The wedding went well until the bride caught fire.
Bridget’s pretty white dress went up in a whoosh, from train-length veil to taffeta skirt to rose-embroidered bodice and Juliet cap with ferronière of pearls. The fabric burned so hot and fast that it went up without igniting Bridget’s skin, leaving her naked, singed, embarrassed, and crying.
Of these problems, nudity was easiest to cope with. Bridget pulled the silk drape off the altar and tied it around her chest like a toga.
“That is it,” she said. She pried the engagement ring off her finger and threw it at the groom. The grape-sized diamond sparkled as it arced through the air.
Gathering up the drape’s hem, Bridget ran back down the aisle. She flung open the double doors, letting in the moonlight, and fled into the night.
The groom sighed. He opened his palm and stared down at the glittering diamond, which reflected his fiery nimbus in shades of crimson, ginger, and gold. His best man patted him on the shoulder—cautiously. The bride’s father gave a manly nod of sympathy, but kept his distance. Like his daughter, he was mortal.
“Too bad, Helios,” said Apollo.
The groom shrugged. “I gave it my best shot. I can’t keep my flame on low all the time. What did the woman want? Sometimes a man’s just got to let himself shine.”
Apollo clapped him on the back. “You said it, brother.”
Bridget went down to the reception hall. She let the hotel clerk gawk at her knotted drape, and then told him they’d be cancelling.“The hall or the honeymoon suite?”
“Both,” said Bridget.
The clerk rapped a few keys on the keyboard. “I’m sorry, but we can’t accept cancellations this late. I’ll have the staff take down the decorations in the hall, but we’ll have to charge you.”
Bridget felt too drained to argue. “Fine.”
She went down the corridor to the reception hall. She at least wanted to see the chocolate fondue fountain and the ice sculptures, even if they were going to waste. Caterers and hotel staff ran back and forth, clearing away cups of fresh summer fruit and floral arrangements of birds of paradise and yellow tulips.
Bridget approached the six-tiered cake with the tiny bride figurine standing next to a brass sun. She plucked the bride out of the butter cream frosting. “What was I thinking?” she asked the little painted face.
“Don’t we all wish we knew the answer to that question?”
Bridget looked up. Her matchmaker, the goddess of childbirth Eileithyia, leaned against the wine bar, tidy in a burgundy pantsuit and three-inch heels.
“I heard what happened,” said Eileithyia.
“He couldn’t hold it in, even on our wedding day?”
“Isn’t that what you wanted? Someone dazzling, someone out of the ordinary, someone who could light a dark room with his smile?”
“But being dazzling isn’t just what he is, it’s something he does to other people. He can’t just shine, he has to consume.”
Eilethyia sipped her 1998 Chablis. “Good thing you found out before your vows, at least. The pre-nup you signed’s a bitch.”
Helios and Apollo settled in at the hotel bar. Floor-length windows overlooked the river where streetlights cast golden ripples on dark water. The scene was twinned in the mirror behind the bar.
Apollo improvised a sonnet about the cocktail waitress and got a free drink. Not to be outdone, Helios earned a shower of applause by lighting a vixen’s cigarette from across the room.
Helios still wore his tuxedo, untied ascot draped across his chest like a scarf. He spun on his barstool to face his drink. “I thought she was different,” he said.
Apollo had stopped to change into dress shirt and slacks, chic and metrosexual. He waved Helios’s point away, marquise cut topaz and agate rings sparkling on his fingers. “They’re all the same. I could have told you that.”
“How helpful and droll,” said Helios.
“It’s true. It’s the beauty of mortal women. Sure, they’re unique, like snowflakes are unique, but who catches a snowflake to marvel over geodesic ice crystals? That’s missing the point of snowflakes.”
“All the power and loveliness of the snow birthing this intricate, astonishing thing that’s gone in an instant.” Apollo winked at the brunette by the piano. “And they melt on your tongue, too.”
Helios lifted his index finger, inspiring a tuft of flame on the brunette’s bosom. As she beat it out with her cocktail napkin, Helios shaped the smoke above to spell out the phrase Hot Stuff.The brunette giggled, averting her eyes coquettishly.
Helios turned back to his friend. “That’s not why I go with mortal women.”
“They have a better understanding of things like joy and grief because their lives are difficult. They appreciate what they get. They make you feel real.”
“Be honest, you just like having all the power in the relationship.”
“That’s not true!”
“If you say so.”
Helios went on, “I like being with mortal women because of how different we are. Fire and water is more interesting than fire and fire.”
“Interesting if you’re fire. Fatal if you’re water.”
“Fire and earth, then.” Helios lit a flame in his palm. He shifted its composition so that it burned rose and then gold and then iris. “The problem is, most mortal women don’t get that. They think being with a god is going to make them more than human. They want to be special. They want to be anointed. I thought Bridget was different than that. She was grounded. She knew she was just an ordinary girl. I thought she was happy with who both of us were. But it turns out she wanted me to be just as dishwater dull as she is.”
“We should turn them all into laurel trees,” said Apollo, draining his drink. He rose from his barstool and ran his fingers through the loose wheat-colored curls of his Caesar cut. “Come on. If we can’t find any nymphs, let’s at least get us a couple nymphomaniacs.”
Bridget remembered the day she realized the world was populated with gods. Really, it was an old suspicion, stemming from playground hierarchies and high school lunchrooms. Some people just seemed more there than others. They gleamed, they glittered. While Bridget and her peers stumbled through adolescence with scrapes and bruises, they floated through life without so much as a detention slip.
Wasn’t it something everyone sensed? People watched the godly among them raise waves with a pitchfork, inspire love with an arrow, win track meets in winged sandals. Later they were remembered in a jeweled blur, details fuzzy but gist intact: the dare devil surfer, the counselor who saved my marriage, the kid who could run like nothing you ever saw.
But Bridget didn’t really figure it out until she was finishing the fifth year of her Ph.D., tabulating data on a thesis few people outside her field could really understand.
Bridget was one of the world’s foremost experts on the sun. Parts of the sun, at least. She studied sunspots, the patches of relative cold that blot the sun’s surface like tears. She spent her hours in the laboratory, calculating the frequency of coronal loops, and checking them against the predicted occurrence of solar flares.
“The sun is a romantic metaphor,” she was fond of telling friends over drinks, back when she had friends, and went out for drinks. “These little dark patches are caused by intense magnetic activity. It’s all about attraction and repulsion. It can make the sun burn hot, or blow cold, or eject solar flares so vast they leave traces in Greenland.”
Bridget had the kind of mind that thrived on solitude and data, or so she convinced herself in the absence of anything but solitude and data to thrive upon. By the fifth year of her Ph.D., the last of her undergraduate friends had gotten jobs and moved away, not that she had much in common with them any longer anyway. Her father lived in a rental house three states away with two bachelor friends, and while he claimed he wanted updates on Bridget’s life, Bridget heard the flat grieved tone of his voice when he picked up the telephone. Bridget had her mother’s dark, sunken eyes, and hair the hue of corn sheaves. She knew that, to her father, she was one more reminder of her mother’s illness and death. It had been hard on him, being a widower. He dealt with grief by making himself a new life. Bridget was part of the old one. She mostly stayed away.
Daily, Bridget woke at dawn. She showered and brushed her teeth and rode her bike onto campus where she grabbed a cup of coffee from a vendor in the student union. She sat in her lab, watching the sun’s arc through the office’s high window that let in baking heat during mid afternoon, until the sun sank and the room grew dark, and then she sat there some more. She rode her bicycle home around two in the morning, and went to bed in her clothes.
One afternoon, as Bridget sat in her lab on a day when heavy snow had piled on the campus’s hills, sparkling under a bright but distant sun that lacked the power to melt it, Bridget looked down at her keyboard and realized she couldn’t feel her fingers. They’d been typing for an hour without her conscious command. They felt more like part of the machine than part of her.
Red and blue lines criss-crossed the screen, mapping her data. Bridget recognized none of it. She pulled her hands away from the keyboard and fanned her fingers in front of her eyes. Slowly, she began to feel the ache of her cold, unheated office settle in her fingertips.
She tried to remember the last time she’d spoken to anyone for more than two sentences. It had been over three weeks. She was twenty-nine years old and she couldn’t fathom why she’d ever thought that mapping sunspots was worth the utter lack of human company.
She fled the office early, ignoring the queries of professors and students as she unlocked her bike from the rack outside the building and rode away down the snowy road. When she reached her house, she found an unfamiliar woman standing there, her outfit and coiffure so immaculate that at first Bridget thought she was selling Avon.
“I’ve been sent by a secret admirer,” said the woman, introducing herself as Eilethyia.
Bridget couldn’t imagine any student or professor, the only two groups of people she interacted with, hiring this elegant woman to make a suit on their behalf. “Oh, yes?” she asked.
“Indeed,” said Eilethyia, unruffled. “My client prefers to woo via a mediator, someone who understands human culture better than he does.”
“Human culture?” asked Bridget, wondering what prank was being pulled on her. “Tell this admirer, whoever he is, that I don’t go on blind dates.”
“It’s not a blind date, exactly,” said Eilethyia. “You’ve met before.”
“Who is he?” asked Bridget.
A sly smile crossed Eilethyia’s lips. She turned and pointed toward the summit of the noontime sky where the sun blazed through the cold air, dazzling. Somehow, Bridget was unsurprised.
“I daresay you’re as enamored of him as he is of you,” said Eilethyia. “That’s probably what he likes about you. Never forget that gods are narcissists. Why do you think we want everyone to worship us?”
Bridget laughed, not at the fact of her admirer’s godhood, for that she had already strangely come to accept. She laughed at the frank and unabashed admission of narcissism. At the time, she thought it was a joke.
Most gods dabbled with mortals the way most mortals dabbled with self-love. It was entertaining, it was convenient, it was a way of releasing tension when nothing better presented itself. The chief deity himself liked to season his love life by seducing mortal maidens as a white bull or swan. But it was like an hors d’ouvre to a gourmet meal. Once the champagne framboise and lobster bisque had been sampled, he wasted no time in slipping back into his natural godly form to hightail it home for an entrée of duck Martiniquaise with his lady wife.
Rarely, a god found mortal love affairs becoming not an aperitif, but something altogether too alluring: a fetish.
Apollo denied it was that way with him. He remained aloof and rakish, playing up his persona as the literally eternal bachelor. It worked pretty well for him too, Helios noted, as he watched Apollo cozy up with the tow-headed boy he’d lured over from the piano. The boy wrapped his arms around Apollo’s waist, aiming a nip at the god’s ear.
Helios set down his pepper vodka. He left a little flame burning on the surface, evaporating the alcohol. Over his shoulder, the cocktail waitress gingerly cleared her throat.
“Would you mind?”
Helios looked down at a pudding enflambé. “But of course,” he said, winking, but the reflexive flirtation felt false. His overzealous flare singed the eyebrows of a nearby man in tweed. The waitress rushed over to give him a free drink.
The blond kid slipped his tongue between Apollo’s sculpted lips. His giggling drifted on the air with the cigarette smoke. Helios could smell his cologne: sandalwood with a hint of moss. He looked away.
Helios hadn’t been with a goddess since his only son, Phaeton, died. At sixteen, the boy had begged to drive Helios’s sun chariot across the sky. Helios pleaded with him to choose any other gift, knowing the boy wouldn’t be able to control his team. But Phaeton was sixteen. Failure was something that happened to other people.
At dawn, Helios helped his son into the chariot, and watched as it rose into the sky until Phaeton was only a golden blur in the heavens. Helios felt a strange stirring as he beheld it. He’d never before seen the sun rise from below. Was this what he looked like to mortals every day? A flare of brilliance so intense it stung the eyes?
Later, after Phaeton lost control of the team and Zeus brought the boy down with a bolt of lightning so bright it twinned the sun, Helios’s daughters wept so fiercely that Zeus changed them into poplar trees. And so Helios lost them, too. Zeus regarded the rivers of their maidenly tears and froze their mourning into amber, which was how that gem first came into the world. The first time Helios slept in Bridget’s apartment, he begged her to discard all her amber jewelry. He bought her replacements in jade.
Helios wasn’t sure what it was about mortal women that salved his grief. Or maybe they didn’t salve it at all. Maybe their appeal was the way their brief earthbound existences—like plants that flowered out of and then decayed back into the ground—rubbed salt and soil into his wounds.
Apollo looked over. He and the boy swung their hands together, like children. “Come on, pick someone,” said Apollo. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Helios scanned the bar. His gaze settled on a black woman wearing a gold knit sweater that made her skin glow like a bright penny. She sat with a few girlfriends, chatting. Her laugh sounded like a bell on a winter morning. Helios slipped off his barstool.
“Might I interrupt?” he asked.
The woman’s friends looked at her to see what she wanted. She gave them a nod. They scooted back their chairs to admit Helios into their circle.
“I wonder if I might beg the honor of your company tonight,” he said. Before the woman could reply, he inspired tiny golden flames to dance across her arms. Sparks pirouetted like ballerinas spinning on a stage.
Interest sparkled in her mahogany eyes. She wet her lips. Her breathing became shallow and quick. She was dazzled.
Bridget had never lacked for romantic attention, but she’d never found herself enthralled by it either. Men, by and large, bored her. She wanted men who possessed a flame of dedication that ignited something unique and all-consuming within themselves. She’d dated a few. There was a world champion chess player, a computer programmer who built elaborate palaces of code, and a volcanologist who explored volcanoes on the verge of eruption. But one by one, she’d discovered their passions to be other than what they seemed: rote compulsion, unconscious ability no more personally meaningful than breathing, self-hatred becoming high risk behavior.
Bridget and Helios had their first date on the rim of a molten lava lake, its active vents guttering threateningly with the burble of tension barely contained. Sulfur permeated the air.
Eilethyia accompanied them. At first, Bridget chafed at being chauffeured, but when Eilethyia had to talk Helios out of taking Bridget skinny dipping in the lava, Bridget began to understand why the slender goddess had come along.
They sat and talked about nothing in particular, their worlds so different that the small talk had a dreamlike air, but the strange disjointed nature of their conversation did not detract from the connection they both felt warming between them, as if they spoke different languages but intuitively understood the same words. The goddess Eilethyia sat nearby as they talked, reclining laconically against a slab of basalt, her face turned discreetly away but wearing a rye and pleased smile.
An hour before dawn broke, as pale light gathered in the sky preparing for the moment when Helios would burst over the horizon in his chariot, Helios took Bridget by the hands and led her onto an obsidian outcropping, outside the goddess’s hearing.
“I can tell you anything you want to know,” he said, correctly assuming that Bridget’s lust would be inflamed by the promise of knowledge. “What other stars look like, the chemical composition of distant suns, why magnetic fields pulse and sway the way they do. I could take you to visit strange planets and nebulas and pulsars.”
“I don’t think I’d survive,” said Bridget.
“Then ask me questions, and I’ll bring the answers back to you.”
Bridget smiled. The god stood before her with his shoulders thrown back, his feet planted in a strong, wide stance. His hands were hot, his eyes fierce upon her. He had a presence of being in himself like no one that Bridget had ever met before. Throughout her life, she had always felt herself fuzzy and indeterminate, collecting knowledge against the specter of her death like a squirrel assembling nuts before hibernation. Here was someone who flared, and burned, and was.
Bridget thought back on that first interlude as she stood in the bathroom of Eilethyia’s hotel room, exchanging her improvised drape for one of the goddess’s dresses. The dress was loose, gray linen, the only thing in Eilethyia’s wardrobe that came close to Bridget’s size. Bridget had never been overweight, but the goddess was long and narrow as a stroke of calligraphy.
“Do you need help?” called Eilethyia through the door.
Bridget looked up at the blotted tears beneath her eyes that showed in her reflection. She dabbed them quickly away and steeled herself with anger. He burned, but unthinkingly, more like a fire than a man. She had made the right choice.
Bridget slipped out of the bathroom. The goddess stood nearby, watching.
“Thanks for letting me borrow this,” said Bridget. “I couldn’t face going up to the suite for my luggage.”
“Does your family know where you are?” asked Eilethyia.
“I called my father and told him to go home. I don’t want to see him now.”
“There’s no other mortal to comfort you? Sisters? Friends?”
“I’m an only child,” said Bridget. “Isolation is an old habit.”
Eilethyia nodded, businesslike but not unkind, diamond studs flashing at her ears. “We should get something to eat.”
Bridget raised her eyebrows. “At this time of night?”
“I know a good Greek place not far from here.”
Bridget followed Eilethyia though the city’s winding intersections. Drunk people swarmed in and out of the pubs lining the river. The air smelled of the contrast between crisp wind and stale beer. They entered an alley and Eilethyia led Bridget up a narrow, metal flight of stairs. Bridget winced as the goddess knocked on someone’s door.
“It’s so late,” Bridget began.
Eilethyia raised a silencing hand. Bridget held her tongue.
Soon enough, a heavyset woman in a long white nightdress opened the door. A man dressed in slacks and a cotton undershirt stood behind her, sleepless circles beneath his eyes. Both looked unsurprised by the intrusion. “Come upstairs,” said the woman, her voice flat.
“What did you do to them?” Bridget whispered to the goddess as they were escorted through a narrow, tiled parlor.
“Nothing,” said Eilethyia.
She gestured down a shadowed hallway. Bridget saw the small white shapes of pajama-clad children peering around the corner.
“They know me here,” said the goddess.
The woman led them up another flight of stairs. They came out in a roof garden where several ironwork tables sat among potted ferns. The man started to hand them menus, but Eilethyia waved him away and ordered for them both. The man bowed his head and retreated.
Eilethyia leaned back in her chair. “So, what do you plan to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Bridget admitted. “I can’t continue with my thesis…spending so much time with him every day would be…maybe I’ll go to work in a lab for awhile…”
“I meant in regard to your erstwhile fiancé.”
Bridget sighed. “It’s not like I can avoid seeing him.” She glanced up at the sky where a sliver of moon sliced the dark. “At least we won’t have to talk.”
“Will you want another god to replace him?”
Bridget surprised herself with her vehemence. She shifted in her seat, smoothing wrinkles out of the linen dress.
“Looking back, there was always something…strange about our relationship. The way he saw me was…”
“Like an old man looking at a young girl?” offered Eilethyia.
“A celebrity admiring his most ardent fan?”
“Something like that.”
Eilethyia gave a short sharp nod. “It’s always been my theory that gods who fixate on mortals are…what’s the word I’m looking for?” She tapped one crimson nail against the table. “Unnatural, perhaps? Not that there’s anything wrong with unnatural. Natural childbirth is painful and often fatal. Unnatural can be good.”
“Unnatural?” repeated Bridget, skeptically.
“How do I put this? They’re like humans who want to make love with beasts.”
“Don’t take it like that. It’s a difference in kind, not scale.”
The man arrived with their food, a plate full of meat wrapped in grape leaves for the goddess, and squares of lamb on rice for Bridget.
“You could have told me all this before you matched me with Helios,” said Bridget, accusingly. “Why did you let me get engaged to someone you thought was mentally diseased?”
“Ah. Well.” Delicately, Eilethyia chewed a leaf from the side of her fork. “I haven’t told you what I think is wrong with mortals who want to be with gods.”
Bridget pricked with shame. She hated the thought of others seeing wrongness in her. She worked hard to conceal her flaws.
Eilethyia sipped her wine calmly. “Mortals and gods are always seeing in each other what they themselves lack. Divinity, mundanity, exaltation, pain.” She set down her glass and fixed Bridget with a frank stare. “If you want my advice, you have two options. Take my card, and when you’ve had time to recover, I’ll pair you with another god. Or, if you want to grow, if you want to become a better, more whole person, then find the spark of divinity within yourself and search for a mortal to share it with.”
Goosebumps prickled along Bridget’s arms. She felt bruised and earthen and drained. “It’s all so easy for you, isn’t it? You don’t have relations with gods or mortals, do you?”
“No,” said Eilethyia.
The goddess glanced over toward a corner of the roof where children’s toys lay scattered among the potted plants.
“I’m too familiar with where it all leads,” she said, and Bridget saw her smile was sad.
Helios escorted the woman, whose name turned out to be Jody, to a nocturnal street fair sprawling in the city’s main square. Her friends tagged along. He entertained them by challenging the fire eater to a contest which ended when Helios devoured a flaming meteor and then sent it rocketing back into space.
Helios selected a mortal man for each of Jody’s friends, haloing them with a light touch of flame to make them seem more attractive. One by one, her friends peeled away. Soon Helios and Jody were alone.
“Would you join me in my hotel room?” he asked.
By the time they reached the elevator, Jody’s hands were all over him, stroking his hips, unbuttoning his shirt. Her breath on his neck felt damp and hot as a humid afternoon.
When the elevator clanged Helios’s floor, they backed out, entwined, stumbling through the corridor. Helios unclasped Jody’s bra. She unzipped his fly. He had to clasp her hands to hold them still long enough so that he could work the key that admitted them into the honeymoon suite.
When they got inside, they found themselves looking at the tow-headed boy from the bar. He sat astride Apollo in the gigantic bathtub. Sprays of bubbles from the jets obscured what was going on beneath the water.
“What is he doing here?” demanded the boy. “Isn’t this your room?”
“My friend here just got left at the altar,” said Apollo. “I didn’t think he’d be needing the room.”
Helios turned to Jody. “My apologies.”
“I don’t mind,” said Jody. She traced her finger down Helios’s chest. “It’s actually kind of a turn-on.”
Leaving Apollo and his mortal in the bathroom, Helios and Jody moved to the bed. Jody’s skin felt smooth and sweet as flower petals. Her close-cropped natural hair covered her head like delicious brown moss. Helios ran his fingers through it over and over, the sensation delectable and maddening. He pulled the black strap of her bra out from her sleeve, removing the whole lacy garment without taking off her sweater. He slipped his hands beneath the cashmere and took her breasts into his palms. Her hard nipples felt like knots on wood, beautifully textured. Gently, Helios eased her sweater over her head. A gold chain flashed around her neck.
Helios caught the pendant in his palm. “What is this?”
“Alaskan amber,” said Jody. “There’s part of a bee in it.”
Helios examined the gem. It was set in a simple silver oval. Rich, warm colors swirled through its heart: drifts of sienna, umber, burnt orange and carmine suspended like haze in a yellow sky. A bee hung in its center, wings trapped mid-flutter. Helios thought of all the grief that that had been poured into making this chaotic, vibrant thing, all the sorrow his daughters wept out when Phaeton’s chariot fell. Their solidified grief was incandescent as the sun. It burned him.
Helios released the necklace. It swung down, a yellow globe between Jody’s breasts. She cocked her head and smiled, raising her eyebrows in invitation. Her lips sparkled. Helios moved away from the bed, and began dressing.
“What?” asked Jody. “Do bees gross you out or something?”
Helios’s fingers felt numb on his shirt buttons. “I’m sorry. As my friend said, I was left at the altar today.”
She hesitated, and then said, “That must be rough.”
“As you can imagine, I’m still in a state of shock. I hope you can forgive me for inconveniencing you.”
“It’s okay,” she said. She pulled herself into a sitting position, legs tucked beneath her, and began putting on her clothes. “I can meet up with my friends tomorrow.”
She tugged on her sweater and pulled a compact out of her purse, checking to make sure her lipstick hadn’t smudged from kissing. She gave Helios a sad smile, one side of her mouth pulled up into a dimple.
“Try not to take it too hard, okay?” she said. “A man like you, someone else’ll snap you up in no time.”
Helios had nothing to say to that. He took Jody’s elbow and escorted her to the door. He watched as she walked away down the hall, short black skirt swishing around her thighs.
Apollo called out from the bathroom. “So, do your newfound sexual ethics mean we have to cut out of here too, or can you suffer alone?”
Helios closed the door. All these eons and he could still picture Phaeton’s face, every detail crisp as a brush stroke.
“Do whatever you want.”
After dinner, Eilethyia offered to continue keeping Bridget company. Bridget declined. She wanted time alone. She paced the waterfront, hugging herself against the chill. Pale clouds had drifted over the gibbous moon, and crickets had emerged from the ornamental hedges lining the sidewalk to serenade potential mates. Bridget stared down at the blurred reflections of halogen bulbs in the water, submerged and insignificant suns. Everything can be overwhelmed, she thought. Everything can be drowned. When her teeth started chattering, she turned back to the hotel, ready to collect her luggage and move on.
In the corridor leading to the honeymoon suite, Bridget collided with a statuesque African-American woman. The woman’s clothes were rumpled and her makeup smeared. She smelled of Helios: ash and smoke and sparkle.
Bridget’s stomach churned as the woman disappeared into the elevator. This soon? This fast? She felt betrayed, and then furious with herself for being surprised at betrayal. She slid the key card into the door without knocking.
As she entered, she heard splashing as a male voice moaned from the bathroom, “Not another one.”
Bridget’s anger bellowed full-throated. She put her hand over her eyes and pushed blindly past the bathroom. “Don’t worry,” she snapped. “I’m just here to get my clothes.”
Eyes still covered, she turned toward the dresser and began yanking drawers open. Her unpacked suitcase lay on the rug beside her, lid askew. She felt so stupid for having taken the time to put her clothes away in the suite. She’d been all aflutter that morning, expecting to come back a married woman, not wanting to be distracted by luggage. She threw her clothes into the suitcase in huge, hasty, rumpled piles.
“Do you want help with that?” asked Helios from behind her.
Bridget turned. He sat on the bed, still dressed neatly in dress shirt and tuxedo pants. His jacket lay draped over the arm of an over-stuffed chair by the window.
“Why aren’t you in the bathroom with your buddy?” asked Bridget.
“Hi there,” called a voice from the bathroom. Bridget spun around, recognizing Apollo’s timbre. The debonair god leaned against the door frame, a hotel towel wrapped around his waist. A slender, young-looking man stood behind him, staring curiously at Bridget from behind his tousled blond hair.
“We were just trying to have some fun in here,” Apollo said. “Some of us aren’t so hung up on buying the cow.”
Apollo’s voice seeped with disdain at the word cow. Bridget was momentarily taken aback as she realized it wasn’t marriage he was mocking, but mortals’ animal flesh.
“Get out of here, Apollo,” said Helios.
Apollo looked miffed. “You said we could stay.”
Helios’s voice was level but taut with tension. He spoke slowly. “Just get out.”
“Fine.” Apollo took the blond’s hand. “Let’s get out of here.
The blond frowned. “Where are we going? I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back tonight.”
Apollo shrugged off the blond’s protestations. He turned to Helios, his eyes icy. “Mortals come and go. It’s your friends you should be careful to keep.”
Helios did not soften. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Apollo led the blond out of the room. The door slammed behind them.
“I see he hasn’t changed since this afternoon,” said Bridget.
“He hasn’t changed in four thousand years. And he won’t, either.”
Bridget looked out the window. Twelve floors below, cars pushed past on a busy expressway, headlights garish in the darkness.
“I’m sorry about your dress,” said Helios. “I didn’t mean to burn it. I wanted to look impressive.”
“You wanted to show off,” said Bridget.
“No, that’s not it—”
“You waited until I was walking up the aisle when all heads were turning toward me. You couldn’t stand someone else having everyone’s attention.”
“I didn’t think about it.”
“You never do, do you? You just do what you want and don’t worry about the consequences.”
Helios neared Bridget, his presence tangibly hot.
“This is silly,” he said, voice firm and commanding. “It was an accident. It won’t happen again.”
He smelled like sparks thrown into cold air, like firefly swarms piercing humid summer evenings. An aura ignited around his solid, golden form, flashing and sparking like the northern lights. Bridget looked up at his smooth burnished skin, his shoulders broad and straight like the line of the horizon. She felt fragile and insignificant under his gaze, overwhelmed by her primal mind’s awe of the sun. Her mouth dried and her heart sped up, accelerating to match his aura’s flicker.
She pulled away. “Don’t do that. Don’t manipulate me.”
Helios’s aura winked out. He paced away from her, strides long and angry. “Why do you think you’ve spent your life alone?” he asked. “No one’s ever good enough for you. I could turn you into a laurel tree, you know. I could change your skin to match your heart and turn you into a woman of ice, and then have you set out so that you’d melt under my heat.”
“Well, wouldn’t that prove me wrong?” Bridget asked. “It’s definitely not narcissistic to kill someone because she won’t marry you.” Bridget barked a laugh. “I don’t know why you care anyway. The same night I leave, you have another woman in your room. We’re all just mortals anyway. You exchange one for another for another. Can you even tell the difference?”
Helios halted. His face was wet, his hands were shaking. “Is that what you think?” he said.
“Am I wrong?”
A moment of silence hung in the air. Helios exhaled a wracking sigh.
“How long does it take a mortal man to get over the death of his son?”
“I’m not sure,” said Bridget, quietly. “I’m not sure they ever do.” She leaned back against the window, the glass smooth and cool against the back of her neck. She closed her eyes. “We’ve both got problems, I think. I think we’ve got to find the solutions on our own rather than looking for them in other people.”
Helios said nothing. When Bridget opened her eyes, he had become diffuse, the hotel lights shimmering through his increasingly translucent body.
Through the walls, they could hear the noise of party-goers returning to their rooms after the revelry of the wee hours. Traffic thickened on the expressway below. The night was almost over.
“You need to go, don’t you?” asked Bridget.
“I’ll look down on you from time to time,” he said.
Bridget almost smiled.
Helios leaned toward her, his lips pressing warm against her own. She was bathed in his heat for a moment, and then he was gone.
Bridget turned toward the window to watch the gray sky slowly brightening with pink and peach. She wondered where she’d be tomorrow, who she’d find to share her long nights in the lab, her ability to find romance in sunspots. Soon, there would be the break of morning, yellow blazing boldly against azure. Now there was the horizon, flat and distant and caught between the worlds of sky and ground.
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Subterranean Magazine, Interzone, and Weird Tales. She also edits PodCastle, the world’s first audio fantasy magazine, which puts up reprints of the best fantasy fiction for free listening online. Her website is http://www.rachelswirsky.com