There are two holidays on which I often publish a short story. Halloween is my favorite. Although, honestly, my Valentine’s Day stories are better. They are less juvenile and always more bloody. Wait, before that admission chases away prospective readers, if anyone follows my tales, he or she sees I drift out of the Horror genre.
I write science fiction and urban fantasy, too. I tell a lot of stories about forgotten gods and breathing life into new creations. This one is absent that whole bringing-creatures-into-existence mythology. There are no monsters or devils in Beware Forever. This is not a meditation upon evil. Instead, here is the Greco-Roman god Cupid. And he has dating service in the foothills of Los Angeles, California. Could anyone do a better job? Especially in this Modern Age.
Forever opens upon the cross streets of Foothill Boulevard and Commerce in the Los Angeles suburb of Tujunga. Identical the surrounding businesses, the new establishment opens late in the morning and closes later at night. Unique among these strip mall shops, this enterprise is that of personal relationships. This place, Forever, is a match-making service. And it is the last of whereabouts I suspect I might find my fiancee.
By the bye, her name is Alicia with a ‘T.’ Everyone calls her Tally. I call her engaged and I wonder why she would come here to an impersonal and cold mediation service. Sure, I recognize our relationship went downhill the moment I proposed six weeks ago this past and especially windy February – Valentine’s Day. But, what brought her here?
“Don’t worry about her,” Tally’s mother told me when I called her parents house. My fiancee lives at home with them.
“I haven’t spoken to her in two days,” I complained when the stiff and cordial woman suggested I hang up the phone and get some sleep.
“Have you heard from her?” I begged before the short conversation ended.
“Sure, we got a letter from our daughter postmarked today.”
I said, “That’s unusual but it’s not the same. Have you spoken to her on the phone?”
“She left a message this morning,” Tally’s mother explained.
“What did she say?”
“She said she was in love.”
“I hope with me,” I told her mother then uttered, “We’re engaged.”
“Oh,” her mother sighed the same time I stated, “Goodbye.”
The discussion was done and my mobile phone committed its prerecorded “Click” when I pressed ‘End’ before I realized the woman sounded surprised.
“Paranoia,” I rationalized then. I think pretty-much the same right now. Parked outside Forever and sat inside my American-made, economical and compact hatchback, I console myself with a senseless platitude.
“Just because you’re suspicious doesn’t make it true.”
Even I don’t know what I mean. The whole possibility of infidelity makes me senseless. I can think, all right, but faithlessness does blur lines. My judgment grows fuzzy and I see my thoughts aren’t straight. And if my fiancee has lied to me, I know I will lose my mind.
Lost in horrible ideas, I let my hand, all by itself, grope for the radio. This piece of me knows there is pattern in broadcasts, there is rhythm and purpose in music. Years and half a lifetime of finger-tapping steering wheels in San Fernando Valley traffic have trained my deaf digits. Without thinking, they automatically follow the vibration of FM and analog then digital beats.
There is no music this afternoon. Instead, a radio announcer predicts, “Rain today. Hey, you communities in the foothills better watch for mudslides – there’s been a drought these past three years.”
The phantom man talks about the area of Los Angeles where I and Forever are. No one here is concerned; not a drop of rain has fallen and the sodden gray clouds are yet scattered. The anonymous radio host is equally lackadaisical and he immediately speaks of more urgent news.
“There’s another Los Angeles serial killer, a brand new one.”
The same time, I listen to myself speak in my head. I make vindications for myself while the announcer reports, “Two victims, so far.”
“I had to do it,” I say aloud. Back inside my head, I tell myself, “The NSA looks at phone records. All that stuff they collect is now public record. If I wanted, I should be able to search it on the Web.”
I assume that latter point and I justify my wish to no one with the mighty, civil power of the Freedom of Information Act.
The radio host says, “The middle-aged man and woman were found with unusual holes in their chests.”
On impulse, a surprise female co-host asks the virtual personality, “Were they a couple?”
“They were married… to each other.”
“They still are,” exacts the female radio host.
I think, “I was right to open the bill from her cellular carrier. Tally left it at my apartment for days even before she just disappeared.
“What do you mean when you say unusual holes?” The female host asks the male.
He tells her, “They were opened up like envelopes.”
“Don’t get gross,” she warns him.
Listening only for the tone of their digitized voices, I gaze across the boulevard at the painted vinyl Forever business sign. As clearly as the black letters stand there on the white canvas, they stood up in printed capital characters on Tally’s phone record. The sight of the word makes me furious even when I don’t have reason to feel angry.
“I’m stalking this place,” I inform myself.
When I finish my revelation aloud, the male radio announcer states, “They were missing their hearts. There were no instruments used, no sign of any of them. It’s like the organs tore themselves out.”
When the female radio personality says nothing, the male wonders on the air, “Happy Valentine’s Day, huh?”
“I’m being ridiculous,” I tell myself.
The female host asks, “How do you know this, Donald?”
The named announcer reveals, “I have inside sources at the California Sheriff department, Dawn.”
“I’m only making myself irrational,” I remind myself. “Just go inside.”
Dawn confronts Donald. “You can’t make up things about something serious like this.”
I open my car door when he responds. “Sensational. Isn’t it?”
The radio still plays and the keys remain hung from the ignition while I step outside. Donald tells Dawn, “Go back to the morning show if you can’t take the heat in the afternoon.”
“Maybe I will this summer,” she replies and the door closes. Dawn and Donald stay in the small car and argue with each other. I dodge across the busy street and think I feel a little more clearheaded.
The personally offensive sign is the primary aspect that puts Forever apart from the separate rented retail spaces defined by floor-length show windows and white-washed stucco frames. Also unlike the other storefronts, the window into Forever is closed. Uncommonly tall vertical blinds shut the showroom away from curious passerby-s.
“It makes sense,” I suppose. The interpersonal business largely seems a backroom operation. And given this Modern Age and with the immense population on the planet, lots of office workers are inevitable.
When I grab the metal handle of the tempered glass door, the overhead skies also suddenly shuts. A raindrop falls and strikes my left cheek below my eye. And once I am inside Forever, I use one finger and slash away the artificial tear with the force of a muscular tap.
Despite a cleaner sight and a better state of mind, the radiance inside the business is duller than under the eminent storm outdoors. And in no consequence of the darkness inside, there is nothing here. There are no cubicle partitions nor furniture of any sort. Forever is empty with industrial strength carpeting lain all across the abyssal floorspace.
A single figure stands in the visible center. The darkness does not hide this is a boy, a tall ten or twelve year old kid. Matching his hair and skin, this kid wears pale slacks and contemporary colorless outerwear. And in betrayal of shadows, gold hints reflect off his scalp and his hazel eyes shine. Green flashes out his sockets when he lifts his face.
“Welcome to Forever, Mister Bether,” he tells me with a voice I expect would come from him.
I ignore the odd fact he knows my name and I first say, “I’m not staying here very long.”
“Oh, do you know where you are going?”
I pause and I ponder the peculiar question. And sensible again, I immediately consider the context. His odd presence alone makes me mad. “What is this place all about? Who are you? Does your dad run this scam?”
“Do you believe I will let you leave?”
“Do you have any concept of immortality?”
I profess to the kid, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Who are you?”
“C’mon,” I shout before the shining pale boy says more.
“I am a god,” he insists.
I laugh and make a solitary uproar and ‘cherub-cheeks’ does, too. Suddenly, I feel I am not alone. I feel the kid’s bearing upon my very bones and I laugh harder because I am joined. Once I run out of air, the blanched godling speaks. He smiles the whole while he tells me wicked things.
“I expected you would join Talicia here, but I was rash. I acted too hastily. You are an abnormality.”
“You are tainted by lemures. Even now, I see through your shirt and watch them suckle your teats.”
“There’s nothing there,” I yell and pat my chest repeatedly. And truthfully, there is truly nothing hanging there. I am desperate and I do not consciously know why.
He tells me, “Bitter anger forbids your passage into the higher dimensions. You do not love her, Mister Bether.”
“This is bull-”
Having vented a small bit of profanity, I am cooled enough and I think about what the pretender-kid said. “Is Talicia here?”
“Are you so blind you cannot hear?” Eros Junior inquires of me. “I am your savior. Alas, you cannot come with us.”
“The latest in an ancient line,” I summarize.
He tells me, “It is that attitude that stops you from finding love, from experiencing an eternity of bliss. I wish you would call me Cupid.”
“How about cute kid,” I joke. I also make disclaimers because legalities concerning children this day and all. “Not in that way, if you know what I mean.”
“I know everything in your thoughts, Mister Bether. Your head is a darker place than anything my words conjure for your one-track mind.”
“Hey,” I protest. “I’m quite comfortable in there. It’s roomy and I don’t like company.”
Even as I tell the boy this, I feel his shadow lift from beneath every layer of my dermis. And I know it is him. I feel him pass out of me. The kid is unnatural but I am too skeptical and I will not admit the truth. I will not ascribe a human child super, godlike powers.
I can’t explain why, but I ask him about my fiancee. “What did you do with her?”
Then I realize a small part of me, tinier than a nail from one of my self-directed fingers, that piece believes the kid genuinely is who he claims to be. And knowing the Earth has essentially been abandoned by the God who no longer believes in man, I can’t pretend and claim the Greco-Roman immortals have awoken and now run every bit of Creation. Yet, here is the bastard child of Aphrodite.
Repeating myself, I ask the kid again, “What do you do here?”
Cute Cupid tells me outright, “All gods have fallen out of favor with mortal beings. Yet we have labors assigned to us, our birthrights. And we secretly fulfill our chores by any means available to us.”
I say, “Most of that went over my head. I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Is it any wonder why your Creator never spoke to any of you?”
“He gave us something to read,” I propose in defense of faith.
“Words first spoken for the attention of crowds then written and written again by the hands of men.”
I am glib and reply, “Because the first guy had bad handwriting.”
I don’t agree with my own flippant opinion. In fact, I don’t care at all about the authorship of the Holy Book. I implore the extraterrestrial. Yeah, I admit to myself some kind of Cupid can be real.
“Just tell me. What’s the story with this place?”
“And you want to know about your fiancee.”
I pause then shout, “Of course.”
Candid, I inquire more softly with him, “Seriously, is someone coming? Your mom, maybe?”
The prominent thought crosses my mind I would love to see the immortal paradigm of classical beauty and grace, even in this dull place. I can’t help myself against conjuring an image of the ideal nymph even when I am reminded what Cupid said about visiting my head. The eternal child sees pornography and I feel he deserves to bear lurid witness because his trespass.
He tells me, “My mother is more beautiful than any mortal can know. One sight of her would strike you dead.”
“I’ve never been good with crayons, so my mental paintings can’t be that impressive,” I say and tease the kid. I can be more cryptic than him and I accept the challenge.
“Besides, she’s a planet now. Did you hear about that? You can see her in the sky at night.”
He replies, “You are deluded. Mankind has forgotten so much of us. You have all been confused for generations. And you are too easily distracted. My mother, for instance, she does not know what love is. Love is what I know.”
I relent. “All right, where is my fiancee?”
“You don’t love her,” he accuses me.
Raising my volume, I demand, “What is this Moritz Schlick all about? You said that before.”
I then stop him before he answers. “No, take me to Talicia. Show me, now.”
Instantly, my disbelief is dispelled then there is a flash of light. Cupid spoke in my mind and my eyes were opened. I need no other credential. And my belief brings us into Egypt.
Egypt! And I know because my faith and all the sand and I see stone pyramids faced with lustrous limestone bricks. We stand in the Valley of Kings on the west bank of the Nile. Against the Pyramid of Giza, that seventh and last wonder of the ancient world, the pale contemporary clothes of modern Cupid remain dull even under an afternoon sun.
“You really are for real,” I mutter. My mouth stays agape.
We are alone on the desolate landscape; no one works in the heat of the day. Empty and loaded carts linger in places where toting cattle were temporarily led away. These creatures, too, do not suffer the afternoon and they toil in slavery only whenever the weather is cool. Modern folklore three thousand years from now claims these animals were the only slaves in Egypt and “Moses begins with a moo.”
Cupid tells me, “This is one thousand BC. Talicia is here… the living part. The part housing love.”
Though I believe who he says he is, and our trip through space and time is truly extraordinary, I can’t trust a bygone god. I make an accusation when I say, “What, is Tally in pieces?”
I follow Cupid to the Great Pyramid while he explains, “I told you, there are duties gods must perform whether or not they are worshiped. Mine is love the flavor of true and eternal bliss.”
“Muslim suicide bombers have the same wet dream,” I crack to the boy-god. Only for a moment, the sky darkens into night and the sands under my polished dress shoes change into the firm carpet on the floor of a Los Angeles dating enterprise.
Cupid brings me back in time to Northern Africa. “Your faith falters. Can you understand why you do not love Talicia?”
“Of course, I do,” I assert. There is nothing more I can say.
He tells me, “Your doubt and pessimism belongs no where in eternity. There is no place for you, Mister Bether.”
“Now what is that suppose to mean?” I demand. At the same time, I’m not interested to learn. I tell him, “What I really want know is where is that piece of my fiancee you keep here in this parallel dimension.”
“You will see,” he tells me then we sink under the ground. Immaterial, we float down into a burial chamber hidden beneath our feet.
Once the tip of my shoe touches the stone floor of the underground space, we become material again. That Cupid remains in the form of this sweet pubescent boy and he is smaller than me, he drops a foot from the air. The thud of his hiking shoes echoes either direction down unlit corridors.
“Shh,” I say impulsively.
“We are still alone,” he assures me. “And I am a god.”
“Never mind,” I comment in a futile effort to extract my warning. Cupid does not reply.
I point at shelves I plainly see carved into the grainy bedrock wall opposite me. I see the craft-work despite the complete suffocation of any illumination. And I imagine my vision is a gift from a forgotten deity. There are clay Egyptian funeral urns crowded into the man-made crevasses.
“Are those what I think they are?” I ask Cupid.
“One of those is where you were suppose to go,” he states. “And you were to enjoy bliss with Talicia forever. She is there now, alone.”
“What happened?” I shout and yet do not understand what the boy-god tells me.
“You don’t love her, Mister Bether.”
Using both his arms. Cupid removes a five gallon urn from a low shelf. The boy breaks the red wax seal around the lid of the ceramic vase. He takes off the flat onyx cover and shows me the human organs inside. There are two hearts bobbing in boiling brine. I plainly see them. They, themselves, are aglow in the bubbling red bath. Their lights flicker through the broth and shine against the high gloss glaze inside the pot.
“Neither of them are Talicia,” Cupid assures me.
He says, “This is a happy couple who are in love.”
“Eviscerated,” I claim. All the same, I cannot comment on what I see. Simply, the hearts beat. I watch them throb synchronized with one another.
“And you were to join her here,” he says to me.
I yell, “Dead?”
“No, do not question trust in a Lord. These people are yet alive and they bring bliss to each other. This is my heaven, Mister Bether.”
“But,” I stutter.
Cupid attests, “They can still use their bodies and perform menial, corporeal tasks. But that means they must leave utter bliss for that little while. A soul might project itself from an endless dream they share with their true love – if he or she would ever want to do that – and inhabit the shell of themselves until the physical body rots or it is destroyed.”
“There is cremation and burial,” I insist. My demeanor is inexplicably rabid.
He tells me, “In much older times, people took care and properly preserved themselves.”
Cupid says, “Love never dies. This infinite longevity is a gift from a god.”
“Wait, are you harvesting people?” I demand an answer and recently heard something about what Cupid is doing on the radio. “What do you do, pickle them in ceramic pots?”
“They come to me,” Cupid declares. The boy grows three inches before my eyes. His hands increase twice their size and appear menacing when he lifts his arms. “No one dies here. Except, there is a problem with Talicia.”
“My fiancee,” I needlessly clarify.
He admits, “I took her heart too soon and assumed you would follow. You did, Mister Bether. Here you are. But you don’t love her. The anarchy inside you would destroy her celestial fantasy.”
Confused and beginning to panic, I tell him, “I don’t want any of this.”
“That is obvious,” he says very reasonably despite his disproportionate deformities. Regardless, his unnatural growth has made me afraid. I have an impression Cupid intends I stay that way.
The overlarge boy threatens me. “I can’t let you leave.”
I beg, “You can’t leave me here.”
“I should drop you to Ammut.”
“Put me where?”
“The pit,” he tells me. “There lives the Devourer of Souls. He will eat you whole, body and all. He is half hippopotamus, half crocodile and substantial parts of lion.”
“That doesn’t add up,” I accidentally say.
Cupid recommends, “Use Non-Euclidean geometry.”
Nonchalant, the godling muses, “I will feed you to Ammut. We can’t have lost souls wondering about – that’s like leaving scraps on the dinner table. Leftovers lure pests.”
“Wait,” I solicit urgently before we go anywhere. “I didn’t sign up for any of this. I didn’t sign any paper for Forever.”
“These unloved days, Mister Bether,” Cupid reminds me, “We gods do anything necessary to finish our jobs. Now the Creator is gone, we take liberties.”
We are back in the empty twenty-first century Forever business office before I stake any standing in our travel plans. Cupid confesses to me, “You don’t love her, but an old high school crush does.”
The bleak godling offers me a deal.
“I will spare you if you hunt him for me.”
“Why me?” I immediately ask him merely in outrage of his scheme.
“I am fickle,” he admits. “I can choose whoever to do whatever I want. But you, sir, are vested. I know you will do my work and do it quickly.”
“What do you want me to do?” I ask him and again harbor disbelief.
He tells me, “Find the man who loves your ex-fiancee. Bring him here so that he and Talicia might always be together.”
Cupid sees me fidget and he intimately knows I hesitate. He says, “It’s good for everyone. I don’t need all of him. Just bring me his heart so they can be together in bliss.”
“That is comforting,” I say.
Cupid reminds me, “I am the god of love, the only one.”
I go do what my Lord commands.