Finding Seph was the easy part. She wore pomegranate-colored sneakers that glowed like taillights in the receding summer light. Stopping her was trickier. Her feet barely seemed to touch the ground as she ran down the boardwalk along the ocean, seagulls following close and squawking at her.
I think they were confused by her flaxen hair, braided like sheaves of wheat and twisted into a bun at the top of her head. With her bronzed skin and lean muscles, I had no doubt that I was following a summer goddess, a queen of the golden youth. I was a little in love with her the moment I saw her. The seagulls, however, were only in it for handout.
Wires ran from her ears to a phone strapped to one arm. Her whole body seemed to bounce to the beat of music only she could hear, which is probably why she hadn’t heard my footsteps or labored breathing only a few feet behind.
I stuck to her like pesticide to crops, at least until my sides ached and a cramp seized my calf and wrestled me to the ground. She kept on going as I flopped around on the pavement trying to straighten my leg.
A scrawny thirteen-year-old is virtually invisible in a city of six million people. When I woke up that morning, I hadn’t planned on stalking some poor woman. I was just bored and broke. I didn’t get an allowance, and there weren’t any jobs for people my age. When a pale man in a trench coat who smelled like rotten eggs offered me twenty dollars to hand over a card with her name on the envelope, I didn’t ask questions. After all, mom had warned me away from strangers offering candy. She said nothing about cold hard cash.
In my mind, I had already spent the twenty dollars on an assortment of candy and comic books. I could practically taste the sugar in my mouth. Phantom glossy pages caressed my sticky fingers and tempted my eyes with their colors and scenes of superheroes fighting villains.
But I had a job to do.
The glowing pomegranate shoes turned a corner, and I got an idea. There was a shortcut that led through the row of neon-outlined stores. If she was circling the block, I would get ahead of her. If she continued straight along her current path, I would lose her. It was a risk.
I hopped to my feet and dashed off, conveniently forgetting the other advice my mom had given me about avoiding alleys at dark. Technically, it wasn’t dark yet. Plus, with all that neon, I could count the whiskers on a cat from twenty feet away. Other than dumpsters fouled by rotting cabbage, fried chicken, boiled beef, and fermenting fruit, I had little to fear.
As I exited the alley, Seph ran me over. A knee caught me in the side. An elbow knocked my glasses from my face. We both tumbled down in a mess of legs and arms. She smelled like lilacs and baby powder, which was surprising considering how hot and humid it was.
Seph propped herself up on one arm and plucked out one of her white earbuds. “You okay?”
I gasped, nodded, and held up the card.
“What’s this?” Her glare could stop a hurricane, but she took it anyway and read it. Instantly, she pressed her palms into the ground and launched into a standing defense position. She searched the crowded, humid streets. Her fists were ready to murder. Her eyes could launch a new ice age.
I had seen this scene play out in multiple comic books. It never ended well for lackeys, regardless of age or financial circumstances. I crab-crawled away from her, my tired butt dragging against the pavement.
“Hades!” she shouted.
The foul-smelling man in the trench coat materialized under a nearby streetlight, its burning globe assaulted by gnats and moths. They died instantly and rained down on him.
“Happy anniversary, Persephone.” He smiled, somewhat bashfully. His voice sounded like it was echoing inside an empty cavern.
She flung the card at his black dress shoes, which seemed to emit smoke. “Go to hell. I have all summer. You know the rules.”
“I missed you. I had to celebrate the day we met.”
“We have very different versions of that story,” she said, stretching a calf muscle.
Hades sighed. “How long are you going to hold that against me?”
“Forever.” She stretched the other calf muscle. “Is that long enough for you?”
Hades reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a string of pearls. “I bought you a gift. Well, technically, I lifted it from a wealthy, dead woman.”
“You don’t get it.” Seph rolled her eyes, rejecting the peace offering. “Every time you pull one of these stunts, I have to relocate to a new city.”
Hades took a tentative step, but she backed away. He held up both hands in an act of surrender. The pearls dangled limply from one hand. “There’s nowhere you can go that I won’t find you.”
“That’s not the point. It’s the way the locals look at me afterward.” She cast a meaningful glance my direction.
“Should I kill him?” the Lord of the Dead asked in a casual voice, almost as if he were soliciting advice on where he should go for a burger.
I nearly wet myself.
Persephone threw up her hands and shrieked. “You are impossible!”
She took off at a brisk run without a single glance over her shoulder.
The King of the Underworld loomed over me as I tried to dissolve into a shadow. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a wallet, and handed me twenty dollars. “Don’t ever get married, Angelo.”
Then he disappeared. I should have renegotiated for better pay. Silence can buy a lot of comic books.
This flash fiction story originally appeared with Havok Publishing on March 6, 2019.