A BLACKER BLACK, A WARMER WARM
HAD MR. WARD BEEN PAYING closer attention when he walked into Storage Room 19, he might have noticed that the warm was just a little bit warmer and the black was just a little bit blacker than usual. That he didn’t notice those small yet horribly significant details was unusual. The exactly matched blue of his tie, belt, and his shoes and socks betrayed his love for details, details, details; a talent that served him well as museum curator.
It was his appreciation for the particulars that brought him to the storage room in the first place. He couldn’t understand how he had missed such an obvious mistake on the inventory sheet, and for such an important occasion. Friday night was the start of The Ancients Alive, a Greek antiquities exhibition. He was sure he had checked and double-checked each item. Yet here he stood, flustered, looking for an additional, missing crate.
Mr. Ward adjusted the smart-looking spectacles on his narrow nose for the millionth time. His jaws clenched as he stared down at the inventory sheet, waiting for the mysterious item to magically disappear in the same way it had appeared. When he was sure that wouldn’t happen, he climbed his pencil-thin body up, then down, the ladder, scanning every shelf. Mr. Ward stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips, tapping his wingtip shoes.
“If it was a snake, it would have bitten me by now,” he grumbled aloud.
The tired fellow removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and then replaced them on his nose where they promptly slid right back down. Mr. Ward took a deep breath as he resigned himself to search every blasted nook and cranny again. He felt foolish making the effort though. He didn’t expect the crate to contain anything very special at all. Its inventory information was horribly incomplete. It said nothing about where the crate came from, who had received it into the museum, or even the name of the object inside it. It simply read: “Jar and Cover, Ancient Greek.”
He shook his head and ran his fingers through his receding blond hair.
“Shoddy work. Shoddy work indeed,” he muttered, making a mental note to chew out whoever was responsible. Mr. Ward loosened his perfectly coordinated tie, noticing the warmer warm for the first time.
“That’s another thing I’ll report. Everyone knows the temperature in these rooms needs to be carefully regulated,” he said to no one.
Mr. Ward wiped beads of sweat from his brow and walked toward the air-conditioner controls. On the way, the inventory sheet slipped out of his sweaty fingers and drifted beneath one of the bottom shelves.
“Goodness gracious,” he huffed, easing himself down on one knee to search for the paper. “What in heaven’s name?”
The linoleum was warm against Mr. Ward’s stomach as he lay on the ground, adjusted his glasses, and squinted into the blacker black beneath the shelf. There, in the dark recess, sat the missing crate. It was cloaked, rather intentionally it seemed, by the darkness around it.
“Well, I’ll be …” he exclaimed, reaching out his spindly arm.
‘Well, I’ll be’ was the last thing Mr. Ward said before the deep growl, violent jerking, flash of light, and deafening sucking sound snatched him away. His scream, piercing. His struggle, brief. His disappearance, final.
Gone was Mr. Ward with his perfectly matched wardrobe and ill-fitting glasses.
Gone was the warm that was just a little bit warmer, and the black that was just a little bit blacker.
Only the mysterious crate remained.
STRANGE DREAMS AND WINGED THINGS
THE DREAMS INTERRUPTING Charis’s sleep were pretty much the same every night. For the past couple of weeks, as soon as she closed her eyes they’d begin. She found herself standing in a great, golden room, so big that every sound she made echoed and bounced off the walls. When the dreams first started, she’d yell “Hey” or “Anybody there?” just because she got a kick out of hearing it over and over again. Now, she couldn’t wait to get this part of the dream over with to see if maybe, just maybe, she could finally get to the dream’s end.
Eventually, her feet—pointed and with her nails painted a soft blue—would float above the smooth, marble surface beneath them as she drifted down the familiar hall. Floods of opaque, yellow light came from everywhere, including her own skin, and filled the halls of what Charis had come to believe was a palace or museum of some sort. She’d squint her eyes as she studied her illuminated hands, arms, and feet, intrigued.
Charis would continue floating down the wide corridor toward somewhere she suspected was important. On the way, she’d stop to admire the paintings that decorated the shining walls. They were unlike anything she’d ever seen in real life. These paintings were animated and absolutely alive with color and movement; each brushstroke contained a measure of magic. From within beautiful gilded frames, the crashing waves of the ocean sprayed the girl with salt water, roaring lions in caves startled her as she drifted by, and instruments played music from invisible hands that she danced to with an equally invisible partner.
Charis loved all of the paintings, but her favorites were the portraits. The proud man with the curly hair was the most handsome fellow Charis had ever seen, but she didn’t blush until she happened upon the kissing lovers whose passion she found shocking. And, even though she knew none of this was real, Charis’s eyes welled with tears gazing upon the wounded warrior staring helplessly back at her from a bloodied battlefield. These were just a few of the many curious portraits lining the walls.
As Charis watched, the men and women in the pictures attempted to talk with her. Try as she might, she couldn’t understand a word they said. For all of their babble, they may as well have been the bleating sheep or singing birds from the other paintings. Still, they did their best to communicate. What, Charis couldn’t tell. Some threw her flowers and danced and bowed in her presence as though she were a god or they her royal subjects. Others, characters of the darker sort, hissed at her and yelled what Charis guessed were curses. She didn’t like them.
It wasn’t long before all of the portraits yelled together and got louder and louder until Charis couldn’t take it anymore. “Calm down,” she’d say, but they just kept right on yelling and making her nervous. It was usually then—with her hands over her ears to mute the noise—that Charis woke up, tired, groggy, and a little confused, just like this morning.
With the memory of her dream still clinging to her lashes like oil, Charis opened her brown eyes. She untangled herself from her bed sheets and rolled onto her back, determined to remember more of the dream this time. Snapshots of beautiful faces and bright, flooding light drifted just beyond her remembrance and vanished before she could see any of it clearly. It was so real, but she just couldn’t grab it and it drove her nuts. She hated starting mornings with such frustration. Here lately, it had been every morning.
Forget it. She kicked away her covers and stretched her lanky body across the bed, yawning.
“Charis?” Mona called from the bottom of the stairs. “You up?” “Yes, Mom,” she answered, her voice full of morning gravel. “Well, you’d better get a move on, sweetie. You know you have that test today, so give yourself time for breakfast, okay?” “M’kay.”
God, it’s going to be a long day, Charis thought. A sleepless night was bad enough, but there was Mr. Porter’s algebra test too. She and Gabe had studied for hours over popcorn and Gatorade. Now that the day of the test was here, she wondered if they’d studied enough and she regretted all of the Facebooking they’d done in between. Her current status? Nervous.
“Too late now,” she sighed.
She scratched her head, her fingers becoming lost in mess of her sandy curls, and rolled out of bed for a shower. Standing beneath the warm water, Charis decided not to freak out about the test and ran through formulas in her head instead. You’ve got this. It’s just like breathing she thought while filling her lungs with shower steam. When she was done, she drip-dropped her way to the sink and squeezed the water from her hair. It drew back into its clumsy spirals before she even finished.
Charis stared intensely into the steamy mirror before lifting her finger to write ‘prepared’ in the moisture on the glass. She added a question mark as an afterthought but quickly erased it. Bad luck. She stepped back to read her work, satisfied, and watched it slowly disappear before heading to her room to dress.
Charis threw on some jeans and her favorite sweater and went downstairs for breakfast. Her parents were talking and having coffee at the kitchen table, solving the world’s problems. Charis’s parents met in college. Their romance was fairly typical, except that Evan was white and Mona was black. It wasn’t a big deal to them, but it was to their families. Fortunately for the couple, love prevailed and their families got over it, mostly. Aunt Diane was still a holdout at family gatherings but no one really cared that much. She was weird about a lot of things, and had too many cats anyway.
“Morning, Sunny,” Evan said looking up from his laptop, his blue eyes shining at her. He was such a morning person. “You ready?”
Charis hugged him around his neck and hoped she’d smell like his cologne all day. She loved her daddy.
“I’m always ready, Dad. You know that!” She sounded more confident than she felt. Charis grabbed a cereal bowl while her mom got the milk from the fridge.
“Mr. Porter said this will be the hardest test so far, but I think I got it. Me and Gabe …”
“Gabe and I,” corrected Mona, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow.
“Gabe and I studied really hard for this one. It’s like 50% of our grade or something like that.”
“You just be sure algebra is the only thing Gabe is studying,”
Evan responded. Charis rolled her eyes. “Daaaad, it’s not like that.”
“I’ve seen the way that boy acts when he’s over here … all left feet. It’s a wonder he can dribble a basketball without falling over himself.”
Evan got up from the kitchen table for more coffee. He gave his best Gabe impression as he poured his second cup.
“’Uh, h~h~hello Mr. Mr. Parks. How was your d~d~day, Mr. Mr. Parks?’” Evan laughed. “He’s over here so much I’m going to start claiming that kid on my income taxes.”
Charis had to admit it. Whenever Gabe was near her dad the boy couldn’t seem to get his words out. It wasn’t like he was the coolest kid in school or anything, but he was downright goofy around her father.
Charis first met Gabe in the third grade. They sat next to each other in Mrs. Cole’s class. It started off badly between them on the very first day. There was a cursive writing test and, in short, Charis’s was a mess, and Gabe’s a work of elementary school art.
“Charis, look at Gabe’s handwriting,” Mrs. Cole beamed standing over the two of them. “Isn’t it just beautiful? You should try to write like that. I’m sure Gabe will help you. Won’t you Gabe?”
Gabe puffed out his scrawny chest and smiled down at Charis. Her face burned red with a mix of embarrassment, anger, and jealousy. She could plainly see that Gabe’s writing was better than hers and didn’t need Mrs. Cole or Gabe to point out the obvious. Charis looked at Gabe’s buck-toothed grin, swallowed her pride, and mumbled, “Good job Gabe.” His pompous, jerky smirk melted away, and with his own face now a bright red, Gabe offered to help Charis if she wanted. They formed a truce and from then on they were best buds.
When Gabe’s mom took off and his parents divorced last year, he started hanging out more at Charis’s house for the company. His own home was too quiet and sad and full of cardboard-tasting frozen dinners. He and Charis did homework or played Xbox together while he and Mr. Parks fought over the last fried chicken leg.
Evan continued, “For someone as tall and skinny as he is, that boy manages to eat up everything in this house. I don’t know where it all goes …”
Charis and her mom both shook their heads. They’d heard it all before.
“Where’s Presley?” Charis asked her mom, hoping to change the subject.
“He left early this morning. Driving lessons.” Mona said it like she was narrating one of those old black and white horror movies where the bad guys wore thick white makeup and slicked back hair and the women stood around screaming instead of running.
Presley was Charis’s older brother. He would be sixteen years old in a few weeks and driving was all he could talk about. His excitement was a departure from his usual cool. Previous attempts by Evan and Mona to teach Presley how to drive always ended up with swearing and promises to never, ever give him the keys again. So, for the sake of the family, they decided to put him in driving school. Presley was glad to go. Either way, Charis couldn’t wait for her brother to get his driver’s license. Two words: personal chauffeur.
Charis put her bowl in the dishwasher and grabbed her backpack to leave. Gabe would be there any minute for their walk to school.
“Ugh” she said as she swung the bulging pink bag over her shoulders. Mona looked at her with concern. “What’s wrong, babe?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you … my birthmark, it’s been itching again. It’s just a little tender, that’s all.”
“Charis, now you know I’ve asked you to tell me if …”
“I know, I know.” She winced as she adjusted the backpack on her shoulders.
When Charis was born the first thing the doctor said was, “Look, you have yourselves a little angel.” It wasn’t because she was so cute (though her mom and dad certainly thought so); it was because of the small birthmark between her shoulder blades. It was shaped, nearly perfectly, like a little pair of pale wings. As she stretched and grew, so did her wings. Through the years doctors assured her parents it was nothing to worry about. However, they advised them to keep an eye on it just the same. And so they did. They also mused about the fact that their cherub-faced baby girl had wings.
Charis may have been as cute as an angel, but she didn’t always behave like one. Ever since she was a child, the girl had been just a little headstrong. At least that’s what her parents called it. It was more complicated than that to Charis. She just wanted to know the reasons why, perhaps a bit more than most kids.
By the time she was five years old, it was clear to her parents that they could take nothing for granted with their girl. Whether it was deciding on what clothes to wear, or explaining what motivated God to flood the very earth he created, Charis needed to know why. Why? Why? Why? If they couldn’t answer her, then she demanded that her teachers did. If they couldn’t, then her pastor, or librarian, or the neighbor up the street. It could go on forever. This troubled Charis’s parents who mistook her questions for something more than just curiosity. So, instead of entertaining their daughter with angelic tales about winged creatures such as herself, they told her cautionary ones. A favorite was the Greek myth of Icarus.
Outfitted with new wings made of wax and feathers, Icarus ignored his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun during their escape from the island of Crete. Enthralled by the adventure and lured by his own curiosity, Icarus didn’t listen to his father and flew higher and higher until the sun’s heat melted the wax on his feathers and destroyed his wings. The curious boy tumbled from the sky and into the sea where he drowned.
When Charis was slow to listen to her parents’ instructions and
behaved irresponsibly like Icarus during his flight toward the sun, Evan and Mona would say things like, “You’re getting awfully sunny there, Charis.” Those warnings were issued so often that Sunny eventually became Charis’s nickname. To the surprise of her parents, Charis’s constant questioning lessened as she matured, but that was mostly due to peer pressure. Her friends found it annoying too and didn’t hesitate to say so.
“I’ll make an appointment with Dr. Nuu.” Mona said.
“No, Mom. Don’t worry about it. It’s okay, I promise,” Charis replied as the doorbell announcing Gabe rang.
“Gabe is here,” Evan sang as he jingled his keys, preparing to leave.
Charis ran upstairs to get the unusual trinket she had found in her backpack. It was a beautiful crystal fairy-like thing that glowed in jewel tones in just the right light. She noticed it at the bottom of her backpack Sunday while doing her homework. I bet Gabe put you in there, didn’t he? she thought as she traced the grooves of its etched wings with her fingernails. The doll had long hair and a tiny sword that hung from its waist. Charis ended up attaching it to a key ring and claimed it as her own.
“There you are,” she said picking it up from the nightstand and clipping it to her jeans.
Charis charged down the stairs and ran into the kitchen to kiss her mom and dad goodbye before sliding across the wood floors toward the front door. When she opened it, there was Gabe, all left feet and goofy, just like her dad said.
THE PROBLEM WITH HADES
IT WAS MORE OF A ROAR than a question. His voice rang out like a clash of cymbals over the constant moaning in the background. The words sprang from his mouth like punches and echoed on the glistening gray, stone walls.
“Tell me again,” Hades bellowed. “What is your pitiful excuse?”
He leaned his body forward in the seat of his elaborate throne. It was decorated with the bones of men and blackened with soot. The gaze of his black eyes bore into the space where Megaera’s eyes would have been if she were not made almost entirely of smoke. Hades’s goal was to intimidate. He was good at that.
Megaera’s shadowy, winged figure stood defiantly erect before him, but she did bow her head as a courtesy. She wasn’t stupid. This was Hades, and it wasn’t wise to provoke him unnecessarily. She had already made such a grave, costly error.
“No excuse, friend. Just the truth,” she hissed along with the snakes upon her head. “The truth is all I have.”
Megaera waved a withered hand, and the word ‘truth’ appeared in the air, a sickly green. The word floated up and hovered before Hades as if awaiting his acknowledgement.
“You also greet me empty-handed!” he stormed. Hades slapped his hefty hand against his armrest and caused ‘truth’ to airily vanish away. The anger on his face betrayed its usual handsome calm. He threw his pewter-colored body back onto his throne and let out a frustrated sigh.
“Tell me … again … what happened. And slowly this time. I want to try and make some sense of your failure.”
Hades peered into her blackened face, what he could make of it. He would be careful with his anger, temper it with wisdom. He knew that the relationship he shared with Megaera was a tricky one. He needed her and her wretched sisters.
The Erinyes Sisters—Megaera, Tisiphone, and Alecto—had served his kingdom well throughout the ages. As the avengers of wrongs, they dragged guilty men and women before Hades with relish, many still screaming their last living cries of horror. Hades would then dispense the punishment their crimes deserved. It was what he did. Yes, he needed the Erinyes Sisters, and the morbid, underhanded work they performed for him. A devious smile crossed his face because he knew they needed him too.
Without him, the snake-haired, red-eyed, black-winged sisters were useless. He was the only thing standing between them and the threat of obscurity. Given their unpleasant work, they hadn’t many friends on Mt. Olympus. The other gods hardly acknowledged their existence. Still, the agreement Hades shared with them was an uneasy one, symbiotic though it was. Individually, the Erinyes Sisters were difficult to manage. Dealing with them all together gave Hades an unholy headache.
“As I’ve told you before, my Lord,” Megaera said, carefully. “I located the object of your desire, but before I could bring it back into your benevolent arms, the ‘problem’ arose.”
As she spoke, a loud moan also arose from somewhere in the blacker black behind her. Megaera rolled her eyes within her shadowy face. She needn’t be reminded of her failure at the museum.
“Quiet,” she yelled. “Quiet” flew from her mouth in red and dove into the darkness toward the moan. Silence resulted.
“This unexpected ‘problem’ interrupted our mission, and so I had to abort it, to protect it, me … to protect you.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence signaling a reluctant agreement.
“The object of your desire remains hidden, unknown to anyone else, save you and me. To all else, it is unknown.”
Megaera’s shadowy silhouette bowed, deeply this time. She was done with her explanation. It would have to be enough. It was the truth. Countless years of listening to groveling humans trying to explain away the evil they’d done had taught the Erinyes Sisters one thing—neither opinions, nor feelings, nor intentions mattered in the end. Only the truth did.
“This is the truth,” she reminded herself and Hades.
At this, the gray god felt some relief. At least they knew where the jar, the “object of his affection” was, and that it was still hidden. Apparently, all was not lost in spite of the ineptitude of his helper, who he thought stood too proudly before him. He would remember her arrogance in the future and wisely wondered if it was a family trait she shared with her sisters.
Foolish Erinyes Sisters.
Hades needed another plan to get the jar back, but he had to be careful and not attract too much attention from the gods … or the humans. He would be patient, for now, and let the Erinyes Sisters continue to do the dirty work and take the risks.
When he was finished staring down Megaera, Hades turned his gaze toward the pathetic, skinny man cowering shamelessly in the corner behind her. The red word ‘quiet’ was pressed over his mouth just beneath his crooked glasses.
“And what do you, Megaera, suggest we do with this problem?” Hades asked, nodding toward Mr. Ward.
Looking over her shoulder with beady, red eyes hardly visible to Hades or the unfortunate curator, Megaera chortled. “I’m sure Sisyphus would appreciate help rolling his boulder up the hill, my Lord Hades. Some help for Sisyphus and his boulder.”
Poor Mr. Ward shrunk deeper into the fetal position and shivered wildly against the wet floor.