Rivers of the Dead: Book One

1~7 ~ The Signs

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.

"Yeah."

"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.

"What?"

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?"

"Yes?"

"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.


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