“Atë, where are you?” My hand reached out for her only to return a fistful of silk bed sheets. Where had she gone now? I groaned, rolling onto my back. A slight headache twitched behind my eyes. Why was she always disappearing? What was it this time? An early morning appointment? I tried remembering where exactly she was running off to so early, but I couldn’t quite recall. No matter, she would be back soon.
I looked up. A small grey spot had formed on the white ceiling above me. Cocking my head in curiosity, I watched it slowly grow. The sun that shone so brightly moments ago had disappeared. A cloud must be covering it. I wanted to look, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the growing spot. What once was the size of a quarter was now the size of a basketball. I leaned up on my elbows, staring at the grey spot. Something inside me ached. My insides churned as the pain in my head grew. I looked to the window, but it had disappeared. Evaporated. Faded. Vanished. Replaced with a stone wall. I tried to move, but my legs wouldn’t budge. The air became stale and humid. The spot, no longer a spot, but dark grey matter that resembled my very own shadows, covered the entire ceiling. They stretched over the walls and down to the wood floor, the bed and silk sheets vanished as well. I sat on hard stone, surrounded by nothing but darkness. A noise echoed from the far corner, a whimper?
“Atë?” My eyes cut through the darkness as the raven hopped forward on its two legs. Its black eyes stare back at me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something familiar about the bird. A cold shiver ran down my back as a dark mist covered the room, and just like that, the bird was gone.
Six weeks. I sat up in the hotel bed covered in a cold sweat. Six weeks of nightmares, of dates and getting closer to…the end. Another six weeks I was further away from Atë. Six weeks of being stuck in a place between heaven and hell. I was so close to having peace, but I didn’t deserve it, and I knew it. My nightmares were proof that as long as she lived in Tartarus, I would never know peace. I would never know love. Not like it would have been with her. The darkness and mist that covered my dreams were a constant reminder that Atë was not with me. She was alone, and therefore I was alone. I could go through with this show week after week, and it didn’t matter. Whoever I chose at the end wouldn’t be her, and it wouldn’t be real love. I would live a dull, empty life, and I deserved it for abandoning her like everyone else had.
I was in the United States, in some southern state. This marked the beginning of what the producers called the Family Meet and Greet. A chance for the women to take me home and show me off to mom and dad. Good Grief. There hadn’t been a charming ceremony since Gigi and Harley left. The producers wanted me to have the opportunity to get closer to the remaining women. The last four weeks, I had individual dates with each woman: Amy, Hannah, Ashley, and Athena.
The latter of the group was different from the other girls. Athena was like being at home. We knew the same people, the same families, and we were of the same cloth. I didn’t have to pretend with her. I discovered that she had a pretty good ear for listening and made for a good friend. Funny thing, she kept disappearing. I wasn’t sure if she had to follow the same rules as the others. It’s cute, thinking the mortals could put rules on us immortals and expect us to follow them one hundred percent. Even I had a hard time following the rules. I certainly wasn’t going to meet the parents with Athena. I had planned a special date for her, but first, I had to carry on with this charade.
Hannah’s parents were not overly pleased with her decision to take part in such a reality show. Especially since their sweet, innocent daughter was pursuing the God of Darkness. They were a religious family and did not pray to any of the gods or goddesses I knew. Sure, they showed the typical southern hospitality you hear so much about, but I knew better. I would have eased their apprehension and told them I was never going to end up with their daughter, but there were the rules. Admitting things before the charming ceremony was a big no-no, everything was for ratings. So I carried on like everything was hunky-dory. Do mortals even use that terminology anymore?
At this point, the only one I was mildly interested in was Amy, and I couldn’t be certain it wasn’t because she looked like Atë. The producers have been pushing her on me from week one. I wanted to believe that Amy was the reason for all my nightmares, but I knew the truth. I could no longer feel the connection to Atë I once had. Even with my shadows encasing her in the cell in Tartarus. I couldn’t explain it. Ever since I sealed her inside that cell, her presence was a familiar ache that had settled deep inside me. It was weak, but nonetheless, I could feel her. Ever since I started this stupid reality show, the ache had dulled. By no means was I forgetting her. The nightmares were proof of that. But something had changed, and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it.
When dinner finished at Ashley’s parents’ house, and they all loved me. Ashley walked me to the waiting suburban. She admitted her feelings, and she was falling in love with me. All I could do was smile and give her a hug. Not because the producers told me not to, but because I literally had nothing to say to her in return. She pulled away from my embrace, a single tear rolling down her cheek. I’m a dick. I opened my mouth to say something, anything to give her some sort of peace of mind, but then I saw it. The blackbird from my nightmares was perched on the mailbox, its dark eyes piercing like daggers. Its black feathers shone even in darkness. My brow rose as I stared back at it.
“Wh-what is it?” Ashley noticed I was distracted.
I held Ashley back at arm’s length and cocked my head. My chest tightened. “I’m not sure.” I looked at the bird, then back to Ashley. The bird squawked loudly. I pulled Ashley in for a hug, kissing her gently on her forehead. Again the blackbird squawked at us while fluffing its feathers.
“You had better get inside,” I said, looking over her shoulder. “That bird looks pissed.”
Ashley smiled, and I could tell she didn’t want to leave me. She was worried that she would be going home during the next ceremony. Her eyes begged for some sort of communication.
“It will be okay.” I winked at her. It was all I could manage. I watched her walk back inside to her parents’ house. As I turned to enter the SUV, the blackbird left its perch, swooping at my head. My shadows instantly reflected and pushed the bird back. As the bird bounced off the shield an ache hit my gut, I rubbed it self consciously. I needed to get back to the hotel. I wasn’t feeling well all of a sudden.
The next night I flew to Amy’s hometown, I still wasn’t feeling great. I woke in the middle of the night, hearing that damn bird squawking outside my window. I was pretty sure I was hallucinating from all the sleep I was missing. Why the hell would a blackbird be following me? Amy informed me that meeting her parents would be different from the other girls. She was estranged from her father, and she didn’t really know who her birth mother was. She had taken off when Amy was just a baby. I would be meeting her best friends and a step-sibling. Something about this whole scenario seemed oddly familiar. I asked where her stepmother was, but Amy said it was an even longer story. Something about her step-mom skipping town to relive her youth. It’s not like I hadn’t heard it all before, I mean centuries of Greek Gods sleeping with whoever they pleased. Our own family tree was a mess. It was more like a family bush. I was not one to pass judgment.
Amy sat beside me as her friends and step-sibling quizzed me. Ellis, her non-binary sibling, was particularly hard on me. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t there to further my own career or bring relevance to the gods. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. I joined this show weeks ago because Eros thought it would be good for me. It had been months, and I still struggled with letting Atë go. I mourned a relationship that never was and never could be. Even if I picked Amy at the end of all of this, she was a mortal. Her life span would be a blink of an eye for an immortal. I had no idea what my plan would be after, but maybe a nice trip to Cyprus. I hadn’t been there since the age of Cinyras.
Amy squeezed my hand, bringing me back to the conversation. I had lost focus, a sign the evening had gone on long enough.
When the meet and greet was over, Amy and I parted ways just like all the other girls, but this time instead of heading back to the hotel, I dismissed the driver and camera crew. I needed some time to myself, some breathing room and space to think. What was I going to do? Was I actually thinking of marrying one of these girls? I drove to a park that overlooked the city. The lights flickered in my presence, an effect I had when my moods shifted. I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Eros. He had left no message, nor did he text. I shrugged, whatever it was couldn’t have been that important. He knew exactly where I was. He was probably calling just to be a dick. This whole setup was amusing for him.
Before coming on the show, some friends had strong opinions about me taking part in it. A few were pissed that I hadn’t tried harder to fight for Atë. I had to remind them of Atë’s last words to me. I could almost hear her voice now. A sinking feeling churned inside my gut. As I stared over the city, my head began to ache. Rubbing the back of my neck, I sighed. I need sleep. Tomorrow I would be taking Athena on a catamaran for some sailing. I figured we could both use a beach day. Before I could get too tired to drive myself back, I jumped into the car. As I settled into the driver’s seat, there was a movement to the left. Thanks to my ability to see in complete darkness, I scanned the bushes. I didn’t spot anything, so I started the SUV. As I pulled out, the high-beams shone over the parking lot. My eyes were playing tricks on me. I could have sworn I saw the wing of a raven. Giving my head a shake, I pulled out on the highway. This show was driving me insane.
The sea breeze was refreshing against my face after the long trip back to Europe. After the meet and greets, I was ready to relax with a friend. I knew Athena wasn’t someone I would end up with, but it was nice to just relax with one of my own and forget about the show for once. The producers had sent me a message that Harrison was MIA, and I should go ahead with the next date. After waiting an hour for Athena at the marina, I got antsy and decided to head out on the catamaran. I had fallen asleep while the boat skimmed the waves, but woke when we stopped abruptly. I sat up, looking around to see what was going on, and saw the reason. The Captain was staring down some ugly black storm clouds.
“Looks like we have a storm coming in, we will have to head back.”
“That’s no storm.” The corners of my mouth perked up. Athena always had to make an entrance.
Athena rode it all the way to the boat and stepped off of the storm with ease. She looked as though she was stepping off of a staircase. As soon as her golden sandals touched the boat, the clouds dissipated. It was as if the storm had never been there. There stood Athena in a gold shimmering bikini top, cut-off shorts and a sheer golden overtop that she had unbuttoned halfway down. She smiled warmly at me and tousled her long golden locks.
“Sorry I am late. I ran into pirates on the way,” she said with laughter in her voice.
“Pirates?” I raised a brow.
“Yes, and you would think with all the rum, they would be a happier lot. There were some grumpy ones. And I didn’t even get to find the booty.” She wiggled her eyebrows playfully and gave me a dazzling smile. It was so full of warmth and joy, it lit up her whole face and made her eyes sparkle. She walked across the deck towards me and enveloped me in a hug.
“It’s so great to see you again. How has everything been going? I am happy that we get a chance to talk some more.”
I sighed. “It’s been a long couple of weeks. I’m not going to lie. I will be happy when this is over.” I looked at the camera crew, knowing that the producers would edit that out.
“Not enjoying the twenty-four-hour attention I see. I have an idea.” She gave me a wicked smile.
My forehead wrinkled, “Why do I have a feeling what you are about to suggest could get us into trouble?”
“Oh, baby, because trouble is my middle name.” She winked at me and let out a burst of laughter.
“So are you up for an adventure, or are you enjoying the calm waters?”
“I’ll do anything right now. I’ve had some rough nights. I need something to shake the nightmares that have been following me into the days.”
Athena’s eyes showed her concern for me. She managed a smile and hugged me again. This time it was a tight embrace. She released me and smiled.
“So maybe we need to help you work off some of that pent up energy. Maybe I can make you too tired to have nightmares.” She said in a suggestive tone and winked at me.
“What did you have in mind?”
“You might want to hold on.” She kissed me on the cheek, a quick peck and another grin. She was up to something. She bounced to the other end of the boat, only stopping to whisper something to the Captain. It must have been serious because he was quick to secure himself. She raised a well-manicured hand into the air, and the wind started to pick up. I sat down and held onto the netting below me as the storm picked up, the waves grew to a few meters high. I thought the boat would tip over, but Athena kept it from capsizing. This was exactly what I needed. Maybe after everything was over, Athena and I could hang out some. She always knew how to cheer me up, and I was definitely short on friends.
At the end of the date, we said our goodbyes. I was heading into the last Charming Ceremony before the final show. I didn’t want to put Athena through the ceremony, so I let her down easy. I think she knew we weren’t meant to be, anyway. She let out a sigh of relief and kissed my cheek before bouncing off. The date had left me refreshed, but I knew I had bigger problems ahead. I was left with Amy and Ashley and the biggest headache since I helped lock up Atë.