Unreal & Real
“NO!” I screamed as a speeding, moss-green station wagon slammed into my graduate advisor, who had been running across the street.
Dr. Ramirez’s body rolled up onto the hood, his head hitting the windshield with a sickening crack, before sliding back down and settling on the asphalt. His arm flopped out to the side, landing in one of the many puddles created by the morning’s incessant drizzle.
“Oh my God! Dr. Ramirez!” I sprinted the rest of the way down the paved path, across the sidewalk, and onto the university’s main drag. As I knelt beside Dr. Ramirez, I dropped the copy of the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology I’d been carrying—I’d been intending to show him an article on the discovery of a new Iliad manuscript, but the journal’s pages lay askew, dirty and collecting droplets of rain.
My hands hovered over Dr. Ramirez, but I was too afraid of injuring him further to touch him. He was wearing his usual, casual professor’s garb—medium-wash jeans and a heavy, navy-blue raincoat—but it hadn’t protected him during the collision. The hair on the left side of his head was matted with blood, and his forehead looked slightly misshapen.
“I’m so sorry!” the driver cried as she lurched out of the car, leaving the driver’s side door open. “I didn’t see him . . . He just ran out . . . Oh my God . . . I . . .”
I ignored her and the flurry of activity taking place around us, instead reaching for Dr. Ramirez’s limp hand, which still lay in a puddle. Trembling, I placed two fingers on his wrist to check his pulse, but I felt nothing.
“You killed him,” I said hollowly.
The driver looked at me—into me—her eyes filled with horror.
Gasping, I jerked upright. My right leg was curled under me, numb. I’d fallen asleep in one of the wooden torture devices that doubled as desk chairs in the Anthropology graduate office, and according to my stiff joints, it hadn’t been a wise decision. My beloved monstrosity of a desk—a battered, oak rolltop that might have been worth something if it wasn’t covered with as many dents and dings as carvings—had been an equally foolish place to rest my head. Damn, I thought as I took in the disarray under my elbows. A chaotic jumble of open books, photos, and papers was scattered across the desk’s surface, some with brand-new folds and wrinkles, and one with an unfortunate drool spot.
“Fabulous,” I muttered, wiping away the wet stain with a tissue.
Once again, I’d been attempting to decipher the ancient, oh-so-frustrating puzzle that had been driving me nuts all quarter. A combination of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs—
—that seemed perfectly content to remain undecipherable.
Shaking with adrenaline lingering from the awful dream, I sighed, shifted my leg from under me, and lowered my head to rest my cheek on the desk. I stared at the end of my coffee-brown ponytail, unbelievably glad that I’d been asleep and that Dr. Ramirez hadn’t been hit by a car. It had been a dream . . . just a stupid, freakishly realistic dream.
“Gah!” I exclaimed, jumping slightly and causing the invisible pins and needles poking into my reawakening leg to jab with renewed gusto. At seeing the short, excited man standing beside my desk, I shook my head and laughed. It was almost impossible to be irritated at Carson, whose diminutive build, artfully mussed brown hair, and bright blue eyes made him look more like a member of a boy band than a fellow grad student. “Seriously, Carson? Was that absolutely necessary?”
He slapped his hand down on one of the open books, lifting it a few seconds later to reveal a folded hundred-dollar bill. “You win,” he said grudgingly. “I still think my article was far superior, but apparently my opinion doesn’t count.” He tossed an academic journal onto the desk beside the money. It was opened to an article titled “Fact From Myth: Cross-Referencing Texts Across Ancient Cultures to Decipher Unknown Symbols”—my article.
With a smug smile, I crossed my arms and sat back in my chair. We’d made a bet several months back—a Benjamin to whichever of us was published by a major academic journal first. Though we’d both been co-authors or contributors to other people’s articles, neither Carson nor I had been published for our individual work. Until now.
“I’m surprised they didn’t take one look at that monstrous title and toss your article into the trash,” Carson said.
“Ouch! You wound me with your pointy words!” I exclaimed, clutching my chest dramatically.
Carson flopped down in a chair beside my desk and let his head fall backward with a groan. “It’s not fair, Lex,” he whined, only amplifying his pubescent image.
“You’re ridiculous,” I told him, laughing. I patted his knee, happily noting that my own leg was back to normal. “Maybe you’ll be in the next one . . . doesn’t Mediterranean Archaeology come out tomorrow? I thought you submitted a few things to them?” Remembering my dream, the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology discarded on the grimy road, I stifled a shiver.
Carson raised his head and stared at me with annoyance. “That’s the latest issue of Mediterranean Archaeology,” he said, pointing to my article. My blood instantly chilled, and this time I couldn’t repress a shiver. It was Thursday, and that particular journal was always delivered on Fridays. It’s just a coincidence, I told myself.
Pointing to the open journal, I asked, “So, other than my amazing article, is there anything else in there worth noting?”
Carson shrugged. “Mostly it’s just the usual . . . retranslations of this or that text, an update on Pompeii and the volcanic activity at Mount Vesuvius, an explanation of some new techniques for underwater excavating”—suddenly excited, he leaned forward and rubbed his hands together—“and, an analysis of a new Iliad manuscript. It’s fragmented, but it’s also the oldest version ever found.”
Something in my chest tightened, and my lungs felt too weak to draw in enough air.
When I didn’t say anything, Carson added, “Awesome, right?” He specialized in the classics—Homer, Plato, Catullus—practically worshipping the long-dead poets and philosophers.
“Uh . . . yeah.” I snatched my iPhone off the desk and checked the time—half past eleven. In fifteen minutes, I was scheduled to meet with Dr. Ramirez in his office downstairs for my final advisory meeting of the quarter. He’d barely been able to squeeze me in between appointments with professors and other students, so there was no reason for him to be crossing the road as he’d been doing in the dream . . . even if it did pass right by our building.
Suddenly, my phone vibrated, and a blue text message alert box appeared in the middle of the screen. The message was from Dr. Ramirez.
Running out for coffee. Will try to be back in time for our meeting.
“No effing way!” I hissed, standing so quickly my chair nearly fell over backward. I grabbed the journal, then shook my head and tossed it back onto the desk before speeding through the maze of desks and cubicles honeycombing the communal graduate office.
“Lex? Where are you going?” Carson called after me.
“Be right back,” I said, not even glancing over my shoulder. I raced down the dim, narrow third-floor hallway and shoved the heavy stairwell door open. It slammed against the wall with a loud, metallic thud. In a matter of seconds, I descended the two flights of stairs and exploded into the main hall of the first floor. I bumped into someone, receiving a masculine grunt as we both crashed to the linoleum floor. My knee and elbow hit the floor so hard that bruising was inevitable.
“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, extricating myself from beneath the legs of . . . Dr. Ramirez. “Oh my God . . . are you okay?”
Dr. Ramirez—tall, dark, middle-aged, and dignified—stood and made a bit of a show of dusting himself off. He studied me, holding back a smile. I was still sprawled on the floor.
“I’m going to assume your rush was caused by excitement about the recent publication of your work,” he said.
Blushing, I stood. “I . . . yes,” I lied.
“Well, since you’re here, Alexandra, do you want to come with me to get coffee?” Dr. Ramirez checked his watch. “I don’t think I’ll have another chance all day.” But then he might cross a street, and there might be a moss-green station wagon, and . . .
“No!” I blurted, thrusting my hands out in front of me. When his eyebrows rose, I added, “I’ll go get coffee for us both. I’m sure you have better things to do.” Spinning away from him, I jogged to the main doors. From the ache in my knee, I could tell the bruise was going to be a beauty. “You just stay here,” I said over my shoulder.
It wasn’t until I was through the glass doors and halfway down the steep, slippery stone steps that I realized I had no clue what kind of coffee Dr. Ramirez liked. I turned around and, when I poked the upper half of my body through the open door, was only half-surprised to find my advisor standing exactly where I’d left him, his face utterly bemused. “I forgot to ask what you wanted,” I said breathlessly.
Chuckling, Dr. Ramirez said, “Just black coffee. Large, please.”
“Okay. Great! Sorry about . . . you know. I’ll be right back!” Again I hurried down the stairs, not caring that it was raining and that I was wearing only a thin sweater, jeans, and slouchy suede boots. I paused when I reached the sidewalk and road that had featured so prominently in my midday nightmare. Looking up the street toward the campus gatehouse, I spotted a single car approaching, but it was too far away to distinguish any details. I squashed my curiosity and changed direction, heading for the coffee stand in Suzzallo Library instead of the cafe in the Burke Museum, which was closer but across the main road. My psyche wouldn’t be able to handle passing a moss-green station wagon, coincidence or not.
My phone buzzed as I was walking back up Denny’s steep front steps, one to-go cup of piping hot coffee in each hand. I set both on the campus newspaper stand beside the glass doors and pulled my phone out of my back pocket. Dr. Ramirez had texted me again.
Check your email.
The fourth message also had a University of Washington domain, but it wasn’t from anyone I knew.
Hello Ms. Larson,
I am a visiting professor in the Classics department here at UW. I contacted your department head, and he directed me to you. I need an on-site ancient languages specialist at an upcoming excavation in Egypt, preferably someone with a background deciphering unfamiliar symbols. Please let me know if you are interested, and I will send you the specifics. If you agree to participate, you will be abroad during the latter half of spring quarter and most of summer. Please let me know if you have any questions. I hope to hear from you soon.
Professor of Classical Archaeology
University of Washington
University of Oxford
I studied the email, rereading it several times. A professor visiting from Oxford wanted me, specifically, to accompany him on a dig in Egypt . . . as an ancient languages specialist. I’d worked on a half-dozen excavations all around the Mediterranean, but mostly just as a grunt—a field school student. Being a specialist would give me the chance to pursue my own research along with that of Professor Bahur. The opportunity sounded too good to be true. It also sounded too expensive, and there wasn’t enough time to apply for grants to cover room, board, and travel expenses. If it cost anything on my end, I’d have to pass.
Rushing, I replied, vaguely proclaiming interest and requesting more details. As I typed, I thought, please be free . . . please be free . . . please be free . . .
Again with coffees in hand, I headed back into majestic Denny Hall. Built late in the nineteenth century, it was the university’s first building. Accordingly, the exterior was stunning—a combination of stone and archways and small-pane windows that befit a French chateau far more than a university building—but aside from the first-floor professor’s offices, the interior was laughably mundane.
After squeaking my way down the wide hall, I knocked loudly on the heavy wooden door to Dr. Ramirez’s office.
“Come in,” he called, his voice rumbling.
As I entered, Dr. Ramirez was placing a book on the top shelf of the built-in bookcase beside his desk. “Ah, I see the coffee has arrived,” he said, his eyes laughing though he wore no smile. After taking in my appearance, he asked, “Did you take a dip in the fountain on your way?”
I glanced down at myself, unsurprised to see that my clothes were more than a little damp, clinging to me like plastic wrap to ceramic, which was pretty much how they felt. “I forgot my coat,” I said lamely. I set the two cups of coffee on his well-organized desk but didn’t sit in either of the wooden visitors’ chairs. I didn’t want to be rude and drip all over them.
Noticing my internal predicament, Dr. Ramirez said, “Please, Alexandra, sit.”
For the thousandth time, I noted how lucky I was to have landed him as my graduate advisor. A sturdy, former college football player, he was like a towering, slightly intimidating father figure to everyone in the archaeology department. He was both stoic and sage, and tended to hand out criticism far more often than praise, but the criticism was always of the constructive variety.
I sat in the chair on the right, unable to repress my desire to examine the cluttered bookshelves lining the walls on either side of the office. They were filled with volumes of every color and size. Many of the spines were faded with age, some even flaking, making them stand out next to their younger brethren. Beside books on many of the shelves lay little trinkets and photographs from all over the world. Like always, I felt the overwhelming urge to examine each item, to discover its meaning, origin, and personal value to Dr. Ramirez.
“So, Alexandra,” Dr. Ramirez said, interrupting my visual reverie. He’d seated himself in his old-fashioned, brown leather executive chair. “How do you think this quarter went?”
Unashamed, I said, “Really well.”
Dr. Ramirez smiled. “Specifically, what do you think your top achievements were?”
I crossed my legs, pursed my lips, and thought for a moment. Finally, I said, “My dissertation proposal was accepted several weeks ago, as you know. I’m really excited to move forward with it next quarter. My ability to translate hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic texts has progressed really well . . . and I started learning Coptic, too.” I wiggled my foot. “Umm . . . I won’t know for sure until after I’ve graded their final papers, but I think my undergrads did really well this quarter.” I paused, knowing I was forgetting something. “Oh, and I was published in a major archaeology journal,” I added proudly.
Leaning back, Dr. Ramirez intertwined his fingers and rested his hands on his belly. For a moment he merely studied me, and I tried not to fidget under his pondering gaze. “You know, I don’t usually take on graduate students . . . but I have to admit, accepting you was a very good decision on my part,” he stated, giving himself a verbal pat on the back. I half-expected him to physically do it, reaching his arm over his shoulder. He didn’t.
“Thank you,” I responded, stifling the sudden urge to giggle. I glanced down at my hands.
“I’ve spoken with all of your professors. They’re all very impressed with your progress. And your proposal—I’m really quite excited to see where this project ends up taking you. I’m expecting great things from you, Alexandra.”
At the moment, all I could do was smile . . . and blush. Dr. Ramirez’s overt praise stunned me.
“Now, unless you have any questions, I believe we’re done for the quarter. Grade your students’ papers early and make sure you enjoy your break—and get some well-deserved rest,” he ordered with mock severity.
Hearing the dismissal, I stood. “I will. Thank you, Dr. Ramirez,” I said before heading for the door.
“Oh, and Alexandra . . .”
Pausing with my hand on the doorknob, I looked back at him over my shoulder.
“I hope the excavation works out—I know you’re perfect for the job,” he told me, grinning before turning his attention to some papers on his desk.
“Thanks,” I replied quietly. “Have a nice break, professor.” I slipped out of his office, gently pulling the door shut behind me.
An hour later, I was unlocking my apartment door. I was more than ready to begin winter break—even if it was as low-key as hanging out with my cat in my seventh-floor apartment, grading mind-numbingly boring final papers and overindulging on pop culture via the television. The only thing to break up the glorious couch time would be a three-day Christmas visit with my family in Central Washington.
My little brown tabby, Thora—I’d named her after the adored Egyptian goddess, Hathor—greeted me with a soft meow from her perch on her favorite windowsill. The building was nearly one hundred years old, and it had the single-pane windows, scuffed hardwood floors, and steam radiators to prove it. It worked out well for Thora—the windows made the cars, busses, and pedestrians who trafficked the street below sound like they were in the apartment and thus provided her ample entertainment—but it was more of a bummer for me. I liked quiet . . . and sleep.
“Hey, Thora. Are you ready for break?” I sang, crossing the cramped living room to scratch under her chin. I earned a loud purr in response and watched her bright green eyes narrow to happy slits.
My apartment was pretty standard to a century-old building—the kitchen was tiny, with ceramic tile countertops, a deep, porcelain sink, and absolutely no dishwasher; the living room was cramped, with barely enough room for a sienna microsuede couch, an antique walnut steamer trunk that doubled as a coffee table, a pair of tall, matching bookcases finished to resemble walnut, and a small, flat-screen television; and beyond the living room, the small bedroom, adjoining bathroom, and closet were equally as spacious—as in, not at all. The place was cozy, and I loved it.
I dropped my messenger bag on the couch and headed straight for my room to change into comfy, dry clothes—a plain white T-shirt, a zip-up hoodie displaying the name of my favorite band, Johnny Stopwatch, and some black sweatpants that had long since faded to gray. Finally feeling more like a human than a swamp monster, I sat on the couch, pulled out my thin, steel-gray laptop, tapped the power button, and waited. As the slender machine hummed to life, I stared through the rain-streaked window. I had a view of the university campus, an artful arrangement of graceful brick buildings and emerald-green grass and pines. People hurried along crisscrossing paths like ants in an ant farm, eager to get to their next class, if only to be out of the incessant drizzle.
Unexpected anticipation fluttered in my stomach as my attention returned to the computer screen. The email window was open—it almost always was—and there was a new message from Professor Bahur. Hesitantly, I opened it and began to read.
I am excited to hear of your interest in participating in my excavation. Attached you will find a document containing further details of this project and your potential position. I would like to set up a time to meet so we can solidify your participation. I also want to make sure you know what you are getting into and that you have time to prepare—it will be quite the adventure. Are you available to meet up the Thursday or Friday before the start of the new quarter? Please let me know what time is good for you, and I will rearrange my schedule accordingly.
I am looking forward to meeting you, Ms. Larson, as you come very highly recommended.
Professor of Classical Archaeology
University of Washington
University of Oxford
For the first time, I wondered what the mysterious, visiting professor looked like. His permanent position was at Oxford, so I figured he was British, and his formal language patterns indicated someone older and gentlemanly . . . possibly with a crazy mustache or overgrown eyebrows. Shaking the frivolous thoughts away, I opened the attachment and scanned it, looking for dollar signs. I found them.
Oh. My. God. I sat back on the couch, staring at the screen. I could more than afford to participate in the dig. Housing and food would be provided, and along with a stipend for leisure and travel expenses, I’d get paid a sizable commission for my finds. The bigger the discovery, the more money in my pocket. It was, in a word, unbelievable.
Without hesitation, I sent a quick reply to Professor Bahur, informing him that I was eager to participate and that I was available to meet with him on either that Thursday or Friday, whenever worked best for him. Despite my curiosity about the professor and his extravagant excavation, I could wait the three weeks . . . barely.
Just as I clicked send, my phone vibrated. I plucked it out of the little pocket on the side of my bag, and seeing the caller’s name, answered. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hi, honey,” my mom, Alice, replied. Disappointment was heavy in her voice.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, instantly concerned. “Is Grandma okay?”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that. I was hoping to surprise you by showing up at your place tonight, but the darn pass is closed. But . . . I should be able to make it over there by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Oh . . . well . . . I didn’t know you were coming! That’s so sweet, Mom!” I said, genuinely excited. It had been more than six months since I’d seen my mom, and I missed her. Besides, I could barely wait to tell her the great news about the excavation. “I’m excited to see you!”
“Me too, sweetie. Let’s just hope the weather behaves.”
“My fingers are crossed,” I said, actually crossing my left index and middle fingers. “Will you call me when you leave?”
“Of course!” she exclaimed, laughing. “I want to make sure you have time to clean up all the piles on your floor.”
I rolled my eyes, avoiding looking at the various mounds of books, clothes, and mail strewn haphazardly around the apartment. “Thanks, Mom, that’s so thoughtful of you,” I said dryly.
“I’m just being your mom, Lex . . . trying to take care of you,” she stated with mock concern.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I paused, then added, “And Mom?”
“I’m glad you’re coming.”
“Me too. Bye, sweetie.”
“Bye, Mom.” I tapped the screen to end the call. After only a few seconds of thought, the phone was back up to my ear.
In the middle of the third ring, I was greeted by the voice of Cara, a young, prosperous businesswoman and one of my best friends. “Hey, Lex.”
“So . . . I just found out something amazing,” I said, leading her with my excitement.
“Guess,” I ordered.
“Umm . . . you’re a princess?”
I laughed out loud. “Definitely not.”
“Didn’t think so. You won a Caribbean cruise?”
“You dropped out of grad school and decided to pursue life as a nun?”
I choked on nothing. “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s ridiculous.”
“Alright, I give up,” she sighed, and I could hear a smile in her voice.
After listening to me tell her about the two emails from Professor Bahur and that I would almost certainly be working as one of the leaders of an excavation in Egypt—my dream—Cara squealed. Very, very loudly.
Unfortunately, I pulled the phone away too late, and my ear rang from her high pitch and volume. Even Thora stirred from her study of the pedestrians far below to glare at the phone.
With obvious urgency, Cara blurted, “This calls for immediate, emergency celebrating! I’ll call Annie right now, okay? We’ll be over in a couple hours for dinner before we go out.”
“Umm . . . I don’t really have anything to make . . .”
“No problem. Annie and I’ll stop by the store on our way—we’ll surprise you!” she said, her words bursting with enthusiasm.
“Sounds good,” I replied.
“Great! See you soon!” She hung up before I could say goodbye.
Glancing at my laptop screen, I noticed there was a new message in the inbox. It was from the professor—I couldn’t believe how quickly he’d replied.
Very well. How about Friday at 3:30 in the afternoon at the café in the Burke Museum? Please let me know if either the time or location is unsuitable to you.
Professor of Classical Archaeology
University of Washington
University of Oxford
“If nothing else, Thora, this should be interesting,” I muttered, reaching over the arm of the couch to rub the top of the tabby’s head.
I’d been waiting at the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other patrons, for about ten minutes. Finally, a harried bartender finished making the three drinks I’d ordered—all vodka cranberries—and set them on the bar. I paid in cash and reached for the drinks just as the woman on my right lurched against me. In my attempt to grab the bar for support, I knocked two of the glasses over, and bright red liquid splashed directly onto the man beside me.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, leaning away too late.
“Oh no!” I stared at the blaring crimson stain marring the lower half of his formerly pristine, pale gray shirt. “Oh God! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to . . .” I trailed off, losing all sense of coherency when I glanced up.
Eyes the color of Baltic amber held my gaze, too vibrant and rich to be considered brown. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were an artifice. Strong, straight, and defined, his bronze features were equally as striking, especially when paired with the hint of dark-as-night hair covering his shaved head. He was absolutely stunning.
As he watched me, frustration seemed to blanket his face. “It’s not a problem,” he assured me in a deep, smooth-as-milk-chocolate voice. It was slightly accented, sounding Middle Eastern with a sprinkling of French and maybe a touch of German or Swedish.
“But . . . but . . .” was all I could say.
The corners of the stranger’s mouth turned down in a partial frown and he shook his head. “Really, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“Are—are you sure?” I asked quietly, incapable of breaking eye contact but desperately needing to. I blamed my awkwardness on the wine I’d consumed during dinner. He’s just a guy in a bar, I told myself. Get a grip!
“Yes, perfectly,” he assured me again. “I believe your friends are waiting for you—if those”—he smirked as his eyes flicked to the table where Cara and my other best friend, Annie, were sitting—“are your friends?”
Following his eyes, I found Annie and Cara, watching us in awe. Their wide-eyed expressions mirrored mine perfectly. “Um, yeah . . . those are my friends,” I admitted, and then I remembered that they had been two-thirds of the reason I’d been at the bar. “Damn! Their drinks . . . now I’ll have to wait for another ten minutes,” I muttered.
Within seconds, the enthralling stranger had snagged a bartender and ordered replacements for my spilled beverages. “I’ll help you carry them . . . to make sure they actually make it to their destination this time,” he teased.
I didn’t know how to reply to that, and he didn’t wait, so I just followed him to the table where Cara, a blue-eyed goldilocks, and Annie, a half-Japanese beauty, sat and stared. They gaped at my new acquaintance as he set the drinks on the table.
“I hope you ladies have a nice night,” he said, flashing us a tight-lipped smile. He met my eyes one last time, then turned and walked away.
“Whoa!” Cara nearly shouted.
“Uh . . . yeah,” Annie added.
“I know,” I agreed. Wishing the gorgeous stranger had joined us, I searched the crowd for him, but he’d already disappeared.