Authors: Richard Scrimger
Beatrice roots around inside a big hall closet – good place for hiding a dog, if I’d noticed it – and pulls out a wheelchair. It looks like the other one, only a bit smaller. Frieda takes a deep breath and swings her legs around to the side of the wagon. Beatrice settles her into the chair with the ease of much practice.
“Well, well, look who’s home!”
And here she is. Frieda’s mom is a striking woman, posed in the doorway, one hand on her hip and the other out beside her. Her head is pointing to one side, making her look two-dimensional – all on one plane. Taller than my dad, with a beehive hat making her look even taller, draped in a black something or other from neck to ankle, she looks a lot like Snow White’s wicked stepmother. She brings the sweet smoky smell with her.
“Frieda, my dear.” Her voice is deep for a woman, and husky. “We weren’t expecting you so soon. I’m afraid you’ve
picked an awkward time to arrive. The Tutankhamen Society is just about to start our meeting.”
“Yeah,” says Frieda. Her voice sounds pale and pinched. “Here I am, though.”
Mrs. Miller moves her head very slowly, until it’s in profile on the other side. “And what have you been playing at? You’re quite dirty, my dear. You’ll want to change right away, I should say. Are you two boys acquaintances of Frieda’s?”
“Shew-ah,” says Bird. He takes off his sunglasses, smiles up at her.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “We met in the –”
But she cuts me off. “I really must be going,” she says. “Professor Malchus will be addressing the society as soon as he finishes at the buffet. The poor man arrived late. He has an absolutely unique artifact to tell us about. Apparently, it supports a theory he … yes, dear?”
“Mother, we’re hungry,” Frieda says. “We haven’t eaten lunch yet.”
Mrs. Miller sighs theatrically, and raises her arm to her forehead. “Very well. Please arrange your refreshment as quietly as possible, and eat in the kitchen. Frieda, my dear, I’m
glad to see you.”
She turns in the doorway, and stalks sideways down the hall and into the room with the other voices. Frieda opens her mouth to call after her, then closes it again. I can sympathize. My mom doesn’t have a lot of time for me either.
“What did she mean, about not expecting you until later?” I whisper. Frieda shrugs.
“Come in,” says Beatrice. “All of you. You must be starved! The kitchen is this way.” She leads us down the corridor. Frieda wheels herself forward. “Where did you hide Sally?” she whispers.
I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know,” I say.
There’s a warning rumble from outside. Thunder.
I call my dad again, while Beatrice makes lunch.
“Marketing Department. Mr. Dingwall’s office.” A secretary’s voice – calm, efficient, not very interested.
“Hi,” I say. “My name is Alan Dingwall. I’m Mr. Dingwall’s son.”
“Well, hello, there. What can I do for you?”
“I was kind of hoping you could tell me where my dad is.”
“Your dad’s in a meeting right now, Alan. With some very important clients. He’ll be sorry he missed your call. I know he’s looking forward to seeing you later today.”
“That’s what he said. You are coming
, aren’t you? Did he get the date wrong?”
“No, no. It’s today. I mean, I’m here today.”
“Good. I’ll tell your dad you called, okay, Alan? And he’ll see you later.”
“Um,” I say.
“Bye, then.” She hangs up.
I hang up. I don’t know what else to do.
I’m all on my own, and I don’t like it. I’d like to like it. I should be having the time of my life. I should be enjoying
myself more. I’m always telling my mom to let me do more on my own, and here I am, in the middle of a real adventure, and all I want is to go home.
Why can’t I be more heroic? It looks easy in the movies.
The kitchen phone is in an alcove, with a mirror at eye level. I stare at myself. I try to cock one eyebrow, the way Bruce Willis does. Can’t quite get it.
“Lunch is ready,” calls Beatrice.
There’s a place for me at the table: place mat, glass of milk, and a plate of sandwiches.
“Thanks very much,” I say to Beatrice. She smiles.
I bite into my sandwich. Spiced meat and strong cheese on a crusty roll. It’s really good.
Why can’t I be more like Bruce Willis? My favorite part in his adventure movies is when the hero, having gone through flood, fire, and flying glass, finally dispatches all the villains, changes his shirt, and walks down the street to get a hug from his wife or girlfriend. And she asks how his day went, and he cocks one eyebrow and says something like “Routine,” or “It wasn’t boring.” I love that. He doesn’t want to make a big deal out of being a world saver. He is so Not Uncool. Even more not uncool than the kids on the skateboards.
I eat three sandwiches; also two glasses of milk, and a bunch of deep-fried pastry things that Beatrice calls
. Bird eats well too.
Frieda is describing our morning’s adventures to Beatrice, who is shaking her head and saying things in … I guess it’s Italian. I don’t know the language, but Beatrice is easy to follow. She’s saying whatever the Italian is for
Isn’t that awful
Oh, you poor thing
Bird points at the last
. “You want?” he asks.
I gesture for him to take it.
“You all right?” he asks me.
“Me? Oh, yeah,” I say, as heartily as I can. “I’m just fine.”
“You don’t look fine,” says Bird.
I sigh. I don’t feel fine. Mom was right about Dad. Maybe she was right about me too. Maybe I’m not ready for too much independence.
Frieda goes off to change her clothes. Beatrice collects the dirty dishes and puts them in the dishwasher. Bird and I wander over to the big kitchen window and stare up. The sky is filling up with clouds. A big gray one drifts by. Looks like an airplane coming in to land. The thought gives me goose bumps. This seems like a good opportunity to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. “By the way, uh, Bird,” I say. “I want to thank you for helping us.”
He keeps looking out the window. “It was nice of you to let Frieda use your wagon,” I say. “And to fix the lady’s van. We’d never have made it here without you.”
“Shew-ah,” he says, the way he usually says it. Sure. Routine. I stare up at him, noticing for the first time a
cleanly healed cut on his forearm. The puckered scar tissue shows white and fresh.
“Don’t worry about getting back,” I say.
He doesn’t reply.
“I’m sure Frieda’s parents will make sure you get home. You might even have a chance to ride in a cab.”
He stares into the distance. A tear forms at the corner of his eye, falls onto his cheek. He doesn’t say anything.
Frieda rolls into the kitchen. She’s wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a frown. “Sally’s not in my bedroom,” she whispers. “I’ve looked all over and I can’t find her!”
“I don’t know where she is either,” I say. “I left her in the room with the glass doors.”
Her jaw drops. “The library? I just went past it. That’s where the Tutankhamen Society is meeting.”
I think about the incense. And the stone planter, as big as a bathtub. And the picture of the Sphinx.
“Oh,” I say.
Somebody screams – a shrill piercing sound that goes on and on.
The glass doors are open. All the lights are on in the library. Weird music is playing softly. We stare in from the hallway.
The room is full of well-dressed people. Women in hats, men in suits. They are all sitting around the marble table, except for one small man, with black hair and eyes to match, who is standing beside a flip chart; and one large woman, with purple hair and lips to match, who is sprawled back against the bookshelves with her hand covering her mouth.
She’s the screamer. “In there!” Her purple-tipped finger points at the planter in the center of the table. Flower tops peep over the rim, and there’s a dinky pine tree sticking out, like the mast of a small boat. Very decorative. I notice the picture writing on the sides of the planter. “Anubis!” she cries. “I saw him – as large as life!”
We studied Ancient Egypt in school last year, so I know that the picture writing is hieroglyphics, and the planter is really a sarcophagus – a kind of coffin.
“Really?” says the small man by the flip chart. His shoulder-length hair is long and thick and black. The rest of his body is short and thin and pale. “Really? There are records of divine visitation on the Rosetta stone,” he says, in an accent from
. “And there is a group on the West Coast who claim the god Thoth as a regular communicant. Tell me what you saw just now!” He leans forward. His eyes are huge. His body vibrates with interest.
It might be a school assembly, but it might be a church service too. There’s an atmosphere of mystery. The incense is part of it. So is the music – scales with missing notes, played on things that sound like pop bottles and tin cans.
“I tell you, I saw him!” says the purple lady. A frightened but, at the same time, tremendously excited look is on her face. Not the sort of look you see in an assembly – or, very often, in church, for that matter. “Quiet! Listen!”
Behind the music, even I can hear an irregular scratching noise. It seems to be coming from
The lights flicker. Thunder booms outside. Everyone jumps.
There’s power here; I can feel it. The curtains are drawn, shutting us in. I can hear the rain beating against the windows.
Bird smiles next to me.
“Can you believe all this?” I whisper.
“Shew-ah,” he says.
I’m trying to remember which god Anubis is. I think he’s the one with the pointy ears and a long nose. But he’s not real. He can’t be real, can he? Ancient Egypt was five thousand years ago. We learned about it in history class, just before the Ancient Greeks. If Anubis is real, does that mean that Zeus and Athena are real too?
I’m carrying my uncertainty like a bag of rocks. There’s another prolonged scratching sound, and a head appears above the rim of the sarcophagus. Like Anubis’, this head has pointy ears and a long nose. Also, a pink tongue.
“There!” screams the purple woman.
The effect is electric. Gasps, screams. The purple woman points triumphantly. Another woman covers her face with her hands. The guest speaker stares as if he would swallow the apparition with his black eyes. A fat man at the far end of the table falls sideways in a faint. Good thing the carpets are soft.
Needless to say, I don’t feel any of this excitement. The second I actually see the mystery being, and hear its voice, the atmosphere clears. The thunder is just thunder. My worry floats away. When the apparition speaks, I feel an overwhelming desire to giggle.
Is it hot in here, or is it me? And what’s with the smell? On Jupiter, we take our smells seriously. You could get in trouble for burning this stuff
Frieda lets out a little squeal of delight. She rolls herself into the room. Bird and I follow. “Talkin’ dog,” says Bird. No one pays any attention to us.
“What did I tell you!” cries the purple-haired, purple-nailed, purple-lipped lady. Voices rise like bubbles in soda. “Help us, Professor Malchus!” the lady cries.
The little man in black takes charge. I guess he’s the professor. He’s got the right kind of voice, as deep and rich as a layer cake. “O dog-headed being! Apparition with Anubis’ face! Relic of Ancient Empire! Speak to us!” he cries, his arms raised, his voice warm and quivering.
The assembly, or congregation, gives a collective moan of horror and excitement.
says Norbert, in a spooky squeaky voice. Filtered through Sally’s whine, it sounds other-worldly.
Awooooooo! Anubis to you too
“He speaks to us from across the centuries!” cries the professor.
, says Norbert.
Across the centuries, here in your home
“But you are not Anubis,” says the professor. “Anubis has the body of a man.”
“Anubis, the god of the dead!”
Oh, I remember him! My uncle told me all about him. Umm … No. Anubis couldn’t come today. He was busy, so he sent me
“Then, who are you?”
A long pause. The whole society is leaning forward, as if their life’s dream has knocked on the door and asked to borrow a cup of sugar. I don’t dare laugh.
You may call me
I cover my mouth with my hand. The professor frowns.
“Norberto?” he says. “Norberto? I have spent my life learning about Ancient Egypt. I have read everything that has been written on the subject. And I have never heard of Norberto.” He walks towards the table as if under a spell.
So what? Norberto has never heard of you. Awooooo!
“Fascinating!” Professor Malchus reaches out to touch the sarcophagus. His hand trembles. “There’s so much I want to know. So much I want to ask you.”
The table moans in agreement.
Sure, sure. But first, Norberto – I mean, Anubis – has a message for you
“For me?” The professor chokes.
Well, actually, no. Not for you. I have a message for a … Mrs. Miller
“Gladys!” screams the purple lady. “It’s for you!” She sounds like a kid sister answering the telephone.
A soft cry from our side of the table. Frieda’s mom. She’s sitting with her back to the door. I recognize her because of the tall rounded hat.
“Me?” she whispers. Frieda’s mom all right. But she sure doesn’t sound like she did a half hour ago.
Beside me, Frieda goes very still. She’s not smiling now.
Before Norbert can say any more, Sally sneezes. And again.
Better get rid of the smoke. It’s driving me crazy
“The incense is not traditional?” asks Professor Malchus.
No. Can’t stand it. The music can go too
“But there are pictures. I’ve seen them, on tomb walls. The hieroglyphics are very clear. Do you mean that those braziers in the pictures aren’t burning incense? That it’s … something else?”
, says Norbert shortly.
Professor Malchus shakes his head, as if he hasn’t heard right.
Mrs. Miller picks up the brass vase with the burning sticks in it and rushes out of the room. Sally yawns. There’s a collective in-drawing of breath.
I turn to Frieda. “Your mother’s name is Gladys?” She nods.
Mrs. Miller returns without the brass vase. The weird music disappears too.
, says Norbert.
She bows towards him. A dramatic woman, six feet tall, robed in black. “Pardon our ignorance, Norberto. We didn’t know.”
That’s okay. Don’t grovel, Glinda. I hate groveling.
“Sorry, Norberto. My name is Gladys, by the way. Not Glinda. Gladys Miller. I was Gladys Simons until I married Phil. Do you know Phil? He’s a state representative.”
know ten thousand Phils
, says Norbert dismissively.
Sally gets up on her front paws and stares in our direction.
Gladys Miller, this message is for you. Are you listening? Are you prepared to heed the messenger of Anubis?
“I am,” says Gladys.
The doorbell rings.
The message of Anubis is simple. Treasure your child.
“My … do you mean Frieda?” Mrs. Miller doesn’t sound dramatic anymore; just puzzled.
I mean Frieda. She is your greatest claim to fame. You are a mother. You and your Phil have the honor to be the parents of … Frieda
“You’re saying you know Frieda? Does Anubis know her?”
All of us on the other side know Frieda, and esteem her highly. Her fame stretches around time the way an elastic stretches around ajar to keep the waxed paper on
It’s a line from a country and western song. Forget it, Glenda
Whatever. Oh, and by the way, would you mind taking off that stupid hat?
Her eyes widen. “Frieda is back from Canada today … Norberto. I think she’s….” Mrs. Miller turns in her chair. Sees us all. “Oh, there you are,” she says to Frieda.
Frieda doesn’t say anything.
Take off the hat! Do as I say, woman!
I open my mouth to burst out laughing, but at that moment a bolt of lightning flashes nearby. A crack of
thunder rocks the house. The lights flicker. And I don’t feel like laughing.
Frieda’s mom has her hat off in a jiffy. Underneath, her hair is short and yellow.
Now, give your daughter a hug
The doorbell rings again, insistently. Gladys and Frieda stare at each other.
Don’t be afraid of her
, says Norbert.
Frieda’s eyes narrow. “Afraid?” she says. “Mother, are you … afraid of me?” Her mother looks away.
Thunder outside, very close. I hear Beatrice’s voice from the front door. “You can’t do that!” she says.
Professor Malchus moves closer to the sarcophagus. His hand is in his jacket pocket. He peers closely. “Oh, Norberto,” he begins, in a low voice.
Do you mind, there, mop-head?
A little privacy, hey? This is a single room
The professor mutters something inaudible.
What was that? Build what? Oh, the pyramids. Sure. My Uncle Nathan helped. You should hear him talk about Cheops. What a blowhard!
“Cheops!” Unable to contain himself, the professor almost shouts the word. His eyes are huge and round. “You know about his … about the Great….”
Before he finishes the question, a man and a woman enter the room. He’s tired and old, and so are his clothes. She’s sharp, and so are hers. Behind them walks a young man with muscles. His clothes are blue. All blue. He’s a policeman. He stops by the double doors with his arms folded.
The woman’s eyes are sharp enough to peel fruit. She stares at the professor, at Frieda’s mom, at us kids. Her gaze makes me feel like a skinned apple.
The older man takes out a wallet and flips it open. “Sorry to interrupt your meeting, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “I’m Special Agent Libby, Customs and Excise. This is Lieutenant Aylmer, NYPD liaison. The man by the door is Officer Culverhouse.”
No one says anything. Special Agent Libby flips the wallet closed, puts it back in his pocket, and smiles at the professor. “Hello, Earless,” he says.