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.
Deep Waters
by Rose Green

Chapter 1

Dad said Charleston was dangerous.

His words from so long ago came back to me as I darted for the brochure the wind had tugged from my fingers. The brochure fluttered, showing a map of Charleston on the back, and I made another snatch for it as our tour boat pulled away from the shoreline. The wind teased the paper just past my reach and tossed it carelessly into the murky water below.

Maps had covered Dad’s office; maps of places he’d been to, dreamed of. Maps of places that didn’t even exist anymore. My earliest memory was of him trying to read an atlas to me as a bedtime story. He knew everything about everywhere, and he loved to share it.

The water swallowed the last of my map with a taunting slap of waves as I leaned over the railing, and I realized there was one place he’d purposely left out.
It was too late to ask him about it now.

I rubbed a mosquito bite and wrinkled my nose at the sour smell of marsh mud oozing off the coast. The boat dipped, catapulting my stomach into somersaults. Along the water, reflections of pastel antebellum houses and Civil War cannons rippled in the harbor, just like in the postcards Aunt Jennifer had sent me. The postcards, of course, hadn’t included the hot, moist air and ravenous hordes of insects.

“...and that’s the story of Fort Sumter,” the tour guide said, wrapping up his description of the harbor. “Any questions?”

The buzz of conversation that had gone on during the guide’s spiel broke off into silence.

“Try me,” the tour guide said. “Here’s your chance to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Charleston’s harbor.”

Anything I wanted to know. Dad had never once taken my brother and me to visit his home town. Never once brought up the subject himself, despite the aunt and uncle we knew—and the grandparents we didn’t—who’d lived here. The few times we’d thought to ask, he’d changed the subject, or, apart from that one remark about danger, refused to answer. Why?

The tour guide’s eyes darted eagerly from one tourist to the next, each of whom looked down as if he’d asked for the answer to an algebra problem from last night’s homework.


I set aside my own questions and jutted my head towards an island he’d failed to mention. Massive trees lined the shore and an avenue of oaks led to a mansion in the center. The clouds above parted then, and the wall visible through the trees gleamed white. “What’s that island called?”

Next to me, Aunt Jennifer squinted. “Where, Lily?”

I shaded my eyes and pulled my long hair off my sweaty neck. On the island, moss trailed in the breeze and a black pier reached into the ocean. It was as if a castle had sprung up on Treasure Island.

“You mean Folly?” the guide asked.

I shook my head. He’d already told us about Folly Island. “The one with the plantation house.”

Aunt Jennifer shot me a worried glance, and the tour guide raised his eyebrows. “Y’all ought to get something cool to drink when you get back,” he said. “The heat can do things to a person.”

I frowned. “But it’s right there. It’s got a dock and flower gardens and…”
The tour guide shook his head and took a step backwards, as if I had something catching.

“I’m sorry, Lily, but I don’t see it, either,” Aunt Jennifer said. “Maybe it’s just a reflection.” Her voice was gentle, a voice she might have used with someone very ill. Or crazy.

I tried to ignore the hairs lifting off the back of my neck as I stared at the land mass no one else seemed to see. The island was unmistakable, a solid sentry between the harbor and the Atlantic. Why couldn’t they see it? I raised the binoculars Aunt Jennifer had lent me and zoomed closer. Through the thick, lacy moss I could make out a tall gate. Black decorative bars curved in and out of each other, forming a flower around the lock. I wondered what lay beyond the gate, what secrets the iron guarded.

We circled closer to the open ocean. The water smelled fresher here, away from generations of rotting sawgrass. Waves lapped against the boat like a hum. I leaned over the rail and let the rhythm wash through my brain. The hum became a song, reverberating in my ears, almost like a familiar voice calling my name. It tugged at my breath as if daring me to leap down to the water and join the map lost beneath the surface.

“Dad?” I whispered.

The wake of the boat’s trail kicked higher, spraying me in the face.

The tour guide paused his description of where the C.S.S. Hunley had been found, and suddenly I felt the eyes of the group on me. “Are you okay over there?”

I flushed. Had he heard me talking to the water? “I’m fine.”

Aunt Jennifer pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. Concern radiated from her freckled face, so much like Dad’s. “Are you sure, Lily?”

I squirmed and inspected the mosquito bites on my wrists. They looked like smallpox. “I’m totally fine,” I repeated.

The boat lurched underfoot, and I grabbed the railing, reminded again that the only thing holding us up was twisting, changing water. Aunt Jennifer touched my arm. “The guide is right,” she said. “As soon as we’re done here, we’ll head home.”


After lunch Aunt Jennifer was still giving me her mother hen look as she stood in the doorway of my bedroom. “I have a house to show, but I don’t like leaving you if you’re not well. Maybe your mother was right, Lily. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come here so soon after…”

So soon after Dad’s accident. Dad had come in February for Grandpa Pagett’s funeral, and met with a fatal car accident himself.

“I’ll be fine,” I said quickly. Aunt Jennifer was the one person who hadn’t treated me like glass, something I was intensely grateful for. I didn’t need her to start. I’d seen enough looks of pity to last a lifetime.

The visit had been Aunt Jennifer’s idea. Mom’s much-needed research grant came through just as Grandma Wosniewski, who was to stay with me, broke her hip. My brother Joel would be spending extra time with a friend’s family once he finished fencing camp. But Mom wasn’t about to leave me alone while she spent the summer in a remote area of the Rockies, especially not after discovering I hadn’t turned in a single school assignment in two months. That’s when Aunt Jennifer stepped in and suggested I spend the summer in Charleston. Uncle Rick would be in Slovenia, setting up company offices, and she’d love to have someone else here while he was gone.

“But that’s where the accident happened,” Mom objected. I’d overheard her the night Aunt Jennifer called. “She’s not engaged in school, she’s withdrawn from her friends—sending her to Charleston would only make things worse.”

“Maybe it would help her confront it,” Aunt Jennifer’s voice crackled over the phone.

But there was no other option. With Dad gone, Mom needed the grant for her job, so in the end she packed me off to Charleston. Mom might have not have been convinced, but Aunt Jennifer gave me a warm smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come. It’s about time you met Charleston for yourself.”

Her eyes reflected the same calm Dad has always given off, a calm that seemed to hold the universe together. “It’ll be okay,” she assured me. “Charleston is a part of you, even if you don’t know it yet.”

Now, in the doorway, Aunt Jennifer shifted in indecision, as if Mom’s worries were starting to sink in.

“I’m sixteen,” I said. “I’ll call if I need anything.”

She nodded doubtfully, and I listened to her footsteps retreat downstairs. Eyes stared out at me from a dozen sepia photographs of past Pagetts and Menguins. I ducked my head, suddenly shy before an array of relatives I should have known, had Dad not left Charleston off the map.

I pulled at the desk drawer to find a place for the stack of schoolbooks Mom made me bring. It was stuck, swollen in the humidity. I tugged again, and as it flew open something went plink.

I reached inside cautiously. Smooth metal met my fingers, and with a jolt I recognized the figure in my palm: an old key with a bird-shaped handle. Dad’s good luck charm, the one he’d brought with him everywhere. I stroked it against my cheek. It was warm, even though it had been sitting alone in the drawer. Dad must have forgotten it the day of the accident. Of all days to forget a good luck charm.

I toppled the pile of schoolbooks into the empty drawer and pocketed the key, the psychologist’s words to Mom echoing in my mind. “…she’ll never make progress until she accepts the fact that he’s gone. Right now she’s too afraid to face that.”

I stood up, though my knees trembled. He was wrong. I wasn’t afraid, and I could prove it. I went outside, my feet loud on the wooden boards of the porch. Heat glowed from the brick of the house. Aunt Jennifer’s car was gone. I slipped through the black iron gate.

Wide, sweeping oaks held their arms over the streets, Spanish moss stirring in the breeze. I followed the narrow street until at last I came to East Bay. The waterfront. The water smelled fresher now; the tide must be up, covering the marsh. I leaned over the seawall railing and watched the water splash up the wall. A low buzz seemed to come off the water, and I shivered. Maybe it was because it was my first experience with an ocean, but even as I stood on firm ground, something about the water made my head spin.

I stepped back from the edge, but the buzz didn’t go away.

The street cut inland, carving out a solid row of buildings between me and the waterfront. Ahead of me, flags waved from a stone building: the navy and white palmetto flag of South Carolina, the Union Jack, the American flag with a circle of stars, and the Jolly Roger. It looked like a building I would have known, had I done my history homework.

No textbook would have prepared me for the heat, however. I ducked around the corner and under the shade of an oak to wipe sweat from my face and shake the growing roar from my ears. But instead of clearing, my mind spun with the sudden unsettled feeling of the tide pulling sand from under my feet. I shut my eyes against the dizziness and reached for a tree, a bench, anything. I couldn’t faint, not after Dr. Mackler’s accusations about my delicate mental condition.

My ears filled with the sound of waves, far louder than the gentle swish of harbor tide should have produced. I fell to my knees and fought to clear my head. My vision wavered and went dark. At least the area was empty; there was nobody to ask awkward questions…

Gradually the roar faded, and I rubbed my eyes.

A crowd of people in period clothing congregated on the steps of the building. Those at the top of the steps were filthy, and as I looked closer, I could see the chains linking them together. Wary eyes glinted out of skeletal black faces. Behind them waited people with more flesh and better clothing, but apprehension glinted in their eyes as well. A movie, then. A sickeningly realistic movie about slavery. I searched for the cameras and roadblocks.

There were none.

Scents rolled in then, of dirt and sweat and animals. My heart pounded as I took in the scene. What was going on?

“I am not crazy,” I whispered. “There is a logical explanation for this.”

People brushed past me. It wasn’t just the slaves who stank. The men with brass-buttoned jackets and moneybags were whiffy, too. A stocky man in a tricorn hat and his pimply-faced companion gave me odd looks and quickened their pace away from me. Maybe they thought it was me who smelled funny.

A deep voice echoed across the steps, and I turned my attention upwards as the auctioneer opened bids on a gaggle of small children. The littlest one was crying. I stared, horrified, as two white men fought to restrain the child’s mother. With a scream she broke through their grip and lurched free, but one of the men struck her legs, and she fell, still scrabbling for her child’s outstretched arms. The other man clapped a metal band on her wrists, and together they dragged her away.

I shoved through the crowd after them, ignoring the shocked looks people gave me, but the woman’s cries melted into the general hubbub. What was this? No acting could be that real…

A pair of kindly-looking older men stood near me in conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, “but what—”

They turned to stare at me. “Go home and get dressed,” one of them said, pulling his companion away from me with a scandalized look at my shorts and t-shirt.

I bit my lip and slunk to the edge of the crowd. People around me gawked and whispered. One of them slipped off a jacket and tossed it at me. “Cover yourself up, girl! We’ll have no immorality on this street.”

I pulled on the coat, gagging at the sweaty odor. “Thank you. Can you tell me—”

But the man pushed away as if hoping no one had seen our exchange.

The auctioneer’s voice spun over the assembly. The eyes of the slave mother—if that was what she was—still haunted me, and I forced my gaze away from the block and onto the crowd. Strangely enough, not all the free people walking around were white. I even saw one black man buy a slave. I shook my head. That couldn’t be right.

Against my will, my attention flicked back to the slaves awaiting sale. There were no more children. A middle-aged man stood on the steps now. The slaves next in line were quiet, watchful. Prospective owners inspected their teeth, checked their backs for scars. Near the front, a white boy of about twelve was talking to a slave in his twenties. The slave was lighter than some of the others, with straighter hair. The boy turned, bringing into view a turned-up nose, quirky eyebrows. It was a face I had seen before. Not here—wherever this was—but back home, in Illinois. My jaw dropped. What was my brother doing here?

The boy shuffled closer to the slave, and I closed my mouth. It wasn’t Joel, just someone who looked remarkably like him. The same wavy hair, the same way he stood, only this boy was younger. Almost like a younger version of…I rubbed my eyes.

He looked like my dad.

My stomach dived. What were the chances of finding a movie actor who looked exactly like Dad as a boy—and right here? The other option, that it was somehow… No. That was impossible. Which left only one possibility: Dr. Mackler was right, and I was losing it.

I stared at the boy, whoever he was, and the man. The boy nodded at something the slave said. The way they looked each other in the eye was odd, as if they were equals, not slave and prospective master. I wrapped the filthy coat around me and moved closer, but I couldn’t hear their words over the auctioneer’s calls.
An auction worker tugged the slave’s chain. He was next. The slave glanced at the block, then back to the boy. He took the boy’s hands and pressed some small piece of metal into them. Light glinted off it for a second before the boy hid it in his grasp.

The auctioneer dragged the slave up to the block and the strange boy disappeared into the crowd. I dodged after him. Surely he would explain what the others refused to.

I took a step forward, and without warning, found myself spinning again, falling. My knee hit a cobblestone and I gasped at the sudden pain. I tried to hold onto the terrible scene before me, but my vision darkened, my mind muddled. I couldn’t fight it any longer.

I slumped to the ground.

When I could see again, the auction was gone. The clanking chains, the cries of the buyers…everything was gone. Trembling, I sat up and pulled off the stifling coat. Taxis and SUVs zipped past on an asphalt street shimmering with heat.

All signs of the slave market had disappeared.