Touching Death Preview
I was eleven the first time I saw someone die.
It was hot. The kind of hot where your shirt sticks to your back and every breath feels thick and heavy. The waistband of my plaid, pleated school uniform was itchy. It was always itchy, but in Chicago in early September with the temperature in the nineties, I could barely stand it.
“Look,” my best friend April gave my arm a sharp and eager tug, “I can’t believe he’s talking to her.”
I looked across the museum where she was pointing. Jonathan Adams. With his dark hair and blue eyes he was the cutest guy in our class. He was talking to Carol, the prettiest girl in our class and our sworn enemy. April had such an intense crush on Jonathan. She had already named their children and when we played the name game she always wanted to get him.
While April plotted revenge on her arch nemesis, I looked across the Ancients room in The Chicago Museum of Anthropology and Archeology to where Billy Masters stood by a glass display case. His hair was unruly and stuck up in odd peaks from his forehead in complete disregard of the rules. His white, button-down shirt hung out over his waistband. Technically, he was wearing the school tie; he just wore it tied around his belt loop, a bright red flag of rebellion. I never wanted to admit it, but when I daydreamed and played the name game, I was always looking for Billy Masters.
Our class slowly moved through the large room. My teacher, Ms. Daniels, stood at the front of our group lecturing on the Egyptian Empire. With her graying hair pulled back into a tight bun, her stockings sagging around her skinny legs, and her soft and squeaky voice the lecture didn’t keep my attention. Her high-pitched voice faded to the background as I gazed at the surrounding exhibits. They were all so beautiful and fascinating. My imagination ran wild with stories and images. I imagined hands cupping a bowl or pulling a comb through a child’s hair. In my mind’s eye a thousand stories and possibilities ran wild.
We walked through the center aisle of a room, clustered with pottery and remnants of houses. I felt the strangest urge, the almost all consuming desire to touch. My fingertips itched. The power of it drew me. The crumbled edges of the pottery bowl almost begged me to touch them. Only a velvet rope and a few feet separated me from that tantalizing edge.
One touch. No one will know.
I didn’t even realize I’d stepped forward until the velvet rope stopped me from going any further. Vaguely, I heard my teacher discussing social structure and family groups, but the pounding of my own heart overpowered all other noise.
Rachel, the past whispered, “come. See. Life and death.”
I reached my hand out and my fingers brushed the edge of the bowl.
The images bombarded me -- a woman sat in front of a fire pit making dinner for her family. A dispute nearby grabbed her attention. Two men were fighting. The crowd surged and pulsed with the energy of the fight. Screamed words sounded foreign to my ears, but the emotion made perfect sense -- fear, anger, uncertainty.
Only the woman with the bowl saw the little boy standing too close to the fighters. Only the woman with the bowl saw the danger. She screamed his name. Her screams went unheard in the din. The crowd moved with the fight, their bodies cutting off her view.
The bowl was clutched tight in her fingers as she struggled forward, pushing people aside. It grew eerily quiet. The crowd slowed, then paused responding to a different energy. Shoulders and heads slumped as they parted before her. The little boy was on the ground. A bloody rock lay near him. She dropped the bowl as she surged forward, screaming.
I awoke on the ground in front the display my face wet and my throat raw with the echo of the screams still ringing in my ears.
My apartment was freezing. Okay not actually freezing, but the thermostat on the wall read sixty-four degrees. Compared to the temperature outside sixty-four should have felt downright balmy. Instead, I was shivering. January in Chicago is no joke, and the thin windows of my tiny studio apartment didn’t keep the frigid air out. As I stood in front of the one full-length mirror, I could hear the wind whistling long and low as it crept through the window.
I leaned back from the mirror to check the clock on the microwave that was only a few feet away. Everything in my tiny studio was close. The whole place could have fit into the living room of the home I grew up in. Here I was twenty-eight years old, recently single, and living in a place worthy of a college student or starving artist. I shot another glance at the clock. If I wasn’t careful I would also be late. I only had a few minutes before my ride would be here.
The museum New Year’s gala was the event of the season. The gala drew the elite of the city. This year the special exhibit was my baby. As curator of the Chicago Museum of Anthropology and Archeology’s Ancient’s Wing I developed the special exhibit to be unveiled tonight. I was the youngest curator the museum had ever had and tonight was my first major exhibit. I’d spent six months working on this exhibit. It was meant to be the highlight of my career. Robert and I had planned to be the couple of the night.
Robert. My stomach twisted. He would certainly be there tonight.
I sucked in a deep breath and held it. There was no way out. I had to go. My breath left in a whoosh. I gave myself a critical once over. At least I looked good. My clothing was all I kept after the breakup. And I had a lot of clothing. At the moment it overflowed my small closet, and bright colors of silk and wool dribbled into boxes and lay upon the bed. It was ridiculous, really. Without the clothing covering almost every surface my apartment, the place would have been bare.
I gave a little half turn and checked the flow of the dress in the full-length mirror. I wore a navy gown that skimmed my curves before flowing out at the knees. The scoop neckline was accented by a hammered gold necklace in an Egyptian design. To complete the look, I wore a heavy cuff on my right wrist and thin gold snake wrapped around my left upper arm. Heavy chandelier earrings with blue scarabs hung nearly to my shoulders.
The gold jewelry set off my olive-toned Italian skin to perfection. My skin tone was a gift from my Italian father. Everything else was my Egyptian/Jewish mother. My dark curly hair was tamed, for the moment, and wrapped up into a tight French twist. Almond shaped dark eyes, slightly rounded cheeks, and a nose that was a bit too big was accented with an Egyptian cat eyes and deep red lips. Tonight I looked like my mother’s daughter, a Nile Queen. As the curator of the Egyptian exhibit I needed to look the part.
I slid my feet into a pair of strappy gold heels and wrapped my vintage Lanvin cape around my shoulders. My phone beeped announcing a text from Kat. My ride was outside.
I took one last look around my dingy little studio apartment and let out a sigh at the box spring and mattress on the floor, wobbly table against the far wall, and a dresser missing a drawer. I had fallen a long way since September. A few months ago I lived with Robert in an upscale Goldcoast townhouse. I had a BMW and I truly expected a diamond ring on my finger at any moment. Now I was broke. I sold my car to pay bills. I could barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. The creditors wanted to take everything I had, and I didn’t have much. To top it off, tonight I would probably have to make nice with Robert and his new girlfriend.
The whole thing made me ill.
I locked the door behind me and slipped down the narrow stairwell to the front door. I saw Kat had parked her red Honda Civic illegally out front.
I pulled the heavy front door shut behind me and waited for the click to indicate it had locked. No click. I pushed it open and pulled hard to shut it again, still no click. This was supposed to be a secure building, but half the time the lock on the front door didn’t even work. Kat honked and I gave up on the door. I would call the super again tomorrow.
My heels slid on the icy walkway as I shuffled out to Kat’s car. The wind cut through my dress. Even with the cape on, I was freezing. For a brief minute I desperately missed the townhome I shared with Robert with the attached garage and my BMW with heated seats. I didn’t know then that being pampered was something to miss, it just was. I slid into the passenger seat, feeling immensely grateful the heat was on full blast. Kat gave a low whistle.
“You look gorgeous girl. You’re going to knock ‘em dead tonight.”
“Look who’s talking, hot stuff.”
“This old thing.” Kat motioned to her gold gown before putting on her turn signal and pulling into traffic.
I hadn’t been exaggerating, Kat looked good. Taller than my own five feet three inches with long lean curves, she was like an amazon goddess. Dark skin stretched over high cheekbones. Eyes so dark they were almost black sparkling at me. Hair wild and free in a puff of curls around her head, Kat looked like a model. Tonight was no exception. My small frame and brown curls paled next to her natural glamour.
“Do you think the papers will be there?” Kat answered her question before I had a chance to respond. “Of course the papers will be there. I sent invitations to everyone.”
I can count the number of times I’ve seen Kat nervous on one hand, and I’ve known her since college. Normally she’s completely confident and unflappable. But while the exhibit is my baby, the gala is hers. As the public relations manager she did everything from design the invitations to arrange the tables in the rotunda. I knew she was nervous, but I had no doubts the night would be a smashing success.
“Do you think we’ll get a write-up in the paper? That would be fantastic coverage for the museum, and fantastic coverage for me.” Kat sent me a wide grin.
“It will be the best gala we’ve had yet. I’m sure of it.” My own nerves might have twisted and writhed in my stomach, but Kat deserved all of my support.
My first year of college I was terrified. In my eyes, my visions were more of a burden then a gift. I’d graduated high school two years early mostly because I couldn’t stand walking the halls of Westmont High any more than was absolutely necessary. I dressed in black and wore elbow-length gloves at all times. I said I was goth, but really I was scared. Terrified of touching something and finding myself sucked into the past or into someone else’s emotions. I was very good at pretending to be all kinds of things I wasn’t, just to hide what I was.
I started college with fifteen credits already under my belt, a whole range of defense mechanisms, and enough social masks to make any actor jealous. Kat was everything I wasn’t. At least on the surface. It didn’t take us long to realize that underneath we were soul mates.
That first day of college I sat on my bed after convincing my reluctant parents that I was fine and that mama really couldn’t stay with me. Despite my positive attitude in the presence of my parents, now that they were gone I was ready to cry. With my legs curled under me on the thin college mattress my throat tightened with tears and a meltdown threated to make my first day of college a nightmare.
Just when I was about the lose the battle with my emotions the door banged open and Kat sauntered in. Her dark eyes swept the room before settling on me with a sunny smile.
“Hi, I’m Katherine, but everyone calls me Kat. You must be my roommate. We’re going to have so much fun.”
Fun. We were going to have fun. I didn’t have time to express my disbelief because Kat kept talking.
“Can you believe how great the campus is?”
She chatted about the campus and the room while she put away her clothes. I sat on the bed completely overwhelmed.
On the surface we were opposites. She was tall. I was short. She was a Public Relations Major. I was an ancient studies major. She was an only child. I have way too many siblings. The one thing we had in common was our ability to talk. But all those differences didn’t matter. From that day on we were inseparable. Through college boyfriends and first jobs. A few years ago when we both got jobs in the museum it seemed inevitable.
Kat and I pulled into the employee lot behind the museum, preparing for our walk in the cold and ice. I hoped I didn’t fall between the car and the door. My dress would never recover. Of course, the gala itself had valet parking, but we lowly employees weren’t privy to that special service.
After parking, Kat and I gripped one another’s arm and shuffled together towards the employee entrance. We had half an hour before the guests started to arrive and we both wanted to go over everything one last time.
Once inside the warmth of the door Kat headed to the main hall while I headed toward my office in the west wing of the first floor. I wanted to stash my stole and bag there before walking through the exhibit; my exhibit, one last time. I had already been through it more times than I could count, but I felt the need to make sure it was absolutely perfect.
I started from my office and walked the exhibit starting at the back, making my way forward to the front. The biggest pieces were at the end. The theme of the exhibit is the Valley of the Kings, a valley in the Theban hills where for five hundred years tombs for the pharaohs were built. It is the location of the tomb of Tutkahamen and new tombs have been discovered there as recently as 2008.
The best and last piece of the exhibit is the mask of Tjuyu. It took years for me to get permission from the Museum of Cairo to display it here. They finally agreed, but sent their own security guards and a curator who would do nothing tonight but guard the mask. It was a concession I was happy to make for the opportunity to house the mask here. I paused in front of the case and gazed at the gold painted eyes. The mask was cold, impersonal and yet I always found it hauntingly beautiful. My gaze swept the display for any marker out of place, any lighting too bold or too soft. Satisfied that the display was perfect, I moved on.
As I walked through the entire exhibit I made sure that at each stop the display was as perfect and detailed as the last one. I wanted anticipation to build throughout the event until the gala attendees viewed the final piece. At the start of the exhibit I paused. This was my favorite part of the museum. Off the rotunda was a short hallway that lead to the exhibit hall. The hallway was entirely white; white walls, white floor, two white benches on either side. The lighting was dim. What made the hallway special was the ceiling, a mosaic of stained glass. The lighting stationed behind the glass created an otherworldly splash of color that seemed to move and breathe. Even when the museum was crowded this hall was always quiet. Walking through the mosaic of colors seemed to bring out the peace in even the rowdiest of attendees. Tonight the hallway was very quiet. I took a seat on one of the benches and stared at the ceiling, willing my own peace to surface.
People talk about getting butterflies in their stomach when they were nervous. I didn’t have butterflies. I had a snake. A writhing, twisting, biting snake. I pulled in a breath and then let it out, stuffing the nerves down deep inside. I pasted my professional smile over my face like a mask. I was ready.
Surrounded by color and light my mind wandered to the mystery and wonder of the artifacts on exhibit tonight. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a dreamer. In moments the first guests would arrive and it would be game on. I needed my smile in place and every social grace I possessed in full play. My stomach knotted at the thought. I loved parties, but this party was all about me. I needed to be full of charm and knowledge all night. I needed to smile if I saw Robert and act like I didn’t care that he was here with the woman he replaced me with.
Sometimes having my gift is a curse. Like when you touch your boyfriend’s coat and get a vivid image of him in bed with another woman. A vivid impression of how turned on he felt as he kissed and caressed another woman. My hand pressed to my stomach and I swallowed back the nausea that rose in my throat.
I knew that voice, the bane of my existence, Samuel Cartwell, Chief of Security and pain in the ass. Arrogant. Sloppy. Disrespectful. He insisted on calling me by my last name like we were on a sports team or something. In retaliation I insisted on calling him Mr. Cartwell. I hadn’t discovered yet what made the directors adore him, but he was the golden boy.
I turned and nearly swallowed my tongue. The man I hadn’t ever seen wearing anything except faded jeans and a t-shirt was decked out in an all-black tux. Black shirt, black tie, black jacket. He looked like a completely different man. His dark hair was brushed back from his forehead. His beard was neat and trimmed close giving him a sophisticated rather than scruffy look. His dark eyes sparked at me above his crooked grin.
I must have been gaping because he gave me a sly grin. “I clean up nice, huh?” I fought the urge to nod, his ego didn’t need any feeding. “You too. You ready for tonight?”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwell.” I stood, nervously brushing my palms over my dress. “I am sure tonight will be fine.”
“I told you to call me Sam or Cart. Everyone else does.”
Yeah, everyone else did. Everyone else loved him. I didn’t see what was so great. I mean, maybe he was sort of good looking with his dark hair and close-cut beard. And maybe his dark brown eyes always looked like they were laughing, but in my opinion he was an overgrown frat boy. So casual with a joke for everything. He had nicknames for everyone. He wore worn old t-shirts to work. He did things like play beer pong on the weekend. Okay, to be fair I don’t know if he actually played beer pong, but it seemed like something he would do.
“The exhibit looks great.”
“Thank you.” His gaze skimmed over my dress with approval and I couldn’t keep myself from taking inventory too. Cartwell looked polished and debonair. Annoying, I reminded myself. He’s annoying. We stood there awkwardly.
“Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”
I stared at him. What? It needed to be said out loud. “What?"
“Anna Christie?” He explained, “You know, Gretta Garbo?”
I still had no idea what he was talking about.
“Oh Angeletti, you need to watch some old movies. You’re missing out, doll.”
Judging by the drama he added to that last part, it was an old movie quote, of course. That was another extremely annoying part of ‘Cart’s’ personality. He was always quoting movies.
“Well again, Mr. Cartwell,” I put a subtle emphasis on the Mr. “Thank you, I better go greet our guests.”
Own Touching Death tomorrow 7/26/16. Available on Amazon today for pre-order!