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Amulet of Doom
By Bruce Coville
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Bruce Coville
All rights reserved.
"Well, I want to tell you, I never smelled anything so awful in my life. The scent of death was just clinging to the thing."
Marilyn Sparks paused, a forkful of broccoli halfway to her mouth, and stared at her aunt Zenobia in a combination of awe and astonishment. It was hard to believe any one person could have had so many adventures—and even harder to believe she would dare to tell them at this table.
Marilyn glanced at her father. He was scowling at Zenobia—the same disapproving scowl he used on his English students when they got out of line.
Zenobia ignored him. A fiercely independent woman who had somehow cropped up in a family full of people pleasers, she was long used to scandalizing her relatives. It was almost a tradition, one that had begun way back when she refused to get married and settle down, at a time when living as a single woman was far from fashionable.
That had seemed funny to Marilyn when she first heard it; Zenobia seemed too young to have had such a problem. But then, Marilyn had a hard time remembering that Zenobia Calkins was really her great-aunt and had already seen her seventieth birthday. Marilyn didn't think about age when she thought about Zenobia. She just adored her.
"Anyway," continued Zenobia, "Baron de Courvis drew out his machete and started to hack away at the dead flesh. Of course, in that climate the thing had become a breeding ground for maggots, and—"
Marilyn's mother cut Zenobia off with a sound that was just short of a shriek. "Really, Aunt Zenobia! Couldn't you tell this some other time?"
Marilyn sighed. She should have known she could count on her mother to stop Zenobia right at the most interesting moment. A story about recovering a giant diamond from the intestines of a five-day-dead rogue elephant, no matter how fascinating, simply did not fall within Helen Sparks's definition of table talk. Not even if it came from her father's sister.
Zenobia looked at Mrs. Sparks with something that seemed like pity. "Of course, my dear," she said sweetly. "I don't know what came over me."
Marilyn put the limp broccoli in her mouth and chewed it morosely. Her family was so stodgy!
"You will finish the story later, won't you, Ms. Calkins?" Kyle Patterson, gangly but good-looking, a year older than Marilyn and unfortunately her brother's best friend, had hardly taken a bite since they had sat down to supper. He was much too excited about being at the same table with a great author to eat. It was the first time Marilyn had ever seen Kyle ignore food—and she had known him since he was three.
"I don't know," said Zenobia, with a touch of petulance. "One has to be in the mood for these things to do them properly."
Kyle looked stricken.
"Of course she'll tell us," said Geoff jovially. "Aunt Zenobia never let a good story go untold, did you?"
Marilyn glared at her brother. He was clearly unaware of how deeply their mother had offended Aunt Zenobia.
"Not if the audience is appreciative," agreed Zenobia, deftly skewering a piece of chicken with her fork. "This bird is a trifle bland, by the by," she said sweetly, turning to Marilyn's mother. "You might want to try using a bit of lemon, Helen. They do it that way in Tangiers. It works quite well."
Silence descended on the table.
It is bland, thought Marilyn, hacking a piece from her own serving of PTA-cookbook chicken—a little more savagely than was necessary—and wishing it were some fierce raptor she had somehow managed to kill with her bare hands. This whole family is bland. Mr. and Mrs. Normal Q. Boring and their children, that's us. I don't know why Kyle bothers with us.
She looked across the table to where Kyle was sitting, generally oblivious to her presence—as he had been for most of the last fourteen years—and smiled. He had given up on waiting for Zenobia to resume her story and finally started to eat.
That's more like it, she thought fondly. You could use it.
It wasn't that Kyle was skinny. But he had topped six feet his year, and his body was still filling out to match the growing he had been doing. He had a thatch of tousled blond hair (which Marilyn was itching to brush away from his forehead) and shocking blue eyes that seemed to bore right through her—whenever he bothered to look her way at all. He was at once more silly and more serious than any person she had ever known, and she had no idea why he bothered with her brother, Geoff.
But she was awfully glad he did.
When they gathered together on the porch after supper, Marilyn thought, for a moment, that Kyle had finally noticed her, too. She was leaning against the railing, and he took a place right next to her. She was thrilled, until she realized his reason: It placed him directly across from Zenobia, who was leaning against the opposite railing, next to Geoff. Her parents, of course, were inside—talking about how awful Zenobia was, probably.
Marilyn looked at her aunt and wondered for an instant if Kyle actually found her attractive. She was, after all, a striking woman. Her hair was pure white, really dazzling, so unlike the yellowy gray she saw on other old people. It curled around her face like a billowing cloud, accentuating the depth of her tan. Marilyn knew the time her aunt had spent in the tropical sun had added to her wrinkles. But like everything else about her, the wrinkles were attractive. Every one of them seemed to speak of experience, wisdom, even adventure. They were part of Zenobia. Zenobia was beautiful. So, by definition, the wrinkles were, too.
She was dressed in white cotton—a crisp skirt and a stylish blouse. A sturdy gold chain circled her neck, holding an amulet that—uncharacteristically, and even unstylishly—she kept tucked mysteriously inside her blouse, so that only its upper edge was visible. Marilyn wondered what it looked like. She had a vague recollection that at some time earlier in the evening Zenobia had mentioned that everything she was wearing had come from Egypt.
"So what happened with the diamond, Ms. Calkins?" asked Kyle eagerly.
Zenobia waved her hand. "Oh, the baron cut open the elephant and there it was. We sold it on the coast for a handsome profit."
Kyle looked like someone had pulled his plug. "Is that all?"
"Well, that leaves out the details. But that's how it all came out."
"But it's the details that make it interesting."
"I know that, young man. I have managed to learn a few things in thirty years of writing best-sellers. But it's a little difficult to leap into the middle of a story with both feet. You have to build your momentum. Mine is still in the dining room, under the cake plate."
"I'm sorry about Mom," said Marilyn. "She's pretty set in her ways."
Zenobia dismissed the topic with another wave of her hand. "I've been dealing with the fogeys in this family since I was six years old and shocked them all by announcing I was going to run away with the minister of the Presbyterian church." She paused to reflect for a moment, then added, "Actually, I think I said I was going to seduce him, though where I learned that word, I can't remember."
She took out a cigar and bit off the end of it. "That was the beginning of the end, as far as the family was concerned." She struck a wooden match on the porch railing and lit her cigar. She smoked in silence for a moment. The three teenagers waited for her to speak again.
"Maybe I should have stayed in Egypt," she said with a sigh, flicking her ash over the railing. "I got along quite well there. Felt right at home. I always wondered if maybe I had lived there in a previous life."
"Is Cairo as awful as it looks in the movies?" asked Kyle eagerly. He was an old film buff and tended to view the world in terms of what he saw on late-night television.
"Awful? It's wonderful! Did I ever tell you about the time I got caught in a riot there with that fool Eldred Cooley?"
Without waiting for an answer, she launched into a bizarre story involving Egyptian politics, Chinese jewelry, three dancing girls, and a monkey. Kyle settled back contentedly. Marilyn let herself lean ever so slightly in his direction.
It was very pleasant. The evening had an early summer sweetness to it, cool and filled with the scent of fading lilacs and blooming roses. The moon was nearly full, the sky cloudless and smeared with stars. In the background the spring peepers were in full chorus. And Zenobia was at the peak of her form with the bloodcurdling story she was unfolding.
Until the very end, when something strange happened.
"And that was the last I saw of Eldred Cooley!" she said triumphantly. Then her eyes, which had been blazing, seemed to go all cloudy. "The last time but one," she murmured, placing her hand at her throat. Marilyn could hear a troubled note in her voice, and when she looked more closely, she noticed that Zenobia's fingers seemed to tremble as they clasped the golden chain she wore around her neck. Suddenly she tightened her grip. For a moment Marilyn thought she was going to pull off the amulet. "The last time but one," she repeated.
They waited respectfully. But it was almost as if Zenobia had left the porch. Her body was there—her white hair moving lightly in the breeze, her right hand clutching the last inch of her cigar. But she herself seemed to have vanished.
Finally Marilyn could stand the silence no longer. "Aunt Zenobia, are you all right?"
Zenobia blinked. "Of course," she said hurriedly. "I was just thinking about Egypt. Egypt, and Eldred Cooley, and Suleiman."
"You mean Solomon?" asked Kyle eagerly. "Like in King Solomon's Mines?"
"No," said Zenobia sharply. "Suleiman, like in Suleiman. A lot of people get them confused. Remind me and I'll tell you about them sometime."
With that she tossed her cigar butt over the porch railing and stalked into the house.CHAPTER 2
Marilyn, Kyle, and Geoff stood in shocked silence.
"What did I say?" asked Kyle finally.
"Nothing," said Geoff. "Aunt Zenobia's a few strawberries shy of a shortcake is all. You have to expect this kind of thing from her."
"She's not crazy!" snapped Marilyn. "She's brilliant!"
Geoff shrugged. "I didn't say she was stupid. She may have more I.Q. points than all of New Jersey put together. That doesn't mean she could pass the state sanity test. Come on, Kyle—let's go over to your place and shoot a few baskets before we have to turn in."
The two of them banged down the steps, leaving Marilyn alone on the porch. She twisted a lock of her red hair in tight circles around her finger. She would never admit it to Geoff, but there was something strange going on with Aunt Zenobia. She had been oddly distracted ever since she arrived—sometimes seeming like her old self, other times drifting off into a kind of trance, as she had just now. A couple of times Marilyn had caught her fingering the chain of that amulet and staring blankly into space.
Marilyn had mentioned it to her mother last night, but Mrs. Sparks claimed it was just prepublication jitters. "After all, Aunt Zenobia's new book is scheduled to be released in two weeks. It's natural for her to be a bit nervous about what the critics will say. Especially," she had added maliciously, "if it's as weird as the last one. Honestly, I don't know where that woman gets her ideas."
At least Aunt Zenobia has ideas, Marilyn had thought unkindly.
She began to dawdle her way down the porch steps. Moving dreamily, she trailed her fingers along the railing, still thinking about Zenobia. When she reached the flagstone walk that led to the street, Brick came wandering up to rub against her legs.
Brick was the Sparkses' cat, a black-and-white stray they had taken in a few years ago. After three weeks of trying to name him, they had settled on Brick, because her father claimed that was exactly what the cat was as dumb as.
Now Brick was meowing for attention. So Marilyn scooped him up. Then she turned to look at the house.
It was an old place, built sometime around the turn of the century. She was glad of that. Occasionally she thought she might like to live in one of the more modern houses that had sprung up lately on the outskirts of town. But every time she spent the night with one of her girlfriends, she realized how much she would miss the creaky old place she had called home for so long. There was something different about a house that had been lived in—a sense of ongoing life, a kind of old-shoe comfort that she never felt in a newer place.
"Isn't that right, Brick?" she asked the cat, as if he could read her mind.
Brick looked at her as if he couldn't believe his ears. Then he reached out a paw and batted her on the side of the face.
"Be that way," she said, dropping him unceremoniously to the ground. He meowed in protest and began rubbing about her legs to be picked back up.
She ignored him and turned her thoughts back to the house. The fact that the place really belonged to Zenobia, that she had lived here as a girl herself, made it even more special. Her ownership was also the reason that Marilyn's parents, even though they paid a respectable rent, could hardly refuse Zenobia whenever she decided to visit. Marilyn was glad of that. Given their own way, they would probably have tried to find some excuse to make the old woman stay at the Kennituck Falls Motel.
She tried to imagine life without Zenobia. The prospect was so dull it made her shudder.
She heard the thump of a basketball on asphalt coming from Kyle's driveway, and the excited shouts of her brother and his friend. The sounds made her feel lonely. Rubbing her arms against the cool of the breeze, which was starting to pick up strength, she hurried back to the house.
Brick, still feeling affectionate, followed at her heels.
In her room she stripped off her jeans and blouse and burrowed into an old flannel nightgown. The pink plaid fabric was far from glamorous, but it did have the virtues of being warm, soft, and exceedingly comfortable.
Marilyn popped the cast album from Carousel, her favorite Broadway show, into the CD player, then flopped across her bed and tried to figure out her aunt's curious behavior on the porch. Brick curled up on her back and began to rumble his deep, familiar purr.
After a round of intense but unproductive thought Marilyn decided to chalk Zenobia's mood up to the peculiarities that accompany genius, forget it, and go to sleep.
Hours later she was still wide awake. She tossed and turned, practiced deep breathing, and even tried counting sheep. It was no use. Sleep would not come.
She was not used to being awake at this time of night. Usually she dropped right off.
She sat up in bed. The silence was driving her out of her mind. Heaving a sigh, she went to her dresser and picked up her brush. She looked in the mirror and grimaced as she began to work the brush through her tangles. Anyone named Sparks should be spared the burden of having such bright red hair.
Well, she thought as she began the vigorous brushing, at least I was spared the freckles.
Somewhere after the thirtieth stroke she heard a knock at her door.
Marilyn paused, the brush still in her hair. She glanced at the clock on her nightstand.
It was after two.
"Who is it?" she asked softly.
The door opened a crack; Zenobia peered into the room. A smile creased her face. "Thank goodness you're still awake. I have to talk to you!"
Marilyn put down her brush and crossed to the door. "Come in," she said, swinging it open. She was delighted to see her aunt. But she was also very confused—and a little frightened. Because in Zenobia's eye she had caught a glimpse, brief but unmistakable, of something she had never expected to see there.
She had caught a glimpse of fear.
And the idea of something that could make Zenobia Calkins afraid sent shivers trembling up and down Marilyn's spine.
A moment later Zenobia was sitting cross-legged on Marilyn's bed. She wore a loose-fitting cotton gown and a white linen robe. Except for her white hair, now hanging loose and long over her shoulders, from behind she would have looked like any of a dozen of Marilyn's friends who had sat in the same position while they held forth on life, religion, and the meaning of boys.
Marilyn sat quietly, waiting for her aunt to tell her what was on her mind.
"Egypt is very old," said Zenobia at last.
Marilyn nodded, uncertain of how to respond to such a comment.
"It is filled with strange things," added Zenobia after a another long silence. "Ancient things. Things that perhaps should not be disturbed."
Marilyn remained silent.
"I'm boring you," said Zenobia.
"No!" exclaimed Marilyn. "I just don't know what to say."
"How could you," muttered Zenobia. "I'm rambling like ... like an old woman!" She laughed—a dry, harsh sound. "I'm sorry I bothered you. I had a nightmare, and I wanted to talk to someone."
Excerpted from Amulet of Doom by Bruce Coville. Copyright © 1996 Bruce Coville. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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