“Chasing Persephone” by Natalie Stachowski
“Get back!” Persephone shouted, throwing the sizable porcelain beckoning cat she kept outside her door at the man trying to come up stairwell. Adam, at least that’s what he’d called himself the first time she’d run into him, leapt to the side, almost falling down the stairs as he tripped on his overly-long black khaki pants. The bastard had followed her home; he hadn’t done that in awhile. How he moved so quickly between places she couldn’t understand.
“Shit! I’m just doing my job!” he shouted.
She threw a horseshoe. The latest projectile almost sent him backwards over the railing as he evaded it. His eyes flashed a bright yellow color as he regained his footing. “Give it up! Just invite me in already!”
“There’s no chance of that happening, asshole!”
Persephone looked at the various outdoor decorations she had at her feet and found another beckoning cat. She actually found the damn things quite creepy, but luck was luck, no matter how garish it was. Adam, the self-proclaimed soul collector, certainly didn’t like them. Though she suspected that had more to do with the fact they were being used as weapons than their aesthetic appearance. She launched another one, this time winging Adam in the side of the head.
Adam started up the flight of steps, but then stopped suddenly. “I’ll be back!” he shouted, clutching at the side of his head as he made his way down the stairs. She leaned against the wall, running a trembling hand through her short, shaggy chestnut hair.
The voice made her jump and she looked over to see Helen finish ascending the stairwell at the opposite end of the hallway. Helen had moved into the building two months ago and was an executive at a financial firm; at least that’s what it had sounded like when the woman had described her job. She was almost always dressed in a suit and had wavy, shoulder-length blonde hair that always seemed to sit right.
“Are you all right?” Helen asked. The hue of the other woman’s eyes was a darker shade of blue than usual; it reminded Persephone of the ocean before a storm.
“Oh, I’m fine. Really. Just, heh, one of those days!” The words felt stupid the moment they left her lips.
Helen tilted her head slightly. “I heard you shouting.”
“It was nothing. Just some pesky kid that keeps trying to steal my, uh,” Persephone looked down at the arrangement of horseshoes; potted clovers, many bearing four leaves; beckoning cats, and even a dream catcher, that guarded her entry way. “Ornaments.”
Helen arched an eyebrow and opened her mouth but there was a buzzing sound and they both checked their pockets. Helen produced a bright purple phone from her suit jacket. “I need to take this call, but do you want to come over and talk? I’ll make us a drink.”
Persephone’s heart fluttered for a moment in her chest. She’d been over to Helen’s a couple of times now recently, though nothing had happened other than dinner. She couldn’t tell if the woman was just being a kindly neighbor taking pity on a crazy person or had more in mind.
“I can’t. Sorry. Maybe another time?”
Helen looked up from her phone and smiled slightly. “Another time then.”
Persephone slunk into her apartment, closing the door behind her and triple-checking the locks. Moving to the kitchen she poured herself a glass of water and popped some of the medication that was, allegedly, supposed to help her through these episodes.
“You sure you won’t come have lunch with us?” one of her co-workers, Bella, asked.
“No, but thank you for the invitation,” Persephone replied, forcing a smile.
Bella and a woman she didn’t recognize returned the smile and started to walk down the hall towards the break room.
“She’s weird,” she heard the stranger attempt to whisper.
“Persephone? Yeah, she was always a little odd. But she was in a car accident last year, nearly died, think it screwed up her head more,” Bella replied, also not understanding the concept of whispering.
Persephone felt a slight pang of dismay, but pushed it aside and turned another page in her book. She had started doing research on soul collectors, to the dismay of her therapist. These collectors were in every culture, every religion, in some form or another, existing for the sole purpose of collecting the souls of the dead on behalf of Death. One of the various “experts” she’d consulted thought that Persephone cheated Death by surviving the car accident and now Death was looking to collect. According to the book, errant souls couldn’t simply be snatched up. Something about souls needing to be at peace before departing? It was why Adam always insisted she invite him into her home. Welcoming Death, or its minions, somehow meant the soul was at peace? It didn’t make any sense to her to say the least.
The phone at her desk rang. It was the receptionist. “Hey! There’s a delivery down here for you, Persephone!”
“Thanks, I’ll be right there.”
She exited her cubicle and made her way to the elevator bank, riding down to the lobby. The young brunette who manned the desk was babbling away on the phone and pointed at a man in grey coveralls who stood with his back to her, a bouquet of assorted flowers in his hands. As Persephone approached he turned around, smiling, and she stopped in her tracks. It was Adam. He reached to his belt and she stepped back, but he only produced an electronic pad. “Can I get your signature please?”
Persephone stared at him.
He smirked. “You’re not exactly signing your soul over here. They’re just flowers. Do you want them or not?”
“I’m not signing anything for you! You’re trying to kill me!”
“Come now. Don’t be rude. People will stare.”
“What are you doing here?!” she hissed.
“How did you get in here?”
“The receptionist. If you’d just come with me, we’ll go have a chat and I’ll put you at ease by taking you where you rightly belong.”
“I’m not dead!”
“No. But you should be. And I’m running out of time to collect. If that happens? We’re both in trouble.”
Persephone clenched her fists. “There’s nothing worse than dying so I can’t say I have much to lose.”
“It can be worse, trust me. Have you heard of the torments of Tartarus? Sisyphus is still trying to push that boulder up a mountain side. Do you really want to end up like that? Maybe you’d end up picking flowers for all eternity? Would that suit you?”
Anger overwhelmed her and she punched him square in the nose.
After Persephone talked with the police her boss had been accommodating and let her go home. Adam hadn’t even denied the harassment charges she’d pressed against him. He watched her, an obnoxious smirk plastered on his face, even as he’d been hauled off by the cops. All she wanted to do was lock herself away and watch TV, possibly with a pint of ice cream.
Entering her apartment she set her bulging plastic bags on the counter and began to empty them. Soon the counter bore candles of various sizes; holy water; a cross; more four-leaf clovers; and a couple canisters of pepper spray. Persephone set the candles near the windows, a couple on the small dining room table, and lit them. The woman she had purchased them from said the scent emitted by the wax would drive off any evil spirits. A few moments later a somewhat pleasing smell began to fill the apartment and she decided to go take a shower.
Persephone was rinsing her hair when she heard the shrill beep on the smoke detector and poked her head out from behind the shower curtain to see tendrils of smoke swirling. Grabbing a robe she leapt out of the shower and hurried into the living room. Nothing was actually on fire, but the candles were smoldering and the smell had gone from mildly pleasant to downright foul. She opened two windows and the sliding glass door to the patio before she began to attempt to poke at the smoke detector with the handle of a spatula. Just as she managed to hit the reset button there was a knock at the door. Coughing violently, Persephone opened the door and found herself face-to-face with Helen.
Helen wrinkled her nose and began waving her hand in front of her face. “Are you okay? I heard your smoke detector going off for quite awhile.”
Persephone coughed again and pulled her robe tighter around her. “Everything’s fine. My, uh, meditation candles just got a bit out of control.”
“That smell is supposed to be soothing?”
Helen raised an eyebrow.
“I was told they were medicinal.”
“I’d suggest telling your witch doctor that they’re more likely to kill you than cure you,” Helen said with a chuckle. “Do you want some help cleaning up?”
Persephone touched at her damp hair. “The place is a mess, I don’t really think…”
“You don’t have to take on the burdens of the world yourself, you know. Go finish getting dressed and I’ll start taking care of this.”
Perhaps it was the way Helen was looking at her, or maybe it was the earnest tone in her voice, but after all that had happened the idea of not having to deal with everything on her own was appealing.
Helen smiled. “Okay, what?”
“Okay, you can help.”
The blonde woman looked at her expectantly from across the threshold.
Persephone smiled. “Come in, please! I’ll go change and be back out in a minute. Just don’t, just don’t look under the couch. Or open any closets.”
A couple of days after the almost apartment fire Persephone made a trip to the grocery store after work. She wandered up and down the fluorescent lit aisles, plastic basket in hand, looking for peanut butter. She could never remember where it was kept and just when she seemed to be getting her bearings the store would move the items around again. She was going to attempt to bake cookies to show her appreciation for Helen helping her clean up the apartment. Persephone narrowly dodged an old woman who barreled down the aisle with a bursting shopping cart. She checked her basket to make sure the eggs hadn’t broken and then resumed her search for the elusive peanut spread. Did Helen even like peanut butter? What if she was allergic? Persephone turned the corner to head down the next corridor of food and walked right into someone.
She rubbed at her face. “I’m so sorry!”
“Oh, it’s fine, don’t fret.”
She pulled her hand away from her eyes and found herself staring right at Adam, dressed as an employee in an orange and brown apron.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
Persephone took a step back, holding her basket in front of her like a shield.
“I know I’ve been neglecting you. I had a few things to tend to so I don’t fall any further behind with my collection efforts. See what you’re doing to me? I’m so overtaxed right now.”
“Would you like me to help you with your basket?”
There was the squeak of cart wheels behind Adam and the old woman who was treating the store like a stock car race brought her cart to a halt with a squeal.
“Excuse me, young man, could you help me get the prunes off the shelf?”
“I’m helping someone else,” he snapped, not taking his eyes off of Persephone.
The old woman’s watery eyes suddenly looked a bit more focused as her wrinkled features became pinched. “How rude! What’s your name? I’m going to talk to a manager.”
He looked down at the grey-haired woman, scowling. “Take your adult diapers and go then, woman.”
Adam turned to face Persephone again and then let out a loud yelp as the tiny woman rammed her hefty cart into his backside. “What the fuck!?”
The feisty customer hit him again, sending him stumbling to a shelf full of assorted jars of fruit. Gritting her teeth, Persephone swung her basket and cracked Adam across the face with it before she dropped it and ran. Her heart was pounding as she knocked aside patrons to get out the automatic doors and to her car. It took a couple of tries to get the key in the ignition, then the car came to life and she peeled out of the parking lot.
The drive home from the store didn’t take more than ten minutes and she was grateful to find a parking spot on her street right next to her building. Her hands shook as she put the parking brake on and climbed out of the car, locking it behind her. The streetlights went out, plunging her into darkness, and sending a chill up her spine.
“You’re only making this harder on yourself, Persephone. Why don’t we just talk for a bit? Inside.”
She spun around to find Adam standing there, no longer in his apron. Persephone bolted forward, clearing the distance between the curb and the stairs quickly. She raced up the three flights of steps, almost tripped over a beckoning cat in her doorway, jammed her key in the lock, and turned it. Nothing. It was the wrong key! Fumbling for the correct one, she glanced over to see Adam reach the landing, his yellow eyes burning. He leapt up two steps, but stopped again, glowering at her before disappearing back down the stairwell. Persephone shuddered and slid the proper key into the lock.
“More ruffians accosting your clovers?” came Helen’s voice from behind her.
Persephone turned around to face her visitor. “Yeah.”
Helen frowned. “Bullshit.”
“I-well, what are you doing home?” Persephone demanded harshly. “Shouldn’t you be at your office?”
“It’s almost seven o’clock, I think I’m allowed to be home by now.”
Persephone’s face burned. “Oh.”
“You’re coming over and you’re going to tell me what’s going on.”
One drink had turned into two, then three, and that had led to dinner, as Persephone told Helen the story of the last year or so. At first she’d been reluctant, but by the end of the second martini she hadn’t been able to shut up.
“You sure you don’t want me to help clean up?” she asked.
“I have a dishwasher, Persephone. Finish your drink and relax.”
Persephone rested her chin on her forearms as she toyed with the stem of her martini glass. “I know I’m crazy. I’m sorry you had to hear about it.”
“I did ask what was wrong, remember? I don’t think you’re crazier than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Persephone chuckled. “You still think I’m crazy though.”
Helen continued to rinse a plate off in the sink. “I think you’re incredibly brave.”
She took another sip from her drink. Vodka was tasty. “Brave?”
“Not many people I know would so blatantly defy the whims of Death. From everything I’ve ever heard Death is not an entity you want to piss off. I admire your boldness. You’re more formidable then you give yourself credit for.”
“I’m not pissing off Death. I’m pissing off one of his minions. Minions are okay to annoy, right? Besides, how much worse can it get? If I’m dead, I’m dead, right?”
“You’ve read Dante’s Inferno, right?”
“Psssh. That’s Hell, isn’t it? Dying doesn’t always mean going to Hell. I’m not going to Hell. At least I hope not. Wait, do you think I’m going to Hell?”
Helen paused, looking thoughtful. “No. I don’t think you’ll be going to Hell.”
Persephone took another sip of her beverage. “Death isn’t evil. I just don’t feel like going to the great beyond yet. The finality of it all scares me. Not being able to travel, to see things, to just be done. I’d still like to get a kitten.”
Helen grinned as she put another plate in the dishwasher. “You’re avoiding Death so you can get a kitten?”
“Well, yes. I mean, no.” She giggled in spite of herself.
Helen rejoined Persephone at the small dining room table, resting her perfect chin in the palm of her perfect hand. God, the woman was lovely.
“You have really pretty eyes,” Persephone blurted out, finishing her drink.
Helen blinked at her, her brow furrowing slightly. “Oh, really?”
“Yep. I probably shouldn’t have said that.” Persephone started to push back her chair. “I should go.”
She felt Helen’s cool hand close on her wrist. “Why do you think that?”
“I’m babbling. Babbling gets me into trouble.”
“I like it when you babble.”
Persephone smiled crookedly. “You’re too nice. And too pretty. No, beautiful! See, there I go again. Babbling.”
“Let me see if I can’t help you with that,” Helen said, leaning forward and kissing Persephone gently on the lips.
The following day work went by quickly, so blessedly quickly, despite the mild hangover and sleep deprivation Persephone was feeling. Nothing could spoil the good mood she was in, not spilling half of her coffee all over her desk, not even having her project deadline being bumped up by two weeks. The thought of Helen kept her spirits aloft regardless of what was happening. She hadn’t even thought about death, or Adam, till she got home and found herself staring him down outside her door. All of her various good-luck ornaments were strewn up and down the hall, some in pieces.
“I smartened up,” he said with a smile.
Persephone felt her stomach clench. She thought she might throw up.
“I’m trying to do this the easy way, you know? We’re not supposed to cause the vessel any harm what-so-ever. But if you say no again, I don’t think I have any choice. I’m on a deadline.”
Persephone swallowed and then she extended her right hand to give him a one-fingered salute.
Adam frowned and he reached into his pockets and pulled out a small wax doll, pieces of brown hair stuck to what she presumed was its head, and a sizable needle. He jammed the long thin piece of metal into the doll’s leg and Persephone fell to the steps clutching at her own appendage as a pain rippled through it. She looked up to see Adam had moved closer, the needle hovering over the doll’s mid-section.
Adam went chalk white and tried to take a step forward, but Persephone saw him pulled back by the shoulder and slammed against her door. She watched as Helen grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground with one hand.
“I tried to call you, boss! If you let me explain…”
“What did I tell you?” Helen asked.
“Y-you said that I was out of time.”
“What else did I say?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“What else did I say!?”
“You said you’d h-handle it…”
“So, if I said all that, why have you STILL been trying to do collect her!?”
“Spit it out!”
“I-I-I wanted to show you I could do it…”
“You fool! The minute I set foot on the mortal plane you were done! You’ve failed multiple times, with multiple souls, now! And don’t even get me started on you violating the vessel, you little worm! Do you think I have time to collect all of the deceased myself!? Do you think I have time to be looking over my employees’ shoulders constantly? I have things that I need to do! And if you can’t do it, I will find someone else who can!”
Helen pulled him close so they were nose-to-nose. “Sorry isn’t good enough.”
Adam let out a yelp and disappeared in a swirl of inky black. Persephone stared openmouthed at the space Adam had occupied and then looked at Helen; the finely manicured eyebrows were knotted and her eyes were a deep indigo color.
“Are you all right?” Helen asked.
She tentatively flexed her leg, sore, but not unbearable, and nodded. Helen picked up the doll and mumbled something and the wax representation vanished, causing Persephone to shudder as a wave of cold passed over her.
The blonde woman offered her a hand. “We need to talk.”
After vomiting profusely in Helen’s bathroom, Persephone needed almost a half-hour to find words. And when Persephone had found the strength to speak she’d only requested water before falling silent again. Helen sat across from her at the dining room table, sipping a martini.
Persephone had buried her face in her arms on the table. “Are you…?”
“Are you really Death?”
There was a pause, the gentle clink of a glass being set on the table. “I am.”
“And I’m supposed to be dead?”
“So why aren’t I yet?”
Another pause, the sound of liquid being sipped. “I was curious.”
“It’s not often that those who cheat me survive for long. Usually the soul collectors are a bit more diligent. I was wondering exactly why you were so elusive, other than the fact I clearly had hired someone less than competent. I figured I’d ascertain exactly what was happening and then just fetch you myself. After completing employee evaluations, that is.”
Persephone sighed again. “You, you went through all that trouble of being friendly just so you could kill me?! Chatting with me? Inviting me over? We kissed!”
“Was it so awful?”
She blushed, grateful Helen, Death, couldn’t see her face. “Why didn’t you just take me and be done?”
“I like you.”
“Stop it. Just put me out of my misery.”
“The fact I haven’t shuffled you off the mortal coil yet should be a clue that I think highly of you.”
Persephone peered up at Helen. “Yes, but if you kill me, don’t you still get to keep me anyway?”
“I do, but relationships are built on compromise. You’ve made it clear you’d like to keep living and, as someone hoping to continue seeing you, I need to take that into consideration. If that’s something you’re interested in, that is, seeing me.”
Persephone sat up and bit her lip. “I don’t know.”
Helen’s shoulders slumped slightly. “I suppose that’s understandable.”
“Are you going to kill me if I say no?”
Helen smiled, though her eyes bore a hint of sadness. “Of course not. We’ll have to come to an understanding still, but no. This is my own fault. I should have intervened sooner with the collector. I just wanted to be sure, of you and how I felt. Not every day I develop an infatuation.”
Persephone watched Helen look away and began to fiddle absently with the stem of her martini glass. The sight tugged at her heartstrings more than slightly. “What’s your proposed compromise?”
“I need another soul collector. Someone who’s not afraid of death, someone who’s not afraid to face difficult things. If you do that, I think it’s safe to say I can allow you go on living with a minimal conflict of interests, whatever you decide.”
They stared at each other across the table. If not for the fact she’d vaporized a man out-of-existence, and that she was the mortal embodiment of Death, Persephone would have thought of her only as Helen: a person who had been nothing but kind, someone who wanted her even when she was at her worst. Nothing else in her life had been a constant since the accident; nothing except, well, Death.
Helen looked away again, but this time Persephone reached out, hand trembling ever so slightly, and allowed it to rest on Helen’s cold one. “I think I can live with that.”
About the Author
Natalie Stachowski is an avid gamer, writer, and reader when not toiling in a cubicle to pay the bills. Born and raised in a small town outside of Buffalo, NY, work has taken her to the west coast where she now enjoys a significant amount of sunshine, and far less snow, residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The curious can find her rambling over on Twitter at the handle stumpynat discussing a range of topics from the latest video game to the joys of commuting.