This story first appeared in the online literary journal DANSE MACABRE
The migration from Greece started because the gods were bored and watching more TV. Everyone who's anyone is on TV, and half of them live in New York or Hollywood, so the gods figured they had to move to America to be in the spotlight again. It worked for the most part.
Demeter has a chain of upscale restaurants in New York and California, two cooking shows, and jets from one coast to the other. Eros and Aphrodite are frequent network TV talk show guests, have written fifteen books, and are relationship therapists to the biggest Hollywood names. Zeus always has some director calling him for a TV or movie cameo, and there's a stream of blond chicks waiting to hang on his arm and be the latest tabloid scandal.
But my neighborhood is full of regular people, nymphs and satyrs and a couple of sphinxes and the cyclops family and Leda who used to be queen of Sparta but works with me in the bakery. We were tired of spectacle following centuries of monsters and heroes and blood, wanted a sitcom life and Midwestern normalcy. But I've always had a problem being normal.
It started when I was still Cassandra the princess, daughter of Queen Hecuba and King Priam of Troy, and pretty enough for Apollo to notice me. At first I thought this was great—he was cute and it's hard not to feel like hot stuff when a god wants to be your boyfriend. He visited every other day and we made out in my bedroom and I didn't tell anybody because he said not to, but my parents would've freaked out if I'd mentioned it.
Because he loved me so much, Apollo gave me the ability to see the future.
The images were scary but thrilling. I saw the gardener fall off his ladder, my mother turn pale from a bad cold, and my father lead a charge into disastrous battle. I told the gardener to be careful trimming high bushes and my mother stay out of chills and my father to be careful on his next march.
“Fun, isn't it?” said Apollo when he visited.
I said, “I have to get used to it.”
“There's time to do that,” he said, putting his arms around my waist. “Just be true to me forever. No other guys.”
But Apollo had other girlfriends, and was only around for a few hours every other day. That's why it was easy for me to start talking with one of our mealtime servers. He told good jokes and played the lyre well. We met in the garden after lunch and kissed a few times, never anything serious, but when Apollo found out he was pissed.
“You promised,” he said, crossing his arms as he sat on my bed.
“Sorry,” I said, rolling my eyes. It was the eye-rolling that got to him.
“You'll keep your prophecy gift,” he said, “but even though you know the future, nobody will believe what you say.”
“Fine,” I said. “I'll just shut up.”
He gave me a mean smile and disappeared.
That night the worst visions careened through my head:
My father and many other soldiers being killed in a war.
My mother grieving and wasting away.
The gardener teetering on the edge of a wall, losing his balance, and breaking his neck.
The serving guy I liked going off to another war and...
I warned my too-confident father about battles ahead, warned my cheery mother about servants that could be injured, and sent a note to the server boy that he should learn how to be a chef and wield paring knives instead of spears. I talked and talked, hoping to warn everyone, but my parents got tired of lunchtime recitations.
“You're paying too much attention to these dreams and not enough to your studies,” said my father. “If you concentrated more on your lessons, the visions would go away.”
After months of being ignored I grew tired of my knowledge and kept quiet, but that's what Apollo wanted me to do. Live alone with my prophecies. The “gift” also came with immortality. That asshole made sure I had plenty of time to remember I'd blown him off. I'll be seventeen for eternity. My parents and friends and everyone I knew in my old life have been gone for centuries, but I'm still around. And still mad.
After I moved from Greece to the states, I found an apartment and worked as a phone psychic. I didn't have to make anything up, but what I told people wasn't what they wanted to hear. Who cares to know their grandma will get dementia and their dog will be hit by a car and the garbage disposal will break? They wanted good stuff, fake stuff, but I had to tell the truth.
I quit that job after six months and started working at the bakery a block from my apartment. I get free cookies and cupcakes, flirt with guys, and see who's going to run a red light and get into a fender-bender, who's going to find out that his uncle died and left him a stereo, and who's going to visit the dentist and have three cavities.
Usually I don't say anything to my customers about the future, but when I box a dozen cream-filled donuts for a thirty-something guy, I see his mother slipping and falling on the kitchen floor and fracturing her hip. Her face wrinkles in pain. I feel her ache, take a deep breath, and tell the donut guy to phone his mom and ask her to be careful when she's walking around her kitchen.
“Huh?” he says as he takes the donut box from me.
“Well,” I say, wishing this made sense, “floors can be slippery after mopping and people fall and hurt themselves. I tell my mom and aunt and grandma the same thing all the time.”
“Um, sure,” he says, frowning before he leaves.
Sometimes I go into the bathroom and repeat prophecies to myself so I don't blow up from all the knowledge. The worst is when little kids come into the bakery with their parents or babysitters, and I have visions of them falling off their bikes into the street, skinning their knees and banging their heads and crying.
“Remember to wear helmets and knee and elbow pads,” I say. The kids grab their cookies and their parents give me odd smiles. I smile back and cross my fingers.
Leda, who works the counter with me from eight to five, pats my shoulder and says it's good advice. I like Leda—she's practical for a former queen, and a very sweet lady. When her daughter Helen isn't around we have a good time chatting, but I try to avoid Leda during Helen's visits.
Helen is a model in New York and hates the Midwest, but Leda drapes herself over Helen, tells her she's gorgeous and begs her to stay one more day. Helen is pretty, I don't disagree, but she treats her mother like shit and rolls her eyes at everything Leda says. She visits the bakery once a day and peers at the cookies in the glass display case, but I know she's examining her reflection. The saytrs line up to buy brownies and drool over Helen and her perfectly shaped ass.
People fought one measly war over Helen, and it turned her into a snot for all eternity. We're both princesses by birth, but Mom said modesty would get you farther than looks. Helen hasn't learned that, though she hasn't needed to.
As she flounces out the door with a bag of chocolate chip cookies and Leda yammers about a benefit fashion show Helen will do in New York next month, I have a vision of Helen breaking a heel, probably on the runway.
I don't tell Leda because she'd laugh and say Helen has perfect poise.
And if Helen's pride stumbles, that's not bad.
After work I walk around the block to clear my head. I make the mistake of strolling past the satyrs' house, never a good thing to do when I'm in a bad mood.
“Hey babe,” says one of the satyr brothers. He's standing out front, bare-chested as he waters the lawn. “We're having a party tonight. Want to come?”
“No, thanks,” I say.
“Come on,” he says, walking in step with me. “You could have a real good time.”
“No,” I tell him again and quicken my pace. When he tries to grab my rear I get mad, sock him in the stomach and tell him the truth.
“Tonight you'll have too much to drink and get on the roof to retrieve the frisbee that's been there for two years. You'll lose your balance and fall off, and the doctors will say you're lucky you only broke your leg because you could have broken your neck.”
“Good one,” the saytr wheezes, laughing.
I march away. The last time I went to a saytr party I had one beer too many and told everyone their futures. I got teased about that for weeks, even though everything I said must have come true. I was too drunk to remember the prophecies.
I'm not a superwoman or a saint. Either of those would make this too easy. I can't save everyone, and I don't feel bad about it. Case in point is a sour-faced girl who's twenty years old and comes to the bakery every week but complains constantly. Her brownies are doughy or the cookies too dark on the bottom or there isn't enough frosting on the cake.
I say I'll tell the bakers about the problem, but she looks at me like I gave her crappy stuff on purpose. I wasn't disappointed when I had a vision of her sideswiping a tree in a skiing accident, flipping head over heels on the mountain slope. At least I didn't smirk when she came into the bakery with arm in a cast.
No, I'm not a saint.
Tonight I clamp a pillow over my head to drown out the sound of the satyrs' party and the eventual ambulance sirens. I want to enjoy a blank sleep, but Apollo invades my dreams. He does that every so often to piss me off. We sit in my old bedroom, where he visited me when we were still going out.
“Your mother would have loved me as a son-in-law,” he says, examining his fingernails.
“You never would have married me,” I say. “And Mom loved all my boyfriends.”
“Even that stupid server? I don't know what you saw in those mortals.”
“They weren't as jealous as you,” I say.
“Of course they were,” he says. “It's just harder for them to do anything about it. If mortals could curse each other, they'd do it left and right. It'd be awful.”
“And you wouldn't have cursed me if I'd loved you and only you forever? I ask.
“No,” he says. “You would have been fine then.”
“While you dated a bunch of other girls,” I say. In dreams it's easier to speak my mind to him, though it's probably stupid to be so bold.
“Details,” he says, waving his hand. “You need to lighten up.”
That's when the laurel branches start growing through my window. They twist around my legs so I can't move. When I wake up the vines have turned into sheets, but I'm still furious.
In the kitchen I make coffee and pour cereal and wonder what my parents would think of me working in a bakery. I like living alone and doing things for myself, though sometimes I think it would be nice to have a boyfriend. Apollo knew relationships would be hell for me, since on the first date I see the whole sordid history--marriage and kids and unhappy divorce. What's the point of having a second date if we'll end up hating each other?
On my walk to work I see that stupid satyr crutching around his front yard.
“Hey babe,” he says, giving me a strained smile. I hope they didn't prescribe enough pain medication for him at the hospital.
At work I'm grinning until Helen walks in.
“Honey-muffin!” Leda says. “What can I get for my lovely daughter today?”
“Three brownies, Mom,” says Helen, brushing her hair back from her face. “And quit with the pet names while we're in public. It's embarrassing.”
“Of course,” says Leda as she gets the brownies and the satyrs drool and Helen examines herself in the glass display case. She never looks at me.
“Hi,” I say.
“Oh, hello,” she says, smiling too bright before returning to her more interesting reflected self. How kind of her to allow me a glance. Why some princesses get away with being models and other end up working in bakeries is beyond me, but it's totally unfair. I cross my arms as Leda hands Helen the brownies and begs her to be in a charity fashion show at the local mall.
“You'd add such a touch of class,” says Leda.
Touch of class my ass.
I'm relieved when Helen high-steps outside, but then I'm hit with a vision like a movie preview. Helen wearing a white dress and covered in white linens, even her face. Leda crying hard. I shake the image from my mind because it doesn't make sense. Helen is Zeus's kid. I didn't think she could die.
“Sugar,” says Leda, touching my shoulder. “What is it?”
Because I can't hold my vision inside in good conscience, I murmur it to Leda.
She laughs. “Helen will be fine. She's in perfect health.”
I nod weakly. It couldn't have been Helen's funeral. I shouldn't concern myself with the mess. I don't even like her. Better to avoid trouble and shut up.
But the next morning while Leda mopes because Helen took off for New York in her little red sportscar, I have the vision again. Helen covered in white. Leda crying. I blink a few times and wait on the next customer who wants six molasses cookies and six peanut butter ones.
The next day I have the vision a third time while boxing a cherry pie. It forces me to ask the usual question: How much do I want to get involved in this drama? How much do I want to piss people off? No one believes me until I'm right...
I have the vision once more as we're leaving work. Leda's pained face reflected in my mind is too much. I grab her arm and direct her to my car and say we're going to dinner.
“Sure,” says Leda as I stuff her in the passenger side of my hatchback. She knows I live alone and don't have a boyfriend, must think I'm lonely for a supper companion. I get on the highway and head east. It takes Leda a whole hour before she asks where we'll be eating. I tell her somewhere in New York.
“What?” she says.
“We have to save Helen,” I say.
“Turn the car around,” Leda yells, grabbing my elbow, but I'm steadfast. That damn vision will haunt me until I do something about it. Leda pouts in the passenger seat, muttering this is silly, but by the time we cross into Pennsylvania, she's resigned herself to the visit.
“I want to see her new apartment,” says Leda. “A gorgeous penthouse suite. I'm sure you'll love it.”
“I'm sure,” I mutter, reminding myself I'm doing this more for Leda than Helen. When the vision hits again I pull into a gas station for a pop. Caffeine and sugar help me shove those images to one side of my mind when the future is too much to bear. Leda asks if I'll get her a pop, too.
I walk to the drink coolers and see a guy standing with his hands in his pockets. Another vision: In five minutes he'll go to the cashier and pull a toy gun from his jacket pocket and demand money. He doesn't know the cashier has a brown belt in karate and will twist the gun out of his fingers and break a couple of digits, then call the police while the world-be robber lies on the dirty tile floor writhing in pain.
I take a deep breath and tap the guy on the shoulder.
“Have you ever thought of starting your own business?” I say.
“What?” He's so nervous he almost pulls the toy gun on me.
“You should start your own business,” I say. “Dog walking would be good for you. It'd get you out of your mom's house and into the sunshine, and give you something to do.”
“Who the hell are you?” he says.
“I have connections,” I say, putting my hand on my hip so I look like I have authority. “I'm here to give you advice.”
“I don't want advice,” he says as he fidgets the gun in his pocket.
“I don't want you to make any bad decisions.”
“You're f*cked up,” he mutters.
“Not as much as you,” I say as I grab two bottles of pop. All I can do is give people a chance to make a different decision. I pay for the pop, check my watch, then glance at the guy. Thirty seconds to impact.
I walk out the door and stand on the sidewalk for the countdown.
Five, four, three, two, one...
A yelp of pain, then the cashier's calm voice saying, “Nobody f*cks with me, kid.”
As I get into the car and give Leda her pop, I hear police sirens.
It takes us two hours to weave through New York City traffic and find Helen's new apartment. We arrive at eight in the morning and I worry Helen will have already left, but she's getting ready for a breakfast date with some clothing company executive.
“Really, Mother,” she says as she applies mascara, “I don't mind you coming for a visit and bringing friends to sightsee, but you need to give me more notice.”
“We're not here for sightseeing,” I say.
“Then what is it?” she says without looking at me.
“You can't leave right now,” I say. “It's dangerous.”
“Why?” she says.
“I don't quite know,” I say. The only sign I'll have that the future has been avoided is when I stop having that stupid vision... I'm ready to tackle Helen so she doesn't walk out the door, but Leda grabs my hand.
“She has to go to this meeting,” Leda hisses. “It could be very important for her career.”
I haul Leda toward the door, but Helen breezes out. It takes me another three minutes to wrest free of Leda and run to the elevator. I'm a good fifty feet behind Helen on the ground floor and not sure what I'm supposed to do as I watch her high-step outside. Then she disappears.
I sprint to the building entrance and see what happened:
The heel I thought would break on the runway went earlier, sent Helen tumbling down seven steps to the concrete sidewalk. I speed to her side with the doorman, and roll Helen on her back. I didn't know anyone could literally fall on their face, but she managed to do that. Her forehead has a nasty bump, and there's blood splattering the sidewalk from her nose and mouth. I bet she knocked a couple teeth out while whacking herself unconscious.
Half an hour later, after careening to the hospital with Leda in the back of an ambulance, we sit in the white waiting room reserved for family. Leda wrings a tissue in her hands. The white sheets and gown were in a hospital, not a funeral home.
“She'll need facial reconstruction surgery to fix her teeth and nose,” Leda weeps. “What will happen to her modeling career?”
In my new vision, Helen touches her new nose and frowns. After the plastic surgery, she thinks her skin is stretched unnaturally across her face. Following a brief period of depression due to the fact that her nostrils are a bit wider than before, she's “discovered” by the owner of a shoe company. Soon Helen's toes shine on the covers of catalogs across the United States.
I want to go home and eat a half-dozen brownies.
Leda blows her nose. “What do you see now?” she says.
“Will you believe me?” I say.
“I need a triple shot of espresso,” she says.
“There's a good shop down the street,” I say.
I make sure we get the girl barista because the guy wipes his nose on his arm when he thinks no one is looking. I get a decaf, then sleep in the hospital waiting room for six hours. When I come to, Apollo lounges in the chair across from me next to the forty-gallon fish tank. He's studying his nails but smiles when he sees I'm awake.
“She's not dead.” I frown.
“Did you want her to be?” he says.
“She'll get a freaking nose job.”
“It'll end her current career and result in a six-month depression and a near-suicide before her feet are famed,” he says.
“And everyone in her corner of the world will live happily ever after while I'm at the stupid bakery stuffing my face with chocolate chip cookies,” I say. “Big f*cking deal. If I'm going to freak out about the future, I want it to be something important.”
“Picky, picky,” he says. “You cared about the old lady who fell in the kitchen and the guy who got arrested for holding up the gas station. Those events didn't end of their lives.”
“But they're not snots,” I say.
“So you only want to know the futures of people you like,” he says. “Then you can tell them to avoid disaster, and feel like shit when they ignore you.”
“Just leave.” I grimace. His snide smile pisses me off.
“I wondered if you'd like to get dinner,” he says.
“What the hell?” I cross my arms.
“Dinner,” he says, offering his hand. “I can be nice when I want.”
“When you want,” I say, my arms still crossed. “You came all the way here for dinner?”
Apollo sighs and puts his arms behind his back. “I thought I'd make an offer. If you want, I'll take your gift away. The future-telling ability and the fact no one believes you. Two thousand years of frustration on your part is enough.”
“That's an understatement,” I say. “What about the immortality?”
“You can keep that,” he says. “A door prize. So what do you say?”
I pause. “I don't know.”
He rolls his eyes. “You've been pissed at me over this for centuries and you don't know?”
“No,” I say quietly.
I can't be selective about which images I allow into my head and which ones I don't let in, but I've gotten used to the little movies... That's Apollo's fault, though every gift has good and bad points. Leda is weeping over Helen because she doesn't know what's going to happen. But I do. There's an odd power in that knowledge, even if I could give a rat's ass about Helen.
Nobody knows or cares that I'm a former princess, and honestly that's not a big deal to me, but I'd like something that sets me apart. Don't we all need a small special talent, even if it's a secret? Secrets have power, whether or not anyone believes them. Like everyone else I have that disgusting human need to feel special...
I know I'll refuse Apollo's offer to take the prophecies away. I'll take his hand and let him pull me to my feet and we'll go out for Chinese and order good wine and have a reasonably nice time, but for the moment I sit with a grimace, holding my anger for as long as the future will allow.