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By Barbara Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner
All rights reserved.
"This coffin is empty," Dr. David Walters said, pointing to an ornately painted wooden coffin, "because someone robbed the grave of the princess Urbena and took her mummy." He smiled, tilted his head slightly, and looked at the group gathered around him, especially the reporters. "Legend tells us there is a curse on the tomb that will be broken only when the mummy of Urbena is found and returned."
Was it Lana's imagination or did Dr. Walters' eyes stop at hers for a split second and did he wink?
"Do you believe in the curse?" a reporter from the Denver Post asked.
"Common sense says no, but everyone who was on the expedition when they dug up Urbena's sarcophagus has died."
Lana shivered. Was that really true?
Marge Wilson, a retired teacher who was a long-time volunteer at the Denver Museum, stood beside Lana. She whispered, "Notice he didn't say how they died. Those relics from her tomb were discovered in 1937. Old age would have set in by now."
Lana giggled and felt better, even though common sense told her that believing in curses was pure superstition. But then, every decent tomb had to have a curse on it or what fun were they?
"The press loves the idea," Lana whispered back. "They'll make sure people come and see the exhibit." She and Marge followed the small crowd around Dr. Walters back into the main exhibit hall.
The news conference broke up then, and Lana saw someone across the room beside the refreshment table whom she wanted to meet. "Excuse me, Marge."
"Miss Vaughn?" Lana stopped a tall, athletic-looking woman. She had long reddish-blonde hair that Lana thought was beautiful. Tonight Blair Vaughn had caught it up in an ornate barrette that could only have come from Egypt. The young woman stopped and stared at Lana as if she was surprised that someone had spoken to her.
"Yes?" There was no smile on Blair Vaughn's face that encouraged Lana to continue, but Lana went on, wondering why Blair Vaughn was unfriendly.
"I'm Alana Richardson. People call me Lana. I've wanted to meet you ever since I heard you were coming. You're quite a well-known archaeologist for someone so young."
The woman's face softened a little at the compliment. She set her punch cup on the table and reached for Lana's hand to shake it. "People don't usually recognize me."
Lana took Blair's cold hand in a firm grip. "Dr. Walters pointed you out to me after the Egypt Society meeting. He said I should talk to you if I was at all interested in archaeology as a career."
"And are you?" Blair withdrew her hand and stared at Lana. She was certainly direct and not a babbler. Sometimes when Lana got excited words spilled out until she was embarrassed by talking so much. She was trying not to do that now, trying to act as cool and sophisticated as Blair.
"I think so. But I wouldn't want to work just any place. I've been totally interested in Egypt since sixth grade."
"You look Egyptian, you know. I'm rather envious of that long, black hair." Blair reached out and touched Lana's shoulder-length hair.
Lana was speechless, not usually one of her problems. But she knew she looked Egyptian. She had gone to a styling salon with a picture of an Egyptian queen in her hand. "Cut my hair to look like this," she'd said. The hairdresser loved the idea, and Lana's hair, thick and jet-black, held the blunt cut perfectly.
With the remark about Lana's look, Blair Vaughn became almost friendly. "Actually, now I remember that Dr. Walters said he had a student he wanted me to meet. He said you read and write hieroglyphics and have a good knowledge of Egyptian mythology as well as the history."
"He's being kind. I've only started with my study." Lana found her voice. She did know a lot about Egypt, but there was so much to learn.
"I think you're being modest. You can't do that, you know. You really have to be aggressive in this field today. Men are still given the best digs, and they become known faster."
"Even when you know as much as they do?" Lana knew Blair Vaughn was one of the top experts in the field of Egyptology right now. She was working at a site in Egypt, or had been. She had taken time off to come to Denver with this special exhibit.
"That's right." Blair smiled. "Excuse me, Lana. I want to talk to Dr. Walters before he leaves." Blair walked quickly across the room. She had so much poise, Lana was a bit in awe of the woman. She felt good that Blair had finally warmed up enough to talk to her. Maybe they'd get a chance to talk while the show was in Denver. Lana would like to get as many ideas and as much advice as possible from the successsful archaeologist.
The Denver Museum of Natural History was fortunate to get the Egyptian exhibit. This was the last stop before returning to Cairo. It took all the control Lana had not to jump up and down with excitement just to be surrounded by all these treasures.
She stood alone, listening to stray comments—excited voices—of those at the party who were also enthusiastic about the show. She wished she could have talked Josh into coming with her tonight. This opening was only for museum staff and volunteers like herself, who'd worked on the exhibit, but they could each bring a guest.
Josh Benson was as plainspoken as Blair. He'd said he didn't want to come look at "that musty old stuff." Sometimes Lana got frustrated because she and Josh had so little in common—except liking each other. Well, they had school and school activities, but not much else.
She sighed and decided to look at the "musty old stuff" one more time herself before the evening was over. Not that she hadn't seen them. She smiled. She couldn't get enough of seeing them. But leading groups through the show wasn't going to be the same as being alone with the artifacts.
Heading back to the second room of the exhibit, she glanced quickly at a gold pendant in the form of a lapis-lazuli scarab beetle; an alabaster vase, decorated with inlaid lapis; and a silver cup worked with a riot of grapevines along the lip. Some of the statues of animals, especially cats, which the Egyptians worshiped, fascinated her. She had read that one excavation revealed the mummies of three hundred thousand cats. Plus some mummified mice so the cats wouldn't be hungry on their journey to the other side. She smiled at that idea.
All the time she stared into the cases, however, she tried to ignore the strange feeling that had come over her again. She had had it before. It was a magnetic, almost hypnotic, pull to one section of this back room ... to the mummies.
It was the mummies that held the most fascination for her. The mummies who seemed to call to her now. She glanced around quickly. No one she knew was near her. She hadn't told anyone about this strange feeling she had had. Blair Vaughn would probably laugh at her. Marge might not laugh, but she'd surely tease Lana. Lana didn't know whether to laugh herself, or be frightened.
She walked slowly toward the coffins, then paused, making sure she could turn away, making it clear that she was in charge of her feelings. Was she? She ran her hand over an ornately decorated coffin, Urbena's coffin.
Death was an incredibly complex ritual for ancient Egyptian people—not just for the kings and queens, but anyone who could afford an expensive funeral. Spending a fortune burying a relative was a sign of how much you respected them.
She stopped and stared at another mummy of a cat. It was hard to believe that some of the sacred cats had been prepared and buried with the gauze wrapping and same ceremony as the pharaohs. She didn't know why, but it bothered her more to think of a cat being buried this way than it did a person.
Quickly, giving in to her feelings, she moved to the star of this show, Prince Nefra, and his coffin. The face carved on the lid was incredibly handsome. Nefra's huge, dark wooden eyes seemed to stare back at her. Nineteen—he was only nineteen when he died ... on the eve of his wedding day. That was what made the story such a tragedy.
No one seemed to know why, but on the night before Nefra was to marry the princess Urbena, he sickened and died. Lana tried to imagine how such an experience would make her feel. Her father had died when she was young. She must have missed him then, but she could scarcely remember him or his death. Those feelings had long disappeared, and she couldn't call them up to re-experience them. Here she was, fascinated by death, Egyptian style, when she herself remembered nothing of the feeling, the actual loss.
She looked at Nefra's mummy again. The gauze had darkened with time to grays and in some places black. Maybe she didn't really believe the body of the young prince was inside all those bandages. If you thought too much about it, this sight was almost too much to absorb. She could see the hollow spaces of his eyes, the high bump that was his nose, the soft mounds of his lips. She could imagine his beautiful smile as he had looked at his bride.
Raising her own eyes, she stared at his face on the coffin. Nefra stared back. Lana was inexplicably drawn to him.
Glancing behind her, Lana realized she was alone in the room with the actual mummy of Nefra and the empty coffin of Urbena. Everyone else had left. It was too quiet.
The lights flickered, signaling that it was time to close, time for this evening to be over. She took joy in knowing there would be many more. She now even accepted the spell Nefra had cast over her, for she knew the magnetic pull came from him. She had thought about him so much, she felt she had been part of his life.
She realized how far her imagination had carried her when she whispered to the young king, "Good-bye, Nefra. I'm leaving for tonight, but I'll come back. You know I will, don't you? I can't stay away." She smiled down at him, half expecting him to smile back.
She caught her breath when the lights flickered for the second time and snapped off. Within seconds Lana was surrounded by a darkness that was as complete as that of a tomb.
She clutched the sides of the wooden coffin, feeling the solidness of it. She waited for the lights to come back on, holding herself rigid, pushing back the first trickle of fear in her chest and stomach.
Taking a deep breath, she could smell the age of the body lying beside her. The musty gauze, underground for thousands of years, gave off a dusty, earthy odor.
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and bit down gently to keep from calling out. Surely, any second now ...
But at that moment the whispering started, echoing all around her.
"Princess Urbena, come. Come to me! You are mine. You must come to me!"CHAPTER 2
"Come back, Princess. Come back! You belong to me."
The words echoed in the hollow room, became sibilant air that buzzed in her ears, circled her head, and bounced off the walls. She wanted to scream, to call out for help, but there was no air left in her lungs. She had held her breath until her chest ached, her temples throbbed, and she felt faint. Slowly she drew in the musty air around her.
Forcing a rhythm of air in, air out, air in, air out, she squeezed her eyes shut and bent forward. Until she realized she was leaning over the mummy who had spoken.
The mummy had spoken? No way!
As the whispers faded into the dark corners around her, rational thought returned her courage. Surely she had imagined the voice.
Taking several more deep breaths, she stood still and willed the lights to come back on. But the room was filled only with silence, a silence that stretched back thousands of years. The silence of a tomb. The silence of death.
Stop it! Lana, stop it! She pushed away her thoughts. She must move. She must make her way out of this room and into the rest of the museum where a crowd of people also waited for the lights to come on.
She felt her way around the open coffin and started across empty space, her hands stretched in front of her. She tried to picture the arrangement of the artifacts. Almost immediately she bumped into the coffin of Urbena, side by side with Nefra.
At that moment, the lights returned. She blinked her eyes, trying to adjust to the brightness. The first thing to come into focus was the empty coffin prepared for the princess.
Shivering, she hurried into the next room, also empty. Where was everyone? She ran toward the hall.
"Where've you been, Lana?" Marge asked, stopping her flight. "Do you want a ride home?"
"Oh, please, Marge, if it's not out of your way. I have to admit, when the lights went off and caught me in there alone with those mummies, I got a little spooked." Lana tried to laugh.
"The lights? The lights weren't off out here." Marge's round, chubby face changed from her usual smile to a frown. "You got trapped with the mummies?" She laughed her hardy, no-nonsense laugh. "I don't blame you for getting shivery. I don't like looking at them in the daylight." She took Lana's arm. "Come on, I've had enough talk of death and murder and suicide for one night."
"Murder?" Lana hurried along with Marge. "Who was murdered?"
"Oh, you missed another story. Dr. Walters gave the reporters more sensational gossip to print. Said some think Nefra was murdered and then Princess Urbena committed suicide.
Lana gasped at the idea, but she didn't say anything. It was hard to talk and keep up with Marge at the same time. The woman, despite her bulk, moved out of the museum and across the parking lot at a rapid pace, her sensible, rubber-soled shoes thudding on the pavement. Their feet made the only sound in the dark night, and Lana was glad not to be alone.
In Marge's comfortable old Mercedes, Lana caught her breath and questioned Marge further. "Why did Urbena commit suicide? Because Nefra died? I read that he died of some rare disease."
"A rare disease could have been poison. They didn't have medical examiners who had ways of proving how people died in those days. Urbena would have committed suicide because she believed if she died at the same time, she could reincarnate when Nefra did. They'd get back together that way. Of course, often everyone in a pharaoh's court was killed when he died. The ancient Egyptians were thorough in that way. Probably the next king wanted his own servants so he could trust them. Things aren't too different today, except the president just fires everyone in the old administration." Marge laughed again. Lana liked the older woman because it was hard to stay gloomy or frightened when around her.
Lana thought about Urbena killing herself. Suicide was a pretty drastic step to take. "Do you believe in reincarnation, Marge?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I like to think I'll get a second chance if I don't do everything right this time around. I guess we'll never know for sure."
Lana sat quietly, lost in her thoughts.
"Two people tonight made a funny comment to me, about you, Lana. You'll laugh, but ..." Marge paused, waiting for Lana's curiosity to take over.
"What's that?" Lana did want to know what someone had said about her.
"They said you look just like they picture the princess Urbena looking. So maybe you have come back, Princess. Isn't that funny?"
"I—I guess so." Lana would have enjoyed the idea more, earlier in the evening. She wasn't so sure now. She thought about telling Marge what had happened, about the whispering, and someone actually calling her Princess. But she knew Marge would laugh and tease her. Surely the whispers were her imagination.
Arriving at her house kept Lana from saying anything more about the evening. Lana lived close to the museum. Usually she would have walked home, but an early fall snow had left the streets sloppy, and it was unusually cold for October. She jumped out of the car. "Thanks, Marge." She slammed the car door.
Marge waited until Lana reached her front door and had it open. Then she honked and waved. Lana waved back.
"How was the evening, Lana?" her mother called from the living room where she sat watching TV. "There was a mention of the exhibit on the news, and they said they'd have a special segment tomorrow. Did you get your picture taken?"
"No, Mom. Reporters were there, but they only photographed a few of the relics. The party was great." The reception had been fun, until the end. Lana would remember the earlier part. She'd forget her flight of fantasy. She was laughing at herself, already.
Trying to laugh. The voice had been so real. She knew she had heard something. She wasn't one to invent silly, scary scenes like lights going out and mummies talking to her.
"The teakettle is hot," her mother said. "I made myself a cup of cocoa. Want one?"
Excerpted from The Mummy by Barbara Steiner. Copyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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