Saturday, February 29, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 9

Part 9

I slipped through a side door, in case my parents were already waiting in the main part of the house. Everything was still dark, as I'd left it. I slipped off my shoes, flipped on the house lights, and curled up on the couch, pulling out my phone so it would look like I'd been waiting for them at home the whole time.

On a whim, I searched for Acropolis Urban Developers. There was my dad, grinning larger than life, posing with a team of foremen. They were all pretty bulky guys, but my dad was still about a head taller than the tallest one in the group. It was like the "big boss" at the end of a game of Grand Theft Auto, surrounded by his generic-looking henchmen. I found the listing of different buildings Acropolis constructed. It wasn't "half the skyline," Kayce had been exaggerating... But there were about a dozen now-famous buildings that owed their existence to my dad's company.

God-like? Hardly.

I heard the front door knob click, and hastily closed the browser window, out of habit.

Mom gave a sigh and I heard a pair of thuds as she kicked off her shoes.

"Oh, my feet were killing me in those awful pumps!" she moaned. "It feels so good to free my toes!"
"Honey, I thought you were over putting yourself in pain just to impress me," Dad murmured in return, over the susurration of the plastic bags. "Though I will say, you looked divine in that outfit--so it wasn't for nothing."
They were still kissing, in each other's arms, as they walked into the room behind me.

I popped my head up over the back of the couch and grinned. "Did you have a nice time at the Fishers'?"

Mom broke the kiss and smiled at me. "Oh, Priscilla--yes, Don and Kate's was lovely, and then we had a Grand Opening for the new high-rise downtown, so there were photos and a reception."

"Lots of reporters," Dad muttered, setting the bags of paper-wrapped sandwiches and cartons of sides from Great Steaks on the table. "Naturally, we couldn't take it too casually. Dinner's up!"

We sat around the table with our cheesesteaks and fries, and Mom gave me a sly smile and a wink before prompting, "So... Priscilla, you have something to tell your father? About a recent application exam?"

Dad gulped down a fry and wiped his beard. "Oh yeah, how did that go, honey?"

I hadn't been feeling very good about it before, but now I felt a small surge of pride to be able to say, "They already tallied the results, and I got accepted as the historian for the student team led by FRED."

Mom replayed her supportive excitement with a huge smile and a small squeal. "Oooh, how exciting!"

"That's great!" Dad put up his hand and I high-fived it. "Wait, hold on--FRED?" He looked at Mom. "You told me this Macedonia trip was being sponsored by Daeva-Staite," his thick eyebrows bent in confusion.

"They're footing the bill to bring students along on the dig," I filled in, "but the organization actually doing the digging is called Fortune Research and Educational Development, or FRED. And we're not going to Macedonia, exactly--it's a small island off the coast of Greece, called Fortuna or something." I dimly recalled mentioning it when the exam was first announced. "Chelsea Perrit's on the team, too--she's been doing research on them already."

An awkward pause hung in the air for a few moments. A look passed between my parents, as if Dad had something he wanted to say, but Mom froze him with a glance that said not now.

I could see his neck muscles bunching, and I was feeling a little tense, myself, so I stood up. "Well, I have some homework to do for a Chem lab on Friday. Good night, you guys." I gave them both a quick hug and retreated upstairs.

On the balcony, I heard them talking in rushed, low voices, so I stopped to listen.

"... After all this time..." Dad muttered, as he finished saying something.

"Do you think it's a sign?" Mom murmured back.

"Could be," Dad replied. I heard his voice move toward the kitchen, and he spoke a little louder over the sound of the running faucet. "Goodness knows we've waited long enough."

Waited? For what? I wondered.

"... For town," My mom's voice floated up to my ears much quieter than Dad's voice. "I never thought this day would come. I can't believe she's really going."

"Don't get too ahead of yourself," Dad responded. "It might be a false alarm. It could be nothing. We must play it carefully until we can confirm..."

Mom started running the ice maker, and I missed the end of what Dad was saying. I heard her saying something about picking up her shoes, so I slipped into my room and pulled out my Chem textbook.

Later, as I was climbing into bed, I heard Dad's footsteps on the carpet in the hallway.

"Dad?" I called.

He popped his head in. "Yes, sweetheart?"

I opened my mouth to ask him something that would perhaps let me know what they'd been talking about, without making it seem like I had been listening, but it took me a few moments to finally blurt out, "Should I be worried about this trip? I mean," I shrugged and my hand immediately went for the locket around my neck. "It is a pretty unorthodox scheme--"

"Scheme?" Dad tilted an eyebrow and came in to sit at the end of my bed, just the way he used to. "What do you mean, scheme? There's nothing to be afraid of, it's just a school trip, honey."

I drew my knees up so I could wrap my arms around them. "Yeah, but I just feel like every time I bring it up, I get less and less confident that this is something I should really go for." I sighed. "Especially with Tony in the hospital and--"

"Oh, Pris, honey..." Dad murmured, leaning over to wrap his arms around me. I dropped my knees and welcomed his hug. "Your Mom told me about Tony Rosen. That's a rum deal for a kid his age."

And I was so desperate to do something that I actually faked one of Mom's artifacts to bring it to him, just in case it had some kind of magical powers, even though we don't believe in that stuff! My guilty conscience screamed at me.

"I just can't shake the feeling that maybe this is the universe telling me I should stay put," I murmured into Dad's shoulder.

"Stay put?" Dad tilted his head to look at me as I leaned back. "Pris, honey--what if this is the universe telling you to weigh anchor and seize the high wind? You told me yourself, this is the kind of opportunity you've been hoping for!"

I frowned. "I said maybe," I hedged. "But so much has happened since then..."

We sat, knees touching, as Dad studied my face. Finally he smiled and gestured toward me. "That locket I gave you," he said. "Did I ever tell you the story behind it?"

I shrugged. "You did tell me it was a family heirloom once. You didn't say where from..."

"My mother--your grandmother--took it to an old medicine lady from Cephalonia, and she blessed it with lots of charms for wisdom and protection, and said that the longer a person wore it, the stronger the charms would become, so that no harm would befall the wearer, and they would be able to think clearly in any situation."

I watched my Dad's eyes for the telltale twinkle that said he was kidding; I had no idea where Cephalonia was, but it sounded as made-up as the idea of protection charms. "Serious?" I asked, suppressing my skepticism for his sake. "You're not making this up just because I'm a little freaked out and stressed right now?"

Dad shook his head. "Your Mom knew that story, and we'd always toyed with the idea of giving it to our natural child on their wedding day--but when I met you, the day we decided we were going to adopt you," He put a huge hand on my shoulder and gave me his widest grin. "I knew I wanted you to have it, right there and then." He caressed the side of my face with his fingertips. "You should go on this trip, Priscilla--just do me a favor, and wear that locket the whole time. Never take it off, not even for a minute."

My mind went over that strange, hushed conversation between my parents as I asked, "Not even for showering? You want me to wear it while I'm sleeping? Dad, you know I don't buy into that charm voodoo stuff!" I held his gaze and demanded, "Is there something you know that I don't--and maybe you should tell me?"

He didn't even hesitate. "Nothing serious, Nosy, don't worry!" He ruffled the top of my head with a light chuckle. "Just don't want you to forget about us while you're traveling and making your chance-of-a-lifetime discoveries, is all." He stood up and smiled. "Do it 'cuz you love me?"

I picked up the locket and rubbed it with my fingers. It wasn't uncomfortable at all--at most, I'd just be worried about losing it if I brought it along with me! "Sure, Dad," I replied. "I'll wear it every day, just because I love you!"

He laughed. "Goodnight, sweetheart."

"Goodnight, Dad."

I just heard the door to my parents' bedroom click shut when my phone buzzed for an incoming text. I lifted it and checked the screen.

Chelsea P.--am I going crazy? Check the FRED website.

"What?" I murmured to myself. I entered "Fortune Research Educational Development" into the search bar of my phone's browser. Several hits came up, articles mentioning FRED, talking about "Fortune 500" researches and educational development opportunities... but the website for specifically the organization from Athens, New York, was not a viable option. Even when articles talking about past digs would mention it and try to hyperlink it for reference's sake--the webpage wouldn't load.

I pulled up the text thread and replied to Chelsea.

Priscilla T.--I thought you did your research already.

Chelsea P.--I DID! I swear, I just looked it up yesterday I even had the link in my search history!!! It looked pretty basic almost like something from the Myspace days but at least it wasn't like NOTHING what gives??????

When Chelsea freaked out, all semblance of rational punctuation disappeared. Another text came in while I was trying to digest that one.

Chelsea P.--and now my parents are saying I can't go, since they don't know anything about FRED or Dave-State.

Chelsea P.--oops Daeva-Statie gosh autocorrect!

I frowned. That was the one thing that reassured my parents--was there a problem with the Daeva-Staite Foundation, now? I pulled up the website.

There were a lot of stock photos of happy people, beautiful locations and pretty weather patterns, but the details and the actual text on the webpage was pretty sparse. Two or three testimonials from obscure business owners, and a short list of accolades from the past decade or so, but that was it.

I returned to the text thread to find another text from Chelsea.

Chelsea P.--How r ur parents? R they freaking out too?

I thought back to the overheard conversation, and how my dad had been all cryptic about the locket and stuff. But Mom had been excited for me, and Dad did say that he still wanted me to go...

Priscilla T.--They're still ok with it. I can still go if I want to.

Chelsea P.--Lucky.

I closed the window, and pulled up a map. I typed in "Fortuna Island, Macedonia", and got the location of a "Fortune Island" casino in Constantinople. I shifted the map around a few places, zooming in on all the islands, looking for something at least close to the place described. Hadn't Mr. Montaine--or even Scott, his dig rep--shown us a picture of the place? I tried to recall what the coastline had looked like, but the more I looked, the more I found spots on the image where things were too pixelated to distinguish anything, and the spots that were clear were all the wrong locations.

The dread returned, and I found myself fidgeting with the locket more than ever. What exactly was I getting myself into? I held the locket in my fingers till I fell asleep.


Earlier that afternoon...

The setting sun glinted off the gleaming, mirrored surface of the sculpture titled "Cloud Gate"... known locally and with much affection as "The Bean." Tourists from all over the world posed in front of it, holding their cameras and phones out as far as they could reach--farther still, with selfie sticks--to capture the distorted reflections thrown back at them.

He winced as he saw them. They remained so blissfully unaware what was at stake--what was in store for them. His briefcase handle slid in his clammy grip, and he shifted, mopping his brow. He'd been wrapping up a meeting with a client when "the awakening" occurred. All the preparations and hours of meditation, the physical and psychological tests he allowed himself to undergo in preparation for the moment... All of it came woefully short of the actual pain.

One moment he was shaking the man's hand and receiving assurances of his company's partnership with Fortune Research, and the next... A vicious hot poker sizzled through his skull, burning an image of the metal sculpture into his brain. When he could see again, his guest had departed, and his secretary stood over him as he crouched on his knees, his legs turned to jelly incapable of supporting him. His whole body quivered and the sweat oozed from his pores--but when The Master summoned, His minions obeyed. To do otherwise would be to invite instantaneous destruction.

His sticky, saturated suit clung to his skin as he made his way past a happy couple in the very act of celebrating an engagement next to the dingy white balustrade. He nearly tripped over a little girl trying in vain to sink her baby teeth into the hardened shell of caramel around a thick-skinned apple almost as big as her face.

"Hey!" The worried parent yelled in his face as she yanked her daughter out from under him, but he hardly noticed over the throbbing, burning agony inside his head. He staggered forward until he was in arm's reach of the cool, glossy surface. He extended his hand, resting his palm against the sculpture, before lunging his head forward to cool his suffering. The resounding bong pealed like a voice.


The patient sycophant opened his eyes. A second face grinned over his shoulder in the reflective surface before him, but when he actually turned to look in that direction, he saw no one. Furthermore, a long, bony hand with thick black nails--pointed like claws at the tips--gripped his chin in the reflection and wrenched his head back toward the mirror, and he felt it like a pair of red-hot tongs upon his skin.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you, George!" Snarled the reflection.

George looked. He laid eyes on the face he had only seen in illustrations and icons, his ears listened to the voice he had only ever imagined for as long as he considered himself a believer--and instead of pain or fear, he felt relief. Relief gave way to elation. It was all true! It would happen just as the Ancient Ones foretold! He was free at last--and soon he would mete out judgment on his enemies, in order to bestow the promised reward upon his loyal followers!

"Your Greatness," George whispered, almost stroking the mirror in adoration, "I have waited to look upon you for so long, I would not ever look upon anything else!"

The twisted, gaunt figure in the reflection gave a thin-lipped grin as his fiery-orange eyes glowed and narrowed. "I have been freed from my prison, but I am not wholly free yet. I have yet to claim a physical form--"

"Oh!" George gasped and immediately plastered his body against the slick surface of The Bean. "Take me, My Master! I will be your vessel--"

"GET OFF ME!" The clawed hands shoved against his shoulders, sending George stumbling backwards and tearing deep furrows in the shoulders of his Giorgio Armani suit jacket. His tailor would have a meltdown.

"How dare you presume to throw yourself at me like a fawning whelp!" growled The Master. "I have no need of your pathetic, disease-ridden carcass, because there is one better whom I shall convince to allow me the use of its body."

George remained crouched on the stones of the palisade, head bowed in penitence. "What can I do, Great Master?"

The figure in the reflection tapped a long black claw against his chin. "Gather the others. Tell them our moment is at hand. The Heir has been found."
George gasped and his eyes lifted. "If the Heir has made itself known to you, then your enemies will not be far behind!"

A low chuckle, like the grinding of stones against one another, came from the reflected figure. "No, not far at all--in fact, I'm planning to pay them a visit very soon. Take care of The Heir, make sure she does not escape your grasp!"

George blinked. This was a new dynamic he hadn't expected. No one had been able to figure out if the prophecy's reference to The Heir denoted a man or a woman. He scrambled to his feet. "My lord... She?" he inquired, but the figure had vanished, the sun was all but set, and he was finally aware of the strange looks from passersby.

George limped away from Millennium Park, fumbling with his cell phone as he struggled to send a text to his associate, EM.

GH: The Master Has Spoken. The Heir Has Arisen. 

He moved to slip his phone back into his jacket pocket, but the reply came before he'd completed the motion.

EM: Way ahead of you. I knew it was one of CU. Did He say which?

GH: Girl. Name Not Revealed.

EM: That helps, thanks. Think I've figured out which. Time to bring ourselves fame and fortune! Hail Egamad!

George felt the heat of just seeing The Master's name spelled out on his screen, as if its presence would melt the hardware. He didn't care.

GH: Hail Egamad! The Heir will open The Vault, and The Power And Glory will be ours!

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Prisicilla Sum" Part 8

Part 7

The next morning, I awoke from what felt like the best sleep of my life, mumbled a quick "hi-bye" to my parents, and headed off to U Chicago campus. The clouds were grey, but my spirits were high, for some reason. The wind blew at just the right angle to keep the hair out of my face, and it wasn't too cold, either. I'd found my outfit fairly quickly, and I looked good.

Sitting in Humanities, though, I found myself checking my phone too many times, with this nagging feeling I'd forgotten something. What was it? I browsed through some apps, checked my book bag three times--I made it all the way to Natural Sciences before it hit me...


Tony was missing. Some mornings I'd see him heading to class, sometimes our schedules crossed and we'd be in the same hallway together--but I'd always see him, or I knew if I didn't see him in the morning, I could look for him in the afternoon. Even with his frequent hospital visits, I'd get a text letting me know he was okay.

Today, nothing. All I could think about were the empty seats where he could have been, and the fact that even if I did send a text, he wouldn't receive it. For all I knew, he might not even be conscious at the moment.

Mr. Gorden got up, but instead of telling us which chapter to begin with, he held up an envelope. "Before I teach today's lesson," he said, "I have a quick announcement for those who applied to the Macedonian dig with the Fortune Research and Educational Discoveries team. I have here the names of the five students chosen, based on their exam results. Some of you have received your acceptance letters already, and for others, you may collect your acceptance letters from me today. When I call your names, the following students will be excused from this class period, to give the five of you time to get to know one another, and get a head start on your research projects."

A few people groaned, but I was just confused. What research project?

Mr. Gorden grinned and nodded. "That's right, we want to make sure this trip really does count toward your education, so each of you will be expected to write a paper detailing your perspective on the trip, some interesting facts you discover, and some additional notes about the archaeological process. The specific requirements for the paper will be emailed to you by the end of the week, along with a projected deadline."

The class grew restless, murmuring and voicing complaints to their neighbors, or expressing relief that they never wanted to be involved in the trip anyway. I caught Tiffany's voice as she told a friend, "My grades are almost perfect--I don't even need the extra credit anyway!"

Gorden cleared his throat and flourished the paper in his hand. "Would the following students please meet at the table in the back of the room: Jordyn Teffa, Chelsea Perrit, Priscilla DelVento-Thiele, Derrick Gifford, and Kayce Marten."

I sighed and pushed my textbook back into my bag. Derrick and Chelsea I knew, but the other two I'd seen in class and heard their names, but never officially met. Jordyn was a dusky-skinned girl with smooth, dark hair and mono-lidded eyes, while Kayce, I could see from three tables away, had a severe undercut with long locks of bright-blue hair hanging over his ears.

The five of us slouched at the back table, casting wary glances from one to another.

Kayce rolled his eyes. "Dang, I thought I was just barely getting above the average." he folded his arms and rested his head on the table. "I didn't even want to be here."

I leaned forward, wanting to let Sulky-McSulkerFace know that the person he was most likely replacing was my best friend who was currently dying--but Chelsea laid a hand on my arm, giving me a knowing look.

She spoke up, taking charge of the group. "Let's go around and introduce ourselves, saying our name and what our major is, just to get a sense of the strengths in this group."

She even pulled out a notebook, writing down her name in it. "My name's Chelsea, and I'm majoring in Computer Science--so I'll probably be on the tech team at the dig site."

She nudged me, so I said, "I'm Priscilla, I'm a history major."

Chelsea recorded that.

Next was Derrick. "I'm studying Mechanical Engineering, so I'll likely be working on the generators, anything with a motor or an engine, and gear like that."

Kayce raised his hand before picking up his head. "'Sup, I'm Kayce," he said. "Studying Anthropology and World Cultures."

Chelsea paused in her note-taking. "Is that Case as in C-A-S-E?"

Kayce shook his head and spelled it for her. "Don't ask me why my parents decided that me and all my brothers would have names starting with K," he muttered.

Chelsea shrugged and made a note of that. "Well, at any rate, we will need somebody to be the actual archaeologist, so you'll be the one to know if something is artifact or just dirt."

Kayce pulled his hood down over his face. "Whatever."

Jordyn leaned forward and gave a little wave. "Hi, I'm Jordyn with a 'y'," she clarified for Chelsea's benefit. "I'm majoring in Geology, and I, for one, am really excited for this trip. I've got my passport and everything."

Chelsea finished writing and looked up. "Has anybody ever traveled overseas before?"

Derrick bobbed his head. "I've been to Mexico a few times, but not off the continent."

"Does Hawaii count?" Kayce asked. "I went surfing there a couple times. It's flying over the ocean, for sure."

"I've never been out of the country," Jordyn confessed.

I raised my hand. "I've been to Canada a couple times with my parents, but that's about it."

Chelsea nodded. "See? We're getting to know each other already. I've been to places like Canada, South America, and London, but I've never been east of Europe--so I guess this is going to be a new experience for all of us."

Derrick raised his hand. "Okay, next order of business--does anybody actually know anything about these people? This Fortune Developing Educational..."

"You mean Fortune Research and Educational Development?" I corrected him.

He pointed at me. "That," he said. A long lock of dark hair fell over his face as he pulled out his phone and began swiping and tapping. "There was some kind of website, wasn't there?"

Chelsea pulled out her phone too. "Way ahead of you. I was looking it up over the weekend, because my parents wanted to know about it. The Daeva-Staite Foundation, too."

I shrugged. "My parents said they knew the Foundation was listed as a donor to the adoption agency."

Chelsea set her phone aside and picked up her pen again. "Philanthropy? Good..."

Meanwhile, Kayce suddenly sat up. "Whoa wait--Pris... Thiele? As in Rick Thiele, of Acropolis Urban Developers? The company that owns half the skyline of Chicago?"

I blinked. I never thought of my dad as a "Rick;" he was always "Pat." "Umm, yeah?" I answered reluctantly. This was the most animated Kayce had been this entire time--so why did his energy need to focus on me?

He leaned his head back so his hood fell off. "Oh man! He's your dad? How come I am just now hearing that your his daughter?"

I started fidgeting in my seat. "Well, we're not actually related, I mean, he adopted me--"

"Oh man, that is so cool! I've heard his wife is pretty hot too--your parents are, like, god-level in the real estate world..."

I detected Mr. Gorden wrapping up his lesson, so I took the opportunity to stand up. "My parents aren't gods..." I muttered, shoving my books into my bag and slinging it over my shoulder. The whole room seemed stuffy and stagnant. I needed air.

I plunged out the doors and into the quad. The wind pushed against my face, and I gasped it deep into my lungs.

I hear his wife is pretty hot... What a jerk! To sit there and talk about someone's mom like that--least of all mine!

I caught my breath and made straight for the park leading to our driveway. I wasn't anybody special. Just a girl who was about to...

I stopped in the doorway, gasping for breath again--but this time, no amount of heaving could dislodge the tightness in my throat. I let my chin tremble, I let the tears well, and I gave a little sob. Tony! All the money we had, the big mansion in Hyde Park, of all places... and I didn't have one thing that could stop my friend from dying.

Nothing except... Whispered the little voice in my head. I stepped forward and let the door close behind me, listening hard. My parents could be disturbingly quiet when they didn't feel like making noise.

"Mom?" I called. "Dad? Zella?"

No answer. I made it into the kitchen, where I saw another note from Mom.

Gone to lunch with the Fishers. Back in time for dinner! See you after school. Much love, Mom

That tiny except still rang through my thoughts. I wandered back into Mom's display room, back to the wall of artifacts--back to the supposed healing amulet. It was so small, barely the size of a watch face. It looked simple enough, and my geology textbook had a chapter or two about the mineral composition of such things.

I could just hear my mom's shocked and angry voice--which didn't differ all that much from her normal speaking voice, just the way she could make you feel when she said it--berating me for touching things in the room, even as I carefully slid back the panel that would release the reinforced plastic casing. Now I could touch it--but dare I? Did I really believe this mere object contained some mystical powers?

What have you got to lose? said the little voice. Just Tony--you'll lose Tony if you don't at least try. He's dying anyway.

I gritted my teeth and grabbed the amulet.

Nothing happened. It was just a creepy-looking art piece in my hand. It didn't burn my skin or release a cloud of mystic energy. I sat down and inspected the casing closely. At first it looked like one ornate piece, but as I turned it over, I realized that there were actually tiny fissures that proved the existence of hidden levers in the piece. I dug in with my fingernail and pushed a few of the pieces--getting my fingertip pinched a couple times, but I did hear a soft click and the stone rattled slightly. I carefully held the amulet flat in my hand as I gently lifted the weird eyeball thing from its setting. The domed glass over the top made it feel like the eye was watching me from every direction. I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and raced upstairs to get the science kit from my room. I found the right minerals, followed the steps I found online, and within half an hour, I had a near-perfect replica of the eyeball stone sitting beside the real one. For some reason, my dupe didn't have the depth or dimension--it kind of looked flat compared to the real one, but I figured there was something in its construction that I couldn't have done with an at-home, college-issued science kit. At any rate, it was close enough to pass until I didn't need it anymore.

The guilt threatened to creep back up. In a moment of panic, I wanted to put the actual stone back and get rid of the dupe I'd just made.

"I'm not stealing it!" I said out loud to no one in particular. "It's practically mine anyways, since it's part of Mom's private collection. I just need to borrow it--if it works and Tony revives, I'll put it back." I hesitated a moment. "And even if it doesn't work, and he still revives..." I concluded slowly, "I'll still put it back."

I placed the dupe in the setting and put that back on the display shelf. I brought the real stone up to my room, where I pulled out my wire-wrapping kit and did my best to disguise the stone's appearance by wrapping it in a crisscross of wires, sort of putting it in a "cage", almost. I looped the wire over a necklace chain to make it easy to carry, and I slipped that into an envelope with Tony's name on it, stowed safely in my purse. I grabbed myself a quick lunch of leftovers and then departed to my afternoon classes.

Immediately after my last class, instead of heading straight home, I detoured to the Advocate Health Center. On my way there, I dialed Mrs. Rosen, and she met me in the hospital lobby.

Her eyes were red and her skin looked all deflated and sagging. She gave me a big hug, and I could feel the bones in her shoulders.

"Oh Priscilla," she choked. "Thank you so much for coming. I know this would mean a lot to him."

The eyeball necklace was practically burning a hole through to my hip. "Has there been any change?" I asked, fearing the worst.

Mrs. Rosen shook her head. "He was awake for a little bit today, but unresponsive, and now--I mean, I guess they say he's sleeping, or just unconscious, but I..." Her voice caught and she gave a shaky sigh.

Here we go, I thought to myself. Moment of truth. "Can I see him? Is that all right?"

Mrs. Rosen nodded. She led me back and down a maze of hallways to the hospice wing. The whole family was there, all sitting with their arms around each other, staring at the floor, nobody smiling. His sisters, Lacey and Dot, looked up when I walked in. His little brother Freddy hopped down and made straight for me, to wrap his arms around my middle as I walked by.

"Priscilla's just going to see Tony, and then she'll need to get home," Mrs. Rosen explained to her husband. He just sat there, as if he'd been turned to stone.

She pointed to the door and opened it for me.

Everything in the room was quiet, except the low thrum of the air conditioning, the steady whoosh of the respiratory machine, and the periodic beeping from the monitors attached to him. The blanket had been pulled down to his waist, so that his chest, with all the tubes and needles and monitors was left exposed--but I forced myself to focus on his face, with the big ugly breathing mask strapped to the front of it. Swallowing hard, I pulled out the envelope and took up the chain. I let the makeshift amulet dangle from my hand over his chest, and with the other hand I pulled up the website where I'd found the "healing incantation" earlier.

When I first saw it, the words had seemed like a bunch of barely-discernible gobbledegook, I had not even the foggiest clue how to pronounce any of it. But now, spurred on by a desperate hope for my friend, I looked at the words on my screen and did my almighty best.

"Vlavi, Nashtam, Egamad; Ekawa! Az zindoni xud baroed, Dava adhikaram, Tvirdat ovie koski!"

The strange words rolled off my tongue. I waited a few seconds, but nothing happened. All the sounds continued exactly as they had been before. I wanted to watch, wait for some kind of flicker--but the only change that came was the ping of an incoming text that just about made me jump out of my skin.

On our way home. Bringing dinner. Mom texted.

So much for staying and waiting. I tucked the amulet back into the envelope as I turned back to the table full of gifts from family and friends in the area. As I did, something stopped me--was it just a trick of the light, or did the eyeball just freaking blink at me? I stopped and watched it for a good ten seconds, but it didn't move, except to do that freaky follow-you-everywhere effect.

"Whatever," I muttered, shoving it into the paper and dashing from the room. I said my goodbyes to the Rosens and hurried to catch the next bus to the stop just down the road from our house.


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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Reader's Review: "City Of A Thousand Dolls" by Miriam Forster

Synopsis from Amazon:

The girl with no past, and no future, may be the only one who can save their lives.

Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a little girl. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. She makes her way as Matron's errand girl, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city's handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls' deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but also her life.


My Review:

Hunger Games. The Selection. Divergent.

The teen novel trend of "a bunch of girls living in isolation, and their only escape is sponsorship or marriage" is a strong one, capable of being spun in many different ways--and in that respect, City of A Thousand Dolls is no different from the rest.
Nisha lives in an isolated city, a place where unwanted or orphaned girls are sent (or abandoned) to be trained in one or another of several disciplines: beauty, music, combat, healing, and the like. If a girl shows strong affinity for one or the other, she can be "claimed" by that house and commits to her training. Nisha is one of those who hasn't yet been claimed, so she's dabbled in various discipline, acting as an assistant to the Matron in charge of running the whole place, running errands and carrying messages between the houses. Her sense of freedom and independence swiftly turns when word arrives that the Emperor's councilors have decided that either a house mistress should claim her, or she will be sold to the aristocrat with the most money. Nisha doesn't seem to fit in anywhere, so it seems as though her fate has been chosen for her.

Similarities to the other stories stop there, though. The cats were a creative twist, as Nisha discovers that she has a sort of telepathic link with them, for whatever reason. They warn her of impending danger, and help her investigate when girls in the City of A Thousand Dolls start dying under mysterious circumstances and far from "accidental", as the authorities want to claim. The vast difference, too, between what Nisha knows about her past, her parents, and the way she was abandoned at the gates of the City--versus what various people reveal about what actually happened was also a nice touch that kept the story from straying too far into the cliches that normally riddle a novel of this caliber.

The one downside of books like this is that it tends to elevate and/or isolate the main character above and away from the rest. While I did feel like Nisha was a good sympathetic character, and the reader is drawn into her peril and compelled to wish her success without the narrative ever explicitly stating that we should feel thus--on the other hand, I might have liked to get to know some of these other girls with strange names as characters in their own right, rather than just random people Nisha knows. Nisha is the exclusive narrator for this book--everything is through her eyes, from her perspective. We don't get to see things from any other point of view. If she knows a name or interacts regularly with a certain person, we get to know them as far as she does. If she doesn't know someone, they don't factor very much into the narrative she tells. This both does a disservice to other characters--but it also serves its own purpose well in terms of plot twists and red herrings, as the reader is no closer to discovering the mysterious killer in the City than Nisha is at any given moment, which gives the author an opportunity to weave a complicated web that isn't necessarily included into the book unless it directly affects Nisha--which it does at key moments.

All in all, I'd say this book is a fantastic story, creative and enchanting. City of A Thousand Dolls earns itself a solid *****5 STAR***** rating in terms of construction of the premise, execution of the plot, characters and dialogue, conflict and resolution (that last plot twist was a doozy and I loved it!), and lovely, exotic world-building. I would say it also warrants an Upstream Writer Certified TOTALLY RECOMMENDED, too, if you're the sort of person who likes fun, colorful stories full of peril, intrigue, and sappy teen romance. If you're looking for a book like The Selection, but without the senseless love triangle and the "practically perfect" heroine, then City of A Thousand Dolls just might be for you!

Further Reading: (Fantasy/Strong Heroines/Engaging World-Building)
The Untamed Series--Madeline Dyer
The Vemreaux Trilogy--Mary E. Twomey
       -The Way 
       -The Truth
       -The Lie
-The Secret King: Letháo--Dawn Chapman
The Children of Dreki--N. R. Tupper

The Red Dog Conspiracy--Patricia Loofbourrow
       -The Alcatraz Coup 
       -Jacq of Spades 
       -Queen of Diamonds 

-Dreamtime Dragons--Dreamtime Fantasy Authors The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 

The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair 
        -Street Fair 
        -A Fair Fight 
        -All's Fair 

The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart 
       -Wolf's Path 
       -Tiger's Shadow 

Verona: The Mermaid Tale Series--Pauline Creeden

Spirit Knights--Lee French
       -Girls Can't Be Knights 
       -Backyard Dragons 

Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland 
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 

The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny 
     -A Halloween's Curse 
     -Frost Bitten

Monday, February 17, 2020

Upstream Updates 2020: January Review

For lack of a better idea, I'm returning to doing these things once a month. I do have quite a bit planned for each month, and the accountability will help.

January in Review

Words Written: 18,623/20,000
Books Read: 2/4

WIP-Of-The-Month: Priscilla Sum

I was trying my best to get as much of this series written as possible, because I knew I was going to swap over to working on The Last Inkweaver as soon as February hit, and I wanted to be able to at least finish this by March so I could submit it for an anthology in April...

So... that's not going to happen. I'm still writing this one, though, for sure! I stretched and scraped my way up to the really exciting part where a character almost dies and Pris unwittingly uses an amulet with "healing" properties... but it actually releases a demon who is intent on gaining control of the divine essences of her "gods-in-hiding" adoptive parents... but now we're back to the "boring" bits and it's kind of slow going unless I can figure out how to make it more exciting. There are a few things I can do, so let's hope it works! I'd really like to see if the ending I have planned is one that I can still pull off--there's no telling if my imagination exceeds my ability at this point!

Anthology Announcement: Myths And Monsters up for pre-order!

>Pre-order link<
Speaking of the anthology, though, I'm going to take this moment to announce that the anthology in question is available for pre-order! Just looking at the lineup of participating authors makes me really excited!

Instead of Priscilla Sum, I'll be submitting a previously-written story, The Water-Man. It's one that I've talked about before, that I reserved exclusively for posting on Wattpad (so check out the Wattpad Works page in the tab bar above if you're curious!) and while it may not deal with mythology per se, the way I see it is:

-the main character/focal point is a shapeshifting aquatic cryptid--so although he takes a human form for this story, he's not naturally human;
-I took inspiration from Celtic mythology, particularly the lore behind selkies, kelpies, and undines, to come up with my own variety--a "leonie" (from the Gaelic "Lìon-Aos" or "tide people"), so there's a bit of that involved;

The only thing I don't know is how much editing it actually needs--so the more eyes I have on it in the next month or so, the better! Meanwhile, be sure and hit the link under the cover image, to reserve your copy in advance!

February's Challenge: Editing The Last Inkweaver!

Now that my editor has finished going through the whole story and leaving comments, I have commenced following up with comments and editing notes-to-self of my own!
The main thing that she recommended was re-tooling the beginning, to avoid info-dumping and to get right into the heart of the story--to which I heartily agree! The problem that arises, though, is where to begin? She's recommended starting at a particular point, but there are things that happen before that point that wouldn't work as well in flashback form... unless I made sure to start at that point... It gives me a lot to think about, for certain! Meanwhile, I've been able to re-tool some segues into smoother transitions, leave myself a couple paragraphs of scenes that need to be included, and all in all, these first two weeks of editing have been pretty productive!

Another Day, Another Blog Hop!

The Bookish Blog Hop group is gathering for another go-round, this time in the month of March! I'm in the process of getting my answers together over the next few days, and I'll try to be more on top of things for the coming month! The last few times, I had a bit of difficulty, but this time, I'm hoping to have all the links lined up ahead so I can share them on the day of, rather than the week after (or missing out on them entirely)! Spring is coming, folks!


As I mentioned above, I've finished only ONE ebook out of the two I wanted to read over January, and ONE of the two library books I wanted to finish. Of course, there at the VERY end of the month, I suddenly found my lacking wherewithal and blazed through the other library book, and a few short ebooks in the last couple weeks, bringing my total to 5 titles read this year (6 if you count Lethal White, which I finally marked as "Finished" on January 1).

Prey by Michael Crichton was every bit as disturbing and fascinatingly detailed as I expected it to be. Saving Faith was a rollercoaster of political machinations and double-dealing government officials and agents, typical of David Baldacci's style. (What was not so typical was the graphic rutting--to put it mildly--that went on... so it falls unfortunately into the same bin as Absolute Power... I guess maybe he must have had a phase in his writing life where someone tried to convince him that his books needed to be more steamy to be accepted? Luckily, those are few and far between... He sure knows how to write a good one, without dithering over smut!)

The ebook I managed to finish last month was one that's been on my TBR for a while, Hugo by Pamela Poole. She's one of a handful of Christian authors I still read regularly, and feature on my "Reader's Reviews" (Along with the likes of Pauline Creeden and more recently Lisa Rae Morris) and her series is definitely the caliber of a "novice Jan Karon", and though it's not quite the typical style of novel I enjoy (I'm less "Hallmark", more "SyFy"), it's pretty good in its own right, and does it's duty to satisfy the reader. Check out my review here: Reader's Review: "Hugo"by Pamela Poole

In these first couple weeks of February, on the other hand, I've managed to finish a few more titles: the Halloween-themed short story "Head Over Heels" by S. E. Anderson, which ties into her Starstruck Saga series (the characters are still as delightful as ever!), and the prequel novella to the Judah Black series, Fortunate Son by E. A. Copen. I also recently finished One Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster--so that review is coming tomorrow! Stay tuned!

On my nightstand for the next month are five titles, four came from the library and one borrowed: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Veiled Rose by Anne Elizabeth Stengl, Magnus Chase and The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan, The Stars Below by David Baldacci (that one I'm especially intrigued, because I had assumed the Vega Jane series was a trilogy, so when Book 3 ended with so many questions unanswered I was disappointed--here's hoping Book 4 can redeem it all!), and Until We Meet Again, by Michael Korenblit (the one I'm borrowing.) Tune in next month to see how many of those I've read, and what I thought of them!


All in all, I'd say it was a pretty rough start to the year... but I'm still hopeful that I find more of a rhythm in the next few months! Wish me luck! As always...

Catch You Further Upstream!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 7

Part 7

On Monday, I headed into Natural Sciences with my nerves amped up to 110% of their normal levels. I smiled when I saw Tony's face by the door, but when I got closer, it became obvious that he wasn't feeling so good.

He tried to shake off the pained grimace and smile for me when he caught me staring with concern all over my face.

"Hey, Pris," he grunted, reaching to hug me. "How's it hanging? You ready for this?"

I hesitated, with my head resting on his shoulder, until I could feel his heartbeat. At least he still had that.

"I'm as ready as I'll ever be," I replied. "What about you? How are you feeling?"

I looked up into his face, which held way more lines than it should have. "Me? Oh, I'm fine," he kept his tone upbeat, though it rang hollow. "Just... Last night I had trouble sleeping. It's probably nerves."

Yeah, or the disease that's slowly poisoning your blood, I thought, but, being a good friend, I accepted his answer and walked into class alongside my friend.

I slid into my seat in Mr. Gorden's classroom with my eyes locked on the stack of papers beside him. He went through the day's lesson in his methodical way, but I barely heard him. I did make sure to jot down the disjointed phrases that fell on my ears, but for the most part, I was entirely tuned into the prospect of the quiz coming at some point during this time block.

"... That concludes today's lesson," Mr. Gorden calmly closed his textbook. "Those of you who are not staying for the quiz from FRED may disperse to your classes. For those who choose to remain, please wait for a moment while we get everything set up."

I fiddled with my locket as a team of proctors filed into the classroom and headed straight for the pile of papers.

"These are representatives from FRED," Mr. Gorden announced. "They'll be proctoring the quiz and if you have any questions--provided they are nothing pertinent or specific to the actual test material--you can ask them at any point outside of the actual examination period."

I waited with my pencil in hand while a severe-looking woman with straight red hair and elongated features laid a packet on the table in front of me. "FRED Archaeological Competency Evaluation Quiz", it said across the front, with the acronym "FACE-Q" below it.

The proctor at the front held up an extra copy of the quiz. "You may now turn to page one," he said, "and fill in your personal contact information."

The whole exam went that way. The proctor gave directions in that methodical, steady voice, and the others just stood at the side of the room, staring at each of us, from the front of the room to the back. They had their rotations timed so that at any given moment, every one of us felt that at least somebody was watching us. I guess the pressure was thick enough to deter any cheaters--but that didn't stop a couple people from attempting to cheat, based on the way one of the extra proctors would approach one student, remove their test, and escort them from the room, all without saying a word.

I caught the eye of the girl sitting next to me and snorted. What exactly did they have to prove, trying to cheat on a competency exam to go stay in the middle of nowhere for a week? It wasn't like this was a luxury destination!

Somebody moaned, and my eyes wandered toward the sound. I saw Tony sitting two tables in front of me. He was leaning heavily on his arm and rubbing his face. Concern nearly pulled my focus away, but I wrenched my concentration back to the questions. Just a few more to answer and then I had the rest of the time to work on my essay.

Tony groaned again, and the noise carried through the mostly-quiet auditorium. I felt the nervousness tugging at my own insides, but I took a deep breath.

Everything's fine, Pris, I told myself. I can worry about this later. He'll be fine.

I started on my essay as the first few people began walking forward with their completed exams. I jotted down my outline, sorting my thoughts along the framework, just like I'd practiced. The words flowed from my pencil, and I got to the last paragraph just fine. When I stood up with my test packet, I saw Tony staggering up the aisle just ahead of me. His legs wobbled under him, but he managed to stay upright.

I placed my exam on the table at the front of the room and looked toward the door just in time to see Tony crumple into a heap in the hallway.

Somebody screamed, and people started yelling. By the time I reached him, somebody had already rolled him over and was working on trying to revive him, while someone else alerted campus security and called for an ambulance.

"Tony!" the security officer shouted, but my friend didn't respond. I watched in frozen horror as the paramedics arrived with sirens blaring, and loaded Tony onto a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. They wheeled him out to the waiting vehicle, shouting assessments to each other all the way.

About three minutes after they pulled away, it was over. Staff began directing us to our classes, assuring everyone within earshot that it was all taken care of.

I went through my next three classes in a fog. By lunchtime, I had recovered some of my wits--which was good, because on my way out of Kent, I saw Mr. Gorden heading toward me with a letter in his hand.

"Miss Thiele!" he cried. "I'm glad I've caught you. I have something." He handed me the letter.

I saw the return address, labeled with only the Fortune Research and Educational Development logo, and the city--Athens, New York. No street address, nothing. But there was my full name, Priscilla DelVento-Thiele, and my address.

"What--" I looked up at the professor with a frown. "What does this mean?"

He grinned at me. "I think you know what it means," he said cryptically.

My mind spun. "But sir--what about Tony?"

He patted my shoulder. "They've taken him to Advocate Health. He'll be fine, I'm sure. Don't you worry! I won't keep you any longer. See you in class tomorrow, Priscilla." He kept walking down the pathway.

I stuffed the letter into my bag and headed for the path toward the park. Don't worry, he said? I couldn't help but worry! Tony just told me a few days ago that he was almost certainly dying, and now he just passes out in the middle of school--and I was supposed to believe he would be fine?

This time, when I walked into the front door, I turned and walked toward my mothers display room. That amulet still sat on the shelf, drawing me in with its lifeless, unblinking stare. I looked into that orange ball, and all I could think of was Tony, laid out on a hospital bed... dying...

I shook off the depressing thoughts and forced myself to walk around the room, look at something else--anything else!

My eye fell on a particular grouping. I could swear I'd seen some of them on display before. On a whim, I dug out one of the other Ancient Artifacts textbooks, comparing the labels on my mom's wall with the captions on the photos. Again, as with the eyeball amulet, the difference between the two were often centuries apart, and on completely different continents.

I slammed the book shut and stomped into the kitchen. Of course, there was a note from my mom saying that Dad would be working till late tonight and she would be back by dinnertime. For lunch, I could just fix myself a sandwich from the refrigerator. I made a sandwich, all right--but I ate it in anxious bursts, swapping between taking huge bites and just picking at the sandwich. There was just too much going on in my life that didn't make sense, and yet I didn't feel like there was any place I could go to get any answers!

Heading back to campus for math class, I could pretend for a moment that everything was fine. People were still walking in small groups, laughing and chatting with one another. I walked into Math class, though, and I could almost taste the tension in there.

I caught a few girls muttering amongst each other with mournful expressions.

"--a few weeks left," one of them was saying.

I stopped behind them, and a few of them looked up, and then right back down again.

"A few weeks till what?" I asked.

Chelsea, at the very edge of the group, sat up straighter. "Have you heard the latest about Tony?" she asked.

I quickly claimed the open seat next to her. "No--what happened?" Did he die already? My brain set my heart racing.

"At the hospital," one of the other girls said. "He--they said he took a turn for the worse, and the doctors haven't given him much longer to live."

Her words sucked all the air out of my lungs. I forgot how to breathe, and just sat there in suffocated silence. "But..." I stammered, "he's going to make it, right? I mean, he's been to the hospital lots of times--he'll be back in a few days, won't he?"

I felt Chelsea's hand slip into mine and give a squeeze. "Pris..." she whispered, and I could see the tears in her eyes. "We all knew it was going to happen someday."

"No!" I kept my voice hoarse so it wouldn't resonate too much. "You guys don't get it--you might have met him here at college or even high school... but I've known him since we were kids! He never--I never..." If I tried to say anything more, I'd start bawling right there in class, I just knew it! One of the other girls--Tony had been going out with her last year a bunch of times--was crying openly already. We passed each other tissues and got through the class. I managed to push all thoughts of Tony out of my head each time the teacher started talking, but every time I walked out into the hallway again, there he was, looking at me with those gaunt, hollow eyes, begging me to do something--but what could I do?

Mom met me in the front hall. I wanted to brush past her without saying anything, but she caught my arm, and pulled me into a hug. I felt it seep down through my skin like a warm breeze on a cold day.

"Mrs. Rosen called from the hospital," she whispered. "Pris, I'm so sorry."

The hospital. So it was true. He wasn't on the mend, and things were worse than everybody thought. I sobbed into Mom's shoulder. She stroked my hair and we stood there for a while.

Once I got my breath back, I told her, "I want to do something, but I don't know what it is! What can I do in this situation?"

Mom kept her arm around me and we walked into the dining room, where Zella had a pot roast and vegetables on the table for us.

"You can focus your thoughts on the outcome you most desire, Pris," she said. "Wish for him good healing, and comfort for Tony and his family. I know how much he means to you. It hurts to see the ones we care about, dying." She rubbed my hand as we started eating. "I'm sure his family would appreciate you stopping by to see him, too."

I nodded, rubbing away the remains of the tears and catching my breath. Thinking of Tony reminded me of Mr. Gorden--and the letter.

"Oh," I mused, turning to my book bag to dig it out. "The other day, Mr. Gorden gave me this." I showed the envelope to Mom.

She frowned a little at the return address label. "Fortune Research and Educational Development? I've never heard of such a place." She smiled and handed it back to me. "It sounds very elite. What does it say?"

I flipped the envelope around and broke the seal. "I don't know--Mr. Gorden seemed to think it had something to do with the exam I took this morning."

Mom dabbed at the corner of her mouth. "That's right, you did mention that the other day at dinner."

I unfolded the letter.

"Priscilla DelVento-Thiele: Congratulations! You have been accepted..."
Mom congratulated me as befitted such news, and we went our separate ways after the meal, but I wandered up to my room with the letter in my hand.

Accepted? How had they known? It had only been a matter of hours after I took the test--was their grading procedure as efficient as their test security procedure?

Thinking about the trip made me think about Tony again, so I set the letter aside and pulled out my laptop to try and research the amulet.

I found a few pictures in articles talking about other things, and one article that actually gave more information about the "group healing ceremony" and rituals that went along with it. The triple deity, for example, bore the names Vlavi, Nashtam, and Egamad. Were they three names for three separate entities? Or did all three names apply to different aspects of the same being?

I climbed into bed, with the information about the amulet and my mother's advice running through my head.

"Well, Vlavi, Nashtam, Egamad," I mumbled under my breath, "whatever you are, whoever you are... I wish you were real, so you could heal my friend!"

All I heard in the silence was the wind pressing against the windows. I rolled over and fell asleep to the sound of creaking trees.


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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Serial Saturday: "Priscilla Sum" Part 6

Part 6

By the time I woke to my alarm the next morning, the turbulence of the night before had dissipated.

I got dressed and started my day by grabbing a quick breakfast and coffee, and flipping through a textbook on Mediterranean cultures. The Greek mythology and theology was the most common everybody knew, but there were several other sects and belief systems discovered through archaeological investigations throughout the years. I ran my fingers over the pictures, thinking of Mom’s wall of reserved artifacts, and imagining what it would be like to uncover a piece of history that no one had seen before. I pulled out notecards and jotted down the different people groups that had been identified and the significant pieces that denoted the group’s unique belief system.

A few pages later, my eyes caught the word “healing” and I stopped.

The picture showed a small amulet, an orange stone with red and black veins that looked like an eyeball. The stone was set in an onyx-studded frame, and something itched at the back of my brain. My thoughts spun as I brought the textbook with me downstairs, to Mom’s display room.

There were pedestals and tables scattered throughout, and shelves along the wall lined with plastic cases containing artifacts. On that shelf, I found it.

The exact same artifact. On display in my house. The hypothetical illustration had a priest wearing it on a chain around his neck, and beams shooting out from it, while people within the beams depicted with grotesque and debilitating maladies were changing into hale and unblemished people. I read the section on it.

Healing Amulet, discovered ca. 1876 in the Sithonia region of Greece. Said to contain a trio of healing spirits. Once a year, in the first full moon of Spring, the temple outside Sithonia would hold a ceremony where all who were ailing or injured would come before the priest who wore the amulet and spoke the incantation, calling upon the supposed spirits, and everyone in the presence of the amulet would be healed.

My thoughts immediately went to Tony. Purely out of curiosity, I checked online to see when the next full moon would be. April 9th—this coming Monday.

I shook my head. “Come on, Pris,” I muttered to myself, “this stuff isn’t even real. There’s no way...” and yet, as I walked out of the room and went to pack up my stuff to meet Tony in Study Hall, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head.

As it turned out, Tony had also noticed that particular notation, but he’d read a little further in the text, which had given him a different insight into it.

“It says on the next page that the strange veins were probably from mineral deposits. Maybe the people recorded as ‘healed’ weren’t actually sick to begin with... maybe it had something to do with the composition of the stone.”

I tapped my pencil on my notebook. “Like the way magnetite or amber is used for therapeutic reasons?”

Tony grinned. “Exactly.”

The day moved on, and by mid afternoon, I left my last class, ready for the weekend.

Walking into the house, I found myself wandering into the display room again. The amulet with the eyeball still piqued my interest. I glanced at the plaque mounted next to it. “Amulet of Apophis, Giza ca. 1796.”


I jumped and recoiled from the shelf, my heart pounding with a sudden guilt, even though it was just my mom and she hadn’t even yelled at me or anything.

I turned to face her as she approached, a slight smile in her eyes. “I didn’t hear you come home. What were you looking at?” She glanced down the length of the shelf.

I gestured vaguely. “Just a few of the artifacts, because the textbook I’m studying right now mentions a couple of them.” I pulled the book out of my bag and flipped to the page. “Like this one,” I pointed to the picture of the amulet. “It says here that it’s some kind of healing amulet from Sithonia... but the plaque says it was discovered in Giza.”

Mom squinted a little and tilted her head. “Hmm, you’re right, that is strange.”

She didn’t add anything more, so I tried prompting. “So which one is right?”

Mom shrugged. “I couldn’t really tell you for sure. The plaque came with the artifact, I didn’t necessarily have any reason to question whether it had been labeled properly or not.”

I scrunched my face up, but Mom had already turned away to attend to something on her tablet. The same itching anxiety threatened to rear its ugly head--I needed answers, and I was at a loss which source to believe! The mention of Sithonia brought back notions of my dad--hadn't he said he knew a story from that region? At the very least, anything he knew about the lore originating in Sithonia couldn't be any less credible than the assertions stated in my textbook. I sighed and slipped the textbook back into my backpack. The discrepancy nagged at me all the way up to my room. As if to confirm my next move, the first thing I saw on my dresser was the locket my parents had given me upon my adoption. I only wore it sometimes, when I needed the extra boost of courage and comfort it gave--such as right about now. Fastening the locket around my neck, I made the trek out to the shores of Lake Michigan. The sun was out, so I knew he'd be swimming.

The lake wasn't all that calm, as the wind churned up plenty of small waves. I wrapped my coat closer around myself as I found a seat on an outcropping of rocks and waited. At the very least, I could find solace in the sound of the water lapping against the shore. The lake was a bit choppy today, but that was how Dad liked it. He always said the challenge of wrestling with the unpredictable forces of currents and wind gusts made him feel more alive than, as he put it, "paddling through a passive puddle."

My eye fell on a cluster of oddly-colored pebbles, and I didn't even realize how mesmerized I was until Dad coughed and I noticed him for the first time, already standing on the shore beside me. Water still trickled from his hair down his skin. The sun was resting against the horizon.

"Oh, Hi Dad," I stammered.

His gaze seemed to search my face, neither excited nor disappointed. "Hello yourself, Stranger." He waited till I glanced up at him with a small smile, and plopped down next to me on the rock. Even wet, his skin still radiated warmth.

He waited.

I waited.

The water continued to evaporate from him.

I coughed. "About last night..."

His head turned a little too quick, and he eyed me with a glimmer of hope.

What was it he expected me to say next?

"Have you changed your mind?" he asked.

There it was. I shook my head. "Not entirely; I mean, I still feel the same way, I just..." I sighed and leaned against his large, round shoulder. "I'm sorry I said it the way I did. I didn't mean to hurt you or push you away."

He shifted under my head, but it was only to bring his arm around my back and let me lean against his side. He reached up and stroked the hair on the side of my head. "Then what was all that big-girl talk about turning down my bedtime stories and blaming me for the school assignments that went wrong?"

"Dad," I shifted so I could look up at him. "I said I'm sorry!" The words came out in a rush. "I'm just feeling a whole lot of pressure with this dig and the exam coming up, like a lot of people at the school are already singling me out for some reason, and on top of all that, this dig opportunity sounds like the ticket to everything I've been hoping for, and I really don't want to miss out, if I even have a chance!"

Dad clasped my hand in his and let out a rumbling chortle. "What do you mean, if you have a chance? Priscilla, your mother and I have always believed that you are exceptionally bright, there's no question about that. Besides," He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "What is it that you're hoping for, and how would a dig provide the answer to that?"

I let my legs dangle over the edge of the rock, dropping lightly down to the ground. Dad stood behind me, almost completely dry except his hair. I took a few steps, hoping to feel something inside, but the only thing I actually felt was a rumbling tummy as I knew Mom would have whipped up something nice for dinner by now.

"I don't actually know," I confessed.

Dad didn't let go of my hand, but pulled me closer to him in a hug. Between us, I felt the round shape of my locket rubbing against my collarbone. I smiled and concentrated on the sound of the heartbeat so close to my ear. I might not know the reason right this moment, but I just knew that if I kept going, everything would become clearer in time.


Fourteen Years Prior....

She sat on the lumpy couch that sank down too far in the back, kicking the heels of her borrowed shoes against the loose gap in the bottom runner. Two years, she'd been with the Parks--temporarily, just so she'd have somewhere to live while the agency searched for a good candidate for her "forever home." Now the young girl, all of six years old, nearly ready to lose her first tooth, ran her fingers over the arm of the couch, wondering who she was going to meet today.

The strangers were tall. They both had low voices.

"What's her name?" the woman asked Mrs. Ende softly.

The stocky woman who had chaperoned her to the visitation center came to stand beside the couch. She placed a hand on the little girl's arm.

"This is Priscilla," she said to the woman. To her young charge, she said, "Priscilla, this is Mr. Thiele and Ms. DelVento."

Priscilla pulled her arm out from Mrs. Ende's touch. She stared at the graceful woman in the fancy clothes. She couldn't even bring herself to look at the burly, lion-like man standing behind her. The fiery blue eyes and the dark beard terrified the young girl. He looked angry, and fierce. Her knees came up under her chin, and she wrapped her arms close against her body. She tucked herself into the back corner of the couch, willing the massive cushions to expand and swallow her.

Her chin began to tremble and tears itched the corners of her eyes.

"Mommy..." she whimpered softly.

Mrs. Ende backed away. "I'll leave you three to get acquainted," she muttered, and ducked around Mr. Thiele to get through the door.

Ms. DelVento held Priscilla's gaze as she slowly crossed the room. She held her hands behind her back now.

"Priscilla?" she spoke the name, and smiled warmly. "That's a pretty name. My name is Aurelia." She paused a bit. "I have something for you, Priscilla."

The girl didn't move, but she did forget her panic when Aurelia DelVento produced a massive teddy bear from behind her back. It was almost as big as Priscilla herself, as she crawled out from the depths of the couch to receive it. Her arms wrapped around its neck and she clasped her hands together, squeezing the bear hard against her. When she let the bear sag down under her chin, the big bear-like man sat on the floor. Even then, he was still head-and-shoulders taller than the tiny girl, but at least he wasn't so scary anymore.

"Hello, Priscilla," he said in a booming voice, even though she could tell he was trying to speak as softly as he could. "I'm Patrick. Would you like to be friends with me?"

In response, Priscilla buried her face in the soft plush fur again. She heard Mr. Thiele and Mrs. DelVento whispering to one another.

"I think that's enough excitement for one day."

"Poor little tyke."

"Well, now that we've met one of them, we can discuss with a better idea of what's in store, can't we?"

When Priscilla looked up again, Mrs. Ende was in the room. She looked all kinds of stunned at the gift the couple had given her.

"Oh, my! That is a huge teddy!" She looked at the couple. "Are you sure you don't want to take it with you, perhaps to give to the child you end up fostering?"

Priscilla gripped it tighter at the suggestion.

Ms. DelVento shook her head. "It belongs to Priscilla now. She can do whatever she likes with it." She caught Priscilla's wondering gaze and smiled again. "She can take it to whichever home she ends up in. Goodness knows a child that young needs something consistent in their life!"

Priscilla stood in the middle of the room, clinging to the bear as hard as she dared. Couples might come and go, she might be living with the Parks for longer than anyone anticipated--but now that she had the bear, she had something to hold onto.

Six months later, just after her seventh birthday, Priscilla DelVento-Thiele lay in her own bed, in her own room, decorated with trinkets and furniture and designs selected specifically for her. She tossed and turned, whimpering as she struggled against the bonds of her own psyche in the throes of a nightmare. The large teddy bear lay in a heap on the floor.

The door slid open, and a brawny figure slipped into the room. Making surprisingly little sound for someone of his stature, he picked up the bear and sat on the end of the bed.

Priscilla finally arrived in wakefulness, gasping for breath and ready to burst into tears. She took one look at the shadowy figure sitting on her bed and immediately crawled toward him, seeking solace in his lap. He held her close, and placed the teddy in her arms. His deep, rumbling voice murmured soothing consolations like the summer thunder that so often lulled her to sleep.

"It's okay, Priscilla," he reassured her. "I'm right here. You have nothing to fear. You're safe, and we love you."

The haunting images of the nightmare returned, and Priscilla buried her head in his shoulder. "I got lost, and I couldn't find anybody... I was all alone and a storm came!" The sobs threatened to choke her now.

Patrick's broad hands stroked her head. "Shh, it's not true. It's over now. The storms can't touch you anymore." He shushed again, letting her frantic breathing subside. "I have something for you, that will help you feel better."

The young girl picked up her head. "You do?"

Patrick reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small item. In the dim glow of the nightlight, Priscilla stared in awe at the locket hanging from the delicate silver chain. It had two different patterns of a lovely filigree on either side. Priscilla eagerly sat forward and allowed Patrick to fasten it around her neck. As the cool metal touched her skin, just above her heart, she felt all her pent-up fear and confusion dissipate, and she could relax once more.

Patrick laid her down on the pillow, and tucked the blankets under her chin. She felt his hand resting on her shoulder, and heard his low voice humming a gentle lullaby. She drifted off to a dreamless sleep, full of the knowledge that, for the first time, she was exactly where she belonged.


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