I turned my collar up as I left the warehouse. It was early morning, Hate and Jealousy padded along beside me. Winter was setting in and the air bit at me. The birds fled and the flowers were long gone. The leaves that withered, died, then fell from the trees scurried along on chilly winds. They rushed from one corner to the next with each chilly gust, as if they were trying to make it to an appointment on time.
I sighed. Persephone and her pomegranate seeds. Hera alive, I do love both her and Uncle Hades. But I do also hate this time of year when Aunt Demeter withdraws her blessings, shuts herself in, and pines the days away until spring.
I sighed again as I walked nowhere in particular. Absentmindedly, I pulled out my cigarettes, turned my back to the wind, and lit one up. As I tucked the lighter and the pack into an inside pocket, I paused to look at the cherry coal. I’d been smoking now for a couple hundred years. Gods don’t have to worry about the health effects, unlike mortals. I liked the kick they gave me, but they did make me smell nasty at times.
I passed a man and a woman on the street. He spoke and brought me out of my reverie. “Those dogs should be on a leash,” he said with a sour look on his face.
“So should your wife,” I replied without a backward glance.
He said something else and I kept walking. I should’ve done that in the first place. After all, we were all brought back here to set a good example for mortals. I took a long drag, held it, then exhaled slowly out of my nose and mouth. The wind caught the smoke and swirled it, ephemeral and ghostly, around my face before being whisked away.
“Fuck that guy. I’ll be a role model another day.”
I walked on and my girls, as always, walked beside me.
So much happened since my brush with mortality at the hands of Estrella. I’ve changed. The hate and anger that burned inside me so long were stripped away. Hate is a foul emotion, but when it’s the only one you know, you miss it when it’s gone. I felt hollow, unmotivated, and most of all foreign in my own body. The hate was gone, but nothing replaced it.
I flicked the last of my cigarette onto the sidewalk as I crossed the street to a small park. The chill air meant benches were plentiful, and I grabbed the first one I came to. Hate and Jealousy crowded in next to me to get as much attention as possible. I rubbed and petted them as I sat and looked up and down the street. The colder weather also meant shorter days and longer nights. I know Nyx liked that, when we approached the winter solstice. She would regale us with hours more of meteor showers, planetary movements, and shooting stars, all the while providing a backdrop for Selene.
Nyx. My relationship with her was sudden and intense. I went from my deathbed to Nyx’s bed. I’m not complaining, but it was fast and at times my head was spinning. I enjoy her company, that is when I can separate her from my brother. I love my brother, but he can be overwhelming at times. I also know he misses Psyche, his wife, though he won’t admit it or tell us why they are no longer together. He’s lonely and because of that I don’t say much about his constant juvenile pranks or his pathological insistence at accompanying Nyx and I at every turn. But still, sometimes, I feel that if we are going to have a proper relationship, we’re going to need some alone time once in a while. Just the two of us.
If only he would let me help him with Psyche.
I patted both girls on their heads, stood, and began walking again. As I walked, I reached back and shifted my sword to a more comfortable position on my back. I have been carrying my sword ever since I got it back from Uncle Poseidon. Artemis was kind enough to show me a simple spell that she always used to make her bow and quiver unseen by mortals. I now use it for my sword. I still keep a .45 caliber pistol holstered in the small of my back, but I enjoy having my sword again, even if I’m unsure I will ever use it.
I continued walking and the neighborhood seemed to grow more desperate and unsafe.
I guess my problem centers around the fact that I have lost all sense of identity. Stripped of hate and jealousy, I am currently the god of…well…nothing really. I feel like I have become the god who almost died by the witch, the consort of Nyx, the pranked brother of Eros, Nana’s favorite grandchild, the list goes on and on. My own sense of self meanwhile continues to deteriorate and elude me. I have become defined by how others perceive me, and they only perceive me secondary to how I interact with them.
In short, I am no longer Dinlas. I no longer have my own identity, but rather, others now define who I am.
I pulled my cloak tight around me and kept walking.
I approached a shabby building with a group of men and women huddled outside in the cold. Several of the second story windows were broken out and covered with sheets of plywood. It was drab, in desperate need of paint, and the roof looked to be failing. I eyed the small knot of people standing by the door as I approached and for all intents they looked as dilapidated as the building. I pulled out another cigarette, lit it, then inhaled deeply.
“Hey, Mister?” I was startled by the voice at my elbow. Hate and Jealousy raised their hackles and looked at the skinny woman in ragged clothes who appeared next to me. Her aura was dark, as if she were beaten down and had nothing of value to look forward to in this life.
“Yes?” I said after a moment of taking her in.
“Ca-can I bum a cigarette from you?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I replied as I pulled out the pack and tapped one out for her to take. She clutched at it with shaky hands. They shook no less as she put it to her lips and I lit it for her. She drew in a deep breath and smiled. Her face twisted slightly, as if unused to smiling.
My small act of charity didn’t go unnoticed by the remainder of the throng. They looked up at me from downcast eyes, wanting to ask, but either too afraid or ashamed to do so.
I held the cigarettes out and said, “Does anyone else want a smoke? You’re more than welcome to one, if you’d like.”
One after another they glanced about, then began to press around me for the precious handout. Not even the presence of two wolves at my side deterred this tragic group from taking what I offered. I passed out the remainder in my pack, then opened another so that everyone got one. I then passed around my gold lighter so they could each partake. Some ran their cigarette under their nose to inhale the sweet tobacco while waiting to light up. Others, anxious for their fix, pushed forward to light theirs off another, rather than wait for the lighter.
“Is that everyone?” I asked after it looked they were all covered.
There was some jostling and the crowd before me parted. A man, dressed in a tattered military uniform of some kind, pushed forward in a wheelchair. He was dirty all over with a greasy, mangy shock of gray hair on his head. A filthy strip of bandage wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He reached out his hand and made a gasping sort of croak.
“He can’t talk, he has a hole in his throat,” said one of the others.
The man nodded, then put his hands together as if praying and nodded toward me.
“Yeah, sure,” I said as I handed him a cigarette and my lighter.
The man smiled broadly, laid my gifts in his lap, then began unwinding the bandage from around his neck. When he had it unwound he removed the bandage. An oozing wound was in the front of his throat, clearly infected. No one seemed bothered by it, other than me. Even in the outdoor air, the peculiar stench of rotten flesh filled the air when he uncovered his wound.
The man took the cigarette, smiled again, then stuck the end into the gaping hole in his throat. I watched with a mix of fascination and horror as he then pinched his nose shut and lit the cigarette by sucking in through the hole in his neck. He nodded his head and handed me back the lighter. I watched as he placed the cigarette directly in his windpipe, clearly enjoying himself as he inhaled deeply each time.
“What happened to him? Did he receive that wound in battle?” I asked someone standing closeby.
“Battle?” he said. He held up the cigarette he was enjoying as well and said, “These did it to him. They ate a hole in his neck. I expect we’ll all end up like him someday.”
I looked at the man speaking closely. His aura was calm and accepting. I shivered unexpectedly at such a casually defeatist attitude. All hope has left a person who accepts a fate such as this without any measure of fear. I shifted the topic as I pointed at the building.
“What is this place?”
“This?” he said as he pointed to the building with his cigarette, “this is the free clinic. Gotta come here every morning to get my medicine.”
I looked around at the crowd and asked, “All these people are in need of healing?”
“Healing? Yeah I guess so. We go see the doctor in there and they do what they can with what little they have. You have to get here early, otherwise they run out of stuff by afternoon and then close up.”
The man said something else, but I tuned him out as I stared at the building. A woman showed up at the door and reminded the crowd to form an orderly line and that there was no smoking inside. Several men and women with small children were allowed to enter first so they could get out of the cold. After about ten minutes, I stood alone on the street, just me and the wolves.
The woman inside watched me through the glass for several minutes. Eventually, her curiosity got the best of here and she came back to the door and opened it.
“Sir? Is there something I can help you with?”
I flicked my eyes at her, back at the decrepit building, then back to her. A thought struck me so I stepped forward as I pulled a card from my jacket pocket.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, “My name is Dinlas and I’m here from Wares Security to tell you that your clinic has won a free security system installation along with a year of monitoring. May I come inside? It’s absolutely no cost to you.”
The woman looked surprised, but then opened the door wider. “Yes, of course. But your dogs have to stay outside.” Both girls let out a low whine at being called dogs.
I glanced down at the two of them and said, “Behave. Stay here while I go reinvent myself.