“Thanks to you,” he said. “Where—”
“Sunny Acres,” said a familiar voice.
Bes came down the steps to the dock. He wore a new, even louder Hawaiian shirt and only his Speedo for pants, so I can’t say he was a sight for sore eyes. Now that he was in the Duat, he fairly glowed with power. His hair had turned darker and curlier, and his face looked decades younger.
“Bes!” I said. “What took you so long? Are Walt and Zia—”
“They’re fine,” he said. “And I told you I’d meet you at the Fourth House.” He jabbed his thumb at a sign carved into the limestone archway. “Used to be called the House of Rest. Apparently they’ve changed the name.”
The sign was in hieroglyphs, but I had no trouble reading it.
“‘Sunny Acres Assisted-Living Community,’” I read. “‘Formerly the House of Rest. Under New Management.’ What exactly—”
“We should get going,” Bes said. “Before your stalker arrives.”
“Stalker?” Carter asked.
Bes pointed to the top of the fiery waterfall, now a good half mile away. At first I didn’t see anything. Then there was a streak of white against the red flames—as if a man in an ice cream suit had plunged into the lake. Apparently I hadn’t imagined that white smudge in the darkness. We were being followed.
“Menshikov?” I said. “That’s—that’s—”
“Bad news,” Bes said. “Now, come on. We have to find the sun god.”
20. We Visit the House of the Helpful Hippo
HOSPITALS. CLASSROOMS. Now I’ll add to my list of least-favorite places: old people’s homes.
That may sound odd, as I lived with my grandparents. I suppose their flat counts as an old people’s home. But I mean institutions. Nursing homes. Those are the worst. They smell like an unholy mixture of canteen food, cleaning supplies, and pensioners. The inmates (sorry, patients) always look so miserable. And the homes have absurdly happy names, like Sunny Acres. Please.
We stepped through the limestone gateway into a large open hall—the Egyptian version of assisted living. Rows of colorfully painted columns were studded with iron sconces holding blazing torches. Potted palms and flowering hibiscus plants were placed here and there in a failed attempt to make the place feel cheerful. Large windows looked out on the Lake of Fire, which I suppose was a nice view if you enjoyed brimstone. The walls were painted with scenes of the Egyptian afterlife, along with jolly hieroglyphic mottos like IMMORTALITY WITH SECURITY and LIFE STARTS AT 3000!
Glowing servant lights and clay shabti in white medical uniforms bustled about, carrying trays of medication and pushing wheelchairs. The patients, however, didn’t bustle much. A dozen withered figures in linen hospital gowns sat around the room, staring vacantly into space. A few wandered the room, pushing wheelie poles with IV bags. All wore bracelets with their names in hieroglyphs.
Some looked human, but many had animal heads. An old man with the head of a crane rocked back and forth in a metal folding chair, pecking at a game of senet on the coffee table. An old woman with a grizzled lioness’s head scooted herself around in a wheelchair, mumbling, “Meow, meow.” A shriveled blue-skinned man not much taller than Bes hugged one of the limestone columns and cried softly, as if he were afraid the column might try to leave him.
In other words, the scene was thoroughly depressing.
“What is this place?” I asked. “Are those all gods?”
Carter seemed just as mystified as I was. Bes looked like he was about to crawl out of his skin.
“Never actually been here,” he admitted. “Heard rumors, but…” He swallowed as if he’d just eaten a spoonful of peanut butter. “Come on. Let’s ask at the nurses’ station.”
The desk was a crescent of granite with a row of telephones (though I couldn’t imagine who they’d call from the Duat), a computer, lots of clipboards, and a platter-size stone disk with a triangular fin—a sundial, which seemed strange, as there was no sun.
Behind the counter, a short, heavy woman stood with her back to us, checking a whiteboard with names and medication times. Her glossy black hair was plaited down her back like an extra-large beaver’s tail, and her nurse’s cap barely fit on her wide head.
We were halfway to the desk when Bes froze. “It’s her.”
“Who?” Carter asked.
“This is bad.” Bes turned pale. “I should’ve known…. Curse it! You’ll have to go without me.”
I looked more closely at the nurse, who still had her back to us. She did seem a bit imposing, with massive beefy arms, a neck thicker than my waist, and oddly tinted purplish skin. But I couldn’t understand why she bothered Bes so much.
I turned to ask him, but Bes had ducked behind the nearest potted plant. It wasn’t big enough to hide him, and certainly didn’t camouflage his Hawaiian shirt.
“Bes, stop it,” I said.
“Shhh! I’m invisible!”
Carter sighed. “We don’t have time for this. Come on, Sadie.”
He led the way to the nurses’ station.
“Excuse us,” he called across the desk.
The nurse turned, and I yelped. I tried to contain my shock, but it was difficult, as the woman was a hippopotamus.
I don’t mean that as an unflattering comparison. She was actually a hippo. Her long snout was shaped like an upsidedown valentine heart, with bristly whiskers, tiny nostrils, and a mouth with two large bottom teeth. Her eyes were small and beady. Her face looked quite odd framed with luxurious black hair, but it wasn’t nearly as peculiar as her body. She wore her nurse’s blouse open like a jacket, revealing a bikini top that—how to put this delicately—was trying to cover a very great deal of top with very little fabric. Her purple-pink belly was incredibly swollen, as if she were nine months pregnant.
“May I help you?” she asked. Her voice was pleasant and kindly—not what one would expect from a hippopotamus. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t expect any voice from a hippopotamus.
“Um, hippo—I mean, hullo!” I stammered. “My brother and I are looking for…” I glanced at Carter and found he was not staring at the nurse’s face. “Carter!”
“What?” He shook himself out of his trance. “Right. Sorry. Uh, aren’t you a goddess? Tawaret, or something?”
The hippo woman bared her two enormous teeth in what I hoped was a smile. “Why, how nice to be recognized! Yes, dear. I’m Tawaret. You said you were looking for someone? A relative? Are you gods?”
Behind us, the potted hibiscus rustled as Bes picked it up and tried to move it behind a column. Tawaret’s eyes widened.
“Is that Bes?” she called. “Bes!”
The dwarf stood abruptly and brushed off his shirt. His face was redder than Set’s. “Plant looks like it’s getting enough water,” he muttered. “I should check the ones over there.”
He started to walk away, but Tawaret called again, “Bes! It’s me, Tawaret! Over here!”
Bes stiffened like she’d shot him in the back. He turned with a tortured smile.
“Well…hey. Tawaret. Wow!”
She scrambled out from the behind the desk, wearing high heels that seemed inadvisable for a pregnant water mammal. She spread her chubby arms for a hug, and Bes thrust out his hand to shake. They ended up doing an awkward sort of dance, half hug, half shake, which made one thing perfectly obvious to me.
“So, you two used to date?” I asked.
Bes shot eye-daggers at me. Tawaret blushed, which made it the first time I’d ever embarrassed a hippo.
“A long time ago…” Tawaret turned to the dwarf god. “Bes, how are you? After that horrible time at the palace, I was afraid—”
“Good!” he shouted. “Yes, thanks. Good. You’re good? Good! We’re here on important business, as Sadie was about to tell you.”
He kicked me in the shin, which I thought quite unnecessary.
“Yes, right,” I said. “We’re looking for Ra, to awaken him.”
If Bes had been hoping to redirect Tawaret’s train of thought, the plan worked. Tawaret opened her mouth in a silent gasp, and as if I’d just suggested something horrible, like a hippo hunt.
“Awaken Ra?” she said. “Oh, dear…oh, that is unfortunate. Bes, you’re helping them with this?”
“Uh-hum,” he stuttered. “Just, you know—”
“Bes is doing us a favor,” I said. “Our friend Bast asked him to look after us.”
I could tell right away I’d made matters worse. The temperature in the air seemed to drop ten degrees.
“I see,” Tawaret said. “A favor for Bast.”
I wasn’t sure what I’d said wrong, but I tried my best to backtrack. “Please. Look, the fate of the world is at stake It’s very important we find Ra.”
Tawaret crossed her arms skeptically. “Dear, he’s been missing for millennia. And trying to awaken him would be terribly dangerous. Why now?”
“Tell her, Sadie.” Bes inched backward as if preparing to dive into the hibiscus. “No secrets here. Tawaret can be trusted completely.”
“Bes!” She perked up immediately and fluttered her eyelashes. “Do you mean that?”
“Sadie, talk!” Bes pleaded.
And so I did. I showed Tawaret the Book of Ra. I explained why we needed to wake the sun god—the threat of Apophis’s ascension, mass chaos and destruction, the world about to end at sunrise, et cetera. It was difficult to judge her hippoish expressions [Yes, Carter, I’m sure that’s a word], but as I spoke, Tawaret twirled her long black hair nervously.
“That’s not good,” she said. “Not good at all.”
She glanced behind her at the sundial. Despite the lack of sun, the needle cast a clear shadow over the hieroglyphic number five:
“You’re running out of time,” she said.
Carter frowned at the sundial. “Isn’t this place the Fourth House of the Night?”
“Yes, dear,” Tawaret agreed. “It goes by different names —Sunny Acres, the House of Rest—but it’s also the Fourth House.”
“So how can the sundial be on five?” he asked. “Shouldn’t we be, like, frozen at the fourth hour?”
“Doesn’t work that way, kid,” Bes put in. “Time in the mortal world doesn’t stop passing just because you’re in the Fourth House. If you want to follow the sun god’s voyage, you have to keep in synch with his timing.”
I felt a head-splitting explanation coming on. I was ready to accept blissful ignorance and get on with finding Ra, but Carter, naturally, wouldn’t let it drop.
“So what happens if we get too far behind?” he asked.
Tawaret checked the sundial again, which was slowly creeping past five. “The houses are connected to their times of night. You can stay in each one as long as you want, but you can only enter or exit them close to the hours they represent.”