When my cell phone started ringing, I had just gotten the girls settled down for a quick nap. Their birthday was coming up tonight, and I was really looking forward to getting the chance to put on my workout clothes and go practice my martial arts. I’ve been feeling angrier and angrier in the past few days, and sometimes I get worried that I’ll do something crazy.
So, yeah. I might’ve been a tiny bit tetchy when I answered. “What do you want?”
My heart stopped, and before I could stop myself, a smile spread across my face. “Hey, Artie! I haven’t seen you in a while! How’ve you been?” Almost as if she knew that this was an important phone call, and that I didn’t want to be interrupted, Mika quieted down.
“I heard that you had come home,” Artie replied. There was more than a hint of reproach in his voice – and I couldn’t help but notice he’d come into his ‘man voice’ while I’d been gone. “You never called me.”
“I’ve been a little occupied, Artie,” I said softly. “Things have changed. For both of us, I’m sure.”
“Where are you living now, Sapphira?” he asked. “I’d love to come see you. Catch up.”
He’d grown up and into himself in the last few years. I was out practicing with my training dummy when he arrived, trying to beat the anger out of myself: we had gotten a package earlier in the day, marked for Kaiya and Mika. I hadn’t had the heart to open it yet – the gorgeous red paneling, the gold-leaf designs... It had to be from Ho Jun Kim.
“So...” he said with a small smile. “It looks as though Shang Simla agreed with you.” He gestured to the training dummy and the chest. “Bringing back treasures and training, then?” He started to step towards the chest. “I’d love to see what you brought back – I’m working with the Antiquities department at the museum now, you know...”
“Don’t touch that!” I cried out instinctively. He stopped and came back. “I mean... That’s not my package. Well, I mean, it is my package, but whatever’s in it isn’t meant for me. It’s... it’s for my daughters. I haven’t opened it yet.”
“Your... daughters?” Artie said slowly. His eyes were wide, staring at me in total disbelief. I don’t think I have ever felt like more of a bitch than I did right then. “You mean that when you were in Shang Simla...” His sentence trailed off, mouth opening and closing wordlessly. “You know, I waited for you. I had girls throwing themselves at me in university.” He stopped, a small smile tugging at the edges of his lips. “I guess I grew into myself. What a change, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I admitted quietly, relaxing now that the chest of doom was in no danger of being opened. I mean, who the hell knows what kind of weird Simnese voodoo magic might be in that chest? Ho Jun Kim is one strange guy. Birds of a feather, and all, I guess. “I am sorry, Artie,” I whispered. “This isn’t what I thought was going to happen when I left. We could’ve had everything, couldn’t we?”
“We should’ve,” Artie agreed as he pulled me into a tight hug. “But you’ve got issues in your life, Sapphira. And now, I’m not sure that I’m really prepared to deal with them. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you, Artie,” I murmured. “I guess it was a good enough thing that I left, wasn’t it? Now, maybe you can find someone who really deserves somebody like you.” I couldn’t help but smile. “I wish things had turned out differently. I think you’d have made a much better dad for my twins. It sounds trite, Artie, but I really do wish you all the best.”
We separated, still looking at each other with that faint disappointed expression.
“You remember the day I left?” I asked after a moment of silence. “You came with us to the airport, and you said you’d be waiting for me when I got back.”
“I remember you said, ‘Don’t leave me here alone.’” He looked at me fondly. “I know you don’t like being alone. Suppose with twins in a place this small, you’ll never really be alone again.” And with that in mind, Artie finally broke the same old silly grin I remembered from our high school years. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t she?”
I smiled, laughed and hugged him tightly one last time. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Please… don’t leave me here alone…”
“You’ll never be alone, Sapphira…”
I woke up with a start, realizing belatedly that I must’ve fallen asleep after Artie left. These dreams have been getting more and more frequent – ever since I came home from Shang Simla, and especially since I’ve had the twins. Echoes of a voice so faint, I can’t even hear if it’s male or female… The feeling of being so alone in a dark, dusty place…
I shook away the shivers of fear that traveled up my spine at that thought, and turned my attention back to the girls.
The sun was just starting to set, and the girls were getting antsy for their gift. When we finally got outside (two toddlers, one mom? Not a good math equation...), I stood in front of the chest for a long while. No matter what I did in the next few seconds, it would make or break my future – and my daughters’ futures.
I could probably leave that chest unopened. I could call Artie, let him take it away to the Antiquities department. What in the world could Ho Jun Kim possibly send from Shang Simla that would be of any use to me and the girls... in Moripiko Island? Some jade dragon for protection – the guy probably doesn’t even know his own daughters’ names, let alone have enough concern for their well-being to send a protective amulet. Whatever is in that chest is probably worth a lot of money: money that I could use.
But the not-knowing would drive me mad.
Lying inside the chest were two strange-looking dolls. And I mean, I’m not talking some Raggedy Sim deal. These were just weird. They didn’t look like the dolls I’d seen little girls in the Simnese market playing with when I was over there. These were oddly-coloured, almost of a handmade quality, with spiky little noses and bright bulbs floating above their heads. I nearly didn’t give them to the girls – they did not look toddler-proof at all. But the second Kaiya caught sight of one in my hands, she started shrieking – and then Mika started.
Eventually I gave in, just to quiet them down. Two angry toddlers, one tired mom... I’ll let you do the math on that one. Pick your battles and all.
Apparently, my girls took to the dolls like white on rice. Yeah, I know – ironic sort of metaphor when they’re half-Simnese. Every time I turned around, they had those creepy dolls out. They talk to those things like they’re alive – and those light bulbs? They glow day and night. They never die or flicker. It’s just weird. No other kid in the town has dolls like these – and they’re like nothing anybody has seen before (I checked. Having a friendly ex-boyfriend who’s head of the Strange Relicts office at the museum has its perks.)
They were obsessed. If I took away the dolls to do something else with them, they would start screaming and hollering until the dolls were returned. Yeah – I’m one of those mothers.
Sigh. My life has been reduced to two-word phrases. With exclamation marks – and occasionally italics. Welcome to motherhood, Sapphira Thorpe. Enjoy it if you can.
When those dolls entered the picture, I knew that I was going to have to make another trip to Shang Simla, and sooner rather than later. How exactly I was going to get there – with fares and visas for three, no less – was not as clear. Honestly, I don’t think much past the stage of “Go to Shang Simla and beat Ho Jun Kim the deep-throat idiot senseless”. I still want my answers – I just have even more questions now.
Who is the voice I hear in my dreams, telling me not to be afraid, that I’ll never be alone?