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Servants to the Dead

Written by Steven Piziks
Illustrated by Karl Nordman



"Dad, look out!" Jen caught her father by the shoulders and yanked him away from the rake in the grass. Charlie Liles teetered, then recovered his balance.

"What do you think you're doing, young woman?" he snapped. "Take your hands off me!"

"Dad, you almost—oh, never mind." Jen stooped to snatch up the rake and lean it safely against the yellow garden shed. Overhead, the sun shone like a cold golden eye, and the spring air still carried a hint of chill. The lawn was turning green, but matted clumps of dead brown grass still clogged it—Nick hadn't finished clearing it out. He must have accidentally left the rake in the yard.

Charlie, meanwhile, was muttering to himself. Jen had made sure he was dressed warmly in a clean sweatshirt and thick slacks, though it had been a struggle. He had demanded she bring him his blue-and-white-striped sweater. Jen vaguely remembered a sweater like that from her childhood, which meant it certainly wasn't in the dresser now. She'd told him it was in the laundry.

"Where's Molly?" Charlie demanded, tugging at his sweatshirt. "Dammit, the woman's never around when you need her."

"Mom died eight years ago, Dad," Jen said patiently. "She's buried in Forest Hill Cemetery. We went to visit her yesterday, remember?"

Charlie looked blankly at his daughter. His eyes, once a flashing blue, had gone pale and blank in his wrinkled face. His chest was a shrunken hollow, his hands were thick and gnarled, his hair wispy and gray. Jen had inherited his blue eyes and sturdy build, though her thick brown hair had come from her mother.

"Who're you?" Charlie growled.

"I'm Jen. Your daughter."

Charlie continued to look blankly at her. A robin chirped from a nearby tree, which had already put out a healthy crop of pale green leaves, and the buds on the magnolia tree next door were threatening to burst with a popcorn shower of purple-and-white petals.

"Tomatoes, Dad," Jen finally sighed, pointing to the rows of plastic flats. Each one contained half a dozen tomato plants, ready for transplanting. "You're doing the tomatoes today, remember?"

Charlie turned and looked for a long time at the dark green vines. Then his face lit up. "Tomatoes! We have to get the tomatoes in!"

He strode purposefully toward the flats. Nick had already run the tiller over the garden, leaving the earth soft and dark. Charlie knelt near the plot, picked up a trowel, and began digging with the quick, precise movements of an experienced gardener. Jen let out a long breath. Looking at him right now, she could remember what he was like before the Alzheimer's. These times, however, were coming less and less often. A wave of tiredness swept over her. It was so hard. Sometimes she wished Dad would just—

No, she told herself firmly. No point in that. Like Dad used to say, you can wish in one hand and spit in the other. See which one gets filled first.

After putting the rake inside the shed and inspecting the area to make sure there were no other tools Charlie might hurt himself on, Jen carefully locked the backyard gate and went into the house. A pile of dishes teetered high in the sink, and the floor desperately needed mopping. Ignoring both, Jen cleared a space under the faucet to rinse her hands and strode briskly toward the corner of the kitchen that doubled as her workshop. A small electric potter's wheel sat amid giant lumps of brown and gray clay, wrapped in plastic to keep them moist. Nick had installed a series of shelves on the wall for her, and they were lined with neat brown rows of drying bowls and vases. The corner also had a window that looked out over the backyard, meaning she could keep one eye on her father while she grabbed some personal time. And she was going to grab it. Nick was still asleep—he had worked an extra shift at the hospital last night—and Dad was occupied, so Jen had a few precious minutes to herself. Dirty kitchen or not, she wasn't going to miss a moment.

Naturally, the doorbell chose that moment to ring.

Cursing, Jen glanced out the window. Dad was still digging. He should be all right for the moment. Jen dashed to the front door. A man in a brown uniform was waiting for her with a shoe-box-sized package tucked under one arm.

"Delivery for Dr. Bitterman," he said.

"I'm Dr. Bitterman," Jen told him.

"You need to sign for it." The man thrust a clipboard at her. "First line."

Jen unclipped the pen from the board. "I thought I told the museum not to send anything to my home address."

"I just deliver the packages, ma'am," he said. "I don't address them. First line."

Jen was about to sign when she noticed something odd. The top of the acceptance sheet wasn't printed in English. Arabic script flowed across the page instead. Frowning, she read.

"I accept this package of my own free will and with it, all responsibilities contained therein," she said. "What on earth?"

The man touched his cap, and Jen noticed for the first time that he had dark, olive skin. Curly black hair peeked out from under his brown cap. The vehicle parked at the curb wasn't UPS or FedEx, either. It was a plain, white truck with horus delivery service written on it, accompanied by a picture of a falcon carrying a package in its talons. There were no other signatures on the acceptance sheet.

"I just deliver the packages, ma'am," the man repeated. He had no trace of a foreign accent.

A thought flashed through Jen's mind—was the package a bomb? There were some people who felt that ancient Egyptological artifacts should remain in Egypt, and a few of those people were known to be extremists. Had one of them decided to get revenge?

"I'll tell you what," Jen said. "I'll sign if you stand here while I open the package."

She had half expected the man to run away, but instead he glanced once at his watch. "Sure, ma'am. If you want."

Jen looked at him, still suspicious. Then she remembered Dad was still in the backyard, with no one to watch him. Quickly, she scribbled her signature on the sheet and accepted the package. It wasn't very heavy, only a pound or so. There was no return address.

"If you could hurry, ma'am?" the deliveryman said. "I have a route to finish."

The package was only taped shut. Between the man's willingness to wait and her fear that Dad might be getting into something he shouldn't, most of Jen's trepidation disappeared. With experience born of long practice, she tore off the brown paper and opened the box inside. It was filled with shredded Arabic newspaper. She looked blankly at it.

"All set, ma'am?" the man asked.

"What? Oh, yes. Hold on a second." She fumbled one-handed through her pockets for a tip.

"Don't worry about it, ma'am. Gotta go." The man trotted back to his truck and drove away.

Jen carried the package into the kitchen and heard cursing from the open window. She glanced outside. Charlie was cracking a tomato plant like a whip, and dirt and leaves were flying in all directions. He dropped it and reached for another.

"Damn!" Jen abandoned the box on the table and rushed outside.

It was quite some time later before she was able to come back in and flop into a scarred kitchen chair. She rubbed a tired hand over her face. Dad was calm again and planting the rest of the tomatoes, though clouds now hid the sun. In a few minutes it'd be too chilly for him to work outside, and she'd have to bring him in. Then she'd have to start dinner, and then Dad would need a bath, and then—

Jen's eye fell on the package, which still sat on the table. With a sigh, she pulled it toward her and rummaged carefully through the shredded newspaper. It felt gritty, and it stained her fingertips black. Strange packages arrived at her office down at the museum all the time, though usually via mail or UPS. Most often they contained Egyptian artifacts someone wanted Jen to identify or verify, but occasionally they turned out to be contributions to the museum's growing collection. As the head of the Egyptology Department—which consisted of three whole people—it was part of Dr. Jennifer Bitterman's job to figure out what the artifacts were and/or what to do with them.

Jen's fingers encountered a hard, smooth surface. Gingerly, she grasped the object and fished it out.


A gold light flashed like a miniature sun. It blinded Jen, and she cried out. The object clattered to the table. For a long moment Jen saw nothing but a bright red dot. She blinked furiously until the kitchen came back into focus. A small statue lay on the table. It was a man, about eight inches tall, with the smooth contours Jen had come to associate with Egyptian statuary. The object resembled a miniature mummy case complete with hieroglyphs parading across the back. Jen blinked some more. What on earth had caused the flash? Had the statue caught the light just right?

"What've you got, Jen? A gold statue?"

Jen turned at the familiar voice. Nick, clad in his white bathrobe, had padded into the kitchen. His hair, still as thick and red as the day she'd married him fifteen years ago, was tousled as a haystack, and his green eyes were heavy with sleep. He yawned, then leaned down to give her cheek a scratchy kiss.

"It's an ushepti," Jen told him. "And it isn't heavy enough to be solid gold. It's more likely gilded wood or plaster."

"Ah." Nick shuffled toward the coffeemaker. He had set the timer before going to bed, and the machine was just now flooding the kitchen with the smell of fresh coffee. "Caffeine. Need caffeine. Where's Charlie?"

Jen automatically glanced out the window. "Planting tomatoes. I'll have to bring him in soon."

"So what's an usha . . . usheb . . ."

"Ushepti," Jen repeated. "It's a funerary object. I've shown them to you before."

Nick sat down at the table with a steaming cup. "Aren't they those servant statue things they put in tombs?"

"Yeah. It's got hieroglyphs along here. Let's see." She traced the symbols with one finger and translated. "If there is work to do in the afterlife, if there is grain to thresh or cloth to weave, if there is a field to irrigate or sand to carry to the east or west, I will do it for you."

"Handy." Nick sipped his coffee. "Why would the dead have to thresh grain?"

"No such thing as a free lunch," Jen said. "Not even in the afterlife. You have to pay Osiris for your keep by working in his fields or in his house. But if you have enough usheptis in your tomb, they'll do it for you. People collected them for years before they died."

"So who sent it?"

Jen was already digging through the box. "I don't know. There's no letter or card, and there wasn't a return address on the package. No big deal, really. A lot of people send the letter under separate cover. I'll probably get it tomorrow. The owner wants to know which period it came from or something, I'm sure."

"Ah. Well it's me for a shower." Nick got up and glanced at Jen's work space. "Didn't get a chance to throw anything new, huh?"

Jen mutely shook her head. "Dad was difficult today, and tonight he needs a bath."

"Tell you what." Nick leaned over to kiss her again. He smelled like coffee. "I'll give him his bath tonight if you're reeeeeaaal nice to me later. You haven't been nice to me for a long time, woman."

"Sounds like a deal," Jen laughed. "I better go bring him in."

The phone rang. Nick reached for it while Jen headed for the door.

The temperature outside had dropped considerably. Guiltily, Jen hurried over to her father, who had managed to plant about a third of the tomato plants. She knelt and touched his hands. They were ice-cold. More guilt. Charlie was more like a child than anything else. He didn't know enough to go get a jacket or put on gardening gloves, so Jen had to do it for him.

"Come on, Dad," she said gently. "It's time to go in."

"I'm busy," he replied in the deceptively mild voice Jen had come to dread. It meant he was going to be difficult.

"Dad," she tried again. "It's getting cold. We need to go in."

"I said I'm busy," he snapped.

In the end, Jen had to snatch the trowel away from him and use it to lure him back inside. Nick, meanwhile, had already showered and dressed and was in the kitchen making a sandwich.

"That was fast," she said. "Dad, no—you have to wash your hands first."

"That was the hospital on the phone," Nick told her quietly. "One of the other med-techs called in sick and they asked me to work another double shift. We need the money, so I told them I'd do it. I have to leave as soon as I grab something to eat."

Without a word, Jen guided Charlie's hands away from the dishes and under the warm water. Disappointment dragged at her. Her hopes for some private time seemed to wash down the drain with the crumbly dirt. She wanted to tell Nick to call the hospital and say he had to stay home tonight, spend time with her tonight. But she pursed her lips and remained silent. Nick was right—they did need the money. Her salary at the museum barely approached thirty thousand, and the hospital had recently been forced to lay off a hundred workers and cut pay rates for all those who remained. Between a sick father, two car payments, and a house they had bought in better times, it seemed like they fell further and further behind every month. Jen tried to supplement household income by selling her pottery to a local dealer, but she just didn't have much time to spend at her wheel.

"I'd better give Dad his bath now, then," Jen said, shutting off the water and drying Charlie's hands. "It'll calm him down for supper."

Nick picked up his sandwich. "I'll see you in the morning." He kissed her again, though this time his face was smooth and freshly shaven. "I'm sorry, honey."

"We need the money," Jen repeated.

Nick nodded once and left.

"Come on, Dad," Jen said. "It's bath time."

It took over an hour to get through his bath, at the end of which Jen was soaking wet and completely exhausted. Charlie resisted every move she made. Twice he almost slipped and hurt himself. Finally, she managed to get him into his robe and pajamas and park him in front of the television set to watch an I Love Lucy rerun. And she still had to start supper.

Jen leaned against the smooth living-room wall beside Charlie's easy chair, feeling suddenly frightened and overwhelmed. It had been like this almost every day since Dad had moved in a year ago. They couldn't afford—and their insurance wouldn't cover—in-home care, and the nearest affordable nursing home with an opening for an Alzheimer's patient was over an hour away. It had smelled of stale air and urine when Jen had gone to visit, and she just couldn't bring herself to leave Dad there.

After Charlie had moved in, Nick had transferred to the three-to-eleven shift, and Jen had rearranged her schedule so she could work six-thirty to two. That way, there'd always be someone at home for Charlie. Jen rarely saw Nick during the week, and lately she hadn't even seen much of him on the weekends. They hadn't gone out as a couple in months and months, and Jen had given up two chances to visit Egypt.

Jen blinked hard, refusing to let the tear run down her cheek. She wanted her life back. She wanted time with her husband. She wanted her dad to be the strong, gentle man she remembered from her childhood instead of the childish tyrant he had become. Sometimes she wished Dad would just—

No. No, she didn't. Never that.

Charlie's gaze remained fixed on the TV. Jen pushed herself away from the wall and moved toward the kitchen. With Nick at work, maybe she'd just throw together some sandwiches or something. It would also give her time to make a dent in the mess.

She paused in the kitchen doorway and sniffed. The rich scent of beef stew mingled with the delicious smell of baking biscuits. What in the world . . . ?

Jen peered into the kitchen and caught her breath. It was sparkling clean. The dirty dishes had vanished. The floor was mopped. Even the windows gleamed. A pot bubbled slowly on the stove, and the table was neatly set for two. Jen stared in utter astonishment.

"Hello?" she called hesitantly. She supposed she should be afraid someone had broken into the house, but what kind of burglar made beef stew and baked biscuits in broad daylight? She lifted the pot lid, then checked the oven. Biscuits and stew looked nearly done. Had Nick somehow arranged all this to surprise her? But how?

A golden glitter caught her eye. The ushepti sat on the table, exactly where Jen had left it. She looked at it for a long time.

Don't be ridiculous, she told herself. There's a perfectly good explanation for all this.

But nothing came to mind.

The biscuits were light, buttery, and flaky, the stew was thick, meaty, and absolutely delicious. Charlie ate with gusto and allowed Jen to lead him back to the living room for more television. Jen felt slightly guilty about parking him there, but reminded herself that he rarely remained quiet for long, and there was no harm in enjoying it when he did.

When she got back to the kitchen, intending to sneak some time at her potter's wheel, the table had been cleared and the dishes—washed—were stacked in the rack next to the sink. Jen remembered the flash of golden light and narrowed her eyes at the ushepti, which still sat on the table.

If there is work to do in the afterlife, Jen thought, I will do it for you.

"You're doing this, aren't you?" she said aloud.

The ushepti didn't answer, and Jen felt rather silly talking to a statue. Still, when she searched the kitchen for the ushepti's box to reexamine it for clues, it was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later, Jen was unsurprised to learn that the phone book contained no listing for the Horus Delivery Service.

* * *

"This is a shattered curse tablet," Jen said, gesturing at a glass display case. "It was found in an Egyptian tomb, though the name on the tablet doesn't belong to the man who was buried there. We think the pieces were deliberately hidden in the burial chamber by a workman who wanted to give the tablet's curse greater power."

One of the third-graders raised a hand. "What kind of curse?"

"The Egyptians believed if you wrote someone's name on a clay tablet and smashed it, the person would die," Jen explained.

"Can we see the mummy?" asked another student.

Jen smiled. "It's right around the corner. Let's go look."

The class scurried away, towing their teacher and two chaperones with them. Jen followed and gave the students a short lecture on mummification while they crowded around what looked like a tall glass coffin. A wooden sarcophagus, painted gold, stood upright inside. The front of the sarcophagus stood open to display a vaguely human-shaped figure wrapped in mud-brown bandages.

"Is it true the priests sucked the dead man's brain out through his nose?" asked one boy.

"Absolutely," Jen said, and the children made appreciative "ewwwww" noises.

The same boy asked, "Did the priests eat it?"

After the tour ended, Jen wound her way back toward her tiny office. In some ways, the children reminded her of Dad on his good days, and she wondered for the hundredth time if he was giving Nick any trouble at home. As his dementia progressed, the doctor said, Charlie would probably grow more and more irritable and difficult. Jen tried to imagine Dad being harder to deal with than he already was. The thought made her shake.

Jen shook her head. Stop it, she told herself. Whimpering and wishing won't help matters. Get your work done.

She sat down and reached for her daily stack of mail. The top letter was a reminder that the deadline for the Eagle Grant for Egyptological Study was only four weeks away. Jen let her eyes go out of focus. For a moment, she could feel the delicious heat of the hot, golden sun of Egypt and hear the boisterous sounds of Cairo—braying donkeys, rushing cars, cries of merchant and beggar. A fascinating place, one she never tired of visiting. And then there were the tombs. So much to seek and study, so much to uncover and learn!

Jen set the letter firmly aside. No point in dwelling on the fact that she was unlikely to see Egypt in the foreseeable future.

The phone rang. It was Nick.

"The hospital called again," he said. "They want me in ASAP. Can you come home early?"

"You'd think," Jen complained, "that they'd hire back some of the layoffs."

"Cheaper to pay overtime than benefits," Nick said. "When can you get here?"

Jen glanced at the mound of paperwork that awaited her. Maybe she could take it home and do it after Dad went to bed.

"Give me half an hour," she said. "That'll give me time to—"

The crash of breaking glass came over the line. "Gotta go," Nick said, and hung up.

When Jen arrived home, she found Charlie sitting in front of the TV. His clothes were spattered with something yellow. Nick was mopping the kitchen floor. Yellow goo dripped down the walls. Some of it was also in Nick's hair.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Charlie got into the eggs," Nick said shortly. "I don't know what it was about. He smashed them on himself and the walls while I was talking to you on the phone. Then he started on the glasses in the drainer. Don't let him walk across the floor in bare feet—I'm not sure I got all the pieces."

"Here," Jen said, taking the mop. "I'll take over. You'd better get to the hospital."

Nick obeyed. After Jen finished the floor, she dashed into her room to change out of her work clothes. Charlie continued to stare at the TV, egg still staining his own clothing. Jen would have to change them for him, and he'd probably be difficult. Then she could finish the walls and go over the floor again to make sure all the glass was cleaned up.

A too-familiar wave of tiredness suddenly swept over her. Her life stretched ahead of her like an endless, lifeless desert. The room seemed echoing and empty with Nick gone, and she knew tonight their bed would feel the same. Anger welled up. She had given up everything—her pottery, her archaeology, her husband, everything. Sometimes she wished Dad would just—

No. Never that. A tear splashed down her cheek. Dammit, it wasn't fair. She loved her dad. She did. It was just that he didn't seem like her father anymore. They had traded roles. She was taking care of a six-foot two-year-old who couldn't even remember who she was. And now she was beginning to wonder if Nick accepted all the extra shifts so he could get out of the house. Her husband was slipping away from her while her father hung on with a death grip.

Enough, she scolded herself. Dad's out there with raw egg on his clothes while you sit here and whine to yourself.

Jen marched out into the living room. "Come on, Dad. Let's get those clothes—"

She faltered. His clothes were completely clean. There was no sign they had ever been dirty. Jen stared at him. After a moment, he looked up at her. His eyes didn't have the same blankness they usually held.

"Dots?" he said.

A lump formed in Jen's throat. "Jennyanydots" was Dad's childhood nickname for her, after a cat in a T. S. Eliot poem. "It's me, Dad."

"I'm tired," he said.

"You can take a nap if you want," Jen said around the lump. "Or do you want to eat first?"

"I've been forgetting things, haven't I? So many things. I've caused you so much trouble."

"You're no trouble, Dad," Jen said softly.

Charlie reached up as if to pat her arm. Jen reached out to meet him. Swiftly he snatched her hand instead and gripped with surprising strength. Startled, Jen gasped and tried to pull away. He held her fast.

"You always take care of everything, Dots," Charlie said in a hoarse voice. His pale eyes met hers. "Take care of this, too. My body's a wreck, my mind is going, and I miss your mother so much my bones ache. Take care of me, Dots. I know you can."

"I do take care of you," Jen said faintly. "Don't you know that? Dad?"

No response. Charlie's hand slid off Jen's like a dying snake, and his eyes went blank again. Jen headed shakily toward the kitchen, trying to sort out the emotions that warred inside her. She did take care of Dad, every minute of every day.

A small voice insisted that Jen was deliberately misinterpreting Charlie's words, that she knew damn well what he meant. Jen shook her head. Impossible. Dad couldn't want her to . . . he couldn't mean that. It was part of his delirium. She set the thought aside and entered the kitchen.

It was completely clean. Again. On the table was her briefcase, which Jen clearly remembered leaving by the front door. Jen opened it and found her paperwork neatly stacked inside. Every bit was finished, completed and signed in her handwriting exactly as she would have done it. On the bottom of the pile, however, was an unsealed manila envelope she didn't recall bringing home. With chilly fingers, she opened it and pulled out a pile of papers and typewritten forms. It was a completed application for the Eagle Grant, signed with her name and ready to mail. The writer had requested enough money to bring along an assistant—Nick—at excellent compensatory wages.

Jen set the application down. The ushepti sat next to the stove, gold gleaming in the failing afternoon sunlight.

"Not that I'm ungrateful," she said, "but there's no way I can mail this in. Why are you doing all this, anyway?"

The ushepti neither answered nor moved. Jen picked it up, surprised at how calmly she was accepting the situation. It had to be the statue doing the work. What other explanation was there? She noticed that the figurine's gilding was a little thin in places, especially around the hands, and she felt a sudden kinship with the little statue. They were both worn around the edges from laboring so—

Jen almost dropped the ushepti. That was it, wasn't it? An ushepti was a servant to the dead, and Dad, in many ways, had died long ago. Now the statue labored for him, paying room and board in the house of Osiris.

Or in the house of Jen and Nick, she thought. Well, if the ushepti wants to do the work, who am I to complain?

A quick check on Charlie revealed he had fallen asleep in front of the television. Humming happily to herself, Jen tiptoed to her corner workshop and started up her potter's wheel.

Three bowls and two vases later—all thrown in the style of the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom—Jen felt enormously better. Her cares and worries always seemed to melt into the soft clay as it bent and shaped itself to her will. Her growling stomach finally reminded her it was time to make supper. She set the pottery on a shelf to dry—she'd fire it later in the backyard kiln—and headed for the sink to wash her hands.

Sandwich fixings waited buffet-style on the cupboard, and the table was set. The ushepti sat among the plates like a serene centerpiece.

Jen laughed aloud. "You do a fine job," she said. "Thank you."

The ushepti gleamed.

Maybe, Jen thought as she headed into the living room to wake her father, things are finally getting better.

* * *

Things weren't getting better. As if to make up for his moment of tenderness, Charlie refused to go to bed that evening. He sat stubbornly in the chair.

"You go to bed," he growled. "I'm staying up. Who are you, anyway?"

Jen pleaded, cajoled, and threatened. She was considering telling him Mom was waiting in the bedroom when he suddenly got up and wandered into the bathroom to use the toilet. Thanking God Charlie didn't yet require diapers, Jen took advantage of the situation and got him to brush his teeth, but he resisted pajamas. She only managed to undress him down to his underwear. Then he wanted a cup of coffee, which Jen refused to give him, and then, still in his underwear, he decided he wanted to go for a walk. He had gotten the front door open before Jen could talk him out of it. All in all, it was almost midnight by the time Charlie, muttering, finally climbed into bed.

Exhausted, Jen went into the kitchen to get herself a snack before going to bed herself. It was already over an hour past her usual bedtime, but she was suddenly starving. She also wasn't particularly looking forward to empty space Nick left in their bed.

A glass of milk, a slice of cherry pie, and a fork were waiting for her on the table. The ushepti gleamed serenely nearby. Too tired even to smile at it, Jen picked up the fork, then glanced automatically at the vases and bowls drying on the shelf. The bowls were cracking as they dried. Jen sighed. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

Tomorrow, she told herself. Tomorrow things'll get better.

Once again, they didn't. Nick arrived home late from his double shift, red-eyed and exhausted, but unable to go to bed because someone had to watch Charlie while Jen was at work. She persuaded Nick to call in sick so he wouldn't have to work that evening on no sleep, but he accepted the idea with poor grace. The moment Jen got home from the museum that afternoon, Nick vanished into the bedroom. Jen tried to interest Charlie in planting the rest of the tomatoes, but he refused. Instead, he wandered vacantly around the house, opening doors and cupboards, dialing random numbers on the phone, trying to rearrange the living-room furniture, and generally driving Jen to distraction. The ushepti made supper again, but when Jen set Charlie's plate before him, he threw it to the floor. Then he swept the juice pitcher off the table, sending sticky red liquid everywhere. The noise woke Nick, who rushed into the kitchen without thinking and sliced the bottom of his bare foot on a piece of broken plate.

At long last Jen got everything under control and cleaned up. Charlie was staring vacantly at the TV, and Nick had limped into the bedroom "to do some reading." His face was tight and rigid, though whether from pain, resentment, or both, Jen couldn't tell. Jen sat in the kitchen and tried not to cry from her own frustration. How long could she keep this up? How long was Dad going to keep sucking her life away? Didn't he know she had a life, too?

Anger overcame the frustration. How could Dad do this to her? Hadn't she been a loving daughter? Hadn't she worked hard for him? And for what? An estranged husband and a truncated career.

The anger raged, bubbled, and grew within her. She hated what her life had become. She had no life at all. Every time she thought things were getting better, they got worse. Sometimes she wished Dad would just . . . would just—

"Die!" she snarled aloud. "I wish he would die! There—I said it!"

The words spun wildly through the room, and Jen's rage welled up in a fireball. Rage at herself for speaking the forbidden words. Rage at Dad for making her say them. Rage at Nick for not being there to hear them. Her eye fell on the cracked bowls in her work area. With a silent snarl, she snatched the first one from the shelf and flung it to the floor.

A split second before she let go, she saw the writing.

Jen tried to abort, tried to snatch the bowl back, but it was too late. Everything slowed, and it seemed to Jen that the bowl slid gently away from her grasping fingers, tumbled end over end to the floor, smashed slowly into a dozen brown pieces.

Nick found her sitting on the linoleum, trying to piece the shards back together. Desperate tears ran down her face.

"I didn't mean it," she cried. "I didn't mean it."

Minding his foot, Nick knelt and put his arms around her. "It's only a bowl, honey. It's all right."

"It isn't all right," she whimpered. "Look."

She held two pieces together. Spelled across the break in neat, block letters were the words "Charles Edward Liles."

"Dad's going to die," she said.

"He's not going to die." Nick stroked her hair with a warm hand, something he hadn't done in long, long time. "Your dad's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine."

But in the morning, Charlie was dead.

The next several hours passed in a fog. The ambulance came and went, and the medical examiner declined to autopsy an Alzheimer's patient found peaceful in his bed. Jen vaguely remembered sitting at the mortuary holding Nick's hand and nodding at the arrangements he made. Then she let him lead her back home, where he spent considerable time on the phone. Jen was an only child, but there were aunts, uncles, and cousins to notify, hotel and transportation arrangements to make. The doorbell rang and rang, and Nick admitted people carrying casserole dishes and fruit platters. Many of them were from the church she and Nick had attended before Charlie fell ill. It occurred to her that they could start attending again. The thought brought fresh tears to Jen's eyes.

That evening just before sunset, Nick tried to interest her in going for a walk, but Jen refused.

"Maybe I'll try some pottery," she said.

Nick nodded, his brilliant red hair shining in the fading yellow light that shone into the kitchen. "All right. Call me if you need me."

"Thank you for arranging everything," she said, suddenly taking his hand. "I don't know how I would've managed it."

Nick stroked her hair for a long moment, gave her a hug, and left her at her wheel. Jen started it up, but didn't put any clay on it. Instead, she swiveled on her stool and found herself staring across the kitchen at the ushepti, which sat serenely on the cupboard. A pile of papers sat next to it. Puzzled, she got up and crossed the room.

It was the Eagle Grant application.

Take care of me, Dots.

"Damn you!" she hissed at the statue. "Why can't you leave me alone?"

The ushepti seemed to stare straight through her from its place on the counter. Rage swept over Jen in a black wave, and a snarl of anger escaped her throat. She snatched up the statue and brought it down hard against the Formica counter. With a hollow crack and a billow of pale plaster, the ushepti disintegrated. Only a few fragments remained in her hands.

Bastard! she howled silently. Go back where you came from!

A gold glint caught Jen's eye and she looked down. Heiroglyphs on one of the fragments in her hand were catching the last bits of sunlight. Automatically she translated:

I will do it for you.

Those words echoed through her head, reverberated through her body. The tiny gold gleam in her hand seemed to amplify itself, grow in power and brightness until it was as blinding as day itself. Then it vanished, leaving Jen alone in the kitchen. For a long moment she stood frozen. Truth stood in front of her, and she could no longer ignore it.

I will do it for you.

Jen shifted her gaze back to the grant application, neatly typed and ready to mail. It would be wrong. Her father had just died—and she had helped kill him. She should be in mourning, or even in jail, not callously thinking that she was free to study Egypt again.

"You should mail that in," said a voice.

Jen jumped and spun around with a squeak. The fragments fell to the floor. Nick was standing behind her, ignoring the ushepti's shattered remains. He put his arms around her.

"I know what you're thinking," he said softly into her ear, "and you have no reason to feel guilty. Your dad died a long time ago. You just didn't have the chance to move on. Now you do. You were a good daughter, Jen, and Charlie knew that."

Jen buried her face in Nick's shoulder, drinking in his warm, living presence. When the tears came, she let them flow freely. With them came a new peace. The sun set, and the last beams of light faded from the kitchen.

"I read the application," Nick said when she finally quieted. "You've got nerve, asking for enough money to pay an assistant. Do you have someone in mind?"



Jen looked up and smiled as her blue eyes met his green ones. She could barely see them in the dim illumination that spilled into the kitchen from the living room lamps. Nick had always wanted to go to Egypt with her, but they'd never been able to afford it. The grant, however, would more than make up for the wages he'd lose by taking an extended leave of absence from the hospital. Jen had no doubt the grant would go through—it was the finest proposal she had ever read. And why shouldn't it be? It had been written by the ultimate expert in Egyptology. Jen wasn't ready to visit Cairo again, not yet. But it would take two or three months for the grant application to go through committee, and by then things would probably be different.

Jen pushed a red lock from Nick's forehead. "Let's go for a walk," she said. "I want to talk about Egypt."

Nick's answering smile was broad and bright as the sun. They joined hands and walked out the door into the fresh evening air.

* * *

Steven Piziks is the author of several books and stories.

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