The darkness outside shifted into a deeper shade of black as the thick May rainclouds gathered over the city. Thunder was heard rumbling in the distance, as though the Titans were released from their prison and roamed the planet to pass judgment, their footsteps echoing for miles. The crowds walking down the streets increased their pace, and slowly dissipated as many scoured to seek shelter from the impending storm.
In a thirty-story skyscraper, a woman looked down at the streets as the blare of taxi horns amplified through the glass windows and entered her ear canals. She finished filing some papers for her supervisor regarding the company’s latest mobile phone design. She was oblivious to the footsteps that came up behind her.
“Your shift is done, miss.”
She blinked as she recognized her fellow staff worker. “Oh, Stan, lighten up.” She smiled. “Use my name. That’s what I have it for.”
Stan nodded in acceptance. “Okay Althea. I understand now.”
“Good. You know I hate all that pointless formality in the workplace.”
As Stan walked off, Althea closed the file cabinet where she stored the project information. She looked out the window again and watched as lightning cascaded across the low cumulus clouds, occasionally hitting the ground. She imagined the strike, like the roaming Titans mulching the earth beneath them into blackness under the pressure of their footsteps. It felt like it was striking the streets, and people down there were fleeing in panic, desperate to avoid the divine contact. It felt like every strike passed judgment on the people below. The first rule: death can do nothing without the guidance of God, she suddenly remembered. Her eyebrows curled into a frown as her slim fingers tightened on her right hand into a fist. Of course, she thought. It’s time. She waited for too long.
As she stood up, Althea tugged her gray plaid skirt a little to cover half her knees and hid her black blouse with a warm, thick, light gray coat. It took her a few seconds outside before a yellow taxi came and picked her up, and another half hour before it reached her small apartment several blocks away. As she got out, she gazed around as the passersby carried umbrellas, newspapers, briefcases, and anything else they could find over their heads, wary of the storm.
Althea unlocked her front door, and closed it hurriedly behind her. Setting her black handbag on her queen bed briskly, she immediately went to the bathroom to take a shower. She spared no time in there, finishing up in less than ten minutes. She finished drying her hair and opened the medicine cabinet to get her hair spray. Upon opening it, she paused. She bit her lip bitterly and fought away the tears that were beginning to well up inside her. She fought off the flashbacks that sent her back to a bitter day.
“I have to do it.” She said to herself, taking a deep breath.
She grabbed the cream-colored can and finished business with her blonde hair, which flowed straight down to the nape of her neck, ending in slight curls. She placed the hairspray can back into the cabinet, next to a round glass bottle of perfume, also cream-colored. She quickly left to change clothes, leaving the medicine cabinet open, her can and perfume standing on the left, and an identical pair in dark gray on the opposite end.
It took Althea seconds to decide that she would change the blouse for an identical white one, and exchange her plaid skirt for a pair of light blue jeans. She grabbed a black collared coat and a long, black, cylinder-shaped case, completely made of leather. She took her bag and made sure to smoothen out the left side of the queen bed neatly, so it appeared unused. She ran outside in time to catch another taxi.
“Avery’s Pool House please!” She said. “And hurry!”
The driver nodded without a word and stepped on the gas. They turned the corner right before traffic was able to form at the intersection again. Within five minutes, the driver turned and parked in front of a single story building.
“Thank you, sir!” Althea said hastily, throwing a few bills into his hand. As she ran off, the driver took a moment to look at the bill. He let out a low whistle.
“What a generous tip today.” He chuckled to himself, eyes lit up as Benjamin Franklin stared back at him. He placed it in his pocket and reentered the road.
Althea cautiously entered the building, aware of the several gazes coming at her from the men standing around the billiard tables. As she came up to the counter, she casually asked the man behind the counter, “Is he here today?”
“Yeah, he’s in the far corner.” He responded with a low tone. “He just came here five minutes ago and already won his first game.”
The eighth rule: third time is Death’s charm, the words came to her head as she pulled out her wallet to pay the entry fee.
“Are you gonna play him tonight?” The man asked.
Althea paused, still wandering in her memories. “Yes.” She said. “I will.”
Avery’s Pool House was a large single-room complex with bathrooms. It fit thirty billiard tables, five in width and six in length, with enough room for three foosball tables and several arcade stations. A low lamp hung above each table, illuminating every inch of the green fabric.
She went to a far corner of the room, where there was a game going on between two men. She recognized one of them immediately. No mistake about it, she thought, eyebrows furrowing. It’s him again. She secured a seat stationed next to the wall by putting her coat and bag on it and opened the leather case. Inside was a black titanium cue stick, unscrewed into two parts. She deftly screwed the two parts together and placed the cue stick next to her things on the seat as she joined the onlookers next to the table.
Unlike the others in the room, the lamp above this table was crackling and in need of replacement. Odd shadows were cast from the balls as the two players around it started their game. One of the men took his time to make his early shots precise. He’s apparently the victim, Althea thought to herself, looking at his collared striped shirt. It was a big contrast to his opponent, whose body was well-built, shown by how his black t-shirt curved around his abdominals. His black hair, with hints of graying at the sideburns, was combed towards the back of his head into a stub of a ponytail. Three odd fringes hung over his forehead, one thick enough to cover half of his right eye. He had a tattoo of a skull on his right arm.
Althea watched as he deftly placed his white cue stick on the head bank of the table, and, using two of his fingers from his left hand, pivoted the stick precisely before the white ball, which stood a few inches from the right side pocket. With one swift motion he pulled back and whipped the stick forward, sending the cue ball at the solid brown seven nestled near the right corner in the back of the table. The seven disappeared and the cue ball was left in its place, spinning in a dazed blur. Althea heard murmurs slowly rise from the onlookers.
“He’s getting serious again.”
“Looks like he will be using his trick again soon.”
Althea shrugged off all the rumors. She’s heard them all for the past twelve months, and nothing fazed her anymore. She remembered all of them, and couldn’t forget any word that was said. She watched as he struck the four-ball in the adjacent corner, the cue ball spinning to the left off the bank, lining up perfectly with the eight-ball into the left side pocket. It’s done, she thought. It’s his second game. I’ll make sure I’m his third.
With a slow motion, the man lightly hit the cue ball. It rolled precariously towards the eight-ball, which spun closer to the side pocket until it came to the edge. Everyone watched tensely for what seemed like several seconds as the eight-ball disappeared into the hole. There came a small clamor of applause and murmurs from the bystanders and players around the table as the man gave a small smile.
“Getting cocky now?”
The applause almost abruptly ended as everyone turned to Althea, who was already next to her seat, cue stick in hand. Another set of low whispers gathered around as she approached him. “Wanna play one?”
He chuckled. “I have no intentions to ridicule a lady.” There was a collection of laughter from among the men watching.
“Don’t worry about it. Besides, I’m the one who challenged you.”
He thought for a moment. “Miss, how often do you play here?”
“Three days a week. Several hours each day, for the past year.” Althea answered almost immediately.
“Then you would know this is my third game of the day.” He said darkly.
“I’m aware, Charon.”
God, what is she thinking? He thought. She knows of the possibility that she will die but she still won’t back down…
“Well, do you want to begin?” Althea broke his thoughts, and Charon watched as she took the rack resting in the table and placed it on the green felt. She kneeled down and took handfuls of pool balls from out of the crevice and placed them in the rack. Rule number seven: if eternity strikes first you meet the angel of death. The pain from one year ago returned with fervor, as the painful memories flashed in her mind once again. She fought to keep a straight face as she arranged the balls in the rack, the solid yellow one-ball in the corner pointing out to the head of the table, following clockwise with its striped counterpart, the nine-ball, then the blue two-ball and its counterpart, the three-ball, and so on. She placed the seven-ball near the bottom on the left side and the brown fifteen-ball next to it.
As she put the eight-ball in the center, her memories overtook her vision. One year ago, it was the same table, only she wasn’t the one playing Charon. She saw him as he grinned at her as he chalked his pool stick. She remembered all of him; his dark brown hair, dark green collared shirt, and jeans with a few fashion tears on the calves. Heath, she thought. Don’t do it. She heard her thoughts cry it out but the Heath in her memories ignored her as he prepared to set up his strategy. She felt her past’s eyes widen when Charon broke the balls. No, she thought. Don’t! She wasn’t facing Heath, whose toned build would’ve attracted her eye every second of her life. She was looking at the eight-ball, in the hopes that it would respond to her mental message as it slowly rolled into the left back corner. The number appeared to taunt her as gravity overtook it and it disappeared into the void.
She felt her eyes beginning to water as she snapped back to reality. That wasn’t the real nightmare, she knew. Charon pulled back and stabbed the cue ball, which careened at sonic speed into the colorful mass, spreading it evenly across the table. She heard the sound as two balls fell into a corner pocket.
“Good.” She said, calming herself as she scanned and found the eight ball resting in the kitchen. She had to be careful with imminence. Rule number four: death is inevitable; it always wins, came the writing from the paper she memorized many months ago into her mind. Somebody will die after this game, she thought. But it doesn’t have to be many. If she could only just set up a strategy to minimize the amount…
Althea suddenly heard another clang as Charon sent the purple four-ball into the far right corner. I must stay focus! She thought. Or this game will be in vain too!
Charon readied his next shot, a solid six in the left back corner. What is she thinking? He thought. She doesn’t look like the kind of person that would play this game. Where have I seen her before? I gotta end this, this isn’t right.
The thoughts clouded Charon’s mind as he hit the six. He hit his cue right above dead center on the cue ball, so when the six went in the hole, the cue ball followed after it. There came a few gasps from the crowd. They apparently never saw Charon lose his touch so easily.
Althea was grateful for the scratch. Rule number two: the hand of God can protect one. It’s possible, she thought. As the cue ball ended its course inside the table, Althea picked it up at the receiving end at the head of the table and set it in the kitchen, aiming for the striped ten-ball into the far left corner. She bent her knees slightly and squinted alongside her cue stick, lining it up with the point of contact where she wanted to hit the colored ball. Aiming steadily, she slightly raised her cue and gave it a gentle push. Everyone watched as the white ball slowly rolled across the table. It hit the ten on the right side at a forty-five degree angle, sending it straight in where Charon shot his six.
“You’re not as bad as I thought.” He said to Althea. “What motivated you to start playing?”
Althea’s blonde hair bobbed slightly as she took in the question. “It’s a complicated story. But it started off one year ago when I lost my husband.”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear about your loss.” Charon said.
You would, Althea thought bitterly. You were the one who killed him. She walked to the back end of the pool table and instantly shot the nine-ball into the adjacent corner, taking care to hit the white slightly left from the center. To her expectations, the cue ball bounced off the short bank and returned to her. A new wave of murmurs appeared within the onlookers.
“She must be pretty good.”
“She’s come pretty far after losing Heath.”
Althea’s mind flashed again. Rule number three: casualties are measured in numbers. Old bitter memories returned as she remembered the fateful night twelve months ago. After losing to Charon, Althea was in tears, holding tight to Heath.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.” He said gently, returning her embrace as they headed outside to Heath’s sedan waiting in the parking lot. “Everything will be all right.”
Althea couldn’t stop. Charon had knocked out Heath in an eight-ball break, on a game where his demons began to pull the strings. “No, it won’t.” She said in the middle of her tears. “I’m gonna lose you. How am I gonna bear with it?”
“Don’t worry.” He said. “God has a will for all of us. Even if it seems our lives have been cut short, all of us serve a greater purpose than what we can imagine. I’m sure there was a reason why I lost that easily to him.”
Althea clenched her fists. “I’ll kill him!” She grinded her teeth, her body stiffened by the rush of anger. “I’ll kill him for doing this!”
“And what would that do?” Heath responded, forcing the Althea to stop. “What’s done is done. Even if you kill him, you can’t stop Death from taking me. And besides, it’s not like Charon intended the eight-ball to go in the beginning of the game. He was just as surprised.”
The memory faded away as she scrutinized the cue ball’s position. It was almost parallel with the eleven-ball near the opposite bank, and too close to it for her to send it to the near corner. She carefully lined up her shot and aimed towards the point she targeted slightly to the right of the center of the striped red ball. Once again, she gently hit the cue ball, which rolled and hit the eleven against the bank and back into the corner pocket next to her. She heard a few claps as she prepared her next shot, a brown fourteen-ball into the right side pocket. She hit the ball gently and it rolled at an even slower pace than her previous two shots.
“Come on.” Althea said quietly to herself. The white ball stopped right next to the brown ball with a clack. Argh, she thought to herself.
“Finally my turn.” Charon said cheerfully, walking to the opposite side of the table. With that, he carefully angled the white ball against the two-ball two away from the absolute center of the table. With a gentle hit, the two-ball disappeared in the side pocket. He next aimed towards the right corner at the head of the table and at the orange five-ball nestled near the cue ball.
“Can I ask what exactly happened to your husband?” He suddenly asked Althea.
She paused before deciding to answer, watching the five-ball disappearing in the pocket. “We were heading home one night. It was raining.” She preferred not to say that the night was the very night she and Heath left the pool house. “We were turning one of the intersections when a drunk in a large truck hit us on the front left side. It was a Dodge and he was going at such a high speed that the force of the impact had him drive over our car, which made it roll over. I suffer nightmares from the event since. I never lost consciousness during the whole time. I felt myself receive every blow from the pavement and the inside of the car.” Her anger began to stir as tears came to her eyes. “I saw my husband’s head snap out of place as the truck’s tire mowed it over.”
Charon paused. Wow, that’s unbelievable, he thought. Dammit, if only…
CLACK! The cue stick flew out into space as the cue ball moved a few centimeters from its place. Dammit dammit dammit! His thoughts roared, missing the seven-ball at the very center.
Althea stared as fate gave her the next shot. Rule number five: those driven away from fate are greatly spared.
Is this a new hope? She thought to herself. Will I finally end all this for Heath? She locked on at the twelve-ball situated right next to the bank, dispatching it into the front right corner where the five-ball went by aiming for the empty space right before the ball. Along the bank, she quickly knocked out the fifteen-ball in the left corner at the head of the table, taking care to hit the cue ball a bit below the center. At the point of contact the cue ball spun backwards and came back to her, rebounding a bit off of the bank. She calculated the thirteen-ball that rested next to the fifteen-ball’s old spot and gave the stick a rough hit. The ball vanished into the pocket as the cue ball bounced off the two banks, heading for the right side pocket.
The small crowd hushed as they watched the white ball progressively slow down as it approached the fourteen-ball that stood precariously at the edge. Everyone appeared to hold their breath as the cue ball clacked against it and the ball disappeared into the hole. An exchange of surprise and awe was made amongst the onlookers, praising Althea’s skill.
“Looks like God decided not to leave your side yet.” Charon said with a smile.
Althea nodded. All that was left now was the eight-ball that moved next to the opposite side pocket when the white ball rebounded against it when Althea sunk the twelve-ball earlier. She scanned her vast memory, searching for all the balls that went into the hole in her mind’s eye. Only the solid blue two-ball followed that route. She smiled. There won’t be any casualties today. The sixth rule: the dark angel shows mercy to his own.
“What pocket are you gonna get it in?” Charon called out.
Althea gazed at the setup, the white ball next to one side pocket, and the eight-ball on the opposite end. Then she noticed the seven-ball right in between the two. Ugh, she thought. Of course he wouldn’t make it this easy.
Maybe I did go too easy on her for being a woman, Charon thought. She just didn’t look like a player. But what is this strange feeling?
“Side pocket.” Althea said, causing another burst of whispering from the onlookers.
“How the hell will she get it?”
“It don’t look like she gonna hit it off either bank either. She just staring at the straight path.”
Althea smiled. All her practice will finally pay off tonight.
Charon watched in surprise as she raised the pool stick into a fifty-degree angle, aiming down at the cue ball. Is she…? He thought.
“Holy crap, she gonna try it.”
Althea ignored the remark from the crowd and aimed at the right side of the cue ball. She knew it could fail her miserably, or just work out. She finally understood what Heath meant by the will of God.
“There is a reason you can’t forget anything you see.” She heard Heath’s voice in her head. Although it was her own, she thought it sounded nicer when her husband said it. “It was part of God’s will that you would learn the game, and put an end to your fears. You’ve come this far, there is no way you can miss this shot! You can end all this!”
In an instant, the crowd heard the cue stick slamming the felt. The white ball appeared to spin in a daze as it went to the diamond on the left side of the eight-ball, then suddenly change course and return to knock the eight-ball into the hole, spinning towards the bank.
There was a horde of applause as onlookers congratulated her. Charon smiled. “You did well.” Althea took a closer look at his eyes. Were they watery? She couldn’t tell. “Your husband would be proud.”
Did he figure it out? She thought. Possibly; she was there when he defeated Heath.
“May we play another good game someday.” He said to her cheerfully. “Since I lost, I didn’t get the chance to pull off my trick.”
Althea chuckled dryly. “That’s fine.” She packed up her things with a feeling that a large weight fell off from her. She passed her judgment. Fate was now on her side.
* * *
The next cloudy morning, Althea was humming as she re-examined the mobile phone project. She was just about to close the page when Stan came bustling in, throwing down a newspaper on her desk.
“Finally some action in this city!” He cried out jubilantly.
She looked at the front cover. There was a major intersection accident in one of the busiest streets in the city. Fifteen cars were involved, and several have been injured. Thank goodness there were no casualties, she thought. Then her eye caught ahold of an article next to it.
“Burning Man Found Dead.” She said to herself.
“Oh, that.” Stan said nonchalantly. “It’s about a guy they found last night. He was walking on the street when outta nowhere he got struck by lightning! Can you believe it?” He laughed at the idea.
Althea’s eyes widened as she recognized the photo. It was Charon. “How…?” She read the rest of the page. “…was a hard laborer as a construction worker…died at age 35…succeeded by his wife and two daughters.” She looked outside into the clouds. Heath, she thought. Is this also part of God’s will?
She thought about it for a moment, and warmly smiled to herself. The Titans have come and gone. God has judged fate.