YABC is thrilled to be hosting a spot on the VIAL OF TEARS by Cristin Bishara Blog Tour hosted by Rockstar Book Tours. Check out our post and make sure to enter the giveaway!
About The Book:
Title: VIAL OF TEARS
Author: Cristin Bishara
Pub. Date: October 5, 2021
Publisher: Holiday House
Formats: Hardcover, eBook, audiobook
Two sisters become trapped in the underworld–and in the machinations of deities, shapeshifters, and ghouls–in this lush and dangerous Phoenician mythology-inspired fantasy.
Sixteen-year-old sisters Samira and Rima aren’t exactly living the dream. Instead, they live with their maddeningly unreliable mother in a rundown trailer in Michigan. Dad’s dead, money’s tight, and Mom disappears for days at a time. So when Sam’s grandfather wills her the family valuables–a cache of Lebanese antiquities–she’s desperate enough to try pawning them before Mom can.
But she shouldn’t. Because one is cursed, forbidden, the burial coin of a forgotten god. Disturbing it condemns her and Rima to the Phoenician underworld, a place of wicked cities, burning cedar forests, poisoned feasts of milk and lemons, and an endless, windless ocean.
Nothing is what it seems. No one is who they say. And down here, the night never ends.
To get home–and keep her sister safe–Sam will have to outwit beautiful shapeshifters, pose as a royal bride, sail the darkest sea… and maybe kill the god of death himself.
★ “A heroic tale that feels both classic and fresh.”—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
Karm El Mohr, Syria ( modern- day Lebanon), 1903
In the night his mother disappeared, the boy had tiptoed to her room to ask for a glass of water.
The moon shone through the windows, casting a glowing walk-way across the floor. The air was fragrant with blossoming orange trees. He would tell her that he couldn’t sleep, that lately his dreams had been strange. Had hers been, too?
It was an uncertain time. The Turks had been coming without warning. They galloped through the village taking whatever they wanted— livestock, clothing, jewelry, young men for their army. In his dreams, they rode dragons instead of horses.
He nudged her bedroom door open. Father was not yet home; he was drinking arak and playing backgammon next door at Aami Hanna’s.
Mother stood in the center of the bedroom in her nightgown. Her hair was down, long tangles of black. In her arms she cradled a jug—
the one she’d found yesterday while exploring the mountain caves.
Over the years, she’d come home with other treasures: a metal spear, the jawbone of a lion, a clay seal, glass beads. Truly, though, she told her son, the most precious thing she found was a bit of solitude.
“Mother,” he whispered. Was she asleep with her eyes open?
Behind her, the moonlight glistened on a spiderweb, a hexagon of silken threads. “Shoo saar? Shoo aam b’seer?” What happened? What is happening?
She tilted her head as if she’d heard something beyond his voice.
Perhaps it was an animal; wolves sometimes stalked the village at night. He, too, listened so intently that, for a moment, he thought he could hear the spider plucking its legs along the web, perfecting its trap.
He noticed she held something— small and round— between her fi ngers. “What do you have, immi?” he asked.
And then he saw something strange spreading before his mother’s bare feet: a dark pool, black smoke bubbling up from its center.
He tried to scream, but he could hardly breathe. Instead he stumbled backward, bumping into the half- open door, his heart pounding against his ribs. Why was there no burning odor, no heat from the smoke? The air was cold.
“Get back, Mother!” he managed to whisper desperately, shivering.
But she seemed oddly calm— trancelike— as she stood near the cusp of the widening pool, which began to swirl like a pot of soup stirred by an unseen ladle. The boy knew he should cry for help or pull her back, but now he himself was unable to turn away, unable to move.
What was it? What was in there?
What was at the bottom?
Long fi ngers, tendrils of smoke, beckoned him forward with a shushing noise like a mother soothing a child. Mesmerized, horrifi ed, he stepped closer.
Something was materializing and rising up out of the churning pool. Some one.
“Give it to me,” the man hissed, shadowed in smoke.
His face was hidden by a beard, his cloak trimmed with fur. He spoke in a foreign tongue, with ancient words— but the boy understood. It was the language of his long- lost ancestors. It was in his blood.
But give what? Perhaps he wanted the jug?
The man glanced at the boy before grabbing his mother by the wrist. Her face collapsed into an expression of pain. The jug fell with a thud.
“Let her go!” the boy begged, frozen.
“Mine,” the man said.
“She is not yours!”
His mother’s eyes snapped into focus. She fi nally looked at her son— fi nally saw him standing there— and her face dimmed with terror.
“Go,” she croaked. The ghostly man pulled her toward the pool, which was now a yawning black mouth consuming half of the room.
“You cannot take her!” the boy cried.
“Habibi.” His mother’s voice was nothing more than a thick moan.
He reached out to her, the tips of his fi ngers grazing her nightgown. His balance wavered at the edge of the spiraling chasm.
With a grunt of determination, she pushed the boy away with more strength than he’d known she had, sending him across the room.
He landed on his back, hitting his head on the doorframe. Helplessly, he watched as the man wrapped his cloak around his mother, envelop-ing all but her pale face. Outside, a cloud slid over the moon, turning the light ashen. His mother and the stranger stepped into the bubbling black vortex, which narrowed.
A final sigh of smoke lingered briefly before it went out like a forgotten campfire.
All was quiet. The bedroom floor was as solid as ever.
But his mother was gone.
He whimpered and pulled himself across the room, lying fl at across the spot where she’d been just moments ago. Under his cheek, the fl oor grew cold and wet with tears. Surely this was only another nightmare— his worst yet— but he could not wake himself up.
I love you, she’d said. Forever.
He picked up the jug and held it to his chest; he rocked back and forth and called for her. Outside the window, an owl responded with a forlorn who- who.
When he finally stumbled next door, frantic and babbling, his father stubbed out his cigarette and cursed. “The Turks!” he cried.
He stood and knocked over the backgammon board, scattering pieces everywhere like a fistful of lost coins. “They kidnapped her!”
He tore through the village, his angry shouts waking children from their sleep. A few men mounted horses and went chasing shadows into the night, ready to slit the throats of her captors. Other than a pack of hyenas, they found nothing.
Secretly, no one held out hope. She was too beautiful. She had surely been taken as a bride. After a month, the village priest stopped praying for her return. After a year, no one spoke of it.
“Bayye,” the boy would say to his father, tugging on his pants in their grove of walnut trees. “It was not the Turks.”
He had told and retold his story, but the more he recounted what had truly happened, the less people listened. They patted his head, crossed themselves, and changed the subject.
“There is no such thing as a genie!” his father said finally. “Now stop your talk, once and for all. People are beginning to think you are akhwet. ”
But the boy knew what he had seen. He kept the jug hidden and close. He rubbed it every night, making the same unfulfilled wish—
Please bring my mother home— until he was an old man ready to die.
“No, no, no.” Sam swore under her breath. “Go away.”
She pressed her eyes shut, as if that would make their landlord’s car disappear.
But his ancient Mercedes was still rasping along behind her, its belly low to the ground, slinking like an animal. Sam dipped her head and picked up the pace. Her shoes were tucked under her arm, and the gravel road bit into her bare feet. As she reached the mailbox, she heard the car sputter to a stop, and there was the snap of the driver’s door.
“What’s the rush?” Mr. Koplow called, laughing as he trailed her up the cracked cement driveway.
Sam stopped and steeled herself before turning to face his empty smile and icy blue eyes. His pants hung low underneath his belly; his thinning hair was combed straight back.
“It’s not the first yet,” Sam said, even though she knew they still owed last month’s rent.
Mr. Koplow tipped his chin toward the trailer. “Your mother here?”
“She went to get milk.”
“Milk,” Mr. Koplow repeated.
“And toilet paper,” Sam said, adding to the lie.
“Right. So she’ll be back soon,” Mr. Koplow suggested, reaching into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He pulled one out, crooked, and pressed it between his lips.
Sam glanced up at the sky, where the sun was inching its way down. “Sorry, but I really need to get to the lake.” She raised her hand.
Mr. Koplow didn’t move. He let out a curl of smoke. “She wants me to fi x the back stoop. I need to take a look, see what happened.”
“Nothing happened. It’s rotten.”
At her feet was an oil stain from her mother’s leaking car, and behind her there was yet another dent in the carport. She knew Mr.
Koplow was keeping tabs; they would never get their security deposit back when the time came.
He squinted at her dirty feet, at her chipped green toenail polish. His eyes climbed higher, lingering on her purse, then the stack of bracelets up her arm. “How much did those cost?” he asked as his phone rang.
Three dollars. That was how much she’d paid for her bracelets.
Clearance table, plus her employee discount.
“Yeah, this is Alan. Slow down, slow down,” Mr. Koplow said into his cell, his voice rising. “What’s leaking? The toilet on the second fl oor?” He pointed his cigarette at Sam. “I’ll be back.”
A moment later, his car engine sputtered and caught, and Sam watched as he vanished down the gravel road, a wall of dust rising behind him.
With a sigh, she turned to face the lopsided trailer with its mildew- stained siding and ripped welcome mat. Mr. Koplow had once told Mom that it wasn’t the Taj Mahal and she was no princess, so what did she expect?
Whatever it was, it was home. It was the place of rushed Monday mornings and the smell of Mom’s perfume. It was where Rima had fallen against the coffee table and gotten the scar on her shoulder, where Dad had taught Sam how to cast a net from the top of the picnic table, pretending the backyard was teeming with baitfish. It was the place Dad would come home to, when he finally came home. He could fold his clothes and put them away. His grape soda would take up the top shelf of the fridge. He’d get Outside magazine delivered again.
He’d pick up right where he left off.
“See you soon,” he’d said the day he was deployed, ruffling Sam’s hair. “Take care of your mom and baby sister while I’m gone.”
“Yes, sir,” she’d said.
Then he’d stooped down and put his hands on her shoulders. His military boots— which always smelled like motor oil— were tightly laced under his flight suit. His hands were so big. Invincible. He could survive anything.
“Promise me,” he said, his blond eyebrows drawn together. The air had been laced with the sweetness of spring flowers and grass and new leaves, just like today. “Promise me you’ll look out for them until I get back.”
“I will, sir,” Sam had repeated, an uneasy knot in her stomach.
“I’ll try to, Dad.”
“Try hard, kiddo. I love you.” That was the last thing he’d said to her.
She could almost feel Dad’s hands on her shoulders now as she jiggled the house key into the rusty lock. Another broken thing that needed to be replaced.
Behind her, brakes squealed and then sighed. She spun around to look. Was it Mr. Koplow again, or Mom fi nally home, or someone Mom owed money, or a favor?
It was a hulking UPS truck. A man in a brown uniform hopped down with a box in his hands.
“It’s probably for Mrs. Jarvis,” Sam said to the deliveryman as she finally jerked the door open. She pointed down the street at a lawn cluttered with gnomes and metallic balls on pedestals. “QVC addict.”
“Nope,” he said, reading the box. “This is for Samira Clark.
“It’s just Sam,” she said. “Nobody calls me Samira.”
“Whoever sent this package does. I’ll need a photo ID for this one.”
Sam pulled her wallet from her purse and handed over her driver’s license.
“Wow, your hair,” the deliveryman said as he glanced back and forth between her face and her license. She was sixteen in the photo, almost two years ago. At the time she’d had shoulder- length hair bleached to a brassy shade of blond. Now her black hair hung down to her waist.
“That’s me,” Sam assured him.
He held the electronic clipboard out for her. “Initial here. And put the date right there at the bottom.”
The date. It was Friday. Mom had been gone since Monday. That made four nights. Too long. If she didn’t hear from her by tomorrow, she’d have to call the police.
“Yeah, sorry,” Sam said, scribbling her signature. “Stressful day, that’s all. Couldn’t remember the date for a second.”
He smiled, took back the board, and handed her the package and her driver’s license. “Hang in there.”
“Thanks,” she said, though he was already jogging back to his truck.
Sam stepped inside, looking at the box. It was lighter than she expected, and it smelled like spices and tobacco. Postage stickers were everywhere, and on the right- hand corner LIBANPOST, BEIRUT was stamped within a rectangle of bright blue ink. The sender had meticulously written The United States of America under Sam’s zip code, and the return address had been perfectly penned, as though a ruler had been held underneath each line. Karm El Mohr, it said, which Sam recognized as the name of her mother’s hometown in Lebanon, a little village in the mountains.
Curiosity tugged at her, but it was getting late. She had to hurry to the lake, or there would be nothing at all for dinner.
“Rima?” Sam called into the house. Their tiny kitchen table, too small for three people, teetered when Sam set the package on top. She tucked her driver’s license away and tossed her purse and shoes into the corner.
“Hello?” she called one more time before peeking into her mother’s bedroom. There was always the slim chance she could be back, and asleep.
But nothing had changed since the last time Sam looked. Mom’s bed was unmade, her fl oral comforter tangled. The curtains were drawn. On a chair, nestled between two throw pillows, a teddy bear stared at Sam with vacant eyes. MY VALENTINE was stitched across its heart- shaped belly. Sam stared back. Though she’d never asked, she was sure it was a gift from Dad— it had been around a lot longer than any of Mom’s boyfriends.
She closed her mother’s door and went to her own room, where she changed into jeans, a fi shing shirt with a dozen little pockets for supplies, and sneakers. Her old Girl Scout sash— loaded with badges for archery, horseback riding, cookie sales—
had fallen from its
thumbtacks again. She pressed it back into the wall and then tossed a makeup bag and a jacket onto Rima’s upper bunk, which was already piled high with dirty clothes, schoolwork, and at least twenty jars of nail polish. There was only enough space in their windowless room for one dresser, and there was no closet, so the floor was cluttered with semiorganized piles. Picking through them, Sam found everything she needed, making a mental checklist as she went: fi shing rod; Dad’s Swiss Army knife in case she needed to cut a line; a cooler. Back in the kitchen she grabbed an ice pack from the freezer and, finally, moldy cheese for bait.
“Go, go, go,” she urged herself.
The winter had been so long and gray. She’d missed Glen Lake’s waters— turquoise blue and crystal clear, a reassurance that not everything in the world was dark and muddy underneath. No matter how many times she pulled her boat out onto the lake, her heart still swelled, as if those Caribbean- looking waters were a gift just for her, and that unexpected beauty was all she needed to carry on.
Her hand was on the door, but at the last moment she glanced back at the UPS package on the table. If Mom came home while she was fi shing, she would open the package herself, even though it was addressed to Sam.
What could be inside?
The only person they knew from Lebanon was Mom’s grandfather, Jiddo Naameh. Packages from him came very rarely, and they were always for Mom, never Sam. She’d never even met her great- grandfather, had only seen him in a handful of yellowed pictures that hung on the walls of Mom’s bedroom. He looked old in those photos, and they were all taken before Sam was born.
It would only take a second to open the package. She took her hand off the doorknob, set her fi shing gear down, and found a pair of scissors in the kitchen junk drawer.
Judging by the weight and size of the box, there might be a book
or two inside. In the past, he’d sent calendars, tourist guides, poetry written in Arabic, and books with glossy photos of Roman and Phoenician ruins. Sometimes he’d include bars of olive oil soap, jars of pomegranate molasses, and cans of sesame seed paste.
Sam slit the tape along the edges of the box and pulled the card-board flaps up. A white envelope sat on top of the packing material, addressed to her.
She ran her finger across the handwriting, then slid her thumb under the envelope’s flap and pulled it open. Inside was a piece of folded paper, so thin it was translucent. She unfolded it, eager to read, but the entire note was indecipherable to her: It was written in Arabic, in bright purple ink, the color of peacock feathers.
She dug into the box again, half convinced that only pillows of bubble wrap filled the rest of it, but her fingers hit something solid.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she pulled out a fat, pear- shaped object enshrouded in newspaper. Setting it on the table, she began unpeeling the sheets, layer after layer, her fingertips turning black from the newsprint.
Finally, the last square of paper fell to the floor. Sam stood staring at a piece of dull clay pottery.
Its narrow neck was flanked by two circular handles, hardly big enough to fi t her fingers through. Simple, symmetrical lines criss-crossed its belly. It had a look of homemade imperfection; maybe Jiddo had made it himself.
The letter surely explained it. She refolded it and tucked it back inside the envelope, glancing at the clock on the microwave. She’d already wasted a solid ten minutes of fi shing time. She had to hide everything and get out on the water.
“Go,” she told herself again, pushing away from the table. It wobbled, and the jug shuddered off the edge.
“No!” she cried.
For a moment, the jug seemed suspended in air, simply waiting to be caught— and then it hit the linoleum floor with a hollow, sickening sound.
Sam let out a groan as she knelt to examine the damage. It had split in half; she tried to fi t it back together like two puzzle pieces, but there was a thin seam between them. Just like my life, she thought. Split apart and then precariously put back together. You only noticed the cracks when you got close enough.
And that was when she saw the coins.
There were seven, crusted to the dirty bottom of the jug. She tipped it upside down over the table, shook, and the coins spilled out.
Time and dirt had turned a few of them black. Others were only slightly tarnished, stamped with images of pine trees and ships, sea castles and owls, spears crossed to make an X. PIASTRES, one of them said; another had a perfect hole drilled through its middle, flanked by two small lions.
Sweat trickled down her temples. Her mind raced. What if Mom came home right this second? She had already pawned every last item of worth in their possession. She would take the coins without a second thought.
There was one more, she noticed: stuck to the bottom, caked with a mud- hardened residue, so camouflaged with the dark pottery she almost missed it. She tipped the jug piece again and shook, hard, but it wouldn’t come loose. When she tried with a fingernail, her nail bent and snapped, and the coin stayed put.
“Super,” she said, sucking on her finger to take the sting away.
Letter- like shapes arced along the top edge of the coin. They might have been words, but they were written in an alphabet she didn’t recognize. Even though she couldn’t read Arabic, she knew its familiar curves and dots. This was something altogether different.
Sam glanced at the clock again.
She needed to go— but instead she pulled Dad’s Swiss Army knife from one of her shirt pockets. His initials were engraved on its bright red side: B.C.C. She gave the knife a quick kiss like she always did before she used it, knowing her father’s fingerprints were still there underneath her own.
Carefully, she worked the tip of the smallest blade under the coin, until it finally sprang out onto the table.
For some reason, she hesitated to touch it. It seemed different than the other coins. Older, thicker. It made her heart beat faster.
These coins could change everything for them. This one could really be worth something.
She picked the coin up, and the moment her fingers met the metal, her hand turned icy cold. She bit the inside of her mouth and winced, tasting blood.
A presence filled the room. She was suddenly sure she was being watched.
“Who’s there?” she asked, spinning to look.
Something pulled on her, pushed her. The room turned dark, as if the electricity had failed and a storm cloud had rolled right inside the house. There was the distant sound of a flute, and then a whispering voice. Raspy and urgent.
You have what is mine!
The language was foreign, but somehow she understood.
Give it to me!
The pull on her intensified, a fierce current sweeping her out into deep waters. It felt as though her feet were no longer on the floor, that the worn gray linoleum beneath her had become fluid. The storm cloud swirled and widened into a funnel in the floor, a pit of smoke.
Her hand had frozen shut, fingers curled tightly around the coin. But with a determined shriek, she threw it down.
The strange storm stopped as suddenly as it had started.
The light returned to the room. The linoleum was as chipped and ordinary as always. She stood panting for air, staring at the coin where it had landed.
Sam rubbed her throbbing hand, her heart pounding with such ferocity she had to lie down. She made her way to the couch and collapsed, listening.
All was silent, other than her own frantic breathing. There was no hypnotic fl ute, no voice. Her stomach turned over with something that felt like motion sickness, as if she’d just stepped off a spinning carnival ride and still couldn’t fi nd her footing.
Outside the window, a dog barked, and Mrs. Jarvis yelled. “Get over here! Peanut!” She called the dog’s name over and over again.
“Peanut! Peanut! There you are!”
Sam counted to one hundred and then stood.
Warily, she went back to the kitchen and stared at the coin. She was afraid to touch it, but she couldn’t just leave it there.
After pacing the house, searching for an idea, she went to Rima’s collection of beauty supplies, a pink plastic cabinet with four drawers.
She yanked open the drawer labeled EYES and dug through a rainbow of shadows, liners, and tubes of mascara until she found the tweezers.
Metal meeting metal made a dull ting as she tapped the coin. Carefully, she slid the tweezers around it and clamped down. All good.
Nothing happened. As Dad would say, No holes in the boat.
She let out a little laugh of relief. She had almost expected it to spring to life like a coiled snake.
Back in the kitchen, she slipped the coin into a large Ziploc bag, along with the other seven coins and the two halves of the broken jug.
The back door squeaked behind her as she headed outside, down the rotting stoop and into the yard. The gardening tools were already laid out, right next to the plants she’d bought last week. After setting down the bag, she thrust the big metal shovel into the ground, thinking how her mother accused her of burying everything— her emotions, herself— in school and work.
She would get some answers tomorrow. At the library or on the internet, there would be information about old coins. She would find someone— other than Mom— to translate Jiddo’s letter. In the mean-time, this was the best hiding place for the things he had sent her.
An hour later, she had a decent- sized hole in the backyard, deep enough. After burying the bag, Sam looked back up at their sagging trailer.
Maybe it wasn’t lopsided after all. Maybe it was her.
A door slammed with a gunshot bang and Sam sat up.
She was surprised to find herself back on the couch; a rogue metal spring dug through the thin cushions and jabbed at her thigh.
Across the room, their hazy TV was on mute, and a woman silently urged her to act now and buy an Immortal Youth skincare system in three easy payments.
Sam had a dim recollection of putting on her nightshirt, of trying to stay awake until Rima came home. She’d never made it to the lake.
Morning sunlight streamed into the room, illuminating the dusty air.
“Rima?” she called, her voice hoarse.
She cleared her throat and stood, rolling her neck until it cracked.
Her fingers ached where she’d touched the coin.
She sucked in a breath as the whole thing came flooding back to her.
The remote shook in her hand as she clicked off the TV. She must have fallen asleep watching some crazy movie, that’s all it was. Her imagination on overload. She tossed the remote onto the couch and went to the kitchen for a drink, but with a start she remembered the smoky pit in the fl oor, exactly where she stood now. She skittered away from the spot and tried to laugh at herself.
There was no way that had happened.
And yet she was completely sure it did.
Heart thumping, she poured herself a glass of water from the sink and drank it in one long gulp. She grabbed Jiddo’s letter from the table and backed away from the kitchen, feeling like it was set with snares.
“Rima?” she called again.
She padded cautiously to their bedroom. Her sister’s clothes were fl ung across the fl oor, making a trail to the bed, where she snored quietly on the top bunk, murmuring in her sleep, her arm slung over the railing. Sam felt a surge of relief before catching a whiff of vape and beer. And barf.
“Soccer practice,” Sam mumbled under her breath. There were brambles in Rima’s hair. “Yeah, right.”
She slid Jiddo’s letter underneath her own pillow, and then crossed the tiny hallway to open her mother’s bedroom door.
She was back. Finally.
Her duffel bag was on the bed, its contents spilling out, and among the jumbled clothes was the picture she always took with her, no matter where she went. Her wedding photo, framed in silver. Dad in a suit and tie, so serious. Mom in her white gown.
“Mom?” Sam called, walking quickly through the small house, searching.
Her mother’s voice answered, muffled and distant. “Out here!”
Through the kitchen window, Sam could see her waving from the backyard. Sam waved back.
Still in her bare feet and nightshirt, she threw open the patio door and ran out across the weeds and dirt. Above her, the sky was a happy pastel blue, like some sort of candy drink. The cold air took her by surprise, though. Yesterday had been summer- like, but now her breath spilled out ahead of her as she rushed toward her mother.
“You’re home!” Sam said.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Mom said, smiling up at her.
Mom was the one who was gorgeous. Her black hair shone almost blue in the sunlight, and her skin glowed with olive undertones. She was on her knees with a rusty gardening spade and polka- dotted gloves; the potted vegetables Sam had bought the week before were beside her, an investment that would literally grow all summer. A five- dollar plant gave them vegetables for months.
“Stand up so I can hug you,” Sam said, her teeth chattering against the cold.
She nervously scanned the grass, looking for the rock that marked the place where she’d buried everything. Exactly where she’d put it was a blur; she’d been in such a state of shock and panic, and had worked until after dark.
“Yes. I could use a hug.” Mom pulled off her dirty gardening gloves and stood, dusting her knees. “And a week of sleep.”
Sam wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist and kissed her cheek. She seemed thinner than ever; Sam’s arms could practically go twice around her tiny waist. “Where’ve you been?” she asked, sneaking in one more peck on the other cheek before her mother pulled away.
“Getting stuff to plant your garden,” Mom said, dodging the real question.
Sam looked down at the dozen or so plants she had already bought, plus a few bags of black soil Mom must have just brought home. A fat bumblebee floated past, investigating the new plants.
“Thanks,” Sam said.
“Tomatoes need phosphorus.” Mom pointed her gardening spade at a bag of fertilizer. She read the planting instructions aloud. “ ‘Roma tomato. Pear- or plum- shaped. Plant in full sun in rows thirty- six inches apart.’ ”
“Yeah, I was kind of waiting for the weather to warm up,” Sam said. “For good.”
She’d covered the plants the previous week because it had dipped into the thirties overnight. The old sheet she’d used to protect them was strewn across the ground now, streaked with mud. Underneath a corner of the striped fabric, a rock— the rock she’d used to mark the spot— peeked out.
“I got some stakes and twine,” Mom said, “and a green pepper plant.” She bumped her hip against Sam’s. “You’re shivering. Go get dressed. You’ll catch a cold out here.”
“The entire garden is supposed to go over there,” Sam said, point-ing to the opposite corner of the yard. “All these plants need sun.”
“You need sun,” Mom said. “Look how pale you are. Go inside and get a warm drink.”
“Come with me,” Sam said, but Mom put her gardening gloves back on and squinted at the tag from the green pepper plant. Sam studied the rim of bone under the collar of her mother’s shirt. So thin.
“Where were you?” Sam asked quietly. “I was going to call the police today.”
Mom dropped the tag she was holding. “Do not do that.” All the cheer that had been in her voice moments ago was gone. “Never ever do that.”
“I know, but . . .”
“You’re not eighteen yet. They’ll put you in a foster home. And Rima somewhere else, in a different one.” She cast a gloved finger in one direction and then in another. Opposite ends of the world.
“Why was Mr. Koplow here yesterday?” Sam pressed. “How many months behind are we? He said he was here about the stoop, but it’s more than that, right?”
Mom sighed and raked her fingers through her hair, sending a stripe of dirt through her bangs. “The credit card company won’t increase our limit.” She shook her head. “I had to get new brake pads for the car. Then your wisdom teeth came out, and that wasn’t completely covered. I bought soccer cleats for Rima, plus her summer registration fees. Things add up.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sam looked over her shoulder toward the house, wondering if Rima was awake yet. She didn’t need to hear another argument. Especially not the same old argument. “I could have put in some extra hours at the jewelry store.”
She held back the rest: I don’t like how Mr. Koplow looks at you. I don’t want you owing him anything.
Mom considered the hole she’d just dug. “Do you think that’s deep enough?”
“How much did you spend on all this gardening stuff ?” Sam asked. “Maybe we can return a couple things.”
“Well,” Mom said, a smile tugging at her lips. “I wanted to save the surprise, but since you’re asking . . .”
From the front pockets of her jeans, she pulled out two thick wads of cash. And then, while Sam stood frozen with disbelief, she sprinkled the bills all over the ground. Like she was planting seeds for money trees.
“What? What did you do?” Sam asked. Possibilities— all of them bad— swirled through her mind. “Where did you get all this? Is it real?”
There were tens and twenties . . . even fifties. The wind picked up and Sam dropped to her knees to gather the money before it blew away.
“I won at the casino.” Mom laughed. She sounded proud of herself. “I won big.”
“You were gambling all week?” Sam held the money tight in her fists, fighting back the torrent of angry words that swelled inside her. Mom had been playing slots at the casino again? That was where she was?
But the money. The money! It was more than Sam made in a month. Maybe even more than their check from the Marines.
“Karma, baby!” Mom said. “Mercury retrograde ended last week, so the timing was good.” She looked up at the sky. “I wonder if there’s a lunar eclipse in Pisces right now. I should check on that.”
“The stars were aligned,” Sam said.
“Yes,” Mom said, ignoring Sam’s sarcasm. “And today, we’re going to Lowe’s to buy a washer and dryer. No more trips to the laundromat.” She dipped her hand into her shirt pocket and found a pair of sunglasses, then slid them on and smiled, posing. “Like them?”
“Yeah. They’re great, Mom.” Sam sighed, reluctantly handing the money back. “Really great.”
“We’ll get Alan off our backs, buy some new clothes,” Mom continued, “and go out for steaks tonight. Let’s go see a movie, too.” She cleared her throat. “What? I see your wheels turning.”
“I just . . . We have a lot of bills to pay, obviously. Those should come first. And that other thing . . . remember?” But clearly Mom had forgotten. “The entrepreneurship certificate program. The small- business classes I’ve been saving for.”
Mom swatted her words away. “You haven’t even graduated high school yet. Enjoy the last few weeks of senior year. Enjoy the summer.”
“Your dad took a few college classes, you know, before he enlisted.
And what did they get him? Nothing.” Her eyes lit up. “We should spend the money on a prom dress for you!”
“No! That’s a total waste. I’m just going with my friends anyway,”
Sam said. “I’ll wear Rima’s blue dress.”
“That dress won’t fi t you. Come on, you could be the belle of the ball,” Mom said, fanning the bills. She twisted her mouth when Sam shook her head. “You are no fun.” She shoved the cash back into her pockets. “You’re so serious all the time, so practical. You weren’t always like this. I worry about you.”
“I worry about you, ” Sam countered, keeping her voice in check.
“Next time please leave a note. That’s all I’m asking, so I know where you are. I called all your normal jobs. I was starting to think you were dead.”
“Dead!” Mom said. “That’s dramatic.”
“ ‘Dear Sam, I’ll see you Saturday morning. Here’s how you can reach me if you need to. Have a good week. Love, Mom.’ ”
“A note,” Mom repeated. “That would’ve been thoughtful. But then you might have come searching for me.”
And she didn’t want to be found.
Sam gave her mother a look. They’d had this standoff so many times, and getting angry only made things worse. Mom was home, with money to spare, so Sam tamped down her frustration and pasted on a smile.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she said, picking up the shovel and ducking underneath the branches of the only tree in their yard. Its trunk wore a hundred scars where she and Dad had thrown knives into it. Sam could almost see herself taking aim, see the ghost of her ten- year- old self, of Dad standing by chewing on a toothpick. It’s all in the wrist, he would coach, but more often than not she missed the tree altogether and the knife would land in the grass.
Mom pushed her new sunglasses onto the top of her head. They were Ray- Bans, and they weren’t knock- offs. The wad of gambling money would be gone by next week.
“Yep,” Sam mumbled, deciding for certain that she needed to keep the jug and coins a secret. With a grunt, she jammed the shovel into the ground. She’d worn blisters across her palms last night from digging, and now they flared up again. That part, at least, had really happened— burying the Ziploc bag. Her mind flashed to the smoky mist and the man’s voice, which now felt so dreamlike and impossible.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked. “You really do look sick.”
“The last time I ate was yesterday at lunch.”
“Inside,” she said, putting an arm around Sam. “You’re freezing! I bought bagels. I was just waiting for Rima to wake up.”
“I’ll go play reveille in her ear,” Sam said, but when they turned to walk back to the house, she saw that Rima was standing at the door with a cup of coffee. She lifted a hand toward Mom as if she’d been gone five minutes rather than five days. No big deal. Totally normal.
Mom kissed Rima’s forehead before she could duck away. “How’s my baby?” she asked. “Good?”
“How was the party last night?” Sam asked, following Rima into the kitchen. Her hair was in a messy knot, her face oily with yesterday’s makeup. “I mean, soccer practice?”
Rima shot her a look. Shut up, she mouthed silently.
“Mom won some money at the casino,” Sam added, opening the refrigerator and handing Rima a tub of cream cheese. Mom had bought caramel- flavored, the best, and probably without a coupon.
Sam chose a cinnamon bagel from the open box on the kitchen table.
“We’re going shopping today.”
“After I nap,” Mom said, stifling a yawn. In the kitchen’s fluorescent light, the skin under her eyes looked purple. She’d probably gambled all night and slept in her car during the day. “It’s hard work winning cold, hard cash.”
“How much?” Rima asked, trailing Mom into her room. “What’d you play? Slots or blackjack?”
Sam swallowed the last bite of her bagel. She showered and dressed, stacking a few bracelets over her wrist and slipping on her old sneakers. The lake was calling to her, but she had econ homework, an entire business plan due on Friday. Plus, if she went to the library, she could search for clues about the coins.
She tucked Jiddo’s letter into her pocket and walked through the house. When she looked inside Mom’s room, she found her already asleep, her cheek pressed crookedly against her half- unpacked duffel bag.
The back door was ajar, and Rima was singing somewhere.
And then Sam heard a noise that made her spine stiffen: the chink of a shovel hitting rock.
Panicked, Sam pressed her fingertips against the window. Rima was on her knees in the yard. She was digging.
Sam threw open the back door. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice cracking as she sprinted toward her sister.
“Mom told me to move all the plants to this one spot.” Rima had the Ziploc bag in her hands, the pieces of the broken jug showing through. The hose was running, creating a thin river of mud around Rima’s bare feet. “But check this out,” she said. “I found this.”
“Don’t open it,” Sam warned. She was breathless from running.
“But there’s a bunch of coins in here.” Rima pointed through the clear bag. “They look old.”
“Give it to me,” Sam said, thrusting her hand out.
“Finders keepers,” Rima replied, pulling the bag toward her chest.
“You don’t understand,” Sam said. “Jiddo sent that to me. It’s mine.”
“Huh?” Rima made a face. “Jiddo?”
“So why is it out here?”
“Because,” Sam said. “I needed to hide it for now.” She put her hand out again, but instead Rima opened the bag and pulled the two chunks of pottery out. Three or four coins fell to the ground. “You’re going to lose something!”
“Is it from Lebanon?” Rima let out a low whistle. “This stuff looks ancient.”
“One of the coins is . . .” Sam’s voice trailed off. She wanted to say
“magical” or “cursed,” but that seemed ridiculous in the broad daylight of their backyard. Birds chirped, and the clouds were ribbons across the blue sky.
Rima picked up the coins and set them in the palm of her hand.
“Do you think they’re worth something?” She smiled and her eyes lit up with excitement. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and Sam felt herself smile back.
“We have to research everything first,” she said. “Don’t tell Mom, okay? She’ll just take them to the pawnshop. I need to go to a museum or find a guidebook or something, so we can sell them for the right price.”
“Yeah,” Rima said. “That makes sense.”
“They might not be worth anything,” Sam cautioned. “And they were from Jiddo, so part of me thinks we should just keep them anyway. Maybe they’re family heirlooms. I thought I’d glue the jug back together, at least.”
Rima nodded. She took the last few coins from the bottom of the bag and placed them alongside the others in her cupped hand. Her posture turned rigid. “C-cold,” she gasped.
It was happening again.
A small patch of soil seemed to turn loose at Rima’s knees.
“Drop them,” Sam cried. “Hurry!”
She grabbed Rima’s wrist and shook until the coins fell to the ground. Sam knelt over them, guarding them, counting them: fi ve, six . . . There were supposed to be eight. The seventh coin was nestled next to Mom’s gardening gloves. Where was the last one?
“D’you hear that?” Rima asked, her words slurred. She looked around the yard. “A flute.” Smoke rose from the twisting earth.
“Are you still holding one?” Sam demanded, horrified. She dragged Rima back, away from where the ground was moving, turning, becoming a dark spiral that widened and reached toward their toes. “Drop it! Drop it! ”
Rima’s eyes, so full of life a moment earlier, were glazed over.
“Look at me.” Sam snapped her fingers in front of Rima’s face, but she was somewhere far away. “Listen to me. Let go of the coin!” She shook her by the shoulders.
Rima slumped into her arms, but her fingers held the coin like a vise.
Sam peeled them back, one by one, and plucked the coin from her sister’s palm. She pinched it between two fingertips, and the mesmerizing, eerie music of the flute filled her head once again. The inky fog rushed to embrace her, twisting, pulling, shushing her. Sam felt her voice trapped in her throat. The world was unfurling.
It’s going to take us.
“Mine,” a man’s voice said.
Sam turned to look. There was no one in the yard— other than wide- eyed Rima— but now there was the smell of incense burning.
Her fingers refused to open. The coin’s icy poison was spreading, making her entire arm brittle.
The man’s voice was closer . . . and then Sam saw him.
Bearded and cloaked and made of the dark clouds that spun across the yard. His breath spilled from his mouth in cold currents.
He lunged with dizzying swiftness, his hands going to Rima. I have the coin, Sam wanted to say. Leave her alone!
Rima cried out as the ghost gripped her by the wrist and yanked her away. He looked at Sam, his face full of fury. His eyes were golden, but his pupils were all wrong. One of them was the shape of a keyhole.
Stop! Sam silently screamed over the sound of the flute, a drum-beat also rising. She desperately crawled after Rima, her fingers finding a belt loop in her sister’s jeans. They were at the cusp of the dark, revolving funnel.
With a last, desperate effort, Sam flicked the coin away. Over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of it flipping through the air, as if someone had tossed it to call heads or tails. It landed in the black soil of their garden, behind them.
No. Above them.
It was too late. The three of them were sinking down, down, down; the backyard had become something like a raised stage they’d fallen from.
Sam closed her eyes and spun.
About Cristin Bishara:
Cristin grew up in a small Ohio town where she got her first library card at age three. She’s been reading and writing ever since. Before publishing Relativity, Cristin worked as a freelance business writer, authoring magazine articles, as well as copy for food catalogs, ads, websites, and tourist guides. She’s taught composition and creative writing, both at the college level and in community workshops. In her spare time, she loves to travel, attempt to learn Spanish and Arabic, and cook, especially her grandmother’s Lebanese recipes. Learn more about Cristin by following her on Instagram.
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