The wind was cold for June, but everything felt cold to Caleb now. He doubted the world would ever feel warm again, no matter how hard it tried; global warming be damned. Caleb stared down the small hill toward the assembly beside the open grave where Ethan's body would soon spend the rest of eternity.
Only a small crowd had gathered: a few dozen people, mostly people from the community church Ethan's family attended, a few members of the school faculty who'd known and liked Ethan, and, of course, the few friends and family he had. Ethan's parents and his two younger siblings, Darren and Kristine, stood closest to the coffin. Caleb had been invited to serve as pallbearer, but he'd refused. Mrs. Pallet had understood, somehow, and had accepted his refusal gracefully.
But Caleb still felt awkward about being with everyone else at the gathering, so he'd requested that Liz watch with him from some distance away. He'd picked a small, grassy hill with a single maple tree overlooked the gravesite for his vantage point. Caleb's parents were down with the others. They'd offered to stay with him, but he'd made it clear that he wanted to be with Liz and Liz alone. He felt closer to Ethan that way, knowing only the two who understood him best were together and away from everyone else.
The services were just beginning. The priest, Reverend Michaels, stood at the front of the gathering, ready to offer up his eulogy. Caleb didn't want to hear what the reverend had to say; he knew Ethan would've rolled his eyes at the idea of a Christian funeral, and it seemed fitting to reject the notion.
As the reverend started talking about things unrelated to Ethan specifically, making a general declaration about life and God, Caleb let his mind wander to happier times. He started his reminiscing at the beginning, going back to the first day he met his best friend.
It was English class with Ms. Perry. Even though Caleb was a year ahead of Ethan in school, Ethan had been advanced in English his entire life. They'd tested him when he came to the school, and they'd let him take the next year up. It was the only core curriculum class he and Caleb ever had together, even in later years, because Ethan had advanced even further after that. He'd taken an AP English class during Caleb's senior year, and likely would take some other English credit for fun when he became a senior.
Would've taken. Caleb corrected himself. Ethan wouldn't be taking any more English courses, unless they taught them in the afterlife, which, Caleb supposed, would likely be some version of Hell. Though the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Ethan would love studying literature for the rest of his existence.
He'd been particularly fond of mythology: Greek, Norse, Egyptian... those were his favorites, though he'd loved everything that pertained to the subject of the metaphysical world. Caleb was less interested in such things, more because he believed the world couldn't be explained, but the subject nagged at him now. Death itself had made him want to question, to unravel the greater mystery. He wanted to know where Ethan had gone, and what had now become of him.
Caleb was momentarily pulled from his internal questioning as he heard the reverend mention Ethan at last.
"Ethan was an adventurous and inquisitive young man," Reverend Michaels said, staring into his notes instead of into the congregation. "He was always asking questions, always wanted to know the truth. I often wondered if he'd end up in the ministry, with how often he asked about God."
Caleb smirked, wondering if Reverend Michaels had somehow read his mind and then interpreted those thoughts in his own way. Questioning god was Ethan's way of going about the world, but he certainly had no intention of following God anywhere. "He didn't know him at all, did he?" Caleb said quietly.
"No," Liz agreed. "Not at all."
Reverend Michaels continued, his voice even. His expression appeared sad and his eyes seemed sincere, but Caleb couldn't shake the feeling the reverend had never met the real Ethan. "I remember the first time we ever spoke. It was shortly after he moved here. He was twelve, but he spoke like an adult. I was always impressed by the way he saw the world, the good he saw in others, and the way he always wanted to help. He wanted to help people, to do good in the world."
But now Caleb had to give credit where it was due. Perhaps the reverend knew more than Caleb thought. "At least that part was true," Caleb said.
"Yeah," Liz replied.
"I have no doubt that Ethan is in heaven now," Reverend Michaels continued, and Caleb snorted at the notion clearly expressed simply for the sake of the gathering. "He's looking down on us with empathy, knowing we feel his loss, and wanting to embrace us with the great love he had for those in his life. But he knows that we will one day be reunited again, through the grace of our Lord."
After hearing Caleb's snort, Liz couldn't help but make a tongue-in-cheek response to this overt religious declaration about the fate of her best friend. "Heaven? I thought Christians believe suicide is a sin."
"You think Ethan is in Hell?" Caleb asked, surprised at Liz's candor.
"It's more fun there," Liz said, shrugging. "The Devil's cooler than God."
Caleb snorted. "He's probably in Hell then."
"The underworld, anyway," Liz replied.
"You think that's why we put him in the ground?" Caleb asked.
Liz sighed. "He wanted to be cremated."
"I know." Caleb wanted to say more, but something Liz had said was nagging at him. He couldn't stop thinking about where Ethan must have ended up, but the notion of the underworld had sparked something deep within him. He opened his mouth to ask Liz a question when he realized he'd stopped listening to the reverend.
"... if you'll all bow your heads now, I will offer a final prayer for Ethan's soul," Reverend Michaels said. Caleb rolled his eyes. He definitely didn't need to pay attention to that.
"The underworld... " he began thoughtfully, then paused to ensure he had Liz's attention.
"What?" Liz asked as Reverend Michaels started praying.
"Isn't there some Greek myth about someone going into the underworld to retrieve a lost soul?" Caleb asked. He wasn't completely sure if he remembered it correctly, but the more he thought about it, the more certain he became.
"Yeah, Orpheus is the most famous," Liz replied. "It's not the only one like that, though. You have Inanna in Babylonian mythology, too, and I think there's a couple of others I've read about as well. It's actually kind of common."
"It's common for a reason, right?" Caleb asked thoughtfully.
"Yeah." Liz shrugged. "I suppose everyone wants to believe there's a way to bring their loved ones back."
"I didn't say that."
"You believe in magic. Hell, you practice it daily."
"Yeah, I do."
"Liz," Caleb said firmly, "We're going to bring him back."
Liz gave Caleb an incredulous look. "How?"
"Find a spell," Caleb replied, "I'll go to Hell and get him if I have to."
"Caleb... " Liz said, her tone dropping as her expression saddened.
But Caleb wasn't going to be dissuaded. He would have Ethan back, no matter what it took. "Do it, Liz. I won't let one kiss be the end of our story."
"You don't know what you're saying," Liz said carefully. "What you're asking... it could kill us both. The magics involved will be tremendous, and we're dealing with a true mystery here. No one knows for certain what happens on the other side. It's all hearsay."
"And what do you think killed Ethan?" Caleb snapped. "Pretty sure it was seeing you and me kissing, wouldn't you say? We owe him."
"Fuck, again with the blame... " Liz said, but then she slowly started nodding. "Okay, you're right, it might be possible, and we should explore it. I'll start doing some research tonight. I might already have already filed a spell away somewhere, but I don't know for sure."
"We're going to bring him back, Liz," Caleb said. "I don't care what I have to do."
Liz nodded. "I'll leave as soon as the service is over and see what I can find."
"Keep me posted."
For Caleb, the next week went by in almost an instant compared to how the first five days had passed after Ethan's death. His parents thought it was because of the closure he'd received at the funeral, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It wasn't closure he'd received, but hope; he would see Ethan again, even if it killed him, and that meant the quicker he reached that day, the better.
With that in mind, he did everything he could to distract himself until Liz called him up, telling him in no uncertain terms she was certain she'd hit the jackpot. The internet had opened wide the doors to magic for those who knew what the doors looked like, and Liz was such a person. Inspired by Caleb's mention of Orpheus, she'd come across a website dedicated to Greek sorcery, and eventually found an answer hidden in its archives.
The next morning, she picked him up to help her gather ingredients for the spell. They would perform it before the weekend was over, providing they could get everything they needed. After a brief shopping trip for various herbs and a brief stop at a greenhouse for an herb unavailable at the grocery store, they were now headed toward Ethan's house, unbeknownst to Caleb. He had yet to visit Ethan's family since his death; there was no reason to if he was planning on bringing Ethan back.
"So, what else do we need for the spell?" Caleb asked, looking through the bag in his lap full of plants. They smelled green and earthy, like the scent of life itself. It seemed strange to be using such vibrant ingredients when preparing a spell to reach The Underworld, but Caleb wasn't the witch and he figured Liz knew what she was doing.
"The hardest part will be getting the instrument which caused his death," Liz said, glancing nervously at Caleb and hoping he wouldn't look up to see which streets they were driving down. "The knife is being held in evidence at the police station until they complete their paperwork. Bureaucracy, you know. The way the police work in our town, it could be there indefinitely."
Caleb threw his head back, his eyes closed as he spat, "Shit."
"Don't get too worked up about it," Liz said, "I think I might be able to use a substitute for the spell. The same kind of knife, you know?"
"Are you sure that'll work?" Caleb asked, opening his eyes and looking at her. He then looked past her and saw houses he recognized, knowing immediately where they were.
"No, but it's okay, we'll figure it out. It really comes down to my ability to treat it the same as the original knife, and that will take willpower. Either way, it's not something you need to worry about," Liz said as she pulled up to the curb in front of Ethan's house. She nodded toward the front door and said, "Let's just work on one thing at a time."
To her surprise, Caleb wasn't angry at being here. He wasn't happy, either, but it definitely wasn't anger on his face. He looked despondent, grim, but determined to see this through. Plus, he'd read the spell, so he knew they'd have to come here eventually. "So, we're here to get a piece of him, right?"
"Yeah," Liz replied. "Just some of his hair should work, and it's not like we're doing forensics and need live cells. Any hair of his should do fine, and I'm sure he'll have a comb or brush somewhere in his room."
Caleb opened the door to the car and started to get out. "Let's get this over with."
They approached the front door together, and Caleb raised his finger to the doorbell but then stopped, unable to press it. He stared at it for half a minute before Liz realized he wasn't going to do it. She reached up and knocked loudly, then gave Caleb a reassuring smile.
Caleb didn't react at all, just stared straight ahead. They could hear footsteps on the other side of the door, and a few seconds later the door opened slowly, then all the way. Mrs. Pallet stood in the doorway, her hair and clothing disheveled and worn, as if she'd slept in the clothes the night before. Her eyes were filled with pain, but her smile was genuine.
"Caleb. Liz. It's good to see you," she said.
"Can we come in?" Caleb asked without meeting her eyes.
"Yes. Please," Mrs. Pallet replied, stepping back and pulling the door open wide to let them pass. Caleb stepped in first, but continued to avoid her gaze. Instead his eyes were instantly drawn toward the stairs leading up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Liz followed his gaze then turned back to Mrs. Pallet, smiling as well as she could manage.
Despite her attempt at positivity, it was hard for Liz to get the words out as she asked, "I hate to ask this, but... can we... can we see his room?"
"Yes, and then... " Mrs. Pallet paused, looking from Liz to Caleb, then back to Liz, her eyes watering in the process. "And then I'd like to talk to you, if I could?"
Liz nodded even as Caleb started up the stairs without her. "Of course," she said, then turned to follow.
"Elizabeth," Mrs. Pallet said, stopping her. Liz turned around. "Elizabeth, thank you for coming. I've been hoping the two of you would stop by."
"I know," Liz replied. "It's just... " and then she surprised herself by stepping forward and wrapping her arms around Mrs. Pallet. She was even more surprised when Mrs. Pallet hugged her back. "It's just hard, you know?" Liz sniffled.
"I know, dear," Mrs. Pallet replied. "Oh, I know... " she pulled out of the embrace then and wiped a tear from her eye. "Go be with Caleb. I have a feeling he's going to need you. I'll be down here when you're done."
Liz nodded and turned around again, slowly heading up the stairs. She wasn't as certain as Mrs. Pallet that Caleb needed her just yet. Caleb needed some time alone with Ethan, and she didn't want to intrude. Taking her time, she paused at the open doorway to Ethan's room, watching Caleb stand in the center, his eyes closed as he took in the moment.
The morning light came through the window, illuminating everything in the room including Caleb, and he seemed to glow softly. With a nod to her own teenage romanticism, Liz couldn't help but feel a sense of purity in seeing Caleb embraced by the light, as if Ethan were reaching from the beyond to touch him once again.
"This is... this is so weird," Caleb said, sensing Liz's presence. Liz entered the room then, knowing he no longer wanted space. When she stood next to him in the light, he turned to her, eyes open, and said, "I thought I'd be able to feel him here, but I don't."
Liz stepped away and sat down on Ethan's bed, still unmade from when Ethan had woken up on the day he died. She'd heard that parents often had a hard time changing anything after the death of a child, but especially in the case of a suicide. She wondered how often Mrs. Pallet came in here, how often she sat on Ethan's bed and looked at everything in his room which made up his life. The room was distinctly Ethan, though it didn't feel like him, Caleb was right, and she knew why. "It's because he didn't really live here."
"No, I guess not," Caleb whispered.
"You feel him when you're alone at your house, don't you?" Liz asked.
"It's because that's where he always wanted to be."
"I know," Caleb said, gritting his teeth. He looked down, his hands clenched in fists of frustration. He closed his eyes again, blinking back tears as he said venomously. "Fuck, I know."
Liz stood, wanting to wrap him in an embrace, but sensing her intention he took a step away. She sighed and said, "This isn't your fault, you know. I don't know how many times I have to tell you."
Caleb shook his head forcefully. "That's a lie and you know it."
"No, it isn't."
"How can you possibly say that?" Caleb asked, opening his eyes at last. Tears streamed freely down his cheeks. "He wouldn't have... he wouldn't have committed suicide if it weren't for me. If I'd just told him... "
Liz swiftly closed the distance between them, giving him no chance to back away. She placed a firm hand on his shoulder and said, "No. You can't think that, Caleb."
"Why not?" Caleb spat.
"There was way more than that. It might've been a trigger, but... " Liz shook her head, "there's more than that."
Caleb shook her hand off and stormed away, walking into the bathroom adjacent to Ethan's room. He came out with a hairbrush, and pulled a plastic bag from his pocket, then dropped the brush inside and sealed the bag shut. "Whatever. I'm going to leave."
"Wait!" Liz said, but Caleb didn't listen. He started down the stairs and Liz followed after, carefully closing the door to Ethan's room on her way. The extra time gave Caleb the time to reach the front door and exit before she'd made it halfway down the stairs. She continued much more slowly then, knowing she wasn't going to catch him if he walked home, and knowing he'd be waiting for her at the car if he didn't walk home. She wasn't going to be able to convince him to come back inside either way, and so she stopped trying.
Instead she altered her course and headed toward the living room where she found Mrs. Pallet, looking up with concern from the book in her hands. It was a plain, red journal, which Liz was certain she'd seen somewhere before but couldn't place it.
"Did Caleb leave?" Mrs. Pallet asked.
"Yes. He... " Liz sighed heavily, folding her arms over her chest as she looked out the large bay window. She could see her car and Caleb sitting in the front seat, his head resting in his hands as his body convulsed with sobs. She wanted to go out there and comfort him, but she also knew he needed to be alone. "He couldn't stay," she said at last.
"I understand," Mrs. Pallet said distantly. She sighed and set the journal down on the coffee table in front of her. "I can't seem to leave. I imagine it's for the same reason."
"How are you... " Liz began, then let out an exasperated groan. She laughed nervously, hoping Mrs. Pallet wouldn't think she meant to make light of the situation and tried again, "How are you holding up? It sounds so lame, now that I say it."
"Elizabeth," Mrs. Pallet said, staring down at the coffee table, a pensive look on her face. "I know that you probably think very little of me."
Liz raised an eyebrow. "Why do you say that?"
"I've heard you, Caleb, and E... " Mrs. Pallet choked on her words, but with a calming breath she resumed speaking, "and Ethan talking behind closed doors. I know, I shouldn't have eavesdropped, but... " She shook her head at her own folly. "I know he wasn't a believer, and his father and I, we tried to change that. We tried to get him to, to believe in God, but he didn't. I know you aren't a Christian, and you probably thought we were being too hard on him."
"That's... " Liz said, assessing the words, "that's not at all what I expected to hear. You're not wrong. Ethan wasn't a believer, and he did struggle to reconcile your actions with his beliefs."
"We only did it because we loved him. We thought we were doing the right thing, and now?" Mrs. Pallet looked like she wanted to scream, cry, and laugh all at once, but instead she shook her head and continued in a soft tone. "I'm trying to understand why my son died, why he chose to kill himself, and I understand now. I failed him."
"It's not your fault, either," Liz said. "Why does everyone want to blame themselves?"
In answer to the question, Mrs. Pallet picked up the red journal and held it up. "I've been reading his journal. I wasn't even aware he kept one. It must've been his love for English or the written word."
"Oh," Liz said, unsure where this was going but feeling the need to say something.
"He... " Mrs. Pallet choked hard on the words she'd been about to say. Liz waited patiently as Mrs. Pallet worked her way through her emotions, knowing that Ethan's mother needed to get the words out. "he's been planning this for a while. He was planning on killing himself when Caleb left for college."
"No... that... that doesn't sound like him," Liz said, wanting to deny it. But she couldn't, not entirely. She'd seen the way he'd been acting for the last few weeks before his suicide. He wasn't entirely himself, and he certainly wasn't happy. "Or does it?" Liz heard herself asking, unsure why she'd voiced the question.
"The signs are there now that we're looking backward," Mrs. Pallet said, nodding in agreement to Liz's observation. "Amazing how I missed them."
But there was something else in Mrs. Pallet's voice which gave Liz pause. "You're not just talking about the suicide, are you?"
"Did he... " Mrs. Pallet began, glancing out the window to where Caleb sat crying in the car. She could see him, too, and Liz wondered what Caleb would think if he knew. Then Mrs. Pallet asked a question which made Liz wonder even more, "Did Caleb know Ethan was gay?"
If Mrs. Pallet knew, there was little reason for Liz to keep pretending she didn't. "Not until right before Ethan died. He found out the same day, only a few hours before."
"So they weren't together?" Mrs. Pallet asked. "I guess it was just his fantasy, then."
"No," Liz said. "They were never together, except for a few minutes when Caleb... when Caleb held Ethan before he passed out."
"Please, believe me, Elizabeth," Mrs. Pallet said, "if Ethan had come out, I would've loved him the same. It might've been hard at first, but there's nothing I wouldn't do to keep my son alive and in my life."
Liz nodded as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. "We feel the same way."
"I've... " Mrs. Pallet held up the journal, then extended it to Liz. "I've finished reading this. Would you take it to Caleb? I think the two of you would probably get some closure from reading it."
Liz reached for it, but let her fingertips linger on the cover of the journal before taking it from Mrs. Pallet. "Are you sure?" She asked.
"I want it back, don't misunderstand, but... I love the two of you like my own children. I hope you know that a difference of opinion doesn't keep me from knowing how important you were in my son's life. You kept him alive while I was driving him further away. Thank you... for being there." Mrs. Pallet pushed the journal into Liz's hand, and she took it, cradling it like it was the most precious thing in the world.
"Any time," Liz said, then started to turn away.
"He took my pills, you know," Mrs. Pallet said, making Liz hesitate.
Mrs. Pallet nodded. "My pills, from my medicine cabinet. He downed the whole bottle. I haven't even had a chance to refill the prescription, even though I could do with something right about now." She sighed and looked out the window again, watching Caleb. "I guess he wanted to make sure he... make sure no one saved him. Slitting his wrists was a distraction. He must've known Caleb was going to make it to him."
"So, he took something?" Liz asked. "I wasn't aware that had been determined."
"Yeah," Mrs. Pallet confirmed. "That's what killed him. That's why-"
"What kind of pills were they?" Liz asked urgently.
"Painkillers. Methadone," Mrs. Pallet asked, confused. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just... " Liz started to reply, then realized she didn't have a good reason to tell Mrs. Pallet. She certainly couldn't explain that she needed to know because she needed the instrument of his death for a resurrection spell. She offered the best response she could, weak as it was. "It's just good to know, for closure."
"I see," Mrs. Pallet said, nodding in acceptance of the explanation. She stood then and gave Liz a half-smile. "I'm tired, Elizabeth. I need to lie down."
Liz nodded. "I understand."
She turned to leave, but Mrs. Pallet stopped her once more time. "Elizabeth?"
"Please, come back and see me?" Mrs. Pallet asked. "Caleb, too?"
Liz nodded. "You can count on it."
As she turned to go, she hoped that the next time she came to this house, she'd have Ethan with her. With any luck, the three of them would make Mrs. Pallet smile again.
By the time Liz made it back to the car, Caleb was no longer crying, though he looked as if he'd already been to hell and back to try and find Ethan. She wanted to help him more than anything, to make him feel better, but she had a feeling there was only one answer that would be acceptable to Caleb. She didn't think he was ready to read the journal Ethan's mother had given her, and so she placed it carefully on the back seat with some of her other things, sparing one last glance at Caleb before closing the door and walking back to the driver seat. With a heavy sigh, she climbed back into the car and started driving without a word.
Caleb didn't seem like talking, which was fine with her. She'd had plenty of emotional turmoil for one day, and didn't think talking about it would do her much good. It gave her time to think about what she'd just learned regarding Ethan's death. It hadn't been blood loss after all, but a drug, and she knew a thing or two about drugs and where to get them.
The only problem was getting the ingredient without telling Caleb. After learning the truth from Mrs. Pallet, Liz remembered the doctor saying something about being uncertain as to the cause of death, but it had slipped her mind until now. Caleb, Liz was sure, still thought the blood loss had been the cause, and there were reasons why she wanted him to continue thinking that.
Mrs. Pallet had said that Ethan had taken the pills and then slit his wrists so he'd be certain to die even if they managed to stop the bleeding. Caleb couldn't know that. Liz also distinctly remembered Ethan trying to tell them that he'd taken something. Caleb couldn't know that, either. He already blamed himself too much, and knowing how close he'd been to saving Ethan's life would destroy him.
And so she drove to the opposite end of town from Caleb's house, a place she frequented but he rarely visited. Despite this, Caleb seemed to pay little attention to where they were driving, and it wasn't until they'd pulled onto the street where her intended destination was located that Caleb finally looked up in alarm.
"Where are we going?" He asked.
"I know what to do about the last ingredient," Liz said, thinking she'd figured out a way to explain her intentions without letting Caleb in on the truth.
"Isn't this where your weed dealer lives?" Caleb asked as they stopped in front of a small, dilapidated home. A rusty car sat on the front lawn, and three more in even worse states of disrepair sat along the side of the house. There was a distinct clanging sound of someone working on a car inside the garage. Jake Sanders was a mechanic if he was talking to a cop, or to anyone who might be a cop, or to anyone who knew a cop, but it was really the front to a much more lucrative business of selling drugs to high school students. Everyone at school knew he did it, even now, two years after he graduated.
"Yeah," Liz confirmed, "This is Jake's house."
"So, what? You think your criminal friends could help us get the knife?" Caleb asked skeptically.
Liz sighed, her fingers tapping the steering wheel nervously. "Not exactly."
"I'm here because Ethan... " Liz started, thinking for a moment she would tell Caleb the truth, that maybe it wouldn't be so bad, but the look of hurt in Caleb's face firmed up her resolve. She had to continue deceiving him.
"Because Ethan what?" Caleb asked.
"Because Ethan's knife isn't going to be accessible. I'm here to get something to help with my focus," she explained. "I think a strong enough drug will help me work around the fact that we're missing the real knife. In fact, I'm positive it will."
"Magic is a matter of three things; will, pure emotion, and knowledge. I have the emotion and the knowledge, but the will?" She turned off the car at last, then turned toward Caleb, key in hand. Gesturing with the key in a way that she hoped would make sense, she continued to explain. "See, knowledge is what gets you the spell in the first place, pure emotion is the resource that feeds the spell, and will? Will is the key. Will turns it on and drives the whole thing forward and is usually the hardest part. I need to be able to convince myself that the fake knife is the right one, and if I use something strong enough, I can probably do that. Then my will should be able to force the magic into effect."
"Okay," Caleb replied, nodding. "I think I get it. Speaking of Jake, though, how'd your prosperity spell go, anyway?"
"Truth is, I still haven't paid Jake off. With what happened to Ethan I completely lost track of the spell energy and it fizzled out before I could put it to use," Liz replied, wincing at the thought of facing a greedy Jake. But it had to be done. She could try and get the drug elsewhere, it was true, but if she went to another dealer Jake would hear about that, too, and he'd be far more pissed off at her for her disloyalty than for missing a payment.
Of course, Caleb, who'd never touched a drug in his life, didn't see things from that perspective. He gave Liz a hard look and asked, "So, you're risking getting your ass beat by coming here?"
"It's not like we aren't risking our very lives for this spell," Liz replied, hoping it would be an adequate reason for Caleb to let it slide.
"Fair enough," Caleb replied. Liz suppressed a sigh, knowing it would give her away.
"I'll be right back. If I start screaming, help me out, please?" Liz said. Caleb rolled his eyes but nodded his assent as Liz climbed out of the car. She walked up the side of the house, next to the broken-down cars and around to the back where a door opened into the garage. She knocked twice, then four times, then opened the door. It was a signal that she was friendly, which meant Jake would keep his gun tucked away. She hoped it would stay that way.
The clanging stopped as soon as she walked into the dimly lit garage. As her eyes adjusted to the light differential, she heard a low chuckle come from the shadow of a man standing ten feet away from her. "Liz... " Jake said, "funny you should show up. I was just thinking about you. Was wondering when you'd show up for another handout."
"Jake, come on," Liz said, squinting to make out his form. He was wearing oil-stained coveralls and a red bandana to keep his greasy black hair from attracting even more grease. He wiped his hands with an oil rag as Liz continued. "I didn't come for more weed."
"Yeah, what then?" Jake said, throwing the rag down at his feet. He adjusted something in his coveralls, the gun Liz had seen more times than she liked. "You come to pay up?"
This was where things were going to be tricky. She had to play this exactly right, or Jake was going to blow up. "Not exactly," she said carefully. "Got any methadone?" She didn't say it so bluntly to antagonize him, she just wanted to have all her cards on the table. It didn't make sense to keep her intentions hidden. Jake didn't like it when people tried to manipulate him.
But he also didn't like it when his debtors wanted more stuff for free. "What the fuck?" He asked. "You think I'm gonna just give you more product?"
"Not really," Liz said, shrugging helplessly. She did her best to transfer that helplessness to her expression as well as she went on, "Look, I don't have the money, all right? I kinda lost track of time, what with my best friend killing himself."
"Okay, you know, I'm a nice guy, and that's fair," Jake said, lifting his hands in apparent surrender. Then a sickening grin crossed his face, and he said, "But I'm not giving you more time. I have a way you can make it even, though."
"What then?" Liz asked, a knot in her stomach telling her exactly where this conversation was going.
Jake confirmed her suspicions with a sickeningly sultry, "You're gonna pay with your body."
Liz wasn't entirely against this, even though the thought did bother her. Jake wasn't the worst looking guy she'd ever seen, and he wasn't even the worst-behaved, though he was on the lower end of that spectrum. It was more the principle of paying for drugs with sex she wasn't too keen on. Also, there was another reason to protest. If she acted like she hated the idea, Jake would think her purity meant more to her. That meant she could sell it for more than it was actually worth.
"Are you kidding me?" She asked, giving him a flat stare.
"No," Jake said, reaching into his coveralls to draw out the black pistol he kept there. He leaned against the car again, then pointed down at his distended crotch with his empty hand. "You blow me right now or you're gonna wish you had. Or you can give me the money. Your choice."
Liz crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing the gun with defiance. She had no intention of letting him use it, and she genuinely wasn't afraid of it. But there was a game to be played, and she had to defend her honor until it was time to sell. "Fuck you, Jake," she spat.
"That's the idea, princess," Jake said, undeterred. "You blow me for the weed, you let me fuck you for the methadone." He wiggled his eyebrows, then lowered the gun to his side. "I'm messing with you, Liz. I'm not that kind of guy... Shit, girl, you're my favorite customer. The gun isn't even loaded, and I wouldn't take advantage of you like that. I'm a gentleman, heh. You can have more time, but I can't give you any more product until you pay me the cash. Sorry, there's nothing I can do."
"Ugh... " Liz said, closing her eyes and prepping a small, memorized spell she could do without ingredients if it turned out Jake was testing her. It would be enough to let her run if Jake decided to get ugly again, a simple blast of telekinesis that'd make Jake drop the gun whether it was loaded or not. She couldn't do much with it, but it would do. But it was time to make the counter-offer and hope he took it. "How about a compromise."
Jake pursed his lips thoughtfully. "What you got in mind?"
"I'll blow you now, but I've got a friend in the car waiting for me," Liz replied. "I don't have time for more, but I need the methadone, now." She held her breath, hoping he'd take the offer. She was certain she could weasel her way out of letting him fuck her if she got the money before the next time they met, and at least then she'd have the methadone.
But Jake had a counter-offer of his own. "Fine. But that means I get to choose which hole I use when I come to collect. And I am coming to collect."
Liz groaned, but it was better than nothing. "You're a real bastard, you know that?"
"Hey you're the one who decided to take the offer." Jake unzipped the front of his coveralls and wiggled his eyebrows expectantly. "Didn't you say you had a friend waiting?"
Caleb grew more restless with each passing minute. Jake lived on Rosewood Lane, known throughout town as the worst street in the entire area. He saw a guy walking toward the car, wearing a dark hoodie despite the warm June weather. He didn't want to profile the guy, but there was a manner he had to his walk which unnerved Caleb and made him want to get out of there as quickly as possible.
The guy turned and went into a house across the street, and Caleb breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't want trouble, not today, not after all the emotions he'd already had to go through. He checked his phone for the fifth time since Liz disappeared around the back of Jake's house. She'd been gone for sixteen minutes, far longer than Caleb had expected. He hadn't heard any screaming or any gunshots, so she was likely safe, but...
He opened the door and stepped out. He needed to check on her, and if she was dallying, get her to leave so they could get on to more important things. Having never been to Jake's house before, it took him a moment to find the back door, but when he did, he paused, deciding whether to knock or barge in. Jake Sanders was an asshole, but it was mainly intimidation. When Caleb thought of Jake he didn't think danger, he thought of the skinny ninth grader who had tried to pick on him in seventh grade and failed.
He chose to barge in, and he heard a grunt that was distinctly Liz, so he spoke into the room as his eyes adjusted. "Liz? I didn't think it would take so-" and then he made out what was happening as Liz wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and batted away Jake's hand from the back of her head. Jake was leaning against the car behind him, reeling, his dick hanging out and quickly softening in front of Liz's face. "What the fuck?" Caleb asked, taking a step toward them.
"Ah yeah, oh that was nice," Jake said, tucking himself back into his boxers and buttoning them slowly. He reached for the zipper of his coveralls and started zipping it up as he winked at Liz. "You've got a good mouth, Princess."
"Liz?" Caleb asked, hoping for some form of explanation.
Liz struggled to her feet and avoided Caleb's gaze. "Caleb, we need to go. All right?"
"Um, sure... " Caleb said, realizing she was even more uncomfortable with this situation than he was. He added awkwardly, "Get what you came for?"
"Not yet," Liz said, shaking her head. She then forced a determined and angry scowl to her face and turned back to Jake. "Pay up, Jake."
"All right, all right," Jake said, lifting his hands in surrender. He picked up the gun from where he'd left it and returned it to its place in his coveralls. "Just give me a sec." He walked toward the front of the garage and into a side room.
As soon as he was out of sight, Caleb returned his attention to Liz. "Are you okay?"
"No, but I will be if this means we get Ethan back," Liz said, fidgeting with the bottom of her shirt. "It had better mean we get Ethan back, anyway."
"Is there anything I can do?" Caleb asked.
Liz looked up at last and smiled weakly. "Forget you ever saw what happened here?"
Caleb laughed involuntarily. "Already trying to."
Jake returned a moment later, handing a plastic shopping bag to Liz. "All right, here you go, Princess."
Liz looked inside the bag then glared at Jake. "What's this? This isn't methadone!"
"Nope. Heroin," Jake said, shrugging. "Same shit, really, when it comes right down to it. Expensive, too, but I'm fresh out of pills."
Liz shook her head. "You lied to me. Our deal is off." She started walking away but Jake caught her arm roughly.
"Hey, you don't get to say if our deal is off," Jake growled. "Besides, heroin is worth way more than methadone. I'm giving you a better deal."
Caleb stepped forward quickly and put his hand on Jake's arm. "Yeah, actually she does get to say when the deal's over."
"What do you think you're going to do, Caleb?" Jake asked.
"Lay you out like I did in seventh grade, Jake. You think I just stopped taking martial arts classes after I kicked your ass? You think you can get to your gun before I knock you out when I'm standing this close?" Caleb's expression was unwavering, his eyes like daggers. "We walk out of here, and there's no more trouble, got it?"
"Fuck, all right. I'll cut you a deal, Liz," Jake said, letting go of Liz's arm. "You can just blow me again."
Liz rubbed her arm where Jake had gripped her and spat, "You can blow me, Jake."
Caleb let Jake go and took a step away. He nodded Liz toward the door and then turned to follow her. Jake didn't make a move after them, but he shouted angrily, "Take your shit and get the fuck out of here."
They didn't need to be told twice, but they didn't rush to get out, either, not wanting to appear intimidated. Instead, they moved at a normal pace, closing the door softly behind them. They remained silent as they walked to the car, trying to avoid thinking about the situation they'd just escaped until they reached the vehicle.
As soon as they were inside, Liz broke the silence, holding up the bag and staring at the syringe inside. "This had better work. I really hope I didn't do that for nothing."
"You need a new weed dealer," Caleb said.
"It wasn't all bad... " Liz shrugged and placed the bag in a compartment behind the gear stick. "He'll forget about it now; he's scared of you," she said absently.
"Yeah, about that... " Caleb said, chuckling, "you might not want to tell him I quit Tae Kwon Do after I broke my leg in eighth grade... "
Liz smiled at him, "Your secret's safe with me." It was good to hear a genuine chuckle out of Caleb, especially after such a stressful situation. She only hoped that her secret wouldn't get them in trouble. What she'd said about being able to overcome the issue of the instrument of death was true; if she believed the heroin would work in place of the methadone, it would.
But she had to keep it hidden. Caleb couldn't know, no matter what. Caleb's emotion had to be pure, and that meant this secret would remain.
This had to work. She could take no more chances.
Sunday found Caleb and Liz in the mountains, driving up a paved road toward a locally-famous landmark-a small cave nestled in the hills. The cave itself was small, going back only thirty yards before becoming impassable, but it was a place they'd been to before, and they knew it grew dark quickly toward the back.
Liz had selected the place and Caleb didn't entirely know why, but he was content to follow her direction. She was the one casting the spell, after all, and he figured she knew best. There was one thing that bothered him a bit, however, and he wondered why she hadn't brought it up.
He had his backpack in the back seat with a number of different supplies, most of which were for the hike to the cave, but one in particular he'd picked up for the spell. He'd been lucky to make it on Saturday before the outdoorsman store closed, but he'd found what he was looking for: an exact copy of the knife Ethan had used to kill himself. He hoped it would be exactly what Liz needed to perform the spell, because even looking at it gave him jitters.
But whatever it took to make this spell work, he'd do. Even as he drove Liz's car through the small, winding canyon, he was firming up his resolve. While the road twisted and turned, Caleb's path was certain and straight ahead, and he would reach his destination and bring Ethan back.
"Okay, let's review the spell, shall we?" Liz asked, drawing Caleb from his thoughts.
"Yep. I'm all ears," Caleb replied. "You sure you want me to keep driving? The roads are getting kind of winding."
Liz snorted. "Yeah. I know you're a shitty driver, but I need to maintain focus. I have to get in the right frame of mind before we arrive, or it'll take even longer to perform the spell. Besides, I kind of want to start by sunset."
Caleb glanced at the dashboard clock. It was four in the afternoon, and it would take them several hours to get to the cave once they parked at the trailhead. They had plenty of time, but he once again bowed to Liz's instruction. She was in charge here and knew what they had to do. Still, he was eager to find out more, so he asked, "So, we go up to the Cherry Creek Cave, and then?"
"I set up a circle to cast from," Liz explained, "placing the five candles equidistant from each other like points of a pentagram."
"How does that fit in with the three things needed for magic?" Caleb asked. "I mean, you said you needed will, knowledge, and emotion, right? Why candles, why a circle?"
"They're focusing elements," Liz replied. "To help maintain the will."
Caleb nodded. "What do the candles represent?"
"The five elements. Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Aether."
"We'll build a fire for me to focus on, between me and you."
"You'll toss the ingredients in the fire while I incant," Liz replied, then with a small, encouraging smile added, "And hopefully we'll find the answer of how to bring Ethan back."
Her wording gave him pause, and he glanced at her in alarm. He hit the next curve in the road a bit too fast and almost skidded out, but the road straightened out for a bit after that. Liz gave him a critical look but Caleb was still focused on what she'd said and asked, "Wait, what?"
"What?" Liz asked, confused.
"I thought the purpose of the spell was to bring Ethan back," Caleb said.
"Yeah, but probably not immediately," Liz replied, shrugging. "They don't leave resurrection spells just lying around."
"Yeah, but I thought... " Caleb started, but couldn't finish the thought. This was disappointing, and he felt as if Liz had misled him, though he realized it wasn't intentional. She wasn't always clear in her explanations, even if she did know what she was talking about.
As if to prove that point, Liz explained, "This is a process, Caleb. We ask, then go from there. The spell I found, it... it says it opens the doorway so one can seek Death's boons. I did a little research and it says to be as specific as possible when we ask, which is why we're doing it this way. We should be able to find the answer, if there is one."
Her last four words echoed in Caleb's mind as his face fell. "So, this might be a dead end?"
"Don't think that way," Liz replied. "Think of it like we're opening the pathway to Ethan. We'll just have to do a little more work to figure out how to bring him back."
"Why am I here?" Caleb asked. "If this isn't going to bring Ethan back, why do I need to be here?"
"Because you're the pure emotion I'll be using in the ritual," Liz said. "Didn't I explain that part? I have the knowledge and hopefully the will, but you're the only way this is going to work."
"You don't have pure emotion?"
"There's a funny thing about magic, Caleb. The more you learn, the easier it is to be corrupted. Every time I cast, there's a possibility my emotions will be tempered by greed, by being hungry for power. It's hard to be pure in my thoughts, because there's a part of me which is always focused on the high I get from the magic itself. You, on the other hand, can be pure, because you love Ethan."
"But you also love Ethan," Caleb countered.
"I also love magic, and this will be more than I've ever handled before. It'll be like doing Meth when all I've ever had is weed. It'll be distracting, and that'll screw this up. The emotion won't be pure unless it comes from you," Liz explained, shaking her head forcefully. "Working with magics this powerful, it's better to not take any chances on the three cardinal rules."
"Okay," Caleb replied, nodding. He could see her reasoning, even if he remained somewhat skeptical. He was going to do his part, anyway. "So, as I add the ingredients to the fire, I should be channeling my love for Ethan?"
"It is, though it's more difficult to achieve than it sounds. You can't let anything else slip into your mind while we're channeling these mystical forces, or something bad can happen," Liz cautioned. "Just love, got it?"
"Got it," Caleb agreed. "I've been meaning to ask, why the cave?"
"In Orpheus' descent into the underworld, he walks into a cave to begin his journey," Liz replied. "Again, it's another focusing agent."
"Okay, makes sense."
"Don't think too much about it, okay?" Liz said. "That's all in the knowledge and will department, and I've got that covered. Just focus on adding the ingredients and loving Ethan. When we get up there I have something else to give you to help you with that, too. Understood?"
"You got it."
"We're here," Liz said, pointing to a brown, wooden sign ahead of them with the words 'Cherry Creek Cave Trail' painted in gold letters on its face. "This is the trailhead. You ready to head to the cave?"
"Yeah," Caleb said as he pulled into the small, gravel parking lot. He put the car in park and handed Liz the key. He nodded once, resolutely. "Let's go."
They left the car behind, gathered their packs from the back, then headed to the trail at the other end of the parking lot. The sun was warm, a light breeze made the trees slowly dance. Birds sang and insects buzzed around them. The mountains were alive, playing a sort of music that Caleb found strangely intoxicating.
He'd not been in these mountains since the summer before, though he couldn't remember why he'd stayed away for so long. He loved being in nature, loved seeing all the different ways in which life found a foothold in the wilderness. There was such a big difference between the natural world and the world of man, where man thought himself dominant over everything.
As they hiked through the trees along the rocky trail, Caleb had to come face to face with the realization they might be doing the wrong thing. Was he not, like so many people before him, thinking himself better than nature? Did he think he had power over death itself, arrogant enough to believe he could decide the fate of a soul?
Yes, he realized. It was selfish, as most human deeds are selfish, but he would do it anyway. Modern man could tame the wild and could even escape natural death in a thousand ways which men of ages past could not. Why should this be any different?
The sun hung low in the sky by the time they reached the cave. Because of the mountain between them and the western horizon, sunset seemed closer than it actually was, but they had time yet. Liz didn't seem rushed or anxious, so Caleb tried not to be, either. Instead, as Liz set her pack down and began pulling out the various things she needed, he took his backpack off as well and drew out the one item he knew would be necessary.
Somehow, even within the shadows of the cave mouth, the knife seemed to catch a glint of sunlight, drawing his attention. He rolled the knife over in his hands, his mind rolling with it, unable to get the image of the bloody knife at Ethan's side out of his mind. A part of Caleb wanted to drive the knife into his own flesh, knowing that at least then he'd be able to go wherever Ethan had gone. At least then this wouldn't be a dead end.
"What's that?" Liz asked as she caught sight of the blade.
"It's the same kind of knife that Ethan, you know... " Caleb replied, shrugging. "I figured it would be better to have the same kind."
Liz nodded, appearing somewhat troubled by this revelation. "You remembered what it looked like?"
"Yeah. It's hard not to," Caleb replied. "It's what I used to cut my shirt so we could wrap his wounds. Plus, I gave it to him as a birthday present a couple of years back. He was a boy scout, after all."
"I remember," Liz said quietly. "I didn't realize he'd used that knife."
"It was one of the first things I saw when the paramedics left to take him to the hospital. That knife, lying in the dirt. It seemed so... " Caleb shrugged. "I don't know what I'm trying to say, but forgetting what the knife looked like was never a problem."
"Makes sense," Liz said, nodding thoughtfully.
Caleb smirked. "I thought you'd forgotten about bringing a knife."
Liz lifted a large, paper-wrapped pouch. "I have a little pocket knife in the ingredient pouch you'll be throwing into the fire. Thought that'd work for the focus."
"Well, this one is more similar," Caleb said.
Liz smiled and nodded. "Cool. We'll use that one. I'll take the knife I brought out of the pouch. Actually, now that I think about it, it might be better if you hold the knife instead of adding it to the flame. That way it can be like your focusing agent, you know?"
"That won't mess up the spell?" Caleb asked.
Liz shook her head, knowing adding an extra ingredient to the fire would be far more devastating. Now that she knew the real instrument of death, the knife could only cause trouble, but it shouldn't matter if he simply held onto it. "No, that should be fine. Better. I'm sure of it."
"Awesome," Caleb replied.
"Why don't you go find some kindling while I get set up?" Liz asked. "There should be plenty of dry wood around."
"You got it," Caleb said, setting the knife down and putting his backpack on again. His canteen still had a bit of water in it, and he wanted to make sure he kept himself hydrated even if he wasn't going very far. With one last nod at Liz, he started back into the trees.
Foraging for firewood didn't take very long, and by the time he returned with a large armful Liz was still getting ready, though she was close. She'd set up her meditation mat again, and placed the five candles on each point of the pentagram. The ingredient pouch had been placed next to the knife, indicating Liz expected him to sit there. She sat next to her pack, reading through the printed-off page which held the spell, studying it one last time before they began.
Caleb dropped the handful of firewood between the meditation mat and the knife, then crouched down to rearrange it so it would light easier. He reached back and pulled a few pieces of crumpled newsprint and a box of matches from the side pocket on his backpack. With the aid of the newsprint, the fire lit easily, and the light drew Liz away from her studies.
"Ready?" She asked.
Caleb nodded. "Whenever you are."
"Before we begin, I have one more thing to give you," Liz said, reaching behind her and picking up a small, red book. She raised up on her knees to pass it over the fire to Caleb.
Caleb took the book and his eyes widened in shock. He recognized Ethan's journal, even though he hadn't seen it in some time. His trembling fingers wanted to open the book but he couldn't find the resolve. He glanced up at Liz with questioning eyes.
"Keep that in your backpack, and wear the pack during the ritual. Let it serve as a focusing object for you to help channel your love for Ethan and his love for you," Liz said in explanation. "Imagine having that piece of love behind you, wrapping around your shoulders."
Caleb nodded numbly and did as she suggested, putting the journal carefully into his pack. He wiped a tear away from his cheek and uttered a quiet prayer to whatever gods were listening that he would be able to see this through. After settling his backpack on his shoulders once more, he felt an immediate warmth from behind him, and couldn't help but feel that Ethan was there, wrapping him in an embrace. After taking a moment to soak in the feeling, he returned his attention to Liz.
She smiled at him encouragingly, knelt on her mat, then gestured for him to take his place across from her. He knelt as well, picking up the knife and keeping the ingredient pouch at his side, watching as Liz took a small piece of kindling and used it to light each of the candles beside her. When the last was lit, she threw the piece of kindling back into the fire and held her arms outstretched as if in meditation, her eyes focused on the flames dancing before her.
Caleb mimicked her stance, picking up the parcel in his open hand while the knife pointed outward in the other. He closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. He drew his thoughts to Ethan, trying to shut out everything else. When he decided he'd achieved a sense of focus, he opened his eyes and nodded to Liz.
Liz opened her mouth and began to speak, her voice steady and powerful, like a prayer. "Brother Orpheus, Lord of Music, he who has descended to the depths of Hades, I beseech you. I beseech you in your wisdom and your experience, grant us this boon. By this offering," Liz paused, and Caleb realized it was time to add the ingredient pouch, so he tossed it into the flames. It combusted almost instantly, as if it had been eager to burn. Liz continued, her voice taking on even greater force. "Show us the path, the path by which we may find our lost love. Show us the path to Death. Show us the doorway."
Caleb let his gaze be drawn into the flames, doing as Liz had said he should. He started with the image of Ethan's shoulders, and how he longed to hold them, to wrap his arms around his best friend and tell him he loved him. This thought connected him back to the journal resting in his backpack, and the warmth which seemed to radiate from it, embracing him back. He held onto that image, the desire to comfort and be comforted, as Liz continued.
"Open the door to us, Brother Orpheus," Liz yelled to the abyss of the cave beside them. The words echoed in the dark, bouncing off the unseen walls of the cavern, giving them a sense of life as they bellowed their response.
Caleb's desire to comfort his best friend morphed into the sight of Ethan's eyes as they stood on the side of the road. Those eyes, filled with so much pain, so much longing for peace. Caleb wanted to give Ethan peace, to make those eyes smile and laugh again as they had when they were younger. To go back and prevent Ethan from ever thinking he wasn't loved.
"Open the door!" Liz screamed at the dark. The light breeze from before picked up in intensity, sweeping into the cave as if in answer. The flames flickered and danced as they nearly died from the force of the wind, but then the wind disappeared and the flames surged back to life, crackling with energy.
Caleb gripped the knife tighter, thinking of Ethan's eyes. And then he saw them in a different light, the echoing chasm of pain they'd reflected when Ethan saw them kissing. How Caleb longed to return to that moment, to pull back from the precipice of that instant of perceived betrayal before it took all three of them over the edge. How he longed to take it all back, to make it right, to give Ethan the kisses he deserved and not the one that sent him away.
"Grant us passage to the beyond! Grant us the way to Ethan Pallet's soul!" Liz roared, and the fire responded, exploding with energy as the flames shot even higher, the smoke billowing up into a cloud of pure darkness which seemed to gather like a thunderhead above them. Caleb swore he could hear a distant crackle of thunder, as if a storm were also on the horizon.
That storm was a frantic, primal surge of energy, rippling in and tearing everything apart. The imagery drew Caleb in deeper, to the image of rain pouring all around him, the dark storm within his soul. Everything around him darkened like the light in Ethan's eyes the day he died, the way he'd looked at Caleb as they kissed, blood flowing from his wrists like the floodwaters of the evil storm threatening to destroy Caleb's heart.
The knife had done the deed, had killed Caleb's love and hope as surely as it had killed Ethan. He rolled the knife in his hand, and the thunder answered, rumbling in response. It wasn't the knife that killed Ethan, but a knife was a knife. A knife for a knife, Caleb thought.
"Let this man's love be the key, let his love open the way!" Liz cried, and Caleb felt a surge within him as Liz began drawing on his energy. It was like the orgasmic energy he'd felt before, except instead of activating his pleasure, it accentuated his pain, drawing it out fully.
Caleb saw Ethan clearly now, leaning against the tree, his blood flowing freely as his eyes locked onto Caleb's. Now his eyes were filled with lucidity, and his mouth was contorted in an infernal scowl. 'Why did you do it, Caleb?' Ethan asked in Caleb's mind. 'Why did you kill me? This is all your fault. I'm dead because of you.'
The guilt was overwhelming, overtaking everything else in Caleb's psyche. He wanted to run, to hide, to escape the image before him, but it existed in his mind, trapping him in the moment where Caleb could do nothing but watch Ethan die. A knife for a knife. A life for a life. If I could give myself up to let you live, I would. I would sacrifice myself for you, I would.
Ethan's mouth head tilted to the side, and with a quirky grin he said, 'Done.'
"Let love... let love-" Liz stopped short as the fire roared again, becoming so bright she had to block her eyes with her hand to prevent it from blinding her. She lost her focus on the spell, the energies quickly spinning out of control as her mind raced to assess the situation. "What... what is... "
She peered around her hand again as the fire died just a little, and could just make Caleb out over the top of the flames, the knife held in both hands and pointed at his heart. "Caleb! Caleb no, what are you doing!" With a rumble of thunder, the cloud of smoke above them ruptured, and a single bolt of bright light reached out from it and struck Liz in the chest, sending her sprawling backward into a land of purest darkness.
"Are you all right?"
The words felt distant in Liz's ears as she slowly came back to consciousness. The voice didn't seem familiar at all, but neither did her body anymore. She was disconnected, disoriented, trying to make sense of where she was.
"Caleb?" She heard herself ask. This, too, felt distant.
"Ma'am, are you all right?" The voice asked again. She felt someone roughly shaking her shoulders. "Young woman, talk to me!"
"Caleb?" She asked again, and then managed to open her eyes at last, staring up into the face of a middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard. She was lying in the mouth of the cave, she was sure of that, but nothing else seemed familiar, and certainly not the man standing above her. "Who are you?"
"Thank God you're okay... " The man replied. "what did you take?"
"What?" Liz asked, struggling to get up, but she wasn't able to make it past her elbows before her headache overwhelmed her and she fell back to the ground. She groaned in pain and closed her eyes, trying to shut out what little light was there. Light. Why was there light?
She opened her eyes again and rolled her head to the side. From the level of light outside, she assumed it was midday. Had she really been unconscious for that long.
"Your friend won't wake up," The man said. "What is he on? The paramedics will want to know. Or search and rescue, I guess."
"My friend?" Liz asked, and the memory of Caleb putting the knife to his chest came flooding back to her. She shot upward, forgetting about her head. The man stepped around to help her up, but was blocking her view of where she assumed Caleb would be. She could just see a bit of his blue jeans through the man's legs. "Oh god, Caleb!"
"What are you on?" The man asked again. "There's a syringe in the fire. Don't tell me he's not on anything."
"He's not. I was," Liz said, struggling to her feet. She kept speaking as she staggered away from the man to check on Caleb. "I didn't think... " Her words failed her as the blood drained from her face. She stood over the body of her friend, his expression peaceful. His golden hair matted to his sweaty forehead. His clothing was disheveled, but then again, he'd almost always looked that way. She knelt next to him, smoothing his hair back from his face. ". . . Ethan?" she asked, not sure she believed what she was seeing.
"Ethan?" the man asked. "Weren't you just shouting about-"
"Ethan! Oh my god, Ethan!" Liz shouted as reality took hold. He was here, he was real, and he was alive. But he was also unconscious, and Liz had no answers. "Why won't you wake up?"
"Ma'am, are you okay?" The man asked.
Liz didn't hear him. There wasn't any time to listen to a man who had no answers, especially when one friend was still missing. "Caleb!" She shouted. "Caleb, where are you!?"
He's gone. A life for a life.
The voice in her head did not sound familiar, yet she also somehow knew it. It felt like death itself, like the sinking reality that all things end, that she herself would one day cease to be. It had a melodic quality, like a symphony playing in a minor key. She feared it, yet longed to hear it again. It had answers.
Who are you? She thought back at the voice.
But there was no response, and she was certain now that the owner of the voice had moved on. There would be no more death here, not now, but neither would there be more life. Death had spoken, and Caleb was gone.
"Shit, Caleb... " Liz said, tears streaming down her face as reality sunk in a little deeper. "What were we thinking?" She stroked Ethan's cheek again, and he let out a soft moan but otherwise did not react. "Ethan, wake up. Come on, wake up!" She collapsed over his chest, her body heaving with sobs as she cried, "I need you, Ethan. Please... Caleb's gone. I need you... "