Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tombs of Terror, Chapter One - READ IT FOR FREE!

LIMA, PERU. The creature stared through the glass, its thin brown lips drawn back in a mocking smile or muted scream—Jonathon couldn’t tell which. He slid the headphones off his head and let them wrap around his neck. Silence enveloped the giant room.

Sending a nervous glance around him to make sure he was alone, Jonathon stepped close to the protective case. The eerie thing inside peered through the glass. Stained teeth snarled at him from within a dry and pinched face. Black hair framed the skeletal head in a dusty mane, and bony, brown limbs were grotesquely twisted forever in silence. Jonathon stared in horror at the unwrapped mummy.

“The mummy is fea, sí?

Jonathon jumped. He thought he’d been alone in the vast exhibition hall. The unexpected voice behind him rattled his nerves. With his heart pounding against his chest, the youth clipped the iPod to his belt and gave a casual nod. “Yeah,” he answered in English, his voice flat. “The mummy is very ugly.”

Jonathon stepped away from the case, pretending to be interested in some woven baskets but his light brown eyes shifted back to the mummy’s corpse. He wanted to stare at the thing some more. It fascinated him.

It scared him.

He could still feel the prickling of goose bumps on his arms and spine.

The man peered into the display case of ancient baskets next to the young American. “Canastas antiguas,” he offered.

Wanting to avoid speaking Spanish, Jonathon reached for his headphones. “Whatever.” He moved to a display of pottery.

The man followed, staring into the same case of clay vessels. Irritation grew inside Jonathon. The stranger had an entire museum to browse. Why is he following me?

The Peruvian spoke again. “Tu padre me dice que hablas español.”

Jonathon groaned inwardly. He should have known that his own father would tell a complete stranger that Jonathon could speak Spanish. His father didn’t understand that Jonathon used English as a defense. He could act oblivious when the locals approached him, answer their questions in English, and watch them wander off. It worked great. People left him alone. The system prevented annoying situations like the one he was currently in.

He only wished he’d found something that could have prevented him from being in Lima, a coastal city of ten million people. He wanted to be home in his bedroom in the United States. He wanted to drink the water without boiling it first and eat food without wondering what it was. Jonathon wanted to listen to his music, play his video games, and enjoy his solitude. He definitely did not want to spend the day speaking Spanish to some stranger about ancient pots!

Jonathon glared at the man. “Sorry, I speak English.” Hooking the headphones over his ears, he cranked up the volume on his iPod and moved away.

The stranger didn’t seem disturbed. He moved after the boy, continuing to speak in Spanish. Jonathon rolled his eyes in frustration. This guy obviously can’t take a hint, Jonathon thought, shaking his head.

Just then an image of Jonathon’s mother came into his mind. He could see her, hands on her hips, chocolate-colored hair pulled off her face, her mouth turned down in a frown. If she knew he was standing in Peru and refusing to speak Spanish, she would give him a lecture in two languages. And she could do it, too.

The image brought a smile to Jonathon’s face. A native Guatemalan, Jonathon’s mother was fluent in both Spanish and English. She met Jonathon’s father while grading Spanish papers for a professor at Cornell University in New York. Jonathon’s father was pursuing a degree in archeology. Because his emphasis was in Central and South American archeology, he enrolled in Spanish class to augment his studies. She liked to tease him about his Spanish. He tried to tease her back—in Spanish—but mixed up his words and proposed marriage instead.

At least, that was the story Jonathon’s mother liked to tell.

His father never refuted the story. Instead, he always smiled and said his Spanish had improved since their marriage and he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. His mother would laugh and say he would do it all over again because he’d mixed up his Spanish on purpose.

Puede be—could be,” his father always responded, and they both laughed together.

They married a week after Jonathon’s father earned his degree and Jonathon was born a year after that. With hair and skin darker than his father’s and lighter than his mother’s, Jonathon’s appearance was a perfect blending of two worlds. His language was, too.

His mother told Jonathon she spoke Spanish to him before he was even born, wanting him to learn the beautiful language of her heritage. His father said she really just wanted to make sure he learned it properly.

So, Jonathon grew up in a world of English and Spanish—“Spanglish” some people called it. He called it easy. He could ask for a glass of agua or a drink from a copa.

Because of his parents, he could flip between two languages as quickly as some kids flipped through television channels.

But now, because of his parents, he was stuck in Peru.

The thought jarred him back to reality and Jonathon’s smile faded.

He really didn’t want to be here.

The man leaned close to Jonathon and tapped on one of his earphones. “I like their Living With the Dead album better.” The words, spoken in perfect English, shocked Jonathon and he turned to stare.

A playful smile greeted him. “Yes, I speak English. I studied at Cornell with your father and we both listened to a lot of music while we were there.” The man continued in English. “Your dad sent me to find you. He is concerned for you. He knows it will be a while before he is finished reviewing the recent findings from Cusco. Working vacations are often like that.”

The mention of his father’s work disgusted Jonathon and he moved away. “Yeah, more work than vacation.”

The man introduced himself. “My name is Juan.”

Stopping in front of another glass case, Jonathon scowled. “You and five million other Peruvians. Can’t you guys think of another name?”

“Not really, Juan-athon.”

Juan’s response coaxed a smile over Jonathon’s frown. “Okay, good one. You got me there.”

Jonathon turned back to the case, but his smile disappeared. Once again he found himself standing in front of the mummy’s display. His stomach tightened at the sight, and his nerves tingled. This time he let himself absorb the full impact of the apparition before him. The mummy was more grotesque than any Hollywood creation, and he knew the reason: this mummy was real.

Juan leaned close, his voice a whisper. “I dated a girl at Cornell who looked just like that.”

Jonathon’s view did not shift from the mummy. “Remind me to go to Penn.”

“She did not say a word the entire night. I did all the talking.”

Now Jonathon glanced at Juan. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” When the Peruvian chuckled at his comment, the teenager softened. Maybe Juan wasn’t so bad.

The man nodded at the case. “You know, the ancient Incas used to think this was beautiful.”

Turning back to examine the hideous figure, Jonathon blew out a dismayed breath and shook his head. “They would have loved the girls at my school.”

“Then I feel sorry for you.”

“Me, too. It’s my school.”

Nodding toward the mummy, Juan approached the case. “Did you know the Incas never buried their dead?”

Following, Jonathon also stepped closer to the glass partition. “I think my dad mentioned it once or twice, but he’s an archaeologist. He knows more about rocks and tools than mummies.”

“It is said archaeologists have rocks for brains.”

The comment caused Jonathon to laugh out loud. “Ah, you do know my dad.” He disconnected his headphones. “I like that one. I’ll have to remember it.” Inspecting the man standing next to him, Jonathon nodded his acceptance. “So, if you’ve met my dad, you must be an archaeologist too.”

Juan smiled and straightened. “Oh, no. I do not have rocks in my brain. I am an anthropologist.”

“So you study dead people.” Jonathon thought quickly. “That must mean I’m talking to a ‘dead head.’”

This time Juan laughed. “Me gusta. I like that one. I will remember it. Actually, I started my degree in archaeology with your father but discovered I preferred the study of ancient cultures and their beliefs—not their rocks.” Juan turned to the mummy. “Because I have a background in archaeology and know your father personally, the museum is sending me to Cusco with you tomorrow. They want me to show your dad some of the ancient Inca sites that are still off-limits to tourists.”

“Oh, great. You’re coming to show us more rocks?”

“I can show you a mummy or two if you’d like…and they will not be in glass cases.”

Jonathon’s gaze returned to the silent, shrieking mummy. Her open, sunken eyes stared out through the glass and a chill iced down Jonathon’s spine. The thought of being close to a mummy without the protection of a thick glass case bothered him. He would hate to get any closer. “I don’t know. I think I’d almost rather see the rocks.”

“Most would agree with you. They do not like mummies.”

“But you do. I mean, it’s your job to find these things, right?”

“I try, but I have never found one. I have only studied the ones already in our collection.”

“Either way, yuck.” Jonathon moved closer to the atrophied corpse. The placard said she was about sixteen years old at the time of her death—the same age as Jonathon. He let his gaze skim over the dried skin and contorted face. He could see her arms, her clothing, her feet—even each hardened and twisted finger and toenail. “Did someone have to unwrap her and dress her in these clothes?”

“No. She was found that way. Inca mummies are not wrapped like Egyptian ones. They are quite different.”

The youth glanced at Juan. “How so?”

“In ancient Egypt, they removed the insides and filled the bodies with embalming fuild. Then they wrapped their mummies in strips of herbal-soaked linen to protect the skin, placed them in stone coffins and left them alone. The Incas did not do that. They wanted their loved ones preserved the way they were when they died, so they didn’t remove anything.”

“How did they turn them into mummies without embalming them?”

“Some were dehydrated using herbs. Others were smoked over low fires. This particular mummy was left exposed to the cold altitudes until she freeze-dried.”

Jonathon shook his head. “Smoked or freeze-dried? Sounds to me like they were preparing dinner, not mummies.”

Juan gave him a teasing smile. “You could say they were preparing to invite them to dinner. The Incas brought their mummies home to live with them.”

Jonathon stared in horror at the Peruvian. “Oh, that’s sick.”

“They just wanted to keep their loved ones close to them.”

“Looking like this, all decayed?”

“Not decayed, preserved. There is a difference. Everything is still there—her eyelashes, hair, skin, even her intestines, lungs and heart. In fact, she is so well preserved that we can tell what she had for her last several meals.”

“Okay, now you’re really starting to gross me out.” Jonathon moved back a step. “I don’t even want to know who researches what she had to eat or how. I’m sorry, but I think I’ll stick with my dad on this one. Rocks are better than mummies.” He continued to stare in horror at the contorted figure, his own thoughts twisting around each other.

Juan spoke, his voice respectful. “Jonathon, to the Incas this was not gross. Mummifying their dead was an act of love. They believed as long as the body existed, the spirit remained near by. Keeping mummies in their homes was a way to keep the spirits of their loved ones close by.”

Completely stunned, Jonathon turned and stared at Juan. “They actually wanted ghosts in their house? What for?”

“You are using the term ghosts. The Incas called them ayaq or “spirits,” and they believed the spirits of their loved ones would help them make important decisions and guide them. They also believed that as long as the body remained intact, the spirit could re-enter the body and come back to life, so they took great care to preserve the body so it could resurrect.”

“Looking like that?” Quick refusal came from Jonathon. “I’m sorry, but if I saw something like her coming back to life, it’d scare me to…well, to death! If this is what we’re going to look like if we come back to life, leave me buried…and leave her buried, too. How could they believe something like that? That’s just creepy.”

“Jonathon, creepy or not, there are many people who believe the dead resurrect. Look at all the stories and movies about zombies and mummies.”

Jonathon grimaced as he checked out the body in front of him. “Yeah, but that’s just it—they’re stories and movies. They’re not true.”

“You don’t know that. All legends have some truth in them somewhere.”

Jonathon didn’t like the implications. “Are you saying there may be some truth to mummies coming back to life?”

Gazing beyond Jonathon into the darkness of the museum, an odd expression settled on Juan’s face. “Maybe, maybe not. I know there are museum workers who believe the walking dead exist, right here in this building. They say they’ve seen the mummies move in their cases at night--”

A muffled sound passed through the museum behind them then disappeared. His heart hammering, Jonathon turned to look, but his gaze met only eerie blackness. Had the museum been so dark earlier?

Juan’s voice continued. “They say the mummies scratch on their cases, moaning for their release. Some even claim to have heard the sound of dried feet scraping across the marble floors as they search for human flesh. Mummies can smell human flesh. That’s what they do. They go out at night and hunt for living flesh, to make it their own.”

He stared at Jonathon. “Oh, they don’t move fast, but nothing will stop them once they decide they want you—your skin, your blood. They will track you, coming closer and closer until you smell smoke and rotted corpses. Then you will hear dry limbs shuffling in the dark and their eerie moans.”

Another sound passed through the museum expanse, disappearing before Jonathon could find its source.

Juan saw the teen looking into the darkness and shook his head. “Oh, you won’t see them until it is too late. Once you see a mummy walking it is too late. You will die.”

Jonathon didn’t know Juan well enough to know if he was still teasing. Uncomfortable, he eased away from the man, wanting to go someplace with some actual light—like the back room, with his father.

Juan stepped close to the teenager, his expression unreadable. “When an army of mummies finds you, they surround you, and there is no escape. They fall on top of you and, while you are still alive, each one of them claims a piece of your body—your skin, your eyes, your tongue. Then you become one of them…one of the undead.”

Contorted hands from behind closed on Jonathon’s shoulders, gripping his flesh. Startled, Jonathon yelped and twisted away, spinning to face his captor from the dark.

A new man burst into laughter. “Look at you jump! If I didn’t know better, I’d say Juan had you going there.”

Disgusted, Jonathon knocked the hands away. “Cut it out, Dad.”

Still laughing, David Bradford stepped beside his son. “I’m sorry, but when I heard Juan’s story, I just couldn’t resist.” Nodding a greeting to his friend, David spoke to his son with a laugh. “I see you’ve met Juan.”

Jonathon scowled. “I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“So, what did you think of his mummy story?”

“It’s just a story.”

Juan shrugged. “Not to some of he workers. They really do claim the museum is full of strange noises and occurrences at night. We have a hard time keeping night guards here. Many become so frightened they leave in the middle of their shift and never return, not even to collect their pay.”

David smiled at his friend. “That’s because you probably frightened them with your stories, Juan!”

Despite his father’s laughter, Jonathon didn’t find much humor in the conversation. The whole topic made him feel uncomfortable. He felt grateful he didn’t have to spend time in a dark museum at night, guarding distorted human remains. He might start hearing things too.

David draped an arm around his son’s shoulders. “You don’t believe that stuff, do you?”

Though he didn’t move away from his father, Jonathon distracted himself by untangling his headphones. “Believe what, that Juan scares away the workers? Yeah, I believe it.”

“No,” David refuted. “I mean about mummies coming to life.”

“It’s just a bunch of stupid legends, Dad.” Jonathon adjusted his iPod, but his stomach still felt tight. He knew Juan was right. Every legend held some truth. Glancing at the hideous corpse trapped in glass, Jonathon didn’t like the thought that maybe mummies did come to life in some bizarre, creepy, or evil way.

As the mummy’s twisted face stared back at him, Jonathon didn’t know what truth the legends held. He just knew he didn’t want to find out.

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1 comment:

  1. I read this in desperation because my book hasn't come, and now I have to sit and wait for who knows how long. How can you be this cruel?!

    ReplyDelete