Amara brushed her damp palms down the front of her slacks to smooth out the wrinkles. She took a deep breath and scrunched up her nose. The pungent smell of antiseptics didn’t cover up the odors of living bodies that have lost control over their basic functions. The drab gray walls and carpeting of the narrow corridor absorbed the dingy fluorescent light, forcing Amara to squint at the room number on the rumpled papers in her hand.
I didn’t read her file. She glanced at her watch and groaned. And I’m ten minutes late. Squeezing her eyes shut, she whispered, “Come on, Amara. All you have to do is sit with her for a few hours.”
Knocking while poking her head into the dim room, she said, “Hello? Miss Callahan? I’m the hospice volunteer.” A shape stirred in the hospital bed at the back of the room.
Amara stepped inside and sticky fingers of humid warmth wrapped themselves around her. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, they took in the hundreds of books piled around the room; more than a few tomes looked old and had titles printed in languages she didn’t recognize. She took several steps toward the bed and stopped, her mouth hanging open. She’s my age! Which I would’ve known if I’d read the file. Idiot.
A set of alert, deep blue eyes turned toward her.
Pasting an all-purpose smile on her face, Amara rushed forward and offered her hand. “I-It’s nice to meet you, Evalyn.”
Evalyn’s eyes moved down to Amara’s hand, but her thin arms didn’t stir from under the thick gray blanket. The eyes blinked and returned to Amara’s green ones. “Eva. Evalyn is an old woman’s name.”
“Ah, ok. Eva.”
A long moment passed before Eva lifted her delicate eyebrows and asked, “And you?”
Amara jumped. “E-excuse me?”
“You do have a name, don’t you? Or do I just call you ‘volunteer’?”
Amara laughed a bit too loudly. “I’m sorry! I’m Amara.”
A nod came from a pale face beneath a thick, curly head of red hair. “Amara. Immortal.” Her eyes continued to stare without any hint of a smile.
Eva didn’t answer.
Amara gripped the strap of her bag tighter. This isn’t going well. She gestured at the towering stacks of books. “I see you like reading. I have some stories that I can read to you if you want.” I brought the perfect stories for cheering her up! She yanked two brand new paperback books from her bag and held them up high as if she were a child showing off her prized possessions. “What type of stories do you like?” she said with a smile that felt too big.
Eva’s eyes bored into her and she said nothing.
Amara curled and uncurled her toes inside her black flats, fighting the urge to fidget. Sweat pricked her arms and legs.
Amara’s smile slipped. “Oh. I didn’t bring anything scary. But these are uplifting—”
“Uplifting?” Eva spit out the word. “I don’t need you to make me feel better.”
“Uh, I mean… I thought—”
Eva shook her head. “Why don’t I tell you a story?”
“Oh, um, I guess—”
“It’s my time, isn’t it? And I only have so much left.” She tilted her head up to the ceiling. “I can feel it rising.” Rubbing her arms under the blanket, she closed her eyes and shivered.
Amara opened her mouth to ask Eva what she meant and then decided against it. Instead, she nodded and shoved the books back in her bag. With nothing more to occupy her hands, she found herself wringing them. “Um, do you need anything?”
Eva said nothing.
Amara looked around the tiny room. The hospital bed and the enormous piles of books took up most of the available space. An ancient lamp fought to spread a weak halo of light beyond the bed and the only window had the thick black curtains drawn tight, shutting out the hot summer sun. A listless fan next to the bed barely stirred the stagnant air. The walls, painted the same dreary color as the hallway outside, were bare. No family photos. How sad.
Locating a small chair with a thick striped cushion, she dragged it closer to the bed, flinching as it squawked against the linoleum. She sat and stifled a groan; the fluffy-looking cushion didn’t give an inch under her weight. Why is everything in my life always so hard? Chairs, patients, majors.
Amara had recently decided to major in psychology with an eye on counseling, and her advisor had suggested volunteering to help her decide on a specialty. She had chosen hospice hoping that bedridden patients near death would be easier than addictions, mental health issues, or marriage counseling.
“Do you believe in a god?”
Amara started. Uh oh. She’s probably gonna try to convert me. “Well, I was raised Christian, but I don’t really go to church anymore.” She scoured her brain for a way to derail the conversation, but her mouth automatically replied, “How about you?” She cringed inside. Stupid!
“I didn’t at first.” Eva’s eyes were unfocused and glassy. “This story begins almost 20 years ago with a man and a woman. They wanted to have a child, but after years of trying, they were told it wasn’t possible. The woman, Rowan, believed in the old gods.” The blue eyes turned toward Amara, the glassiness replaced with an intense gaze. “Do you know anything about them?”
Amara licked her lips, wishing she’d brought some water. Salty sweat lingered on her tongue. “You mean like the Old Testament?”
Eva sighed. “No. The Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Norse gods you may know of were given very human qualities by the humans who created them. There are many stories about their pettiness, jealousy, lust, and anger. The old gods are not like us. They existed in the void long before light and dark came into being. All they care about is gathering up enough power to spread their unholy vastness across the universe and swallow up all the galaxies, extinguishing all life, light, and dark. All that will remain is the desolate frozen void.”
“Oh.” Amara blinked and rubbed her eyes. The darkness in the corners seemed deeper than before as if it were absorbing what little light there was and creeping closer. Despite the heat, she shivered. She scooted her chair closer to the illuminated oasis surrounding Eva’s bed and said, “It’s a bit dark in here. Do you want me to turn on more lights?” She turned around searching for another light, but the weak bedside lamp seemed to be the only one.
Eva continued. “Rowan decided to pray to the old gods for a child, but getting their attention isn’t easy. Their immense minds churn slowly out in the icy blackness and to them, humans are as insignificant as dust mites. She learned everything she could about them and the dark arts, searching for a way to communicate. Finally finding the answers she needed, she climbed up to the top of Mount Janus one moonless night in January.”
Eva paused and turned toward Amara, who nodded and smiled to show she was paying attention. This story is bizarre, but I think she’s finally warming up to me.
“What do you know about Mount Janus?” Eva asked.
“Plenty. Everyone learns about it in school. This county is mostly flat except for Mount Janus. It has a big white cross at the top.” Amara shifted on the hard seat trying to get some circulation to her rear.
“Is that all?”
“Nothing much grows at the top, but pigeons used to gather there. For nesting, I think.” She smiled. Nailed it!
“Pigeons?” Eva frowned and rolled her eyes. “School was obviously wasted on you.”
Amara winced. “It wasn’t a waste. I got into college, you know.”
“I bet your parents insisted you go. They’re probably paying for it, too. Must be nice. My illness made it impossible for me to attend school, so I learned everything I could on my own.” Eva nodded at the piles of books.
Amara pulled in a sharp breath. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t—”
“What will you do after you graduate?” Eva’s eyes were boring holes into Amara’s skull.
“I’m studying counseling, but I’m not a hundred percent sure if that’s what I want to do.” She fidgeted. I hate that question! How am I supposed to know what I wanna do for the rest of my life? I’m only twenty, for God’s sake.
Eva snorted. “You have no plans?”
“I mean, I was thinking of traveling for a while.” She looked down at her sweaty, clasped hands where her knuckles were trying their best to leap from her skin.“Everyone expects you to know what to do but I just can’t figure it all out right now! I mean, what’s the rush?” Her eyes widened and she stared at the floor. “Uh, I mean… ” Stupid, stupid! Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She lifted her head enough to see Eva’s expressionless face.
After several long moments, Eva leaned toward Amara and her eyes narrowed. “It’s all just so hard, isn’t it? Even when you’ve been given every advantage. What a perfect waste.”
Amara reeled back as Eva’s words hit her. She opened and closed her mouth several times, but before she could think of what to say, Eva reclined back into her pillows and continued the story.
“Long ago, Mount Janus was considered an axis mundi. I won’t ask because I know you don’t know what that means. It’s a bridge between two worlds—a place where the veil that separates them is thin and the two worlds bleed into each other. The Christians eventually put a giant cross at the top to discourage the pagans from gathering and practicing their rituals. Pigeons!” She laughed and shook her head. “Standing at the place where our world is closest to their realm, Rowan cried out for the old gods to give her a child. She wept and spoke the words needed to enter a blood contract. As her tears spilled onto the dry, dead earth, the stars winked out one by one as if each was a candle being blown out. Only the stars in the constellation of Orion remained, pulsing like a beacon as if the contract had been sealed. Nine months later, Rowan gave birth.”
Eva turned her head to look at Amara. “Do you know why I’m in this place?”
Amara blinked and saw throbbing afterimages of clustered bright spots burned into her retinas. She rubbed her eyes.
“You’re here because you have a terminal disease,” said Amara. The volunteer coordinator had mentioned it to her. Something with a long, complicated name. Really should’ve read that file. Idiot.
“Did you know this disease was unknown until I was born? I’m the only human being to ever have it. They even published a case study on me,” said Eva.
Amara shook her head. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course not.” Eva pulled the heavy blanket up higher.
Amara moved her damp brown braid from one side of her neck to the other. How can she stand it? It’s gotta be at least 100 degrees. Maybe more.
“When Rowan’s baby was born in October, it was a frail thing, blue and hardly breathing. The doctors said she should prepare herself because her child wouldn’t survive the week. She told them they were wrong. She refused to believe the gods would give her a child only to take it away again. The week turned into months, and by the first snowfall of January, her baby had not only survived, she was also fat and healthy. However, when the crocuses rose from the melting snow a few months later, the girl’s health declined. Over the course of the child’s first years of life, Rowan observed the same pattern: she was healthy and hearty in the depths of winter, only to become weak and bedridden in the heat of the summer.”
Eva stopped and coughed a few times.
“Do you need some water?” Amara stood up and searched for a glass or water bottle. Her clammy feet squeaked inside her shoes and she scrunched up her face.
“That’s not what I need from you.”
“What?” Amara turned around, an empty cup in her hand.
“Be quiet and listen!”
“Oh! A-alright.” Amara set the cup down and gingerly sat back on the rock-hard chair. She held in a sigh.A drop of sweat meandered down her spine. Her mind traced its slow descent until it was absorbed by her already moist waistband. Ugh.
Eva continued. “Watching her child’s health wax and wane caused Rowan to realize she’d made a mistake in the spell she’d cast to contact the gods: she’d never specified who would pay the blood price in exchange for the favor. So, the gods had chosen for her. They had marked her baby at birth with three red freckles in a line on her right arm. When the girl turned three, a new freckle appeared nearby. This happened every year until, by age seven, she had ten freckles on her arm in the shape of an hourglass, sealing the contract.”
“Want to hazard a guess as to why her illness was cyclical?” Eva asked with raised eyebrows.
Amara sat up straight, trying to pay attention. I’m so sleepy. I wish I could lie down.
Eva rolled her eyes. “Do you know anything about constellations or Greek mythology?”
“Sure. Like Thor and Loki, right?” While working on her biology homework the other night, Amara had left the tv on in the background. The movie had definitely been about gods. Very sexy gods.
“Not quite,” Eva said with a fleeting smile. “If you ever bother to look up at the night sky, Orion is one of the easiest constellations to find. It has ten stars: seven bright ones in the shape of an hourglass and three running in a straight line through the middle of the hourglass. The three make up Orion’s belt.
“Constellations move throughout the year as seasons change. Orion is high in the sky during the winter. In the summer, Orion sets below the horizon and Scorpius rises. When Scorpius begins to diminish in the winter, Orion rises again. According to the stories, Orion the mighty hunter and Scorpius the giant scorpion were mortal enemies who fought a great battle once—Orion with his sword and Scorpius with his stinger. Zeus raised them both up to the heavens where they chase each other across the sky forever.”
There was a flash of metal. A large man swung a long, gleaming sword; it rang as it collided with the carapace of a giant crimson scorpion. The scorpion turned and aimed its towering stinger toward the man. Its pincers clicked in anticipation. It roared as the stinger plunged…
Amara jolted awake and blinked several times. “What?” Damn, I think I fell asleep.
“Do you sleep through all of your classes? You don’t seem to have a shred of curiosity about the world around you.”
Eva let out a heavy sigh and nodded to herself. “Definitely a waste.”
Amara frowned and shifted in the chair. I do wonder how much longer this story is. “I don’t sleep—”
Eva’s words, stronger than before, rolled over Amara. “The gods prefer souls that suffer from birth because they can extract more power from them. To ensure the girl had a lifetime of suffering, they irrevocably linked her life to the dance of Orion and Scorpius. When Scorpius rose with its bright claws and venomous stinger, she could feel its beating heart—the red star, Antares—diminishing the marks and sapping her strength. When the mighty hunter Orion rose with his sword and shield and chased Scorpius below the horizon, the marks would darken and her strength would return.” Eva fell into a coughing fit and curled forward, clutching her chest.
Amara seized the cup with both hands and jumped up. “Water,” she whispered, searching frantically for a source.
Eva pointed to a pitcher next to the bed.
Amara filled the cup and handed it to her. “Here.”
“No, thank you,” Eva murmured, turning her head away.
“Um. Are you sure?”
As Amara turned back toward the chair, the dark walls of the cramped room swirled around her. Swaying, she tugged at her shirt collar as she struggled to get enough of the thick, warm air into her lungs.
“Looks like you need it more than I do.”
Amara’s legs gave out and she collapsed back into the chair. Calm down. It’s the heat. Remembering the cup of water, she gulped it down and gagged. It was warm and bitter and lingered in the back of her throat.
Eva nodded and continued. “The day the girl turned thirteen, she noticed that one of the ten freckles on her arm had vanished. On her next birthday, another one disappeared. And so it continued every year. Each year, she grew weaker than she had in the previous summers and recovered less strength in the ensuing winters. It was as if the freckles were taking her life force with them.”
Amara wiped the sweat off her forehead with a shaky hand. She could barely sit up. “I’m sorry, I don’t feel well. I-I think I should leave. Could we finish next time?”
“I’m almost finished. Besides, there might not be a next time for me.”
“Uh, right. Just a few more minutes.” Amara could no longer hold up her head and she set her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on her hands.
“The girl knew that when the last star in Orion’s belt disappeared from her arm, the contract would have come to an end and her soul would be ripe for the taking. The gods would carve it from her body and take turns tearing it to pieces with their razor-sharp claws and teeth. They would feed on her pain and suffering and devour her over and over for all eternity.”
Eva’s eyes met Amara’s. Her pupils were like black holes, sucking in what little light there was.
“Imagine infinite torment in the frozen, eternal void,” whispered Eva.
The shadows crept closer and Amara felt cold claws brush over her spine. She shuddered as she was sucked into the endless darkness of Eva’s eyes.
“When Rowan understood her child’s fate, she realized there was nothing she could do. She went into the garden and cut a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Then she prepared a tea using her favorite tea set—the one with delicate red spider lilies painted on the cups. She placed the chrysanthemums on the table and poured cups of tea for herself and her husband. The bitter-almond taste barely registered before their hearts stopped beating.” Eva’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “She didn’t even say goodbye. Rather than watch her child suffer, she took the easy way out and left the girl to suffer alone.”
Eva closed her eyes and didn’t say anything.
Amara swallowed hard. The spit stuck in the back of her dry throat. Her heartbeat was so slow, she felt a moment of panic wondering if it was even beating at all. “I-I should get going.” She stood up and wobbled as a curtain of glowing yellow swirls covered her vision. When it passed, she picked up her bag with trembling hands and placed the chair against the wall. Her legs tried to move, but her damp clothes weighed her down as if they’d absorbed an ocean of water. The bag on her shoulder seemed to be full of boulders and she drunkenly tipped to one side.
Carefully placing one foot in front of the other, Amara moved close to the bed and forced a shaky smile. “It was nice to meet you, Eva.”
Eva suddenly sat up. Her thin arms shot out from under the blanket, seizing Amara’s right arm in an iron grip.
Amara’s vision grayed at the edges before dimming to a small point. The lamp flickered out and darkness swallowed them. Strange words were chanted in a tongue that Amara didn’t recognize. Shapes writhed in the blackness. They turned their empty eyes toward her. They reached out with their many clawed hands and opened their numerous mouths. Their serrated teeth dripped a viscous poison that hissed as it hit the linoleum. She wanted to scream and run, but her body wouldn’t listen. The agonizing grip on her arm tightened. Her bones felt like they’d snap at any moment. Silence fell. The light flashed on and the now quiet shadows retreated back into the corners of the room.
“Escaping one’s fate requires a blood price. No matter how much I suffered, I wasn’t sure I was willing to pay with someone else’s blood.” Eva let out a hollow laugh. “And then you come along, someone who’s wasted everything they’ve ever been given.” Her grasp loosened and her hands slipped onto her lap. As she sank back into the bed, a grin crept across her face.
Amara’s vision cleared and she gasped as if she’d been holding her breath. She backed away from the bed with wide eyes before turning and dashing from the room. Shadows stretched down the long, narrow hallway reaching after her with clawed hands.
Sprinting out the front door, Amara hit a wall of hot, wet air. Goosebumps broke out across her body. The sun was low in a sky where darkening clouds were preparing to release the water they’d gathered during the searing heat of the day. She blinked and slowly raised her arm to check her watch. “Four hours? I must have fallen asleep! How could I let that happen?” She groaned and rubbed her face.
Stumbling across the shimmering pavement, she opened the car door and flopped inside. She blasted the air conditioning and waited for it to cool. Sighing, she picked up the brand-new counseling textbook from the passenger seat and tossed it into the back. This isn’t the right major either. Third time’s the charm?
Her right arm throbbed where Eva had grabbed it. She massaged it. Moving it into a patch of sunlight, she half expected to see the outline of a handprint. Instead, there were ten pink bumps. She scratched at them and they darkened. Great, now I’ve got a heat rash.
She leaned back into the seat and closed her eyes, letting the icy air dry her face. As she absently traced over the bumps with her finger, the three in the center began to pulse, lightening and darkening in rhythm with an ancient crimson heart beating far off in the cosmos.