over. And so, he rang the doorbell, hoping she would even see him.

She opened the door and stared at him, her eyes widening by the second. Her belly clearly showed her pregnancy now, and she was dressed in warm-looking maternity clothes. "L-liz . . ." Ethan said through chattering teeth.

"Ethan?" Liz asked. "Ethan, are you okay?"

"No, I . . ." Ethan gulped back his emotions and explained, "I failed."

"Come in, come in . . ." Liz said, holding the door open wide so he could move inside. He eagerly took the invitation and stepped into the house. Liz's home smelled like Christmas, and a large tree dominated a corner of her living room. A roaring fire danced in the fireplace, and Ethan staggered toward the two-seated couch closest to it. "It's so cold out there," Liz said as she shut the door. "What are you doing out in this chill?"

Ethan sat down and stared at the fire, unblinking. His mind raced back to the fire he'd created in the mouth of the cave. "I hiked up to Cherry Creek Cave, I summoned Orpheus . . . and . . ." He stopped, unable to continue. He was certain he'd slipped into shock, and only his mental training over the last year prevented him from becoming fully catatonic.

"What?" Liz asked as she sat down next to him. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders, holding him tight. "What happened? You look like hell!"

"Where's Jake?" Ethan asked distractedly. "I want to tell him, too. He deserves to know that he was right."

"He's working," Liz explained. "He's getting out of the drug business and needs something else to keep him busy. He started working as a real mechanic last week."

Ethan nodded. It made sense, getting out of a dangerous business. He needed out, he could see that now. He needed to get as far away as possible. Maybe death was the answer, maybe—he stopped and considered where his mind was going, trying to avoid falling over the precipice.

"I see," he said neutrally.

Liz smoothed back Ethan's hair, placing her hand on his forehead. He realized she must be checking his temperature. When she was apparently satisfied, she said, "Ethan, please, just tell me what happened."

Ethan turned to Liz at last and spoke the words he'd been denying himself since he left the cave. "Orpheus says he has Caleb's soul and refuses to give him up."

Liz stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "What?" She asked, processing the statement, staring off into space as she tried to absorb it. "But Orpheus isn't Lord of the Dead. That's Hades, or The Devil, or Hel, or . . ." She looked at Ethan in disbelief. "Orpheus?"

"Yes," Ethan confirmed. "He said he has plans for Caleb and won't let me interfere. I've never felt such power before, it was like . . ." He shuddered, a tremble overtaking his entire body like an earthquake. "It was like touching Death itself."

Liz wrapped both her arms around Ethan and hugged him tight, pulling him into her bosom as well as she could. He could feel her warmth, her tenderness. He wondered why he'd rejected it so thoroughly before now. Why he'd let her drift so far away from him. "Ethan, I'm so sorry . . ." She whispered.

"What am I supposed to do now, Liz?" Ethan asked, sinking into her as her warmth slowly rejuvenated him physically. His soul would take longer. "All this time, all this wasted time . . ."

"I wish I had an easy answer for you," Liz said. She sniffled, and Ethan realized she was crying. The sound opened the floodgates of his own tear ducts, and soon his eyes and cheeks were red from more than just the cold. "I really do, Ethan. I wish I could tell you everything you needed to hear."

His head nestled atop her distended belly. He could hear her heartbeat, could sense her life force. It was so comforting, to hear something that so clearly wasn't dead. It wasn't comforting enough to keep him from touching the sorrowful depths of his soul, depths he'd tried to keep hidden since he'd come back to life. "There's no way to bring him back. It can't be done. I was certain I had the power, but Orpheus had so much more than I did. So much more!"

"No one can overcome death," Liz said quietly. "They can only bargain with it."

"But . . ." Ethan whispered, "I was so certain."

"I know, Ethan," Liz whispered back, rocking him in her arms. "Believe me, I know."

He knew what she meant. Even though she'd managed to rescue him in the process, she felt the same way about losing Caleb. Ethan finally understood her pain and her position. He'd played with the powers of life and death and lost, just as she had. It wasn't meant to be.

A jolt to his cheek brought Ethan back to the present. He bolted upright, staring at Liz's belly. "What was that?" He asked.

"The baby kicked," Liz said sweetly, wiping away a tear with her hand.

Ethan latched on to this new distraction. "Wow, really?"

Liz saw his excitement and reached for his hand. "Yeah . . . He'll probably do it again if you want to feel." She guided Ethan's hand back to her belly, and within a minute it happened again. Ethan smiled; it felt good to smile.

"Little baby Caleb, huh?" He said, grinning.

"Jake told you?" Liz asked.

Ethan nodded. "Yeah. About a month ago."

"I wish I'd had a chance," Liz said. "I didn't want to distract you. I wanted . . . I wanted to believe you were right."

"How far along are you?" Ethan asked.

"Four months, going on five," Liz replied.

"It's wonderful. I can't believe he's so . . ." the baby kicked again under Ethan's hand, and he chuckled. ". . . lively."

Liz let go of Ethan's hand and wrapped her arm around Ethan again. "It kind of puts things in a different perspective, doesn't it?" She said gently.

"I can't bring him back," Ethan said, returning his thoughts to his failure, but it seemed different now. He felt less of the pain of loss, though it was far from gone. "Orpheus wouldn't even accept an exchange," he added bitterly.

"So, what are you going to do?" Liz asked, running her fingers through his hair.

"Live, I guess." Ethan shrugged, and sniffed. He was certain he'd contracted a cold, but that seemed like such a minor nuisance in the face of everything else. "Do something. Try not to kill myself."

"Ethan. I love you," Liz said. "Please don't go anywhere."

"I won't. I want to, but I won't." Ethan sighed and settled into the crook of Liz's arm, staring at the flames. "I just don't know what to do."

"It'll get easier," Liz said gently. "Believe me."

Special thanks to my Patreon supporters: Michael, Bill, Charles, Amr, Don, James, Joe, Jos, Mark, Mark, Paul, Steve, John, Frank, Sam, Jay, Scott, Matt, Haldon, Darren, Richmond, Pete, Peter, Bart, Chris, and YOUR NAME HERE. Couldn't have done it without them or you.

And to EleCivil, for his generous support during the writing process, helping me see the Rivers for what they are.

And to the haunted.

Please consider supporting my work on Patreon for access to my latest stories and additional perks! Writing is currently my sole income, and I could use the support. Thank you! https://www.patreon.com/Cynus

Comments always and gratefully accepted at Cynus

"I'm sorry for your loss," Caleb said. His arms felt light, and suddenly she was gone, disappearing as if she had never existed. But she remained in Caleb's memory, a fragment of a ghost he'd carry with him as he moved forward. He looked up, fresh tears in his eyes as he imagined the edge of Elysium and walked toward it.