“Then who is she?” I demanded.
Dear Diary, if you remember, I left off before with Xalen and I standing in the attic, face to face with Miss Scaryghost. She was doing all that wailing and it was so loud and pitiful, I wanted to cry.
Just when I thought we’d solved the big mystery of who she was, Xalen threw a wrench into it all. After everything I’d learned, I thought for certain this ghost was none other than Xalen’s niece Aria. I figured she was looking for her remains since she kept sobbing over and over again, “Where is she?”
Instead of answering me, Xalen seemed mesmerized by what he was seeing. As if in another world, he stepped forward, toward the ghost.
“Julia!” he shouted above her endless howling. “Julia!”
When he repeated the name, she quieted down, almost as if she was startled.
With a more gentle tone now, Xalen said, “Julia, it’s Xalen. Please don’t cry.”
The ghost sobbed once more, then, in a voice that sounded both anguished and hollow, she said, “Where is she? I’ve lost her.”
I couldn’t see Xalen’s face, but his normally confident and strong voice cracked with emotion as he answered her.
“I know. But I have found her.”
The ghost, who had sunken black holes where her eyes should be, gradually became still, floating a little bit toward the floor.
I reckon Xalen took that as a sign she was listening to him because he began speaking to her again. “Julia, I know where she is and I am going to help you. I will make things right.”
“Please help me, Xalen,” she said in a mournful voice.
“I will. I promise,” he answered as the ghost faded from sight and the crying stopped.
It was a moment before either of us moved. The air in the attic grew heavy and stifling and I shivered despite the heat. Finally, Xalen turned toward me and took my hand.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, just a little spooked, like every time I’ve seen her.” I bit my lower lip, then asked, “Who is Julia?”
His expression remained somber as he regarded me. “Julia was my sister, Beckett and Aria’s mother.”
“Oh, no. Your sister? You must be so shaken right now!”
“I’m – I’m okay. Let’s get your things and get out of here.”
So, with my belongings but without any satisfying answers, we left.
The weeks that passed next were uneventful. I didn’t care to ever step foot in Beckett’s house again, so I didn’t see Julia the Ghost during that time. Instead, I worked with Dr. Tammam on some translations he needed while Xalen spent his time in the city, trying to wrap up the case against Beckett so he could take possession of Aria’s remains.
Xalen slept very little due to the worry he had over his sister, who he still hadn’t told me much about. The thing was, I knew he would when he was ready, so I didn’t push him at all.
One morning, I woke up feeling really woozy. It was if it hit me all of a sudden like food poisoning sometimes does.
I spent the next few days in and out of the bathroom. It was so weird because I knew food poisoning would have run its course by this time. I was nauseated but hungry. Hungry, yet I couldn’t eat. And the smells! Things I never used to pay any attention to now had the strongest, most disgusting smell!
I’m not stupid, though. Not long after this began, I realized I needed a pregnancy test.
Staring into the mirror, I couldn’t escape the test’s positive results.
“You are going to be a mother.”
I thought if I said it out loud, it would buck me up, make it more real. Instead, I just felt like cringing and crying.
Not only had I not wanted to be a mother, this was ten times worse because I didn’t know if this baby had been fathered by Xalen…. or Beckett.
I backed up and stared at my belly. Was I showing yet? No, I guess not, which was good because I needed time to think…. to decide what I was going to do about this.
“I’m really worried about you,” Xalen said as I came out of the bathroom.
“Oh, you know how it is,” I casually said, trying to push my fear into the back of my mind, “you eat one thing that’s bad and you’re sick for days. I’m feeling better, though.”
If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with Julia and Aria, I’m sure he would have seen right through me.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better. I was hoping we could talk.”
For a split second, I was terrified he’d guessed everything just when I wasn’t ready for it. Instead, when we walked out onto the balcony, he began to finally explain everything he could about his sister and her family.
“Julia and I were very close in age, only about a year apart. Her married life was troubled. After the births of Aria and Beckett, she and her husband grew apart until they were no longer living in the same country.”
“Did they get divorced?”
“No. Sometimes they saw one another, usually on holidays so the children could be with both their parents.” He rubbed his tired eyes before continuing. “Aria was younger than Beckett but she showed so much promise. Our family was always into anthropology so when she became interested in the field, she was highly praised. Beckett, on the other hand, was a handful, always in increasingly worse trouble.”
“Do you think his parents favored his sister?”
“I hate to say it, but most definitely. As he got older, Beckett grew darker and darker. He was involved in minor criminal activities and started drinking heavily. My brother-in-law was able to bribe officials and do what he had to in order to get Beckett out of trouble. I’m afraid though, he didn’t do Beckett any favors. I told him a long time ago to let Beckett face the consequences, but he did not agree with me.”
“It’s too bad your brother-in-law didn’t listen to you,” I said.
Xalen nodded and I couldn’t help but notice the dark circles under his eyes. “A few years ago, Aria came here to take charge of an expedition. She was young but capable. We all had faith in her and were so proud.”
“And she disappeared?”
“Yes, she vanished without any trace. Everyone in the family was frantic.”
“Yes, and he was unaccounted for during the time Aria disappeared. He offered to come to Egypt to find her but no one had the confidence in him to take him up on that offer. If it had been my sister, I would have ventured to look for her anyway and Beckett did not.”
My heart was so sorry for what Xalen and his family had been through that I literally felt pain in my chest.
“To make a long story short, I have been trying to discover what happened to my niece all these years. Eventually, I had to return to my work at the Neptune Foundation, so searching for Aria became something I could only do in my spare time. Which I had very little of.”
“Then our expedition uncovered Aria’s remains.”
Running a hand through his dark hair, he said, “Yes. It was dark and Beckett buried her there in haste, thinking that site had already been excavated.”
“Lucky for everyone, he was wrong. Why did he kill her, though?”
Xalen squeezed my hand lightly, his mouth a thin, grim line. “We may never know the reason except that he was incredibly jealous. There were times before this happened where I thought Beckett would do anything to gain his father’s notice.”
“That’s so sad. I feel like this could have been prevented.” When Xalen didn’t answer, I squeezed his hand back. “I can’t believe he would harm his own sister.”
“You have seen first hand what he is like when he loses his temper and has been drinking. Anyway, the authorities have him in custody now and my hope is that he will never have the opportunity to hurt anyone again.”
That was my hope, too. But there was one other thing I had to have an answer to.
“I hate to ask and I hate to be so blunt, but did Beckett kill your sister?”
He paused for so long, staring into the distance, I wasn’t sure he would answer me at all.
“I’m sorry I asked something so painful.”
At last, he returned his gaze to me. “It is all right. You have the right to know.”
Xalen had always been patient with me, even when I couldn’t tell him who hurt me. I was resolved to be as understanding with him now. Tenderly, I hugged him close, kissing his cheek.
After several minutes, he whispered, “Aria was never found and so she was presumed dead. Julia could not live, not knowing what happened to her daughter and realizing her own son was most likely responsible.”
Holding him tighter, I felt the horror of it all rising in me until I could taste bile in my throat. Tears filled my eyes as I said, “Oh, Xalen, did she kill herself?”
His body shuddered and all he could manage was a nod.
From that moment on, my heart became as hard and cold as stone whenever I thought of Beckett Quinn.
A few days later, Beckett was formally charged with murder and Aria’s remains were released to be buried. Xalen hoped this would be the thing that helped his sister’s ghost find rest.
The morning of the funeral, I couldn’t eat. My stomach was doing flipflops and I was afraid that at any moment, I might vomit. Not to mention my boobs kind of hurt. This pregnancy thing was not agreeing with me at all.
“I wish you’d eat something, Marty. Are you sure you’re over that flu? Perhaps after the ceremony, I should take you to the doctor.”
Trying to smile, I said, “I can take care of myself. Don’t worry about it.”
He smiled a little, too, his eyes warm and loving. “I think I will always worry about you.”
How could one tiny thing Xalen said make me feel so loved yet so terrified at the same time? I knew how I felt. I was hopelessly in love with him and knew I always would be. But I was scared this baby I was pregnant with wasn’t his.
What am I going to do?
The funeral was to take place right here in Egypt. Xalen told me that his relatives spent so much time here in the past, the family vault was also here. Aria would be put to rest next to her mother in just a short while.
It was a quiet service. Not that I thought it would be anything else. Aria’s remains had been cremated and placed in the ornate urn I now stared at.
Dr. Tammam came to share a few words since he’d worked with Aria before and he knew Xalen quite well. Shelly was there, too. She was Xalen’s friend and colleague but she was also there because of those ‘special abilities’ she’d mentioned to me a while back during a shopping trip. I was anxious to know exactly what ‘special abilities’ meant!
Xalen was stoic throughout the proceedings, not saying much at all until it was time for him to eulogize.
As he spoke about her kind spirit and youth, tears filled my eyes, threatening to spill over onto my cheeks. True, I’d been more emotional than normal lately. It was just all so tragic, though. Why did she have to die? I didn’t understand it any more than Xalen did.
To my surprise, Dr. Quinn, Aria’s father did not come to say farewell to his daughter. Xalen said his brother-in-law had said goodbye to her long ago and wouldn’t be making the trip. It seemed rather cold to me yet who was I to judge?
Dr. Tammam gave his condolences to Xalen, then left. Suddenly, the room seemed slanted and I almost lost my footing. As I covered my face with my hands, Xalen grabbed my arm to keep me from falling.
“I’m sorry, I’m fine,” I murmured.
“No you are not,” Xalen said.
As I gained my bearings, I stood up straighter and managed a small smile. This was about Julia and Aria, not me, so I was determined to brush this off. Hopefully, Xalen would, too.
“I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast, you were right about that. Please, go on with what you were going to do, I’m fine. Really.”
He and Shelly must have stared at me a good five minutes before he turned to her and nodded.
Shelly walked slowly toward the back wall, her feet so light, I wondered if she was a ghost. Stretching her arms wide, she spoke something I couldn’t begin to understand even though I’m a linguist. Then she touched one of her temples with her left hand.
I stood quietly… no absolutely breathless as she held her hands in front of her and spoke more gibberish. As the minutes ticked on, her voice became louder until it was booming.
All at once, she stood absolutely still.
Gradually, Julia’s ghost appeared before us. Like every other time I’d seen her, my voice caught in my throat and my heart pounded hard against my ribcage.
When Xalen started speaking to her, she stopped moving and appeared to listen.
“Julia, we are here to return Aria to you at last.”
“Where is she?” Julia the ghost cried.
I fought the urge to cover my ears as she began crying. It didn’t last long, however, because Xalen was on it.
“Julia, listen! Aria will be returned to you shortly!”
Shelly’s body suddenly became very rigid and I was afraid she would fall over. What scared me, even more, was when her eyes rolled back, showing only white. It was a frightful sight!
Before my very eyes, the ghost of another woman slowly appeared. I held my breath as if in a dream, the ghostly women faced one another…
Tears sprung to my eyes again and I glanced at Xalen whose eyes were glistening in the dim light of the torches.
Xalen’s eyes met mine and he subtly motioned to me to back up, which I did. Xalen took a few steps back, too, but Shelly stayed right where she was. That kind of worried me because I didn’t know what to expect.
Before my eyes, the ghosts turned to face us, their hands touching….
It was difficult to comprehend what I was seeing. They were ghosts one moment, then as real looking as you or me the next. The creepiest thing I noticed was that Aria had a similar hair color to me and she was wearing the same dress Beckett had given me! I think I threw up a little bit in my mouth right then. It horrified me beyond words.
Bit by bit, the ghosts faded away until nothing was in the room but Xalen, Shelly, me and an urn.
“They are together now and can rest as they should,” Xalen said with relief as he embraced me.
I could feel his tears against my cheek and knew it was hard for him to show such deep emotions. All I wanted to do was hold him and forget everything else. Why couldn’t this moment last forever?
I’d been thinking a lot since the funeral. The best thing to do was to tell Xalen I was pregnant and I figured we could deal with the paternity issues later. In my heart, I knew he would accept me and my child because he loved me.
Even so, my heart felt broken in two that there was even the slightest chance this baby could be Beckett’s.
The morning I decided to tell Xalen everything, it all fell apart within minutes. As I write this down, I still cannot understand after that kiss we shared, how it could have gone south so fast.
“I know you have something you want to discuss with me, Marty, but I have just found out something so exciting, you must let me tell you first.”
“Oh, uh, okay,” I stammered. I didn’t know if I could wait through whatever he had to tell me. I mean, what could be more important than what I had to say?
“Okay, brace yourself! There is an urgent case in Midnight Hollow! We must leave right away. Shelly is already packing her things. The rest of the team will meet us there.”
I hesitated immediately since I hadn’t thought any further ahead in my future than telling Xalen I was pregnant.
“What is wrong?” he asked as concern clouded his eyes. “I was waiting until after the funeral…. I mean, I would really be pleased if you joined my team at the Neptune Foundation.”
Not the proposal an expecting woman wants to hear, however, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get married at all.
“Oh, well… I still don’t know what the Neptune Foundation does or what I would be doing – or what you do, for that matter. Do you get urgent cases like this a lot where you have to travel?”
“All the time,” he enthused. “It’s so exciting! And I am so excited that you will be a part of it.”
It was in that moment I realized the future I wanted with Xalen, even if we weren’t married, wasn’t in the cards.
And it crushed my soul the way nothing ever has.
“Marty?” His voice was quiet as if he was now sensing there was something really wrong.
“I c-can’t,” I said, fighting back tears.
“What? You can’t what?”
Looking down at my feet I wondered if I was strong enough to get through this without having a total breakdown. I couldn’t cry or he wouldn’t take what I said seriously,
I took a deep breath before I spoke and stared him in the eye. “I’m not joining the Neptune Foundation and I’m not traveling all over the world.”
“But I thought you wanted adventure. Did I read you wrong all this time?”
“No, not exactly.” This conversation had to end soon or I was going to crack, then all would be lost. “I used to want adventure and travel, it’s true. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more and more about settling down somewhere. Maybe taking a teaching position at a good university….” My voice just kind of trailed off.
The look on his face almost broke my reserve, so I had to keep reminding myself why I was going this route. I loved him with all my heart, therefore, I couldn’t tie him down to a life where he couldn’t travel and pursue these cases, whatever they were. This was his life and he shouldn’t have to change it. Especially if this baby wasn’t even his.
“I – I don’t understand this at all, Marty!” he said, his voice cracking. “Ever since I have known you, this is what you aspired to! How can you turn your back on it?”
“Let me ask you something,” I countered, “would you want to settle down in one place and – and live in suburbia?”
“Of course not. I could never do that. But you have always known that about me and I thought I knew that about you.”
“I think we’re at an impasse,” I quietly said.
“So that is it? You have made up your mind?”
All I could do was nod because there was a huge lump in my throat.
“I cannot believe this. This is not you.”
Taking another deep breath, I said, “I know it’s hard to understand. I realize this is a shock to you. I’m sorry, Xalen. I’ve had enough of this life and you need to go ahead and have your adventures.”
“Mar – ”
” – That’s it, there’s nothing left to say,” I interrupted.
It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do but I walked away from him then and I didn’t look back for fear of changing my mind.
After I crossed the little bridge in the hotel’s garden, I finally dared to glance behind me.
He was gone.
Falling to my knees in the grass, at last, I let go and sobbed more than any ghost ever could.