He set Fragile Things down on his stomach. The beach umbrella which had provided ample shade when they arrived at the beach at 10 o’clock that morning, was now only shielding his face from the sun’s intense summer rays. He worried for a minute that the book would leave a pale rectangular shape on his stomach, but the heat had soaked up any extra energy that would have gone toward relocating the beach blanket into the hexagon shadow. Staring up at the sky, eyelids growing heavier he felt heavy and the salt and sweat on his skin left a sticky residue all over his body that wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
What an amazing shade of blue, he thought.
And it was true. The afternoon sky was cloudless and pure. The azure canvas above made the rainbow colors of the umbrella seem washed out in comparison. He lay there letting the warmth of the day cover him like a blanket and listened to the waves crash along the shore. It seemed to him that in between every third wave the ocean stilled. Only for a millisecond before resuming, and during that silence the sky pulsated, shifting the color to be even more rich and deep than the shade before.
When he opened his eyes it felt like he was the sun. His organs and blood felt hot. He sat up, knocking his book into the sand and losing the page.
“How was your nap, Teddy?” asked his girlfriend’s brother, Asher.
“Good, and Ted is fine. Throw me a water.”
The cooler was old and the sound of melted ice water sloshed around as Asher dug past the beer to the water bottles on the bottom. He closed the lid a bit too hard and tossed the plastic bottle.
“Heads up, Teddy.”
Without breaking his gaze away from the pristine water, Ted raised his right hand and caught it. He twisted the cap off and downed the entire thing without taking a break. It did little to help the internal heat he could feel swirling around his insides.
“Where’s Ethel?” he asked.
Asher threw his pale thumb over his red shoulder, “She went with our parents to the Helios festival on the boardwalk. You know how religious they are. She didn’t think you’d want to come.”
He did know how religious she was. The thought of her golden ink tattoos covering every inch of her body with symbols of the gods made him even hotter. When they met, he had never before seen a girl with so much ink. Instantly, he had wanted to be the only one that got to see the rest hidden away beneath her clothes. She was right though. He had gotten the obligatory golden sun tattoo on his twelfth birthday, a tradition all members of the church had been doing for as long as there had been two suns in the sky. Which as far as he knew was forever. Heretical historians had begun saying differently, but they were to be burned at sunriset to close the festival.
He pushed himself up and sand rained down onto his toes and book. He walked into the rolling waves. The water felt ice cold as it swirled around his legs, bits of shells hit the back of his legs as the water was pulled back into the ocean. He went deeper and deeper, away from the families throwing beach balls and the teenagers surfing the waves, until he could just barely feel the bottom with his toes. He lay back and enjoyed the feeling of weightlessness.
A perfect circle, forty feet across began to form. The water darkened until the blue was indistinguishable from black, and the man floating with his face toward the sky did not notice as other swimmers began to flee. The salt water in his ears muffled their screams to get out.
The water suddenly felt colder under Ted. The heat of the shoreline sounded good and he rolled off his back to begin the swim back to shore. There was a pull on his ankle and water engulfed his head. The current swirled and a depression formed over the black water. Those on the shore and in the shallows watched as a head of blonde hair could be seen whipping around the circle before disappearing and reappearing on the other side. The golden head was seen once more before the waters opened and the ocean floor was below, dry as a bone. Ted landed roughly and the waters closed overhead. The roar of thousands of gallons of water pouring back to fill the void was deafening.
The view from the shore returned to normal. Blue waters stretched to the horizon and the waves took up their pattern once more. A few dolphins could be seen breaching the surface not too far off from where the blonde haired man had been.
Below Ted emptied his stomach onto the sandy floor of a dome encased in salt water. He sat on a rock and held his throbbing head. Eventually, his mind cleared enough to come to terms with what had happened. He was on the seafloor. There was air that he could breathe. He was alive. He stood on shaky legs and walked to the edge of the half sphere where the air ended and the water began. A crab scuttled sideways in and out of a patch of seaweed. He reached forward to push his way into the water and swim up, but he did not feel water. He felt a coldness and a sorrow so deep it made a solid wall. Quickly, he pulled his hand back. Someone would come for him.
Rescue boats were immediately called to the location where the golden haired man had drowned. Divers watched footage from a tourist’s cell phone before they strapped on their oxygen tanks. Scientists assured them that a whirlpool like that was a one in a billion chance fluke. Then they jumped in. The seafloor was calm. A crab scuttled sideways in and out of a patch of seaweed, but there was no body to be recovered.
Ted watched as the divers swam above him. He held his arms up ready for a rope to be lowered and pulled out of this underwater prison, but the eyes behind the masks swept past him as if he wasn’t there. His heart raced as they swam back up toward the sun. Ice raced up his spine as the boat's engines churned and carried his rescuers away.
A howling sound filled the dome. Ted looked around and noticed a tunnel where there had not been one before. He walked until the water ended and sand began as the tunnel sloped under the shore. The light was dim and gray. He tripped and fell twice before the tunnel ended in a cave lit by glowing fungi.
A corpse sat on a throne looking down on the man that had stumbled in. The flesh on his face flaked as a small smile parted the lips to show black gums and rotting teeth. He had been waiting so very long.
“Bring him to me,” rasped the corpse. Two shadows peeled themselves off the rocky wall and looped their transparent arms through those of the man. They dragged him to the throne and pulled out his right hand.
Ted’s heartbeat filled his ears as he struggled to free himself. A terror he had never known before seized him when the corpse in front of him moved. Its left arm cracked like stone as it lifted from the armrest of the chair made of silver. When the bony palm touched his hand he yelled, but it was silent. Where the flesh of the man and the corpse touched began to burn white hot, and when the corpse moved his hand away a scar was left where once there had been a golden tattoo of the sun. The shadows dissipated and Ted dropped to his knees.
“Another worshiper of Helios,” spat the corpse. But now his skin seemed fuller and a crown made of shadows spun around his head.
“Sunlight has never reached this place. Not even after Helios murdered my youngest brother. Two suns do little beneath the dirt.” The god stared at the man, jealousy in his black eyes.
“Where are my worshippers?” The cave shook as he yelled. “Where are my temples?”
The corpse sat there and breathed in long and deep. Each breath seemed to enlarge him, inflate the muscles along his arms and legs.
“You’re afraid, sun worshiper. It tastes like ambrosia.” A split tongue snaked out of his mouth. Two blue lips came together in a perfect circle. A whistle rang out loud enough to wake the dead. The fungi seemed to shrink, bringing more darkness, as the whistle echoed down the tunnel.
A moan sounded from the dark burrow behind Ted. He looked although he was afraid to turn away from the angry god. Something large was walking through the darkness. Ted watched as a huge man entered the cave. His white robes were in tatters and his flesh was gray as a cliff. Golden irises were ringed in blood red eyes. Bits of skull shown white on the left side of the decaying face.
“Zeus, my little brother, my dead slave. This man is a worshiper of Helios.”
As soon as the word Helios left his mouth the king of the gods roared. Lightning flashed around the cave and concentrated itself in his hand. He threw it at Ted who leapt out of the way. The air crackled. The spear of white hot energy rebounded off the rock and back to its owner. The god charged at Ted, who raised his fists to defend himself. Before the god could stop his run Ted put all his strength into one punch. He landed blow after blow into cold, clammy skin. The king of the gods absorbed each blow, not releasing a sound. The king waited.
Exhausted muscles tightened for one more hit, but it was too slow. Zeus reached up and grabbed Ted’s fist in his own, crushing the small bones with ease. With his other ax sized hand he struck the sun worshiper square in the gut. The man collapsed and gasped for air as the god loomed over him. The lightning rod grew in his fist and he lunged forward to plunge it into Ted’s heart.
It couldn’t be called pain, but there was no other word in Ted’s language to describe it. Hades' face appeared above him, now blue and healed of any breaks in the flesh.
The coast guard was called when the body of a man washed up on shore. An ambulance arrived when a pulse was felt. The sun was low in the sky when the girlfriend of the man arrived at the shore. Tears stained her ceremonial robes and sunlight glinted off of both the salt drops and the golden ink she wore.
She squeezed his hand as they loaded him onto the gurney, and he squeezed back. His eyes fluttered open and he smiled.
He refused the ambulance ride despite everyone’s protests.
“All I want is to watch the sunriset with you, Ethel,” the man said. She smiled and even more tears streamed down her face. They walked hand in hand to the festival.
Three men were tied to a stake. Crowds gathered on the boardwalk as the sun in the west lowered and the sky in the east began to lighten. At sunriset the heretics were to be burned. Ethel bounced with excitement. She looked from the three criminals up to the man she clung to. The salt breeze stirred his yellow hair. She had been blessed today to get him back. She sent a silent prayer up to Helios. Then she lifted his hand to kiss it.
“What happened to your sun tattoo?” she asked, turning the man’s hand over. A wicked scar that resembled a skeleton’s hand marred the young flesh.
“Shh,” he put a finger to his lips. “It’s about to start.”
The western sky was a brilliant watercolor painting of deep pinks and reds. The eastern sky was orange and peach and yellow. As one orb set the other rose. A torch was lit by the high priestess and cheers went up from the crowd as she caught the wood pile underneath the men on fire.
The man with the scar where once there had been a golden tattoo of the sun walked forward. He pushed past the crowd and neared the flames. Climbing into the fire, screams behind him, he ripped the bindings off the men. He whispered something into each of their ears. Through the flames each could be seen nodding their head before kneeling. The fire grew hotter and hotter. The crowd began to back away. A brilliant gust of wind burst forth from the center of the fire and blew the flames outward. Hot embers rained down on those in the crowd that were too close. The golden robes of the high priestess burst into flames and soon engulfed her entire body. The three men clambered down the wood pile unscathed. On each of their foreheads was a new tattoo in deep red ink of a three headed beast.The man with the golden hair looked down on the scene from atop the smoldering wood pile. He exhaled a satisfied breath and bent down to collect red hot embers from which he began to form a crown.