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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I'd see them coming long before they hurt me. I would hear them, too. Maybe even smell them. My abilities came in handy at times.
But today they were more like a curse.
Through a cracked and filthy window, I watched two jeeps filled with soldiers carrying machine guns park on a hill above the monastery. They wore military camouflage that hardly camouflaged them at all. From the way they slouched off into the olive trees, I knew they believed themselves unseen, except that I had seen them quite well. I noted each stitch on their clothing, every whisker on their unshaven faces, even the color of their bootlaces.
I blinked behind thick sunglasses that shielded my sensitive eyes from the harsh midsummer sun. It was nearing dusk so my eyes didn't hurt as much. I had just turned thirteen and was now able to see better in the dark than in daylight. I preferred the night anyway. It was quieter after the sun went down.
My family of Maronite monks kept me away from the Lebanese villagers who stared and gossiped about the way I looked. The local kids who should have been my friends threw rocks at me, and even when they whispered behind my back, I could still hear them. I could hear a bee leave its hive from a mile away.
I should have told Brother Thomas about the soldiers, but I had trouble pulling myself away from the window. I felt like a hooked fish, the bait of my own insatiable curiosity. Just a few more minutes. What harm could there be in that?
Two civilian-looking men stayed behind with the jeeps. My keen eyes zeroed in on the taller one, blond and blue-eyed, who stood beside a ruined pillar of an ancient structure that had once been part of a heathen temple. I saw the man's anger as he swatted at biting flies that buzzed too close to his face, his mouth moving with words I couldn't hear while wearing my earplugs. So I took them out.
"Damn vile country," he spat, his English carrying the cadence of a Brit like the monk who had taught me this language. Addressing the pudgy man beside him, he added, "The bitch will pay, I promise you that."
I winced at the words, but not because of their meaning, which made no sense to me. It was his loud voice that bit through my skull and vibrated painfully between my ears. I struggled to separate his voice from other noises nearby, like the buzzing flies, the rustling olive trees, the bleating goats in the courtyard. Head aching, I concentrated, focusing only on the words that took shape inside my mind.
"Faisal, radio the men. Make sure they're in position."
The man he had called Faisal wore a striped hijab and, when he nodded, the turban of fabric wobbled on his head like one of Cook's moghlie puddings.
Something wasn't right. A warning bell chimed inside my head, but I ignored it. I was too mesmerized by the Englishman walking down the rocky path toward our chapel. He held himself with confidence, not crouched in wariness like the men dressed as soldiers. This one didn't try to hide. Brother Thomas must be expecting him.
I replaced my earplugs and inhaled deeply through pinched nostrils, hoping to catch a muted whiff of the foreigner, but he was too far away. If I removed the swimmer's noseclips I always wore, I'd be assaulted by the myriad smells outside. I'd wait for him to come closer so I could identify the scents on his clothes and body. That would tell me what I needed to know.
He stepped through groping fingers of long shadows and skirted the scaffolds that leaned against decaying chapel walls. He scowled up at a tent of heavy canvas that replaced large portions of the missing roof. A small goat trotted in front of him, and he kicked at it, brushing at his crisply ironed slacks as if they'd become soiled.
I scrambled down off the crate I'd used to reach the window, and crept barefoot along the uneven floor of a hallway leading to the chapel. A thick wooden door stood slightly ajar, and I knelt beside it, peering through a two-inch gap to watch.
On the opposite side of the room, the Englishman stuck his head inside and called, "Anyone here?"
Brother Thomas, a short middle-aged man in a tan robe that fluttered around his ankles, hobbled toward the voice. He stooped as he walked, as if to avoid hitting his head on a low ceiling, though he cleared it by a good six feet or more. "May I help you?"
The stranger stepped inside and folded his arms across his chest. "I believe you have something that belongs to me."
The monk frowned, then his leathery face broke into a smile. "Ah! Gavin Heinrich! You have arrived sooner than I expected. So pleased to finally meet you." He bowed, his expression anxious while saying in heavily accented English, "You have come for our Chalice?"
I swallowed the lump of ice that suddenly formed in my throat.
The man called Heinrich cocked a brow and leaned back on his heels. "I've come for the girl"
"Yes, yes," Brother Thomas said, bobbing his head and stepping closer. "The girl, Chalice. That is her name."
No. This wasn't possible. My home was here, at the monastery. No way would I go anywhere with this man.
"And the other item?" Heinrich asked.
Thomas looked confused. "Other item?"
Heinrich made a huffing sound as if annoyed, then relaxed his jaw as if it would hide how tense he was. But I could see it in his eyes. His lips curved in a half smile when he said, "The letter. My wife gave you a letter before she died."
"Of course, of course. Forgive me. I am old and my memory is not so good anymore." Thomas chuckled, but quickly sobered while clearing his throat. "Your wife said we should give it to the girl when she comes of age."
When Heinrich stared down at his feet, the monk's bright eyes softened. "Forgive me, sir, for my late condolences on your loss."
I noted how the man's expression of anguish appeared forced. I'd seen that look before, on the faces of actors in the village during performances of summertime plays. His soft words of thanks sounded unnatural coming from his hard, thin-lipped mouth. I realized then that he wasn't a good man.
"How awful to learn of your wife's tragic death from an old Lebanese newspaper. If we had known how to contact you when it happened "
Head still down, the Englishman held up his hand in a halting gesture. "I understand."
"I assure you we did all we could to save her, but she had lost so much blood. Did you ever find the man who shot her?"
Heinrich neither spoke nor looked up.
Thomas cleared his throat. "Well, I suppose she was lucky her little plane crashed so close to the monastery. If it hadn't, we might not have been in time to save the baby."
Baby? They couldn't possibly be talking about me. I knew my mother had bled to death after giving birth to me, but not from a gunshot wound. I'd always assumed I'd been the cause.
Heinrich's audible swallow sounded authentic. Maybe he was nervous about his lies. "I'm in your debt, Brother Thomas. Your kindness won't go unrewarded."
"Would you like to see your daughter now?"
"Chalice, is it?" Heinrich asked. "Yes, very much."
Thomas turned away.
"Excuse me, Brother Thomas, but is Chalice aware of what her mother left her?"
The monk halted midstep and swung back around to face him. "Her mother asked us to keep it a secret until she was old enough to take responsibility for herself. We have done so. Chalice knows nothing about it."
Heinrich smiled, as if relieved. "I'm happy to abide by my late wife's wishes. Just bring me the letter, and I'll keep it safe."
The monk's eyes squinted with uncertainty, but he nodded and motioned toward another monk standing in the shadows. He spoke to him in Arabic, then said to Heinrich, "Brother Francis will get it for you while I fetch the girl."
When I saw the smug look on Heinrich's face, I felt sick to my stomach.
Brother Thomas headed my way. I stood, rage at his betrayal making my body shake. My first impulse was to run away, flee to the village and hide. But then what? I'd read about the outside world in the newspaper and understood how dangerous it could be for a thirteen-year-old girl alone. Those in the village who knew me would just bring me back here. I had no friends but the monks who had raised me.
As ideas for escape eluded me, Brother Thomas pushed open the chapel door. A thin smile twitched on his lips. "Chalice, my child. I was just coming to get you." His eyebrows tangled together in a concerned frown. "Is something wrong?"
He spoke to me in Arabic, and I replied in his language. "How could you?" I asked, my voice breaking.
Understanding shone in his eyes. "You heard us talking."
"I'm not going away with that man."
"That man is your father." He huffed a blast of breath out his nose. "I'm only thinking of what's best for you. We're monks, Chalice. We love you, but we've done all we can. You've grown into a young woman and deserve more than this." He gestured at the crumbling walls, the hay-strewn hallway with the tilted floor, the cracked windows. "Mr. Heinrich is a rich man who can give you everything you need and want "
I glared at him, unable to stop the stinging tears that slipped free. I swiped them furiously from my cheeks and whispered harshly, "Now I understand. You sold me to him."
"It's not like that," Thomas said, though guilt etched the seams of his weathered face. I knew that look because it was the same one I'd seen after catching him in a drunken stupor. "He is your father."
"My mother would never marry a man like that," I said, jabbing my finger toward the chapel. "He's pompous and cold."
The monk wiped a hand down his face and sighed. "You don't know that."
"If he's my father, why would he bring bodyguards here with him?"
Thomas frowned. "Bodyguards?"
"Didn't you see them? Ten men are outside hiding behind rocks and trees. What makes the Englishman so special that he needs protection?"
The monk shook his head and shrugged. "Your father has great wealth and can afford to do whatever he likes." He straightened and tucked both hands in his robe pockets. "I've had enough of your foolishness, girl. Come along now."
The pulse in my neck beat so hard I could almost taste it in my throat, and the instinct to run grew stronger. Slipping a hand under my muslin shift, I fingered the knife sheathed in goatskin strapped to my thigh and was reassured by its presence.
He saw me do it. "None of that, not today. I need you to behave. Your father has traveled thousands of miles from America"
"America?" I set my anger aside for the moment. I'd always dreamed of visiting the United States. It was the land of hot dogs, Disneyland, Barbie dolls and hip-hop. I knew of American music from listening to songs that filtered through headphones worn by an occasional tourist in the village. The sound had been wonderful, and I wanted to hear more. "But that man has a British accent, not American."
Though I still had no intention of leaving with the man called Heinrich, curiosity brewed hot inside me. America. And he had known my mother. I had to get closer to him, smell him.
"English or American, he's still your father. Let's go," Thomas said with impatience.
I allowed him to steer me into the chapel, his work-roughened fingers warm at the back of my neck. Standing in obedient silence, I watched Heinrich roam the modest room while scrutinizing pieces of religious art scattered across rotting walls and splintered tabletops. He seemed to appraise their value, but nothing here was worth much. Not even the child he'd come to collect. What could he possibly want with me?
Brother Francis entered the chapel carrying an envelope. Far younger than Brother Thomas, the monk kept his gaze cast to the floor as he handed over the precious letter Hein-rich had seemed so eager to get his hands on. He accepted it reverently, then carefully tucked it into his shirt pocket.
I vaguely recalled what he and Brother Thomas had said about the letter. Something about my mother bleeding to death from a gunshot wound, though I knew that couldn't be true. My mother had died in childbirth. I had killed her just by being born.
Heinrich finally noticed me. He appeared tense at first, then slouched with his back against the wall, hands in his pockets, his legs crossed at the ankles.
Thomas glanced between Heinrich and me. "She's an unusual girl, Mr. Heinrich. Please be patient with her."
Heinrich frowned. "Do you mean she's simple-minded?"
The monk shook his head and spoke as if I weren't in the room. "No, sir. She's extremely bright. We have schooled her ourselves, but we reached our academic limits two years ago. We purchased many used textbooks in Beirut for her to study, but I'm afraid it's not enough. The child is bored, which often makes her."
Looking irritated, Heinrich barked, "Makes her what?"
Thomas winced. "She's a spirited child with great imagination. Too inquisitive sometimes, and this causes mischief."
Heinrich pushed away from the wall and stepped forward. Kneeling before me, he spoke to me as if I were five. "Chalice? I'm your father. Say goodbye to your friends now because it's time for us to go home to America."
I stared at him while shaking my mane of inky-black hair that I'd been told looked just like my mother's. The sun had disappeared beyond the horizon and votive candles perched on an altar cast flickered light across the man's face. He looked amused by my large sunglasses and the swimmer's noseclips that pinched my nostrils shut.
Standing up, he smiled. "Isn't it too early for Halloween?"
Thomas came up behind him and said, "Chalice is extremely sensitive to light, smell and sound. You can't see the earplugs, but I'm sure she is wearing them."
Heinrich gazed down at the monk, a pleased expression on his face. How odd that he'd appreciate my freakishness. "And the cause of this sensitivity?"
Thomas shrugged. "We don't know, but we think it's a result of her traumatic birth, that it might have affected her brain. The village doctor says she is perfectly healthy. Just a bit, how do you say, high-strung."
The man grinned at me and said, "Won't you say hello to your father?"