Black Sheep

By J. Speer

(I like to write mythology-type stories. Here is another one I wrote about Hades during the holidays. Often times, he is depicted as a terrible villain. It’s kinda comical and kinda sad at times …just looking at things from his perspective. Enjoy!)

“We’ve got to talk about the holiday this year.”  Zeus looked around the table at Mt. Olympus at the other occupants. 

“I’m thinking Swiss Alps this year….chalets, snow skiing, a glass of wine by the warm fire,” said Athena with a smile looking around at the others.  They all smiled and laughed. 

“Oh no, Athena, I know how you snow ski!”  said Hera amused. 

They were sharing a bottle of meade and exchanging pleasantries.  Another great day at Mt. Olympus. 

Zeus cleared his throat, “Ah well, while that does sound really great….I’m thinking we should spend the holiday with family…..all the family.”  Zeus looked at them meaningfully until it sinks in what he’s saying. 

“Oh no,” said Aphrodite, “I think I know what that means….you can’t be serious?  We haven’t seen him in a while.  I know I shouldn’t say this,” she looks around at the others for agreement.  “I think we all feel the same way, Zeus.” 

Aries cleared his throat.  “Zeus, you can’t be serious?”

“I am.  Look, he’s family whether you like him or not.”  Zeus sighed, “I’d rather go to the Alps too but it has been a while.  We really should go see him.” 

“I don’t want to go there for the holidays.”  Said Athena directly. 

“Me either,” said Aphrodite.

“He can’t come here!  He’s always busy down there.  We’ve got to go to him.” 

Hera and Zeus sat across from each other at the table.  He looked for encouragement about what he was going to say.  She looked sad and then just nodded and looked down.  They had a discussion ahead of this moment.

“Look, it’s just one day.  We make a trip down into the underworld and share the holiday with him.  He’s my brother.  He’s your family.  One day.  We’ll all bring food from here so we don’t have to….don’t have to….”

“Just say it, Zeus.  So we don’t have to eat the disgusting underworld food that he brought to the holiday parties in the past?  He should know by now, no one wants to eat that stuff.  I don’t know why he keeps trying to offer it.”  Athena scoffed. 

“Look, when’s the last time anybody called him or talked with him down there?  He’s gotta be getting lonely I bet and – come on, we’ve all heard the rumors.”

“She’s a trollop.” Said Athena. 

Aries nodded.  “She got drunk at the last holiday party and came on to me too.”  They all look at Aries incredulously.  “It’s true.” 

“To his credit guys,”  Aphrodite said softly, “Hades loves her despite everything.” 

“The Lord of darkness???  Haha, please, Aphrodite, don’t be naïve.  He doesn’t have feelings.”  said Athena sarcastically. 

But Zeus contemplated this….he thought Athena might be wrong about this one for all her amazing brains and intelligence.  Zeus thought about his brother Hades for a moment.  He’d heard about Persephone too with this new guy Adonis.  Poor Hades, he thought to himself and shook his head.  He looked Hera firmly in the eye.  She nodded again.

“We’re going to the underworld for the holiday whether you like it or not.  He’s family.”

Athena cursed.

4 weeks later, Hades sat in his car outside the Air BnB in the underworld that his family rented for the holidays.  He vaped his last few puffs.  Zeus warned him no smoking or vaping allowed at the Air BnB so he just sat there in the car for a moment and finished.  He looked in the rearview mirror at his disheveled black hair and tried to smooth it down some, to make his appearance more appealing.  He grimaced a bit at the reflection.  A few weeks ago, when Zeus surprised him out of the blue calling and saying they were coming to the underworld for the holiday, Hades went out and got a new haircut and even dyed his hair a bit.  To get the grey out, he told himself. 

He drew again on his vape.  His car was parked by the curb outside the building.  To his right he could see the stairwell leading up above to a room that was well lit up with holiday lights and a tree in the window.  From below he could hear the sound of holiday music. 

He took the day off work.  He never took off work.  He hadn’t taken a vacation day in years.  But his family was coming to visit so he took the day off, told his minions to cover down, and he’d be back in a day.  When they asked where he was going, he said, “Just mind your own business.” 

He asked Persephone if she wanted to go.  She said she had plans, wanted to go see her mother Demeter again.  Something about a gift exchange.

Hades finished his vape and stowed it away in the glove compartment.  He looked around the street carefully.  He might be the lord of the underworld but he still didn’t trust these hoodlums around here, even in this part of town.  He reached for the cologne bottle in the glove compartment.  He knew he smelled like smoke and ash all the time but he did the best he could to spray on a few squirts of cologne, the kind of stuff he bought at the local hellmart with Persephone.  He even bought this stupid sweater.  He saw it on the rack and something came over him, and he bought it.

He looked down at it in disgust.  Ridiculous, he said to himself but he wore it anyway.  A bright, garish red.  Not his typical black and with black trenchcoat.  It had a Santa rocking a guitar with his reindeer band and it said, Tis the Season to be Naughty.  And he bought it.  It even lit up with holiday lights.  Geesh. 

He had taken off the day and spent that morning even making some food to take to the party.  It wasn’t like him to show up to a party empty handed even though he knew they didn’t really eat the stuff he brought.  But it wasn’t like him to quit trying at something either.   So this time, he and Persephone had bought box food at hellmart.  Something easy, she said.  So, he got the Jell-o box and that morning, he carefully read the directions and made Jell-o Jigglers for the kids.  Kids like Jell-o Jigglers he told himself and he had picked up the red cherry flavored ones.  He even put them on a special holiday tray and carefully and methodically cut out the jigglers into different types of holiday shapes, trees and stars and stuff.  He wrapped up the tray and it was sitting in the passenger seat of his car outside the building while he sat there.  He exhaled a deep breath.  Then, he opened the car door, and got out.  He opened the backseat door to see the laundry basket full of holiday gifts. 

Last Black Friday, after Zeus had said they were coming, he had gone out and bought each one of them their own special gift.  He’d worked pretty hard on it this year, knowing that they’d probably rather be somewhere else for the holidays than the underworld.  He wanted to make them happy.   Then he brought the gifts home with some new gift wrap he bought and bows and cards.  He wrapped each one individually as best he could but he was not the best gift wrapper.  He should have left this part to one of his many assistants, he thought or Persephone but he did it himself, placing a nice bow and card with each one. 

Hades grabbed the laundry basket out of the backseat and went around and got the Jell-O Jigglers tray and placed it in the laundry basket on top carefully so as not to spill it.  Then he locked the car and took the laundry basket of gifts up the flight of stairs.  When he got to the door to the air bnb, he set the laundry basket down.  He smoothed his hair again and looked at the door.  He looked down at his dumb holiday sweater and pushed the button in the sleeve that activated the lights in it.  It glowed red, yellow and green and he felt thoroughly ridiculous for a moment but he raised his hand to knock on the door anyway.  He cleared his throat and paused….thought to himself What am I doing here?  He lowered his hand and then raised it again to knock firmly on the door. 

The door swung wide open to show a gregarious looking Zeus holding a wine glass of what looked like to Hades as meade from Mt. Olympus.  Behind grinning Zeus, Hades could see into the festive looking room with young kids running around inside and Hera standing just behind Zeus.  She smiled too at Hades and Hades tried his best to give a sincere smile back. 

“Well look who’s here everybody!  It’s Hades!  Welcome brother, come in, come in!” 

“It’s so good to see you Hades,” said Hera softly smiling. 

Hades smiled as warmly as he could back.  “ Yes, yes, good to see you too!” 

Zeus looked down at the blinking lights on the bright red sweater and laughed, “Ho, well well!  This is a pleasant surprise.  Hades you’ve outdone yourself.  I love the new look.  I get tired of seeing you in that black trenchcoat.” 

Hades smiled and shrugged.  He thought to himself, but it’s my favorite trenchcoatOnce you wear a color so long, it becomes you.  But he just said, “I saw the sweater with Persephone at hellmart.  Couldn’t resist, you know?”

They smiled into each other’s eyes and then there was a silence, neither one knowing what to say next. 

“Well, come in Hades.  Don’t stand there in the hallway!”

Hades turned and picked up the laundry basket and walked inside.  He turned to Hera. 

“Here, I know you said you were preparing the food but I brought a little something for the kids to enjoy.”  Hades handed Hera the tray and noticed how Hera’s smile broke just a little when she looked down and then she looked straight up at him and smiled more.

“Thank you, Hades.  I’ll take that for you and set it with the other foods at the buffet table.”

She took the Jell-o Jigglers tray from him and headed off to the table near the kitchen and full of heaping plates of Mt. Olympus food. 

Zeus interrupted Hades to ask, “Is the weather here in the underworld always this warm even on the holidays?”

“Yes, always.”  Hades politely replied to Zeus.  His eyes were on Zeus but he noticed in the background that Hera had placed his Jell-o Jigglers not on the table with the other foods but on a nearby counter.  He looked down for a second and then put a smile back on his face. 

Zeus patted him on the back and said, “Hey, what would you like to drink?  Come to the kitchen with me and let’s talk about that hellraisers football team.”  Zeus meant the local football league team for the underworld.  Hades was delighted to talk about football and followed Zeus into the kitchen where they had a lengthy discussion on the team, their prospects, and recent games.  They talked about the division, the playoffs, and whether the hellraisers would make it into the Super Bowl. 

“So, how about that drink, Hades?”  said Zeus.  “Should I pour you a tall glass of meade from Mt. Olympus?” 

Hades looked at the meade that Zeus loved so much.  “Ah, naw, Zeus…you know I gotta work tomorrow.  I….better not.”

“Now, come on Hades,” said Zeus encouragingly.  “Live a little, you old man.”

“I may be just a little older than you.”  Said Hades grinning.  “but not by much, Zeus.”

“Haha, Hades.  Alright, you got me there.”  Zeus smiled at him for a moment.  “Man, it’s been a while.  I’ve missed ya.”

Hades felt happy to be there at that moment.  The goofy sweater and the new hair dye and all that stuff seemed actually worth the effort.  “Yeah, I missed you too.”  Hades thought to himself, maybe I should have called more, made more of an effort.  But then Hades, thought about how he hadn’t heard from them in years and the phone works two ways.  I’m always working he thought to himself.  Never enough time.  He thought about that glass of meade that Zeus offered and how work was gonna be hell tomorrow but even worse with a hangover.  But, maybe Zeus was right….live a little.

“Alright, I’ll have that glass of meade I suppose.  Don’t make it too tall though.”  He smirked. 

Zeus poured him a big glass of meade, much bigger than Hades would have liked but Hades politely accepted it.  They stood there then, for a moment and an awkward silence sort of settled between them.  Zeus was trying to come up with things to discuss and Hades was trying to swallow the meade down without grimacing.  After a few seconds, Zeus said, “Hey, well the others are here too and they’d love to see you.  I think they are in the living room area.”  And with that, Zeus escorted him out the kitchen and into the large living room area where kids were playing and Aphrodite was helping one of her daughters from the sofa.  Aphrodite smiled sweetly at Hades from the sofa, “Hello,” she said and waved.  Athena was lounging in the side chair, a large glass of meade in her hand and was looking purposefully at the holiday tree.  She didn’t bother to look in Hades’ direction when Aphrodite called him over. 

From behind, Hades felt a slight slap on the back and instantly stiffened, instinctively cautious from years of living in the underworld.  When he saw Aries’ masculine physique off to his left though, all dressed up too in holiday garb, Hades softened. 

“Hello Hades!  Long time no see, pal!  Where have you been hiding at lately?”  Aries smiled widely and tried to fist bump Hades who awkwardly tried to fist bump back.  Hades smiled and said, “Aries!”  From over in the chair, Hades noticed Athena scoff at them and then seem to roll her eyes and keep sipping her meade.  Hades looked down a little. 

Athena then looked directly at Hades and pointedly said in a high tone, “Hades, where’s Persephone?”

There was a silence then.  Athena looking directly at Hades with wine glass in hand awaiting an answer.  Hades knew how Athena was and she was needling him.  The others in the room besides the kids just sorta looked away. 

“She’s at a gift exchange at Demeter’s house.  She apologized that she could not make it.”

“Gift exchange, hmmmm…”  said Athena.  “Ok.”  It was clear from her voice she didn’t seem to believe him. 

Athena looked away again out the window but murmured something under her breath about the alps.  “Today would be a good day to go skiing.”

Hades didn’t really understand her comment.  The others did though.  Zeus glared at Athena but she preferred to look out the window.  Hades added, “Yes, skiing is fun.  I used to ski.”

Aries replied, “You did?”  You, Hades?  Ha, well I would pay to see that!”

Zeus interrupted, “Actually Hades was quite good at skiing from what I recall.  Triple diamonds, weren’t you?”

Hades smiled, “Yes, that I was …a long, long time ago.”

“You were quite the daredevil back then, Hades. “  laughed  Zeus.  “Pun intended.” 

Hades smiled and there was another pause in the conversation.  Hera came up to Hades then and touched a lock of his hair.  “Hades, have you colored your hair?  I don’t remember it being this dark.”  She said.  “I like it.”  She added, almost as an afterthought. 

Hades felt a little awkward and fumbled for the right words to say, “Yeah….I uh…..I guess I just wanted to get rid of the grey a bit.”

At that point, Athena looked back from the window and said saucily in Hades’ direction, “Trust me, Hades, you could never get rid of your …grey.”  She put extra emphasis on the word grey. 

Another awkward silence and suddenly Hades had the real strong intuitive feeling that the others were ill at ease here and that Athena, in particular, did not want to be here.  He began to feel pretty bad.  That explained a lot.  Why they rented the air bnb rather than stay with him, why they declined his offers to help prepare and plan or to provide meals or to give a tour of the underworld or to stay a few more days.  He suddenly felt like he wanted to go back home. 

Aries then said, “My, it’s quite hot down here for this season.  How about this weather?” 

Aphrodite went over to the laundry basket by the tree and picked up the presents from Hades and examined one, “Hades, I bet you wrapped these yourself didn’t you?  I’m glad we’re here Hades.”  She called out to the nearby kids, “We’ll be opening presents soon!”

Zeus said, “Ah, but not until after dinner.  Hera, is everything ready?”

“Yes,”  she said.  “Sure is.”

Two of the children off to the side, both Athena’s, had discovered the Jell-o Jigglers tray and began taking the wrapping off it and reaching for the Jigglers.  Athena, startled, suddenly got up from her chair, spilling her drink and lunging quickly towards the kids.  “No!” she mouthed to one child and shook her head.  Then she promptly looked  up to see if Hades had noticed, which he had but was not saying anything.  The other boy made a barfing motion behind her about the food.  Hades grimaced but didn’t say anything.  Hera was also embarrassed by the scene but took the plate and set it on the end of the buffet.

“Ok, everyone.  Time for dinner!  Grab a plate.  Children first.”  She motioned to the others.  The dinner food was excellent but very rich for Hades’ taste as he was used to underworld food.  Still all the same, he told the others they were marvelous cooks.  Everyone ate their fill, went back for seconds or even thirds, and got dessert too.  And, of course, the meade flowed.  Hades even helped himself to a second glass at the prompting of Zeus.  Over the course of the dinner, they talked about hobbies, music, art, etc.  Hades was careful to avoid discussion on politics.  He tried to put the others at ease and tried to be as engaging as possible but at times it was difficult, particularly with Athena just begrudgingly providing responses and halfheartedly listening.  Hades, as the dinner wore on, began to feel a little worn out by trying to maintain social graces and pleasantries. 

They opened gifts.  The kids went first.  Everyone said they loved the gifts Hades bought them but he kinda wondered.  Still, he had tried his best.  He even gave a personally framed old family photograph to Zeus and Hera which got Zeus a little misty-eyed.

“Thank you”  Zeus said. 

Hades just smiled and nodded. 

They went on to play family games that night with more meade and more stories and jokes exchanged and pleasantries.  They played dominoes and Hera won for she had always been quite clever.  At poker though, it came down to Zeus, Aries, and Hades.  When Zeus lost, it was Hades who shortly after threw a good hand away just to make sure Aries would win; just so he could make them feel good for making the trip down to the underworld.  Aries proceeded to gloat a little over his big win.  

“Ah, that was fun.”  Zeus said clapping Hades on the back.  At that point, Hades felt it best to probably end the night on a high point and told the others it was probably time for him to return back home for the night. 

“It’s been a real pleasure everybody.  Thank you  for coming down to see me.  I’ve got the demon dogs waiting at home for me tonight and I better get home to let them out.  I don’t want them to tear up any furniture or make a mess.”  He said awkwardly. 

“Yes,” Zeus said. “Well thank you for having us here as your guests in the underworld.”

Hera and Aphrodite and Aries agreed.  Athena just shrugged and halfheartedly smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Hades again noticed Zeus’s side glare at Athena. 

Hades grabbed his laundry basket and gave out awkward hugs and headed towards the door.  He left the untouched holiday plate of Jell-o Jigglers on the end of the buffet table. 

“Good night everyone.”  He said.  “I’ll be sure to give Persephone your regards.  Thank you and happy holidays!”  And out the door he went.  Zeus closed the door slowly behind him and turned towards the room.  The others sorta looked at him.

“I think that went well.”  He said firmly.

Athena just scoffed.  “I would have rather been in the Alps.”

Zeus looked at her coldly.  “So much for family during the holidays, Athena.  You acted badly tonight.”

The others were quiet. 

“Oh come on?  Really?  I acted badly to the lord of darkness?  We’re talking about Hades here!  He’s not exactly got the reputation for being the nicest guy on the planet!  And come on, he’s so damned depressing and dark all the time.  During dinner, all he talked about was work or the underworld, work or the underworld, work or the underworld.  He’s so damn boring and so miserable and so creepy.  Why is he family anyway?” 

She looked at the others.  “Admit it, I’m just saying what you all feel anyway but don’t have the courage to say.  He’s a dark, depressing old guy.   He doesn’t even seem to have any feelings or emotions!   I would have rather been anywhere else than here in this forsaken place.  The underworld??!  Really??  For the holidays??”

“He’s family.”  Zeus said quietly.  “And he wasn’t always this way.  He’s changed a lot since moving down here….and since Persephone too.” 

“Persephone, yeah, and where was she tonight???  Huh?  Not with him!  We’re stuck with him cause he’s family but Persephone is off with Demeter or probably cavorting around with that Adonis guy that people have been talking about.”

Zeus just looked at Athena.  “Are you finished?”

Athena looked a little contrite then.  “Alright, yes.  I’m just saying, uggh, I didn’t want to come here but I’m here ok.  I just wish he’d actually stop being so awkward and gloomy all the time.   I bet he never even laughs.”

As soon as the door to the air bnb closed, Hades started to relax again and pushed the button on his holiday sweater lights to turn them off.  He couldn’t wait to get this thing off him but he thought they might have sorta liked it.  He tried at least to be pleasant and kind and gracious.  It wasn’t easy.   He knew he had a reputation for being quite a hot head with a fiery temper but he told himself he could be civilized and socially courteous when needed.  He had a good night with them, even Athena, and it had been a long while since he’d done anything other than work.  The underworld can’t manage itself he always told himself.  They need me here.  I got a responsibility to do.  And, he always did.  He wouldn’t mind going to the Swiss Alps too sometime.  But no, this was his place and this is where he would remain despite Persephone’s incessant nagging to move away.  Persephone he thought to himself.  He wished she was there with him tonight to make things run smoother, less socially awkward.  Persephone was always so extroverted and fun loving.  That’s what he admired most about her.   

He walked down the hallway and stairs and out to his car.  He put the laundry basket in the back seat and opened the car, got inside and locked it back up promptly.  No telling what could happen here out late at night in the underworld.  First thing he reached for was the glove box to pull out his vape he’d been wanting to smoke about two hours ago.  He pushed the concealed glock aside to get to his vape.  He puffed on his vape, started the car, took one last look at the lights above in the building and wondered what the occupants were doing.  Then, he drove home while smoking and listening to some music.  He shut off the holiday music on the radio station and switched to an old tune.  Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters started playing.  An old favorite. 

He passed a black unmarked vehicle down a few blocks from the air bnb.  He slowed as he passed it and then casually nodded to the occupants.  The driver barely nodded back.  Hades had put some of his private security team on the air bnb a few days ago and he was glad to see them working tonight to keep his relatives safe in this part of town.  Zeus and the others probably had no idea Hades had his guys looking out for them

Hades had two tall glasses of meade that night and he knew he would regret it tomorrow at work but it was worth it.  He thought about how Zeus smiled and he smiled himself.  But he was tired too.  Social stuff exhausted him.  He got back home, pulled into the garage, and went into the house to be greeted by his hellhounds.  They were happy to see him and he pet them.  The house was quiet.  Persephone was gone, at her mother’s.  It didn’t matter he told himself.  Lately, she’d always been on the phone ignoring him and texting friends or her mother or whomever from work and she’d been working a lot of late-night hours at work.  That damn Adonis guy. Whatever.  He forgave Persephone.  He always forgave her and he didn’t even know why anymore.  He was just tired.  Really tired.  The silence was a welcome feeling to him.  Peaceful.

He went to the bedroom and got a pair of black silk pajamas to change into.  He threw the ridiculous holiday sweater in the trash.  Ridiculous.  He then grabbed his vape and cell phone.  He and the hellhounds stepped out onto the terrace.  He sat at the table under the underworld night sky and just relaxed for a moment.  A long day but a good day.  He hadn’t smiled that much in quite a while and he felt less stressed than usual.  He scrolled through his phone looking at memes or videos and smiled quite a bit while he vaped.  And he thought about everything that night.  He thought about the way Zeus smiled at him.  Zeus had a constant twinkle in his eye.  Everybody loved Zeus.  He was such a likeable fellow.  It was hard not to love him.  Hades wished he could be more like Zeus but that twinkle had disappeared from his eyes long long ago here in the underworld.  Hades smiled thinking of his family and he thought even of that moment when Athena got all panicky and crazy over her kids touching his Jell-0 Jigglers.  He thought about how that kid made a barfing motion behind her and how Hera got embarrassed.  And Hades suddenly face palmed at that image.  He nodded his head slowly at his family members and something welled up inside him, an honest to goodness, sincere, bellowing laughter.  And he laughed and laughed …like he hadn’t in a long time.  And, then he felt a wetness on his hand, turned it over and realized that it was a tear. 

A single solitary tear and he blinked.