"Nepenthe"

Written By

John Richard Albers

Richard felt a bit foolish for donning his costume before making his way across town. The traditional Bela Lugosi style Dracula demanded a cloak and evening wear in midnight black, and while dark colors are slimming to one as pudgy as Richard, they do not lend themselves to visibility. He was inconspicuous as a shadow, and, to the bus that almost ran him down when he’d tried to cross Main and 5th, about as solid.

 

Jacob was the rising star attorney at the firm. Richard was just a junior accountant. The Halloween party was just a cheap way to smooth the new promotion over with the underlings; everyone knew that. Likewise, Richard suspected that Jacob knew no underling was in the economic position to pass up free food (and the chance to take incriminating photos of the girls from the typing pool when they were good and lubed.) In any case, a party was a party, and word had it that Jacob’s place was pretty swanky.

 

The line waiting along the pier for the seven o’clock ferry was abnormally long when Richard arrived. Lots of people out for Halloween, he thought.

 

He took his place behind a woman in a shimmering crimson evening dress and inordinately high heels, and, being the sort that states the obvious to reassure himself, cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me. Is this the line for the seven o’clock ferry?”

 

No response.

 

Thinking he’d forgotten to speak above the average wage-monkey’s submissive whisper, he was about to ask again when the line shifted expectantly. A boat glided across the misty waters.

 

Richard groaned.

 

There’s no way everyone will fit on that tiny thing. At the back of the line, Richard was sure he would have to wait for the second trip, possibly the third.

 

Despite his apprehension, the line moved quickly. It seemed far more were embarking than the ferry could’ve safely carried. Must be larger below decks than it looks.

 

As he neared, he caught sight of the boatman and felt a twinge that might’ve resulted in a chuckle in someone blessed with a sense of humor. The boatman was draped in coarse black robes; a cowl finished the clichéd ensemble, hiding every inch of skin from sight.

 

Each passenger dropped a few coins into a large bag on the railing, and when it came Richard’s turn, he panicked, realizing no one had paid in cash, let alone with a credit card such as he was clutching. He stuffed it back into his dinner jacket and rifled for the quarters leftover from his daily snack break at the office vending machines, painfully aware of two points of light within the cowled head fixated on him.

 

“Hi,” Richard said, trying to hide his nerves by being overly cheerful.

 

It always worked at the office.

 

“You’re supposed to be Charon the Ferryman, right?”

 

The cowled head nodded.

 

“I like your costume. It must’ve been tough letting everyone know they should pay in coins tonight. I’m afraid I didn’t get the memo. Will these do?” he asked holding out the quarters hopefully.

 

Another nod.

 

Richard was momentarily taken aback when he dropped his payment in the bag. Apart from the usual quarters, dimes, and nickels, there were yen, deutsche marks, euro, pounds, rubles, and more he failed to recognize. Funny, he thought as he took a seat near the stern, I didn’t think they were legal tender here.

 

His therapist had told him last week that he needed to be more outgoing, so he took this opportunity to strike up a conversation with the elderly gentleman beside him… or he tried. Deaf old fart, Richard thought, giving up.

 

Like many people who find themselves in the company of others and yet alone, Richard resorted to pulling out his cell phone in some subconscious hope of annoying his neighbors. He wanted to call Jacob to make sure he’d gotten the directions right, but there was no signal. Stupid Verizon.

 

“Can you hear me now?” Yeah, right.

 

Defeated, Richard sat back in silence. The ride, as he discovered, was quite pleasant. The river seemed to hold still, so placid it might’ve been glass. It mirrored the twinkling light of distant stars. Enshrouded in mist, the tableau was his alone, and he’d already been lulled into light slumber when a sharp bump jerked him awake.

 

Just as the mists parted, so did Richard’s jaw drop. To call them houses was an insult to the palatial manses flanking the riverbank beyond the docks. They stood proud, resolute works of art, their basalt faces worked in the Grecian style. Richard reassessed what he knew about Jacob. Everyone said he was well off, but buying one of these behemoths would’ve bankrupted a sultan.

 

He collected himself and disembarked, giving the ferryman a little wave as he passed.

 

“I’ll catch you on the way back.”

 

His attempts to rationalize the ferryman’s disturbing wave back ended when he noticed the roads were cobbled rather than paved. This discovery was facilitated by tripping and landing face-first, allowing for detailed examination as he laid and waited for the pain to recede, wondering if his nose was broken.

 

He was aware of dozens of footsteps passing by, but none stopped. When he finally levered himself up and ensured there was no serious harm done, the streets were free of all illumination and signs of life.

 

“So much for good Samaritans,” Richard said, and started limping in what seemed the right direction.

 

The silence was eerie, and by the time he’d reached the second intersection in the stonework maze his nerves were beginning to play up. So picturesque, quaint, and clean were his urban surroundings that he briefly entertained the notion he’d mistakenly wandered into an amusement park.

 

Then it hit him. Cars. Where are the cars? There are no traffic lights, no signs or streetlamps, nothing.

 

Something flickered at the edge of his hearing, as though from a light wind, and he rounded a corner. Damn…, was all his overawed mind could articulate.

 

Two ensconced torches burned merrily, framing a massive building face fortified with fluted columns. The dancing flames illuminated an inscription set in marble above a polished oak door etched with satyrs, nymphs, and a cavalcade of cavorting characters from Greek myth.

 

“Spiti Toi Thanatos,” Richard read aloud.

 

“Cripes, I might as well be at the Parthenon.”

 

He knocked. The door opened slowly. Was there a shriek of rusted hinges taken from an old horror film? A gust of fetid, rot-ridden air? No. And Richard vaguely felt it a lost opportunity.

 

A man filled the doorframe--a very tall man. A statue even, carved of dusky marble. To Richard’s eyes he looked young. Sporting a smooth chin and shaven head, he might’ve been in his late twenties, yet his black on black eyes made him infinitely older. He wore a toga and sandals in fitting with the house’s style, both in drab grey.

 

“Um… hi. I’m, uh, Richard,” he said to the towering specimen.

 

Under those deep, inquisitive eyes there seemed little more he could say. The man’s stare lasted a few seconds beyond the limits of comfort before he apparently came to a decision.

 

“A new arrival I see. Come in, come in,” he said, and ushered Richard into the foyer.

 

“I’m, uh, looking for Jacob Istatapolos’ residence,” Richard said, goggling openly at the surrounding opulence.

 

A sitting room larger than a dance hall lay before him; the roaring fireplace at the far end could’ve swallowed an SUV whole. Low set couches were interspersed throughout, breaking up the geometric complexity of a woven rug so thick Richard wondered if he would get lost if he tried to raid the nearest buffet table. Just what does anyone need with a fountain in the middle of their living room, he wondered?

 

“I am afraid this is not his home,” the tall man said, “but do not concern yourself overly much; you were expected. Please, sit.”

 

Richard perched on the end of the nearest couch, tensing as he sank into overstuffed leather. He hadn’t thought Jacob might rent a place for the party.

 

“Well, will Jacob be coming here then?”

 

The tall man cocked his head to the side, considering the question.

 

“I can honestly say that he will be here, though when is something I cannot predict.”

 

“Alright then. I guess I’ll wait for him if you don’t mind.”

 

“Of course,” the tall man said, and gave a gracious bow a century out of style and yet perfectly fitting with their surroundings and his antiquated poise.

 

“Help yourself to some refreshments while you wait.”

 

Ever the one to obey, Richard fetched himself a small plate from the buffet. Still, he was unnerved. The tall man continued to regard him with unconcealed interest, watching his every move like a snake tracking a song bird.

 

Richard coughed—not because he needed to clear his throat but because it’s the unimaginative way to break awkward silences—and said, “This is a beautiful home, but there’s nobody here. Am I early?”

 

“Not at all,” the tall man said with a dismissive wave.

 

“Everyone arrives in their own due time.”

 

Richard bit into a cracker, gagged, and almost spat, but the manners pounded into his head by a lower-middle class upbringing forced him to choke it down.

 

“I think some of the food might be a bit off,” he said, gasping for air.

 

“That tasted like ash.”

 

Non-existent eyebrows furrowed.

 

“Of course it did,” the tall man said. “What would you expect from Hades?”

 

His eyes brightened in understanding and a slight chuckle escaped him.

 

“I think you might have misunderstood the full implications of the situation you find yourself in, Mr. Cummings.”

 

Richard’s heart skipped a beat.

 

“How do you know my last name?”

 

“Why should I not know my charges? But forgive me; I’ve not introduced myself. I am Thanatos.”

 

He placed a hand over his heart and inclined his shining pate.

 

“I believe you would refer to me more properly in English as ‘Death.’ Please, be welcome here, in this place, your new home.”

 

“Okaaay,” Richard said, standing up.

 

“I think I’ll be leaving now.”

 

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

 

“What, will you try to stop me?” Richard said, making for the door.

 

Thanatos smoothly stepped out of the way.

 

“Not at all.”

 

Richard had spent more of his thirty years pushing pencils than lifting dumbbells, but there was still plenty of muscle beneath all that pudge. He pulled until the handle creaked, but the door wouldn’t budge.

 

“Unlock the door this instant!”

 

“But it is not locked,” Thanatos said.

 

He reached past the door gave with the lightest of touches.

 

“See?” Richard dove for the opening, and for the second time of the evening, his face slammed into an unyielding surface: solid air. He rounded on Thanatos rubbing his smarting nose and trying not to hyperventilate. Large as the foyer was, at that moment it was far too constricting.

 

“Why can’t I leave?”

 

“Because you have taken into yourself the food of the Underworld, that which is made from its very substance. And just as the Underworld is separated from the living world, so are you.”

 

Thanatos shook his head.

 

“Really, people should read the classics nowadays. The story of Persephone and Hades was flawed, but the basics were correct.”

 

“Bu-but I can’t be dead!” Richard said.

 

His tightening throat raised the pitch of his already nasally voice to a pathetic whine.

 

“I don’t remember dying.”

 

Thanatos stroked his smooth chin for a moment.

 

“Not everyone sees their passing as it comes. An even smaller number forget it ever happened. Their minds block it. Have you had any recent accidents or illnesses of any kind?” he asked, not unkindly.

 

“No. None that I can think of. There was the bus that I dodged on the way over, but there’s no way I could forget being plowed under something like that.”

 

The room was silent as Richard stared up at the bigger man who called himself Death, yearning for his agreement, hoping that it was just some sort of elaborate joke.

 

“I think,” Thanatos said quietly, “given the circumstances, you weren’t quite as fast on your feet as you thought you were. You would be amazed how the mind is capable of adapting to fit its needs. In this case it refuses to accept facts. You are dead, be most assured of that, whether you acknowledge it or not.”

 

Rising emotion was the catalyst. Sensing a change from the soul crushing monotony of life, Richard’s brain rose from dormancy and did something so rare it might be considered lost to modern man altogether.

 

It had a genuinely original thought.

 

“If I am dead, then why is no one else here?” Richard said.

 

“I can’t be the only one who’s died tonight.”

 

“Death is a path which all men take, but each must walk alone,” Thanatos replied.

 

An outswept arm showcased the bare expanse of the manse. “

 

Others are here, but you cannot see them, just as they cannot see you.”

 

It was all too much for Richard. His legs gave out, and without realizing it he began to weep. Thanatos turned his back in distaste.

 

“No tears, please. There is no reason to despair. It’s true you shall not know the pleasures of the living, being a shade and no longer a man, but neither will you know its pains.” “

 

What about Heaven and Hell?” Richard sniffled.

 

“Why should good people end up with the bad?”

 

Thanatos turned, a faintly amused smile on his severe face.

 

“Good? Bad? These are relative terms ultimately correlated with how easy or difficult one’s life is. Life is over and done with here. Good and bad have no meaning. People are just people. As for rewards or punishments, I cannot precisely say. The whole of creation is far larger than that ball of rock upon which the living dwell. Even this kingdom of mine, able to house all the shades of all the ages of mankind, is but a speck of dust in comparison.”

 

Seeing Richard crumpling inward on himself, Thanatos decided to offer him an out, as he did with all new guests in his house.

 

“Perchance you would search and find your heaven if you wished it.”

 

Having gotten warmed up, Richard’s brain grabbed for the passing lifeline, determined not to be in a body about to self destruct.

 

“Then I will” he said.

 

“You may leave when you wish,” Thanatos said lightly, gesturing to the back passageway off the foyer.

 

“Not from whence you came, of course. But before you go, think on this. This kingdom is the ultimate neutrality. It cares nothing for the affairs of man or deity. Nothing changes here. Its occupants experience no pain or pleasure, neither highs nor lows. It is indeed conceivable that something better, far better, exists. But conversely, it is equally possible that something worse, far worse, exists; something which you would rue your birth should you discover.”

 

Feeling limber and pretty satisfied with itself, Richard’s brain decided to see if the first idea was just a fluke.

 

“Be that as it may, to have known the simple daily joys of life and never be able to experience them again is reason enough for this neutrality of yours to be considered Hell.”

 

“Ah.”

 

Thanatos raised a finger and went over to the sideboard, retrieving an ornate fluted glass.

 

“That is something we can remedy,” he said, and filled the glass from the fountain in the center of the room.

 

“One sip from the waters of the Lethe will cause you to forget your previous life,” he said.

 

“All that you are shall cease to be. You shall become an empty vessel; a blank slate. In this condition you will be perfectly content to exist in this unchanging land, having known no better.”

 

He offered the harmless looking glass to Richard, who shied as if it was bubbling poison.

 

“So what will your choice be?” Thanatos asked.

 

“Will you accept oblivion? Or will you venture off the edges of the map in search of your elusive paradise, knowing full well that you may find damnation in its place?”

 

Those black-on-black eyes, windows into an endless soul that had borne mute witness to all the sufferings of the ages, brought the full force of their power to bear, peering over the proffered glass with neither a god’s passion nor a demon’s hatred. And, as Thanatos’ lips pursed to form the word that would send Richard hurtling on into an everlasting decision, Richard’s brain found itself at the point of a sword, destined to lose a part of himself regardless which edge turned to cut him, and wondered how many had come before him to this same impasse, tortured by their own ignorance. Now it remembered why it had gone dormant in the first place.

 

“Choose.”

John Richard Albers, an author, freelance copywriter, reluctant gardener, involuntary ascetic, armchair psychologist, amateur historian, maimed carpenter, colorblind painter, peacemaker, dragonslayer, warmaster, and part-time herald of the apocalypse, has no memory of the Western Washingtonian forest where he was born and has since been confined to the swamps of the rural South.

 

His BA in Psychology from UCF has been of no use since falling ill. He writes short stories for enjoyment and to help market the publication of his first novel whenever that happens.