The Gatekeeper's Challenge (5 page)

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
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She found herself in a puddle of mud.

“Climb out and wash off. You’re a mess,” a voice called.

Therese wiped the mud from her goggles with her fingers and looked up. Above her stood a beautiful young woman with flowing brown hair and high brown suede boots. Therese removed her goggles to get a better look.

“Come on!” the woman urged her. “You’re a filthy mess. Take this towel.”

“Artemis?” she asked, scrambling to her feet. She took the towel and wiped her face. Immediately the mud left her body and one-piece swimsuit, and she was clean all over. The white towel showed no trace of dirt.

“Of course.”

“I’m, I’m supposed to be racing right now.”

“It’ll wait. No worries. I have something important to tell you.” She didn’t look back at Therese as she made her way through the woods.

“Where are we going?” Therese followed, slowly because of her bare feet. The dead leaves and twigs scratched at her sensitive skin.

“Just through here.”

After another ten feet or so, they came to a small clearing where there were two tree stumps, side by side.

“Sit down,” Artemis said as she sat on one of the two stumps.

Therese sat on the other and looked up at Artemis expectantly.

“I’ve heard your prayers and have decided you need a personal response. First, as to your pet hamster, there’s something you need to understand about immortality.” The wind gently blew Artemis’s brown hair across her green eyes, and she swiped it from her face with a strong hand. “Not all creatures would benefit from it, especially rodents. Your hamster’s life consists of feeding, sleeping, and toiling, and that’s it. To extend such a life infinitely would be a cruel punishment, not unlike that of Sisyphus, who, at the break of each dawn, rolls the same large rock up the same steep hill. Do you understand?”

Therese thought on it for a moment. Were some lives more valuable than others, or more worthy of living? She wasn’t sure of the answer, but she gave Artemis a nod.  Maybe Puffy had had enough. “I suppose it would be selfish of me.”

Artemis smiled. “Yes. Quite.”

Therese shivered. She thought she could see a line of ants marching their way up the stump upon which she sat, and she was cold and worried about the swim meet.

“Immortality would be cruel for most creatures, including most humans. Death in the Elysian Fields is a gift, not a curse, from the gods. Which leads me to another of your prayers—your request for
Thanatos.”

Therese gave Artemis her full intention, even as another shiver made its way down her back. “Yes. I love him,” she said, just above a whisper.

Artemis rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I beseech you to let that go, child. Love is fleeting. And life in the Underworld would be, well, gruesome. It’s a place avoided by all gods who
can
avoid it. Even Persephone…”

“Forgive me, Artemis, but I don’t care. I love
Thanatos, and I want to be with him forever.”  A flurry of fear moved through Therese as she watched Artemis’s green eyes glare back.

“Then you’re doomed to heartbreak until the love wears off, which will happen, I assure you, since Cupid never speared your heart. Why any woman would give her heart away, I know not!”

Therese gave into the shivers overtaking her body. She hugged the towel around her and tucked her chin down to her chest.

“If it weren’t for your valiant fighting on Mount Olympus last summer, not to mention your selfless decision to give your friend the invisibility crown, I would call you a stupid, stupid girl. Your decision to let McAdams live was noble in the eyes of some, but your foolish,
unrelenting desire to be with the god of death is despicable. Yet you remain a good steward of the earth and its inhabitants, and your good-natured, competitive spirit in the water is admirable. Leave me now with the wisdom I’ve imparted to you, and know I can answer the last of your three requests: you will win your races today.”

Therese resisted the urge to object. She had already angered Artemis enough. Her refusal to accept her help in the swim meet would likely sever their ties completely.

“Thank you,” Therese said.

“Go! Go!” Artemis shouted angrily.

Therese was bewildered. She didn’t know the way back.

“Go!” Artemis shouted again.

Therese scrambled from the tree stump and stumbled on the dead leaves and twigs back toward the mud puddle. It had been somewhere here, just past this clearing, somewhere here in the thick of the woods. She tripped on a heavy branch and fell.

“Go!” she heard the crowd shouting above her.

She found herself back in the pool, reaching for the wall beneath Jen’s feet with both hands. She touched the wall, and Jen dove over her head and swam the butterfly to finish the race.

Her relay team came in first.

Therese won every one of her events.

The Durango Demons were declared the winners of the meet.

After the initial excitement and flood of pride, Therese sat on the bench with her handful of ribbons feeling dissatisfied. Artemis’s help had ruined her chances of knowing for certain whether or not she could have outswam Lacey Holzmann on her own. As she watched her teammates congratulating one another with hugs and pats on the back, she fought the frustration clutching at her insides. Then suddenly, the ground below her shifted and she half-expected to come face-to-face with another god.

The building
shook, and the crowd of people screamed and began to scatter. She sat there on the bench, stunned as she watched her teammates run for their loved ones. Coolers of water fell over, clip boards dropped from tables, chairs were toppled, and people slipped on the wet deck.  A crack ran up the cement wall across from her.

Suddenly someone grabbed her arm and pulled her up and away from the water.

“The locker rooms are safest,” Richard said beside her.

“This way,” Carol said.

And so Therese followed her aunt and uncle and the rest of the panicked crowd into the locker rooms until the earthquake ended and they were finally able to leave the building and go home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six: Hermes’s Advice

 

Than
returned to the Underworld to his private chambers to find Hermes lying on his bed.

“Thank god.” Hermes sat up. “I’d forgotten what monotonous work this is. I’m in four thousand different places at once and still bored. Take my hand before I’m forced to disintegrate again.”

Than touched his cousin’s hand and restored himself as god of death, the transition momentarily jostling the lifeless souls he now stood beside, leading them, his hand paternally on their shoulders, to Charon. He sighed. Hermes was right, but someone had to do it. He turned to his cousin. “Thank you.”

“Good news from Aphrodite, I hope?”

“An idea. How well do you know Dionysus?”

“He’s like a son to me. Why?”

“What can I do to get on his good side?”

“You can’t.”

Than took a chair across from Hermes, who remained sitting on the bed and now tucked a pillow under his arm to make himself more comfortable. “Why not?”

“He hates the gods.
All of us. He feels cheated. And rightly so. He was hidden away most of his life from Hera. You know the story?”

Than nodded.
“But I had nothing to do with it.”

“He’s got a chip on his shoulder. Don’t take it personally.”

“There’s got to be a way. He’s my only hope.”

“If he’s your only hope, then you have none.”

“Is it true he lives on Mount Kithairon?”

“Don’t seek him out. The maenads will tear you to pieces.”

Than bit his lip, thinking. There had to be a way into Dionysus’s heart. Every person was capable of tenderness. As god of the dead, he’d seen even the most powerful weep. “How long does it take to recover from that—being torn to pieces?”

“Trust me when I say nothing is worth that pain. Don’t even think of it.”

“Too late, Hermes.” The pain in his heart was greater; he was sure of it.

“First love.
Young love. Believe me, it’ll pass.”

“Impossible. And I don’t want it to pass. You know how monotonous my existence is. Why shouldn’t I find happiness? Why should I alone be exempt from it?” He thought of Charon and clenched his jaw. Charon, too, was exempt.

“You have nothing he desires. No leverage. He celebrates life. You are Death. I can think of nothing to help you. And as far as how long it takes to put your pieces back together again? Depends on how badly you’re ripped apart. Could take weeks. And you’ll need help if you don’t want to look like a monster for several years while you heal. Plus, someone else would need to take your job while you’re put back together, and it won’t be me, cousin.” Hermes stood up, as if to leave, but then added. “But there is one among us he respects.”

“Who?”

“Your grandmother, Demeter. Maybe she can help.” With that, Hermes vanished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven: Vicki’s Idea

 

“But what magnitude are they saying it was?” Richard asked Carol from behind the wheel of his black Maxima. “I don’t see any damage anywhere else. It’s like it just hit the one building.”

“Maybe they don’t know yet,” Therese said in the backseat with Vicki on their way to Vicki’s apartment. Therese had changed from her swimsuit, and, though her hair was still damp, it had been freed from the swim cap and brushed out in the locker room before they left the meet.

“I’m searching,” Carol said, bent over her iPhone. “The reception slows down when we get into the pines. Hang on. Okay. Here it is. Five point zero. Wow.
Pretty decent.”

“Coach said we’ll have to use another pool for the rest of the season,” Therese said. “I wonder where that’ll be.”

Richard shook his head. “Five point zero. That is something. Most of the earthquakes in this area hover below three and are rarely felt. I wonder if more will follow. They usually do when they’re that big. I wrote an article on earthquakes once.”

Therese wondered if Poseidon had been involved. Maybe he was peeved Artemis had helped Therese after Therese had turned down his offer. Surely he knew it hadn’t been Therese’s fault. Before she had time to think more on it, though, Vicki whispered something cryptic in her ear.

“What?” Therese whispered back.

“I saw my mom last night.”

Therese looked at her friend for a moment, wondering what she could mean. Then she asked, “In a dream?”

Vicki gave an even wider smile at Therese’s confusion. “Not a dream. Come over for lunch and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Therese felt wiped out after the meet and the bizarre earthquake, not to mention her unexpected encounters with two gods. She really wanted to go home and take a nap before the festival tonight. But there was something bewildering about Vicki’s smile and her apparent certainty that she had seen her mother, who committed suicide a year ago. Therese couldn’t resist.

“Hey,” she said to her aunt and uncle when there seemed a pause in their conversation about all the seismic occurrences in the history of the pl
anet Earth. “Can I stay at Vicki’s for a while?”

Carol turned and looked at Therese. “You don’t want to get some rest before tonight?”

“Just a couple of hours,” Therese said. “Maybe you could come back for me around three?”

Vicki said, “My dad can bring you home. He won’t mind.”

“Are you sure?” Carol gave Therese a scrutinizing look. She was aware of the inequity in the relationship between the two girls.

Therese nodded.
“Absolutely. Jen’s not picking me up until six. I’ll have plenty of time to rest.”

“What do you think?” Carol asked Richard.

“Fine with me. If Vicki’s dad can’t bring you home, just give us a call. I’ve got some errands to run, so I don’t mind coming back to town.”

Therese hoped Carol wouldn’t bring up the fact that Therese was old enough to take driver’s education and drive herself, and that her brand new shiny red Honda Civic was waiting in the driveway for her use. Carol had brought it up many times, but Therese hoped she wouldn’t in front of Vicki.

The car had been a gift from Carol and Richard last April on her sixteenth birthday, but ever since what happened in her mother’s car last summer, Therese could not bring herself to get behind a wheel. At first, Carol and Richard assumed Therese’s hesitance had to do with the fact that she didn’t want to drive her father’s truck. They originally planned for Therese to use it. But when they traded in the truck and bought her a brand new car, Therese still felt like she wasn’t ready to drive.

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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