1. Uncle Albert
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"Hey mom," I said as I walked up to the fridge and pulled out a can of cola. "What's all that stuff?"

She was sitting at the kitchen table with a small funky-looking box and some trinkets and papers on the table in front of her. Mom had a cup of coffee in one hand and some paper in the other, she was staring at the paper.

After a sip of coffee she said in a slightly distracted voice, "Great uncle Albert died. This stuff was all he had left, so they sent it to me."

I pulled out a chair and sat down across from her as I had a sip of my drink, then asked "Who's that? And who's 'they'? And what is this stuff?"

Mom finally looked up at me and frowned, "Did you just get out of bed now? You know it's almost four in the afternoon!"

I rolled my eyes, "Whatever, it's Saturday. I was up pretty late last night hanging out with Jason."

Jason was my best friend, and the two of us spent most of our spare time hanging out online, either chatting on Discord or messing around in the odd MMO now and then.

Mom continued frowning at me for another few seconds, then sighed. "Albert was my grandfather's brother. He didn't have any kids of his own, and since my dad died I was the only relative Albert had left. So when he passed last week, the nursing home sent his things to me."

"Why haven't I heard of him before?" I asked as I started looking over the junk on the table. "And is there anything valuable here, or is it all just trash?"

Mom sighed, "Albert wasn't an easy man to get along with, he had a lot of unpleasant opinions that he wasn't shy about sharing. I only met him twice, my parents hated him. So did my grandfather. That's why you've never met him or heard of him before."

"As for this stuff," she added, "I doubt any of it's worth anything, but some of it might be interesting. Albert served in the second world war, there's some letters and post-cards here from his time in the service."

I had another sip of cola then picked up the closest piece of paper. There was faint writing on it, it was written in pencil and in cursive that was really hard to understand. It took me a few seconds just to figure out the date in the corner was from nineteen-forty-four. The word Italy was also barely legible. I gave up after that, it was giving me a headache trying to decipher the faint script.

Mom finished her coffee then stood up and suggested "Why don't you look through it, see if anything catches your eye. I have to get ready for work."

"Ok," I shrugged.

There were a few post-cards and some more letters but none of them were easy to read so I ignored all that and started looking at the trinkets. There were a couple badges and bits of fabric that I figured came from the old guy's uniform. Military insignia, that sort of thing.

There were a handful of old coins which were kind of neat. Some of them had dates I could read, they were all from the nineteen-twenties, thirties, and forties. The weird old box turned out to be a cigar box, and there were more goodies inside.

The first things that caught my eye were a handful of bullets. I didn't know much about guns but these were short and squat so I figured they must be from a handgun. The casings were dark with age and the bullet tips were tarnished copper. On the bottom they were stamped '9mm Para'.

They were interesting, but probably not worth anything. And they might be dangerous, I assumed they were still live.

There was also some old money, about three dozen old well-worn paper bills from different countries. I had no idea if any of that was worth anything. I figured the coins and the money was stuff I could research online later. None of it was pristine, I doubted it would be worth much to coin-collectors or whatever, but maybe it had some value.

Then there were a few larger folded pieces of paper, which caught my interest. They were old stock certificates. I'd heard stories about people finding stuff like this and discovering they were worth millions. Though realistically I knew odds were they were worth nothing at all. Still, it was fun to daydream.

Finally there were some pins, an old pen, and a funky-looking medallion.

The pins looked vaguely military, I figured maybe they were part of Albert's uniform or insignia. Or maybe stuff he'd collected off the enemy or whatever. They might be worth a few dollars. The pen looked really fancy, it was one of those old-fashioned fountain pens, and the nib looked like it might be gold. I figured that must be worth some cash.

The medallion was another oddball, it didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the stuff.

It was about an inch and a half across and made of metal that was tarnished and caked with black stuff. There was a jewel or gem set in it, sort of off-centre. The gem was kind of dirty and grungy, so I couldn't really tell what it was supposed to be.

When I picked it up, I found the medallion was heavy for its size. There was a little hole through it near the edge, like it was meant to hang from a cord or chain. It was about an eighth of an inch thick, and the gem was set right into the disc so it was visible on both sides. When I held it up to the light there was a faint red glow coming through the gem.

I got some wild ideas that maybe it was a big valuable ruby. Maybe the metal was gold, maybe when it was cleaned up the thing would turn out to be worth millions. It was a fun little daydream but I knew odds were it was just more worthless junk.

My mind wandered a bit further into the realm of fantasy as I thought about some of the games me and Jason played, or the stories we were into. Maybe this thing was a magic amulet, that would grant fantastic powers to whoever wore it. Maybe it belonged to the priestess of some ancient forgotten goddess, and if I put it on I'd be transformed into a cute girl...

I blushed and pushed those thoughts away. I'd read way too many stories about that sort of thing, but they were just stories. That stuff never really happened, and I had no idea why I kept thinking about it.

Realistically I knew the medallion was probably just some cheap costume jewelry or some other worthless crap.

Still, it was the most interesting thing here so I decided to clean it up a bit. I moved to the kitchen sink, and with some hot water and a bit of dish soap I managed to get all the gunk and stuff off the gem. The metal didn't clean up that easily, but after a layer of crud came off I could make out faint markings around the edge on both sides of it.

I dried it off and moved to the window to get a closer look at it under the sunlight.

The gem shone and sparkled now. I knew nothing about precious stones so it might have been a valuable ruby or it might have been worthless red glass. Whatever it was, it was polished and multifaceted. It was about three-eighths of an inch across, and sort of oval-shaped, a little like a flattened egg.

The markings around both sides of the metal were faintly visible but illegible. At least, I couldn't make any sense out of them. I couldn't even tell if they were writing or just some random patterns. Maybe it was meant to be decorative. Or I figured it could have been some funky foreign language or something.

I was still sort of torn on it being valuable or trash. But I was curious, and nothing else had caught my interest so I decided to hang onto this thing. I wanted to clean it up better and figure out what it was.

"Ok I'm heading out now," mom said as she came back into the kitchen. "There's left-overs in the fridge you can warm up for dinner, and don't stay up all night again. I'll be home by one and I expect you to be in bed."

I rolled my eyes, "No promises. And don't worry about dinner. I'm going to Jason's place tonight, we'll probably grab a bite while we're hanging out."

Mom sighed but didn't bother arguing. "Just try and stay out of trouble."

"No promises," I repeated, with a grin this time. "And good luck with work, have a good night mom."

She was a waitress at an upscale steak-house just outside the city, and Saturday night was one of the busiest shifts. You might think a posh place would pay better but you'd be wrong. And the well-off folks who could afford to eat there weren't all that generous with their tips either. A few were, but according to mom it was like maybe one in eight was generous, a quarter of them were cheap-ass miserly fucks, and the rest were just average.

I watched as she went out the side-door, and a minute later she drove off in her old rusting hatchback.

My attention returned to the amulet in my hand and I sighed, "Fuck I wish you were worth something."

I started daydreaming again that the amulet would be worth millions. Mom could quit that shit job, we'd move to a nicer house, get a new car, mom wouldn't have to work ever again.

My dad fucked off and left us when I was about five or so, and ever since then mom took whatever jobs she could find to make ends meet. I helped out where I could, mostly with chores and stuff around the house, but she wouldn't let me get a part-time job. She worried if I was working nights or weekends during the school year that my grades would get even worse than they already were, that I'd start failing classes and end up dropping out.

Now I was eighteen, I'd be graduating high-school in three weeks, and I had a summer job lined up. A guy down the street owned a garage, and I'd be working for him. It sounded like a crap job but at least the pay would be ok. Between that and what mom had saved up, come September I'd be able to do a year of community college. Then if I got another summer job next year, maybe I'd be able to swing a second year of college.

I finally sighed and pushed away the daydreams and the depressing thoughts. I made myself a sandwich for breakfast and had another cola, then got ready to head over to Jason's place.

Before I left I gathered up all the stuff on the kitchen table and stuffed it into the cigar box. I left it in my bedroom, on the desk by my computer. I wanted to research the old money and the stock certificates later, just in case they were worth something after all.

The medallion wound up in my pocket. It was interesting enough I wanted to show it to Jason. For that matter it was interesting enough I decided to keep it. Unless it turned out to be worth a fortune, then I'd sell it so my mom and me could have a better life.

Finally about half past five I left the house. I locked the door behind me and set out on the twenty-minute walk to Jason's place.

It was a boring walk and after a couple minutes I wound up digging that medallion out of my pocket again so I could stare at it on the way. I could basically do the entire walk on auto-pilot, I'd done it often enough.

The gem shone and sparkled in the sunlight, but the metal remained dull and black. I still hoped it was gold or something like that, until I remembered gold didn't corrode or whatever. That kind of dashed most of my fantasies.

It was heavy like I thought gold should be, but then so was lead. It didn't feel soft like lead though. But I was no expert, I barely knew the difference between copper and brass, I sure as hell didn't know anything about antiques or precious metals.

I was about three-quarters the way to Jason's place and stood waiting at the stoplight at Main Street while I continued staring at the medallion. In the bright June sunlight the little markings in the metal showed up better, but I still couldn't figure out what they were. I thought it must be writing, but I didn't even recognize the symbols. It wasn't any kind of writing I'd ever seen before.

When the light turned green I set out across the road, my attention still focused on the medallion in my hand. I was nearly all the way across when some noise and motion caught my attention.

I glanced to the right in time to see some guy behind the wheel of his speeding SUV, with his attention firmly fixed on the phone in his hand.

That image was sort of frozen in my mind as a split-second later everything went black.

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