Tira wanted three things in life and she had little chance of gaining any of them. She wanted to be financially independent. She wanted to go to
Egypt and study
the ancient ruins. And she wanted her
sister to stop using drugs.
The last desire brought memories of this morning’s quarrel. Luci had taken the money Tira had squirreled away to see them through the rest of the month. “Luci, why?”
“You don’t understand,” Luci screamed.
True. Tira didn’t understand why her sister needed to escape into a drugged stupor instead of studying and working to step onto the road leading from the slums. Tira’s hands stung with the memory of slapping her sister. And the words she’d shouted as she slammed out of the apartment echoed in her thoughts. “I hate you. I wish you were dead.” Tira shuddered. She hadn’t meant those words. As soon as she reached the apartment she would tell Luci.
With a sigh she turned back to the museum display. The Egyptian artifacts awed her. For a short time she allowed the beauty of the objects to carry her into dreams of pyramids and temples, of gods and pharaohs and of digging in the earth to uncover treasures of the past.
The dream hovered beyond her grasp. Her chances of gaining a position on a dig in
Egypt were slim. Positions were avidly sought by students who
had chosen the right colleges and the right professors. Those choices had been beyond her
financially. She sucked in a breath. Instead of adventure, when the summer ended,
she would take her place in front of a classroom teaching history at an inner
city high school.
A glance at her watch said dreamtime was over. She had to reach the apartment in time to change for her evening shift as a restaurant several blocks from the cramped fifth floor efficiency she shared with her older sister. Once again flash moments from the morning’s quarrel exploded in Tira’s thoughts. She’d been so upset she’d missed her morning martial arts session at the local center.
Tira cast her dream self aside and donned the role of practical sister. She hurried to the exit and stepped from the past into a steamy August day. Heat shimmered from the sidewalk. The air hung heavy and filled with the odors of the city and the noises of traffic. She strode along the crowded area taking advantage of every opening.
Ten days to dream. Ten days to walk the halls of the museum. Ten days to study the artifacts that had become her lodestones. She breathed the aromas of real time, spices of cooking foods, metallic scents of passing traffic and the odors of people, some pleasant and some not.
Several blocks from the apartment building the crowds thinned. In an alley she glimpsed furtive movements in the dark shadows. She hurried past. On the corner across the street a group of gang members gathered. She sucked in a breath and held her head high. For all her twenty three years she’d avoided the gangs. As she strode past she heard the usual crude remarks about her body and her attitude.
Get a life, she wanted to scream.
When she saw the ambulance and two cop cars in front of the building where she lived she halted so abruptly she stumbled. A hand caught her arm. Tira saw the gray-streaked beard of one of the winos who slept in the doorways or the alley. “Get your hands off me.”
“Don’t go home,” he whispered. “Lose yourself in the crowd and keep your head down.”
Tira saw a keen intelligence in the man’s dark eyes. Who was he? He wasn’t as old as she had imagined either. “Why?”
“Your sister’s dead. Cops’ll be looking for you. They heard about the fight.”
Tira’s stomach clenched. She blinked away a rush of tears. Though hearing about her sister’s death wasn’t unexpected another dream shattered. There would be no rehab for Luci. “Junkies O.D. every day,” she said.
“She was murdered.”
A chill slithered down Tira’s spine. A rush of acid burned her throat. What? Why? Who? Keeping her eyes on the ground she inched away from him.
“Murder. Murder.” The murmured word spread through the crowd gathered on the sidewalk and stung like attacking wasps.
The EMTs wheeled a gurney from the building. When Tira saw the body bag strapped to the frame her nails bit into her palms. Despite the heat of the day she felt chilled. A wave of guilt made her knees buckle. She stuffed her fist against her mouth to keep from crying aloud.
What now, she wondered. The apartment was a crime scene. Until the cops finished their investigation she wouldn’t be allowed inside. An officer stepped from the building. “More along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.” He stepped from the stoop. “Anyone seen her sister? We have some questions for her.”
“Most evenings you’ll find her waiting tables at Louie’s,” someone said.
Tira hunched her shoulders. As people dispersed she slunk away. All her life she’d avoided trouble. Even if she wasn’t a suspect she knew too much about Luci’s friends and suppliers to be safe. She needed to hide and think. Where could she go?’
As she retraced her steps she noticed the home boys had vanished from the corner. Show’s over or just about to begin, she thought. She feared she was destined to become the star in a life or death drama. She continued the slow amble away from the apartment building.
Every instinct urged her to run but that would attract the attention she didn’t want. As she passed the alley someone grabbed her arm and dragged her into the shadows. The man who held her arm and the other at his side were large and scary but not as menacing as the slender man who joined them.
Tira fought to control rising panic. She felt as though she would faint. Center. She had to escape. All she needed was an opening. Her muscles tensed in preparation. “What do you want?” Had her voice remained calm or had fear coated the edges?
“My drugs. My money.”
“I know nothing about either.”
The slender man laughed and the sound chilled her. “She was your sister. She told you everything.” His smile turned feral. “Her last words were, ‘Tira knows.’”
Anger flared and slashed the fear and grief holding her immobile. “And you believed her?”
His silent companions edged closer. One held a knife. The other reached for her. Tira sucked in a breath. She whirled and kicked. The toe of her sneaker caught the knife holder’s arm. Her sudden movement pulled the second man off balance. She grabbed his arm and knocked him into the knife man. They landed in a tangle.
Tira ran. As she darted around the corner something whizzed past her. She didn’t stop to learn what. Where to go? Just ahead she saw the steps leading to the subway. She pulled her Metro card from her pocket and bounded down the steps. A shout sounded. She kept running. At the gate she swiped the card, ran onto the platform and into a waiting car. A bell dinged. The doors closed.
As she peered through the smudged glass she saw one of the thugs reach the platform. She breathed a sigh of relief. For the moment she had escaped. Where did the rattling car take her?
Was there a way to get the things she needed from the apartment? The drug dealer’s men would keep watch. Who could she ask? Not the cops who either believed she had killed Luci or wanted information she didn’t have. She barely knew the neighbors. She and Luci had moved into the building in June. Could she sneak into the building after the cops left? Doubtful. Her few friends from college wouldn’t be willing to enter the scene of a murder.
Tira sank on a seat. Once again tears threatened. Why had Luci lied? Tira swallowed convulsively. When she understood the reasons for the betrayal she could grieve. Now wasn’t the time.
For seconds or minutes Tira blocked the groping fingers of fear. At the moment she was safe but she couldn’t ride the subway forever. She considered her options. She had some change, her Metro card and the twenty she always kept for emergencies. Not enough to rent a room. Going to work at Louie’s was out. Until her first pay check from the teaching job arrived she was broke.
Think. Plan. Where was the nearest homeless shelter? Sure they could be dangerous but she could protect herself. Tira wiped her hands on her jeans. Even if she could hang out for ten days she couldn’t begin her first day as a teacher wearing dirty jeans and a sweat-stained tee shirt.
On the seat beside her she noticed a crumpled piece of paper. Curiosity stabbed. She smoothed the wrinkles and read the words twice.
Life got you down? Have you unsolved problems?
Looking for escape? The answer is in your stars.
A counselor is available night and day.
Dial 1- 800 – 555 – ASTRO
Tira frowned. She could answer yes to all the questions. Had the paper been left for her to find? She smiled at her magical thinking.
When the car stopped at the next station she grasped the paper and rose. She followed people to the street. Should she take a chance? Did she have a choice? Across the street she saw a coffee shop. She had to consider her options.
She jogged to the small restaurant and entered the dingy place with the paper clutched in her hand. A flutter of nervousness settled in her chest. What to do? Call or not call? Go to the cops? Find a shelter? She sat at the counter and ordered coffee. As she sipped the bitter brew her thoughts raced. The answer to the last two options was a definite no. She frowned. If the answer was in her stars they certainly hadn’t brought her a sliver of luck. Would making the call produce a change?
Tira swallowed the last of the coffee. She would make the call. If the paper was a hoax she would devise another plan. She stepped outside and opened her cell phone. In the fading light she read the number and dialed.
“Can I help you?” a woman asked.
“I can answer yes to all your questions.”
“Do you need help?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t sure what this woman could do. By accepting the offer she would be off the street and buy time to plan.
The woman gave an address. Tira repeated the street and house number.
“We’ll be waiting for you. Ring the bell. Remember, the answers are in your stars.”
At the corner Tira looked at the street sign. Fourteen blocks. Not that far. Unless a bus came along she would walk. Though the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest hers was worse.
She walked briskly and directed her attention to the surroundings. Occasionally she glanced over her shoulder to check for followers. Once she glimpsed a large man and nearly froze. Her heart skittered but the next time she looked he had vanished.
Her imagination took fire. The drug dealer might not know where she had left the subway but the route was known. He could have snitches everywhere. He believed she knew where his drugs and money were hidden. Luci, what did you do?
She glanced at the numbers on the buildings she passed. Would the drug dealer’s men try to discover where she went? Probably a given. By the time she neared her destination her heart pounded. She saw three men behind her and knew she’d been made.
A rush of heavy footsteps sounded. She dashed up the steps of the brownstone. With a staccato rhythm she pressed the bell. Hurry, she thought. She glanced over her shoulder. One of the men was the knife wielder from the alley.
“Tira,” he called.
The door opened. An elderly woman pulled her inside. “Welcome.” She closed the door. “Why have you come?”
“The answer is in my stars.”
The woman’s eyes held kindness. “What is your name?”
“Tira.” The woman’s eyes, her voice and smile eased some of Tira’s fears. No matter what happened here she would rather face this woman than the men outside.
“Follow me. We have time to find your proper place.”
As Tira walked down the hall she noticed a series of photographs on the wall. One caught her attention. A temple with stature of cats perched on plinths and a crook behind them. Hieroglyphics were carved above the feline. She traced the figure.
The woman turned back. “So that’s the world to hold your interest.”
Tira smiled. “Reminds me of ancient
a place that’s always fascinated me.”
“Perhaps your stars will show you the way there.” The woman beckoned. “Come along. We must be ready when the planets align.”
Tira inhaled the aromas of cooking food. Had she interrupted the woman’s dinner? Tira’s stomach rumbled. She’d had nothing besides the coffee since noon when she’d bought a hot dog from a street vendor. They entered a large room. The woman indicated a table. “Sit. Food is on the way.”
Tira stared at the wall across from the table. A large circle divided into twelve segments covered most of the wall. She moved closer and saw this was a horoscope wheel. She had no idea what the wheel could be used for.
“Sit, child.” The woman tapped a bell.
A second woman arrived with a tray of food. Plates and glasses were taken from a buffet. “Help yourself.”
Tira studied the tray. Rice, meat and vegetables. Once she filled her plate the second woman poured a fragrant beverage into three glasses. The women joined her at the table. Little was said until the meal was finished.
The oldest of the women smiled. “When were you born? We need the day, the month, the year and the time as accurately as you know.”
“May tenth, twenty three years ago. My mother said my cries greeted the dawn.”
“Aries.” Both women went to the wheel. They turned an inner segment and placed colored balls in segments of the circle. “A warrior born. Quick to anger. Speedy in action. Sometimes given to rash decisions. A seeker of justice. A lover of adventure. Now tell us about yourself and why you called for help.”
Some quality in the woman’s voice eased the tension and fear riding Tira’s spirit since she had arrived outside the apartment building and learned of her sister’s murder. Between sips of the fragrant tea she spoke. The reality of her sister’s betrayal slammed into her awareness. Her voice broke. “Luci, why?”
The second woman touched Tira’s hand. “She did not mean for you to be hurt. She was afraid and reached for your strength.”
“How do you know?”
“The seeds of the betrayal were written on your chart. This aspect has passed but you must release your pain.”
Tira drew a deep breath. Without warning the tears she had held inside gushed forth. Sobs racked her body. She cried until no more tears came. A cloth was thrust into her hands and she wiped her eyes. Another glass of a different beverage appeared.
The older of the two women clasped Tira’s hand. “If you could go to ancient
Egypt tonight, even if the Two
Lands was not the one you studied, would you go?”
If, Tira thought. A dream she had desired but impossible. “Maybe.”
“Even if you had to remain there for all your days?”
This had to be a joke. Tira could think of nowhere she would rather be. There was nothing left for her here. “I guess.”
The second woman stood behind her. “Drink.” She touched Tira’s shoulder. “The price of the journey is a quest you must undertake. The only knowledge you and take with you is what will fit in the time period you reach except for your fighting skills. You will be unable to speak of this world or of modern conveniences.”
“Tell me more.”
“Many years ago invaders swept through the Two Lands usurping the rule and spreading unrest and chaos. The army lay defeated. The pharaoh became a prisoner. The priests of the invaders brought their god, Aken Re, and sought to make him supreme. The people rejected the new god. For years the land and the people were crushed beneath the sandals of the foreigners. Twenty years ago the men of the Two Lands rose and drive the aliens away.”
The older of the two women nodded. “The sacred symbols of the rule were hidden and the location lost. Though the invaders were driven away some of their priests remained. They scheme to place a pharaoh of their choosing on the chair. Should this come to pass the Two Lands will be destroyed.”
Tira felt confused. Their stories deviated from anything she had read about
Egypt. Remnants of her flight, her fear and her
grief coalesced. “And if I don’t go?”
“You will leave this house and face whatever waits. Will you go?
Tira thought about the men who waited outside. If she left the house she would die.
“Will you go?” The women spoke as one. “If so, drink.”
Tira lifted the glass and swallowed the beverage. What choice did she have? As she drifted into a fog she saw the giant wheel on the wall spin.