It’s true confessions time: I am too much of a chicken to watch scary movies. Maybe it’s my overactive imagination, but my mind goes places that make my skin crawl and palms sweat.
The last time I watched a movie that terrified me, I started to wonder what is the most horrifying thing that could happen.
I explored that question as I wrote Unsealing the Urn, the story I’m sharing with you in this post. It’s a little darker and edgier than I usually write, but that’s where the story took me. Enjoy!
Unsealing the Urn
There’s a reason I will never be in the same room with my mother. Cards, letters, those we can do. But to gaze into each other’s eyes produces the nausea and sweats of self-loathing and shame. That last time we saw each other ruined things forever.
I’d been working in another city for over a year and had flown into town to visit my mother. She dropped the news we were having dinner with her friend Carmen.
“Do I have to?” I knew I sounded like a whiny five-year-old.
But I was tired from traveling, and evenings with Carmen were bound to be dull.
“Sage, you haven’t seen Carmen in years. She’s been looking forward to seeing you.” My mother frowned, her dark eyes narrowed. “For a long time.”
Carmen, my mother’s mousy neighbor, had been kind to me, I was forced to admit. When my mother was off pursuing the paranormal sighting of the month or wherever she went, Carmen saw that my clothes were washed and I was fed. When I grew older, she made sure I was home by my curfew, unaccompanied by any boys. I owed her whatever stability I experienced in my childhood.
“Fine.” Feeling more and more like a child, I stomped up the stairs to change my clothes. I dressed in a pair of black jeans and silk shirt and tied my hair up in a loose bun. Mom, I knew, would wear a gypsy skirt and loads of bangles and let her loose dark curls hang free.
A few hours later, we sat in Carmen’s living room, a crowded mess of figurines, pottery, paintings and other artifacts from around the world. Not that Carmen ever went anywhere. That was Jason, her brother’s doing. Somehow, he’d gotten a gig with National Geographic and traveled the world, photographing exotic places and interesting people. He never failed to bring souvenirs back to his sister.
To my surprise, Jason was also in town. His cheekbones jutted out of his tanned face, as if he hadn’t had much to eat the past few months. His jeans bagged around his waist and his shirt hung on him. He’d just returned from some place in Tibet, photographing remote areas around Mount Kailash.
Carmen had roasted Cornish hens and topped off the meal with blackberry pie. Then she served a round of after-dinner drinks. I had no idea the evening’s fun was about to start.
“Oh, Carmen,” Jason said. “I almost forgot. I brought you something.”
“What a surprise.” Mom rolled her eyes.
“Be nice, Lexi,” Carmen said. “He always brings me the most interesting things.”
Jason left the room and returned a few minutes later carrying a small box and a thick tube wrapped in brown paper. “You will love this.” He handed the box to his sister.
She opened it and squealed. “Jade! You know how I love jade!” She held up a silver chain with a large green pendant. “Thank you.”
Jason nodded. “But look at the other. It’s even better.”
Carmen took the parcel, a grin of anticipation spread across her plump face. She tore open the paper and revealed the contents.
With a puzzled frown, she set the article on the coffee table in front of her. I could understand her confusion. It resembled a vase that stood about nine inches tall. It was a vivid scarlet and was encrusted with gemstones that winked and twinkled under the light. Oddly, its upper opening was completely sealed.
“What is it?” I asked.
Mom glared at me, but Jason laughed. “That’s exactly it. No one knows.” He shrugged. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
Carmen giggled. “It is. I’ll have to find the perfect place to put it.”
“What are those stones on it?” Mom asked.
“Well,” Jason said, “I had to track down an expert to find that out. But that was after I got this.” He pointed to a scar over his eye. It was so close to his hairline I hadn’t noticed it earlier.
Carmen’s eyes bulged. “Jason! How did that happen?” Obviously, she hadn’t noticed it, either.
I knew from the way he sat forward in his chair and rubbed his hands together that we were in for one of his stories. A yarn or tall tale that might be true. Or not.
“I’d finished the shoot and was wandering through the market in Ali, which is the largest town around. The vendors tried to sell me everything from bean jelly to butter lamps and prayer wheels. I knew I wanted to find something for you, Car, so I looked for pottery or jewelry vendors. In one stall, I found the jade necklace. Just the thing for you.”
“You were right.” Carmen refilled his wine glass.
Jason took a sip of merlot. “We bargained for the price and finally came to an agreement. We stepped into the stall. While the vendor wrapped up the necklace, I saw it.” He pointed at the covered vase. “I knew I had to have it. So, I asked how much.
“The vendor got a scared look on his face and said, ‘You don’t want it.’ That was when I knew I had to have it.”
“Really, Jason. The necklace would have been fine.” Carmen shook her head at her younger brother.
He ignored her and continued his tale. “We bargained, I kept going up in price, thinking he was just going for the best deal he could. When I wouldn’t quit, he became more agitated.
“He threw the necklace at me and said ‘take it and go. No charge.’
“I tossed it back at him. ‘No, I want the vase.’ For answer he threw a knife at me.”
We all gasped.
Jason nodded. “The knife grazed my forehead. I was dripping blood over everything, shouting at him.
“Then his wife rushed at me and tied something around my head. ‘Take it, take it,’ she screamed. ‘Don’t let my fool of a husband keep you from it.’
“The vendor wailed, ‘No, no, you don’t understand.’
“ ‘Idiot!’ she yelled. ‘This is our chance to be rid of it.’ She wrapped it up and shoved the parcel into my hands. ‘Whatever you do, don’t open it.’ The two of them shoved me into the street and pulled the shutters down, closing their stall.”
He paused and gazed at each one of us in turn, stretching out the moment. “And that’s how I ended up with it.”
“What’s the big deal with this urn thing?” I asked. “And why shouldn’t you open it?”
“I see no reason not to,” Jason said. “I just thought it would be fun to do with Carmen.”
“Yes, let’s.” Carmen grabbed the urn and shook it. There was a faint scratching, like something sharp was rubbing against the inside.
“Let me look.” Mom took the vase from Carmen. “What did you say the stones are?”
“These small red ones, these are cinnabar.” Jason pointed to another group of large red stones. “These are corundum, or ruby, while the blue are sapphire. The green and yellow are nephrite.” The stones he’d pointed out were arranged in rings around the circumference of the vase. In between were bluish stones which he identified as turquoise. Covering the entire top and spilling over the sides were white stones that flashed with different colors. “And these, of course, are diamonds.”
I frowned. “Are they real?”
“Yes, that’s what the expert told me.”
That meant this thing would be priceless. “And the vendor just gave you the vase?” I wrinkled my nose and crossed my arms.
A moan from my mother made me turn to her. Her face blanched and her hands shook. “This thing is evil.” She set it on the table and scooted back from it.
I did my best to suppress a sneer. Mom is a bit superstitious. That’s putting it mildly. If I so much as spilled a grain of salt, she’d force me to toss it over my shoulder. I had to beg her to let me go to school on Friday the thirteenth. When I broke a mirror, she recorded the date so she’d know exactly when the seven years of bad luck ended. Once she spanked me for whistling indoors, shrieking that I was inviting the devil inside. She’d never get her hair cut on a Tuesday. Her house was filled with talismans and amulets and who knows what.
“Why do you think so?” Carmen did a fine job of appearing to be politely interested. She’d suffered through Mom’s superstitions for decades.
“I don’t think, I know.” Mom waved a hand at the urn. “Those stones are there to ward off evil.
“What evil?” I didn’t do a good job at asking politely.
“Look at the stones.” She pointed to the small red stones. “Corundum protects against attack. Sapphire diffuses negative forces.” The nephrite shields against evil thoughts, and the diamond shields against evil.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve never heard of an object with so many protective stones on it. None of them give healing or peace.”
“Maybe it will protect its owner from evil.” Jason smirked. “I finally bought Carmen something useful.”
Mom glared at him. “The cinnabar releases power. The power of the stones. But what has me worried is the turquoise.” Her eyes darted around the room, peering at the three of us. “Turquoise changes colors in the face of danger. Why put it there if danger doesn’t lurk within?”
Instead of rolling my eyes at her melodrama like I would
have when I was younger, I contented myself with a sigh.
Carmen shrugged. “If you can believe any of that.”
“Want to open it?” Jason asked.
“No, don’t.” Mom’s lips trembled and I could tell she was terrified.
“What do you think is in there, Mom?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of evil object. It was sealed up for some reason.”
Jason and Carmen managed to bring her over to their way of thinking, that the gem stones were there to help to the owner of the object. I could tell they didn’t believe a word they said. All they wanted to do was placate her.
I, meanwhile, grew more nervous. Mom usually embraced all things metaphysical. I’d never seen her shrink back from anything, no matter how esoteric. But this thing had shaken her to the core. “Maybe we shouldn’t open it,” I suggested. “Get an expert to look at it first.”
“Never knew you for a chicken,” Carmen said.
I glared at her. That was how she’d get me to stay alone in the house when I was a child and mom was out late. Too bad her shaming tactics wouldn’t work on me anymore.
“What could go wrong?” Jason asked. “Surely you don’t believe some kind of monster or evil spirt is trapped in there.” He snickered. “Or do you think it’s a flesh-eating virus that will devour our eyes? It’s probably just a piece of jewelry.”
I had no desire to expose whatever was inside their mysterious object. “Well, I’m a little tired from travelling all day. You can let me know tomorrow what you found inside.” I glanced at my mother. “Ready?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” She gazed at me, her eyebrows raised.
I wanted to leave but didn’t want to abandon my mother. I could tell her curiosity had overshadowed her fear. She wanted to know what was in that thing. With a shrug, I slouched in my chair.
The biggest mistake of my life.
Jason fetched a hammer and chisel from the pantry. He spread out some newspaper on the floor and placed the vase on top of it. “Ready?” He swung the hammer and tapped along the edge off the seal. I watched breathlessly as he made his way around the circumference of the vase. With one last rap he pried the lid off. He turned the urn over and gave it a shake.
Nothing fell out.
After a few tense seconds, the turquoises darkened and turned black. A faint mist rose from the vase and dissipated.
Jason dropped the urn on the table and backed away, his eyes wide.
A startled gasp drew my attention to my mother’s face. My mind surged with images, scenes from my mother’s life, as if I was watching things she’d thought, said or done. Stupid stuff she did as a kid. Mean things she did as a teenager. Who knew my hippie mother could be so cruel?
I wished the urn had contained a monster. A flesh-eating slug that chomped off my head and sucked my brains out would have been better. Or a light that blinded. Or a sound that deafened. Anything but what happened.
I glanced at Carmen, and images of her life appeared. All the petty squabbles with her friends. The way she cheated her way through college. The scorn she had for her husband.
With a peek at Jason, I saw some of his past. He backstabbed a rival. Stole from his employer.
Then it got worse. I saw things I could never unsee. The sexual exploration between Jason and his sister when he was twelve and she was nine. The three way they’d had with my mother some years later. Which was the night that had produced me.
“Is that why Dad left? When he found out?” I spat the questions at my mother.
She glared at me. “You lied to me about Joe.”
My face burned. I realized I wore the same wide-eyed, horror-struck expression that they were. Not only did I know their shameful secrets, but they knew mine. Every last gut-wrenching moment that woke me at three in the morning and made me writhe and cringe. Everything exposed.
A monster that chomped off a leg would have been far better. I could have found a way to live with that. This, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to. Or how I was going to live with what I’d learned. And what they learned about me.
I fled from the room, jumped into my car, and sped out of town.
And never looked back.