Cassandra Elizabeth Never sat in the belly of the catacombs, knees tucked to chest and chin tucked to knees. The catacombs were dark. Howls rebounded off the walls, whispers snaked along the floors. Sound was thrown about from miles away and moments away. To her dismay, the catacombs were not so welcoming as the Underworld had been. The whole and fractured skulls embedded in the walls appraised her as she and Aelita wandered deeper into the tombs.
Though the voices were many, Aelita and Cass had only passed a spirit once or twice. The sharp turns and sudden drops in the floor were intentional. This was the sound and serpentine hiding space for any spirit who really did not wish to be found, and the catacombs did an excellent job of ensuring this.
Aelita had doffed her disguise. Cass could not determine if the lessened luminosity of her companion was due in part to the gloominess of their surroundings, or if it was reflective of Aelita's deception. She did not glow as brightly. The angel looked almost human in the shadows. Her hair hung in nice, drooping curls. Any one in mortal Poe County might have assumed she was simply a preternaturally tall mortal girl.
Poe County. Cass ached, picturing the trees, growing barer by the day. She imagined the dynamic smells of living in the human world. The flux of nature as one morning begged for burrowing deeper in blankets, while the next threw her out to the porch for fresh air. The uncertainty standing at the edge of the driveway: would today be the day she died? A morbid thought for a young woman, but one so ever-persistent in her mind that she could not remember a time she wasn't thinking it.
Standing at the edge of the driveway. Books in bag, shoes tied and double knotted. Ready to head to the library. She would kiss her husband, walk to work, a job she loved.
Sit in misery. In terror. All around her, copy machines humming gently. Quiet voices in the aisles. Brushing of page against page. Mildly intrusive ringing phones. Nothing amiss, nothing wrong. And yet, in the mind of this troubled librarian, chaos. She would stiffen as that familiar roiling began in her stomach. It felt like waves, rushing up over her whole body. Something's coming, something's coming, something's coming. All around, happy people wandered on, oblivious. And inside Cass, the waves grew to storms. Hands going numb. A heart attack? Breathing going rapid, breaths coming shallow. Lungs collapsing? Corners of vision ebbing to blurriness. Death, imminent? Acutely, she had been aware that nothing, truly nothing, was wrong. But in this growing hurricane of isolation and panic, she was just as acutely aware that something, truly everything, was wrong.
She would ride it through. She was a glass bottle of soda, shaken to the point of calamity, but stuck inside. Bubbling, fizzing, coming undone. The moments of waiting for all to settle lasted years, decades. Then, vision returned and feeling came back to her hands. She would breathe deeply. Reach for the mouse on the computer. It had been only minutes.
The copy machines hummed. The pages brushed each other. The people conversed.
It was such a lonely trip to take every other moment. Alone in a world full of other people, just as alive but doing it so much better. And it was lonely to fall back into the dizzy, dark cyclone of senseless worry. It was lonely to emerge into this world once again. It was lonely to go home and kiss a husband who could not really ever understand, who could not have all that he wanted from the world, because of her. It was lonely to try and rationalize her way to peace when everywhere she turned to force logic, ghosts lingered. You're a healthy young woman, you have a strong and wonderful body. But, so did her mother until a sudden discovery of rapidly spreading cancer had given her weeks. You have a capable, intelligent brain, you are unique and have strength. Which did not matter when another person in another car plowed unfortunately into the tiny Sedan at much too fast a speed. You are surrounded by people who love you and care for you! And that seemed somewhat pointless as people aimed to kill, as people threw rocks through windows, as people ran rampant and untrustable in violence and revenge all over this planet -
"Cass?" Aelita's even voice broke into the reverie. "What are you thinking about?"
Cass buried her face further into the hard rounded bones of her kneecaps. "A chef's salad of things. This, that. The other."
It was easy for her to make vows as a spirit. When she got home, she would do it all differently. She'd try something new every day, she'd do all the things that would ordinarily send her running in the other direction.
"I wonder what it will be like when I'm home. If I'll be the same as I've always been." The idea of waking up in her body and welcoming bursts of Earthside air into her lungs, a scene she imagined frequently since beginning this journey, always felt triumphant and exciting. The next moments sure to follow saw Cass drifting around her home, ghosting to work, haunting the stacks of books. A beating heart might not alter her that much, after all.
Travis managed to breeze past Adair. He saw a creature materialize in front of the angel as he left, sallow complexion and pointed horns in his periphery.
Travis stumbled into the car, foot on the gas as he struggled to shut the door. Bearing in mind he had no idea what first step to take, he again took a page out of Cass's book. The car swung into traffic and hit the curb slightly as Travis eagerly approached the Poe County Library. The invoices had begun to dry and luckily not much of the ink had run. Travis had limited experience with computers. He spent a lot of time staring over students' shoulders as they gave him slow tutorials on how to operate the online classroom. Luckily, as it was a Saturday, he recognized some students from the community college gathered around laptops working on projects.
He ran over, garnering concerned looks from Cass's coworkers.
"Excuse me," he interjected, pulling up a chair between a red haired freshman and a girl whose name he recalled may have been Heather. "I need to find out where to get in contact with this woman. Is there an application for this?"
Heather turned to look at him. "Hi, Professor..." she whispered awkwardly. "You want a phone number?"
Travis nodded emphatically. "I have an address and a name. There must be a simple way to track this down, with all that computers can do now."
The red haired friend looked Travis up and down. A lot of the students knew he was a genius, completing most of his college requirements during high school and flying through upper level courses. They also knew he was a little odd, and very distant for being not that much older than they were. And that he had little grasp on some common sense things, like sending emails.
"What about a phone book?" she asked, pointing to the directory section.
Good, old fashioned tools coming in handy again. "Right!"
"Do you think it would do any good... perhaps... to see if we can find your parents? You could ask them some questions, perhaps get closure." Aelita sat with her back to the wall, where the skulls enjoyed a bit of warmth from the angel.
Cass briefly considered saying yes. She then firmly decided to say no. "I don't think- knowing me- that I would be content. It's not that I'm going to be set free from myself by them. I know I have to do it myself. I'm afraid if I see them, the two people I miss the most, that I may be content to stay. I think I would be tempted, at least. I can't be tempted. I can't expect that I'll be determined enough to continue this journey home to the people I love when I'm back with the two people who love me more than anyone. And I wouldn't want them to see me here, like this. That would break their hearts in two. I think it's nice enough to know that I'll see them again at least. I have that to look forward to. Some day I'll get to ask them all the questions. But for now, I have my own journey to finish."
Aelita nodded. Though she would not say it, she suspected that Cass was much more capable of living than she assumed herself to be.
"Poe County Community College, Faculty Resource Center, this is Eric speaking. How may I help you?"
Travis tried to speak quietly so as not to disturb the library. And so as not to alert the other librarians to his plan and risk being sent to receive psychiatric evaluation. After a call to an assisted living complex in Rook County, and a sad impersonation of a concerned grandson, Travis had figured out where to find the Other Cassandra. "Hello Eric, this is Travis Never from the life sciences department. I'm going to need to extend my leave for bereavement, bereavement leave- what they call it."
Travis heard Eric clicking on some keys. "Travis Never, biology, correct? I can't approve more days in the system, but you have vacation days."
Travis sighed. Those had been for the spring. He was going to try to coerce Cass to go on a drive into the mountains for a picnic. It would take the whole week of vacation to convince her to go, each day getting closer, and then even though they might only end up at the park in town, it still would have been nice. It obviously would not matter if he couldn't rescue his wife from the land of the dead.
"Alright, sure. Put in my vacation days."
Eric did more clicking. "I need approval from the head of the department. A week, maybe?"
"No, no- this is an urgent vacation. Very urgent. I'm leaving immediately."
There was a long pause. "Alright. Let me try his extension. Where are you going so urgently?"
Travis scrolled through flight times on the computer in front of him, phone balanced between ear and shoulder. "Las Vegas. I'm feeling suddenly, wildly lucky, Eric. But if you wouldn't mind, tell the head that there's about to be another death in the family."
Travis frowned at his morbid joke. He perhaps shouldn't treat this woman's life as so expendable. But then again, that's what was going to happen. He suddenly felt sick wondering how he was going to get Cass back. He wished that chilly horned creature from the basement would appear, with the very good news that Travis was not expected to murder an old woman at a casino. It occurred to him that it might be the course of action. He shuddered.
"...Sure, Dr. Never." Eric did more typing. Travis hung up and selected a flight out of the airport in the next hour.
He sincerely hoped that assassination was not on this agenda.