A/N: Welcome back again! As I’ve been posting chapters kind of quickly, be sure you’re caught up before reading this one! Also, I hope you all have a very Happy New Year!! =D Enjoy!
“Happy birthday, Tamara!! Happy birthday, Catherine!!”
“Happy birthday to the twins!”
“Woooo, you’re legal now!”
“Make a wish!!”
I wish to never be in one place for too long.
“Smile for the camera, girls!”
“Gosh, look at them!”
Indeed, look at them. Finally, after what felt like an eternity of teenaged life and sorrows, my sister and I were officially young adults. Eighteen years old and we felt like we could take on the world…or at least I did.
Things didn’t magically turn wonderful after we all got home from Egypt, but there was no doubt that they were at least better. I didn’t mope around as much. I smiled. I spent more time with my family, and less time locked up in my room. I hadn’t told my parents yet what had happened, but for now, I didn’t feel like I needed to. The better part of that weight had been lifted off of my shoulders that starry night by the fire pit, and now I was graduating, and that was good enough for me. After all, the majority of my problems resided in that school and now I would be completely free of it.
On that note, our graduation ceremony took place soon after our nighttime birthday celebration at The Grind. It was a perfect day outside and the entire family came to watch us walk that stage as our names were called, that fateful sheet of paper passed into our eager hands.
My baby sister Lynn even got to see us, cheering along with everyone else when our names were called last (there weren’t many people with a last name that came after “Winters”), even if she had no idea what she was cheering about.
Once we filed out of the ceremony our nerves bubbled over with excitement as we tossed our diplomas high into the air, catching them on their way down and cheering.
I was pretty sure I was the happiest about the diploma though. It wasn’t because I had almost not gotten it or something, as Catherine and I had both graduated with High Honors, but rather that, to me, this diploma represented more than just the completion of my high school education. To me, this diploma represented pure, merciful relief. Relief from the teasing; the whispers; the lies…relief from…him. In fact, hewasn’t even here because he had failed an essential math course and would have to take summer school before he graduated, good riddance.
It was another blessing…and a fact that made my graduation day one of the happiest in my life.
Of course, I never did notice our unexpected guest that day. Otherwise, the day might easily have been one of my worst….
But maybe I would have known sooner that he was watching.
…..and not at all happy.
Three things though I was aware of.
1.) After coming home from Egypt and celebrating our birthdays, Daniel proposed to his long-time girlfriend Georgia and moved out, much to the dismay of the entire household. Even though we knew he wouldn’t be far, it was just plain weird without him around the house.
2.) On the way back from graduation Laura took a detour to a neighbor’s house who was hosting a pet adoption and came home with one very sweet, though very skittish, kitten who we named Cleo (my idea!)
And 3.) Catherine asked Riley to move in with us, and now he was a regular member of the household. Talk about surprises.
I didn’t really get to experience how life was after all these changes though, because soon after all of THAT happened, I was in an airplane and heading to my next destination….
Beautiful, exotic China.
Only this time, I was by myself. And this time, I planned to spend every minute of every day exploring, for my hunger for the new and exciting had been planted.
And this hunger, was insatiable.
So imagine my excitement when the first thing I noticed when I got to the base camp was another large board filled with postings. Most of them were offers for cheap tours and museum tickets, but a couple of them were different and exactly what I was looking for—a request for assistance.
“Erm, ni hao,” I began, trying to be confident as I used some of the Chinese phrases I looked up before arriving. “Wo jiao Tam-”
“Are you here about the posting?”
“Oh, uh, yeah!” I said, feeling embarrassed now as the man (Shen, according to the paper), looked at me impatiently.
“Hmph. I would have liked someone older…stronger, but you’ll do I guess. I am tired of waiting. There’s been rumors of a very valuable treasure in a nearby tomb and I want it. Get it for me and I’ll pay you. Here,” he said then, shoving something into my hand, “is the key. ….well, what are you waiting for? Get to it!” he added in annoyance.
Feeling annoyed myself, I merely nodded before stalking off, the stone key heavy in my hands. If it weren’t for the fact that I was intensely curious about this tomb, I would have left the treasure right where it was.
As it turned out, the tomb waspretty impressive. It wasn’t anything too exciting necessarily, but every corner I turned got my heart beating with excitement, and that was enough for me. Who cared if the guy I was retrieving the treasure for was a total jerk? He was doing ME the favor, not the other way around.
“So I got the relic you were looking for. Here you are,” I said matter-of-factly not too long afterward, handing over an old, but intricate stone figurine.
“Ahh, it seems I underestimated you,” he said, a huge, amused smile on his face as he took the figurine in his hands. “Well, as I promised, here you are,” he added, handing over a pile of coins and some cash.
“It’d probably be wise not to,” I said, shoving the money into my pocket. “Judging someone by how they look is never a wise idea.”
After that little episode, I decided to stock up on some of my supplies and then head back to the base camp to take a proper shower and sleep. On that note, I also needed better clothes for when I went down into the tombs, because my current outfit was likely to snag on something and rip in some of the more difficult ones, and there wasn’t much as far as holding space went.
“Ni hao,” I said as I walked into the market, saying the one of the only things I really knew how to so far: hello.
“Ni hao,” the man responded with a smile as he turned to look at me. “How may I help you?” he asked. I couldn’t help but notice that his English was very good, although softly affected by his Chinese accent. I liked it though, finding myself smiling back at him warmly.
At least this guy was nice.
“I’m looking for some supplies,” I started, and then gave him the list of items I was looking for. He helped fetch the things I needed, including some better clothes to wear down in the tombs, all the while whistling to himself and occasionally asking questions. He was easy to talk to.
“Will that be all?” he asked then, glancing once more around his store and then down at my items to make sure I had everything.
“Yes, thank you. You’ve been very kind. The last guy I ran into was totally rude,” I couldn’t help but say, needing to vent at least a little.
“’Totally,’ hmmm?” he asked, testing out the word on his tongue in the way I had just said it. I laughed, a little embarrassed, but still amused.
“Sorry,” I flushed. “I mean he was really rude. Although…I don’t know, I guess I’m being rude now. All he wanted was money.”
“If you have money, you can make the devil push your grindstone.”
“Never mind,” the man said quickly, this time the one to flush, his gaze averted.
“I’m Tamara, by the way, Tamara Winters,” I suddenly blurted out, figuring it might be a good idea to introduce myself to the guy who held the power over all the supplies I’d need for future trips.
“Jiang,” he said, looking slightly uncomfortable now as he glanced at me. “Jiang Lu.”
“Nice to meet you, Jang.”
“No. Chi….ahng. Jiang.”
“Jiang,” I finally said correctly, my cheeks red as he smiled in delight.
“Yes. It means river. It…it is nice to meet you too, Tamara.”
I nodded and gave a nervous smile before grabbing my bag of stuff and hurrying out of the store, my heart beating quickly with anxiety, but for reasons that I did not know.
The next morning, I was sent on another adventure, but this time to a place called the Dragon’s Maw—a massive stone dragon tomb that was carved out of the very mountain itself by a thousand men. It could be seen from every point in the small town of Shang Simla.
It was kind of a weird task, given to me by a middle aged lady who seemed to be rather concerned.
“You will know when you’ve found what you’re looking for,” she had told me. “Just explore the tomb and report back to me with what you find.”
And so explore I did, searching carefully through every nook and cranny I could find so as not to miss a single thing.
Of course, I didn’t always like what I found.
But I didn’t let it get to me. Whether the discovery was beautiful or wholly horrifying, I treasured each one, for each was a new experience, and a new excitement.
Like finding a hidden library with ancient books filled with ancient words….
Or even secret doors within those libraries….
Which don’t always lead to things quite so elegant…
But rather hide these things in the darkest of places.
“So then she says I’ll know once I’ve found what I’m looking for, but I explored every part of that tomb I could find access to and I didn’t really find anything! I mean, I found lots of treasures and gold coins and the like, but she didn’t seem to care much about those.”
“I know, it’s weird. Besides the relics, all I came out with was a nightmare of some shadowy adventurer fighting a mummy,” I cried, a chill passing through me as soon as I said the words. It brought back memories of Egypt and the weird nightmare I had had there…only it had been me fighting the mummy, and it had felt so real….
“Did you tell her this?” Jiang asked.
“Well yeah,” I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable now.
“And…” I flushed. “I don’t know. She mentioned some prophecy about someone coming to save the cave and how I might be that person and yadda yadda sends me on a wild goose chase to collect a bunch of crap for a ‘vision statue’. I mean I don’t know, I think the woman might be losing it, but at least I’m getting paid well I guess.
“A lot of people here are very superstitious,” Jiang replied softly, his low voice a comforting hum to my ears. “My wife, for one, is consumed by prophecies and omens and signs. Who knows though? There might be some truth within them.”
“Your wife?” I asked vaguely, getting distracted by that new piece of information.
“Yes,” he said, flushing. “She…she knows a lot about that kind of thing.”
An awkwardness briefly descended upon us out of nowhere, with both of us seemingly at a loss for words. How long had we been talking anyway? It felt like it had been a long time.
“Hey, you know, I should go,” I announced then, giving Jiang a polite smile. “Thanks for the supplies…and for listening.”
I spent the rest of the day at the Martial Arts Academy, practicing on a dummy they had there. Despite my fairly above average strength and athletic ability, I was terrible at Sim Fu, but I hoped that with more training I could become better. In the meantime, it was a good outlet for any frustrations and worries I had.
I didn’t even know what there was to be upset about, but suddenly I was just so angry. I couldn’t hit the dummy hard enough or fast enough or even as much as I wanted to, missing far too many times or hurting myself instead.
“Sim Fu is not about anger, child, it is about peace,” a man walking by tutted, shaking his head. “That is your problem.”
“I didn’t ask you!” I retorted bitterly, giving the dummy another resounding smack.
I immediately regretted my words though as the man walked off with a smirk, making me feel completely foolish.
What had gotten into me?
And so it was that my trip to beautiful China ended on a low note, despite the wonderful time I had had. Perhaps I was just overtired though. It had been a long trip and I’d been running around and barely sleeping the entire time. Being exhausted was understandable.
And being exhausted did weird things to you….whether you liked it, or not.
Once home I did rest some, but it wasn’t long before I was up and at it again, attending tryouts for the new women’s soccer team they were trying to launch. The competition was horribly fierce though as already established athletes from all over tried out for the team too. Considering that fact, I didn’t think I did too terribly, but it wasn’t good enough.
They offered me a job hawking snacks instead, saying to stick nearby and “they’d see” if they’d like to advance me or not. The job was a complete insult, considering it involved little to no athletic ability at all, but I took it anyway. It was something to keep me busy, and that was all that mattered really.
I had to stay busy—staying still drove me insane.
There were, at least, things to do while I was at home. Like repair the shower after it started spitting water everywhere…..
Celebrating our baby sister Lynn’s birthday…..
Training and helping Cleo get used to life in our house…..
…and of course simply planning my next trip. After all, there was only so long I could take at home; even if I did have plenty to do.
Of all the things I did to keep myself occupied before heading off to my next destination, jogging was my favorite. I could run for hours, just breathing in the sweet, green air of Neverglade and watching the world go by until my muscles ached and then I would still keep going. Out here, I just felt…free.Free from worries, free from responsibilities, free from awful memories that woke you up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Out here, everything was wonderful.
Out here, everything felt safe.
But sometimes, as I stood on the beach looking out at the waves, or stopped in town to see what was going on, I’d feel a prickle of unease that I couldn’t explain. A vague feeling that somehow, I wasn’t quite as safe as I felt.
I tried to brush it off as just being anxious to get traveling again, but sometimes I did wonder…
Was the reason something decidedly more…sinister?