Saturday, March 3, 2018

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 2


Walking back to campus the next day was hard. Not that I told my parents about my experience in the storm; frankly, I had no idea what exactly happened. My subconscious had latched onto the sight, though, and my dreams were full of strange people made of water, malevolent beings intent on smothering and drowning me over and over. I would wake up struggling to breathe, my heart racing. I needed something else to think about. I wanted an alternative for my mind to obsess over, and leave the water-demons behind.

The crisp almost-spring-but-not-over-winter breeze curled around my ankles as I walked past the Regenstein Library for the second time in less than twenty-four hours. I almost made it by without glancing warily around the columns as if the face would manifest again—but the only thing to approach me was a lanky senior with short, curly hair and the faint wisp of a goatee across his chin. He had a familiar sheaf of papers in his hand.
“Priscilla?” he guessed my name, eyebrows arching over dark-brown eyes.
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Oh good.” He gave a chuckle and thrust the sheaf at me, still in their paper clip. “I’m Ryan, Tony’s TA. He said you needed these back first thing.”
I took my notes, slipping them into my bag. “Thanks,” I eyed Ryan with more than a little confusion. “Is he okay? He was supposed to meet me last night.” I’d meandered the entire breadth of the Regenstein three times before I gave up and sent Tony a hasty “Where r u?” text and marched back home to eat my dinner.
Now it was Ryan’s turn to look puzzled. “Last night? I don’t know anything about that. All I know is, he was in a big hurry this morning when he dropped these off at study hall.” Ryan gave a little half-shrug. “He looked a little flushed, but that was it. He left before I could say anything.” His lips quirked in a tiny grin. “I had to ask around the study hall to find out what you looked like.”
He stopped like I was supposed to react in some way, but I was still in the middle of processing what “he looked a little flushed” meant, or why Tony might be in a hurry.
“Oh,” I muttered to avoid hesitating any longer. “Well, I’m, uh, glad you did.” How else could I end the conversation quickly? I was going to be late for class! “Thanks Ryan; see you around.”
“You bet, Priscilla,” he waved as I walked away.

I stepped into Natural Sciences just as Mr. Gorden walked behind his desk. He looked up, as he normally did, taking a visual roll of the class. I dropped quickly into the nearest seat, and saw his face relax only slightly.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said. “Don’t get out your notes just yet.” He waited a moment for the projector to flicker on, revealing a slide with two words designed to strike fear in the heart of even the most ardent student: “POP QUIZ.”
A groan worked its way through every row.
Mr. Gorden waved a wrinkled, arthritic hand. “Now, now—before you all get too excited, we won’t be taking the quiz right away. First, I have a very special guest I’d like you all to meet.” He stepped back and beckoned forward a man I’d hardly even noticed.
He was very round, both his gut and his face. His eyes were tiny, pinched behind wire-framed glasses. His hair was gathered in one very thick, curly patch on top of his head, with the sides shaved so severely, one could see the fluorescent lights reflecting of his shiny scalp. He grinned at us, displaying most of his enormous teeth.
“Greetings, everyone,” he warbled in his strange, high-pitched voice. “My name is Edgar Montaine, and I want to tell you about a very exciting opportunity coming right to you all the way from—“ he stopped and fumbled with the projector remote until the screen jumped two slides and we were left looking at a random map depicting several known ancient civilizations in Eastern Europe, coded in bright, garish colors. Edgar gestured to one of the areas, a bright-cherry-red blob, and finished his sentence, “Macedonia!”
Half the class promptly leaned back and lost interest in the man. The other half—myself included—leaned forward, eager to learn what the exotic and the unknown lands on the other side of the globe might hold for a bunch of land-locked nobodies like us.
Edgar gripped the edges of Mr. Gorden’s podium with his pudgy hands. “Quick question, who knows where Macedonia is located?”
I raised my hand, and it was only when Edgar looked straight at me and nodded that I realized I’d been the only one.
“Um, it’s an ancient kingdom that used to be part of Greece, isn’t it?” I guessed. Not to mention, last I checked, “Macedonia” wasn’t even supposed to be its name, but I wasn’t about to heap a bunch of information on him like a wannabe-teacher’s-pet.

Edgar’s jowls wobbled as he nodded. “Quite right, excellent! And technically, the area I’m speaking of is part of the ancient kingdom, not the land-locked region currently known as the Republic of Macedonia.” He punched the button on the remote again, and we were treated to a charming aerial photograph of what looked like a raised patch of forest in the middle of a wide expanse of water.
“The island of Fourtouna, off the coast of what is now Greece,” Edgar narrated like some first-century travel guide, “and the last untouched segment of what used to be a thriving kingdom under some of the greatest empires in history.” He flipped through some close-up photos of strange men digging around an astonishing array of artifacts almost too fast for us to follow, talking all the while. “We thought we knew everything there was to know about the place, but once we learned of this island that didn’t show up on any map, we realized that if such a location had lain undiscovered for centuries of exploration, it could potentially carry secrets that would disprove most—if not all—of what we had built around the known borders of the ancient kingdom.”

A tiny shiver worked its way down my spine, and a cool breeze seemed to brush over the little hairs on my arm. A brand new corner of the world, an intact time-capsule of sorts, right in the middle of the Aegean Sea! How exciting!

Edgar must have sensed our growing enthusiasm, because he grinned at us and wagged a thick, stumpy finger. “That’s where you all come in! My group, Fortune Research and Educational Discoveries, otherwise known as F.R.E.D., has been approached by Daeva-Staite Foundation to invite a group of eager students from colleges all across the U.S., to use Fourtouna as a hands-on learning experience, training you in some real archaeology!”

He flipped through pictures of small groups of grungy twenty-somethings like ourselves, giving squinty thumbs-up and usually gathered around a large fixture, like the base of a pillar, or a largely-intact urn. “As you can see, we’ve been digging around Fourtouna for quite some time, and yet,” he flipped to a map roughly in the shape of the island, with a small section highlighted orange, “we’ve only managed as far as this first ridge—there’s still so much left to discover!” His beady eyes wandered over our faces. “Who’s up for the adventure of a lifetime?”

“Not it!” yelled Skylar from the back of the room, garnering loud hoots and snickers from the clowns sitting nearest him, and setting off an extended murmur, peppered with shouts of “That sounds awesome!”
“No it sounds boring as heck!”
“What would you know, loser?”
“Count me in!”
“Do we have to?”

Mr. Gorden took his place at the podium, waving his hands. “All right! All right! Quiet!” he thundered.
The chaos evaporated. The instructor waved a few people bearing stacks of paper forward.
“The blue sheet is a flyer explaining the visit by the Foundation and what it promises for each of our students who are interested. Everyone please take this home and discuss it with your parents. The flyer also provides details about a scholarship opportunity attached with this. If you are definitely interested right now, there is a quiz going around with questions about the Natural Sciences aspect of an archaeological dig. Please take this quiz and turn it in on my desk if you are interested and serious about participating with this opportunity. The highest scores on the quiz will be considered for the trip. That will be your exit task!”

For the rest of the class, there was little noise beyond the rustling of paper. I took a blue flyer and also a quiz. Being a World History major, I knew I could do fairly well. Certainly I was one of the few who actually paid attention at any given moment.

Question 1: Label the geological strata of this core sample taken from a dig in Macedonia.
Question 2: How would the climate of the Aegean Sea affect the preservation of artifacts on the Greek islands?
Question 3: approximately how many known civilizations settled around the Aegean Sea?
Question 4: What natural advantages did the Mediterranean region possess?

I stared at the quiz; a few of the questions, I could figure out, but the more I went on with the short responses and multiple choices, the more it felt like blind guessing. They were all centered around the Mediterranean region, which made sense, but some of the things they were asking, I had to work hard to remember what was the correct answer, and not the easy one.

By the time I sat through Edgar’s spiel in my Ancient Civilizations Class and started the quiz, I finally put together what was confusing: some of the events mentioned in the quiz weren’t ones necessarily that we’d discussed in class, but they were ones that my dad had told me about, when I was younger. He called them bedtime stories, but they were really just legends and myths and epic battles that he would describe before I went to sleep, so that my dreams were filled with super-strong characters or scenes of key moments in bygone eras—whether or not they were historically accurate. Most often not, but now that I was being quizzed about it, I struggled to delineate which was learned in class and which one was fictionalized by Patrick Thiele, Master Storyteller.

To top it all off, I went the entire day with no reply from Tony. I tried asking anyone I knew where he’d gone, or if he’d said anything before he just vanished, but nobody had noticed anything out of the ordinary, and those who did said the same thing as Ryan: “He was really nervous about something, but he never said what it was” or “he did seem really out of it the other day, but the next day he was fine.” After three unanswered texts, and one attempt at calling that rang until it went to voicemail, I just decided to leave it be for the day. I could only hope that whatever it was, he would be back soon, and I’d finally get a straight explanation.

When I arrived home, I stepped inside just in time to see Mom headed across the foyer carrying something gingerly in her white-gloved hands. She paused and smiled at me briefly.
“You’re home early,” she remarked.

I shrugged the bag off my shoulder and set it in the armchair next to the coat rack nestled in the crook of the stairs. “Just a bunch of quizzes this morning. We had an archaeological team visiting, talking about a new dig off the coast of Macedonia, so they wanted to get us interested in doing a student internship trip over spring break.”
Her slender eyebrows arched. She gave me a little nod and kept walking. “Archaeology trip? You would be interested in that sort of thing?”

I followed her down the hallway to the wide room on the east side of the house known as the “exhibition room.” In the original floor plan it might have been a masculine study, but Dad wasn’t much of an “office” person, so Mom used it as a place, she said, to “maintain the display quality of artifacts that were not in use by the museum.”
I stopped in the doorway, the way I usually did when I wandered this way on a whim. The room always felt creepy to me, particularly when it was devoid of people. Mom stopped next to a glass case containing the remains of a woven basket along with the ancient coins found inside.
“Priscilla, why do you hesitate?” she demanded. “Come talk to me.”

I crept forward. The bank of hellish masks leered at me from the walls on either side of the doorway. The one time Tony had ventured into this room, he had immediately voiced his assumption that the masks concealed a network of invisible lasers designed to fry any unwanted intruders. I knew they were just masks, but I scurried past them as fast as I dared.
The entire back wall was lined with pottery fragments and cases of metal implements: a ceremonial knife, a few belt buckles, a necklace, some hinges and brackets from a building that had long-since crumbled. Normally I would be completely weirded out by the time I’d ventured this far into the room, but this time, the artifacts made me think of the Macedonia trip. What would I help find in the heart of Fortuna?
Mom finished lightly placing an ornate bronze pendant in the glass case and sighed. “So,” she slid the pane shut and turned to me with a dubious glance. “Archaeology?”

I huffed. “Mom, I’ve practically grown up with half my house used as a museum; my bedtime stories were all about epic battles and demigods duking it out over petty things that was a simplistic society’s way of explaining science and why things were the way they were...”
“Didn’t you recently ask Pat not to tell you those stories anymore?”
“Not the point!” I pursed my lips. “My point is, why wouldn’t I like archaeology and learning about bygone civilizations and ancient cultures from a logical, informative standpoint.” I glanced past a gilded relief depicting a horribly twisted face. “My problem wasn’t Dad’s stories, per se; it was the way he told them.”
“Priscilla,” Mom wagged her head. “Pat can be a little enthusiastic with his storytelling, but you really can’t fault him for—“

I turned away from the wall of creepy and raised my eyes to glance out of the vaulted skylight. “A little? Mom, he wouldn’t stop giving me the folktale version, all sensationalized and triple-dipped in paranormal. I’d ask him how a thing really happened and he’d launch into this whole big scene with spirits and magic and whatnot, that is what I minded!” I snorted and shuffled after her as she checked moisture levels in the display cases requiring a lot more delicate treatment. “Believe me, I tried asking him to dial it back, to just give me the facts without having to weird me out every time, but he just couldn’t.”
She turned to face me and folded her arms. “What makes you think those weren’t the facts?” she challenged.

I couldn’t understand why a collected, logical person like my mom would be so wishy-washy on the subject of her husband’s version of history. “Mom, honestly! Shapeshifters turning the tides of great battles? Immortal demigods causing the geological anomalies? Trickster spirits altering the course of history? You really think those things could actually happen and we have no actual physical remains of what should be left behind?”
Mom turned to check on a collection of fantastic quartz crystals set or bound with metal, each with a different exotic location across the globe. “Who is to say they didn’t?” she asked.
I wagged my head as we both moved back toward the foyer. “Um, try a whole panel of archaeological experts consulted as content editors for the book that all archaeological students must read.” I didn’t mean to be disrespectful or sarcastic, but I did make a point early on as an adult to be honest with my parents, as they were with me.

Mom frowned at me, and I could feel the goosebumps rippling across my skin at her gaze. “Just because your father has a unique way of telling stories doesn’t make him an idiot,” she warned tersely.

I shrugged. “I never said he was. I just think I am a little over the fictionalizing and sensationalizing of historic events.” My phone buzzed, and I hoped it was a response from Tony. I didn’t dare check it while Mom and I were still talking, though.

She stared at me for a long time in complete silence. Her lips parted, and she looked ready to unleash a verbal smackdown, but instead, she closed her mouth and walked back toward her office.
I sighed and checked my phone. It was a text from Caroline, another classmate, asking if I’d heard from Tony. I sighed and texted her a thumbs-down emoji. Had I missed something important? Where did everyone go?

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