by P.M. Gesmundo
GoldenAppleTrilogyXAmericanGods: In a chess game of gods, Theresa’s life is in check. Can Apollo strategize to save her before it’s checkmate? #pitprom
Dear Royal Advisors:
I am seeking representation of PLAYING GOD, a 106,000-word contemporary fantasy in which American Gods meets Emily Houser's Golden Apple Trilogy. PLAYING GOD picks up where mythology leaves off, bringing the petty and not-so-petty grievances of the gods, their slights and affairs and ambitions, to play out in the modern world.
Sworn off family in-fighting and rivalries, Apollo has spent the last decade in Portland, Maine, incarnated as research scientist Dr. Paul Archer. Family’s not the only thing Apollo’s sworn off — he’s also done with women (of the mortal ilk), and most of all, Pantheon, a chess-like game the gods play with human lives. So, when Venus drops by unannounced, demanding that Apollo repay a debt dating back to the Trojan War by helping her pull off a move in the game, Apollo’s intention is to execute the move, wipe the slate clean, and get right back to work in the lab.
What Apollo doesn’t expect is how this game and its pawn, college senior Theresa DiPaulo, revive his long-buried feelings of guilt and failure stemming from his mother's deicide at the hands of his stepmother. Nor does he expect how compelled he feels to intervene to save Theresa from the same fate. As the game unfolds, and the parallels to that long-ago round of Pantheon mount up, Apollo gets sucked deeper and deeper in, until he can no longer run from the intrafamilial conflict he left behind when he abdicated Olympus and took refuge DownEast. Apollo’s got a plan — if only Theresa would open up and let him in, if only she’d stop trying to protect him, if only she loved him back, pulling it off would be so much easier.
I am a graduate of Bowdoin College (majors in English and History) and Harvard Law School. I belong to the League of Vermont Writers.
The first ten pages are pasted below. Thank you for your consideration.
First Ten Pages:
“Hold still.” I closed my eyes and, my hands flat on the bare skin of the boy’s chest, forced a surge of energy into him. I felt it spread through his frail body with the beats of his heart. My strength gushed out of me, like I’d cut a major blood vessel. A minute later, when I opened my eyes, my head swam and my legs shook.
The kid was staring at me. I withdrew my hands, and disconnected the IV. Fighting tunnel vision and nausea, I sank onto the foot of the gurney.
The door opened. The jingle of bracelets told me it was my assistant Demetria. She pressed a Gatorade into my hand and passed another to the boy. I heard the boy’s gulps. I couldn’t open mine, my fingers too weak to grip the cap and twist. Demetria extended her hand for the bottle, and opened it with the same cruel matter-of-factness with which she’d snap the neck of a lab rat.
“Good thing for Connor his parents had him transported here, instead of Maine Med.” Her dry tone belied her words. The boy would have died at the hospital. In surviving to five, he’d already beaten the odds. Demetria wasn’t happy that the boy was still alive. No, that was harsh. She wasn’t happy that I’d brought him back from the edge. It was an important distinction.
I took a couple sips of Gatorade and pressed the damp bottle to my cheek. Resuscitating mortals from the brink of death sapped me, drained the energy reserve that enables my carnality. Ironically, the more my physical energy slipped away, leaving only my divine essence, the more aware I became of my own corporeality, and what I imagined it felt like to be confined to the physical dimension, like a human. I felt weak, powerless and ephemeral. It wasn’t a good feeling, and it reaffirmed my decision to heal the boy, to restore him to strength and substance.
“So? Is he going to be needing treatment anymore?” Demetria’s lips were a straight, thin line, like the one I’d crossed in healing the kid. I knew it. I didn’t need her to give it voice. I shook my head, and her lips got even straighter and thinner. Rising, I handed her the chart and turned away, but the motion made me dizzy, and I reeled against the wall.
“Will you get my Mom? I wanna go home.”
I heard the clip-clip-clip of Demetria’s heels running toward me, the bracelets jingling with irked purpose. She pulled the curtain, and led me to the exam table on the other side of the room.
“I wanna go home,” the boy said from behind the curtain.
“Your Mom’s on her way, sweetie,” Demetria called back. She slipped a hand into her lab coat pocket and pulled out a syringe. “You going to take those off, or should I?” She tore the wrapper with her teeth.
“I’ve fantasized about you saying those very words.”
Demetria smirked as I unzipped my khakis and pulled them down below my briefs. Without so much as an appreciative glance, she plunged the needle in my thigh. The impact pushed me back against the table. She withdrew the needle and dropped it in the sharps container. Then she rolled the stool between me and the door and perched on it. We waited in chilly silence for the epinephrine to kick in.
Demetria caved first. “It takes too much out of you. Look at you. You’re a mess.” She gestured with such vehemence, the stool rolled.
“It’s my gift. I heal.”
“You have other gifts. No one minds you being god of the arts. Sing. Play your instruments. Start a band. No one will come looking too close if you stick to music. Or paint maybe. These walls could use some art.”
“Screw ‘em. It’s my gift. I’ll use it when and how I want.”
“Get real, Apollo. The Fates get pissed when you cheat them. Knocking mortals off is their gift. You have a shaky detente — you can cure all sorts of diseases, just don’t lay your hands on their marks.”
“I find a cure, they create a new disease. What good is that?”
“Stop. Mortals are mortal. Quit churning the water, and make peace with your kind.”
I fastened my pants and headed again for the door. I still felt wobbly, but I’d make it to my office.
Demetria was at my elbow in a heartbeat, her tiny body keeping up with my stride, her heels clacking on the vinyl floor. “You need to charge. I’ll cover for you.” We reached the elevator, and she jabbed repeatedly at the call button.
“I’m too busy. I’ll charge with Artemis later.” My energy was low, but I’d get through the rest of the day. I’d cut out early, hit the sky, soak up the last of the day’s sun, and it’d be like healing the kid never happened.
In the elevator, Demetria poked some more at the buttons. She’d erupt any second. We stepped out on the lab floor, and headed for my office.
“What the hell were you thinking, Apollo?”
A pair of mortal techs approached, chatting. Demetria fell silent, acknowledging them with a curt nod as we passed in the corridor. When they were out of earshot, she lit back into me. “If you don’t care about the ramifications with your family, at least think about the science. This is no way to run a trial. You’re screwing with the science!”
She grabbed my sleeve, stopping me. Her face swam. Her voice came from down a long, echoey tunnel. “You can’t lay hands on all of them. You need to find an organic way to treat the defect. This healing thing saps you and fucks the whole thing up. It’s hard enough to secure the grants, to convince the FDA to let us administer the drugs to kids, the pharmaceutical companies to—”
“That kid didn’t qualify for any of the trials. I didn’t screw with anything.” I shook her off and started walking again. My path wasn’t quite straight.
Demetria trotted after me. In my office, I sat behind my microscope, doing my best to ignore her. She closed the door and stood there, silent, but I knew she was staring me down even as I stared into the lens.
Finally, I straightened on my stool. “Look, I appreciate your efforts to keep me honest, scientifically speaking. I know it’s hard to secure the grants and cut through the red tape. And you’re right — the science has to be solid if I’m going to develop a treatment.”
“You will develop a treatment.”
I surrendered a tight smile. “Right. I will. But in the meantime, if there’s a kid here or there I can save, a parent that doesn’t have to be wrecked . . .”
Demetria shook her head. “It’s an incurable genetic defect, Apollo. Terminal. One hundred percent of the time. How are we going to explain that boy’s survival? The reversal, the disappearance of his symptoms? His genetic, chromosomal reconfiguration? I mean, what the fuck?”
I shrugged. Mortals find ways to rationalize things. Misdiagnosis. Medical error. Rare concurrence of biomedical events. Power of prayer. “It won’t have any effect on what we’re doing. It’s just another run-of-the-mill miracle.”
Demetria was shaking her head, but her shoulders had relaxed. She knew I was right. Mortals’ ability to accept the fantastic as fact, to derive rational consequences from the random shit we throw at them is unfathomable. And they think we’re hard to figure.
“How about some B12 and an EpiPen?
Demetria hadn’t been gone five minutes when the tech tapped on my door.
Annoyed, I looked up from my microscope.
The tech shifted, her mortal cheeks pink, her eyes cast beyond me to the expansive harbor view. “Sorry to disturb you, Doctor. Your sister’s here?”
I scowled. Artemis knew better than to bother me at work. “Send her in — but if Missy’s still here in five minutes, remind me I have an appointment or something.” I returned to the microscope.
“Uh, Doctor? It’s not Missy.”
My head snapped up.
The tech’s cheeks were even pinker, and her eyes dashed away to the harbor. “It’s another sister?”
I discerned a flash of movement in the hallway.
“Venus,” Demetria mouthed.
Crap. Venus is a relative I’d prefer to keep in the closet. After meeting her, and making the association, people never think of you the same way. Hence the tech’s pink cheeks.
“Sister-in-law.” I pushed back from the bench.
Venus had slunk by the receptionist, waving away her protests, and was sauntering down the hall, her aquamarine eyes locked on mine, undulating in five-inch heels and a metallic aubergine dress cut down-to-here and up-to-there, a waterfall of diamonds clasped to her ears. Her auburn tresses fell below her shoulders, swaying with each sinuous step. The only thing missing was a wind machine.
No one was looking into his microscope.
I braced myself, even as a leer crept across my face. A surge of testosterone bolstered me. Better than an EpiPen. Venus can raise the dead. We’re alike that way.
Venus started talking while still on the approach. Loud, pretentious, attention-seeking. The workers stared at their screens and scopes, fighting that compulsive urge to look when you know you’re going to cringe, like at a car wreck or a crime scene.
“Paulo,” she gushed, “Your little lab is so cunning! Look at all the busy-bees, buzzing about, servicing you . . .” The rest of her eyes fell imperiously, one-by-one, on each of the nymphs. Demetria snorted, defiant, but the other nymphs looked sheepishly away, like chambermaids caught shagging the king at the summer house.
“All this time, we thought you were sucking it up for the greater good, flagellating yourself for the sake of humanity! Going all quaint and rednecky ‘DownEast’ and all.” Her fingers made air quotes around my ears. “And here it turns out, you’ve got yourself a honey hive. A regular, juicy supply of sugar, coming and going, meeting all those needs we thought were going unmet . . . Gotta hand it to you, Paulo. You get the job done.” She made me feel corrupt and shallow. And she had me there, about the honey.
Venus leaned deep over the lab bench, shimmying, allowing me a long look. I hadn’t been into her for ages, but still. “Don’t you miss me, darling?”
I tore my eyes from her cleavage. Two could play her smutty game. “I’m way over your head, Venus.”
She gasped, swiveling to see whether any of the nymphs had heard me shoot her down. What the mortals heard was immaterial, they were so far beneath her. An errant twitter reverberated.
Venus’s eyes were piercing. “I didn’t come to East Bumfuck Portland, Maine to screw around with you, Apollo.” But she had, and we both knew it. “I’d hoped we could play nice. That it could be *mutually satisfying*. But it doesn’t have to go down that way.”
I tried not to laugh, but the smut oozed so naturally from her. It was disgusting and endearing at once, like a favorite, well-worn porn queen. “Not here, Venus.” I gestured to the nymphs and mortals pretending at work in the glassy partitions. “Let’s go upstairs to my loft.”
“Remember, Paulo, I’ve already extended my favor. I’ll be on the receiving end this time.”
“My pleasure.” I wasn’t going near her.
“Not in your tawdry loft though, love. I’ve booked us a room.” She slunk closer to me on my stool, and traced my jaw with her index finger, the long fingernail, a shimmery purple to match the dress, tickling, teasing, taunting. “You owe me. It’s time.”
Dread overwhelmed me, successfully squelching that involuntary, testosterone-fueled response I’d been unsuccessfully fighting since her suggestive entrance. I’d known this was coming, known for millennia. Suddenly, I was weak again, limp, all over, challenged to sit upright on the stool. I should’ve charged like Demetria said.
“On Olympus.” She stepped back to observe me.
I struggled not to react, but her triumphant smile indicated I’d failed.
“Tomorrow night.” She put the tip of her finger to her lips, kissed it, and pressed it to mine. I tasted the strawberry essence in the gloss. Her smile was wide, but her eyes were narrow.
The room spun.
Artemis was channel surfing on the sectional, surrounded by fast food detritus. The flames in the fireplace roared hot and high enough to render those burnt offerings that never did buy our favor or appease our anger.
She brushed crumbs from her leather pants onto the silk Qom rug, grinding them in with the toe of her boot, and stretched, a long, leisurely movement that evoked a big cat.
She was pissed.
“Sorry I’m late.” I leaned against the hearth, a wall of river stone pulled from the Androscoggin.
“It’s not like you got caught in traffic. You just had to come upstairs.” She scrunched up a Big Mac wrapper and hurled it. It bounced off my chest. Flecks of special sauce dotted my lab coat. “I was starving. Now I’m stuffed full of crap.”
I tossed the wrapper into the fire, watching it immolate, releasing a whiff of greasy beef, the pink-slime soul of the sandwich. The pinguid, artificial, looks-and-smells-better-than-it-tastes essence of it reminded me again of Venus. “I said I’m sorry.”
Artemis’s eyebrow arched.
I gazed out the wall of windows over the harbor, seeking the calm the moon on the water usually brought me. It was going to be a moonless night though, and the dusky sky met the gray water seamlessly, matching my mood. I needed to charge, and there was just a glimmer of sun left on the horizon. I had to get to it. “How about we hunt first, then grab dinner? You’ll work up an appetite.”
Artemis’s eyes glinted like a panther stalking its prey. She was on to me. “It’s not the order I would’ve liked. The hunting’s better later. And I wouldn’t have agita.”
“We’ve all got our problems. Meet me in that logging forest north of Danforth.”
Artemis disappeared, her growl lingering behind her.
I dropped the stained lab coat in the laundry for the nymph who cleaned up after me. My mind was consumed with Venus, what she would demand of me, how distasteful, inconvenient and dangerous it would be, and how I was going to face everyone tomorrow night on Olympus. I pulled on my Rutwear and grabbed my bow. I’d better get moving or I’d lose the last of the sun. And I’d be looking down the wrong end of Artemis’s silver arrows if I was late again. In an instant, I disappeared into the dusky October sky.
Artemis crouched atop a high pile of logs, chipping at decaying bark with the tip of an arrow, her eye on a squirrel poking its head out of a hole in a tree thirty yards away. A challenging shot — small target, erratic movement, tough angle, bad light.
“You can’t hit it.” My voice broke the stillness. The charge had been too short, the sun’s energy almost spent, but it felt good to have some juice flowing.
Artemis scowled, then slid off the logs and dropped to the ground. “You’re late. Again.”
I drew an arrow from my quiver and raised my bow. The arrow flew, and the squirrel dropped lifeless to the forest floor, landing with a flat thwack in a bed of pine needles.
Artemis snorted. “I see squirrels aren’t beneath you.”
“Nothing’s beneath me. I’m a guy.” Even in the dark, I saw a hint of a smile before she turned away to collect the squirrel. Men are beneath Artemis, who’d consecrated herself to perpetual celibacy almost five thousand years ago, and never looked back. We’d never discussed it, from a perspective of her “orientation” — Artemis was private that way — but I never got the impression she felt she was missing anything.
Artemis stuffed the squirrel into her game bag for her hounds. She handed me my arrow. “Something’s eating you.”
I wiped the squirrel’s brains from the arrowhead with a handful of leaves.
“I saw Venus,” she said. “In our sky.”
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