Sahara Desert, south of Alexandria, Egypt
She shouldn’t be here.
Zaynah reached for a new grip and cut her hand on a rock. She nearly cried out, but caught herself just in time. She bit her lip. If anyone heard her, it would all be over. Zaynah clicked on a small flashlight and noted the blood pooling in her palm. It didn’t appear too serious, but dirt would get into the wound unless she took care of it. She ripped a strip of cloth from the hem of her shirt and wound it around her hand, pressing a thumb against the injury to test it. Her hand still stung a bit, but it would have to do.
Keep going, she ordered herself. She secured her pack, grabbed another rock and eased her body up. Her stomach growled. She thought of the crust of bread wrapped in linen in her pack. Better save it for later.
Zaynah climbed. Hunger knotted her stomach, whining for relief. She gritted her teeth against the familiar pains that drove her forward and upward. Her thoughts turned towards her father.
He had left their village with a promise to find new work and later send for Zaynah and her family. Six months after her father left, she’d dropped out of school to help her exhausted mother run her business. Where was the time for school when there were rugs to weave? The brightly colored rugs that her mother designed wouldn’t make themselves.
She knew the man her mother sold the rugs to was taking advantage of her. He peddled them to tourists in Cairo for more than ten times the price he paid her mother. Zaynah had tried to convince her mother to let her sell them on the streets, but her mother refused. She said it wasn’t safe. But every month they got farther and farther into debt. Was that any safer?
For three long years her father couldn’t find work. At least that’s what she’d thought until she sought him out and discovered the truth.
Hot spasms of anger caught her heart. It wasn’t fair to be forced into this place, forced to do this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She wasn’t a criminal. But her family couldn’t afford the rent anymore. The landlord had threatened to force them out. Her mother was so sick, they needed a new doctor, new medicine. Things were desperate.
Zaynah’s stomach grumbled again. She ignored it.
If only she could go back to school and finish her education. She would have graduated by now if she hadn’t left to help her mother. She had heard stories of girls in other countries who earned college degrees and brought home the same amount of money as men. There was no future in rugs, not at the prices her mother sold them for anyway. She was tired of working her fingers bloody for no future. Her little brother Sayed had mentioned dropping out of school to help them, but she refused to let him throw his life away too.
Zaynah missed school, but not the students, of course, since most of them were boring and only concerned with their shallow lives. She didn’t really miss the teachers either. What she really missed were the books and what they represented—knowledge.
She had immersed herself in the histories, learning about the days of her land back before Egypt became the first African country to embrace Islam, back before Christians populated it, before Julius Caesar and Augustus invaded it, back to a time of mysticism and a time of wonder, back to the days of the pharaohs where men and women believed they had a direct connection to the gods, and when men and women believed they could become gods.
How fascinating it was to study the ancients! To Zaynah, they didn’t feel like flat characters on the page; instead they felt real to her, like flesh and blood, hot for adventure. Like Alexander the Great, the Macedonian who conquered the known world by the age of 30, or Cleopatra, the seductive empress who cut out her two brother husbands to rule Egypt as pharaoh with her infant son Caesarion as co-regent so she could gain complete control. It was almost as if they came out of the womb knowing what they wanted and never doubting their confidence in attaining it.
She admired that drive to make things happen, that ambition. It was something she despised in herself, that she was ambitious but did nothing to further her dreams. She wondered why she submitted to a life of toil and drudgery day after day, letting precious time slip away that she should be using to become something, something she wanted to be. Instead she was wasting her days becoming nothing.
Well that would all change tonight if everything went well. She’d spent the last of her money going as far as she could on the bus, then walked several miles on foot. She would see this through.
Zaynah eased her lithe body over the last hurdle and there it was beneath her. Perched on the outer wall of the dig site, she could easily discern the serpentine walls in the fading light.
It was just as her cousin Asim had told her. He wasn’t supposed to, of course, but Asim had never been able to keep a secret. He had been too excited to be guarding the discovery to keep it to himself. He had trusted her. She felt a twinge of remorse at betraying that trust, but it couldn’t be helped.
A few splotches of light bobbed in the distance. It must be the guards. Hopefully they were too distracted to notice her. She’d been smart to circle behind. Now the challenge would be to slip inside without being noticed.
The day had been hot and dusty, but now it grew increasingly chilly. She pulled her worn wool cloak tighter around her shoulders to stave off the cold and fought the urge to cry out. The wound on her hand was nothing compared to the bloody stripes crisscrossing her back, or the invisible barb that tore at her heart every time she thought of him and what he’d done. She felt much like Prometheus might have, with an eagle ripping at his liver every day as punishment for stealing fire and bringing it to man. Her eternal torment would be in knowing she could never go back to innocence. She knew the cruelty her father was capable of.
Zaynah pushed the thought away. She didn’t need him. She could take care of herself, and her mother, and her brother. Beginning now.
She began her descent by carefully finding a foothold in one crevice, then another. She climbed down at a tedious pace—hand, foot, hand, foot. She was painfully conscious of every move. Her foot slipped, and a few rocks tumbled to the dirt floor.
She cringed against the wall and held her breath. Her heart lodged in her throat as the rocks landed with a dull thump. Had anyone heard? She strained her eyes. If the lights came closer, she would be an easy target clinging to the wall like this.
One minute passed, then two. The lights remained steady. If the guards had heard anything, they didn’t appear to be investigating it. She let out her breath and climbed the rest of the way down.
Luck was with her. It was a clear, starry night. The full moon’s rays illuminated the dig site, making it easy to see.
Zaynah picked her way to other side of the dig site, past a pickaxe, a bucket of trowels and a pile of shovels. She came to the end where a low table stood, covered by a tarp. She drew back the edge of the tarp slowly and turned on her tiny flashlight, carefully shielding the light with her body.
Disappointment flooded her as she stared at the table. This was nothing more than carefully cleaned and labeled pottery shards. She’d found similar pieces playing in the sand behind her house as a child. She couldn’t believe she’d risked so much only to find worthless pieces of clay! Asim had said there were valuable artifacts.
Anger engulfed her again as her back and injured hand throbbed. Why was life always doing this to her? Playing tricks with her and getting her hopes up, only to dash them whenever she tried anything. She felt like sweeping her hand across the table and smashing the lot. If only the guards weren’t there, if only the noise it would make wouldn’t get her caught. She turned the ancient fragment over in her hand, then dropped it and ground it under her heel. It made her feel a little better.
This had all been a waste of time. She felt a headache coming on. If this was all they’d found, there was no point in sticking around. She repositioned the tarp. As she turned to leave, she noticed a dark shape tucked in the corner. She crept over. It was another tarp surrounded with yellow caution tape. That was promising. This time when she pulled back the edge and clicked on her flashlight, she smiled.
So this is where they kept the valuable things. She saw several scrolls lying there. She touched them. They were made of some kind of parchment or papyri. Unfortunately, all of them were too long to fit in her backpack. But that dagger with the green stone handle would fit.
As Zaynah reached for the weapon, her eyes caught a glimpse of an ancient jar. She moved her flashlight to examine it closer. It reminded her of the Greek jars she had seen in her textbooks. What were they called? Amphoras, that was right. The jar couldn’t be more than twenty inches tall. A reddish-orange lion was painted on the dull black surface. It was standing on its hindquarters and roaring. A chunk of pottery was chipped from the lip, but considering its age, it was in remarkably good shape.
Her eyes moved towards an etching near the shoulder of the jar. She didn’t recognize the symbols. She smiled. Surely it would be worth quite a bit of money.
The girl touched the lion, but just as quickly drew her hand back as she felt an exquisite energy shoot up her arm. It was as if the clay was breathing, as if it had a life of its own.
She felt a strong craving to feel the energy again. She carefully touched the smooth surface. This time she held on as the power surged through her arm and into her body, filling her with an intense sensation. It was an intoxicating combination of delicious desire and ambition that filled her with a confidence she’d never known or dreamed possible. It was as if the jar whispered secrets of who she really was and what she could become.
She had to have it. She must know its secrets, understand its power, and make it her own.
In the dim light, Zaynah could see the lights moving in her direction. She could hear voices. The guards were coming. She wondered if they’d seen her light. Her hand trembled as she turned her flashlight off.
They were still coming. She grabbed the jar blindly and shoved it into her backpack. She reached for the dagger and thrust it in too. What else? What else? She grabbed a few other small coins and objects and tossed them in. That was it. She was out of time.
Zaynah scurried toward the other end of the dig site. She clung to the shadows and hoped the guards’ flashlights wouldn’t find her.
She reached the outer wall and began to climb. Pain shot through her injured hand and she lost her grip. She slid to the ground in a crumpled heap.
A shout broke out. The guards must have heard. Flashlights darted up the ancient walls, searching for any signs of life, searching for her. Her heart beat faster and she rolled over and crouched down, making herself as small as possible against the wall. More flashlights now. They knew what she had done. A cold sweat clung to her skin. She needed to get out of here—now!
But as she pulled the pack over her shoulder, she felt the power of the jar thrumming through the thin cloth. She could still feel its smooth surface in her mind. She could still feel the fierce vibrations flowing through her body. She needed to go. She would go, but she needed to touch it one more time first. Even though her senses screamed at her to run, to flee the scene of her crime, she had to relieve the ache that coursed through her every vein. All she needed was to feel the power completely. Nothing else mattered.
She set down the bag and pulled out the jar. With trembling hands, she grasped the lid and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. She pulled again. Nothing.
Zaynah knelt, gripped the jar between her thighs and with a mighty wrench, she tore the lid off and set it aside. She placed her hands to the jar and nearly cried in relief as the power surged through her. It enveloped her, heightening her sensations and strengthening her. She watched in fascination as a green light entered her fingertips and flowed into her hands, through her veins and up her arms. She felt the raw power surging through her. She hadn’t been living all this time; she’d merely been existing. Now, she felt invincible.
The shouts grew louder. A voice in the back of head screamed at her. Run, run! But she ignored it. She could feel the power stronger now. The green light streamed into the air, hissing and snapping as it swirled up, up, then turned into a menacing black mass. It rose in the air and hovered over her.
Zaynah stared up at the coiling cloud and unconsciously opened her arms as if to embrace it. The dark cloud hovered a moment more, then rushed at her, slamming into her chest and throwing her several feet backwards into a pile of rubble.
She lay there, stunned and uncomprehending. A wave of horror washed over her. She groaned and turned over onto her side. Her ribs felt broken. She could taste something slightly tangy and metallic. Her mouth was bleeding, and not just her lip. She felt blood trickle down her forehead and into her eye. She wiped it away with her sleeve.
The jar’s mouth continued to belch the inky cloud. No, it wasn’t a cloud so much as a—shadow? What had she unleashed? She had to stop it.
She crawled toward the jar, gritting her teeth against the pain, ignoring her screaming ribs and throbbing head. She looked for the lid and spotted it not far from the jar. She grabbed it and with a last burst of strength slammed the lid back onto the jar.
But she was too late. Whatever it was, it was already released.
She heard a low rasping voice. She strained to hear the whispers that floated around her. There were words, but she couldn’t understand them. They were spoken in a different language. The voice gradually got louder and louder. Then suddenly she could understand it.
“Back. Son of night, born of shadow. Back to finish what was begun. Back, back, back.”
She heard voices and saw flashlights coming toward her. Whoever was coming would reach her any minute.
“Boy, the boy,” the voice hissed. “He must die.”
She could feel the shadow’s cold tendrils weaving around her.
“Yes,” Zaynah whispered. She felt the power surge through her, a blinding white anger that coursed through her body. The guard must not stop her. She rose with the shadow. Green light flowed through her arms and crackled at her fingertips.
Her arms raised and the light shot out of her hands, knocking the guard to the ground. He convulsed, then lay still.
The green light sucked back into her hands and the shadow retreated. She walked over to the body and held up her light.
Zaynah gasped. There was no mistaking the curly hair and dark eyes.
It was Asim.
Her cousin’s handsome face was contorted in a silent scream. His body was rigid and his hands distorted. It was as if the life had been drained from him. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty tonight. What had she done? Or rather, what had that thing made her do?
This couldn’t be happening. No one was supposed to get hurt, especially not Asim. He had always been kind to her. She felt a deep shame. She dropped to her knees and touched his forehead. Her dark hair fell forward into her face, as if she could cover her sin with it.
She felt terror building inside. She had to stop this thing. She picked up the jar and removed the lid. If she could just find a way to suck it back inside, maybe she could fix this. Maybe she could bring her cousin back.
The shadow hissed and floated toward her. She pointed the mouth of the jar at it, willing whatever it was, the thing to return. But as it came close to the jar, it split and surrounded it and seized her with a fury, wrapping itself around her and lifting her up in the air.
Zaynah screamed and dropped the jar. It shattered as it hit a patch of rocky debris. The shadow cloud convulsed and squeezed. She screamed again, this time in pain as the shadow began to penetrate her pores. It folded itself into her, merging and becoming one with her. She tried to push it away but she was too weak. She struggled less and less until her tired body went limp against the power.
“What are you?” she whispered as the darkness closed in.
Then everything went black.
A Mysterious Package
La Mesa, Southern California – Two Years Later
“That’s strange,” Kami’s mother said as she brought in the mail and handed her a brown package bound with what must be an entire roll of packing tape and tied with twine.
“What?” Kami asked, then she looked at the return address and she knew. Her hands trembled as she traced the names. Ahmed and Layla Hassri, her grandparents.
To be honest, she hadn’t been sure they knew she existed. They had never tried to contact her, not with a phone call or email, or even a letter. She wondered why, after all these years, they had sent a package.
To make matters more mysterious, the package had been postmarked 23 days before. It had arrived today, on her seventeenth birthday. What were the odds?
She knew of her grandparents, of course. Her father had told her many stories of his childhood in Egypt, but he rarely mentioned his parents. They were just vague ghosts hovering in the background. She’d loved curling up in bed begging for just one more story, until he became too weak and emaciated to tell them anymore. Cancer. The ugly disease stole away her best friend. If she’d known the story her gentle and kind Baba was telling her would be his last, she would never have let him stop.
When her Baba, a handsome Egyptian attending school at the American University in Cairo, had fallen in love with her mother, a pretty American studying abroad, her grandparents had rejected the match. Kami didn’t know the whole story, only that some bad feelings had developed, and, as a result, her father and her grandparents had cut off ties completely when he’d moved to America with his bride. Kami had been born a few years later. They’d named her Kamilah, after one of her father’s favorite cousins.
She turned the package over in her hands. What could be inside? She almost felt guilty receiving it. She wasn’t sure she wanted anything to do with the people who’d rejected her father. They weren’t family. They were strangers. They hadn’t even come to her father’s funeral.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” her mother asked. She looked into her mother’s curious eyes.
“Maybe later,” she said. Her mother opened her mouth, but then shut it, as if she’d changed her mind about whatever she was going to say. Kami felt relieved since she didn’t feel like explaining her complicated feelings. She wondered if her father would have wanted her to open the package. It was a foreign thought. He had been dead so many years that she rarely wondered any more what he would want. She wished she could ask him what had happened all those years ago.
She had always been caught between two worlds, at least in looks. Her American and Egyptian blood had formed almond shaped brown eyes framed by sooty long lashes, prominent cheekbones, full lips, skin dark enough to indicate she wasn’t white, but light enough to confuse people. Back in her awkward years, she’d been teased because she looked different.
She opened the bulky wardrobe that served as her closet. She’d picked it up for cheap at a yard sale, sanded off the putrid yellow paint and repainted it a gorgeous spring green. Inside were her precious clothes that she had earned by making countless beds, washing countless windows, and vacuuming countless floors, back during a good period when her mother took her house cleaning with her. Back before her mother got fired, again.
The clothes gave Kami normality, or the appearance of it anyway. Most of the kids she went to school with came from families with money, and the last thing she wanted was to play another round of kick Kami around. She knew race wasn’t the only difference kids fixated on. Poverty was another, and she was striking out two for two. Nothing screamed poor like threadbare clothes. She could already imagine the imaginative names they’d stick her with—trailer trash or something.
Kami pulled on a white t-shirt and a pair of shorts, then slid on her running shoes and tied them. Maybe a good run would clear her mind.
Moving to southern California had been a welcome change. There was a large enough Hispanic and Arab population that she didn’t seem like a novelty, like she had in Mariposa. They’d moved to La Mesa the summer she’d turned 14 so her mother could get another “fresh start” cleaning houses for the sister of her previous employer who owned a rental company. By then, Kami had figured out the high school social structure. She had spent all her summer job money on a new wardrobe and makeup and learned how to use them. She had received plenty of positive attention at the new school. Instead of strange, her foreign looks were now exotic. It had been work, of course. Taming her hair into long sleek locks had been a pain. Learning to use makeup hadn’t come easy either. She blushed to think about the eye shadow she’d caked on at first. And mascara? What a joke!
By now she had her look down. She thought it had been worth it to be validated by the other kids. At the time it had hurt to not feel accepted. How funny to look back and remember how much it had mattered to her. After everything she’d been through lately, she couldn’t seem to muster enough energy to care.
Kami opened the door and skipped down the sagging steps that led to their rundown trailer. The gravel crunched beneath her feet as she crossed the lawn, though it would be kind of a stretch to call the rocky patch with the occasional scraggly cactus a “lawn.”
She stretched her arms, shoulders, and legs. Her reluctant muscles relaxed, and she could feel her body loosening up. This was her favorite time of the day.
She set off on her familiar running path, past Rosa’s house and Mr. Delancy’s place, past Mrs. Freeman’s trailer, who was out leaning on her walker and gathering her mail. Kami waved and left the trailer park. Her feet thudded against the ground.
The birds chirped, and the trees gently swayed. She didn’t live far from the orange orchards, and her feet automatically moved in that direction. It was her favorite run during the spring bloom with the light, citrusy perfume wafting from the white blossoms. Now, with the baby oranges maturing on the trees it didn’t smell quite as heavenly, but it was still a beautiful route.
The sun warmed her body. She could feel a sweat break out on her forehead. It was going to be a hot day. In the distance, Kami could see craggy views of Mt. Helix and the stirring neighborhoods of La Mesa.
She felt unusually restless. Generally running helped her relax, but today it seemed to have the opposite effect. Her traitorous mind kept turning the package over and over, teasing her with a desire to rip it open and examine its contents.
Kami tried to turn her thoughts. School had been out for a week and she still hadn’t heard back from Pet Palace if she got the job she applied for. She hoped so. It would be a long boring summer otherwise, if the past week was any indication.
She thought of the package again and sighed. Her mind was like a moth drawn to a flame. She couldn’t shake the thought. It was as if the package was whispering to her to open it.
No. Not yet. She wasn’t ready.
Kami picked up the pace. She wished she’d brought some tunes, anything to block out her wandering thoughts. She ran and tried to forget. It kind of worked. She ran until her head pounded and her side hurt. The pain claimed her focus and the other thoughts fell away. She ran and she ran, past the trees, past the gorgeous homes with meticulously landscaped yards and long driveways, homes that she couldn’t imagine living in.
With her head down and her mind focused, she was surprised to find herself back at the trailer park sooner than normal. She bent over and breathed deeply, hoping to relieve the stitch in her side. She probably shouldn’t have pushed so hard, but at least it let her forget for a little while.
She walked towards home, slowing as she passed Rosa’s house, then she stopped. She breathed the fragrance in deeply. Rosa had taught her about the flowers until she could identify them—the geraniums in bright red, hot pink, and purple clusters, the delicately petaled impatiens in varying shades of pink, the yellow and orange cannas with their wide tropical leaves, the pure white gardenias, and the pale pink dahlias that bobbed lazily under the weight of their heavy blossoms. Rosa often joked that the brilliant camellias were named after Kami.
Kami looked back, noticing the contrast between Rosa’s trailer and their own single wide. The difference was stark. A faded, peeling exterior, no flowers, and a battered vehicle that more often than not didn’t work. At least there wasn’t a bunch of junk lying around. Rosa’s place was no better than theirs, but because of the way she maintained it and beautified it, it seemed so much cozier. Rosa had offered to help Kami start her own flower garden. She should probably take her up on that.
She wondered, as she had many times before, how they’d ended up in this place. It wasn’t her parent’s plan, she knew. They had started out with the same hopes and dreams as any other family. Nothing had been the same after her father died. Her mother would rally, for awhile, land a job, and consequently, be able to pay the bills. But each time things would crumble. Her mom would go into a slump. She would show up for work erratically, or arrive too drunk to perform. She’d lose her job and get depressed, or she would get depressed and lose her job. Either way, the effect was the same.
When Kami had been younger and more naive, she would actually get hopeful when her mother was in an upswing. She kept thinking this would be the time her mother got better. Now she knew the truth. Her mother was locked into a cycle, and what was up would inevitably come down. She didn’t hope anymore, she just waited for the next stage.
Each time they moved, the rent got a little cheaper and the house a little more rundown. And though Kami didn’t care for their trailer, living there had brought her a gift—her neighbor, Rosa.
Rosa had taught her a lot more than horticulture; she had become a second mother, one that was a lot more reliable than her biological one.
Kami opened the door and went inside. She wiped down her face with a towel, then pulled out some worms to feed Galileo.
Galileo was under house arrest. Not because he ticked off the Roman Inquisition by having the audacity to declare the sun was at the center of the universe instead of the earth, but rather because he preferred to live in the bathtub.
Galileo was a turtle, a cute little guy with an orange stripe down his back that she’d named after her favorite scientist. She had ambitions for him. Nothing dramatic like inventing a telescope or proving a heliocentric universe, but he just might learn to swim the entire span of the bathtub.
But as she fed the turtle, washed the dishes, and tried to read a paperback from an author who usually captivated her, she couldn’t focus. Her mind kept wandering to the mysterious package lying on her bed, and the desire to know its contents grew stronger and stronger.
By evening, after a birthday cake and ice cream her mother had miraculously remembered to buy, Kami couldn’t stand it anymore. She stole out onto the stairs with the package. She didn’t know why, but she wanted to do this alone. She slid a knife under the folded edge and pulled back the paper wrapping.
Kami opened the box.
There, nestled in the package, was a scarab necklace. The scarab was attached to a pretty chain, new and gold with tiny links that didn’t seem to fit with the antiquity of the pendant. The beetle was about an inch long, fashioned of gold and inlaid with a green stone speckled with red spots. It was almost as if it had been splattered by a paintbrush. The gold was worn and tarnished.
Kami felt a little disappointed as she set down the knife. Her melancholy didn’t really make sense. It wasn’t as if she had been expecting anything particular. Maybe she had just hoped for something more, personal?
“What is it?” a voice said behind her.
Startled, Kami jumped. Her mother stood behind the screen door. Kami held up the necklace so her mother could see.
“A scarab,” her mother said, stating the obvious. She opened the screen door and stepped outside, the door slamming behind her. She picked up the scarab and examined it closer.
“There’s more,” her mother said as she handed the package back to Kami.
Sure enough. A note was tucked underneath the necklace, which she opened. It was written in an elegant cursive. She looked at the bottom—her grandmother’s signature. She skimmed it. The letter was surprisingly warm and expressed her desire to meet her granddaughter.
The necklace had belonged to her father, and now it belonged to her.
There was something else too—a plane ticket to Egypt. It must have cost a fortune. She wondered if her grandparents were wealthy. She silently handed it to her mother who stared hard at it for a good minute.
“What do you think?” Kami asked cautiously.
“It’s your decision,” her mother said abruptly, shoving the ticket back into her hand and going inside. She heard the TV turn on. Her mother was retreating again.
Kami sighed. Her decision. Technically that’s what her mom had said, but she knew it wasn’t that simple. It was her decision, but her mother expected her to make the right one. The question was “right” for whom? Her mother? Or her?
She’d never even flown in a plane before, and the thought of traveling alone across the ocean was overwhelming. She had lived in California her whole life, and had only visited two bordering states, Arizona and Nevada. Her family had vacationed at the Grand Canyon when she was five, and when she was fifteen she had been a bridesmaid at a cousin’s wedding in Las Vegas. Both were road trips.
Besides, what if she got to Egypt and didn’t get along with her grandparents? They hadn’t accepted her mother, and she saw no reason to believe they would accept her.
There were other motives not to go. She had responsibilities at home, her turtle, and possibly a job.
She also knew her mother would be lonely without her, when she was present any way. But it wasn’t like she’d taken a job yet, and an opportunity like this may not come again. The more she had thought about it, the more she warmed to the idea. It would give her a chance to get away, to ignore the worries that had been weighing her down. Who knows? She might even have a little adventure. Maybe she should go.
Kami felt nervous butterflies in her stomach the morning of the flight. She slipped out of bed and picked up her father’s necklace. It had sat on her dresser ever since her birthday. She didn’t really want to wear it. Who wears bugs? But she felt like she should out of respect for her father. Her grandmother might also appreciate it, and she didn’t want to start their relationship off on the wrong foot.
She had spoken with her grandmother on the phone to make arrangements for her trip. Kami had been nervous at first, but something about her grandmother’s soothing voice had calmed her. Her voice was heavily accented but still easily understandable. She did truly seem excited about meeting her, although her grandmother had said something at the end of their conversation that had been bugging her ever since.
“I am worried for your grandfather. I think he has found something that should have remained buried. It is possible he is in grave danger. It is vital you come. He needs you.”
Kami didn’t know her grandmother well enough to know if she was joking. When she’d pressed her grandmother for more information, she’d been cryptic and abruptly changed the subject.
She pulled her hair to the side and fastened the necklace. The necklace was larger and heavier than what she was accustomed to wearing. It felt heavy on her neck.
Kami looked into the mirror at her reflection. Her face was expressionless, hiding the inner turmoil that churned inside. She knew her mother wasn’t happy with her decision. They had talked about it many times late into the night. Kami had stood her ground. She was curious to meet her family, at least her grandmother anyway. Just as important to her, she wanted to see Egypt. She wanted to explore the pyramids, gaze at the artifacts and mummies, and see the Nile with her own eyes.
Her mother had spoken to her grandmother on the phone, and after that lengthy conversation, she had finally given her consent. Her mother still wasn’t thrilled, but at least the feeling of deep disapproval had lifted. She seemed to have come to terms with Kami’s decision.
She glanced at her watch. It was almost time to go. Deep down she wondered if she was running away—from her mother, from her life, from the load that sometimes seemed unbearable, maybe all of it.
Her eyes went back to the necklace. It would definitely draw a lot of attention at the airport, and that was the last thing she wanted. She dropped the necklace under her favorite t-shirt, black with a gray floral design up the side. It felt warm against her bare skin.
Then the strangest thing happened.
Kami felt a gentle pulse.
She snatched the necklace out and stared at it. She knew she had felt it, some kind of energy surge or something. She wrapped her hand around the scarab making a fist, but felt nothing. She dropped it under her shirt again gingerly, holding her breath, waiting.
Nothing happened. Maybe she had imagined it.
Kami’s eyes caught the time on the alarm clock, and she knew she needed to pick up her pace. She couldn’t miss her flight. She was lucky her expedited passport had barely arrived in time. She finished her hair, dabbed on some light makeup and grabbed her suitcase.
As she left the bedroom, she was surprised to see the kitchen still dark. She flipped on the light and her heart sunk. Not again. Her mother had promised she was quitting. Not that that meant anything, but still. Now?
Two empty bottles of cheap wine with a black label lay sideways on the table. If she knew anything about her mother, the bottles had been full when she brought them home last night. She was in one of her moods again. Hadn’t she remembered that she’d promised to drive her to the airport? She’d been counting on her.
Oh her mother probably didn’t intend it, she knew that. One little drink, she’d probably promised herself, just to calm the nerves. Then one more, and one more until she was drinking without thinking.
Kami could feel the irritation building up, so she took a deep breath and blew it out to release the tension. She didn’t want to get worked up right before her trip, but it was hard to be patient with her mother wrecking her life. She wished she wasn’t so dependent on her mother. She wished her mother wasn’t so dependent on her when she often didn’t know the right thing to do.
She took another deep breath. What was it that Rosa had said? It’s like her mother had two holes in her heart, one to pour in the pain and another to drain the happiness. The cravings, the drinking, the obsessive dwelling on the past. Living in a world of ‘if-only’s’ locked her into a mental prison, one to which she kept voluntarily returning. Knowing this didn’t make it easier for Kami to understand, but it did make it easier for her to care.
She quietly opened the door to her mother’s room. Her mother’s brown hair was plastered to one side of her face. She moaned and turned. Even in sleep she never looked at peace. Kami’s heart constricted. What was she thinking, leaving her in this state? Staying wouldn’t change her mother, but at least she could watch out for her and make sure she didn’t do anything too stupid. She couldn’t go, she just couldn’t.
There. She’d been debating for weeks. Now it was decided. She tried to tell herself she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. Her grandmother would probably be crushed, but what choice did she have? Hopefully, she wouldn’t be too mad about the wasted money on the airline ticket. She had rambled on about her grandfather needing her for some reason, but it seemed impossible that she could do anything for someone like him.
A tiny pouting voice in the back of her head cried, What about you? But she’d learned to drown out that voice. It only led to frustration to listen to it.
Rosa! She was expecting her. She’d have to let Rosa know she wouldn’t need to her turtle sit after all. It seemed silly to have Rosa take care of Galileo when her mom was home, but she had a history of being unreliable. Kami had gone on a three-day boating trip with friends, and her mom had completely forgotten to care for Galileo. He’d been sluggish at first, after some coaxing he finally started eating again. It had been a huge relief nothing worse had happened. It was just easier to let Rosa take care of him, and she didn’t seem to mind.
She crossed the lawn and knocked on the door. Rosa, a plump woman with kind eyes and a mischievous grin, answered the door. Her brown hair was flecked with generous streaks of gray and was pulled back into a tight bun. She brushed a flyaway strand behind her ear and wiped her hands on an apron that read, “Kiss the Cook.”
“No thanks,” Kami said.
Rosa stared at her blankly, so Kami pointed at the apron. She understood and chuckled.
“C’mon, you know you want to,” she said, winking and pointing to her cheek. Kami laughed and gave her a peck. She looked around.
Kami’s smile faded.
“Um, about that. Mom’s going through a rough patch again. I don’t think I can leave under the circumstances.”
“Nonsense, Kami,” Rosa interrupted. “Just because your mother is struggling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the trip of your life. She is not going to guilt-trip you out of it. I half believe she did this to sabotage you.”
Kami felt a stab of loyalty and knew she should probably defend her mother. She also knew Rosa was probably right.
“Just march over there and get that turtle of yours. You’re going on this trip.”
“But she can’t drive me to the airport.”
“I’ll drive you, and I’ll watch over your mother while you’re gone. You’ve been carrying the world on your shoulders too long and you deserve a break. You should go and enjoy yourself.”
Rosa could be bossy at times, in a firm motherly sort of way. Kami wasn’t sure it was the best idea to go, but she knew Rosa wouldn’t be budged. And Rosa would watch over her mother, just like she’d watched over her ever since they’d become neighbors.
“Sometimes I just wish I understood why,” Kami said, biting her lip. “She knew how important this was to me.”
Rosa sighed and picked at a loose string on her apron.
“Your mother never really got over your father’s death. She loved him intensely you know.”
“Sometimes when you love like that, you’d do almost anything to keep from losing it. You tie yourself to the pain and self-medicate to numb the effects of it. It’s a vicious cycle, but you do it because if you don’t, you lose that person. It’s better to feel pain than to feel nothing.”
“But why can’t she remember without so much pain? Other people have lost loved ones and they don’t mourn forever. Why can’t mom choose happiness? Choose life? Choose me?”
“It’s selfish,” Kami said, feeling ashamed even as she said it. It felt wrong to admit her mother had a flaw, like she was airing dirty laundry. Of course that laundry had already been aired plenty of times by her mother so it wasn’t like there was anything secret about it.
“Don’t be too hard on her. She has her reasons. I don’t think she realizes how hard her choices are on you. Where is my purse? I know I left it here somewhere. Ah, found it!” Rosa rummaged through the bag and pulled out her keys. She paused, looked at Kami for a moment, then pulled her in for a hug. Rosa whispered fiercely in her ear.
“Whatever you do, don’t throw your life away and blame it on your mother. No matter the life your mother chooses, you get to carve out your own fate. You make your own destiny. Got it?”
“Now bring over that turtle.”
So Kami carried Galileo over to Rosa’s house, and within minutes they were flying down the highway in Rosa’s rattling Toyota truck that had probably been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The passenger mirror shook so violently, it seemed it would snap off at any moment.
As they whizzed past the orange groves, she turned her thoughts away from her mother and towards flying for the first time.
An Embarrassing Moment
Kami felt a flurry of excitement as she boarded the plane for the final leg of her trip from New York to Cairo. She passed row after row of mostly Arab men, some in shirts and slacks, some in robes. They tapped messages into cell phones, read books or talked quietly. A few made eye contact, but just as quickly averted their eyes.
She slid into her seat and pressed her face against the window. She pulled her hair away from her face and glanced around discreetly. There were only a few other women on the plane—three women crowded together in the back, giggling, a woman sitting next to what was probably her husband or brother, a few older women and a few women with children. Some of the older women dressed in robes, but most of the younger ones were dressed similar to her. The only difference was they covered their hair with scarves of varying designs and rich colors.
Kami scanned the plane quickly for other Americans. There were a handful that might be. An older couple sat about three-quarters of the way back, clearly dressed as tourists. A thin blonde woman with a deep tan was three rows back. An overweight man wearing a ball cap sat two rows ahead. Then there was a guy, tall with short-cropped brown hair and a handsome face. He had ear buds in and was absorbed in something on his lap. It was as if he sensed her gaze on him, because he suddenly looked up, and his eyes met hers.
Then he winked at her.
Embarrassed, she shifted her eyes, but not before she noticed his mouth quirk up into a little smile. Her eyes had only tangled with his for a moment, but that had been long enough to appear like she was staring. Her face burned.
The stagnant air in the plane all of a sudden felt stifling. She twisted the knob to feel cool air blast her neck. It felt refreshing.
His eyes were blue.
She groaned. Going down this path was not a good idea.
Nice, Kami, she scolded herself. She pulled out a battered paperback out of her carry on and tried to distract herself.
A tired-looking woman clutching a baby sat next to her. She smiled politely at the woman, then retrieved a battered paperback out of her carry on and tried to read. She reread the same page about five times before she gave up. She felt too distracted, too fluttery inside.
Kami wondered what Egypt would be like, and what her grandparents would be like. Her grandmother had seemed warm and accepting on the phone. She wondered if she would be the same when she met her. Her grandmother said she would get the full Egyptian experience, whatever that meant. She worried a bit about the violence she had seen when she’d researched Egypt on the internet, but her grandmother assured her they lived safely away from most of the excitement.
The plane shuddered and took off down the runway. Excitement gripped her as she felt the wheels leave the surface and the plane began to gain altitude, just like the last flight. She was surprised that she liked the powerful sensation.
Unfortunately, the baby next to her didn’t seem to enjoy flying as much. He was a handsome little fellow, probably about a year old, with creamy brown skin, chubby cheeks, and wide brown eyes. Those eyes were now full of tears as his mother wrapped a blanket around him and tried to awkwardly rock him. Rather than soothe him, though, the action seemed to irritate him. He kicked his arms and legs, thrashing and pushing away the blanket and trying to slide off his mother’s lap. His mother, a petite woman who also wore one of those scarves, held on tight. She kept glancing at Kami apologetically, and Kami returned what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
She considered asking if the woman needed help, but she realized if the baby wouldn’t be calmed by his mother, he would probably go ballistic with a stranger. So she opened her book again. She tried not to wince as the baby pummeled his mother with his fists. Clearly, he was having nothing to do with this sitting still stuff. Then he started to wail.
Out of her peripheral, she could see his mother’s face looked strained and her eyes shone luminously, threatening to overflow any minute. Kami felt a surge of compassion for her. She hoped the people on the plane would be understanding.
She remembered how one time at the doctor’s office, she’d been waiting for her appointment when a baby had erupted. The baby had only been crying for a minute or two when another woman snapped at the mother, informing her it was a shame that some people couldn’t control their children. She still remembered the young mother’s crushed face, and Kamid had wanted to tell the insensitive woman it was a shame some people couldn’t control their tongues. But she’d bit her tongue, her timidity sealing her mouth shut. She didn’t want to see the same expression on this woman.
The seat belt sign flashed off. Kami felt a sense of relief. The woman had the option to stand now. Maybe that would help.
Then she heard a low British accent, and she glanced up to see him—the boy with the blue eyes. So he wasn’t an American, after all. She forced herself to pay attention to the conversation.
“I’m only a few rows back and the seat next to me is empty. It might be easier for your baby to get comfortable with his own seat,” he said.
The woman stared at him blankly, and he seemed to recognize she didn’t speak English. He smoothly switched to another language, Arabic probably. This the woman clearly understood. She nodded and smiled gratefully. She was very pretty when she smiled.
The woman and her baby followed the boy, who carried her bag to his seat, leaving Kami reeling in his wake. He had said he wanted to exchange seats, hadn’t he? So now he would be her seat mate? She felt surprised at the almost panicky feeling that surged through her.
She shook her head. Pull yourself together Kami, she ordered. Two years ago she wouldn’t have felt so flustered, even a few months ago she wouldn’t. She had reinvented herself into an outgoing girl, pretty enough to attract one of the most popular boys in her class. She’d dated him steady for six months, until he’d dumped her in a painful way that left her in an emotional tailspin, questioning everything.
Right before she left on her trip she spotted him at the mall holding hands with his latest conquest, a pretty brunette in a denim miniskirt. She’d felt sick to her stomach watching them flirt, but angry too, knowing she’d fallen for his now obviously insincere charm. How had she actually believed he thought she was special?
Her fists clenched. At least her ex hadn’t seen her. That would have been awkward, the pathetic ex, all alone.
She’d sworn to take a break from boys, so of course she had to sit next to such a good-looking guy. She peeked at him discreetly.
Kami took a deep breath and released it. She was making something out of nothing. He was just helping out the woman. The flight would be over soon and she’d likely never see him again. If only he weren’t so attractive.
The boy slid into the seat next to her. She was very aware of him. He was even taller than she realized, now that he sat next to her. He smelled good too, a clean masculine scent. There was an awkward silence between them for a few moments until he broke it.
“Sorry to whisk away your seat mates, but one of them didn’t seem to appreciate not having his own seat.”
Kami laughed, relaxing as she glanced back at the little boy. He was standing in the window seat jumping up and down. His mother had an arm up supporting his back and looked much more at peace.
“He seems much happier now that he’s not constrained,” Kami said.
“Aren’t we all?”
“That was kind of you to offer her your seat.”
“What do I need two seats for?”
“I don’t know. Kick your feet up. Catch a nap.”
“At the expense of that woman and her baby? No thanks.”
“Still, not everyone would have done it.”
“Maybe. My name is Liam, by the way,” he said. “Liam Mitchell.”
“I’m Kamilah Hassri.” She was glad her voice didn’t sound as shaky as she felt.
“So do you go by Kamilah, or do you have a nickname?”
“My friends call me Kami.”
“And do I qualify as a friend?”
“I don’t know yet,” Kami replied. She liked the way his mouth always seemed to be on the verge of smiling, and she marveled at how easy he was to talk to.
“Ah, the lady throws out a challenge. So what does it take to earn your friendship?”
“Nothing much—be willing to walk on hot coals, slay dragons, prove absolute loyalty by tasting any suspicious libations to make sure they’re not poisonous. The usual stuff.” Liam laughed as she ticked off her list.
“You are so random,” he said.
“You have no idea. So it’s my turn to ask you a question. What’s up with the winking?” She regretted saying it almost the moment it escaped her lips. It wasn’t like her to be so bold.
“I was bored. And intrigued,” Liam said, smiling a bit sheepishly. “I was curious how you would react.”
“You reacted just as I expected. You were embarrassed.”
“Actually, I was thinking ‘Who’s the perv who has the audacity to hit on a complete stranger?’” she said.
“Or that could have been it,” Liam laughed, flashing his strong white teeth with a lopsided grin that made her smile. “I was curious because you weren’t covered.”
“Not covered?” Kami’s voice rose as she looked herself over. Nothing was exposed. What was he talking about?
“No, not that,” he shook his head. “Your hair.”
“Oh, you mean I’m not wearing one of those scarves.”
“A hijab, right.”
The drink cart rolled up to their seats and a stern stewardess in a navy blue dress took their orders—a bottled water for Liam and a cranberry juice for Kami. She set the drinks on their fold down tables and moved on. He reached over and pulled back the tab of her juice, which Kami thought was strange. Maybe he was trying to be a gentleman?
Then he gulped a big swig of her juice!
“What are you doing?” she sputtered, outraged.
“Just testing your suspicious libation,” he said with a fake look of innocence. “I don’t think it’s poisonous, but maybe I’d better make sure.”
“Give me that,” she said grabbing his arm. How could she have mistaken him for a gentleman? “Since when is cranberry juice suspicious?”
“You never know. You usually get happy, chatty stewardesses, but that one? I don’t know. Kind of dodgy. She has assassin written all over her.”
“You’re so full of it. If you wanted a cranberry juice you should have asked for one instead of taking mine.”
“I didn’t. I just wanted a drink of yours. So are we friends now?”
“That little stunt definitely did not help you.”
“Blast. I guess I’ll have to keep trying. I don’t suppose there are any hot coals onboard, are there? Do you think I should call the stewardess over and ask?”
She shook her head, biting her cheek to keep from laughing. The boy was incorrigible.
He beckoned to the stewardess who didn’t look too thrilled to come. Kami was half-expecting a request for hot coals, but instead he asked for another cranberry juice. The stewardess rolled her eyes but handed him another drink.
“There you are,” Liam said. “Now am I back in your good graces?”
She opened the tab and nursed a long sip.
“Thinking about it,” she grinned.
“Are you always this happy?” Liam asked.
His question hung in the air, suspended, like a fine mist threatening to dissolve any minute. For the past few hours it was as if she was a different Kami, not the girl who’d spent countless nights worrying about her mother, praying she wouldn’t choke on her own vomit or drink herself into an early grave. Not the girl who stressed out over every test because she knew if she didn’t pull a 4.0 and bring in scholarships, she wouldn’t have a future. Not the girl who lived in a dingy trailer and wasn’t sure how much longer they could afford that.
She was just a regular girl having fun with a boy. Is this what it felt like to be normal?
Liam must have sensed the pensive change that washed over her because he changed the subject. She felt grateful.
“Is this your first time to Egypt?”
“Yes. I’m meeting my grandparents for the first time.”
His eyebrow arched.
“Wow. Which side?”
“My father’s. My mother is an American.”
“Why didn’t he come with you?”
“Um, he couldn’t. He died of cancer when I was six.”
“I’m sorry,” Liam said. His eyes shone with compassion.
“Yeah, well, it is what it is,” she answered as lightly as she could.
“Are you nervous?”
“A little,” Kami admitted. “They basically disowned my parents, so it’s strange they want to meet me after all these years.”
“They probably regret never getting to know you. The older you get, the more you realize how precious relationships are.”
“How wise you are all of a sudden.”
He flushed and grinned.
“That’s what they say anyway. And yes, I am very wise. I was born wise.”
“Sure,” Kami teased.
“Seriously. Don’t worry about it. They’re going to love you. Who wouldn’t?”
“You barely know me.”
“But I’ve got good instincts.”
“Well, thanks for believing in me anyway.”
Kami reached down to her black duffle, unzipped a side pocket and drew out a raspberry almond granola bar drizzled in chocolate.
“Want one?” she asked, while he simultaneously said, “You have one too!”
“What? A granola bar?” she asked, confused.
“No. A scarab necklace.”
She looked down. It must have fallen out when she had leaned over to grab her snack.
“Do you know what it stands for?” he asked.
“It’s a good luck symbol. Lots of people wear them in Egypt. See?”
He pulled out a little scarab that that clung to a chain around his neck.
“Yours is much cooler though. It looks like an actual antique. I picked mine up for 14 Egyptian pounds at a flea market. That would be, let me think, approximately 2 US dollars. May I?”
Kami handed it to him. He set it in his palm and looked it over carefully. She felt very conscious of how close she had to lean in so he could study it.
“Did you know the beetle was a symbol of the sun god Ra?”
She shook her head.
“In ancient days, the Egyptians working the fields noticed magic—beetles that would burst from the ground, appearing to emerge out of nowhere. What they didn’t know was the beetles would roll little balls of dung and lay their eggs in the balls, leaving them to develop until they were ready to hatch. Some say that the metamorphosis from egg, to larva, to beetle represents mankind’s ability to form ourselves and control our destinies.”
“And here I thought it was just a scarab necklace,” she smiled.
“Oh no, the symbolism is deep. It represents rebirth, creation, and regeneration. It means life returns. It means no matter what rubbish life throws at you, you have the ability to form of it what you will. Life returns.”
Kami liked the idea, and she looked down at this link she shared with her father. Was that the spirit that led him to marry her mother? To forge his own destiny despite the pressures of his father to conform to his desires?
“In ancient times, scarabs were placed on the heart or chest of the dead, like this.” He set the beetle against his chest.
“These heart scarabs were to be weighed against the feather of truth on judgment day. Sometimes they were inscribed with a spell from the Book of the Dead.”
“What did the spell say?”
“Something like ‘Do not stand as a witness against me.’”
She shivered. What did it mean to have your heart witness against you?
“The idea of judging hearts is deep-rooted in most cultures.”
“It’s kinda creepy.”
“Creepy? Are you kidding? Scarabs are cool. Some people believe necklaces like these hold magical powers. I wonder …”
He flipped it over and scanned the surface.
Magical powers. Kami remembered the pulse she’d felt earlier that day. But she hadn’t felt anything since, so it must have just been her imagination, after all.
“Who is Khaled Hassri?”
“My father! How did you know?”
“It’s right here. It’s kind of hard to see unless you look at it just right.”
He handed her back the scarab, and she squinted to read the tiny words inscribed in it. It was written in Arabic. A lot of good that did her.
“It’s fairly common to put your name on these. Supposedly it provides the wearer with protective powers,” Liam said. “But wait a minute. Look at this. This is unusual.”
“This other engraved word. It’s so faded I almost didn’t see it. I don’t recognize the symbols. Do you?”
Kami squinted at the necklace again.
“I can’t read any of it,” she shrugged. “I wonder where my father got it?”
“Me too. It’s kind of heavy. Don’t you feel it pulling at your neck?”
“It did at first, but then I got used to it after awhile.”
She thumbed the surface lightly. Still no surges or energy pulses. She was probably just imagining things in her excitement over the trip.
“So let me get this straight,” she said. “At first I thought it was just a scarab necklace, but now I know they are not just any beetles. They are special beetles that rise triumphantly from a pile of poo?”
“When you put it that way,” he choked out, then regained his composure. “At least it looks posh.”
“I swear. How can they even claim those things are healthy?”
What was he talking about? Beetles? Oh, the granola bar. She ate the last piece with a flourish.
“Of course it’s healthy. It’s got oats in it, and nuts, and fruit,” Kami said. Okay, so it was a lame argument. “C’mon, it tastes good.”
“It ought to. Everything’s coated in sugar. It’s probably worse for you than a bar of chocolate.”
Kami rolled her eyes and changed the subject.
“So what were you doing in America?” she asked.
“Visiting my cousins in San Diego.”
“Oh!” she said. “I live just twenty minutes from there, outside of La Mesa.”
“Ah! I wondered if you were from California or passing through when I saw you on the other flight.”
“Born and raised,” Kami said. “But I moved to the southern part of the state a few years ago. Wait a minute. You were on the other plane?”
“Yeah, nice of you to notice. Kind of hard on a guy’s ego. Although in my defense, you did seem pretty distracted. And, of course, you were totally checking me out on this flight.”
Kami slugged him lightly.
“I was not!”
“You were staring.”
“I was just looking for other Americans. Clearly I was off with you.”
“Right. If that’s the story you want to believe, then go ahead.”
“Whatever,” Kami rolled her eyes and changed the subject. “You said you were visiting your cousins. So does that mean you live in Egypt?”
“Yes. My dad works for the British Embassy. I live with my parents in Cairo.”
“When did you move to Egypt?”
“Three years ago. It seems like forever ago now.”
“What are your cousins like?”
“Tall, blond, tanned, gorgeous, and they know it. Super nice though.”
“Why wouldn’t they be nice to you? Rich, handsome, foreign.”
“Ha! So you do think I’m handsome. I knew it.”
“I meant it in a sort of a general way.”
As Kami thought of his cousins, she felt a familiar twinge. Just because she had been harassed by too many that fit that profile didn’t mean they were like that. And ultimately if she believed other people’s immature comments, that was her problem. She wondered what they would think of her in Egypt.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Liam asked.
“They’re not worth that.”
“I’m just wondering if my grandparents will accept me. If I’ll fit in.”
“Who cares about fitting in? You should just be yourself, and if they don’t like you for you, tell them to shove off.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“It’s not confidence. It’s laziness. I can’t be bothered with the effort it takes to impress people I don’t care about.”
“Maybe that’s part of it,” she said thoughtfully. “But it’s also confidence. There’s this vibe that people who have had every opportunity handed to them radiate. It’s this sense of knowing you have a right to pursue anything, any education, any career, any experience.”
He seemed disturbed by her words.
“What?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“No, tell me,” she said.
“I’m just wondering if that’s what you think of me. That I have an easy life. That I’m just a spoiled posho that’s had everything handed to me.”
Oops. She’d obviously hit a sensitive spot and she really didn’t mean to insult him. She wasn’t quite sure what a posho was, but it sounded bad.
“No, not at all,” she backtracked quickly, a little embarrassed for being so honest with her feelings. “I’ve always wished I had that kind of confidence. I think it’s usually a good thing. The only time it becomes bad is when it causes you to lose awareness that the rest of us are struggling, and you become judgmental or indifferent.”
“Am I like that?” he asked, looking a little like a wounded animal.
She paused, searching his handsome face. She needed to be careful.
“I don’t know you well enough to say, but from what I’ve seen so far, I’m impressed. You saw the need of that woman and her baby.”
“Yeah, well, you could also say I saw an opportunity. Sitting by you seemed a whole lot more interesting than sitting next to an empty seat for the next several hours.”
“It is hard to have a conversation with an empty seat, isn’t it?”
She saw a hint of a smile.
He looked back at the woman again, and Kami’s gaze followed his. The baby had finally fallen asleep, his silky head in his mother’s lap, and the rest of his body curled up on his seat. Liam turned to her suddenly with an impish grin. For a moment she could see the little boy he must have been.
“Seems to have worked out well for everyone,” he grinned. “She gets a break and I get to sit by the prettiest girl on the plane.”
“Nice try. I’m probably the only one you can talk to without incurring the wrath of a protective father, or brother, or boyfriend.”
“You could be right there.”
After the initial flush of pleasure at his compliment, Kami began to feel uneasy. The more she thought of it, the more she didn’t know what to make of it. Calling her pretty seemed so generic, like something he might say to any attractive girl. It wasn’t personal. He’d been so charming, so easy to talk to that she’d forgotten that she didn’t know him, not really. She’d been charmed before, and look at how that had turned out. She wanted to trust he was being sincere, but how could she know for sure? Everything was just so complicated. She tried to push the doubts away. It wasn’t fair to judge Liam based on the actions of another.
Suddenly, a violent shaking seized the plane and completely banished all thoughts of her good-looking seatmate.
Flight of Terror
The plane dropped sharply, and a few of the passengers screamed. The overhead light came on and masks dropped from their compartments. Kami quickly buckled her seatbelt, panic sweeping over her.
“It’s just turbulence. Here, put your mask on,” Liam said, handing it to her.
She snapped the mask over her nose and mouth and breathed in the oxygen deeply.
Kami’s bones rattled as the pilots fought for control. Stay calm, she told herself. Just a little turbulence.
She felt Liam’s breath in her ear.
“It’ll be fine. Just remember to breathe.”
She focused on slowing her breathing, in and out. The last thing she wanted to do was hyperventilate.
Kami glanced out the window and forgot to breathe again. Black smoke was curling around the edges of the wing. The wing was on fire!
She panicked and grabbed Liam’s shoulder to show him, keeping the oxygen mask pressed tightly against her face with the other hand. He was reaching over across the aisle to help an elderly woman with her mask. The woman’s eyes were closed and she was rocking back and forth muttering something, a prayer apparently. Her shaking hands had dropped her mask; it hung by a coiled plastic tube directly in front of her. Liam snatched it and held it out to her. He removed his own mask for a moment and spoke to the woman in Arabic, breaking her reverie.
The pilot’s voice came over the intercom calmly admonishing them to buckle up and remain in their their seats.
The woman eyes opened and she stared at Liam with watery eyes for a moment, then looked at the mask in Liam’s hand but did not touch it. Liam spoke again, this time with a sharper voice. The woman’s hand slowly reached toward the mask.
Kami turned impatiently toward the window and tugged on Liam’s shoulder again. She drew in a sharp breath at what she saw.
The smoke was gone.
How could that be? It had been right there. She had seen it, wreathing around the silvery wing tip.
She blinked her eyes rapidly and pressed her nose to the glass. Was she mad? She had seen it. She knew she had seen it. The wing couldn’t just stop being on fire, could it? Unless it hadn’t been on fire in the first place. But then, what had caused the smoke?
Kami saw something dark flit by the window and out her peripheral vision, and she craned her head back to see what it was. But it was gone before she could make out the form.
She heard shouting from the cockpit and looked toward the tumult with dread curling inside. The passengers stared at each other, some panicked, others resigned, many in the act of prayer. One stewardess unsnapped her seat buckle and stood up, a concerned expression on her pretty face.
Another stewardess shook her head and grabbed her arm, apparently trying to convince her to stay. But the stewardess shook off the restraint and moved up the aisle toward the disturbance in the cockpit.
Kami turned toward Liam. He was still helping the woman, who finally held the mask over her nose and mouth on her own. He settled back in his seat just as the stewardess passed by.
Liam looked over at Kami with questioning eyes. She shrugged her shoulders, helpless to explain what had happened to the smoke.
The plane dropped again. The stewardess screamed as she flew up, then fell silent as she hit the floor of the plane with a sickening thud.
Kami’s body flew up too, though not far because of her straps. She slammed back down against her seat. The belt strap dug into her stomach. The plane rattled and dipped to the left. Her stomach lurched, and she felt sick.
The plane groaned and shuddered and shook. Kami closed her eyes tightly, rocking and reminding herself to breath, in and out, in and out. She tried to block out the image of the screaming stewardess.
Suddenly the overhead lights blinked out and the cabin was plunged into pitch black. Every window was smothered in darkness. Kami couldn’t see a thing. Broad daylight, and she couldn’t see a thing.
Kami clutched Liam’s hand, somehow even more terrified of this darkness than the turbulence. Her hear beat a crazy rat-tat. For a brief, bizarre moment she felt like she had been swallowed by a giant whale.
Then the plane groaned and the darkness seemed to squeeze in on them.
She felt a strange pulse at her chest, just like the one she’d felt that morning while dressing. She looked down. A feeble glow lit up the green and red abdomen of her scarab. The darkness seemed to recede a bit. Then the glow died and the darkness returned.
The plane began rattling. Kami could feel it in her bones. Her teeth chattered. She clutched the scarab with her right hand and felt the pulse again, and this time a warmth accompanied it. It began to glow, feeble at first, then brighter and brighter until it glowed brilliantly.
The rattling slowed then, and almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped. The black fell away from the windows, almost as if it was sucked away. Light poured into the plane.
The plane’s flight smoothed out. The lights flickered back on, one by one.
Kami blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light.
She looked down at the scarab. The light was diminishing.
“Is that, is that it? Is it over?” she asked in a shaky voice. “What was that?”
Liam shook his head, speechless for once.
“My heart’s still hammering like crazy,” she said, limp with relief as the realization flooded in that they would probably live through the flight. “I thought we were goners.”
“That makes two of us,” Liam said, apparently finding his voice. “Um, Kami?”
“Not to be rude, but my hand is numb,” he said.
“What? Oh, sorry,” Kami said, flushing and releasing his hand. She hadn’t realized she still had her hand in his, still holding on for dear life.
“You have a firm grip,” Liam said, shaking his hand and flexing his fingers. “So why was your necklace glowing? Does it have a battery?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure what it was doing. I just held it and then it lit up.”
“Bloody strange, that. Oh, and not just the scarab, although that’s weird enough. I mean that whole plane rattling and imminent death thing. Like hurling around in a roller coaster, only 30,000 feet in the air. That was intense!”
As the stewardesses unbuckled and rushed to their companion’s side, Kami mind pondered over the events that had just transpired. So crazy. The smoke that wasn’t smoke. The glowing scarab. She glanced over at Liam, then down at her tightly clenched hands. It seemed strange, his obsession with the scarab. He seemed to know so much about it. He seemed to have so many questions, and he hadn’t seen the smoke. On the other hand, he had been too distracted helping the woman to see the smoke. It was all too confusing. She didn’t know what to think.
She was relieved to see the stewardess seemed to be okay, though probably seriously injured. For the rest of the flight as they sat in mostly sober silence, both lost in their own thoughts. At last the pilot announced their descent into Cairo. As the wheels touched to the ground, she let out a deep sigh of relief. The other passengers apparently agreed as they let up a boisterous cheer.
“Ready for this?” Liam asked as she secured her carry-on and shrunk back to avoid the passengers rushing to get off the plane. She knew how they felt.
“I guess,” she said.
“Where are you supposed to meet your grandparents?” he asked.
“Near the baggage claim.”
“You can come with me if you want.”
She felt a deep sense of relief at not having to navigate the airport alone. The turbulence had shaken her up more than she wanted to admit.
“Thanks. I’d like that.”
They waited until most of the passengers had passed, then walked to the front of the plane. As they neared the exit, Kami noticed the pilot speaking to a stewardess, his hands gesturing wildly and speaking in an aggravated tone. He must have noticed her stare, because he snapped his mouth shut. The stewardess glanced over, then reached up a hand and firmly shut the navy blue curtain dividing them.
“What was that all about?” Kami whispered to Liam.
“I couldn’t hear what he was saying,” he said, shaking his head.
They stepped off the airplane and entered the Cairo airport, Liam leading the way. She gripped his arm as they passed security guards holding machine guns and walking purposefully toward the tunnel they had just exited. She wasn’t surprised, considering what they had just been through, but she was still unnerved by the guns. They’d walked several feet when she realized she was still clutching Liam’s arm, and feeling self-conscious, she dropped it. They passed shops and eating areas with signs written in English and Arabic.
Kami felt bewildered by the crush of people dressed in robes of varying colors. The noise pressed in from every direction as people talked and called to one another in a cacophony of dialects. It smelled like a combination of bad body odor and stale laundry that had been accidentally left in the dryer for a couple weeks. At one point she lost Liam, but she pushed through the bodies and saw his back. She hurried to catch up.
“This is crazy,” she said loudly into his ear.
“I was just thinking how much better it is than when we moved here,” Liam said. “People were smoking everywhere even though they have signs that you’re not supposed to. The bathrooms were filthy. People kept harassing us to do things for baksheesh, or tips. It’s weird they expect you to pay for things you’re perfectly capable of doing yourself, like handing you a towel in the bathroom, or opening your door. I even had one guy try to grab my bag. Fortunately my dad was able to convince him we didn’t need the help, but only after a fierce tug of war. I swear, I thought my luggage was going to split and dump my unmentionables in front of everyone. At least we don’t have to deal with the taxi drivers. Still, it’s about as chaotic as I remember. And speaking of taxi drivers, steer clear of that fellow coming our way. He looks too determined to take no for an answer.”
They made their way to the baggage claim and after several minutes, they found their luggage. She recognized her suitcase from the ribbon tied to the handle, that and the subtle fact it was the only one sporting ugly green and orange flowers. It had been her mother’s old luggage, a hand-me-down. Kind of embarrassing, but that’s all they had. Her mother wasn’t much of a traveler, and hadn’t been ever since her father died. If she’d known about the trip, maybe she wouldn’t have blown all her job money on clothes and spent some on new luggage. But Liam didn’t seem to mind.
“Retro,” he whistled. “Nice.”
They started walking toward some benches when all of a sudden Liam dropped his luggage.
“Haji!” Liam said, giving a young Egyptian man a big hug. The two began speaking rapidly in Arabic.
Kami felt awkward as she stood alone. She scanned the crowds, looking for familiar faces. She knew what her grandparents looked like from the pictures her grandmother had emailed. Her grandmother still had a youthful glow about her and a beautiful smile that seemed to radiate serenity. But how happy could she have truly been cut off from her son and his family like that?
Her grandfather’s image wasn’t as encouraging. His stern face and fierce eyebrows were downright intimidating.
She looked around, but no one approached her. Where were they? The flight had arrived on time, close enough anyway. They should be there by now.
“Hey Kami!” Liam beckoned. “I want you to meet Haji, my driver.”
“Driver?” she asked as she walked over, raising an eyebrow as if to say spoiled rich kid.
“Yeah, yeah,” Liam said, rolling his eyes.
“It’s nice to meet you Haji. I’m Kami.”
Haji smiled and returned the greeting. He was shorter than Liam, but still a good six inches taller than she, with a nice, muscular build and a great smile revealing straight white teeth. His eyes held the same intensity as the men on the plane, but unlike them he kept eye contact.
“Hey, what’s the big idea,” Liam protested. “You put me through some kind of elaborate test to prove my friendship. How come he gets to call you Kami?”
“Some people are simply more trustworthy than others,” she shrugged. “I’ve got a good feeling about Haji.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Can you believe the abuse she dishes out?” he asked Haji.
“No, the real question is can you believe I had to fly over the ocean with this dude?” she asked Haji.
“My apologies,” he said.
“Oh, that’s brilliant. Now you’re ganging up on me,” Liam complained.
Haji and Kami just laughed.
“So where are your grandparents Kami?” he said.
“Hey, you still haven’t proven yourself,” she warned, still laughing.
“If you let a complete stranger like Haji call you by your preferred name, I get to as well. How do you even know he’s trustworthy? I could tell you stories!”
“Getting back to your question,” Kami interrupted, “I don’t know where they are. I’m trying not to freak out, but they should be here by now.”
“They’re probably just running late. Have you called them?” Liam asked.
“Yeah. Let me try again.”
It rang four or five times, then took her to voice mail. She left a message and a text for good measure.
“Hey, you guys go ahead. You don’t need to wait on my account,” she said to the guys, who were animatedly discussing the turbulence they’d just experienced. “I’m sure they’ll show up any moment.”
Liam looked conflicted.
“I don’t know. I just don’t feel comfortable leaving you here alone. Just a sec.”
He tapped on his phone.
“That should do it. We’ll wait with you.”
Kami felt herself growing increasingly agitated as minutes passed, a half hour late, then a full hour, then an hour and a half. It was becoming increasingly and disturbingly clear.
Nobody was coming for her.