I whimpered in protest. “Must you sneak up on me while I’m vomiting?”
The headless ghost proffered his magic sphere.
“Some toilet paper would be more helpful,” I said.
Agamethus reached for the roll, but his ethereal fingers went right through the tissue. Odd that he could hold a Magic 8 Ball and not a roll of toilet paper. Perhaps our hosts had not sprung for the extra-soft two-ply ghost-friendly Charmin.
I took the ball. Without much conviction, I asked, “What do you want, Agamethus?”
The answer floated up through the dark liquid: WE CANNOT REMAIN.
I groaned. “Not another warning of doom. Who’s we? Remain where?”
I shook the ball once more. It provided the answer OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD.
I put the Magic 8 Ball back in Agamethus’s hands, which was like pressing against the wind from a moving vehicle. “I can’t play guessing games right now.”
He did not have a face, but his posture seemed forlorn. The blood from his severed neck trickled sluggishly down his tunic. I imagined Trophonius’s head transposed on his body—my son’s agonized voice crying to the heavens, Take me instead! Save him, Father, please!
This blended with the face of Commodus, staring at me, wounded and betrayed as his carotid pulse hammered against my hands. You. Blessed. Me.
I sobbed and hugged the commode—the only thing in the universe that wasn’t spinning. Was there anyone I hadn’t betrayed and disappointed? Any relationship I hadn’t destroyed?
After a miserable eternity in my private toilet-verse, a voice spoke behind me. “Hey.”
I blinked away my tears. Agamethus was gone. In his place, leaning against the sink, was Josephine. She offered me a fresh roll of toilet paper.
I sniffled weakly. “Are you supposed to be in the men’s room?”
She laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time, but our bathrooms are gender neutral here.”
I wiped my face and clothes. I didn’t accomplish much beyond toilet-papering myself.
Josephine helped me into a sitting position on the toilet. She assured me this was better than hugging it, though at the moment I saw little difference.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
Not having any concerns about my dignity, I told her.
Josephine pulled a cloth from her coverall pocket. She wet it at the sink and began cleaning the sides of my face, getting the places I’d missed. She treated me as if I were her seven-year-old Georgie, or one of her mechanical crossbow turrets—something precious but high maintenance. “I’m not going to judge you, Sunny. I’ve done a few bad things in my time.”
I studied her square-jawed face, the metallic sheen of her gray hair against her dark skin. She seemed so gentle and affable, the same way I thought of Festus the dragon, yet at times I had to step back and remember, Oh, right, this is a giant fire-breathing death machine.
“Leo mentioned gangsters,” I recalled. “Al Capone?”
Josephine smirked. “Yep, Al. And Diamond Joe. And Papa Johnny. I knew ’em all. I was Al’s—what would you call it?—liaison to the African American bootleggers.”
Despite my dour mood, I couldn’t help feeling a spark of fascination. The Jazz Age had been one of my favorites because…well, jazz. “For a woman in the 1920s, that’s impressive.”
“The thing is,” Jo said, “they never knew I was a woman.”
I had a sudden image of Josephine in black leather shoes with spats, a pinstripe suit, a diamond-studded tie pin, and a black fedora, her submachine gun, Little Bertha, propped against her shoulder. “I see.”
“They called me Big Jo.” She gazed at the wall. Perhaps it was just my state of mind, but I imagined her as Commodus, throwing a pitcher so hard it cracked the tiles. “That lifestyle…it was intoxicating, dangerous. It took me to a dark place, almost destroyed me. Then Artemis found me and offered me a way out.”
I remembered Hemithea and her sister Parthenos launching themselves over a cliff, in a time when women’s lives were more expendable than jars of wine. “My sister has saved many young women from horrible situations.”
“Yes, she has.” Jo smiled wistfully. “And then Emmie saved my life again.”
“You two could still be immortal,” I grumbled. “You could have youth, power, eternal life—”
“We could,” Josephine agreed. “But then we wouldn’t have had the past few decades of growing old together. We’ve had a good life here. We’ve saved a lot of demigods and other outcasts—raised them at the Waystation, let them go to school and have a more or less normal childhood, then sent them out into the world as adults with the skills they needed to survive.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand. There’s no comparison between that and immortality.”
Josephine shrugged. “It’s okay if you don’t get it. But I want you to know, Emmie didn’t give up your divine gift lightly. After sixty-odd years together with the Hunters, we discovered something. It’s not how long you live that matters. It’s what you live for.”
I frowned. That was a very ungodly way of thinking—as if you could have immortality or meaning, but not both.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Are you trying to convince me that I should stay as…as this abomination?” I gestured at my pathetic mortal body.
“I’m not telling you what to do. But those folks out there—Leo, Calypso, Meg—they need you. They’re counting on you. Emmie and I are, too, to get our daughter back. You don’t have to be a god. Just do your best for your friends.”
Jo chuckled. “Once upon a time, that kind of talk would’ve made me throw up too. I thought friendship was a trap. Life was every woman for herself. But when I joined the Hunters, Lady Britomartis told me something. You know how she first became a goddess?”
I thought for a moment. “She was a young maiden, running to escape the king of Crete. To hide, she jumped in a fishing net in the harbor, didn’t she? Instead of drowning, she was transformed.”
“Right.” Jo intertwined her fingers like a cat’s cradle. “Nets can be traps. But they can also be safety nets. You just have to know when to jump in.”
I stared at her. I waited for a moment of revelation when everything would make sense and my spirits would be lifted.
“Sorry,” I said at last. “I have no idea what that means.”
“That’s okay.” She offered me a hand. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I’d like a good long sleep before our trip tomorrow.”
Jo grinned her affable killing machine smile. “Oh, no. No sleep yet. You’ve got afternoon chores, my friend.”
Pedaling in style
Leg irons are fashionable
Cue the screaming god
AT LEAST I DIDN’T have to clean toilets.
I spent the afternoon in the griffin roost, playing music for Heloise to keep her calm while she laid her egg. She enjoyed Adele and Joni Mitchell, which strained my human vocal cords considerably, but she had no use for my impersonation of Elvis Presley. Griffin musical tastes are a mystery.