Nia Gaines found shopping with her parents to be such a drag, even when they were in one of the most exotic cities of the world. Beijing, China had sounded like such a romantic place to visit, but as far as she could tell, it was simply block after block of old stores filled to overflowing with ancient, and mostly ugly, stuff. Stuff, stuff, stuff. They’d been walking from store to store for hours, which felt like days to Nia. And to think how excited she’d been when her dad, Edwardo Gaines, had invited her to come along on what he’d described as a combination family vacation and business trip.
When does the vacation part start? Nia wondered. So far, she’d been dragged along from one antique store to another, each store with stuff uglier than the last. And the prices on them! Outrageously expensive stuff, as far as Nia could tell, but her father disagreed. The more shops they visited, the more excited he became, which, come to think of it, wasn’t all that surprising. He had made his fortune buying old stuff overseas, then returning home to Boston, Massachusetts to sell it for a hefty profit.
So, I shouldn’t complain, Nia thought, as they arrived at the next store. Beijing Curio, the sign read. She had a pretty great life thanks to all this stuff, but really, wasn’t it time to take a break for food, and after that maybe slip in just a little bit of vacation time? Take in a show or something? She’d learned in school that the Chinese had a long and distinguished history that included several unique forms of dance. How about a dance show? Maybe she could convince her parents that it would be an important part of her education. Nia loved dance in all its many forms. She planned to become a professional dancer. That’s all there was to it. Already, she was enrolled for her third year in a prestigious school of the performing arts, and was top in her class both academically and in her dance courses.
“Please, Dad, can’t we go get a bite to eat? I’m starving,” Nia whined for the third or fourth time.
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Alisha Gaines, Nia’s mother, piped in.
“Okay,” Edwardo finally agreed. “Just this one more shop and we’ll break for lunch.”
“You promise?” Nia asked.
“I promise. Now, let’s see what treasures the Beijing Curio has to offer.” Edwardo opened the door for his wife and daughter.
“More dusty, overpriced stuff,” Nia muttered, soft enough that her father wouldn’t hear. He’d promised food after this, so the last thing she wanted to do was make him mad.
Much to Nia’s surprise, she found the inside of the shop clean and well organized, and filled with ornate sculptures that even she could appreciate, many of them made from ivory. “Ivory is the tusks of elephants,” she recalled one of her teachers telling her, and tusks were really just the elephants' long teeth on either side of their mouths. Her teacher had gone on to discuss how the elephant populations around the world were endangered because of the high demand for ivory, but Nia had lost interest around that time and couldn’t remember the reason for the high demand. Now she knew. In the hands of creative artists, a piece of ivory took on a life of its own and was often transformed into a beautiful work of art.
“Huānyíng, huānyíng,” a small man in an embroidered crimson sarong said in a singsong voice. “Welcome, welcome.” The shop owner stood only a few inches taller than Nia, who, at fifteen years of age, was an inch or two taller than most of her classmates. She had noticed that most of the Chinese she’d seen were smaller in statute. Noticing his new customers were Americans, he quickly switched to heavily accented English. “Please come in. Welcome to my humble shop,” the owner continued, then, noticing Nia behind her parents, his facial expression changed to a frown. “One important rule,” he said, staring straight at her. “Look, but don’t touch. Understand?”
“Oh, she won’t be any trouble,” Edwardo said before Nia had a chance to respond, which was probably a good thing. Nia hated to be told what to do by anyone and especially by a stranger who was just barely taller than her.
She watched as her father handed the shop owner his business card, and waited as the frown was replaced with a smile. “Oaaa, please come in. I have many fine things your American friends will enjoy. Low prices as well. I am Chang, your humble servant. ”
Really? Nia thought. We’ll see how humble and how serving you are. Nia already didn’t like the man. Of course, she didn’t like anyone who tried to order her around. She stayed with her parents while Chang showed them around to the various departments, pointing out different items in each area. Then, the tinkle of a small bell above the front door alerted him that a new customer had entered.
“Please excuse me one moment.” With a final stern look at Nia, he hurried to the front.
“This is a goldmine,” Edwardo said, after Chang had left.
“Some beautiful pieces for sure,” Alisha agreed.
“And look at the prices. There’s plenty of room for a hefty profit. I think we’ve hit the motherlode.”
As her two parents continued to discuss business, Nia wandered off on her own, already bored by the rows upon rows of antiques. Her stomach growled to remind her how long it had been since breakfast. Suddenly, her attention switched from her hunger pangs to a gorgeous object in front of her. The carving of a line of elephants walking over a crescent bridge seemed to glow from within, the ivory was so brilliantly white. Nia glanced up to the ceiling to see if there was any special lighting showcasing the object, but could find nothing. She moved closer to it, mesmerized by the intricate design, each elephant perfectly carved, connected to the one behind tail-to-trunk with the following elephant slightly smaller.
After a moment more of studying it, she looked around to make sure Chang was nowhere to be seen. She heard his words of warning once again in her mind. Look, but don’t touch.
I’ve held fragile objects all my life, she countered, as she picked up the object with both hands to get a better look. As her fingers circled around it, she felt a tingling at the point of contact, and in the next second, she felt herself falling through a black hole of space.
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