Tee (short for Leticia) Woodie and her family have moved into a big, old house that is a part of her father's inheritance from Great-uncle Sebastian. While exploring the contents of Great-uncle's antiques-and-junk store, they find a parcel marked FOR DEAR LETICIA, MY SHABTI BOX. The decorated Egyptian box inside holds the shabti, a colorful wooden figure of a girl in painted mummy wrappings from the waist down. The writings on those wrappings are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Charles, Tee's younger -- and very curious -- brother, borrows the figure and uses the Internet to discover what sounds the old hieroglyphics stand for. When he reads the Egyptian words aloud to Tee, strange things begin to happen.
That evening, slow in answering her father's call to come and dry the dishes, Tee reaches the kitchen door only to hear the clink and rattle of plates and cutlery being put away. Peering in, she sees a costumed figure busy at work. Egyptian costume? The shabti? Surely not! But it is. Soon Tee is thinking of ways a secret, magical shabti-servant can help her with homework...with school...with...All goes well until the shabti begins to enjoy taking Tee's place. A frightened Tee must get her back into her box, but -- can she?
Inspired by the shabti figures in the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Jane Curry has written an amusing, then scary story that catches and holds the reader in its magic to the very last word.
Tee Woodie, sitting in the fifth row of the Oasis Empire theater, watched the screen in a trance. Her fingers felt at the bottom of the jumbo tub for the last handful of popcorn, and fumbled it into her mouth. Like Princess Maryam, up on the screen, she looked in dismay from the princely green-cloaked figure in the middle of the palace courtyard to the short, pudgy young man in purple pantaloons who peered out from behind him. That was the real Prince Farad? If it was, Tee wondered, who was the tall, handsome one Maryam was in love with? On the screen, Princess Maryam was asking the same question. "If that silly puppy is the prince, who are you?"
Whoever he was, he was growing taller by the minute. Maryam, the dweeby real Prince Farad, and Tee in the audience all stared as he grew, until he towered as high as the palace gates.
"I? I am the unhappy djinn Fasilbar, who was servant to this Farad."
A "djinn"?...A genie? But -- but he had been such a wonderful Prince Farad of Allibas! He had rescued Maryam the sweetmeat-seller from her wicked master, and revealed that she was the daughter, stolen as a child, of the Caliph of Khaibar. He was kind, and brave, and funny. He was a genie? And now that he had granted Farad's last wish, he was free, and returning to the Mountains of the Afreet?
As the djinn Fasilbar touched the jewel in his turban, bowed, and vanished, Tee clasped her hands over her breastbone and tucked her chin down against them, afraid almost to breathe. Why hadn't Maryam said something? But -- wait. Now she was pushing the doofus Farad away and calling out loudly for her horse. Tee drew in her breath as Maryam sprang onto the saddle. "Why? Why?" the poor, pudgy Farad was asking.
"Why? Because you are not the Farad who won me. If Fasilbar the Djinn could be a man once, now he can be one again, and for good!"
Then her golden horse sprang through the gates, and she was racing out through the moonlit city and onto the silver road that led to the Terrible Mountains of the Afreet.
At the fade-out, Tee wasn't the only one in the audience who jumped up and cheered, but she sat down again quickly, embarrassed, even though there were other cheers and hoots and applause, and a scattered boo or two. Seats banged up. There was the usual bustle of a crowded Saturday afternoon audience gathering up belongings, stretching, talking, and shuffling sideways toward the aisles. Tee sat with her eyes closed, spellbound, while the names of actors and makeup artists and electricians and camel herders and parrot trainers rolled up the screen. The music swelled around her, and she did not open her eyes until the last note faded away and the lights came up. Most of the audience had already filed out. Tee sighed, brushed salt and popcorn crumbs from her shorts, and stood. Chin in the air and shoulders straight, she moved along the row to join the stragglers. With a Princess Maryam flick of her bushy ponytail, she moved up the aisle with Maryam's gliding, graceful walk toward the real world. And smack into it.
The boy ahead of her let the door swing back without looking behind him.
Tee, still dreaming her way across the moonlit desert, woke up just in time to catch at the door's edge and dodge sideways. Off-balance, she tripped on a worn carpet edge and fell facedown on the lobby's blue-carpeted floor with her nose on a yellow star.
Everyone in the lobby turned to look. Tee saw all their feet turn in her direction, and her face burned scarlet with embarrassment. She scrambled to her knees to gather up the sunglasses, the half bag of peanuts, and the video of Dragonheart, and other bits and pieces that had spilled from her shoulder bag.
One young woman crossed the lobby to her. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Ignoring the ticket-taker's grin and the smothered giggles from a group of boys and girls her own age, Tee clambered to her feet. "I'm fine," she muttered. Looking straight ahead, she marched frozen-faced out through the exit doors.
For a moment the sudden, dazzling glare outside made the world look white. The oven-blast of heat left Tee breathless. She squeezed her eyes shut until she could find the sunglasses in her bag and fumble them on. River Street was almost empty. Most of the moviegoers had vanished into the Burger Boy next door, probably, or the South State Road bus just pulling away from the curb, or into Hersey's General Store. Her father's car was nowhere in sight.
Tee scowled. He had promised. He and her mother had a meeting with Great-uncle Sebastian's lawyer -- something about more junk he had left them in his will. That couldn't have taken more than half an hour, and then they would have gone home for lunch. Tee herself had an early lunch at Burger Boy before the movie. Why didn't he come? It was the last Saturday before school started, and now it was spoiled.
Sweat slid down the sides of her nose to dry before it reached her chin. With each drop that dripped she felt sorrier for herself. She longed to be back in Maine. She hated summer in Oasis Wells. She would never get used to the desert. She hated the heat. She hated the glaring, shimmering air, and the town it hung over. She hated the way it dried her hair into a frizzy bush. He. Had. Promised.
It was too hot and too far to walk to Look and Listen!, the video shop her father had inherited from Great-uncle Sebastian along with the house and junk shop. Besides, Look and Listen! was in the opposite direction from home. He might not even be there. Telephone. That was it. Phone first. Tee didn't remember seeing a telephone in the lobby. Not that it mattered whether there was or wasn't. She wasn't going back in. Not to ask that spotty-faced ticket-taker, and have him grin at her again.
She decided to try the County Public Library. She knew there was a phone behind the checkout desk. The squat, square library, with thick walls plastered to look like adobe, was her favorite place. A lot of its books were old, or were paperbacks people had donated, but it was air-conditioned, and was only a block away. Tee shaded her eyes from the sun's glare with a hand held over the top of her sunglasses, and stepped out into the desert-hot brightness. By the time she reached the corner, she could feel the heat of the pavement scorching through the soles of her sandals.
Once through the library's front door, Tee closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the cool air. Then she headed for the water fountain. After a long drink, she gave a happy sigh of "Oo-oo-oh!" She didn't realize she had oo-oohed out loud until Mrs. Fuentes came out of the little office behind the checkout desk to shush her.
"Goodness, Tee!" she exclaimed when she saw who it was. "You're red as a boiled beet. Are you all right?"
Tee nodded. "My father was supposed to pick me up, and he didn't. Can I use the phone here?"
"It's not a public phone," Mrs. Fuentes said as she moved the telephone from the desk to the counter, "but you look as if you qualify as an emergency. I bet you'll be glad to get home to that nice, cool stone house. Old Mr. Fall once told me he had the outer walls built three feet thick. His 'castle,' he called it."
Tee stabbed her finger at the numbers on the dial and waited while the phone rang at home. "Maybe," she grumbled. "But it's weird. I miss our old house in Maine."
No one was at home in the old stone house. At the fourth ring, the answering machine clicked on, and Tee's brother Charles's answerphone voice chirped, "This is the Woodies'. If you'd like to leave a really-truly message for Sarah, Frank, Tee, or Charles, go ahead after the beep; if you're only trying to sell something, thank you and good-bye forever." Tee phoned Look and Listen! next, but the Saturday sales clerk reported that Mr. Woodie had not been at the store all day. Mrs. Woodie had come in after lunch to do the restocking orders, but had gone out the door only two minutes ago. That left Great-uncle Sebastian's junk shop. Where the phone was disconnected. Great. She had to walk another block and a half.
"A block-and-a-half-long oven," Tee muttered. She hung up the receiver and pushed the phone across the counter as Mrs. Fuentes came back from the open shelves with a book in her hand.
"I ran across this on the shelves the other day. Have you seen it?"
Tee looked at the plastic-covered book jacket: Were the Gypsies Egyptians? by Sebastian Fall. She shrugged. "No. But my father says it's kind of crackpottish." Like Great-uncle Sebastian himself, she thought to herself.
Mrs. Fuentes grinned. "Oh yes, so was he. He was interested in everything and anything. The parts in this about his travels are fun, though. But your phone call -- was anyone at home?"
Tee sighed. "No. The only other place I can think of is the junk shop."
"Back out into the sun." Mrs. Fuentes made a sympathetic face, and then brightened. She stooped to rummage under the counter, and came up with a blue and yellow collapsible umbrella. "Use this. It's been in Lost and Found since last year, so no one will miss it. And good luck. If you don't find anyone at the shop, come back here and I'll give you a ride home at five."
In spite of the umbrella's help, Tee's T-shirt was sticking to her back, and the hair at the back of her neck was wet before she was halfway there. The junk shop! What could be important enough there to take almost four hours? It was a junk shop, for goodness' sake!
Great-uncle Bass, who left the shop to the Woodies, had died on the first of June, four days before his one hundredth birthday. All that his short will, written twenty years earlier, had said was, "To great-great nephew Frank, the best of a boring bunch of Leticia's and my great-greats, I leave everything except my money in the bank, which is to go to The Society for the Preservation of Landmark Trees."
The school year in Portland, Maine, was just over, so Mr. Woodie had quit his job at the hardware store, the family packed everything into a U-Haul van, left their rented house, and moved west. Tee had sulked all the way across the country, and after two and a half months was still unhappy. Great-uncle Bass's house was a half-hour bus ride outside of town. There were few close neighbors, and none with children. It wouldn't have helped if there were children. She was too shy to be good at making friends.
Yesterday, Great-uncle Sebastian's lawyer, Mr. Witt, had telephoned to say that he had found a recently handwritten postscript to the will tucked into an old account book, and could they meet at the junk shop today. According to Mr. Witt, the P.S. read, "I have left my personal gifts to my family in the large Chin box in my treasure room."
Chin box. What on earth was a Chin box? And -- "treasure room"? In some ratty old junk shop? That had to be a joke. As Tee hurried along the heat-shimmering sidewalk, she told herself she wasn't the least bit curious. She was only desperate to get out of the sun.
Jane Louise Curry has written more than thirty books for children, her most recent novel being The Egyptian Box. Ms. Curry lives in Lose Angeles, California, and spends a part of each year in London, England. For more information go to JaneLouiseCurry.com.