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When Persephone leaves, just after the leaves start to blush and the milk in the fridge curdles, she’s wearing shimmery gold lip gloss and an unnatural gleam in her eyes. “I’m going to start packing as soon as I get there,” she says. “I’m telling him I’m leaving for good, and then I’m packing.” Demeter says nothing. Love shows up in her daughter’s body as a fever, and Demeter has lived through enough seasons to know the warning signs: too-bright cheeks, diamond eyes, furtive smiles. She caught a glimpse of a text from Hades last night, as she was clearing windfall apple crumble from the table: You don’t know how much I’ve been missing you. I swear, it will be different this time.
“I could come with you,” Demeter says. “Help you pack.”
Persephone shakes her head. Her eyes are dazed, dazzled. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”
“Can we redecorate my room?” Persephone asks. “If I’m going to live here full time, I can’t be surrounded by teddy bears and glow-in-the-dark stars.”
Demeter loves that room. Every year, when Persephone disappears, stops answering her phone and posts ecstatic photos with Hades on Instagram, this is where Demeter retreats. She tries to conjure up the little girl who carried ants across the sidewalk so they didn’t get crushed, who would shun anyone called the King of Death. On those lonely nights, Demeter looks up at the plastic stars above her and prays Persephone can still see some kind of light from down below.
“Of course you can,” Demeter says. “I want this place to feel like home.”
Demeter takes Persephone to concerts, cooking classes, pottery lessons. If she keeps throwing new possibilities up in the air like confetti, something will stick. Happiness will get caught under Persephone’s fingernails and linger in the thumbprint between her collarbones.
Even when she’s exhausted from trying to make every day unforgettable, Demeter gets up at seven to make hollandaise sauce. Persephone stumbles downstairs after 10, thumbing through her phone. “Oh,” she says, looking at the congealed sauce. “I didn’t realize you had something special planned.”
“It doesn’t matter. Every day with you is special.” Demeter studies the distant look in her daughter’s eyes. “What should we do today?”
“I was up late,” Persephone says. “I just want to spend the day at home.” She pads to the living room.
“Did you have trouble sleeping?” Demeter trails behind her. “I can make you some tea.”
“It’s fine, Mom. I don’t need to be fixed. I just want a little time alone.” Her eyes are still fixed on her phone.
Persephone floats from room to room. She leaves dirty dishes in the sink and spends afternoons watching reruns of Law and Order. Demeter doesn’t push her to go outside. Summer is just beginning. There is still plenty of time.
Spring is suddenly everywhere: hyacinths, lilacs, irises. “I forgot how peaceful it is here,” Persephone says. “I forgot what it’s like to feel this way.” Demeter just smiles. Sure, she’s cheating a little, hastening along plants that wanted to sleep a bit longer. But she knows the other side uses smoke and mirrors too: ghosts wearing Persephone’s grandfather’s face, lilting dawn choruses from the dead. And this is not a battle she is willing to lose.
Persephone shows up just after midnight, drenched and desperate. “I had to get out of there,” she says. Demeter hugs her until her own shirt is soaked. She can feel her daughter’s ribs. Persephone has become a harder, sharper creature, someone who flinches at the creak of the cat on the stairs. “I’ve got you,” Demeter says.
Wrapped in a towel, Persephone tells her mother about all the dinners she couldn’t go to, because Hades decided her skirt was too short. How he kept her phone locked in a box for months, and only let her take it out when he was watching. How she posted pictures of them together, a smile glued to her face, because she wanted to buy herself a few minutes to look at pictures of the people she couldn’t call.
“I wish I never had to see him again,” she says.
“Then don’t,” Demeter says. “Stay forever this time.”
“I can’t do that. I made a promise.”
“I’m a god. We’ll make new rules.”
Persephone’s next smile is radiant, brighter enough to puncture the gloom. She has gone back to that man so many times. But this time will be different. This time, Demeter swears, her daughter will come all the way back to the land of the living.
“Ok,” Persephone says. “It’s a deal.”
Pauline Holdsworth is a writer and public radio producer in Toronto, Canada. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, The Penn Review, and The Vestal Review.