John slurped from the spoonful of tilapia barley stew, a special recipe he’d picked up on an unexpected adventure through ancient Egypt. That epic journey had only been a month ago, after fourth grade ended and before they’d moved from Colorado to Maryland, but it was fading like a distant memory. John didn’t want to forget, so he made the stew as often as his family could stomach. In part to remind his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, too.
“Aren’t you getting sick of this same soup?” Sarah rolled her eyes, twirling her spoon in the chunky broth.
They’d bonded while dodging cobras and scorpions and figuring out the identity of a tomb robber together, not to mention traveling through time, but Sarah had changed since then, since the move. She’d been acting . . . different.
She’d rescued him from a crocodile, for goodness’ sake! But lately, when John tried to play with his older sister, she didn’t want anything to do with him. Well, most of the time, anyway. Thinking about it now, John’s head slumped toward the steaming stew. The pendant of the eye of Ra on a leather strip around his neck, a gift from their ancient Egyptian friend, swung away from his blue Denver Nuggets T-shirt and clattered against the ceramic bowl. John stared at the jade amulet—shaped like an eye with a brow and a line that flowed down into a curlicue end, another line pointing straight down with a knifelike edge—before he tucked it under his collar while glancing at Sarah.
She held his gaze for a moment and John straightened his back. The side of his mouth turned up in a half smile, revealing the lone dimple in his right cheek amid freckle constellations.
“I’m gonna go ride my bike,” Sarah grumbled, standing up and dropping her napkin on the table.
“Can I come?” John asked.
“No.” She didn’t look him in the eye. Then she turned to her parents and jabbed, “Or if we had a dog, maybe I could take it for a walk.”
John wanted a puppy too, but Sarah really wanted one and never hesitated at throwing a reminder to her parents.
“Ya gotta eat your dinner.” Dad shook both hands, pleading. He was big on them getting their protein.
“At least clear your place,” Mom added. Dad tilted his head at Mom, looking disappointed she was letting Sarah get away without finishing her meal.
Sarah sighed loudly and picked up her bowl. After it had been rinsed and lodged in the dishwasher, Dad thanked her.
“I only did it cuz Mom forced me,” she said.
Dad turned to Mom. “Thanks, honey, for forcing Sarah to do her dish like a respectable human being.”
Mom grinned a broad sarcastic smile. “You’re welcome, honey. It was my pleasure.”
“Ughhh!” Sarah squeaked, her fists at the end of stiff arms as she headed for the back door to the garage. She’d been doing that more often lately too—the high-pitched squeal and a stomp-away.
John watched his parents.
Dad shrugged in exasperation.
Mom’s eyebrows raised as she inhaled through her nose. Then she exhaled in a relax-me way and turned her attention to John, smiling. “What’d you do this afternoon?”
John took a mouthful of the tilapia fish and shrugged like his dad. “Played some hoops with Roman.”
Playing with his best friend in Colorado over FaceTime with a small foam ball and a back-of-the-door hoop wasn’t nearly the same as playing together at school on a real court. The fact that he was getting tired of playing over a video call made his heart ache. His conversations with Roman on the phone were already growing shorter. Pretty soon they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. At least he still had Sarah. Sort of.
“Oh!” Mom’s sudden exclamation roused him from his thoughts.
“Roman. That reminds me . . .” Mom looked back at the kitchen counter. She stood and rummaged through some mail, pulling out a glossy flyer. She held it up. On the front was the painting of a bare-chested gladiator with a bright bronze helmet, short sword held high over his head, his sandaled foot on a vanquished opponent lying in the dirt, an arena full of people cheering all around.
“There’s a temporary exhibition on the ancient Roman Empire, specifically the frontier region in central Europe, at the natural history museum in DC. We could all take the train in together and check it out this weekend.” Mom turned the flyer over and slapped it onto the dining table.
John leaned in and saw pictures of a bright ancient Roman coin engraved with the bust of an emperor named Constantius, and the statue of a wolf standing while two human babies suckled from below—that image made John giggle.
“Let’s do it. Gladiators—what a mind-boggling thing to think about,” Dad said, ticking his head back and forth. “Some fought as punishment for a crime or were prisoners of war. But some?” Dad paused, leaning in. “Were volunteers. Can you imagine how bad your life had to be to volunteer to kill or be killed in front of a crowd for money? To put your life on the line for entertainment?”
“Like Muhammad Ali?” John asked. He’d done a report last year on the Greatest. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Mom gave a nod like He has a point.
“Much more dangerous with swords and spears,” Dad said. “Or against lions.”
The back door opened and Sarah came in.
“That’s terrible,” Mom said. “I can’t fathom how that behavior was acceptable.”
“What?” Sarah sneered, her head cocked to the side. “Are you talking about me?”
“No, sweetheart.” Dad chuckled. He stood and moved toward Sarah with his arms out for a hug. “No bike ride? Come here.”
“I have a flat.”
Sarah let Dad approach, but at the last minute she ducked out of the way so his arms caught only air. She smiled at the evasive move.
Dad looked at John and pointed to Sarah. “I think she’d do okay in the gladiator ring.”
John snorted. He looked down into an empty bowl. “Wanna play upstairs, Sarah?”
“No.” Though curt, her answer wasn’t mean. John still deflated a little, though.
“I’ll play, kiddo.” Dad put his hand up to John’s head but caught himself from ruffling through his hair. John didn’t really like that anymore.
After a second of thought, John brightened up. “Wanna wrestle?”
Dad put his hand to his lower back and stretched. “Oy. I’m so old and you’re so big now,” he said with a smile. “But okay. After I wash the dishes.”
“Yesss.” John pumped his arm.
“Training for the gladiator games?” Mom asked.
“Why are you guys talking about gladiators?” Sarah asked from the couch in the nearby room. As much as she tried to pull away, her curiosity couldn’t keep her far. It wasn’t that Sarah was unhappy, she just wanted . . . John didn’t know what she wanted. Well, besides a puppy, there was something else, was about the best way he could describe it.
“Dad and I want to take you to DC to learn about the ancient Roman frontier this weekend,” Mom said, searching the cupboard for a plastic container.
John could tell by Sarah’s perked head that she was interested. But her response didn’t match.
“Seriously?” Sarah whined. Her vocabulary lately consisted of a lot of “seriously?” John couldn’t figure her out. She obviously wanted to go, so why pretend not to?
“It’ll be cool,” John said half-heartedly. He really did think it would be neat, but he didn’t want to commit to his opinion in case Sarah didn’t think so too.
“Do I have to?” she asked. “Can I just stay home? By myself?”
John could tell she was practically holding her breath waiting for the answer. She’d been wanting to do this sort of thing more lately too—go places by herself, stay home by herself, whatever . . . by herself.
Mom set the leftover container on the counter next to the soup pot, one hand on her hip, and leveled her eyes at Sarah. She smiled, close lipped. “We’re going as a family and we want you with us.”
“Fine. If you’re forcing me to.”
“Sarah, I asked Dad if he’d wrestle.” John beamed.
Sarah understood. “He said yes?”
“Let’s talk strategy.” She bounded up the stairs, John close on her heels like a new pup.