A/N: I didn’t intend it to be, but I think this chapter ended up being a little bit of a filler, since it sets up future events. The next chapter will be the complete opposite- promise! It requires a lot of set-up as far the shots go though, so it might be a while before that one comes out. Regardless, I hope you all enjoy this one! =)
Things weren’t getting any better with my life, despite my many attempts at attaining “inner peace.” For one, I was having a more difficult time of forgiving myself than I should have. For another, my attempt to forgive myself made me think of Jiang too much, and that drove me insane. I didn’t know what it was about him or why he even stood out in my mind so clearly, but there he always was, warm and comforting…and just not possible.
So I dealt with these frustrating emotions in the only way I knew how at this point…
But I shifted easily from relationship to relationship, nothing feeling right. Maybe I was just kind of asexual and that’s why I wasn’t interested in anyone. Was that even possible? Or maybe my head was just in such a bad place that I wasn’t in any shape for a relationship.
Regardless, none of them lasted very long, and eventually I just gave up.
After my extended stay in China, I again avoided going home by flying straight to Egypt—the place where I had begun feeling like myself again in the first place. I hoped the same would happen again…and in truth as soon as I felt the Egyptian sun upon my face and saw the shimmering haze of desert heat dance above that endless expanse of sand…I began to feel better.
Egypt offered many strange and exciting adventures to be had. I even got to go back to the same tomb that I had when I was a teenager to collect something called “flame fruit.” It seemed to thrive off the intense heat of the tomb, its very being glowing like embers jumping from a raging fire. They even felt warm to the touch.
After that it was general exploring as I collected gems and excavated old ruins, pocketing the treasures I found to put on display at home. I was already planning to build a basement to house them all, if my parents didn’t mind. Even though on our birthday our parents had told us the house was ours to do as we pleased with it as long as we lived there, I knew it was dad’s treasure.
I still ran errands for people too, plucking notices off the board at base camp and running all over Al Simhara to fulfill their requests. Unfortunately, not all of them were innocent little tasks to go collect copper or fetch a statue.
…one of them required that I break into the headquarters of an organization! Granted, it was an organization called MorcuCorp that was seeking to establish a black market in Al Simhara by exploiting its residents, but still….
I pushed the thoughts out of my mind though as I watched the house. It was clear that the hole in the wall probably had some secret switch, but there was no way I’d be able to get to it with the kids playing there….I’d have to wait until they left.
It wasn’t until really late that their parents called them back from the shed, but once they did I crept inside, hastily plunging my hand into the hole and yes, finding a tiny switch….
…which happened to reveal a hidden staircase. Jackpot.
I had to switch out their documents with fake ones, which was actually much easier than I would have thought. Unless it was all a trap….
Regardless, I called up Amen to let her know the job was done. Her response didn’t exactly make me happy though….
“Great! Okay, now hack their main computer!”
I better be paid well for this.
And indeed I was, a large chunk of change being pressed into my hand as well as some gold coins once I reported back.
“I need you to fetch a relic for me now. …well, one of three to be frank.”
“Of course you do.”
“I’ll reward you handsomely.”
“I’d do it without the reward, to be honest,” I replied with a shrug. I glanced over at the woman’s son then. “What are you looking at?”
“The snake by our feet,” he whispered.
“Venomous?” I asked, staying very still as I glanced down at the snake slithering around our feet.
“Welp, got to go!” I yelled, running off in one direction while the others ran off in theirs. Dangerous tombs I could deal with. Venomous snakes, not so much.
The next morning it was off to the Pyramid of the Sky, a hidden infrastructure tucked away in an oasis far from the center of the city.
Instead of being infused with heat and fire though, this tomb was cool, and wherever you went you heard the sound of trickling water, rushing like an underground stream…and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was one nearby.
“Shit,” I muttered to myself as I realized the key I needed, as well as the entrances, were found across deep pools of water. I stared down into the glimmering, clear moat, but could not see the bottom. I also couldn’t see another way across.
Well…it was a good thing I’d decided to wear my bathing suit under this, having been sick of getting soaked all the time by dive wells.
I had expected the water to be sub-freezing, but as soon as I was within its depths I realized that it was actually quite warm. Maybe it was because it was in the middle of a desert…or maybe there was some kind of hot spring that ran through here, but regardless, the water felt like a warm bath.
Piece of cake.
After fetching everything I needed, I grabbed up my clothes from the side of the pool and put them back on, venturing into the depths of the tomb.
Of course…it didn’t look like any tomb I ever saw. It was…beautiful.
Golden sand carpeted its floors and an iridescent blue stream sparkled as fire from huge basins crackled in their containers. Huge cattails sprouted out from the water, fluffy and oddly still in this windless chamber. …a secret paradise built by the ancient gods and goddesses themselves.
Aw, hell no!
So much for a paradise!!
After I disarmed the many deadly traps that riddled the tomb, it became much more like a paradise again with its water plant life and walls painted a subtle, pale blue that reminded you of spring skies and May mornings.
I felt like I was in a trance as I explored, taking my time. I wondered briefly if it would be possible to live here.
I was so deep in thought and so absorbed by my surroundings that I very nearly died when my cell phone started ringing.
How the hell did I have service down here!?
“Hello…?” I answered uncertainly, feeling strange holding such an advanced piece of technology in such an ancient place.
“Tamara? Hi! It’s Jiang. I just thought I’d call to see…to see how you are. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you.” My heart twisted in my chest. For a moment, I couldn’t speak, but I quickly forced myself to regain my bearings.
“Hi!” I said, forcing a smile that he couldn’t see. “Wow. Um, I’m doing well. How about you?”
“Umm…been better, I guess,” he said in a weird voice. “What…what have you been up to lately?”
“Exploring. In fact, I’m in a tomb right now. I must be close to the surface though to have service….” I thought out loud.
“Tombs are mysterious places.”
“That’s why I love them. …….so…so why have you been better? Is everything okay?”
“Oh, well, yes. Um, Liu’s sick. My daughter.”
“Oh,” I responded, unable to say anything else. Why must you torture me so?
“It’s just a cold though. She’ll be-” Jiang was suddenly cut off though by someone else on his end who was asking him something in Chinese. A woman. He responded back in Chinese as well, which was odd to hear. Since he spoke such good English, I had almost forgotten that his native language was Mandarin. “Sorry. It’s my wife. She was wondering who I was talking to,” he explained, but then was cut off again when his wife spoke again, this time sounding annoyed. I was getting nervous.
“I can call you back a better time, if you want,” I supplied, noting that his wife didn’t seem to plan to stop talking.
“No, it’s fine. She does this. Hold on,” he said…which was then followed by a rush of muffled Chinese, like he was covering the mouthpiece of the phone. As if it mattered…I had NO idea what anyone was saying. I heard a shrill response, followed by a few words from Jiang, followed by straight up shrieking. What the hell was going on?
I opened my mouth to say something, but instead jumped when I heard the distinct sound of shattering glass. It had been so loud that I thought it was the tomb, but I realized half a second later that it was coming from the phone.
“Why do you always do this!?” Jiang snapped in English, clearly not to me. “Tiān ah!!” He added with a shout. That was actually one random phrase I did know. It was kind of like the equivalent to “oh my god.”
Oh my god, indeed.
“Erm…Jiang?” I asked hesitantly, wondering if he could even hear me what with the shouting and all.
“I’m sorry,” his voice came back, sounding strained. “Truly. She-She’s had a bad day.”
“I’ll talk to you another time. Maybe…maybe you’ll come back to China someday.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Zàijiàn, Jiang.”
I hung up the phone hastily, my eyes starting to burn. It doesn’t mean anything, Tamara. You can’t let this string you along.
I couldn’t go back to China. Nor could I talk to Jiang again. Talking to him just made everything worse. With a sinking in my chest, I went into my phone’s contacts and deleted his number.
I couldn’t do this. Not today. Not ever.
I stared at the oasis around me, not seeing anything. …Its peace had been shattered…just like my world.
I was much less enthused at first as I continued to explore the tomb, but after awhile I grew too tired to even think. This pyramid was so massive that it was literally taking days to explore every corner.
More than once I had to set up my tent—a huge, fancy tabernacle that I’d bought off a merchant for a hefty sum of gold coins. It was worth it though, with its soft silks and warm interior. Despite the fact that it was just a tent, I always left it feeling as if I’d slept like a queen.
The next morning found me exploring a very peculiar room which had all sorts of weird plants in it. There was one which had flower that I could have sworn had the face of a skull, its petals a deep purple-red.
I had to have it of course, but as soon as I picked the strange flower, the plant shriveled up and died.
Even as brave as I typically was…this fact made me nervous.
There was another plant on the other side, with glowing fruits that looked like pears, only with strikingly white halos around them. I’d never seen anything like them before, so I collected some of those too. Luckily, this plant didn’t die on me though, successfully restoring some of my former courage.
I finished exploring the rest of the tomb quickly, successfully finding many more treasures, the relic the woman had been looking for, and even a strange little insect called a “crypt moth”…I guess for obvious reasons.
After spending days in the pyramid though, I was eager to get out, so my next trip was to the market—for one to restock on supplies, but also to meet up with some old friends that I’d met when I was a teen.
“Tamara! I didn’t recognize you,” the bookstore owner cried once I said who I was. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
“And you,” I admitted. I had always liked the bookstore owner, Farouk. He’d even given me a discount because he’d heard of my name. I guess my dad was more well-known than I’d thought.
“Forgive me, but…you’ve really grown into a beautiful young woman,” Farouk said after a time, his customers forgotten as we’d fallen easily into conversation. How long had it been?
“Thanks,” I said quietly, my cheeks burning. He was looking at me so intensely. Had he always been this close?
“I’m serious,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful,” he added softly, leaning toward me. I saw the gesture as if it was in slow motion, but my brain seemed to be moving in slow motion as well.
I should move back, I thought to myself.
But I didn’t.
He thought I was beautiful. And he was kind. And I was still alone. And at least he did make me feel warm. The other guys hadn’t even done that. Maybe…maybe, that was a sign?
Farouk pulled back when the kiss got more intense, an apologetic look on his face. “Sorry. It’s just-, you’re so-…forgive me, again.”
“There’s no reason to be sorry,” I found myself saying, as if on auto-pilot. “I…I,” I hesitated, my mind suddenly running way too quickly.
“Barring that, what is the next best thing?”
If I couldn’t have…I mean this would be….second best?
My mouth ran faster than my thoughts then as I heard myself whisper, “I have a tent set up not too far from here. Will you join me?”
And join me he did, amongst those silks and the stars and the silent spell of night.
And for once it didn’t feel wrong, but rather kind of….
“Tamara!!! Oh my god, it’s been so long!” my mother cried when she saw me walk through the door, a sheepish smile on my face. She immediately pulled me into a bone-crushing hug, but I let her because I couldn’t blame her…it hadbeen a long time since I’d been home. So long that toward the end of my trip to Egypt I’d started to feel homesick…and so here I was now.
“You’re going to strangle her,” my dad said as he walked up, a huge smile on his face as well.
“Well, I should do that anyway for staying away for so long!” she replied, but she let go, simply standing back to smile at me. “You haven’t changed at all. Maybe a little more mature, but that’s about it.”
“Are old now. You can say it,” Dad said with a smile, adjusting his glasses (those never changed).
“Ugh, no, don’t say it,” Mom said with distaste, clearly not as enthused about her growing age. She’d always been really preoccupied with her looks, so starting to look her age was probably pretty traumatizing for her. I thought she still looked beautiful though. She was the most beautiful person I knew.
“You’re still beautiful, Mom,” I said, deciding to voice what was on my mind. “Where’s Catherine?” I asked then, eager to see my twin.
“Right here!” Catherine said, ambling down the stairs. “It takes me a little longer now!” I looked up toward the sound of her voice and my eyes immediately widened, staring up at her in surprise.
“Growing to the size of a small seafaring vessel?”
“Pregnant!” My sister laughed as she stepped down the last of the stairs and pulled me into a hug. Her round stomach pressed lightly against my abdomen…a weird feeling to say the least. “Why…why didn’t you tell me?” I asked then, crestfallen. “And where’s Riley? Is he-”
“Yes, he’s the father,” Catherine said with another laugh. “My husband is upstairs reading Lynn a bedtime story. He says he wants practice,” she said with a smile. “And I didn’t tell you because you didn’t seem to want to hear from us.” Her smile faded now as she looked at me, not at all amused.
“Husband? Jesus! And that’s not true. I just…I didn’t have time to think. I…I have so much to tell you,” I said quietly, meeting her eyes. She looked at me for a long moment, her face a picture of annoyance, but after a moment her gaze softened. She never could stay mad for long—that part of her hadn’t changed a bit.
“Well, if you stick around, you can tell me everything,” Catherine said, not in a mean way.
“You can always talk to us too, if you want,” my mom joined in, looking concerned.
“Always,” Dad added, a comforting smile upon his face.
I looked at them for a long moment and then felt tears come unbidden to my eyes. Why had I stayed away from them for so long? They were clearly there for me and loved me no matter what, and what did I do? I practically ran away. All this time I’d been looking for peace…for someone to confide in…for someone to love me…but I had already had all that, right here in Neverglade.
As if to further prove that point, as soon as my tears fell, my family was holding me. They really had always been there for me.
That night I told my family everything. Everything. I even started way back when I first met him in high school, that good for nothing scumbag. We cried so much I was convinced we’d form a pond right there in our home, but we laughed as well, and for the first time since I’d been running, I felt really and truly happy.
Little did I know, however, how short-lived that happiness would be….