an odd collection of tales about learning to do the impossible

z2

This page contains a short description of the book z2 followed by the first five chapters.

Alex once walked away from a rare ability to warp time, thinking it was only a young man’s trick to play basketball better. Now, as a father and teacher, he needs to relearn the skill quickly before the past begins to destroy his own future. To protect his daughter and his most promising student, he must stop the school at which he teaches from turning the clock backwards to an era of white supremacy.

An old high school friend is in desperate need of Alex’s unique gifts to help solve an ancient Maya mystery. As the puzzling artifact offers a rare chance to bridge the past and the future, its story begins to intertwine with the growing tensions at Alex’s school. As both situations take dangerous turns, Alex knows that he must learn to control his temporal talents before he runs out of time.

light clock

Before

 Chapter 1. December 1696

 When the time came, she knew it, just like her father promised her that she would. She saw the signs as her rulers became friendly with the strangers, and she listened with fear as they became ever less cautious. Nimah watched with her own horrified eyes as the singers and priests of the others were finally allowed to walk brazenly into her city and she cried as her neighbors welcomed the invaders.

Of course, the strangers’ warmth disappeared quickly when they did not get their way. When Nimah’s king would not convert to the new religion like they had so clearly expected, the strangers responded to the fine hospitality of the Itza by sending soldiers to convert them by force. The Itza fought back valiantly.

“The day on which you must act will not be long after that,” her father had cautioned. So in the months since that attack, Nimah had been actively preparing herself and her two sons for today. At twenty-six, Nimah thought of herself as responsible and mature, one who took her obligations seriously. She had learned well her people’s history and religion, and her people kept fine records, so there was much to know.

She knew that she was part of the Kan Ek, the ancient race whose rulers were descended from the Gods. She knew that once, more generations ago than there were days in a moon cycle, her people had been far more structured. The lands were bigger then, with many more families, and there had been many cities and giant gatherings where customs were shared. There had been much more wealth and, some had said, much more greatness. But Nimah thought not. She had also learned that lives had been more stringently controlled back then and that there had sometimes been cruel penalties for those who failed or wandered astray.

Many people of that time appeared to have believed that the greatness of the Maya would go on forever. Nimah knew, she had studied their texts. But, over hundreds of years, the carefully recorded famines and droughts and wars had brought an endless string of hard times to the seemingly invincible people. Nimah had studied how, over time, her people had been forced to huddle closer together for strength and how the resulting battles for food and water had shrunk her world. Finally, her own people’s realm encompassed only the area around Tayasal itself, the beautiful town built on the remains of the great old city of Noh Peten.

Now her people, those of the majestic Lake Peten Itza, were free to develop their own rules and more flexible ways. Nimah personally thought that they had evolved, that they were now an older race, one filled with more enlightenment and compassion. So Nimah was glad that she had been born when she was, not at the time when her kings ruled over the most amount of land, but at the time when her people themselves had never been better.

Outsiders were of three types now. There were those who were Maya also, but who hailed from the other surviving communities that had fought with the people of Lake Peten Itza many years ago. These outsiders would travel to the low flatlands of the Peten Itza region for trade and for news. As they were no longer enemies, they were welcomed and cared for. Goods and information were exchanged before these visitors returned to their homes.

Then there were the Xiu Maya, from the Northwest, who before Nimah was born had grown weary of fighting off the others and had instead joined forces with them. They were not to be trusted and were never welcomed.

Finally, there were the strangers themselves, the new people. Not so new, really, Nimah thought, seeing as they had been here before her great-grandmother. They called themselves Spaniards. At first they mostly came looking for gold and other treasures, although over the last generation or two they had been increasingly eager to take land and cities as well. For years now, they had been sending more visitors, showing more interest in the land and in the towns of Nimah’s people.

The Itza response had been to lay low. To appear to have nothing. To tell the strangers very little. That had worked well for over five generations as the Spanish sought their riches everywhere else. But it looked like they had finally run out of other places to look. Soon, they and their ways would be here and before that happened Nimah had to act.

It was too bad that her husband had been taken by illness five years ago. She could have used his strength on this day, in more ways than one. But luckily, in the intervening years, her two sons had grown larger and stronger. Now at twelve and ten they were close enough to men, and Nimah was confident that they were ready to assume their roles in this family obligation.

She woke her boys and gave them a simple breakfast as they went over the instructions. Today, the three of them would take the largest and heaviest of the three boxes and would hide it carefully in one of the small caves on the other side of the lake. Nimah had found the perfect place months ago, and had spent weeks now preparing both the hiding spot and the document that she would place in the box.

Then tomorrow she would say goodbye to Ichik, her dear oldest child, and send him off towards the rising sun. He was larger and he could better carry the heavier of the two remaining boxes. In that direction were flatlands and friendlier people, and Nimah thought that the boy would have the easier journey. This would be good, because for all that she loved Ichik she knew that he was just a little bit lazy. He had a calm and somewhat meek animal spirit guiding him. It was just a fact that he would never make much of a fighter. She needed him to keep walking until he reached the sea, and Nimah had no idea what the boy would find at that edge of the earth. Nimah hoped fervently that it was not something that would require him to be fierce.

On the day after that, Nimah would send Balam, her second son, off into the setting sun with the smallest box of the three. This boy was still slight in stature, but fierce in spirit. Nimah would also tell him to journey all the way to the water, to make a home there, to hide and guard the box he had brought for as long as he lived, and then to ask his sons and their sons to do the same.

Thus each boy and his descendants would keep safe a valuable piece of the puzzle, just as Nimah’s father had asked. Nimah, now alone with her eight-year-old daughter, would devote the rest of her life to protecting the biggest box, left behind in the cave, and to guarding its secrets. And her daughter and her daughter’s children would do the same.

One day, Nimah’s father had promised, all of his descendants would be freed from this burden and all three boxes would be reunited. When it was time.

Few other family members knew about Nimah’s task. Those who did assumed that her father had entrusted her, a daughter, with this important job only because she had such a clever mind for puzzles. But Nimah suspected it was for more reasons than that. Underneath her love of riddles, Nimah was a self-disciplined woman, one who knew better than to dread or to ignore the inevitable. She, among all her father’s children, could take instructions and follow them through to the tiniest detail. And she would. She did this not only to honor her own father, of course, but for the sake of her own descendants and the descendants of all of the Maya. She even made this sacrifice for any others who were not as greedy or cruel as these Spaniards.

The day was particularly hot and muggy for December as Nimah and her two boys made the short hike to the cave while Nimah’s daughter was left to watch the house. Nimah knew that the boys were hiding their fears and doing their best to stay strong. She had never been more proud of them then on this day when she was about to say goodbye to them both forever.

They helped her carry her burden, and watched silently while she opened the thin, beautifully carved obsidian box that she had spent so much of her adult life designing and then years more creating. Inside the box, there was a paper made from the fig tree, carefully prepared and soaked with her best preservative. Nimah gently smoothed the paper as she looked at it one last time. Neither boy spoke until her oldest son finally read the words at the top of the page, and started to laugh.

“The greatest treasure ever?” Ichik said raising an eyebrow. “Don’t you think this perhaps exaggerates a little, mom?”

“No,” Nimah shook her head firmly. “I don’t. I don’t think so at all.”

Chapter 2. February 1981

When the 23rd annual Grammy Awards began on the night of February 25, 1981, Alex Zeitman wasn’t watching them. He was sitting on the bench mostly, itching to get put into the game. It was his senior year, damnit, and one of the last games of the season. He’d had a good run playing college basketball, and had been a starter for much of his junior year as a solid contributing point guard who tended to pass rather than shoot. Okay, so he wasn’t a phenom at scoring, but when Alex had a good night on the court, his team always played a fine game as well. And the coach that had recruited him to this small college outside Austin, Texas had known and appreciated that fact.

But the new coach this year hadn’t been as fond of Alex’s style, preferring the flash of a sophomore point guard who scored often and who had the added charm of being worth grooming for the next two years. As Alex’s senior year unwound he found himself spending more and more time on the bench, and his once reasonable hopes for a few years of playing professional ball abroad were starting to evaporate.

“Just let me out there,” he muttered under his breath, but there were only four minutes left in the game now and his team was down twelve points.

“Zeitman!” Alex jumped up when the coach called his name. Three minutes and fifty-three seconds. Okay. Alex thought. Let’s see just how much good I can possibly do in such a short time.

As he hustled on to the court, the noise of the crowd softened in his head. Alex focused instead on the sound of his own heart pounding slowly. He moved into position as the rhythm of his heartbeat kept a constant time, like a metronome, while the play of the game itself seemed to slow down around him, as it always did. He began to match his movements to the rhythm of the sport that he loved so well. Dribble. Pass. Catch. His hands, always soft and capable, had a magnetic attraction to the ball tonight. Jump. Pivot. Turn. His feet, usually light and happy, almost danced on the court, their quickness defying his size and bulk. Alex could feel the energy grow and he knew that tonight, now that he finally had his chance, he was going to be on fire.

Then he had the ball. He took the inbounds pass down the court and penetrated the defense with his dribble. There was an open teammate on his left. Alex made a perfect pass. Score. His teammates pressured the ball in the backcourt. Double-team, deflection and Alex had a steal. He saw a man open down court. Pass and score. Time for more pressure. The ball was loose on the floor, and squirted out from the bodies around it. Alex grabbed it, took two dribbles and scored again. Two minutes and fourteen seconds left and now the Panthers only trailed by six points and the noise level was rising. Alex grinned. Should have taken me off the bench sooner, buddy.

A wildly thrown pass came his way and he jumped high to get it. An opponent charged into him while Alex was twisting in the air. He felt time slowing down even more as he fought to recover his equilibrium and land squarely on both feet. And he would have, because he was good at recovering—uncommonly good at not getting injured. But in the split second before his right foot touched the ground, a teammate crashed into him hard from behind. The surprise force of the impact twisted him as he came down forcefully on the inside of his right foot. His leg bent fast and wrong, folding under him. As the rest of his body hit the ground, the searing pain in his knee let him know that his evening was over. Shit, shit, shit. He crumpled onto the floor and nausea from the pain overtook him before the agony itself made him black out.

Later, leg elevated and packed in ice, he was taken to a local emergency room. Several other players came along and tried to lift his spirits before the doctor saw him, before the doctor told him that it was likely that more than his evening had ended. His anterior cruciate ligament, commonly called the ACL, had been ruptured quite badly, and he was absolutely out for the short remainder of his college basketball career. The coach was sympathetic enough, even though Alex suspected that the man was mainly relieved that it hadn’t been a sophomore or junior who had been injured.

The hospital staff settled him into a room, having insisted on keeping him overnight for observation. The last of his teammates left, not knowing what more to say. So as he waited for the new pain medication to kick in, he morosely watched Christopher Cross receive a Grammy for song of the year on the tiny television. Alex had nothing against the soft rock song “Sailing” that seemed to be sweeping up the awards that night, but frankly being in a sailboat wasn’t an image that moved Alex much. All that sitting still. He would much rather have seen Pink Floyd win best album. And for best song? He guessed he had been rooting for “Fame”. It was catchy. With a beat. The way Alex preferred music.

Did you really think that fame would make you live forever?, he laughed at himself. Of course not. Alex thought about his hopes and dreams for playing some pro ball before he got older and had to move on to something boring but acceptable like coaching high school ball. The doctor had just counseled him that a lengthy program of rehabilitation would help him recover eventually and that surgery was of course possible. But Alex had to face the fact that there was no real excuse for devoting himself fulltime to his own recovery. With no professional team to pick up the expense, it wasn’t likely that he or his folks could justify all the money for the sort of surgery and rehab it would take to get him back to where he had been. He just hadn’t been that good. And, even worse, he’d still be prone to knee injuries for the rest of his career. It just didn’t make sense.

So twenty-two-year-old Alex Zeitman lay with his sandy-colored head on a hospital pillow and sadly watched the end of the 1981 Grammy Awards as he let go of a dream. Crowds wouldn’t cheer as he flew down the basketball court, or be amazed as his sturdy, lightly freckled hands performed spectacular physical feats that would, maybe, have had people remembering his name, at least for a day. He would not play basketball for a living after all.

The only problem was that he didn’t really have anything else that he wanted to do. But even at twenty-two, Alex had a sensible streak. He knew that while at the moment tomorrow seemed horribly bleak, sooner or later he would figure out another plan. The good news, he supposed, was that things could only get better from here.

The future had never looked brighter for senior Stan Drexler, as he stared at the acceptance letter in his hand. Unbelievable. Grad school. With a full ride. Four, five, maybe six years learning from some of the greatest experts in the field, studying the one thing that for whatever reason had fascinated him ever since he was a small boy.

He was actually going to get to travel to Guatemala and to spend years looking for undiscovered Maya artifacts in the Lake Quexil area. No, he wasn’t just going to be allowed to do it. He was going to be paid to do it. And at the end? They were going to call him “Doctor Stan Drexler” and probably pay him even more money to keep doing it.

This was almost too good to be true. Stan hoped that he wasn’t misleading himself about how wonderful this life would be and how much he would enjoy his work. Because even at twenty-two, Stan had a sensible streak. He knew that while right now tomorrow seemed like it couldn’t be more perfect, sooner or later there would be problems or drawbacks. There always were. And unfortunately, things were so good at this very minute that it seemed like they could only get worse from here.

Chapter 3. February 1993

When Dr. Stan Drexler saw the shiny black corner of the stone box twelve years later, his heart skipped a beat. For over a decade now he had unearthed dozens of clay pots and hundreds of shards of pottery from a variety of small excavation sites near the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza. Some had been informative, a few finds had even been mildly interesting, at least to another anthropologist. But nothing, not a single goddamn thing, had ever lived up to his hopes and dreams as a young grad student who had been driven to truly discover something new and fascinating about the civilization that had, once upon a time, so thoroughly mesmerized him.

These days, of course, he held less lofty dreams as he supervised grad students of his own, letting the willing young men and women dig into the muck, watching them sweat hard as they swatted at bugs while they dug into the earth.

“Careful,” he would caution them. “Slow down. That pottery shard is my next publication and your next research paper.” And they would chuckle along. Because, of course, none of them ever struck something truly worth celebrating. Until today.

They had been just about to pack up and leave, having already stayed an hour longer than planned. He was tired, and he knew that the students with him were exhausted and hungry. But excitement grew as his two most eager students, Nelson and Shelby, brushed and dug and finally gently wriggled the artifact free from the earth. Stan thought it had probably been deliberately buried, as the remnants of what must have been a protective cloth fell from around it, part of the muddy rotting material landing on Shelby’s right shoe. She instinctively flinched as it landed on her, then winced when two of the boys laughed at her.

Stan gave the two boys, Jake and Kyle, his best “grow up” look, then moved in to inspect his prize more closely. It really was a thin box, but it turned out to be shaped almost like a triangle. Odd, actually. One end of the triangle was cut off, giving it four sides and making it technically a, what, a trapezoid? It was about the size of a modern coffee table book. Stan’s trained eye immediately put it at post-Classic Maya, so at least after 1200 A.D. It was made mostly from shiny black obsidian, and carved with incredible detail, but it had several places on the top and sides where small pieces of what appeared to be jade and agate and other stones had been worked into the finished product. The rich colors were becoming more visible as Nelson, for once hushed and not trying to show off his knowledge, gently wiped the dirt off with a soft cloth.

“It’s so beautiful,” Jennifer gushed. And it was. The more Nelson cleaned it up the more it became apparent that elaborate hieroglyphs and designs adorned all four sides of the box and the lid. As the lid wobbled a fraction of an inch under Nelson’s touch, Jake, his chief smart ass, turned to Stan hopefully. “Can we open it?”

“That is why we are here,” Stan chuckled at finally hearing genuine amazement from the boy. Maybe he would make an archeologist yet. Nelson tactfully stepped back to let his professor do the honors.

But in spite of the wobble, the lid was stuck. Stan suspected that the box had not been disturbed or opened since it was buried several hundred years ago. He tried loosening it carefully with his fingernails and finally pulled out his pocketknife and pried very gently.

The lid gave way, and Stan had to steady his own breathing as he lifted it off and gently laid it aside. In complete silence, Maya expert Dr. Stan Drexler and his five best graduate students stared at a piece of light yellow paper the size and shape of the inside of the box. It was the proverbial message in a bottle, sent from an unknown Maya hundreds of years in the past.

“Do you think it is part of a codex?” Kyle asked softly, alluding to the few remaining pieces of actual Maya books displayed in libraries around the world. But this paper appeared to be only a single sheet. The Maya were known, of course, for their advanced ways of preserving paper. This page had fared well and was absolutely covered in hieroglyphs. Stan suspected it was made from fig wood and coated in some sort of preservative, just like the coda themselves. He studied it carefully. He would not have dreamed of touching it.

“What’s it say?” Shelby asked.

“I have no idea,” Stan lied. “I think it is very late post-classical, and it’s not a dialect I can read easily. It will need to be analyzed very thoroughly, but you know that this sort of thing usually tends to be about astronomy and about their gods.”

Shelby nodded mutely and squinted harder at the document.

Stan carefully replaced the lid and laid a large canvas bag over the box to protect it. In a bright, end-of-discussion tone he said, “Okay, enough excitement for today and then some. We are already in overtime. We’ll leave the box in situ and, like the good archeologists that we are, we will not disturb it further. Tomorrow, we will inventory and photograph and describe in excruciating detail. It is going to be a good day. Tonight, I’ll make some phone calls and get some more experts down here as fast as possible. Congratulations boys and girls. You’ve probably just been part of one of the biggest finds of your career or, for that matter, anyone else’s.”

“Great,” Kyle had laughed. ”It’s all downhill from here.” And with a sympathetic shrug back, Stan herded his students towards the two trucks.

As Stan stood outside the cave while his students packed up the gear for the day, he had no trouble imagining why the owner of the box had chosen to bury it here. It was a beautiful spot, on high ground above a stream with a pretty little waterfall made all the more lovely by the surrounding lush greenery and rocks. He considered briefly posting two of the students as guards for the night. Which two? They all needed dinner and sleep.

Then he had another thought. They’d been digging at this site for over a month and no one in the area had been the least bit interested. Perhaps guarding the site might be the worst way of raising suspicions. No, the best idea was certainly to leave the box just as it had been found. He needed every one of his students alert tomorrow, and the wonderful artifact was probably at its safest if they all treated it as one more boring find.

Ixchel worried that her choice had been a poor one, even though it had seemed so sensible a few weeks ago. Women eight-months pregnant should not fly. But, of course, women eight-months pregnant also should not make an eighteen-hour journey in a car. Yet, as an only child whose parents clearly needed her there, what was she supposed to do?

In the end there had been two deciding factors. One was Raul. Fly alone and she would certainly make it in time, only to face her father’s death and her mother’s grief by herself. Drive, and Raul would have to take her. He would be there to hold her hand and hold her mother’s. She wanted him there.

And then there was the second reason. Her secret reason. In the best of cases, Raul and his dependable van could become a vehicle of mercy. For if her father could be made comfortable enough for long enough, Ixchel had every intention of persuading her own mother and her new husband to do the unthinkable. She wanted to check her father out of that horrible cancer clinic in Houston that had only sucked away her parents’ life savings and provided no cure, and she wanted to simply put her father in the back of Raul’s van and drive him home. There he could die in his own bed surrounded by all of his loved ones. There her mother could be comforted and held in her hour of need by her family. And there her father’s body could be laid to rest in its proper plot, buried by his pastor, near to the bodies of his parents and ancestors, as the man surely deserved. And none of that would be possible if Ixchel had flown from Mexico City to Houston.

She didn’t know much about the legalities of transporting a body, but after all the money that the treatments had cost, Ixchel doubted that her mother could afford to fly her father’s corpse home. And Ixchel strongly suspected that in the U.S. one wasn’t allowed to just drive off with the deceased. But, for absolutely free one could drive off with the nearly deceased, now couldn’t they?

In fact, she realized with a sigh, her poor dear father didn’t even have to live through the journey home. He just had to live through getting discharged from the hospital and making the very short journey into the van. After that, getting him from Houston to Brownsville would be easy either way. Eight hours on a good highway. Then crossing the border back into Mexico should not be a problem. Officials were on the lookout for live Mexicans coming in, not dead ones going out.

The ten-hour trek to Mexico City would be more difficult, hot and on bad roads, but she would join her mother in rosaries while Raul drove. It would calm them all, and be good for her unborn baby to hear her pray.

She had not, of course, mentioned this plan to either her mother or her husband. No sense stirring up agitation until she looked her father in the eye and knew that this is what he wanted. If it was, and Ixchel was certain that she would be able to tell, then she planned to persuade all.

Only here they were in Matamoros, halfway to Houston and spending the night at a cheap hotel before crossing into the U.S. in the morning. And she was sure that she was having labor pains.

Raul had the television blaring. She wanted to scream at him. Maybe it was just nerves. What did they call early labor? Braxton-Hicks contractions. Ixchel closed her eyes, did her best to shut out the television, the couple yelling next door, the baby crying down the hall. Breathe, she told herself. Breathe. You have a fine plan and it’s all going to be okay. Breathe.

Unfortunately, no matter how slowly you breathe, both birth and death are notoriously difficult to plan around.

Stan tried to control his enthusiasm the next morning as he woofed down breakfast at the hotel and supervised the loading of the trucks. The department head had chastised him by phone the previous night for even opening the box, and for doing as little as brushing off most of the dirt. Stan had expected that response, and he was willing to take the criticism. He hadn’t spent twelve years of his life swatting mosquitoes just to take a back seat while some senior faculty member flew down here to do the honors. This was his research. These were his kids. They all deserved their moment in the sun. Yesterday, he had taken it.

Today, however, they would back off and show professional restraint, as they concentrated on photographing and measuring and recording data while they all waited for more expertise before anything further was disturbed.

There was lightness in Stan’s step as he helped unload the two trucks and made his way to the cave’s small entrance. “You first, Dr. Drexler,” Nelson said politely. Stan wasn’t even all the way in when he noticed mud tracks he was sure neither he nor his students had made. No, come on, he thought. Surely we did not have intruders last night of all times.

He looked around quickly. Everything else they had found over the last few days was completely undisturbed. Only the ornate box and its half disintegrated bit of cloth covering were completely gone, as if they had never existed.

You have got to be kidding, Stan muttered to himself. Locals? For christsakes, did one of my students tell somebody? Then he had a second thought. Was there any chance at all that any of the five students could read hieroglyphics from this region that well?

Because Dr. Stan Drexler of course could. He had studied nothing but for the last twelve years. And even though there was a fair amount of local variation and he had only gotten a quick glance at it, there are certain words that anyone who has ever loved archeology knows, at least in the culture where they have expertise. “Treasure” is one of those words. Even higher on the list is any phrase that translates roughly as “the greatest treasure ever.”

Raul wanted to take her to the hospital in Matamoros the next morning. The contractions had come and gone all through the night. Now Ixchel was sweating hard and periodically moaning in pain. She agreed, but insisted on calling her mother in Houston first. They found a pay phone and amassed all their coins.

Inez answered the phone in her husband’s room. “Hours maybe,” she whispered to her daughter as she looked at her barely conscious husband through tear-filled eyes. “Maybe not even that long they say.”

No, Ixchel thought. Could this timing be worse? Yet I cannot possibly leave my mother to face this alone. I should have come days sooner. I had no idea he was dying so quickly. So Ixchel didn’t even mention labor to her mother, but asked instead that she plead with the dying man to hold on for a few hours more. Ixchel would be there in eight. Maybe less if Raul would drive fast.

The man at the border peered in through the window at the highly pregnant woman tightly clutching a pillow while she breathed deeply and tears streamed out of her eyes.

“I think you need to take her back to Mexico buddy where she can have that baby.”

Raul shook his head. “I am trying. She will not go.” And Raul tried to explain about the dying father in Houston, but the border guard was busy trying to explain about the illegalities of entering the U.S. specifically to give birth. Pretty soon both men were raising their voices at each other, insisting that this was important and that the other was simply not listening. Meanwhile an increasingly agitated Ixchel began to try to get her husband’s attention. The third time her husband brushed her off, she gave up and instinctively squatted on the seat of the car, her entire mind now focused on the hard work her body was doing. As the argument between the two men escalated into actual shouting, Ixchel let out a shriek of her own that stopped all discussion. Raul turned to Ixchel as she let loose a yell that changed into something between a grunt and a moan. She repeated the sound again while the two baffled men saw a mass of red liquid hit the cloth upholstery. A panic-filled Raul reached over and managed to catch his baby before it landed on his front seat.

“Oh good Lord,” the border guard said in disgust. He had never seen a birth and hoped that he never did again.

“Now can we please try to get to her father before he dies?” the exasperated Raul asked as he raised his blood covered hands to show the guard the healthy screaming baby boy. “Allow a dying man to meet his first grandson?”

“Get her checked out at a clinic first on the way.” The border guard shook his head in disbelief as he waved the couple, no as he waved the family, on through.

Chapter 4. April 2009

Alex Zeitman liked to think of himself as a sensible guy who didn’t make bone-headed decisions that resulted in all manner of grief. As a high school teacher he watched young men and women do just that day in and day out, and he watched their indignation and surprise as smoking weed in the bathroom, or failing to show up most days for class, or copying a friend’s paper almost word for word, yielded suspension, flunking, legal trouble or worse.

Consequences. There are consequences to all behavior. He tried hard to tell his students that. Good, bad, stupid, well-intentioned and just plain not-well-thought-out actions all yielded results. Sometimes those consequences turned out to be far more significant than one would think they should be. Like today.

Alex was shivering and dripping wet, thinking that one well-intentioned, but incredibly stupid idea of his may have the consequence of destroying his whole life, and he had only himself to blame. A hundred yards away, the canoe he had just been thrown out of remained trapped against a mound of branches and debris as the high, fast water of a cresting river swollen by massive rains pushed the craft hard against a wall of logs and twigs. Standing on the shore next to him was Ken, the shop teacher at his school and an outdoor enthusiast. Ken’s initial nonchalant reassurance that had all was well had begun to change into a look of silent worry. Ken’s wife Sara was searching in Ken’s pack for a dry jacket to offer Alex. They all knew that Alex’s wife Lola was somewhere out there still under water, and as she failed to surface Ken seemed to be measuring the seconds while Alex fought a growing sense of panic. Paddling back upstream in this current was going to be barely possible, but as Ken eyed the canoe that he and Sara had safely guided over to shore, Alex suspected that Ken was thinking of it.

Lola loved canoeing. Loved white water. Loved outdoor adventure. Alex, who had little use for any of the above, had only been trying to do something nice for his wife. After almost twenty-five years of marriage, two careers and three kids, their lives had long since settled into a routine of hard work and responsibility. Recently he could tell that Lola was restless for the things she had loved as a young woman. That made sense. Alex wanted to see her happy. When he found out that Ken and Sara wanted another couple to join them on this outing, it had seemed like such a great idea. A gift to his wife.

But of course busy lives meant not much flexibility in picking the weekend to go. A week of rains that drenched the entire south-central portion of the nation was an inconvenience to be ignored. The fact that Alex, with his six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-twenty-pound body, was and always had been awkward in a canoe was a minor problem. As was the fact that Lola’s skills were rusty. Two minutes on this wild river had shown them that they were in over their heads. So they had made the decision to call it a day and to make their way just a little further down river to an easier pullout point. That had seemed totally reasonable. They were adults after all.

And now, where the fuck was Lola? Alex wanted to scream the question as he saw a grim-faced Ken start to pull his own canoe out into the water. A former river guide, Ken was the only one of the three of them with the skills to even begin to try to rescue Lola. But if she was somehow pinned under their canoe, Alex could not even image how Ken could possibly get her free.

Plus, Lola hated being under water. She couldn’t handle not being able to breath. Alex knew how claustrophobic his otherwise daring wife was, and Alex had watched her frustration as she tried on two different occasions to learn to scuba and couldn’t make herself breath calmly when submerged. Oh God. By now she’d almost certainly gulped giant swallows of icy water into her lungs.

And then there she was. Alert, wide brown eyes and dark reddish-brown hair almost the color of the logs popped up about eighty yards away, just downstream of the logjam that Ken had called a “strainer.” All three of them shouted to her before the current sucked her back under. Alex felt his own breathing return, just knowing that she was alive. Seconds later she popped up again, downstream of a second clump of branches, but this time she was coughing out water hard. Alex looked closer. Good Lord. She didn’t have her life jacket on.

Ken seemed not to have noticed that fact, as he started moving, relieved, along the shore hoping to intercept Lola somewhere downstream. She was in the middle of the river now, moving fast, and she appeared to be coughing too hard to even try to make her way to shore. Oh hell, Alex thought, I know that she can barely swim. He looked around for anything he could grab quickly.

“Alex, get back here!” Sara yelled it as she saw Alex start to wade out into the fast cold water, a canoe paddle in his hand.

“Alex, no!” Ken joined in as well from his position downstream.

But all Alex could think of was that is he was going to have to pay for his decisions, he was damn well going to make sure that he took every reasonable action he could to make this come out right.

Then he noticed how wide the river really was. How far to the center Lola was and how fast she was moving. How slow his own progress in the deep cold water was going to be. And he realized that he’d never make it to her in time. She’d flail on past, still dozens of feet away from him, and none of them would have any way of reaching her before cold and fatigue completely overtook her.

And then it happened. The roar of the water and the sound of Ken and Sara’s shouts faded into a muffled background, and all Alex heard was the sound of his own heart pounding. The beat of it remained steady and firm as the water began to move more slowly. As did Lola. Alex had the odd sensation of walking out onto a basketball court, willing his body to move to the rhythm of the game, of this game. His feet felt light but firm as they moved with power along the rocky riverbed. His hands were strong and capable as they lifted the paddle out towards Lola. He was moving at a normal pace to him, but he was already in chest-deep, and only feet from her now. She looked puzzled but grateful, and Alex heard his own voice boom slowly “Lola! Grab the paddle!”

He thrust it into her hands, and as the current slowly twisted her body downstream, her fingers just barely curled around the white blade. Alex pushed the paddle more firmly into her hands. Her grip tightened as she realized that this ordeal could actually be over. Then Alex used the paddle to pull her in closer, finally reaching out to grab her shirt and drag her in towards shore. She collapsed at the waters edge, still coughing hard and shivering uncontrollably.

Sara rushed to her, and Ken hurried back to them, as Alex himself sunk down into the pebbled sand, now shaking with cold. Slowly, Lola’s coughing picked up speed, as did Ken and Sara’s movements and speech, and then everything moved with his heartbeat again, happening at the pace it should.

“I had no idea you could move that fast,” Ken chided Alex with a relieved grin as he joined the group.

“We yelled at him not to go out into that water,” Sara was shaking her head to Lola. “But thank heavens he did, huh?”

Lola was smiling. She pulled herself upright and stumbled towards Alex to give him a long hug. “How did you ever make it out there to me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternative,” he said simply.

“That’s good,” she laughed. “I’m glad.”

As the rest of the day centered around getting off of the river and getting the Zeitmans dry and warm, and all of them back on the road headed home towards Texas, Alex kept having one thought.

I had no idea. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. But it didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that time would slow down like that for me anywhere but on a basketball court.

Stan Drexler liked to think of himself as a sensible man who didn’t overreact. For over two decades he had plodded through a career in academia that had turned out to be far less glamorous than he had hoped, while a couple of failed relationships attested to the difficulties of spending so much time away from home. At least, he liked to tell himself that had been the problem. Maybe he just wasn’t good marriage material. At any rate, he was hardly going to let more failures ever be an option.

He had put up with a good bit of kidding over the years regarding his one great discovery, a beautifully carved obsidian box that had disappeared almost immediately after he had found it. He was lucky that he had five students to bear witness to the find or he may have ended up defending his sanity or his ethics. As it was, he had merely looked like a buffoon for the past sixteen years for not stationing his students to guard the find.

Which was why when he was asked to sign for a package that arrived at his office on campus in the spring of 2009, he was in no hurry to open it. The cardboard container was heavy and slightly larger than “the box” and he assumed right away that one of his more caustic colleagues had decided to play a practical joke. Fine. He’d take it home where he could open it in private, and provide less amusement for the joker.

A few days later he reluctantly pulled out his pocketknife and tore off the tape and wrapping, letting it fall onto his couch. Time to get this over with. Yes, inside were cupfuls of Styrofoam pellets and a replica of his one great discovery. Ha ha.

Then Stan looked closer. The detail on this hoax was painstakingly fine. Stan had to wonder why any joker would go to so much trouble. And there was a note, in Spanish.

“Lo siento. Cometí un error. Hace muchos años esta caja fue robado de usted y cuando la compré no sabía. Ahora me doy cuenta que no me pertenece a mí. Por favor, encuéntrele un hogar adecuado.”

Stan translated without thinking. “I am sorry. I made a mistake. Many years ago this box was stolen from you and when I bought it I did not know. Now it does not belong with me. Please find it a suitable home. “

A collector with a conscience? Don’t be ridiculous, Stan told himself. More likely it was a joke so elaborate that the perpetrator hoped Stan would actually fall for it and make a fool of himself once again.

Reluctantly, he went into the small spare bedroom that he used as a study and pulled out the simple sketch that he made of the box years ago. Done from memory only a few days after its disappearance, his drawing in no way captured the beauty of the carved obsidian, but the shape and general detail were good.

This new box had been carefully crafted to have roughly the same almost triangular shape, with arcs of small carved hieroglyphs that made semicircles. He studied its inlaid pieces of colored rocks. The semi-precious stones looked very real. Of course, he and his students had all described the find several times in the literature.

No, I think that one would have had to see the box first hand to duplicate it this well, he thought. But of his students who had been there, there was not one he would consider inclined to indulge in such a cruel hoax.

Stan remembered with chagrin how, in an age before snapping photos of everything everywhere with cell phones and digital cameras, he had not even thought to stop and take one damn photograph of the original box before leaving for the night. Why would he have? At the time there had been no reason to.

Okay, I’ll take the bait. He rolled his eyes. He’d take it to the lab in a few weeks and try to get it analyzed and dated. If it actually contained semi-precious stones and was hand-carved then, hoax or not, it was a work of art and ought to have some decent resale value. Maybe he could get the last laugh after all.

Then it occurred to him. Could the “note’ possibly still be inside? Surely it wasn’t there. Obviously, no one alive could duplicate that page. Even the few words he had been able to quickly translate were known by no one other than him.

He lifted up the heavy lid and peaked. The piece of yellowed paper lay there like it had never been touched. It contained more information than he remembered. Something about two boys and a setting and a rising sun. Had sixteen more years in this field improved his translation skills that much? It looked like it had.

There was no map like he thought he vaguely remembered. Instead, more hieroglyphs. Many more, in the tiniest of script, many of which appeared to be numbers. And at the top was still the outrageous claim that all this information would guide him to… yes, that part was still there. It would guide him to the greatest treasure ever.

Stan sunk into a chair. Now what? Perhaps it was time to overreact.

Part 1. Treasure Hunting for a Good Time

Chapter 5. January 2010

Because there were always a few new kids in each section of physics after the return from the Christmas break, the dynamics of every class tended to change a bit half way through the year. Some were there via simple schedule changes, already known to many of their fellow students, and Alex had to keep an eye on them to ensure that they did not disrupt the already functioning classroom dynamics.

Then there were the transfer students, kids forced by changing circumstances to uproot their lives in the middle of their junior or senior year and place themselves in the hostile unknown environment of a new high school. Alex always wondered two things. One: why in the world were so many sixteen to eighteen year olds so totally lacking in empathy to a stranger? And two: why were those years so terribly defining in one’s life, making this difficult adjustment something that would last emotionally well beyond the high school years?

He couldn’t answer either question, but he always tried in his own way to make the road a little easier for the totally new faces he found in front of him each January. Which is why he felt so terribly bad as he stammered while looking at the name and then the new face of the very short young Latino in the second row.

Xuha Santos. He had absolutely no idea. So he took a stab at it.

“Zoo hah Santos?” The boy gave a resigned chuckled and Alex knew he had blown it. Three wannabe skinheads in the back of the room snickered loudly.

“My people pronounce the letter x as a shh sound,” the new boy said in a friendly stage whisper.

“Shh. Your people don’t live here,” one of the boys in back named Tyler replied in an equally loud stage whisper. Most of the class snickered along. Alex swallowed hard and tried again.

“Shoo hah Santos.” The boy made a humorous grimace.

“My people pronounce u and h together with the sound wah” he added.

Oh boy, Alex thought, this is getting difficult.

“Shhh wah ah. Shwa? Shwa Santos?”

“Present” the boy said happily.

“Right. Welcome to semester two of physics, Xuha.” Alex pronounced the name correctly. The sound was familiar. What was it? The name for the “uh” sound in English. Spelled schwa, he thought. Dictionaries used an upside down e to represent it. Surely he could remember that. Schwa.

“I think Zoo-hah fits him much better,” another kid from the back laughed.

“Welcome to semester two of physics, zoo-hah,” the third kid in the group, Travis, mimicked Alex perfectly in tone and inflection. Alex gave him a fast glare that stopped the twittering laughter all around. The class knew when they were about to push Mr. Z too far and they knew they were getting close.

Although Alex started in on the lesson without further comment, he couldn’t help feeling a little sad. Thanks to one inept pronunciation, now no matter what he did point forward this poor kid was going to get called Zoo-hah by everyone. It would be his “real” name before the day was done and there was nothing Alex could do at this point to rectify it.

Sometimes, he thought to himself, I get damn tired of these kids. It was not a good start to a new semester.

Last May when Stan walked the box that had shown up in the mail down to the basement lab to be examined by experts on dating Maya artifacts, he still hadn’t been sure that it was authentic. By that point, however, he had concluded that it either was real or was such an elaborate and well-contrived replica that it was of interest either way. His department chair had understood quite well why Stan had hesitated for weeks before bringing the box to anyone’s attention, and the man had been equally wary about declaring the relic as the real thing.

The examination of the artifact went on for seven long months. Stan waited patiently throughout the rest of 2009 while others dated the rock, examined the carvings and the precious stone inlays, and studied the style of the box. While they analyzed, he had spent July and August in Guatemala as usual, then taught his normal collection of fall semester classes. The wheels of research move slowly. He had headed back to the current excavation in progress a few days after Christmas, as had been his schedule now for over two decades.

None of the other experts, of course, ever expected that the paper that Stan and his students had briefly glimpsed would still be inside the box after it had probably changed hands several times, and Stan was more than happy to let everyone assume that had been the case. It was enough that he stood to be humiliated again if the box itself were a hoax. He hardly needed some other expert translating a document that could somehow turn out to merely make fun of him one more time. So before Stan had turned the relic over to the school he had removed the ancient yellow paper, placed it carefully between two pieces of very clean, very dry glass and put the whole thing in his front hall closet at home. Just until he figured out if the box was real, he assured himself. Then he’d think of a way to bring it forward.

Then a few days ago, just before he was scheduled to return to campus for the spring semester, he had received word that a group of his peers had reached their decision. A nervous Stan Drexler had chosen to fly back to the states a few days early just to hear their verdict in person. Stan had not been disappointed. They declared the artifact to be authentic, although not the work of post-classic Maya. The group believed that the box had been crafted somewhat later, by early colonial Maya, most likely of the Kan Ek Itzen group and probably from the seventeenth century. In other words it was old, but technically not ancient. Many on the panel were kind enough to go over their analysis with him in person and in great detail, and the esteem implied by that courtesy had not been lost on Stan.

And once he had heard their verdict, he realized with some surprise that he had no intention of finding a way to return the document that now resided in his front hall closet. No, he was going to try to finish translating the document himself. And he was going to seek out the treasure it promised.

Not for wealth, of course. Unlike amateur treasure seekers, Stan knew damn well how complex and varied the laws were concerning the category of precious metals and jewels collectively known as “treasure trove” and he knew how quickly anything else was governed by the 1970 UNESCO convention on a nation’s rights to its own cultural property. The former often gave full or partial ownership to the government or the landowner, and the latter gave virtually all of a find of archeological significance to the nation in which it was located. Meaning that in the end, whatever he found, it was unlikely that much if any of it would be his. Except for the one thing that mattered.

For while it was true that Doctor Drexler had sort of been vindicated with the return of the box, it was also true that his poor judgment in not protecting the artifact originally would always tarnish his reputation. Unless, of course, he became known point forward as the great Dr. Stan Drexler who found the long hidden Maya whatever it was.

And to think that the decision that had cost him so much had been born of little more than hunger, fatigue and a humane reticence to not ask exhausted kids to put up with a miserable night unnecessarily. Had the comfort and well-being of those five students turned out to be that important? Certainly not. He didn’t even think that at the time the students had realized he had been thinking of their welfare. They had hardly turned into five appreciative colleagues.

In fact, three of them, he was pretty sure, had gotten out of the field entirely. He knew that Jake had gone into import/export, moving out to Southern California and turning a background in archeology into a lucrative marketing tool. Stan sort of winced whenever he leafed through magazines for artifact hunters and saw the lurid ads for Jake’s business, although he had to admit on some level that the man was certainly doing well for himself. And given that Jake hadn’t really been the academic sort, maybe it was best.

Another of the boys, Kyle, had become ill and left school without ever finishing his degree, and soon after that he and Stan had lost touch. Stan had always meant to look Kyle up. For all that the boy had a caustic exterior, he had often been surprisingly helpful in the field and in the end he was the one who had gone most out of his way to defend Stan’s decision not to guard the box overnight. Stan had been dismayed to hear a rumor several years ago that Kyle had died from AIDS not long after leaving school. He hoped that it wasn’t true.

One of the two girls in the group, Jennifer, had stayed in the area and married upwards. Or at least that was how it had been phrased to him, along with the story that Jennifer had elected to go for the fulltime role of wife and mother. He was told that her husband was some sort of prominent business figure and she was now something of a society item. Well, he could only hope that her academic background provided fodder for more intelligent conversation at social events.

The third boy, Nelson, had actually gone on to become a colleague of sorts. More accurately he was an associate professor at another Southern university with whom Dr. Drexler’s school was often in competition for funding, for prestige, and for publication space in the major journals. Of all the five students, Stan thought that Nelson had been most critical, after the fact, of the negligent decision to leave the discovery unguarded. It wasn’t that Nelson was a mean kid. But he had clearly been the most serious of the five, the one most determined to be an archeologist himself. Maybe the one most excited about the possibilities of the discovery and the most disappointed by its loss.

After the incident, Nelson had switched almost immediately to another advisor, firmly hitching his wagon to a professor he deemed more responsible, and had little to say to Stan. He and Nelson had met at a few functions over the years and always greeted each other politely and without real warmth. Stan suspected that Nelson still held a buried resentment regarding the whole incident.

The last of the five, the girl named Shelby, stood before him now, her eyes wide. She had been the most enigmatic of the group, as serious about the work as Nelson, yet almost as supportive of Stan’s ultimately careless decision as Kyle. She had finished her doctorate with him and also stayed in the greater Atlanta area, but moved out of academia almost immediately afterwards and into the world of curators and museums, and thus mostly out of Stan’s circle as well. But now she had heard about the box. Its mysterious return by a guilt-ridden collector was the hottest of topics among collectors of all periods. How many lovers of antiquities suspected that one or two or more items in their collection had been procured by less than ethical means?

Shelby suspected the answer was most. At least that was what she was telling Stan, eyes filled with respect for, and interest in, the unnamed collector with a conscience. Now that the artifact had just been deemed authentic, Shelby was hoping to write an article on this interesting phenomenon. and to lead the article off with an interview with her old professor. It could stimulate more introspection among collectors and even possibly jar a few poorly procured items loose to be housed in museums .

Would Dr. Drexler please grant her a real interview? Stan eyed the woman warily. She had to be forty years old now, yet she was still as slight as she had been as a student, and the intervening sixteen years had barely added lines to her face. Her very light brown hair was still worn in an unflattering single long braid down her back. Thanks mostly to her dress and grooming she remained what would once have been called “plain.” Most notable of all, though, was that her large grey eyes still had that odd clarity and directness to them that Stan remembered most.

She’d been a good student and a hard worker. Under almost any other circumstances Stan would have been more than happy to be the subject of her interview. But he had made this little decision about hiding the paper inside the box and that was something that Shelby had seen. Something Shelby would certainly ask him about. Want to talk about. Speculate about. Could he look into those clear grey eyes and simply lie? Not today, he decided.

“Shelby, it is so great to see you after all of these years and to find out that you’ve done so well. We should have gotten together sooner. I had no idea you were so close by. I’m very proud of you. Really.”

“But…” she laughed.

“But you’ve just caught me at a bad time. I’m headed back to Guatemala tomorrow to tie up a couple of loose ends because I left so quickly when the decision was announced. I’m really booked solid when I get back, probably for all of February. I’m sure you’ve got some sort of publication deadline,” he said hopefully.

“Not really,” she shook her head. “This is an important story. It can wait for you. You let me know when you’re settled back in and have got some time to sit down and really talk through this.”

“Uhhh, early March?” Stan suggested.

“Perfect,” Shelby smiled. “Let’s pick a date now.”

And so Stan reluctantly picked up his day planner and agreed to an interview the first week of March.

Most professions involve one or more critical balancing acts. Health care providers weigh time spent and emotional involvement with one’s patients against seeing more of the sick and maintaining one’s own emotional strength. Restaurants struggle to serve good food that doesn’t cost too much, doesn’t take too long to prepare, and makes enough of a profit to pay the help well and still make money for the owner. And so on.

One of the things that Alex liked about teaching was that his choices almost never involved other people’s welfare versus his own money. He simply did the best he could by his students with what he had and that was that. That is not to say that he didn’t have quandaries, though. Like the one standing before him now.

Xuha, or Zoohah as he was now commonly known, had turned out to be a bright student, a junior who was more than adequately prepared for the second semester of basic physics. At roughly five feet three inches tall and maybe one hundred and forty pounds, he was stocky, strong, and had a confident easy humor about him in spite of his stature. Alex suspected that the kid had been well liked at his old school.

Alex had heard Xuha’s frequent joking around in class and he was impressed that the boy managed to be funny without being mean, and managed to either not hear or not take offense at much of the meanness directed at him. For some reason this good-natured confidence seemed to particularly bother the three aspiring Neo-Nazis who typically sat in the back of the room. Travis, Tanner and Tyler, who had been a general pain in the ass throughout the fall semester, had now made it one of their chief missions to put this happy transplant in his place. The ensuing war of snide remarks turned out to be highly amusing to the other students and too often managed to deter covering adequate material in the one hour and fifteen minutes every other day that was allotted to a science class in a block-scheduled Texas school.

So although Alex privately cheered Xuha on, outwardly he stayed neutral and disapproving of the entire war of words. He had already intervened by separating the three Ts, as everyone called them, seating the three boys at three different corners of the room while putting Xuha at the fourth.

But now his whole neutral stance was being threatened. Xuha was anxious to play a school sport, an activity that Alex encouraged for all of his students. Because the boy worked and needed the job, it had to be a sport that was flexible and less demanding than, say, baseball. Xuha had decided he wanted to make the tennis team, which, under other circumstances, would have been perfect.

Tennis players from Early Gulch High School were pretty much always overmatched and the team would welcome any able-bodied volunteer. Alex knew, because he had coached it for five years before deciding that his days of high school coaching were over and that his own three young children needed his afterschool time far worse than he needed the pittance that high school coaching paid. Frankly, Early Gulch, which sat at the convenient crossroads of two state highways, was attended by mostly lower income rural white kids, with a growing number of lower income rural Latinos, a consistent minority of lower income rural blacks, and a smattering of Asians. It was rare for a student at EGHS to have played tennis competitively or even to have been coached at the sport before joining the team.

So for the past twelve years Alex had helped out by providing free one-on-one tennis lessons to the school’s aspiring players, as his schedule permitted. This was much to the relief of the variety of reluctant coaches who followed him, all of whom knew how to handle the paperwork of running a sport but knew little about the playing of tennis.

And Alex liked doing it. It gave him a way to keep his hand in coaching and to do some good for kids without making time commitments that took away from being there for his own children. Some of his protégés had even gone on to do okay, given their original lack of experience. It was win-win, as people liked to say. Until today, when it was suddenly lose-lose.

He could lose by telling Xuha that he would not coach him. Xuha would lose a chance to be a decent player, the team would lose, and Alex would lose because he would be treating one innocent kid poorly for no better reason than that he did not wish to appear to be taking sides. Or he could agree to coach Xuha, and lose in an instant the neutrality he had worked so hard to cultivate in his third period class.

If there was anything Alex hated it was modifying his own behavior as a result of the behavior of jerks. Fine. Let the three Ts add teacher’s pet jokes to their repertoire. “I’d be happy to help you out, Xuha.” The boy’s face lit up as he nodded with enthusiasm.

Although the United States of America began to define and enforce requirements for citizenship early on, it did not pass its first act limiting immigration until almost one hundred years after the nation was founded. This ground-breaking act of 1875 set our nation’s first immigration standards by prohibiting convicts and prostitutes from setting up residence here. Fearing they may not have gone far enough, over the next fifteen years congress also voted to exclude lunatics, idiots, paupers, polygamists, and the “diseased.”

Ms. Johnson always bought the best brands of frozen pizza, and the kids that came to her modest little house after school almost always got to eat as much as they wanted. It was one of the many reasons Travis, Tyler and Tanner came almost every day. Another was that while they were there Ms. Johnson treated them like adults, not like students, which of course she had to do when she was their teacher in the classroom. After all, she wasn’t that much older than they were. So, as long as they kept quiet about how much time they spent at a teacher’s house, she let them cuss, a little at least. And she definitely let them say anything bad that they wanted to about anyone, even their parents and other students. Sometimes she even encouraged it.

“If you three are going to be the fine Aryan warriors I just know you are going to be, you have to learn to analyze,” she said, tossing her long blonde hair out of her eyes. “You need to be discerning.” She said it slowly like she wanted to make sure that they learned the word. Then added, by way of definition, “You know. To be able to call bullshit bullshit.”

Travis and Tanner both smiled. Tyler could tell that they kind of liked it when Ms. Johnson cussed around them.

Some afternoons, she invited more students to come, other boys and even once in a while a girl. Tyler didn’t like those afternoons quite as well because Ms. Johnson was always more cautious then. She wouldn’t say anything bad about the Blacks or the Mexicans, and she would cut off Tyler and his friends if they tried to do so. Instead her pretty blue eyes would change from passionate to thoughtful as she’d talk a lot about being proud of who you were, respecting your own history and your own people. Sugar-coated stuff. Some of the kids got it and got invited back for the times when Ms. Johnson was less cautious. Others gave Ms. Johnson a funny look when she talked like that, like maybe she was hiding a contagious disease. Those kids never got asked to come have pizza again.

Even though Tyler liked some of the kids that returned often, he thought that the very best afternoons were when it was just the four of them. Ms. Johnson and “her boys” as she called them, the four Ts. They all knew that Ms. Johnson’s first name was Tina even though none of them ever dared called her that. But they were permitted to laugh that anyone else who joined their little group would have to have a name that started with “T” too.

“T for what?” Travis asked one afternoon.

Ms. Johnson gave it some thought.

“T for The Master Race,” Tyler answered before Ms. Johnson could think of anything. He had a tendency to do that, which he felt kind of bad about, but things just seemed to pop into his head and out of his mouth so quickly.

“Let Ms. J answer, asshole,” Tanner glared at him. Tanner always stood up for Ms. Johnson, but as usual she intervened graciously.

“Boys, boys. You have to be strong together. Support each other. Tanner, be glad that Tyler has such a quick mind. It will be useful for our cause. All three of you need to focus more on your academics you know.” She smiled as she saw all three of them wince. “Come on, I know that guys like to fight with guns and knives and trust me, you are going to have lots of opportunity to do that once the race wars start. But we have to have more than superior bodies going for us, you know. Let’s not forget how important it is that we also learn to make the best possible use of our superior minds.”

And then before any of the three could argue with her about minds or bodies, she turned to the back counter and produced a tray of beautiful homemade brownies.

“Eat up,” she smiled to end the discussion. “I agree that you need to bulk up, to grow strong. I’m so proud of the way the three of you have committed at such a young age to taking some responsibility for the white race.” Pride glowed in Ms. Johnson’s pretty, young face. “I just know that my boys here have some very vital role to play in the struggles that are going to lie ahead.”

Ever since Alex had hauled his wife out of a cold raging river almost a year ago, there had been something different about her. At first Alex chalked it up to the fact that she had a face-to-face encounter with death. Lola confided in him that the experience had shaken her to her very core.

Then Alex had been aware that his wife’s new job had consumed a lot more of her concentration than the old job. A trained geoscientist, she had gone from oil prospecting in the Gulf of Mexico for a big oil company to looking for drilling locations in the Niger Delta for a tiny enterprise. He had watched her become emotionally involved in the little company’s success, and in her fellow employees, many of whom were Nigerian themselves. Over months Alex had been subjected to emotional outbursts about Biafra and oil spills and the history of slavery, and he had come to understand that Nigeria had somehow captured a piece of Lola’s heart as well as her mind. That was, he admitted to himself, how she generally was.

But by last fall Alex had been sure that there was more was going on. Lola seemed only half present at times, and she often acted like the needs and concerns of her husband and of their fourteen-year-old daughter were trivial compared to something. To what? To a secret lover? To the needs of Africa? To achieving world peace? By the time Lola left in December for a three-week work assignment in Lagos, a tiny piece of Alex had begun to worry that she might never come home.

And when she did arrive back in Houston Christmas afternoon, hollow-eyed and exhausted, he had known that she had crossed some threshold without him. It made him sadder than he could fathom. Not that she had grown, lived, experienced. But that she was choosing to do it alone.

Alex’s response to his wife’s increasing distance had been to reach out and try to please her, so since Christmas he had been spent time orchestrating his first ever surprise party for Lola. She turned fifty in late January and Alex engineered a plethora of unexpected treats including getting older daughter Ariel to sneak home from college midweek for the event, getting Lola’s sister Summer to fly in for a day from Denver, and assembling an assortment of friends and well-wishers at the restaurant for a very special dinner. It went perfectly and Alex was highly pleased with himself for pulling it off, and for the first time in months Lola had seemed genuinely there and happy.

But that only lasted a day. The next day son Zane ran into serious problems while traveling, and after hearing the news Lola returned to her preoccupied self. Alex realized that he had to find a time and way to talk to his wife about the growing gulf between them. He just, well, he just wasn’t sure how to bring up a subject when he wasn’t even sure what the real subject was.

Lola, meanwhile, had spent the last few months trying to imagine how she could possibly have a much needed conversation with Alex. It was tempting to simply put it off forever, but that wasn’t fair and she realized that the longer she waited the more awkward and difficult it was going to be. He already suspected that something was wrong. It was hardly right to let the man she loved worry this way.

Finally, the two of them were home alone. Alex was happy on the couch with a beer and bowl of popcorn. No sports team that he held dear was on the television. The game he was watching wasn’t even close. There wasn’t going to be a better time. Lola took a deep breath and dove in.

“Alex, I’ve always had a knack for picking up what others are feeling.”

“You sure have,” he agreed, giving her slightly under a quarter of his attention just to be polite.

“That knack has gotten a lot stronger recently,” she added.

“Oh, that’s interesting. Is that a bad thing?” he asked trying to be helpful. Curiosity had gained her more of his concentration, but the game still held over half of it.

“I can kind of read your mind, Alex.”

“What?” One hundred per cent of Alex looked away from the screen and into Lola’s deep brown eyes, as he teetered between a new worry that his wife was going a little crazy and a worse worry that she was telling him the truth.

She smiled reassuringly at him before she spoke. “You want to ask me to tell you exactly what you are thinking right now, don’t you? But you’re not sure if that’s a good idea. It may make me feel like you doubt me, or that you want me to perform like a circus animal.” Lola’s eyes narrowed a little and then she went on, with almost a mischievous look. “You’re thinking this may all be easier if I’m delusional but you have the very strong feeling that I’m not. You think that I probably am really a telepath and knowing your luck I’m probably even a very good one. Yes, it turns out that I am.”

Lola took a short breath and went on.

“And now that you think about it, it doesn’t even seem all that odd to you. I’ve always kind of been that way anyway, and sure this means that you have to trust me but you already do that, don’t you, so it shouldn’t be a big deal. And yes you can see a little cleavage with this t-shirt I’m wearing which is why you like it better that the ones I usually wear, and no I did not know that I have a little something stuck in between my teeth, which, apparently unbeknownst to me I have tendency to have happen especially when I eat popcorn.”

Alex held up his hand for silence, while he thought for a few seconds.

“Lola,” he said. “If this is true, and I’m not saying that it is, then you’ve been aware that I knew that something was wrong. You’ve known that I was worried about you. So why haven’t you and I had this conversation weeks ago?”

Lola, to her credit, looked embarrassed. “Because of my party. I didn’t want to tell you until it was over.”

“What? I don’t get it. It was just a dinner. I was trying to make you happy.”

“And you did. You did. Please understand Alex. It was so sweet of you and I didn’t want to do anything to spoil it. Come on. How can you have a surprise party for a telepath?” She smiled at Alex in a way she had not for months. “I do like leveling with you way more than I like keeping things from you, and yes I love you too.”

Okay, Alex thought slowly and deliberately. I do believe her. And because this doesn’t work two ways, we need to lay down some ground rules here.

“Now you’re thinking words at me and that doesn’t work nearly as well,” Lola said. “I get that you want to establish some dos and don’ts. I’m in total agreement, but first let me save you some aggravation.”

And so Lola picked up her laptop and showed Alex the website she had been spending much of her time on for the past six months as she had discovered, and then practiced and learned about, the strange new skill that had been thrust upon her by the combination of a canoe accident and by the needs of a desperate, telepathic Nigerian woman.

“Read some of this please,” she asked. “It will put your mind at ease a lot about what I can and can’t do, and then once you understand more about it, I will tell you the whole story of how I got sucked into this. I think you’ll understand, Alex, that I had to accept a lot of things first myself, before I had any hope of sharing this with you.”

And because that did make sense to Alex, he read. And he asked Lola questions. And she reassured him every way she could. And then he read some more.

By the end of January 2010 Alex Zeitman had seen everything Lola wanted to show him, and he had come to terms with the fact that what ever other oddities did or did not exist about him, the facts were that he was a fifty-one-year-old high school physics teacher with three children, a bum knee, and hair that was going from sand-colored straight to white far faster than it should. And, by the way, he also had a wife who could sort of, kind of, detect thoughts or at least feelings in a manner that some people would describe as telepathy. There was nothing the least bit magic about her. She was just wired that way. And, thanks to an unusual combination of circumstances, her skill level had increased dramatically over the past few months.

Well, Alex thought to himself, that explained a lot. And maybe it could turn out to be useful.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Lola smiled at Alex as she got ready for bed the next night.

“I thought you weren’t going to do that?” he said a little irritated.

“I’m not doing that,” she announced as she pulled back the covers and crawled in next to him. “It’s what you’re always thinking when I come to bed. Well, almost always. Sometimes you’re preoccupied reading something and sometimes you’re already asleep.”

“So it doesn’t require any special skill to know what’s on my mind right now?” Alex asked, warming a little to the playful tone in Lola’s voice.

“Not right now.” She giggled as he pulled her closer. “Definitely not now.”

And Lola could not help thinking how relieved she was that Alex accepted her and wasn’t mad.

And Alex could not help thinking how relieved he was that there was nothing really the matter with his wife other than the fact that she was odd, which is something he had known all along.

He saw her smile softly at the feeling he must have communicated. Damn. He pulled back and perched for just a second between apprehension and acceptance, between his desire for privacy and his desire for closeness. Acceptance won. He put his arms around his wife, enjoying the feel and smell of her, thinking that it had never been so clear to him that intimacy came in many ways.

January 1697

Ichik had felt so proud to be trusted with the larger of the two boxes, even though it was a lot heavier than the one that his brother had been asked to carry. But after he had walked for several days the extra weight began to feel like a burden, not a privilege. At one point he even considered just burying the jade box and being done with it. It wasn’t like he would have to face his mother and explain what he had done. He knew already that he could never go home again. So, would it not be safer buried somewhere now rather than maybe being stolen from him later?

But his mother had been more than clear. Ancestors were watching. He had been chosen to act on behalf of his own grandfather. He must travel every morning in the direction that the sun rose, and he must make his way through the land of the Itza and past it. He had been told to go where there no longer were small villages and settlements willing to give him shelter and food for a few days. He could take his time but he must avoid the Spaniards at all costs and go to where he had to hunt and forage and turn to his meager rations to survive. He had been trained to do this. He must keep walking until he found strange people who were not his own and who were not the Spanish. He should greet them in peace. Not with fighting. That was good because Ichik knew that he wasn’t particularly great at fighting. For the last couple of years he had used his bigger stature to scare off would-be combatants. It had worked well enough but had done little to improve his fighting skills. So greeting in peace was good.

“Make friends,” his mother had said. “Make friends like you are so good at doing and keep walking until you reach a body of water so big that you cannot see across it and you cannot go around it. Then stop of course.” She had smiled at the obviousness of her instructions. “And then the difficult part will begin.”

Ichik tried singing under his breath as he walked, just to pass the time and to take his mind off of how much he missed his mother and his brother and his sister, and how heavy the box felt, and of course to take his mind off of the difficult times ahead, whatever they might be.

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