Valley of Decision
WHEN UNATTENDED WOUNDS SUCCUMB to infection”—Dr. Lisbeth Hastings advanced the slide in the PowerPoint presentation, and the raw end of a severed leg appeared on the screen—“amputation of the gangrenous extremity may be the only way to stop a deadly pathogen from progressing to the body’s core.” She was not surprised by the hand that shot up.
The ambitious resident with thick glasses and freshly pressed scrubs was always looking for an opportunity to prove his brilliance. Debating whether to give him an excuse to derail her lecture, Lisbeth took a deep breath. “Your question, Dr. Gingrich?”
The surgical resident pressed his glasses to his nose. “What about IV Vancomycin or Zosyn?”
Lisbeth kept her expression neutral, but inside she was cringing. Looking at Dr. Gingrich was like looking at herself nearly twenty years ago. Self-serving. Terrified. And determined to control everyone and every outcome. What a waste of precious time and energy. Oh, the things she would tell that desperate girl if she ever got the chance to go back in time again.
She suppressed her desire to take the kid aside and shake some sense into him. Her job was not to coddle young doctors but to make them into quick-thinking surgeons able to face anything the operating room threw at them.
“Vigorous rounds of antibiotics are always the first line of defense. But if modern medicine fails, the ancient practice of amputation is the better decision.” Her phone vibrated in the pocket of her white coat. Lisbeth ignored the summons and kept her gaze squarely on the young surgical resident. Maybe if he’d watched his mother amputate a man’s leg with nothing more than a serrated saw and a mandrake root for pain, he too would want assurances that he’d done the right thing. “For the treating physician, the decision is never easy. Everything must be considered. Age, overall health, postsurgery quality of life.” The phone vibrations ceased, then immediately began again. She hated being interrupted during grand rounds. Seizing the opportunity to equip a surgeon with the ability to make hard choices was the best part of her job. Lisbeth fished her buzzing phone from her pocket and glanced at the caller ID. “Excuse me, I have to take this. You’re dismissed.” She exited the conference room. “Papa, everything okay?”
“Maggie’s gone!” he blurted.
“What?” Lisbeth hurried across the hall, ducked into her office, and closed the door.
“That fancy art college of hers called.” Panic made his voice tremble. “She’s not been to a single class since we hauled her fanny to Rhode Island.”
“I talked to her yesterday on her birthday.” Lisbeth’s focus shot to the framed photo of Maggie standing outside her freshman dorm. The vivacious young woman waving good-bye was beyond beautiful. Features perfect as sculpted marble. Sea-blue eyes that rippled with a restlessness that was equally becoming and unsettling. Whenever Maggie walked into a room, she commanded attention without even trying, like the aristocrat she was. Lisbeth had been such a tomboy at that age, climbing dunes and digging for buried treasure with her father until he sent her to the States
for college. Maggie, on the other hand, possessed a sense of feminine confidence Lisbeth still struggled to grasp.
Leaving her daughter in a city fifteen hundred miles away had been harder on her than it had been on Maggie. Papa had said letting go was a natural part of parenting, but nothing about telling her daughter good-bye felt natural to Lisbeth. She’d loved being a mother. Motherhood had saved her. Given her a place to deposit all the love she still had for Maggie’s father.
“What did she say?” Papa’s anxious voice jerked Lisbeth back to the present.
She rubbed her temple, trying to recall her conversation with Maggie. “She was excited about turning eighteen and being able to make her own decisions.”
“What did you say?” Papa’s question held a tiny edge of accusation.
What didn’t I say? Hairs on the back of Lisbeth’s neck bristled as the discussion replayed in her mind. It was the same fight they always had: what Maggie could and could not do; where she could and could not go; and why it was in her daughter’s best interest to leave the past in the past and move forward.
Lisbeth’s stomach churned at her own hypocrisy. Had she not gambled on what mattered most and taken Maggie to the third century, her failure to reunite her family would not be a wound that refused to heal. Infection, yellow and foul, had seeped into her relationship with her daughter. If she could not stop the deterioration, eventually one of them would be forced to cut the other off. And she knew exactly who would wield the serrated saw. A braid of guilt, regret, and animosity thick as the blond plait that hugged Maggie’s neck squeezed Lisbeth’s heart.
“I said”—she cleared the lump in her throat—“when you start paying your own bills, kiddo, you can go anywhere you want.” She
could almost feel Maggie rolling her eyes the moment this statement came out of her mouth . . . again.
“And she said?”
“Whatever, Mom.” Loosely translated: I’m going to do whatever I want.
“Could she have possibly gained access to the inheritance your grandfather left for both of you?”
“She knew when she turned eighteen I’d set her up with an account that automatically transfers money each month.” Lisbeth could feel her heart rate increasing. “Give me a second.” A few furious clicks on the computer and Maggie’s account transactions appeared.
$1,279.00. TunisAir. Charged at 12:02 a.m. Yesterday. The day Maggie turned eighteen.
Lisbeth’s skin went cold. This time the future had gone in search of the past. Fear skipped up Lisbeth’s spine. She loved her daughter, but her hopes and dreams for Maggie did not include having her torn between two worlds for the rest of her life. Lisbeth’s body prepared to run. “Grab my emergency bag and passport. I’ll meet you at DFW.”
“Where is she?”
“Where do you think? The very place I told her never to go.”
LISBETH’S COMMERCIAL flight made the slow descent through the clouds. She watched out the window as they circled the ancient ruins of Carthage’s harbor. On about the third pass over the stunning turquoise waters of the Mediterranean port city, the ugly terror swirling in her belly was near eruption. What if she failed
again? She removed the barf bag from the seat in front of her, held it to her nose, and breathed in and out.
“You okay?” Papa rubbed her back.
All she could do was nod and pray, bracing herself for the moment the plane’s wheels set her down on African soil for the first time in thirteen years.
As they taxied to the terminal, Lisbeth slid her courage back into place and powered on her phone.
She dialed the same number she’d been trying to reach since bolting from her office. “Maybe we can find Maggie before she finds Nigel.” She threaded her arm through her father’s as they exited the plane. None of her arguments had convinced him to stay behind, and this time she was grateful. “I’m going to keep calling that Irish bush pilot until he answers me.”
Inside the stuffy cinderblock terminal a cacophony of French, Arabic, German, and heavy British drowned out the live Berber drums, sitars, and flutes. In the gray haze of cigarette smoke, Lisbeth rotated like a weather vane, listening to her call go to Nigel’s voice mail while she sorted dialects in search of the sugary Texas twang of one strong-willed blond teenager in big trouble.
She clicked off her phone. “You don’t think he took her to the cave, do you?”
“Maggie can be mighty persuasive, and Nigel’s a softie.”
“But she’s just a kid.”
“He took you there, didn’t he?”
“I was twenty-eight, and it was an emergency.” Lisbeth crammed the phone into the bag with the shiny new Kelly forceps she’d packed for Mama just in case they did have to go all the way back to the third century. “This would not be happening if I’d taken your advice and brought Maggie to Carthage the moment she started pressing for some answers.” Allowing the past to inform
the present was a bridge she hadn’t wanted to cross. Lisbeth hefted her bag onto the customs inspection counter. “You were right. There. I said it.”
“I’m still living with the consequences of my decisions. You won’t hear me judging yours. You’re the best mother I know.”
“I should have walked her through the ruins. Helped her find closure. Put the past to bed once and for all.” Her inability to give Maggie what she wanted—no, what she needed—was a constant tug on her heart.
“You can’t ask her to do something you haven’t done yourself.” Papa’s blue eyes drilled her. “It’s forgiveness that girl craves. And I don’t mean from you.”
The impatient customs official asked for their passports. “Coming into the country for business or pleasure?”
“Business.” Papa presented their passports for stamping. “Very delicate business.” He took Lisbeth’s elbow and led her around a group of retired Americans on vacation. Flowered shirts, straw hats, and sensible shoes gave away their plans to spend their vacation tramping the sunbaked remains of a forgotten civilization.
The presence of so many tourists shamed her. Carthage was not the volatile hotbed she’d claimed every time Maggie broached the subject of saving her father. Truth squeezed Lisbeth’s conscience tighter than the crowds pressing in from all sides. Political unrest wasn’t the real source of her reluctance to bring her daughter here.
She’d made a promise.
Until the costs versus the gains of breaking that promise were settled in her mind, she kept her desire to break that promise buried in a tangled web of excuses.
“This way.” Papa pushed past the luxury shops, cafés, and beauty salons. “I arranged our ride ahead of time.”
Intrusive taxi drivers rushed them the moment they stepped
into air thick with dust blowing in from the Sahara. The nearness of the desert choked her.
A snaggle-toothed man leaped in front of her. “Thirty dinars to Old Carthage.”
“Twenty to the Bardo.” Another driver hugged her left side. “Much better deal.”
A man who smelled like a goat moved in on the right. “Fifteen and a guided tour of the Tophet.”
“Camel rides, only ten dinar, pretty lady!” shouted a young Bedouin elbowing into the cluster, the reins of two bored-looking beasts of burden clutched in his hands.
“How did Maggie navigate this on her own?” Lisbeth raised her scarf over her nose.
“She’s a smart girl.” Papa squeezed her elbow tighter. “Like her mother.”
“That’s what scares me.”
“Doctor Hastings!” Across the parking lot Aisa, her father’s faithful camp fry cook, paced the wind-sanded hood of an old Land Rover. His cream-colored tunic stood out against the black smoke pouring from the exhaust pipe of a nearby bus. He waved his hands. “Come!”
They hurriedly wove their way through the honking cars and heavy foot traffic. Aisa scrambled down from the vehicle with surprising agility for a man she guessed to be nearly seventy. Lisbeth threw her arms around the wiry-thin Arab. “Aisa!” The comforting scent of lamb roasted over an open fire accompanied his embrace. She reluctantly released him and allowed Papa a moment to greet one of his dearest friends before she asked, “New glasses?”
“And new teeth.” Shiny white dentures peered out from beneath the bush of Aisa’s graying facial hair.
“Nice.” She pointed at his shiny frames. “I kinda miss the duct tape.”
“Nothing stays the same.”
His statement was a defibrillating bolt to her heart. Last time she’d traveled into the third century everything had changed. Her husband had returned from exile and married her best friend. Maggie could have stumbled into . . . No, she couldn’t let her mind go there. “Please tell me you’ve got my daughter safely tucked away.”
Aisa shook his head and took Lisbeth’s bag. “Come. We’ll get some food into your bellies and a plan into our heads for what we should do next.”
“Isn’t that what friends are for?” He loaded their gear into the SUV, then hopped in and floored the gas pedal.
The Rover shot into traffic. Lisbeth gripped the dash but still felt she was shaking apart at the seams. Their chauffeur dodged parked cars and bicycles that clogged the streets leading away from the airport. Windows down, they flew along the paved coastal road connecting Tunis and Old Carthage. The salty breeze kinked Lisbeth’s hair into knots almost as big as the ones in her stomach.
As they neared the older part of the city, the crowded, narrow avenues forced Aisa to slow down. Street vendors hawked aromatic oils, brightly colored fabrics, and pottery in every imaginable shade of blue. Lisbeth’s mind traveled back to the days when this city was new. The days when the love of her life walked these streets. His kiss. The warmth of his touch. The strength in his resolve. She stuck her hand out the window and let the breeze slip through her fingers. How could someone be so close and yet so far away?
Aisa laid on the horn and shook his fist. “Hang on.”
At a huge clock tower, their aggressive cabbie abruptly turned east. He zipped through quiet residential streets lined with whitewashed houses trimmed in the same cobalt blue of the pottery.
Leafy trees heavy with ripening oranges filled the yards. Here and there ancient stone columns converted into streetlamps embellished the neighborhoods only the very rich could afford. Grand estates like the one her mother’s father had left to Lisbeth when he died.
Aisa whipped into a drive blocked by a massive wrought-iron gate. “Here we are.”
“Here?” Lisbeth stared at the familiar gate. “This house belonged to my grandfather.” She’d sold Jiddo’s estate through a third-party transaction to finance Maggie’s steep college tuition. She had no idea the buyer had been her father’s camp cook. “You live here?”
“Yes.” Aisa’s toothy grin showed his delight at her surprise. “The good professor is not the only one who knows how to turn sand into treasure.”
Lisbeth shifted in her seat. “You sold recovered artifacts?”
Aisa lifted his chin proudly. “My recipe for fried dough.”
“An American food chain.” He pressed the remote control attached to his visor, and the gate swung open.
In the distance, Lisbeth could see the hill where the Roman acropolis had been replaced by a huge French cathedral. All around her grandfather’s estate the palm trees had grown bigger and had acquired multiple rings of thick bark. Beside her sat a newly wealthy souk vendor who used to just barely eke out a living frying bread dough on an oil drum.
Nothing stays the same.
The power of time had tugged at her since the moment she’d set foot back in Tunisia. The port that had once been the spear pointed at the rest of the world was now an accusing dagger aimed at her. She’d abandoned Carthage in its hour of need. She could take no credit for its survival.
Aisa settled Lisbeth into the room she’d stayed in the few times Papa brought her to visit on their rare supply runs to Carthage. She and Papa didn’t come often, because things were always so tense between Jiddo and her father. The two men had never had a good relationship, but after Mama’s disappearance it became even easier to beat each other up rather than themselves.
Lisbeth showered quickly, slipped into the simple tunic she found laid out on the massive burled mahogany bed, then followed the enticing smell of roasting meat to the large, wrap-around terrace with a stunning view of the port. Laughter drew her attention to the fire pit. Aisa and Papa were one-upping each other with camp stories. But something about the scene wasn’t right. Papa was dressed in a woolen tunic that hit him midcalf. His fry cook was whacking fist-size dough balls with a tire iron and wearing Papa’s faded chambray shirt and favorite dungarees.
“It’s like old times seeing you two together.” Lisbeth kissed both of their cheeks. “But why have you switched clothes?”
Her father handed Aisa a dough ball. “I thought I’d better dress appropriately for our journey into the third century.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. I let you come to Carthage, but I did not agree to let you go back in time. Plus, Maggie may still be in the twenty-first century.”
“You haven’t been able to get Nigel on the phone. If he’s not dead, then he took Maggie to the desert. And we both know he’s not dead.” Papa eyed Lisbeth as if he could see the ripple of gooseflesh raising the hair on her arms. “I’m current on all my shots.”
“That’s the least of my worries.”
“Well, then. If things are as bad back there as you’ve always said, you’ll need my help. I can tell you right now, it’s going to take both of us to wrestle Maggie Hastings back down the rabbit hole.”
“I don’t suppose your willingness to fling yourself into a
time-altering waterslide has anything to do with finding my mother?”
A sly smile lifted the corners of his lips. “I intend to bring my wife home along with the rest of my family.”
How could she argue? Truth be known, she’d always wanted to do the same. Lisbeth held up her palms. “We’ll have to hire a jeep.”
“I’ve checked with customs, and the borders into Egypt are closed to vehicular travel,” Papa said.
Lisbeth studied the strange expression on her father’s face. “So as of right now, neither one of us has a way to get to that cave.”
“The bald Irishman is not the only one with a plane.” Aisa glowed like his sparkly new teeth at her shock. “Came with the estate.”
After a quick meal of lamb and fried dough, they prepared for Lisbeth and Papa’s entrance into the past.
What if she couldn’t find her daughter? What if she was too late? Losing Maggie forever would be her worst fear come true. Panic, sharper and more frantic than what she’d experienced on the plane, clawed Lisbeth’s insides as she checked her medical bag one more time.
A familiar arm, long and sinewy, wrapped around her shoulders. “You okay, Beetle Bug?”
Lisbeth leaned into Papa and forced air into her lungs. Oxygen cleared the panic from her thinking. She turned to Aisa. “I don’t suppose you could find a local doc who’d write some antibiotic scripts and set me up with twenty to thirty typhoid blister packs?”
Aisa’s whole body seemed to smile. “Easier than frying bread.”