Chapter 9 - Be Prepared to Pay the Price...
Janice emerged from a flash of light and crashed down to the ground with a thud. "Jesus Christ!" she muttered as she scrambled to her feet and shook off the odd sensation from the surprising trip.
"You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain!" JJ scolded her, earning a sharp look from the archaeologist, which quickly faded as her eyebrows rose. She finally noticed the boy had . . . a Southern accent?
"Are you ok?" She asked softly, as an odd feeling washed over her as she stared at the boy . . . with blue eyes.
"I guess," he said and inspected his blanket. Only a few smudges of dirt and no tears. He sighed with relief. His mama had told him he had to take better care of this blanket if he insisted on carrying one everywhere with him. And he did.
"What happened?" JJ asked, then noticed her odd look. "Are you ok?"
"Sure," she said absently, still gazing at the boy with . . . raven hair.
"You don't look ok."
"Uh, JJ? Is your last name . . . Hurlbut?" She asked weakly.
"No, why?" he said, causing a relieved breath to escape from the archaeologist.
Good GOD Covington, get a fucking grip! She thought as she silently chuckled at her wild imagination.
"It's not important," she said with a smirk, considering with a reality like hers, she didn't need a wild imagination.
She surveyed their new surroundings.
They were no longer in the camp but in a large, green field. To their left was a jagged, snow-capped mountain and to their right was a forest, covered in a blanket of thick fog. It was beautiful, in an eerie way.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She wondered if the boy felt it too.
"What happened?" He asked again, looking around curiously.
"Well, Sport, it looks like you've managed to do in minutes what I've been trying to do for years," Janice said with an amazed shake of her head.
"Really?" He said with excitement, then looked around with concern. "But I don't see a temple."
"Me neither," she responded flatly. Of course it wouldn't be that simple, she considered, looking up at the heavens with narrow, annoyed eyes.
"I think I want to go home," JJ admitted. "It's scary here."
"Yeah," Janice nodded with a sigh. "We'll get back," she added with confidence, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"Good!" JJ blurted with relief, then asked a very good question.
"Dear GOD! I lost him again!" Christine crumbled onto a cot gasping.
"Don't worry, Christine," Lee urged softly, as he knelt beside her.
"She was worried this would happen," Christine informed him between belabored breaths.
"He'll be fine," Lee offered with confidence.
"I told her ‘don't worry.' I told her I could handle him, that other time was just a fluke," Christine said haltingly between gasps.
"Muló won't let anything happen to him," Lee said.
"I thought, what could possibly happen to him while he's with his Aunt Christine?"
"He'll be ok, Christine," Lee said with confidence. "Really."
She suddenly grabbed his shirt with both hands. "He disappeared, Lee!" She blurted into his face with crazed panic, then let go.
"He disappeared," she repeated with amazement and laughed, suddenly stopping when a strange look crossed her face before she passed out.
Janice piled some rocks to mark where they arrived. When she finished, she scratched the back of her head and glanced around the area then at the very quiet and worried boy.
"Ok, JJ, we can either wait here for someone to save us. Or we can take matters into our own hands and look around for a way back," Janice offered.
"You don't make waiting sound like a good idea," he said, picking up a pebble to look at it. He froze a moment, then nervously dropped it, not wanting to cause anything else to happen.
"Wouldn't be my choice," Janice admitted. "So what do you want to do?" She asked as she sat down next to him.
"Why ask me?"
She turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "We're in this together, right?"
"But you're an adult."
"That doesn't mean I have the answer," she said. "Besides, you were able to get us here. Maybe you have an idea about how to get us back?" She asked hopefully, yet knowing it was a long shot.
He shook his head no. "I didn't mean for anything to happen," he said nervously with a shrug. "It just did . . . like usual," he said with a grimace and heavy sigh. "I'm really sorry, Janice," he said weakly, clutching his blanket.
"Hey, there's nothing to apologize for. I was trying to get here anyway. And you proved my theory about the stones," she offered. "You actually helped me," she added with a warm smile.
"Do you mean it? Or are you trying to make me feel better?" He asked suspiciously.
"Yes?" she responded with a grin, making the little skeptic roll his eyes and shyly smile.
"So, what do you want to do?"
"Are you going to make me rephrase my question?" Janice asked with a raised eyebrow.
JJ nodded with amusement.
Ivan crouched down, intently staring at the circle of stones on the ground, careful not to touch them. He scratched his chin and sighed.
"Ivan?" Greta asked curiously as she poked her head in the tent. "What's wrong?" She asked seeing his uneasy look.
"Muló is gone," he said pointing to the stones.
Greta looked at him with surprise then smirked, glancing around for Janice, certain she had recruited the tall man for the joke. But the lack of amusement on Ivan's face made her smile fade.
Lee joined them in the tent, spotting the doctor with relief. "Oh good, you're back."
Greta remained quiet, still suspicious.
"How is Christine?" Ivan asked. Greta's eyebrows furrowed.
"She passed out, or fainted," Lee said with concern. "Is there a difference?" He asked the doctor curiously.
"A friend," Lee smiled briefly. "Could you please take a look? I think she's ok, but I'd like you to make sure."
"Why did your ‘friend' pass out?" Greta asked with concern.
"She was looking after JJ and he disappeared with Muló," Ivan said.
"OK. That's enough. Very funny. Now where's Janice?" Greta exhaled, placing her hands on her hips, expecting an answer.
"We don't know," Lee said.
Greta looked down at Ivan, who pointed to the stones with a shrug.
"Oh God. You're serious . . . " Greta exhaled.
"Do we really need to cross it?" JJ asked, clutching his blanket tightly as he stared uneasily at the swiftly moving stream.
"It shouldn't be bad. There are lots of stones that should keep us dry most of the way," Janice said with confidence.
"Most of the way??"
"You're not afraid of a little water are you?" Janice asked with a raised eyebrow.
The boy remained silent, returning his uneasy gaze to the stream.
"Can you swim?" She asked gently.
"I was going to get swimming lessons this summer but we came to Greece instead," he said with embarrassment.
"That's not a prob . . . " she said with confidence, interrupted by a heavy thud reverberating in the forest behind them. "...blem."
"Thunder?" JJ suggested hopefully as he moved closer to Janice and grabbed her hand.
Janice scanned the trees with concern, not seeing anything but hearing another heavy thud, followed by another.
A flock of birds took flight from the nearby trees as the thuds continued to get closer and closer.
"I think we should cross now," JJ quickly suggested, tugging Janice's hand.
In silent agreement, Janice scooped him up and bolted across the watery obstacle, just as a large, furry beast burst through the trees and roared wildly at the intruders.
JJ tightly clutched his blanket that flapped behind them as Janice ran. His eyes widened with amazement at the creature which was twice as tall as Ivan! It had large pointy spines like a porcupine all over its back and tusks like an elephant. It was a real-live monster!
JJ gasped when Janice almost fell. Her foot slipped off a moss-covered rock and splashed into the stream. But she regained her balance and ran sluggishly through the thigh-high water as she carried JJ to the other side. When she made it, she finally turned to look at the creature.
"Jesus," she said beneath her heavy breath, watching the ugly monster hesitate, grunt a few times, then start to tentatively follow them across the stream.
"Uh oh," JJ blurted, clinging more closely to Janice, if possible.
"Damn!" Janice blurted and ran as fast as she could.
She headed for the trees and dense brush, hoping they would provide a deterrent for the creature. But it followed, snorting loudly as its girth overran everything, leaving a trail of crushed mulch in its wake.
The thuds got further behind her as she out-ran the beast. But her lungs and legs started to burn. She pushed herself like she had never pushed before.
Spotting a large group of rocks, she headed towards them for some cover.
She put JJ down for a moment as she regained her ragged breath. Putting a finger to her lips, she got a nod of understanding from the frightened boy.
The thuds stopped. Janice wondered what the chances were that the creature would lose interest and go away.
"Christine?" Greta said, waking the unconscious woman with smelling salts.
Christine jolted awake with a grimace. "Wha...what happened?" She said, feeling disoriented as she blinked to get the fuzzy woman hovering over her into focus.
"You passed out," Greta said softly, helping Christine sit up.
"Are you feeling ok?" Lee asked with worry.
Seeing Lee caused the horrible realization to hit her. "Oh Dear LORD!" She said, starting to hyperventilate again.
"Hand me the bag," Greta ordered Lee, who quickly handed her the brown paper bag. "Breathe into this, Christine," Greta instructed her new patient.
"So, do women usually react to you this way, Lee?" Greta asked with amusement.
"My natural charm, I guess," Lee offered with a shrug, causing Greta to chuckle.
"How can you laugh at a time like this?!? People are missing! My best friend's SON is missing!" Christine snapped into the collapsing and expanding bag.
Greta eyed Lee with a heavy sigh. Before she could respond, she heard a car pulling into camp. "More friends of yours?" Greta asked Lee with a raised eyebrow.
Lee shrugged, shaking his head no.
"Good. I don't have that many more brown bags left," she said with a grin, then added softly. "Try and keep her calm."
Receiving a nod from Lee, Greta left the tent.
"Time to face the music," Paul said with a sigh as he started to open the car door.
"It won't be that bad," Mel said as they all got out of the car.
"What music?" Daniel asked, causing Paul to look at him with amazement.
"There is no music, you id..."
"Paul, don't start," Mel interrupted him firmly.
"If there's no music, then why . . . ," Daniel taunted his brother.
"Daniel, drop it!" Mel said forcefully, then looked between the two of them with frustration. "I know it will take an excruciating amount of effort, but could you two please manage to be civil towards each other, at least while you are around me?" She asked with irritation and added "I would be MOST grateful."
"Sorry," they muttered.
Melinda shook her head and looked over to one of the smaller tents, spotting an attractive blond woman curiously watching them with her arms crossed over her chest.
"Ugh oh," Daniel said to Paul, who nodded with a defeated sigh.
Melinda smiled and walked towards the woman with the boys following behind.
"You must be Dr. Muló," Melinda said warmly as she extended her hand.
"No, I'm Dr. Snider," Greta said with a smile, shaking the beautiful brunette's hand. Reluctantly breaking her gaze, Greta looked at the boys. "So, what did they do?" She asked bluntly, making the boys cringe.
"Uh, actually, I would like to discuss that with their guardian, Dr. Muló. Is she around?" Mel asked, glancing curiously around the camp.
"Not at the moment," Greta said uncomfortably, surprising the boys.
"Where did she go?" Daniel asked, earning a sharp look from Greta.
"To the temple," Greta offered vaguely.
Melinda noticed the boys suddenly look at each other with concern.
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me what they did, so you don't have to wait for her to return," Greta offered pleasantly with a raised eyebrow.
"When do you expect her back?" Melinda asked, causing the German doctor to sigh with irritation.
"We're not sure. I'll gladly to relay what you tell me to Dr. Muló," Greta said to this annoyingly persistent woman. "Miss?" She asked with a strained smile.
"Doctor Pappas," Melinda said crisply, certain this extremely grating woman was hiding something.
Greta stared at the striking woman a moment.
"Pappas?" Greta asked weakly, hoping she misheard. She had to have misheard. What are the chances she was Janice's Mel....
"Melinda!" Christine blurted with surprise as she exited the tent with Lee.
Greta's heart fell.
"Christine? What are you doing here?" Melinda asked, glancing at the handsome man a moment with a raised eyebrow, suspecting the answer.
"Uh . . . it's kind of a funny story, really." Christine laughed uneasily. Suspicious blue eyes prompted her to continue. "Well, I'm sure if you look real hard, there is humor in it, somewhere."
"Christine, where's JJ?" Melinda asked evenly, looking around the quiet camp then back to her friend, who was handed a brown bag by the quiet man next to her.
The creature growled and poked his large tusks at the rocks. Janice shielded the boy from the bits of stone and dirt that fell down on them. JJ gasped, clinging to his blanket.
The archaeologist reached down to her boot and pulled out a knife, getting a concerned look from the boy.
"If we don't do something, the rocks will crush us or it will get to us. I'm gonna try to distract it. When the coast is clear, run as fast as you can towards the rocks over...."
"Don't leave me!" JJ interrupted.
"It may take some time, but trust me, I'll catch up," Janice said. "We are not exactly in a good position right now," Janice stated the obvious with a grimace.
The monster jabbed its tusks at the rocks again, causing another shower of debris, which the archaeologist quickly shielded the boy from.
"I promise, JJ, I'll be back, OK?" she said, placing a firm hand on his shoulder and looking confidently into his frightened eyes.
Trusting her, he nodded reluctantly, still not thrilled with separation.
Janice darted out from the boulders, surprising the creature, which was closer than she expected. It grunted and awkwardly lunged towards her.
"Oooff" Janice blurted when she was swatted in the side by a tusk. The blow hurled her like a rag doll, into a tree. She dropped her knife upon impact and fell onto the ground with a thud.
"Goddamnsonofa...," she blurted in pain as she scrambled to retrieve her knife a few feet away. The creature snarled and stomped towards her.
"Janice!" JJ called out, panicked, and emerged from the rocks and started to go to her.
"NO! Get back!" She ordered, struggling for air as she held her broken ribs.
The creature looked confused, then turned his focus on the small boy and blue blanket. JJ squeaked and ran back towards the rocks. The creature stomped after the boy, closing the distance quickly.
"Fuck!" Janice spat and ran towards them. "Hey! Over here!" She yelled, waving her arms as her heart pounded with fear. "HERE, goddamnit!"
Undeterred by the noisy nuisance behind it, the creature focused on the boy and blanket and lunged before JJ reached the rocks.
"Please God, not the boy," Janice whispered helplessly.
JJ gasped as the tusks quickly thrust past, barely missing him. If he wanted to, he could have reached out and touched it. But he didn't want to.
Snagging the blue blanket in its teeth, the creature yanked the boy off the ground.
JJ yelped, dangling in the air as he held onto his blanket for dear life.
"Let go of the goddamn BLANKET!" Janice yelled to JJ as the monster started to shake its head, bouncing the boy around on the end of the blanket.
JJ finally let go and sailed through the air. When he hit the ground with a thud, Janice's heart leaped into her throat.
"JJ!" Janice rushed to his side as he sat up and moaned, shaking his dazed head. "Are you ok?" She asked nervously as she quickly inspected him for injury.
JJ looked at her, blinked a couple times, and nodded, provoking a great sigh of relief from Janice. His eyes went wide as the monster snorted and took a step towards them. "Damnit," she blurted as she quickly pulled JJ to his feet.
"Go find cover," Janice ordered and gripped her knife, facing the large creature. "NOW!"
Her eyebrows rose with surprise when the monster unexpectedly plopped down on the ground and started tearing the blue blanket into shreds.
"Hey!" JJ blurted indignantly, pointing to the creature now contentedly chewing the blue shreds. "He's eating my ... mmpfkt!"
Covered his mouth with her hand, Janice hauled JJ off to another group of large rocks. She was not intending to find out what else the creature was likely to eat. When she put him down and eyed him with annoyance, JJ sighed heavily.
After the creature finished munching the blanket, a loud rumble filled the forest. JJ's brow furrowed.
Janice tensed and clutched her knife, waiting. After a grunt, a snort, and another loud rumble, the creature finally stomped away.
The archaeologist slumped to the ground, weary, exhausted, and relieved. She'd laugh, but her ribs hurt too much. But she would heal, Janice sighed, she always did.
"Nothing broken?" Janice asked, inspecting him more closely.
He shook his head no.
"Good, I'd hate to have to explain that to your mama," she said with a smirk.
He looked at her. "What about my blanket?!?"
Chapter 10 - Revelations
"What do you mean he's lost?!?" Melinda demanded an explanation from her oldest friend.
"He's not lost. He disappeared!" Christine corrected her through the brown bag that crackled as it rapidly expanded and collapsed.
Ivan came out of the tent hearing the commotion and joined them.
"Would someone please tell me what's going on and where my son is?" Melinda said angrily, then eyed the tall man who cringed under the piercing gaze.
"Perhaps you should sit down, Dr. Pappas." Dr. Snider said with a sigh.
Ivan looked questioningly at Greta, who nodded weakly.
"You ok up there?" Janice looked up to the boy on her shoulders as she walked through the forest.
"Yeah!" JJ said, enjoying his view from the new perspective. "I hate being short."
"Me too. But at least you're still growing," Janice said with a chuckle.
"I'm hoping to be as tall as my Mama," he said enthusiastically.
"How tall is that?"
"Six feet. How tall is your mama?" JJ asked.
"Your mother is six feet?"
"Yeah. How tall is your mama?"
"She was about my height . . . your mother is six feet tall?"
"Yeah. Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Yeah, one of each. Denny and Bert."
"Sounds like two brothers."
"Denny is my brother and Bert, Roberta, is my sister. So your mother is six feet . . . ?"
"Don't you believe me??" JJ asked, hurt at the thought.
"I do, JJ," she quickly said, squeezing his calf. "It's just that . . . it's kinda tall for a woman," Janice said uneasily.
"Not in my family. Nanna is tall too," he said and glanced around curiously.
She closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath to calm her pounding heart as she finally began to believe what her eyes, ears, and heart had already told her. The boy on her shoulders was Mel's son.
She never expected to see Mel again, let alone meet any of her kids. How did Mel find her way to her camp? And how the hell could she possibly face Mel with her family?
God Covington, that's just great, she thought shamefully. She's missing her child and all you can wonder about is how painful it will be to see her with someone else.
But JJ said his name wasn't Hurlbut, Janice considered.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" She asked uneasily, knowing Mel wanted lots of kids.
"No. It's just mama and me."
The comment was surprising and disturbing. Her mind raced with possible reasons. None made her happy. Mel had wanted lots of kids.
"Hey, what about your father?" Janice asked with an awkward chuckle at his exclusion.
"I don't have one," he finally said in a soft voice.
The news startled Janice. "Sorry. My mom left us when I was young," Janice offered as her emotions battled each other. What kind of idiot would leave his son and the most wonderful....
"He didn't leave. Tommy at school says I'm a bastard," he revealed in an ashamed whisper.
"Well Tommy's an idiot!" Janice blurted angrily.
"But he's one of the smartest kids in school," JJ countered with surprise.
"Doesn't sound like it to me," Janice growled, making JJ smile slightly. "Who's the smartest?" She asked.
"I am," JJ said without pretense.
Janice grinned. "You know, it sounds like ol' Tommy is jealous of you," she said, tugging his legs, surprising herself with how pleased she was with his achievement.
"Yup. Jealous and mean."
"He is mean. But he's right, the dictionary says a bastard is someone whose parents aren't married."
"JJ, it doesn't matter what your parents did or didn't do. You can't change that. What really matters is what kind of person you are," she lectured the attentive boy.
"You know, there are other types of bastards out there, JJ. The really bad kind. They'll lie, cheat, and st . . . , uh, stab you in the back," Janice said and cleared her throat. "And it has nothing to do with whether their parents were married. So if you are a good person, JJ, you can never really be a bastard. OK, Sport?" She said, tugging his legs again.
JJ nodded and rested his chin on her head with a relieved smile.
"Well, it's getting dark," Janice said with a frown. "We could go on and stumble around in the dark for a while, or we could make camp and rest in front of a nice warm fire. What would you like to do Mr. Pappas?"
"You don't make going on sound . . . . Hey! How did you know my last name?!?" He asked, looking down in amazement.
"Would you believe I'm omniscient?"
"You know what omniscient is, don't you?"
"Yes!" he said indignantly. She chuckled.
"Sorry, I forgot I'm talking to the smartest boy in school."
"If you were really omniscient, you wouldn't forget," he countered with a satisfied smile.
"How do you know an omniscient person wouldn't forget? Maybe she just had a bad day."
Mel entered the tent and looked at the circle of stones on the floor. She glanced curiously at Ivan.
"Muló said they are the stones of passage," the tall man nervously informed her, provoking a raised eyebrow.
"Passage? To the Temple of Truth?" Mel asked with amazement, surprising the camp dwellers and Christine, who stood just outside the tent opening with Lee as she steadily breathed through her brown bag.
Knowing Dr. Muló's destination didn't help relieve Melinda's fear for her son. And she had no idea why her son had gone with this stranger. She had taught him better than that, she considered with irritation. Of course, JJ was still an incredibly curious boy, she thought with worry as she knelt down and reached out to touch a stone.
"Uh . . . are you sure you want to do that?" Greta asked uneasily.
Melinda looked at the blond doctor with irritation, then sighed, reluctantly agreeing with caution.
"Did Dr. Muló keep a journal?" Mel asked, hoping it might shed some light. She was curious about the uneasy glances between Greta and Ivan.
"Yes, she's meticulous in documenting her efforts," Greta finally said and walked over to the table. She bit her lip, knowing there was no easy way to explain everything as she dug out the journal from beneath the pile of maps.
Melinda's eyebrows furrowed at the familiar sight, wondering if all archaeologists were actually taught to have a messy work area, or if it was just the few she had known.
Christine looked at Lee. "She's taking this well, don't you think," Christine said as she breathed into her brown bag.
"Yeah," Lee responded as he watched Greta open the journal for Dr. Pappas and step back.
"You know, she's always been much better under pressure than me," Christine casually informed him through her bag. Lee nodded thoughtfully.
The twins stared at her.
Melinda sat at the table and pushed her glasses up as she began to skim through the beautifully written text and drawn sketches. Dr. Snider was right, Dr. Muló was meticulous in her records, she acknowledged with appreciation. She stopped skimming through the journal, pausing in confusion at the amazingly familiar writing. Her eyebrows furrowed as she carefully read a paragraph in the journal.
"It's been days since I got all the stones and I still haven't figured out what the hell they are trying to tell me. I wonder if Harry ever felt this goddamn frustrated. I know that the answers are within reach. But where? Why must it always be so hard?"
Melinda sucked in an uneasy breath. She looked questioningly at Ivan and Greta.
"This was written today," Melinda said with a crack in her voice.
"Melinda?" Christine asked with concern.
"Can someone please explain to me. . . ," Melinda asked calmly, though her heart pounded wildly. ". . .why this appears to have been written by a woman who died in my arms eight years ago?" She said in a strained voice, struggling to maintain her composure as she wiped away a tear from her eye with a trembling hand.
"I can't do it!" JJ blurted, holding the two sticks in his hand and looking at the dry leaves with frustration.
"Sure you can. It's just not as quick as matches, JJ," Janice said, placing his hand on the stone and positioning it over the vertical stick. "Keep the stone firm but not too hard on the stick, so it can rotate quickly," she instructed.
He nodded with a sigh and refocused on the task at hand, building a fire.
"You've just got to keep at it, like this" she said as she patiently guided his hands through the motions once again.
After they sawed the stick strung with a shoe-string back and forth a few times, causing the vertical stick to rapidly rotate in the dry leaves, she let go of his hands and watched him continue the sawing motions.
"Good. Eventually, you'll generate enough friction to cause the leaves to ..."
"Oh! Oh!! Oh!!!" JJ blurted with excitement when the leaves ignited into orange embers and a wisp of smoke appeared.
Janice gently blew the embers into a small flame. "Add some small twigs," she said.
JJ looked at her uncertainly.
"Go ahead," she encouraged him and he carefully added the twigs. She fanned the fire, which slowly grew, as did his smile.
With the fire in no danger of being extinguished in the cool breeze, Janice sat back, looking at the fire then JJ.
"I did it!"
"Yep. Your first fire," Janice added with a grin, ruffling his hair.
"Well, not really," he admitted with a cringe, getting a curious look from the archaeologist.
"Did you know stoves have pilot lights?" He asked earnestly.
Chapter 11 - In Search of Answers
"I don't understand," Melinda said weakly.
For eight years, the Southerner thought she was dead. For eight years, Melinda lived with the guilt of Janice's death. For eight years, she struggled to move on without her soul mate. And now, clutched against her chest in a desperate embrace, was Janice's journal. A journal the archaeologist had just written in.
Christine silently went to her friend's side and placed a protective hand on her friend's shoulder as she eyed everyone.
"Why? Why didn't she come home?" Mel said in a hurt whisper, looking up at Christine.
"I don't know, honey," Christine said softly.
"Come on boys, we've got dinner to make," Lee announced, leading the amazed twins from the tent.
The concentration camp doctor looked at Ivan, then quietly left the tent, awash with guilt.
"Please, tell me. What happened?" Mel pleaded to Ivan, who nodded and sat down.
"I know few details, but she was given ambrosia after she was shot in a Cathedral. The Nazis thought she might be useful to them and they took her to the camp. That's where I met her."
Hearing the name of the Nazi death camp, Mel shut her eyes tightly, feeling like she had been punched in the stomach.
"But if she was given ambrosia, why didn't she zap herself out of there or something?" Christine asked.
Wiping tears from her cheek, Melinda looked at the tall man for an answer.
"She said she couldn't do anything . . . except live," Ivan said sadly. "But she was wrong. She gave us hope."
"What do you mean ‘except live'?" Mel said uneasily.
Janice started taking her boots off, getting a curious look from JJ.
"I hate wet feet," Janice explained and took off her socks, carefully spreading the four of them over a stone near the fire.
"You wear two pairs of socks?" JJ asked with surprise.
"I hate cold feet even more," she grunted.
The explanation seemed to satisfy the young boy, who nodded and stared into the fire with a dejected sigh.
"I miss my Mama," he admitted.
"Me too," Janice said softly looking at his profile, clearly seeing Melinda's features.
"Why did your mama leave?" JJ asked, surprising Janice, who exhaled heavily and stared into the fire.
"I'm sorry. Mama says I ask too many questions sometimes. Especially before I go to sleep."
Janice chuckled. "If you have something you want to ask me, ask. But you really should go to sleep when your mama tells you to," she added with a smirk, imagining the nightly battle of stubborn wills.
He nodded. "So why did your mama leave?"
"I don't really know, but I guess she was tired of our family being dragged around Europe by my father," Janice said with a sigh.
"Why did your father drag you around Europe?"
"He believed he would find ancient scrolls about Xena, the ...."
"Warrior Princess!" JJ blurted with excitement, making Janice grin. "Mama is translating some of the Gabrielle scrolls now."
"You mean the ‘Xena' scrolls," Janice softly corrected him with a smile.
"No, the ‘Gabrielle' scrolls," JJ said, shaking his head.
Janice's smile faded. "They are about Xena and they are the ‘Xena' scrolls."
"No, they are written by Gabrielle and Mama says they are the ‘Gabrielle' scrolls," he argued firmly.
Janice looked at the stubborn boy. After an irritated moment, she muttered "she would."
"Faith?" Mel whispered the name of Janice's daughter. So overwhelmed by every incredible thing she had learned, she was numb now.
"She is looking for her daughter and the boys' family. She has been looking for years," Ivan relayed sadly. "She thought she might have a chance of finding them if she could find this Temple of Truth. For the past two years, she's collected those stones," Ivan said, glancing at them on the ground.
Melinda stood up and walked to the ring of stones, staring at them, deep in thought.
"Mel?" Christine said with worry.
"I am going to go find them," Mel announced with determination, squaring her shoulders.
"But you don't know what's on the other side!" Christine argued, following Melinda in confusion, wondering why her old friend marched out of the tent.
"And that's exactly why I have to go!" Melinda argued as she looked around the camp and halted abruptly. "The two most important people in my life are on the other side of those stones," she added, pointing back to the tent and a concerned Ivan.
"I am not going to stand idly by just waiting for everything to turn out all right!" Melinda snapped.
Lee and the boys looked up from the table by the camp fire, stopping their dinner preparations.
"I guess that'll be just six for dinner," Lee said to the boys. Daniel nodded, taking one of the seven potatoes Paul was to peel, and returning it to the bag.
"Mel, honey, please think about this," Christine said.
"I don't have to. I'm going!" Melinda said and called out "Dr. Snider!"
Greta reluctantly emerged from her tent.
Spotting her, Melinda quickly closed the distance with purposeful strides. Greta steeled herself, expecting an angry tirade for her part in Birkenau.
"Do you have some more suitable clothing for hiking that I could borrow?" Mel asked the equally tall woman, motioning to her inadequate skirt.
"Something like what you're wearing, or what you are wearing, if that's all you have."
"I'm going after them," Melinda announced, irritated with each moment of delay, not to mention her choice in clothing, which had seemed perfectly appropriate this morning.
"You don't even know what's on the other side," Greta responded with amazement, looking at Christine for help.
"I've tried that one," Christine said flatly.
"Are you going to help me or not!" Melinda growled impatiently.
Startled by the intensity of this woman, Greta hesitantly nodded and entered her tent as Melinda and Christine followed.
Spotting the fedora on the cot, Mel took an uneasy breath. It was Janice's fedora . . . on Janice's cot, which was in the same tent as Dr. Snider's cot, she realized. They shared a tent, Melinda noted apprehensively as she watched Greta pull a suitcase from underneath her cot.
She was very attractive, Melinda observed, self-consciously pushing her glasses up. And she was a doctor....
"I don't have as wide a selection as you are probably used to, but this should do," Greta said as she handed over slacks. "I have some shoes too, or do you prefer hiking in heels?" Greta questioned sarcastically, glancing down Melinda's annoyingly distracting legs to her feet.
Melinda's eyebrow shot up. And she was extremely irritating, Mel noted.
"Shoes would be most appreciated, thank you," Melinda said crisply.
Looking back into the mesmerizing blue eyes, Greta noted even the hints of grey hair were becoming. Greta sighed dejectedly.
"If you are really determined to go, I'm going with you," Greta said firmly, daring Melinda to argue.
"What?!?" Christine blurted.
"Fine," Melinda exhaled reluctantly, knowing she had no right to object.
"Good Lord, you both are crazy!" Christine blurted and marched out of the tent towards Lee and the boys. She sat down at the table by the fire with an unladylike thud.
"Instead of convincing her to wait here, now Greta's going," she said with exasperation and threw her arms up.
Lee nodded thoughtfully and looked at the boys. "Five for dinner."
Daniel dutifully took one of the six potatoes on the table and returned it to the bag.
Greta went to Janice's trunk. "We should go prepared," she said as she opened the lid and pulled out a few items and placed them on Janice's cot.
Melinda couldn't help but smile seeing a whip among the other items, including a dozen balls of socks and . . . a familiar creme envelope. She curiously picked the envelope up as she sat on Janice's cot.
"A reminder of what she has lost," Greta offered bitingly.
Melinda opened up the envelope, startled to find her wedding invitation. She looked up, finding brown eyes boring into her.
"She found out just after learning her friend, Octavia, was dead. It was one of Janice's worst days, and that is saying a lot," Greta said crisply, recalling how devastated the archaeologist was, though Janice struggled to shrug it off and say it was for the best.
"Dear Lord," Melinda exhaled, feeling ill. Janice stayed away because she didn't want to interfere?
When a picture fell onto her lap, she picked it up, immediately recognizing the baby. "Faith," Mel whispered with wonder.
Greta nodded and sighed sadly. "It wasn't supposed to be possible, but the ambrosia healed her reproductive organs," the doctor said with a shrug, never having figured out how it worked. "It was the only thing she ever thought the ambrosia was good for."
"Ivan said you saved Faith's life."
Greta shook her head no. "I just took her and gave her away," Greta said evenly, then laughed without humor. "I almost thought that would be the one thing that finally killed Janice."
Greta's eyes dropped at that painful memory.
"You saved Faith's life," Melinda countered firmly. "Thank you," she added with emotion, surprising Greta, who never expected thanks for what she did, especially from this woman.
Greta cleared her throat. "We ought to go before we realize how crazy this is," the German doctor said briskly, standing up with a pistol, which worried Mel.
"Is that really necessary?" Mel asked disapprovingly, wiping her moist eyes as she composed herself.
"You want to go somewhere, but you have no idea where it is, which you can only get to through a ring of magical stones, which you have no idea how they ....?" Greta said with utter amazement, but was interrupted.
"So am I to assume your answer is yes?" Melinda asked with irritation.
"I should go with them," Ivan announced to the group by the fire.
Without blinking, Paul handed Daniel a potato which he returned to the bag. Daniel looked at Paul questioningly. Paul nodded in agreement and gave him two more potatoes.
"But you don't know what's on the other side! What if they need us here?" Christine argued, wondering if she was the only sane one in the camp.
"To do what?" Ivan asked, then sniffed curiously at the sudden foul smell in the air.
"Be hostages?" Mr. Filo suggested with a smile, emerging from the forest with three armed men.
Janice kept watch, staring into the dark night as JJ peacefully slumbered near the fire. When he shifted and started to snore softly, an amused smile filled her face. Mel used to snore like that, but Janice was wise enough never to mention that to the self-conscious Southern lady.
Her smile vanished when she heard a twig snap. Her eyes darted to the source of the noise as her hand reached for her knife.
"Be not afraid. I mean you no harm," a man's calm voice offered
from the darkness.
"That's good to know. But you'd be much more convincing if you showed yourself," Janice said as she stood, squinting to make out the shadowy figure.
A robed old man, with the help of a long staff, emerged from the trees with a gentle smile.
"We haven't had visitors in a long time," he mentioned casually and made himself comfortable, shifting his robes as he slowly sat his old frame down by the fire.
"Well, it is a hard place to find. That, and the warm welcome you get when you do find it might just put some people off," she said, still clenching her knife as she also sat down.
"One cannot be too careful. The temple must be protected."
"Why?" JJ asked, sitting up, fully awake now. "Is there gold there?" He asked with excitement.
The old man looked at JJ with a warm smile. "No. Something far more valuable. The truth. It is a powerful thing and in the wrong hands, it can be a weapon."
"What? How? I was told the truth was a good thing," JJ said with concern.
The old man looked at Janice with a smile.
After a thoughtful moment, Janice responded. "JJ, what if you found out that Tommy at school was adopted, but he didn't know. And then, when he got you really angry, you told him, knowing it would hurt him."
"I wouldn't do that!" JJ gasped.
"I know, Sport. But it would be the truth."
"But that's mean."
"Yes. And people can be mean, JJ," she countered, making him think a moment.
"The ones that are bastards?"
Janice cleared her throat and nodded, glancing uneasily at the amused old man.
"Oh," JJ said in understanding.
"Will you take us to the temple?" Janice asked the old man, daring to feel hope, daring to believe her long search for Faith and the boys' relatives might be near an end. "Please?" She added in an unusual but sincere gesture of politeness.
"What about now?" Janice asked with an excited smile.
"You don't like to waste time do you?"
"Not when I know what I want."
Melinda and Greta stopped arguing over the need for a pistol when an armed, burley man entered the tent.
"I don't suppose he's a friend of yours?" Mel asked, nervously pushing up her glasses. Greta sighed with irritation.
"Drop it," he barked to Greta, who paused to eye Melinda with a thin smile, before placing the pistol on the cot.
And she's snippy too, Mel concluded with a furrowed brow as she placed an armful of clothing down on Janice's cot.
The women were escorted at gun-point to join the rest of the camp by the
fire. Encouraged by firm shoves, the tall women sat down at the table with the
others. Melinda glanced to Christine, who leaned on Lee with her face buried in
her brown bag. She noticed with surprise that no one else appeared nervous.
It won't be long now, Filo thought with anticipation as he looked over the group gathered by his men. His eyes settled on Greta and Melinda a moment. His lecherous gaze made their skin crawl.
Mel and Greta looked at each other, rolling their eyes.
"Now then, where is Dr. Muló?" Filo asked amicably, prompting uncomfortable looks from the group.
Filo smiled, expecting stubborn silence. The archaeologist had a way of
provoking fierce loyalty from her friends. But Filo had learned that there was
always a price to fierce loyalty, which wavered when the currency was lives. He
pointed to Ivan, prompting one of his guards to aim his rifle at Ivan's head.
Ivan took a deep breath, prepared to die. He had been, ever since Birkenau. Glancing at the boys, who grew more uneasy, Ivan gave a warm smile then looked at the ground, hoping they and Muló would find their answers and peace.
"What are you doing?!?" The startled Southerner asked the smuggler.
"She left to find a temple," Greta quickly blurted.
"Much better," Filo said with a relieved smile. "Where is this temple?"
Filo sighed as they looked at each other and remained silent.
"Look, I'm a business man. I know Dr. Muló has a good eye for profitable ventures. And my gut tells me this is one of them. So if you just tell me where this temple of hers is, I will let you all go on your way," Filo said amicably.
He shook his head at the continued silence. "Shoot him." Filo pointed at Ivan.
"Wait! We don't know where she is," Greta said vehemently.
Filo shook his head. "And shoot her . . . for lying."
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