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Adventure Friendship Romance

Mars, the god of war, clapped his hands and addressed the crowd. “Welcome! What a beautiful morning here on Mount Olympus.”

The crowd cheered.

Epimetheus suppressed an ironic smile. The god of afterthought and the father of excuses considered his lowly status amongst his peers. “Some gods get all the breaks. Why is the god of war presiding over the opening of the Olympic Games?”

No one answered him. Sitting on his lonely cloud, the other gods considered his location ‘nosebleed’ territory.

Mars continued, “Minotaur, Chimera and Cerberus walked into a bar…”

Epimetheus tuned him out and mumbled. “You want jokes? Put Hermes up there. He’d kill. No one wants to hear this loser. You’re about as funny as a broken hip, Mars. A few eons ago, you were the god of furniture scratches. Ambitious twit… What a climber.”

Laughter from the multitude on the ground drew Epimetheus’ attention.

Mars waved at someone in the crowd. “So, what did Prometheus think you would use fire for, roasting marshmallows?”

The crowd lapped it up. Who knew Mars could be so funny?

The god paused for the laughter. The audience settled. “Agon, our Olympics’ sponsor, tells me we’re trying something new. Your challenge, this year, will not be typical foot races and wrestling. But an internal struggle.”

The crowd went silent. They wanted to see aggression channeled into ‘best man win’ acts of physical dominance. And the winners lauded with garlands of laurel. 

Mars continued. “My friends, the gods will guide you mortal subjects in a new task.” The crowd grew restless.

Epimetheus perked up. This could be his break. His success might finally gain his fellow gods’ respect. ‘Get to the point, battle boy. How can I do this?’

From the stage, Mars said, “Listen up! The task is simple, yet not easy. Mortal contestants must do a good deed which is, in no way, self-serving.” He laughed. “I mean, how great is that? Self-sacrifice? Who woulda…?”

Protests swelled in the crowd. Peasants threw sandals at the stage. The crowd roiled. Shouting matches erupted. Melees were quelled.

Even the gods murmured. What deity ever acts against self-interest? Certainly no mortal does. People make sacrifices to us! Not us for them. How good can a deed be which fails to swell one’s pride? Nonsense! Who invented this idiocy?

Mars tried soothing the crowd. He laughed at the commotion. “Right! Outrageous! Unheard of… Everyone relax... You asked a challenge… Your gods will join the task. It could be fun…!”

~

Princess Cassandra exited from her motivational seminar, ‘You Gotta Believe!’ Her loyal friend, Phocus, held the tent flap for her. Of the three attendees, only Phocus stayed to the end.

Phocus said, “It’s not that you’re unbelievable, Cassandra. It goes against human nature. We’re a skeptical lot.”

They heard a roar from the amphitheater.

Cassandra said, “Sounds like Mars is tearing it up today. I hope he can find some peace.”

“That’s a beautiful pendant, Cassandra.”

“Thank you, Pho. It’s precious to me. A gift from my father.”

“You want to get some ambrosia? Bacchus set up the refreshment concession. I’d wager they’re out of ice, as usual… Helps him sell more wine…”

She looked at him directly. “Phocus, I know you have romantic feelings for me.”

Phocus balked. He felt exposed. “What? Have I offended you…?”

“No. Not at all. But, I can see we have no future together.”

“You are famous for your predictions, Cassandra. But I must say, right now, I don’t believe you. You’re way off. You know I’m crazy about you. But if friendship is all we can share, I want your friendship. Can’t I be a friend?”

Cassandra looked doubtful. “Of course, Pho, we’re ‘only’ friends. Nothing to panic about. I needed to be honest.”

“Always…”

Phocus lied. He would never stop pursuing her. Cassandra knew this. His adoration was obvious to anyone who knew them. The gods envied his devotion.

The faint odor of patchouli drifted by. His throat closed. Phocus saw her eyes shift. He followed her gaze and saw a hunched, ancient figure watching from a distance. His cloak dragged on the ground. The staff that supported him stood a head taller than himself. The drooping hood darkened his face. He’d seen Epimetheus’ messenger before.

“Excuse me, Cassandra. That man has a message for me.”

Phocus approached the figure and goosebumps formed. Phocus always sensed uncanny energy from him. Barely able to breathe, he waited cautiously.

The messenger moved like a marionette, as if his limbs willed themselves. At any moment they could detach and fall or fly away. Extending an impossibly long, boney finger, he bade Phocus to lean closer.

Phocus complied. “What do you need, old man?”

The spectral figure laughed. His voice echoed as if from within a deep well.

“My master chose you for the Olympic challenge.” Phocus had heard nothing of it. “Do a pure good deed, with no hint of benefit to yourself.”

It sounded simple enough. “Any good deed?” ‘If this works, Cassandra might see me differently.

“Any that benefits you not.”

Phocus said, “Your master, being Epimetheus?”

“Yes!” The figure struck the ground with his staff.

“What if I helped you, or some crone, cross a busy street?”

“Would pride swell your chest?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Then no.”

“Uhm… what if I solve a crime? Help catch a thief?”

“You’d be a hero?”

“I suppose…”

“Then no.”

“Let me work on it. How do I reach your master?”

“Do your deed. You are watched.” The figure vanished. Swirling leaves replaced him.

Phocus lost sight of Cassandra. He assumed she had entered the amphitheater. He saw his old friend Odometer exit. They used to be close, but a distance had lately grown. Phocus hailed him and he approached.

Odometer said, “Have you heard Mars’ challenge?”

“A little. How does it work?”

“No one knows. It makes no sense.”

“If I’m aware of providing goodness, why would I, a mere human, discount the positive feelings arising from this boon? What other motive ever moves me?”

“Exactly!”

“Where are you off to?”

“Into the city. But I’m broke.”

Phocus hailed a chariot. “I’ll cover it and go with you.”

While riding, Odometer said, “Did you hear about our friend Apostrophe?”

“No…”  

“He fell in love with Aphrodite. So far so good. But when he became possessive, she turned him into a punctuation mark.”

“So sad, Od… The gods can be so mercurial…”

They rode in silence for a time.

Odometer said, “I think this challenge shows the gods care for us mortals.”

Phocus shook his head. “That’s a myth… The gods look upon us as little more than pets, of which they are not overly fond.”

“But encouraging good deeds can’t be bad.”

“But who acts without a payoff?” Odometer nodded. “And how?”

They arrived in the city. Phocus paid the driver. He and Odometer parted ways.

Phocus heard Epimetheus’ voice say, ‘Your favor, though good, fails the challenge.’

Phocus spun on his heel, saw no one, and slumped, defeated. There was no recourse. No debate. All joy from reuniting with his friend had been sapped.

Across the square, a stray dog sniffed about. Phocus pulled some jerky out and whistled. The dog ran to him. He spoke softly and reached out to assure the dog. Anticipating, it smelled the food and watched.

Phocus offered the jerky out. In one bite, the dog gulped down and expected more. Phocus crouched to pet it. On being touched, it snarled and bit Phocus’ hand. It ran away barking.

Groaning in pain, Phocus pulled back. He examined the wound in the sunlight. Though bleeding, it was not deep. He washed it in the fountain. The cool water soothed it. He pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped his hand.

‘I fed a stray with my own food and suffered for my generosity. Things could be worse…’       

A woman ran to him. “Are you hurt?”

“Not badly…”

He showed her the wound.

“Let it bleed. Get the poison out. I don’t think that dog is mad. But you never know.”

Others gathered and sympathized with Phocus.

He said, “And after I fed it my snack!”

They listened and comforted him. Their hovering empathy tempted him to expand on the story.

Epimetheus spoke. ‘The dog paid your kindness with violence. But wallowing in other’s pity tainted your pure gesture. Tend to your learning curve, Phocus…’

No temples stood by. Needing privacy, Phocus entered an alley. He fell to his knees and, gazing upward, clasped his hands. Tears ran down his face as he pleaded.

“Epimetheus! What are you doing to me?”

A bird called.

The voice in his head replied. ‘You have an opportunity, Phocus. You will be remembered as long as stories are told.’

Phocus begged. “Forget posterity. Free me from this curse. You reject every action. Why this punishment?”

Crickets sang a fugue.

“Epimetheus! I forgive everyone who ever harmed me.”

Why do you forgive?

“My good deed. Epimetheus! Free me.”

“Only I know of this forgiveness. Is your deed intended for yourself?

“I forgive to be forgiven in kind…”

That’s a simple quid pro quo… or whatever you would call it. No cheating Phocus…

“But you’re the god of excuses…”

The task is the task…”

Feeling hopeless, Phocus stood and left the alley.  

Cassandra called out. “There you are!” She ran to him. “I’ve looked for you everywhere, Pho. You must help me. My pendant is lost!”

Phocus took her hand. “When did you notice it missing?”

“I went to the banquet. Everyone was there. It was beautiful. Delicious! What an exquisite display!” Phocus nodded impatiently. “While eating, I looked down and saw it gone.”

“It must be at the banquet.”

“But I looked. It’s over now. They cleaned up. Everyone is gone.”

Phocus shrugged. Epimetheus’ task no longer mattered. Damn the Olympics! He cared only to help the woman he loved. If anyone thought that self-serving, then so be it!

“Show me…!”

Cassandra took his hand. They ran to the banquet hall. Chains secured the doors. The lights were out.

“Come!” Phocus ran around the corner and into the unlit alley. Shadowy creatures scurried and fled their path. A cat hissed. A pile of rags lay on some refuse. It moved as he ran passed. A woman, reaching out, lay helpless amidst the trash.

The smell of rotting food and death tightened his throat. He found a bin with discarded food and climbed in. Phocus rummaged furiously. He tossed anything unlike Cassandra’s pendant.

He yelled out. “So much waste! Beets! More beets! What Olympic event requires beets? Obviously, none of them!”

Through the darkness and slime, a glimmer caught his eye. Gathering it in cupped hands, he raised the chain with Cassandra’s pendant.

“Got it!”

Cassandra squealed. “You did?”

Phocus held it out. “Careful…”

She held it into the light. “Yes! Phocus! My hero!”

A movement drew their attention. Phocus moved to protect Cassandra.

The woman in the trash groaned and pushed herself up.

Barely audible, she whispered, “Saved me…”

Phocus leaned in. “What did you say, woman?”

“I’m starving. No strength. You threw me food…”

Speechless, Phocus shook his head. He collected other edible morsels and laid them at her feet.

She said, “Bless you…”

Phocus bowed to her. She nodded and bit into a roll.

He looked at himself. “I’m a mess.”

Cassandra said, “Let’s clean you up.” Arm in arm they left the alley and ran to the fountain to wash. She couldn’t resist splashing him until he’d become completely soaked. He pretended he planned to dunk her. She accepted his wet embrace.

Once she stopped laughing, Cassandra said, “I think you misunderstood me earlier, Phocus. I didn’t say ‘I don’t see it happening.’ I said, ‘’I can’t see it not happening.’”

They laughed and kissed. He still didn’t believe her but her course had corrected.

He said, “How about that cup of ambrosia…?”

She nodded and they ran off together.

May 12, 2023 15:15

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7 comments

Bonnie Clarkson
21:06 Jul 29, 2023

Interesting use of names. Good story.

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John K Adams
21:47 Jul 29, 2023

Thanks, Bonnie!

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Chris Miller
22:05 May 17, 2023

Hi John, I got a link to your story through the critique circle email. I enjoyed reading it. Some nice jokes (poor Apostrophe, dispossessed by Aphrodite!) Only one question; why Mars on Olympus and not Ares?

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John K Adams
22:29 May 17, 2023

You got me, Chris. I took some creative license with the god's name for the sake of a pun. Yes, the Greeks called him Ares. I should have had Epimetheus criticize Ares 'putting on airs.' I am told there is no defense for puns, so all I can ask is that you bear with me.

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John K Adams
22:30 May 17, 2023

Thank you, Chris, BTW, for reading and commenting. I always appreciate that people take the time to comment, for good or bad.

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Mary Bendickson
18:55 May 13, 2023

Best unselfish acts when you don't know you are doing them

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John K Adams
22:56 May 13, 2023

Thanks, Mary! Not always easy.

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