Saturday, January 24, 2009

Running away, even in the mortal world, was harder than I’d expected.

Human voices flickered around me as I entered the Detroit International airport from the jetway. On first encounter, the voices sounded more like grunts and coughs than intelligent thought. I could have focused, could have deciphered the streams of Arabic and English and French, but that would only remind me of what I was leaving behind. It was easier to turn off conscious thought and follow the crowd.

I gripped my carry-on—considerably lightened, since they’d confiscated the shampoo and toothpaste in Cairo—and waited as the other passengers claimed their luggage. I knew where mine was, of course. I could just catch its faint odor of leather and dust as it circled the far side of the belt. I edged closer as an airport worker shot me a suspicious look and pulled out a radio. Sweat prickled my forehead. I frowned, focused on the inner circuits of the radio, and a moment later, the guard tapped the device in frustration and hurried away for a replacement. My suitcases popped through the flaps from the other side. I snatched them off the belt and headed for the customs line marked “non-U.S. residents.”

Like the security guard, the eyes of the customs agents lingered on me, the smell of mistrust reeking from their skin. I didn’t need English to understand that. I’d gotten enough of it in the weeks since the accident. The weeks I’d spent in the mortal world, shivering in abandoned shacks, dirtier than I’d ever been in my life.The weeks I’d scrounged for food and been chased away like a common thief. I’d been afraid to use any of my true powers for fear of being caught.

I shifted in the suit I’d swiped off a dead boy in an alley. I was a young man from a world hotspot, traveling alone, and I stuck out like a chili pepper in a bowl of millet. One of the guards gave me several long stares; then, perhaps attempting to override his prejudice, forced his attention to a blond mother struggling alone with three young children. The official laid a hand on the smallest suitcase and the toddler’s temper exploded.

The child’s screams pierced my memory like flaming javelins, and my mouth tasted charred. Not again, not now… I fought with my lungs to calm my panic.

It wasn’t my fault.

The luggage cart behind me knocked my heels, and I jumped.

It’s just an airport. The inspections are routine procedure.

But the screams still clawed at my ears. I ripped open my carry-on and pretended to fumble with something inside, hoping the agent would prefer to inspect me and let the mother pass through the gate and quiet her child. It worked. The agent’s eyes flew to me and he waved the mother through without a second glance. “Inspections,” he barked as the shrieks trailed down the hall. “Show me everything inside.”

I popped open my suitcases and let my hearing reach across the airport as the agent pawed through the linen shirts, the sandals, the stiff new jeans. I had plenty of time. My host family hadn’t arrived yet. “Careful with the papyrus,” I said.

The agent pounced on the pages and held up each sheet, one by one, to the light. He even sniffed them. He took out the sandals, my linen shirts, and an old print of the pyramids, and examined them all minutely, even though the security dogs had already been over them. Eventually he replaced everything with a frown and snapped the case shut. “All right, then. Everything is in order.” He sounded disappointed.

By the time I reached the passport control counter, everyone else had gone on. I presented the crisp new passport and visa to the agent, who compared the photos with my living face. “Sekem Em Pet,” he read, spitting out a hard K. Urgh. Human saliva. And bad-smelling, at that. At least he was an unbeliever. I wouldn’t have to endure him mangling my name in prayer.

“Se-khhem,” I corrected with a roll of the back of my tongue.

“Se-kem,” he repeated, spraying more spit. “What is the purpose of your visit?”

“High school exchange student,” I said.

He tilted the passport to inspect the binding, but a summons in my head swept over me, blotting out my attention to my passport.


I felt rather than heard it from half a world away. I held my breath, stilled the sense of power flickering inside me that would only betray me if let out. They couldn’t find me, not now, not after I’d given up everything.

The agent checked my visa and tapped it and my passport on the counter impatiently. “Mr. Em Pet? Enjoy your stay in America.”

I snapped to attention and took the passport. “Thank you.” I stuffed the booklet in my wallet, tucked the wallet into my bag alongside a Michigan tourist brochure, and passed through the gate. The sensation of watchfulness snapped off. A shudder swept over me, but Egypt—and my family—were behind me. I was free.

Across the room waited my new life. I hefted my bags and went to meet it.
The cavernous waiting room was filled with chaos. People pushed at me, blocking my attempts to locate my host family, and my head swam at the onslaught of noise.

“There he is!”

A large crowd rushed forward, but it wasn’t me they were meeting. Another young man, another family. The parents’ smiles bloomed with pride, and I stumbled into the luggage cart in my attempt to get away from the happy homecoming I would never have. Not after my uncle’s accusations.

Gradually the room cleared, and the click click click of the spinning luggage claim mechanism in the room behind me died away, leaving only the airport janitor knocking his mop into a bucket of water. He swished wide circles across the floor around me, but I didn’t move. There was nowhere to go.

I hunched over my luggage. The clock overhead ticked out the crazed beat of mortality. I’d spent most of my life in the Underworld, where a thousand human years were like a day. Human lives were like flames, quick to ignite, and just as easily snuffed. I’d never wanted to be here.

I sighed and tried to block out the impatient sound of the clock. I was far enough away that any divine footprints I might leave would have plenty of time to fade before any searching god thought to look here. And as long as I didn’t do anything stupid, the mortals would never notice. Yet throwing myself to the mercy of humans…It had seemed the solution to everything when I’d riffled the pockets of the stolen suit and found a blank application for an exchange program in America. An invented school record and a forged passport—I was always good with art—and I was on my way. Now it seemed insane. The gods couldn’t protect me. How could I expect mortals to?

The door across the room hummed open in the silence, and hurried voices darted inside. “Let me see the picture again, Mom!” said a boy.

“Take the sign for me so I can get to my purse,” said the woman.

“There he is,” said a quiet male voice, and a moment later, footsteps stopped in front of me. I looked up slowly, my eyes resting first on scuffed sneakers and faded jeans. A slightly-crinkled paperboard sign dangled from the hands of the boy: Welcome to Michigan, Sekhem! The boy shuffled closer to his father so that his elbow leaned against the man. The man had a long, narrow face, dark hair that was beginning to thin, and wire-rimmed glasses. I expected him to be taller, stronger, but all he did was hold out his hand and say in the same quiet voice, “You must be Sek-Seh—”

“Sekhem Em Pet,” I said. “But my American name is Andy.”

“Andy, then.” He dropped his hand, and only then did I remember I was supposed to shake it. “I’m Scott Whitcomb, and this is my wife Lisa.”

The top of Lisa’s frizzy brown head didn’t quite come to my shoulder. “Hi, Andy,” she said.

The boy let the sign slide to the ground, grinning through the hair spraying into his eyes. “I’m Jake.” Judging from the gaps in his front teeth, he had to be around six.

“Hello, Jake,” I said.

Jake stared up at me as Scott hefted my suitcases. “Sorry we’re late,” Scott said. “We er, had a last-minute business matter to take care of along the way that couldn’t wait.”

“How was your flight?” Lisa asked. She smiled, but worry oozed around the edges. I pretended not to notice.

“Too long,” I said.

Scott pulled the suitcases—my whole life, or what was left of it, anyway—and headed toward an escalator. I picked up my carry on and followed the family downstairs.

“What’s Egypt like?” Jake asked.

, I thought. “Hot,” I said aloud.

“Have you ever seen a pyramid?”

I described Khufu’s masterpiece as we pushed our way through the airport and out to the waiting transport. Humidity slapped us as we stepped out the door, but no one else seemed to notice. Scott parked the suitcases behind a long blue van and unlocked the back doors. A cot covered with lumpy blankets filled the back of the van. I set my carry-on over the blankets and reached for the suitcases.

“Oh—no,” Lisa said. “Scott can get them. Have a seat up front. You’ll be tired from your trip.” She opened the front passenger side and gestured for me to climb in. I shrugged and obeyed. The handbook I’d received from the exchange office, the one I’d memorized to help me start my new life, said to pay attention to local customs to avoid offense. As if I didn’t have experience already with offenses.

“I imagine this all looks different than Al Qays,” Lisa said once we were on the freeway.

“Yes.” I blinked at the expanse of green on either side of the road. It was greener than the fields of Aalu. To the ancient Egyptians, the West was the land of the dead. Somehow I had not expected the geographic West to be so foreign and alive. “What is this place?”

“Just Brighton,” Jake said, uninterested.

We traveled at dizzying speed. In the airplane I hadn’t sensed the velocity, but this… As trees blipped by, I realized I had missed a lot by hiding out in the Underworld so long. I hadn’t leave the Underworld often. Until now.

Eventually we turned off the freeway and entered the city at a much less exciting pace.

Welcome to Riverdale,” Lisa said.

“I thought you lived in Lansing.”

“A suburb,” Lisa clarified as we wove into a residential area.

Stone walls labeled Golden River Estates rose on either side of a wide street. Scott slowed the van and we slipped under a wide signboard with pictures of slender, smiling people gathering under a canopy of trees. The car wound past ostentatious houses with thick lawns until we reached an old white building with solemn pillars at the top of the hill. The house was generations older than anything else in the neighborhood. I smiled in relief, not realizing until then how foreign the new houses felt to me.

Scott turned off the engine. “Well, we’re here.”

Jake jumped out, followed by Lisa. Scott went around to the back and opened the rear door. Before I could do anything, he’d lifted the suitcases down and started for the house. I reached for my carry-on, and in doing so, knocked aside the blanket draped over the cot.

A human face gaped back at me.

A dead one.

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