Miriam was staring at the Lethe Garden Apartments. She hadn’t really given the apartments much thought before; quite fairly, Miriam neglected the building because it was so bland that it seemed an architect’s joke. The stucco was cracked, the wood well weatherworn, and the grey paint drab, to say the least. But just a moment ago, she swore she saw a glimmer of sunlight shine directly through the front wall. Being naturally inquisitive, she stared more intently at the drab stucco.
The Lethe hadn’t received this much attention in the last 3,000 years. Truth be told, the building as Miriam saw it was an illusion, a facade cast by the harpies of hell many years previous. Hades had commanded them to hide the truth of the place when people began living near it. And today he himself sat there keeping guard, disguised in his grisly, ill-fitting uniform, excessive rolls of fat pressing against the small driving compartment of his three-wheeled meter maid chariot, which he had lovingly dubbed The Hellster.
Hades didn’t normally check in on the Lethe Garden Apartments. He had plenty of business to attend to most days. But this day was different. Normally, he would leave the Underworld at sunset sharp, returning to the sulfurous caverns the second Apollo began his sprint across the sky, bringing the light of day with him. Hades hated the daylight and hated Apollo even more. In this Digital Dark Age especially, the sun god had taken a liking to the rising social influencer and amateur porn star culture, and Hades despised the vapid, heliacal punk nephew of his who embodied it all– — why have a discussion with Apollo? It was like trying to converse with the backside of a mirror. And since Apollo had a habit of talking with every major and minor god that walked the Earth during the day, Hades became a nocturnal, antisocial animal.
But today in broad daylight, against his usual routine, Hades sat guard over the Lethe Garden Apartments, fat pressed against Hellster as he twitched his double chins in displeasure. Miriam was poking around in a place where she had no business, which summoned a most reluctant Hades above ground at three in the afternoon. Lethe Garden Apartments disguised his entrance into the Underworld — behind the fake stucco and plain facade was a gaping mouth that resembled the Statue of Liberty’s if she took her steak on the raw side: full of pointed fangs and eyes that spat fire high into the sky. This entrance’s name was Cheryl B. Eaten (the B stood for Beezelbub if you were wondering). Her tongue was essentially the entrance to an outlandish parking garage, a place where drivers entered and lost their cars for eternity. It wasn’t Miriam’s time to die, otherwise greedy Hades would have ripped her steaming soul at the perforation (the human spine, after all, marks the right spot for the spirit’s removal).
But Miriam, having just caught that glimmer, was approaching the building to see if she could see the light again, confident that her eyes were not playing tricks on her. The thought that her eyes might deceive her had never crossed her mind. She took a few steps closer to Lethe, and then Hades couldn’t wait any longer. He swung his hand violently upward, summoning a collection of bones to the surface. The bones, not enough to make a proper human, assembled themselves into a corporeal outline, growing flesh as they stooped upward, with features not exactly right formed: blonde hair sticking out at strange angles, a mushy nose, and eyes that did not match in size. Her name was Brenda.
Hades liked to use Brenda when he wasn’t in the mood to reveal himself. There was no need for humanity to know he existed. Why give them the satisfaction of knowing there’s an afterlife? They’re so obsessed with themselves, they don’t deserve the comfort of knowing that they’ll be going home to Hades at the end of their jaunt aboveground. But with Brenda, Hades had a puppet — and a ghoulish one at that — whom he could control and make to interact with mortals when necessary. She was the smartest tool he had ever conceived. Hades sent Brenda hobbling towards Miriam, adding a reusable tote bag to her look for good measure.
“Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?” called Brenda aggressively.
“Oh, sorry — do you live here?” asked Miriam.
“I absolutely do, and I’m wondering why there’s some twerp loitering out front. Do I have to call the police?”
“Wh- I- no,” spluttered Miriam.
“Then. Shuffle. On,” Brenda said, punctuating her dismissal with a wave.
Miriam followed Brenda’s imperatives, mouthing an apology. She was already plotting her next stakeout of the apartment complex. Caught up in the details of her plan, Miriam didn’t notice half of Brenda’s face slowly roll downward, exposing the yellow slime that lay just one millimeter below her skin. She also didn’t see Brenda begin to decompose into a pile of wriggling maggots at the next wave of Hades’ pudgy hand. That wasn’t for her to see. Yet.
Secrecy out of danger for now, Hades endeavored to return to the Underworld before his annoying nephew appeared. He drove toward the Tongue of the Lethe, quickly ascending with a touch of the Hellster’s jumpy gas pedal, when a golden comet streaked toward the spot from the sky, bearing the golden boy Apollo.
“Uncle!” He called out in a wispy, lispy drawl.
But Hades stomped on the Hellster’s gas pedal, picking up speed as the tongue began its descent toward the uvula. A moment later, Hades disappeared down Cheryl’s throat, as she closed her maw tight, swallowed, and shot flames four hundred feet in the sky.
Apollo’s comet, meanwhile, landed, revealing in its stead a sandy-haired, toned man, who flashed a smile and wore pants that suffocated his chiseled leg muscles and sizable bulge. Remember, Apollo chose to appear this way; he could have appeared as a young boy, a voluptuous secretary named Charmaine, or even a Canadian hunk named Darryl. Instead, he took a form that amalgamated every Kyle in Southern California you’ve ever met: a hot, vapid model prone to removing his clothes at the drop of a hat.
“That’s weird,” said Apollo in his pouty, ridiculous voice. “I thought I saw my Uncle here. I wanted to take a Boomerang for my story.”
He turned, pouting at a circle of smartphones that floated around him, capturing every angle of his engorged body.
“That’s too bad. But don’t worry, my loyal fans! You’ll still get what you want. Subscribe now to my EternalFans page and you’ll get to see me get spanked by Narcissus later. He might be obsessed with himself, but he’s oh so very dominant when you get in the way of his mirror! And I’m a glutton for punishment!”
Apollo left his smile glued to his face until the last of the phones’ cameras turned off. The second the last phone finished recording, his smile corroded into a nuclear grimace. When he looked down at his pants, he saw they were bloodstained again and growled, a guttural noise for a wounded animal. The fabric rubbed the open sores that had just regrown on his legs. Apollo craved attention constantly, something that slowly became a compulsion over the course of his many years. In this century, the way a lack of attention manifested was through physical ailment. His various flings with minor gods and major mortals were not enough of a balm for his starving ego. One could almost feel sorry for him, until he opened his mouth, revealing the vain nonsense he spoke and thought constantly. He looked around one last time, to check the coast was clear. And seeing no one, he was wracked with a fit of anger and social starvation, growing another sore on one of his legs. He turned, body beginning to glow with light, looked up, and shot off into the sky, heading directly toward the setting sun.
Miriam stumbled out of the alley, incredulous. She had snuck behind a nearby building after being scolded by Brenda, planning to bide her time until the crone had disappeared into the complex. Then the man inside the comet hit the ground. Now that that terrifying, golden specter had gone, she had an opportunity to reinvestigate Lethe Garden. The building had briefly shimmered like a desert mirage just before that golden man had descended; the two could be connected! She hurried forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on before the golden freak returned.
The building looked essentially the same, crumbling stucco almost laughing at Miriam for thinking something had changed. She moved forward, stepping onto the curb. Instead of the soft tickle of Kentucky Bluegrass, Miriam’s foot sank in something squelchy and soft. She looked down, seeing the melty, partially-dissolved face of Brenda! Miriam yelped, running forward toward the stairs of the Lethe. A little bit of Brenda had stuck to her shoe. Foot shaking, she scraped the clingy bits of Brenda’s face on the rocky steps. Miriam was nearing the point of declaring the project futile, but her curiosity egged her on; she moved up the stairs, putting her face right in line with one of the cracks in the stucco. There almost seemed to be a whisper coming from just behind the wall, a magnetic pull dragging Miriam closer to her destiny. She stood on her tiptoes, craning her neck a little higher in hopes that she’d see the glimmer of light again. Just as she was reaching the apex of her stretch, the floor opened up underneath her, and the chasm called Cheryl, with its bloodthirsty maw, swallowed her whole in a second.
Miriam wasn’t used to hurtling through a void, as she had spent most of her life on solid ground. It was an entirely new experience, with faces she could almost recognize shimmering in and out of the inky darkness and voices that she could almost hear. One face kept returning, casting an irate gaze in her direction. He had icy blue eyes and a massive set of jowls that shook with rage (or potentially with the wind of the flying through the void). He yelled something out that Miriam couldn’t hear, and large hands grabbed for her out of the gloom, but couldn’t quite grasp her. They succeeded only in turning her around, making her spin out of control towards one of the faces, an angelic-looking one whose eyes were shut. Miriam braced for impact.
Instead of colliding with the sleepy angel face, however, Miriam opened her eyes to see she was in a sunny room with open windows, silk curtains billowing in the breeze. The room was empty save for a crib in the center of the room. Miriam had trouble looking directly at the crib; it almost seemed to vibrate with rage. There were deep cracks all over the tiny bed, as if an earthquake had ripped through the room recently. And everything became harsher the longer Miriam tried looking at the crib: the light became too bright, the colors became too sharp, and the sound of a child crying sounded as if it were coming from within Miriam’s skull.
“Come here, Miriam,” the crying voice said. “Show your face to me. Look inside.”
Miriam felt compelled to step forward, toward the terrible crib. The infant inside had golden locks and an innocent smile. She gazed up toward Miriam as most babies do, with an inquisitive look. As Miriam watched, however, the baby changed into a monster with blood flowing freely from her eyes, a silent scream etching itself over her face, and convulsions wracking her body. The silent scream broke into decibels, piercing one of Miriam’s ear drums with an excruciating pain that she could feel in her teeth. The child howled like an animal, begging to be freed in a multitude of languages, only some of which Miriam could recognize. As Miriam clutched her hands to her ears, the child’s form flickered, as if part of a bad television broadcast. The child was suddenly an old woman in a straitjacket, then a burning bouquet of roses, and finally a beautiful woman who sat on a gilded throne. Blood kept streaking down her face, and her cloudy eyes rolled around in her head. She stopped howling and faced Miriam.
“Miriam. Do not be afraid, mortal. I am Persephone, goddess of the springtime.” Her voice was soft, velvety after the screaming episode — something Miriam could hear despite the extreme ringing in her ears. She looked, imploring Miriam.
“Miriam. You must free me. Hades took me without asking if I wanted to join him in this hellhole, and I must be released from my prison.”
The blood ran onto Persephone’s dress. Miriam noticed the chains wrapped around the gilded lady’s wrists for the first time — there were tiny plants growing around the cuffs.
“Miriam, release me now. Before my husband returns.” Persephone warped again: first the terrible baby, then a poisonous algal bloom, and then a middle-aged woman who looked sickly with pneumonia. She coughed, reached out her hand, and pleaded again:
“Miriam. I grow weaker. Do something.”
Miriam was pulled forward again by that silent, compelling force. She reached for Persephone’s chains with a trembling hand.
“Yes, Miriam. Just touch the shackle.”
Miriam made contact with the ice-cold metal. As it burned her, she tried to recoil, but the metal wouldn’t release her skin. Persephone looked her in the eye again, her milky eyes full of malice.
“Thank you, Miriam. I appreciate your sacrifice.”
Persephone rose from her chair, shackles melting off of her and reforming onto Miriam’s wrists. The metal bit into her skin, and she fell to her knees. Reacquainting herself with being upright, Persephone cast a glance back at Miriam, who was beginning to bleed from her now milky-white eyes.
“I am free. Thank you, Miriam. You will stay here for me now.”
Miriam cried out, begging Persephone to reverse what she had done. Persephone laughed — a cold, evil thing that made Miriam wince.
“No, Miriam. You have to stay here for me. My captor needs someone to play with.” She laughed again, then disappeared from the room. Miriam strained against the cuffs, but their icy grip wasn’t giving. She was alone.
The room shook, almost reflecting Miriam’s disbelief and anger. How could Persephone trap her in these shackles? She was going to help the goddess be freed! She jerked her head left, then right, cloudy eyes attempting to focus in on anything that could be repurposed to aid in her escape. Nothing of use was around her. Miriam sobbed, blood relearning the trace of her face. As she cried, Miriam didn’t hear the door creak, the slovenly rolls creep past the frame, or the rustle of the ill-fitting uniform. She didn’t notice Hades until he was nearly in front of her, when he spoke.
“Well, you’re not who I expected. But I think you’ll do just nicely.”
Miriam’s head was thrown back, and she blacked out just as the pain crescendoed. Everything was pain and dark.