It was early December when my father called. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but my dad - David Redowl - lived in Oklahoma, and he was calling the Underworld. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how we got cell service. Chalk it up to magic and shrug. I’m just glad it works!
Anyway, I was about halfway through my usual morning pile of paperwork when the old-fashioned rotary phone on my desk started ringing. It didn’t do that very often; Hades and Zeus were both in the habit of just walking in, and everybody else tended to call my cell phone, which now routed to my hair band/helmet (which functioned very nicely as a wireless headset).
Eos - who had been dozing in one of the guest chairs with her feet up on my desk, a habit I’d given up on curbing - stretched out a hand without opening her eyes, snatched the handset from its cradle, and put it to her ear. “You have reached the office of Talia Redowl, Pluto, Avatar of Hades, your one-stop shop for afterlife services and monster hunting. Are you calling for a pickup or slaying?”
I rolled my eyes.
Melinoë, looked up from where she was putting things away in one of the filing cabinets and pouted. “I wanted to answer it.”
I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll get the next one.” I signed the requisition form I was looking at without giving it a thorough read-through…I did not want to know what this punishment crew in Tartarus needed with five 40 gallon drums of roofing nails, so I didn’t read the detailed description included with the requisition. I had long since stopped asking for specifics. I like what’s left of my sanity the way it is.
Eos sat up a little, blinking. “Oh! Hi, sorry, yeah, she’s here. One sec.” She held out the receiver to me. “It’s your father.”
“Way to make a first impression,” I said as I took the receiver from her and put it to my ear. “Hi Dad!”
“Osiyo.” His pleasant baritone made me smile even through the phone lines and however much distance, both physical and metaphysical, separated us now. “How’s my little girl?”
“Overworked and underpaid,” I said, leaning back in my chair. It was an old joke he’d used when talking about his time in the Marine Corps. “Sorry I haven’t called, things have been a bit…overwhelming.”
“For close to four years, now…” He sounded just a little bit reproachful, and I felt guilty. I really should have made the time to go and see him. “But at least I got your letters regularly, and I knew you were having a rough time adjusting, so I gave you space. I’m sure you needed it.”
“I did. Everything’s so different now. It’s really easy for me to lose track of time,” I said ruefully. “And it took five years to deal with the two-thousand-year paperwork backlog…”
“Excuses, excuses,” he said cheerfully. “Are you busy now?”
“Nothing I can’t put aside. Why?”
“Because it’s been almost four years, and I miss my little girl,” he said. “I need another reason?”
I smelled bullshit. While I was sure he had missed me, and I’d definitely missed him - I’d spent my summers with him every year until I was fourteen - I didn’t believe for an instant that he’d suddenly decided he needed to see me. “Okay, Dad, what’s up? Do I need to worry?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I’m perfectly healthy, and your Mom stops by every couple of months to check up on me. Makes me feel like fragile china, whether she means to or not.” I could hear the affection in his voice and knew that he was joking. “But I’ve missed you, and I want to see you. And I’d like to meet your girlfriend finally.”
Eos, who’d been leaning halfway across the desk with an ear cocked towards the phone, grinned. “Girlfriend. I love that word so much.”
I punched her arm lightly and continued my conversation with my dad. “Where are you, at the bar?”
“Yup! Just finished cleaning up for the night. Why don’t you two come by? We’ll have a late one and sit up all night telling tall tales.”
I pulled out my pocket watch and checked the time. I ran my office on Greenwich Mean Time, just to have a point of reference with the mortal world, and he was in Oklahoma…which meant he would’ve closed up shop just a little while ago. I cocked an eyebrow at Eos, who smiled and nodded. “Sure, Dad,” I said. “We’ll be there in a few minutes, okay?”
“Sounds good. See you in a few!” He hung up, and I put the receiver back on the cradle.
Eos tipped her head. “You’re bothered.”
I nodded and rose. “My Dad’s an affectionate guy, and I have no doubt at all that he’s missed me, and I really should’ve made time to stop by and see him long before now…but he’s a patient and deliberate kind of guy who prefers planning things over spontaneity. For him to call out of the blue, in the middle of the night where he is, even if he does close up shop at one in the morning…” I shrugged, grabbed Cerberus off the wall and collapsed it into its baton form before holstering it on the back of my belt.
Eos rose. “You think something’s wrong?”
“I think my Dad doesn’t do anything without deliberation.” I looked down at myself, gave myself a little shake, and my usual uniform shifted and changed into a pair of blue jeans, hiking boots, a white blouse and a denim jacket.
Eos eyed me for a moment, then changed her uniform into a matching outfit. Though instead of a blouse, she had chosen a t-shirt with a group of colorful cartoon ponies on it. It was very her. “Fair enough,” she said. “Let’s go see what’s up.”
I came around the desk and offered her my hand. She smiled as she took it, twining our fingers together as I Stepped us to my dad’s bar in Oklahoma.
My father is an interesting guy. He’s a full-blooded Cherokee, born in Oklahoma in a family with a tradition of sons becoming Medicine Men. He wasn’t thrilled by the idea and left home to join the Marine Corps when he was eighteen, where he served with distinction but without rising to officer rank for a little over twenty years before going home with a broader and deeper view of the world. He took over his father’s bar, and started learning to be a Medicine Man.
It wasn’t long after he started those studies that he met Mom, and I was born about a year later. Now he’s in his late 60’s, and has become the unofficial therapist for pretty much everybody in the area around where he lives.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that he knows a lot about patience and a lot about people. Since retiring from the Marines, he’d lived life at a slower, more deliberate pace, so his calling out of the blue like he did was…worrying.
The parking lot of the bar was empty when we arrived except for my dad’s pickup truck and some early snow. The “closed” sign was lit up in the front window, but the lights were still on, and when I tried the door it was unlocked, so Eos and I went straight in, making the bell above the door jingle.
“Hi Dad!” I called out as we entered. “We’re…here…”
The door banged shut behind us with another jingle.
My father was standing behind the bar, smiling a warm, familiar smile that I remembered very well, his long black hair tied back loosely and just starting to go silver at the temples. He looked exactly the same as the last time I’d seen him, though perhaps with a few more lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
Across the bar from him sat a huge man, heavily muscled, tanned, with a thick tangle of brown hair and a neatly groomed full beard. He was wearing jeans, work boots, and a plain white t-shirt, but I recognized him even before he’d finished turning to face us.
“Talia,” he said, “I wanted to -”
I was across the room and planting my fist squarely on his nose before I even realized I was moving. I didn’t recognize the surge of anger in me until his nose had crunched under my fist and I was winding up for a second blow.
I had no idea I’d been so angry at him for what he’d done. I hit him again, this time with a right hook across the jaw, before my brain caught up with my body and tried to rein it in.
“Whoa!” Eos cried, wrapping her arms around me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides and pulling me back a few steps.
I briefly thought about stomping on her foot to get her to let me go…but it was Eos, and I was not going to strike her in anger, ever. “Let me go,” I hissed.
“No way,” she said. “Not until you cool down a bit.”
My father had handed Heracles a towel packed with ice, and the big man was holding it to his nose. “Those were mighty blows! Well struck!” he said with boisterous approval, giving me a thumbs-up with his free hand. He sounded congested, which made Eos giggle in spite of herself. He gave her a teasingly hurt look, before returning his attention to me. “I deserved that,” he said with a nod, talking over my shoulder to Eos, “and more. Let her go. If she wishes to continue, I will not stop her.”
Eos made an uncertain sound. “Big brother…”
He held up his free hand to stop her. “No, I had it coming.” He gave a mighty sniff and took the icepack from his nose, which honestly didn’t look any more battered than it already had. Doubtless, I was far from the first person to break it.
There was just a bit of blood on the towel, which finally froze me in place and gave my brain a chance to override the anger-fueled adrenaline pumping through my body. I shuddered a little. “Okay,” I said quietly. “I’m okay.”
“I thought I’d taught you to settle your differences with talk instead of your fists,” my father said with gentle disapproval.
“Violence is in her blood,” Heracles said with a smile. “Though rarely thoughtless violence. The fault is entirely mine, in truth. I should have handled things better at her graduation ceremony.”
“Ya think?” Eos asked dryly, slowly loosening her grip on me. When I didn’t immediately lunge at Heracles again, she turned me to look at her. “You okay?”
That my mental wellbeing was her first priority here warmed me and finished pushing my brain back into my body. I nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m okay.” I turned back to Heracles and looked up at him. He was well over six feet, but I found I wasn’t as intimidated by him as I had been years ago. I took another deep breath and let it out, then offered him my hand. “I’m sorry. That was -”
He clasped my forearm gently. “Neither unexpected nor unacceptable.” He grinned. “At least, not for a warrior of your caliber.”
I clasped his arm in return and shook my head. “It was still out of line. I shouldn’t have hit you.”
He chuckled. “I don’t mind. I can take it. If you want to go a few rounds I’m sure we could clear the floor…”
I laughed in spite of myself and suddenly realized what a complete ass I’d been for not talking to him about this before now. I released his arm and hugged him instead. “I’m sorry anyway.”
“So am I,” he rumbled, returning my hug gently. “I’d only found out what they needed me to do a few minutes before…if I’d had time to think about it, I would have done the thing differently.”
“You’ve never been the world’s greatest thinker, big brother,” Eos said, plunking down onto one of the bar stools and offering my father her hand. “Eos Leonidis.”
Dad gave her a warm smile and shook her hand. “David Redowl. Nice to finally meet you.” He gestured to the two of us. “Is that kind of thing normal for your people?”
“The Greek gods? Or children of Zeus?” Eos asked, amused, half turning to look at us. “Actually, yeah, pretty normal either way.”
Dad shook his head and leaned on the bar as Heracles and I separated. “Never thought I’d see my little girl throw punches like that.”
I stretched on my toes and gave him a kiss on the cheek before sitting on the stool beside Eos. “Hi, Dad.”
He patted my cheek and smiled. “Hi yourself, kiddo. Is this really what it takes to get you to come see your old man?”
“In her defense, her life has been pretty crazy the last few years, and it’s easy for even normal immortals to lose track of time relative to the mortal world,” Eos said, just a little defensive on my behalf. “Especially Avatars. Especially the ones like Talia who have so much on their plates.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard some of it second-hand. This big lug,” Dad said, gesturing to Heracles even as he gave Eos an approving look, “has been coming into my bar every few days for the last six months. He finally told me who he was a few weeks ago, told me all kinds of stories about you, and started trying to get me to help him figure out a way to get you to forgive him. It was kind of pathetic.”
Heracles sat back down and huffed. “It wasn’t pathetic.” He still sounded congested, so he put the icepack back on his nose, wincing a little.
“Pathetic,” My dad and Eos said together, then grinned at one another.
“Anyway,” Dad said, still grinning, “he was here all evening weeping into his drink about how guilty he felt, and how sure he was that you hated him forever now…”
“I was not weeping,” Heracles said with congested dignity, still holding the ice pack to his nose.
“Weeping into his drink,” my father repeated, “and I figured hey, I haven’t seen my little girl in far too long…”
“So you called,” Eos said, grinning. “I love it.”
Dad shrugged, a gesture which - on him - could deliver an entire conversation’s worth of meaning. This one said, very clearly, ‘seemed like the right time.’
Heracles set the icepack aside and clasped one of my hands in both of his. “Talia, I have regretted both my action and the necessity of it every day since the act itself. You were one of my favorite students, and when I realized what I had done I hated myself for the doing. On top of that, you are my favorite little sister’s intended, and I would not risk having my deed come between you at any time in the future.” He looked at me so earnestly that he rather reminded me of a forlorn puppy. “Can you forgive me, Talia? I would have peace between us.”
I sighed a little. Obviously - made plain by my behavior - I still had some issues to work out about the way I’d been inducted into my office. But was it fair of me to hold that against Heracles? Not really…he’d been a blunt instrument (he was rarely anything else, if even half of the stories about him were true) wielded by Zeus to ensure my ultimate suitability for the role of Hades’ Avatar.
In order to exist in the Underworld for any significant length of time, you either had to be a god, wholly of divine birth (like Melinoë, the daughter of two gods), or have died. That was why Eos was able to stay with me as often as she did…because she’d actually died for a few minutes on my desk - then acting as Michel’s makeshift operating table - after she was shot.
Otherwise, the very nature of the Underworld would have messed with our half-mortal bodies so badly that it would, at the very least, have made us ill. It would probably even have killed us, unpleasantly, given no more than a few days.
It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t sure how Gregor was surviving normally in the Underworld. I shuddered a little, hoping Zeus had been gentler with Gregor than Heracles had with me.
So…in the end, was it right to hold my ‘death’ against Heracles? No, not really. I’d gotten the worst of my anger about it out of my system, and so many good things had come into my life as a result…holding it against him would be folly, and might eventually drive a wedge between Eos and me. And anyway, Heracles had been my favorite teacher, and I had missed his big-brotherly behavior towards us, his students.
Did I need some therapy? Probably. But that wasn’t his problem.
I laid my free hand on top of his and patted them gently. “Honestly, I don’t think -”
I was cut off as the front door of the bar crashed off of its hinges and slammed flat to the floor, accompanied by the tinkling of shattered glass and the discordant, almost frantic chime of the bell above it.
A figure stood in the open doorway, filling it completely. It was humanoid, a little bit taller and broader than Heracles, but it was definitely not human. Its skin was the color and texture of dark concrete, overlaid with form-fitting but rough plates of some granite-like stone. Its face was more of the same, almost featureless except for a gaping, toothless mouth, a hint of a nose, and eyes that looked like they had been carved directly into its head. There was no sign of ears.
Said eyes moved and focused on me, before shifting to each of us in turn. Then it strode a few steps into the room, its bare feet - I could see stone toes - thumping heavily on the hardwood floor. It made a sweeping gesture with one foot, kicking the door out of its way.
Two more figures that were largely identical, except for a few cosmetic differences, walked in behind it, their feet crunching on the broken glass. They spread out to stand on either side of the first as three more filed through the door one at a time, and I thought I could see at least one or two more beyond, still out in the parking lot. None of them were wearing any clothing, and fortunately they weren’t anatomically correct.
“Bar’s closed,” my father said with absolute calm and a faint hint of disapproval. “You put that door back where it was and leave, and I’ll pretend it never happened.”
Josh is a life-long native of Western Massachusetts. He spends his daylight hours disguised as a mild-mannered IT specialist, trying to get inanimate objects to talk to him and work the way he tells them to. He spends his nights trying to keep all of the animated characters in his imagination from saying too much…and work the way he tells them to.
For the past couple of decades, Josh has been creating worlds for his characters to inhabit, and dreaming up ways to push at the practical implications of a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy tropes. He loves telling stories, entertaining his readers, and sparking fun debates about how to make the implausible plausible. He has a degree in Folklore & Mythology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst