“You get that report in yet?”
Melissa Reilly paused before answering, sweeping a strand of dirty blonde hair from her mouth, a bad habit she’d picked up recently. Too much stress in this job. Reilly had signed on for dinosaurs, not all this paperwork. Paleontology with strings attached. They were in the wrong place for fossils, anyway, an uninhabited stretch of woods in southern Europe.
“Yeah,” she puffed at him, “Almost done.” He narrowed his eyes.
“Not what I asked. Stop running your mouth off at me!” Reilly fell silent.
“So, what,” she said with a casualness she didn’t feel. “Gonna fire me now?” Reilly had signed on fresh out of college, a fossil digging dream job, long hours outside in the summer sun. And maybe a dinosaur or two. She wasn’t the type to work in an office. Too much mouth, too many morals, and less patience than a six year old in a grocery store. Her boss, a middle aged man by the name of Bill Chandler, sighed heavily.
“No,” he answered, “No, I’m not firing you.” A relieved expression crossed her face. “Yet.” He spit onto the peat of the forest floor. His teeth were still stained from a lifetime of chain-smoking, though he’d quit last July, almost a year previous. “Get your act together, though, or I’m not gonna have a choice.” He spoke with an indistinct drawl, one side of his face droopy as a basset hound’s. Reilly, though, knew to take him seriously.
“Yes, sir.” Crossing the unused dirt road that marked the edge of the woods, she walked back into camp and zipped herself into a small beige tent, slapping errantly at a mosquito as she did so. She felt a droplet of sweat slide down from her neck and plop onto her mangy travel pillow, and threw down her sheath of unfinished papers in a frustration that rapidly became disgust. She had nothing to report on. The problem that had plagued them since day one remained, a glaring hole in any of their plans. Though they’d dug and dug in this temperate forest, in what promised to be a rich fossil vein, they had found nothing.
Until the next morning, when Reilly, in a desperate attempt to put off the paperwork further, had strode across camp through the early morning sunlight, tripped over a tree branch, and landed face down on a shard of ancient pottery. At the time, though, ancient hadn’t mattered. She cursed as she drew the sharp end of the sliver from her cheek, pinching the wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Only then did she look down at the site of her injury, to see a worn and dusty pot, nearly intact, save a third that lay in sharpened pieces by her feet. Careful not to disturb the site, she raced back into camp for her boss and some sterile wipes.
Her find promised to be exciting, as a closer examination had found decorations on the pot, and smooth craftsmanship. This had been made by a skilled potter, but clearly was in a different category than what they were looking for. This seemed to be the wreckage of early humans, not the reptiles that the group had came for.
“We’re not clearing out, though,” Bill had said finally, his breath heavy from dust and a morning of panicked though not entirely necessary pacing. “They’re gonna want us to clear out, now we found something actually worth looking’ at, but it isn’t a dinosaur, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to clear out, make way for some team of anthropologists fresh out of college . . .” As he trailed off, she bit her lip, knowing full well that he was touching on the reason he had nearly not hired her in the first place. Young and indecisive, with a Minor in Psychology, she was a dreamer, with a lot of ideas, a lot of spring, and her own way of doing things- exactly the opposite of her old and cantankerous boss, who didn’t approve of such nonsense.
“They’re not going to make us leave,” she said, in an attempt to quiet him. “We can deal with ancient cultures just as well as dinosaurs, and anyone who says different can stay home, because it looks like we really did find something this time, really we did!” Her excitement seemed to calm him somehow, because the redness of his face ticked down a notch and, wiping sweat from his lip, he gestured weakly back toward the clearing where the discovery had been made.
“Get your brushes and picks and whatever else. We found something, there’s gonna be more.” Reilly nodded, her thoughts already elsewhere, then picked up her kit and went back to the forest. Brushing away the dry, reddish earth, the crew found more needles of pottery, as clear and defined as the day they were made. And that’s when Reilly realized.
“Mr. Chandler . . . Mr. Chandler, when we dig up bones, they crumble, they’re fragile as a sand castle, but, this pot, I mean, it went right into my cheek, barely even broke . . . Mr. Chandler, how do we know this is even that old?” The older man shrugged.
“How should I know? Those are bones, this is pottery. Not as old as the bones anyway. Maybe it’s different. We’ll send some in for carbon dating, know soon enough how old they are.” He returned his attention to the forest floor in front of him, then started at it with the energy and vigor of a child. Adriano Scarpa, a tall, moustached, and more experienced paleontologist than any of them, shot her a meaningful look.
“I don’t know much about pottery either.” He twisted his moustache between two long and slender fingers, eyes etched with worry. “But that’s not normal. That is never ever normal. Nothing that old could take on your cheekbone and stay intact.” He paused. “No offense.” Her hand went to the Neosporin-lined bandage plastered to her skin and she winced.
“None taken.” She stared deeper at the edges of the pot and gasped. “Adriano, someone’s painted this!” A tiny trail of small blue figures ran round and round the fine, dust-like peach of the clay, a man throwing a spear, a child picking berries, a woman in a crude shawl. “Someone spent a long time on this,” she breathed, “Someone with a lot of skill.” Adriano glanced curiously over her shoulder and voiced what they all knew, even before the carbon dating tests came back.
“Melissa Reilly, someone has just made this!”
But no one lived in that strip of forest. They’d had to make sure of that before the dig started. The paperwork had been nightmarish, and this site had not been Plan A or even Plan B but rather selected from hundreds of choices, each less promising than the last, all of which had turned out to already have an owner who did not want paleontologists on their land, thank you very much, please go away now. But no one had owned that land, and no one had bought it since, and yet here it was, crystal clear evidence that someone lived there.
This wasn’t their job anymore, Melissa knew that. Even Bill Chandler, crustily devoted to his work, would have to understand that this wasn’t paleontology anymore. A tribe found, maybe one that had never seen a helicopter or a tent or a cereal box before, maybe one that had died out, or moved on, or just been passing through. A tribe that would now own this land, had always owned this land, even if they’d never owned this land. Any day now, they’d be kicked off the site, because this land wasn’t free for digging anymore.
But what tribe could be hiding in this forest, undiscovered, that could make pottery with this deftness, this incredible skill? Who was this potter, who was about to change everything for Reilly, to take away her archeological dream that she’d held dear since childhood, this artist? She knew she had to find out. Vaulting across the dried up streambed that separated her from this unexplored corner of the forest, carrying a small rucksack of that day’s supplies, she let the greenery close around her, and really, truly, opened her eyes.
Bill Chandler was born angry. All you had to do was look at his baby pictures, tucked snugly in a pink-tinted felt book, to see the hard, narrow eyes, the permanently set jaw, like he was chewing wet cement one day and forgot to pull out, the slightly reddish complexion that spoke volumes about frustration, and unfairness, and how hard it was to be him.
Because it was hard. That baby had a right to be angry, and so did he. He’d grown up poor. Poorer than poor. Can’t-afford-food-to-eat-in-our-dirt-floored-hovel poor. He wore the same clothes to school every day, got a free lunch in the school cafeteria, and never received an allowance in his life. They got kicked out of the apartment when he was five and ended up on the streets, not because of rent but because his Dad smoked and the landlord didn’t allow it. Bill didn’t know that ten years later he’d be smoking too.
He grew up short and ungroomed, with long tangled hair and a face like a rat, hidden by hoodies purchased from thrift stores. Too skinny for sports, too shy for friends, too hungry to care. He wasn’t unloved, but his parents were busy, busy with work, busy with his nine siblings. He was the middle one.
They were in and out of homes, he was in and out of school. When he couldn’t go, he read. He couldn’t care less if he got an education, but books took him somewhere else, and he liked that. He spent his time in libraries until he was kicked out for his ratty clothes and foul smell, but would come back as soon as he dared. He couldn’t afford a library card, so he memorized page numbers and did his reading nestled in a puffy chair, coming back to the same book until he’d finally finished it. He read at a snail’s pace, and then faster and faster, until he could read as well as any kid his age, and then better. He became an emancipated minor at sixteen, working long hours as a pizza delivery boy to pay for a one-room apartment where he studied through the night, trying to graduate from high school.
He didn’t date, he didn’t play sports, he didn’t go out except for work and school. He could have gotten a library card, but he was too busy, and even his favorite books lay neglected on their shelves. He received his diploma the day after his eighteenth birthday, then went on to a local community college. Between money for cigarettes and his student loans, he fell deeper into debt every day. He didn’t sleep, but studied instead, day in and day out. A scholarship offer arrived from a better school and he transferred after a year of study.
He majored in Paleontology, and it was the riskiest thing he’d ever done. He scoffed at arts majors, who had never been poor in their lives, who had a safety net to fall back on if their plans didn’t work. He had nothing, less than nothing, until he got his BA, graduating a year early so he would save on tuition. He studied and studied for his PhD, and paid his living expenses with a night shift job as an elementary school janitor, cleaning up piles of sick and unclogging toilets after all the kids had gone home to their warm, safe, houses.
Though he got the degree, he couldn’t find work. He never married, though he’d been in love, once or twice. He didn’t settle, because he was too scared of losing everything, so he shied away from security, trying to remain unchained. He drifted from one job to another, deveining shrimp for a fancy restaurant, tucking in the sheets of beds in cheap hotels, taking calls for an important executive, even cleaning city streets armed with a hose and a ten foot metal pole. Working as a night guard in a science museum, he looked at the remains of dinosaurs and crocodiles and now-extinct birds and despaired, because he knew this was the closest he’d ever come to the fossils he’d studied for.
He was only forty when he finally got the job he’d been looking for, but he’d aged prematurely, his once dark brown hair now silver and white, his face layered over with deep wrinkles, his voice raspy and dull from the smoking habit he couldn’t seem to kick. Ten years later, ten years of brushing desert sand off of fossilized dino poop, of cold tents and trying to uncover sixty five million years of history using a paintbrush, work had sent him to Europe with a small team of younger, less experienced paleontologists. They’d dug every day, for months now, hunched low in the red earth of a dried up creek bed, shivering through the winter and sweating through the summer heat.
They had dreams, dreams of dinosaurs, dreams of fame, even Bill, who had never been a dreamer in his whole angry life. They wanted to be on the cover of National Geographic, to get so rich they never had to work a day again, even Bill, who’d worked every day since he was fourteen years old. And so they dug, sun beating down on red and blistered necks, boots covered with dusty red that stained deeply on everything he owned.
There were three of them at first, two women and a little boy, though the younger female ran away at the site of her, racing up a tree with uncanny skill and watching warily from a high branch, eyes narrowed against the late afternoon sun gleaming through the leaves. The oldest one, matted hair greying slightly, stood her ground, staring firmly at Melissa Reilly. The child looked up at her curiously. He couldn’t have been more than five years old, wrapped in a tatty fur blanket with long, slender toes poking out from beneath it.
She felt immediately self-conscious at her obvious riches, as these three had so few. A t-shirt and khaki shorts, a small blue backpack, suddenly seemed like immeasurable wealth. She had seen documentaries of people like them, wearing cereal boxes proudly on their heads as if they were made of gold. She came from a land of strip malls and pop tarts, tennis shoes and concrete, and yet these people had something else, something foreign, something she could not place. The boy, she noticed, had moved slightly closer to her. He was just a child, barely more than a baby, but his ribs stood out staunchly against his olive-brown skin, and she could feel his hunger. But still they stood, at arms length, just staring at each other, with miraculous wonder. And then he moved closer still, so that he could have reached out and touched her.
In one motion, she swung the pack of her back and began rifling around awkwardly inside, finally withdrawing a packet of beef jerky, jalapeño flavored. She offered a strip to the child, and he took it with greedy excitement, stuffing it whole inside his mouth and chewing vigorously for a few seconds before recoiling in shock from the spice. He recovered and looked back up at her. His teeth were bared like a chimpanzee, but his eyes sparkled beneath unnaturally thick brows, an unfamiliar sort of smile. She handed him more beef jerky, and strip by strip, he finished off the entire back, though the spice seemed to shock him more each time.
Through this whole encounter, the older woman kept her distance, smiling amusedly at the pair with occasional knowing glances. The food gone, the child lost interest in her and began poking at a nearby anthill. Fire ants emerged, tiny and reddish brown, and had, moments later, crawled up the boy’s legs and stung him in numerous places, leaving swollen pink welts. He howled in pain and rage, but did not flee, in fact, he continued to swat at the sandy hill as if this would make the insects go away.
Marveling at this unique idiocy, Melissa pulled him forcibly up. As she dug through the blue backpack for something to tend the stings with, he limped away from her side back towards the ant mound. Grabbing him around the waist, she pulled him back, now beginning to wonder if something was wrong with his brain. His forehead, she realized, sloped slightly backward, and his eyes were set almost imperceptibly to close together. His matted, messy hair, and his skinny bruised body gave the sense that he was unloved, uncared for, but the woman seemed to bear him no ill will.
She, too, bore his strangely shaped head, her dark almond eyes hugged tightly on a large and bulbous nose, and she, too, appeared unwashed and wild, as though she no longer cared if she lived or died, or did not know enough to keep herself together. Melissa’s attention distracted by the woman, the boy slipped past her once again, but this time headed not for the ants but for her backpack.
She caught him with his face in a sack of trail mix, inhaling the nuts and little chocolate candies as though starving. She frowned slightly, not at the loss of her food, but with puzzlement. How could this child still be so ravenously, animalistically, hungry, when they had already eaten so much, so fast? It was like he didn’t know when to stop. He looked guiltily at her, then spoke in some strange and foreign tongue. She was no master of languages, but it didn’t seem familiar.
Startled by a sudden sound, she turned around to see the woman jabbering rapidfire to the little boy. Though Melissa listened, she could not make sense of it, could not even tell where one word ended and the next began. The child pulled back from her backpack as though burnt, then tore off barefoot along the shrub-lined forest floor, legs pumping gracefully as he leaped over fallen trees and trickling brooks. Melissa followed in hot pursuit. Her legs were longer, but she frequently had to stop and curse as she pulled a branch out of her face. Covered in bloody lashes, she gradually slowed, until the child was completely out of site. Wheezing, she slowed to a walk, reasoning that eventually he would stop and she could catch up to him. This child wasn’t safe out on his own in the forest. She could not, in good conscience, leave him. Odds were he’d get stung to death by ants or eaten by a bear.
Rounding the crest of a small hill, she finally caught sight of him, legs swinging freely from a high tree branch, spindly, grub eaten, and nearly thirty feet above the ground. She gasped, then, casting her pack aside, grabbed the lowest oaken branch and began to climb.
The branches, she soon realized, were far apart and not entirely stable. Mostly she pulled herself from limb to ever higher limb, dizzy at the potential fall opening up beneath her. Sometimes she had to place her foot in a chink of the tree bark, or wrap her body around the trunk and inch just a little bit up to reach the next handhold. Bit by bit she climbed, her fear of heights threatening to take over at every second. But by now she had almost reached thee boy, just two more branches and she would be able to grab him, to rescue him, just one more branch now-she reached up-steadied herself-almost had him---
With a sudden flash of movement, he had braced his feet around the tree top and was rocketing, monkey like, still higher into the leafy canopy. Knuckles white with fear and worry, Melissa followed slowly, intrigued. The boy did not stop until he had reached the very tallest branches, no wider than her wrist, before he resumed another perch, fully three stories from the forest floor. Melissa, at this point, began to be very very scared, but she knew she could not let him fall to his death, so she climbed higher and higher, till solid ground was as distant as a memory, till she could feel the branches tremble and creak beneath her weight. She approached the boy, beaming with success, because he could climb no higher, and she had caught him at last.
And then, with a fantastic leap, the boy left the tree and began to fall. Melissa heard herself scream, felt the gust of wind ruffle her sleeve as he soared past her outstretched arm. And then he landed, not on the ground, but tucked safely in the crook of another tree, and she realized that he had not been falling at all, but merely leapt to another tree like the gray squirrels that chirped outside her tent on the early summer mornings. And then she realized that she had to follow.
She tried not to look down, but merely out onto the slender tree limb, about four feet away. It was a little too far to reach, but surely she would not have to jump. Already her knuckles were white with fear. She was high enough up that the wind caught her hat, it blew away into the forest and snagged on a faraway maple. She looked to see the child, teetering on the edge, and remembered the ants, realized she could not trust him to stay while she got help, closed her eyes, and plunged into the void. After a fraction of a second that felt like a year, she plowed headlong into the trunk, skinning her cheek on the deep creases of an ancient elm. The child stood, not a foot away from her, and this time when he fled, he did it at a pace slow enough for her to follow.
And then, there it was, nestled between three branches that twisted and turned around each other like gnarled snakes. A tree house of sorts, large branches of their bark and layered across each other in a rustic mound, an entrance etched clearly into the near side. Within it, she caught sight of maybe a dozen people, each as filthy as the child, crouched inside on the lumpy, mossy floor. The boy scurried in and disappeared from her view, it really was a massive structure, sitting there in the tree like an oversized gray squirrel’s nest, oblong in shape and nearly as big as a school bus. She tried to enter, but a stocky and hair covered man blocked her way, jabbering in a strange language that was unmistakably the one the boy had been speaking. She could very nearly recognize it, except for some of the sounds that were not human sounds, were not sounds she could make with her mouth, her tongue, her alphabet.
The man bellowed louder and louder. Melissa just stood there, shocked and stunned, as the foreign words washed over her like an ocean tide. He ducked back into the squirrel-nest, and emerged brandishing a twisted braid of what looked a bit like deer hide. Melissa panicked and tried to run, but realized there was nowhere to go, she was standing on the edge, with solid ground some thirty feet beneath her. The man growled a little in the back of his throat, and Melissa could see the little boy peep his head out from the nest, but he did not come to help her. She could see the man’s anger, in his foaming pointed teeth, etched deeply in his tiny close-set eyes, and she wanted to tell him she meant no harm, but did not have the language in which to say it…
“Reilly!” She heard a voice from the ground, the breaking of a branch under a heavy foot. “Melissa Reilly! What are you doing?” Bill Chandler was blotched red and white, and interesting mix of anger and panic. Even the angry man with the rope took a step back in surprise at this new character.
“Reilly, come down!” Adriano called up to her as well, but she didn’t know what to do, or how to free herself from this dangerous perch. In a desperate attempt for peacemaking, she thrust a granola bar from her backpack at the man, who scented food, and, in a flash, and stuffed it whole into his mouth without bothering to remove the wrapper first. Still, when he looked back at Reilly, he wore the same ugly smile she had seen on the little one, and she knew she had done right. Looking nervously over her shoulder, she began a slow descent down the trunk. The elm tree had far more branches, and once she was sure of her safety, she was able to move downward far quicker, until, with a sigh of relief she was on the ground once more.
“Melissa Reilly---!” barked Bill “Melissa- I- I don’t even know what you just did.” He sighed, and all the air seemed to go out of him, the way it would a punctured balloon. “Just don’t do it again. Don’t ever do it again.” Melissa was about to nod, but then she felt a small pair of eyes searching for hers, and looked up, and was treated to a chimp-smile.
Melissa sat at a worn wooden picnic table, peeling absentmindedly at a patch of cracking blue paint. She held an icepack to her bruised cheek, but her spirits were high, and she was the same untamable dreamer she had always been. Adriano walked in and sat beside her, then just stared at her curiously for a moment or two. When she ignored him, he finally spoke.
“Reilly. They’re dangerous. You understand that, right? If you stayed there longer, he would have killed you.” Reilly scowled deeply, as this was not the first time he had said that to her.
“He was just hungry. He was trying to protect his son.” She had taken a strand of hair out of her mouth, not even realizing she had been chewing it. It was worse when she was stressed.
“You speak about them as if they’re human. Melissa, they’re not, they’re just not.” She stared at him angrily.
“I helped them and I’m glad I did. I saw a hungry child and I fed him. And if you were human, you’d have done that too.” He rolled his eyes at her in exasperation. She was a child, really. He was old enough to be her father.
“Next time I turn around you’ll be inviting him to dinner.” Melissa stood her ground, and the fire in her eyes did not go out.
“No child deserves to starve. No one deserves to go hungry if we can feed them. No one deserves to fall from a tree and die because I got scared. And no one will, if I can help it.”
“Hey, guys, what are you talking about?” Bill strode in tactlessly, running a hand through his thinning grey hair. Melissa Reilly shot him a look that could have burned a hole in an iron wall, then went back to the spot of paint.
“You know perfectly well what we’re talking about, Mr. Chandler.” He sighed deeply.
“Reilly, you don’t understand. They’re monkeys. They’re literally just a colony of monkeys. Stop talking about them like they’re human.” Melissa never took her eyes off the ground and answered slowly and carefully.
“Bill. They are human. I saw them with my own eyes. They looked human. They acted human. They had emotions and ideas. I saw them get angry and happy and bored. I heard them talk, and when I couldn’t understand them, they communicated with me anyway. They solved a problem, they built a house, that little boy knew I would never harm him, so he trusted me, he brought me to his home. He waited for me when I followed. They have human bodies, human minds, human souls. So how could you possibly say they are any less human than you?” Bill shook his head.
“Reilly, did you see their faces? Did you see their eyes? I’ve seen monkeys, and I’ve seen humans, and I can tell you right now that those ones –– they weren’t human.”
“Melissa, he’s right.” Adriano joined the conversation. “They had outward facing nostrils, they were shorter, stockier, hairier. The sounds they made, those were not human sounds–”
“They were too!”
“Then tell me what you heard. Use your human vocal cords, your human brain, your human tongue, and make the same sounds as those monkeys.” Melissa opened her mouth to speak but fell silent. She knew that those were not the kind of noises that you could record with any alphabet. “Besides, did you see the curvature of their fingers? That trait is only found in tree dwellers. Humans have straight fingers.” She looked him up and down and her eyes flashed.
“You, Sir, have dyed red hair because you don’t like going grey, a tattoo on your shoulder because you loved those song lyrics once, flat feet because you lost the genetic lottery, and a belly like a walrus because you eat enough to feed three people. You do not deserve to judge humanity based on surface characteristics. And if you refuse to share a species with someone because of their fingers and their nostrils, then I would like to know why I have to share a species with you!” She finished her speech, breathing heavily. Bill’s steady blue eyes had been fixed on her throughout, but only now did he finally speak.
“Is that all, Melissa Reilly?”
“Yes.” She bit her lip.
“You may go home, then. It’s been a pleasure working with you, but you’re fired.” She stood up and walked from the table without another word, packed her suitcase and left it next to the bag containing her tent poles. She didn’t have to pack immediately, but she wanted to, she knew it would be easier that way, if everything was tucked away and taken down. She sat on the edge of the forest, she did not want to see them. The wind blew at her curls, but she did not brush them from her eyes, just sat and stared and chewed on a strand.
When she was stressed, she couldn’t help it, and never in her life had she been as stressed as she was right now. She had worked her hardest, had everything, and then lost it again, and now all she possessed was the sun on her back and her head in her hands. Behind her, a narrow twig snapped, but she ignored the squirrels and their treetop antics, she was too tired, too empty to care. She heard another snap, closer this time, louder, and then another, and another. Soon they were coming in a regular rhythm, like some kind of twisted percussion. And then she finally looked around, and there came the loudest snap of all, and her taupe colored sun hat dropped through a hole in the canopy and landed at her feet. Beside it lay a selection of sticks, broken jaggedly down the middle.
And though the cracking had stopped, she heard one last sound. It was not a sound she could record with any human alphabet, but it made her smile.
“Reilly? What are you doing back here?” Bill called to her, poking his head into her field of vision. She wanted the silence of her corner back.
“Whatever I want to do. I don’t work for you anymore. Or have you forgotten?” His eyes twinkled with laughter.
“Reilly! Melissa Reilly, I didn’t mean that! Do you have any idea how much I’d have loved to tell Scarpa that myself?” To his surprise, Melissa did not smile.
“Thank you, Mr. Chandler, but I can’t accept that offer. I want nothing to do with life the way you live it, and obviously we’ve never seen eye to eye. I’m going to pursue my interests in psychology now. I guess I needed this job to show me who I am and who I am not. I need to study something that I am interested in, that I can do on my own terms. I can see that this is wrong for both of us. I will not come crawling back to you. Thank you for firing me, because I quit.” She stood and turned her back to him, leaving him staring in disbelief. Unsure of what to say, he finally settled on, “...that doesn’t even make sense…”.
Melissa turned back to face him and gravely shook her head. Then she sat down on the ground again, pulled her sun hat over her eyes, and smiled.
You have. 28. New Messages
This is Bill Chandler.
Please, Reilly, just pick up the phone.
This is ridiculous.
Stop ignoring me.
Please just pick up, I have something to tell you.
Honest, Reilly, don’t be such a baby.
Please just pick up.
I know you’re listening to this message.
Reilly, this is Bill.
Please Reilly, this is important.
Just pick up the damn phone!
Reilly, this is Bill.
Reilly, this is your last chance.
For real this time.
Not like the last 25 times.
I have a job for you.
Not working for me.
I got you a grant, Reilly, I don’t even know how, but I got you a grant so if you’ll just pick up the phone you can stop sitting in a crummy hotel room eating boxed soup and come back out here but you don’t have to work for me, Reilly, this is a different job, with psychology, just like you said, Reilly, I got you a job working with your damn monkeys–––
Melissa slammed the phone back into its cradle, then picked it up again and dialed Bill’s cell.
“Hello. Yes, this is Melissa Reilly. I’ll be there as soon as I can book a flight…like, a day or two…Okay, see you there…No, no hard feelings at all…Just. Never. Touch. My. Phone. Number. Again. Okay, see you in a few!” Melissa hung up the phone and walked to the computer. She booked a nonstop flight to the Cordoba Aeropuerto in Southern Spain to leave in two days. It was the soonest she could find. She shelled out nearly six hundred dollars. It was a one-way ticket.
She walked away and sat at her sister’s desk and stared into space. Bill was wrong, she would not mope for her job in a sorry European hotel waiting for him. She had gone to her sister Anna’s apartment in Chicago, as she’d never gotten a place of her own. That had been what the job had been like, directly from college to southern Spain. She was eating ramen but that was not actually his concern. She was already packed. In all the weeks since she had left, her bag had sat floppily beside the door to the spare room. Her sister worried about her, that she'd bought new toothpaste rather than unpack the half used tube, that she wore her hat twenty four seven like some kind of lucky rabbit’s foot. And to her, ever since the boy had returned it to her, it had been. For wasn't this proof of humanity?
It had required complex thought, a knowledge of object permanence, memory and attention span, sympathy, selflessness, and most importantly, compassion. The boy had surely realized how rare that hat was, that he would never see another like it, and he gave it back to her, simply because it was the right thing to do. This was not the work of a monkey, but of a human being, and a kind one at that. For the first time since her arrival, Melissa opened her suitcase and tucked in a packet of jalapeño beef jerky.
She thanked Anna and left quietly, tucking her things into her sister’s car while Anna drove her to the airport. She boarded her flight at ten AM, and spent the hours looking silently out the round, foggy window at the slate blue canvas of the Atlantic Ocean. A distance of thirty thousand feet was enough to camouflage even the most fearsome waves.
And then, just as the sun was beginning to rise, she drove a rental car up the narrow dirt road, through the peach colored sunlight and the looming dark shadows of the trees, up and up and up, for the digging site was located high on a hill, then around a corner, and then she saw it, the same place where her tent had been before, and Bill watching her arrive through binoculars. He looked as stressed as she had ever seen him, and she felt momentarily bad for ignoring his calls, but her hair did not go to her mouth because she felt the very best she felt the very best she had in weeks. She could still see Adriano’s shadow through his tent wall, but he was not asleep despite the early hour, just sitting slightly hunched. She felt the prickle of his eyes, but she could not see his expression, so she turned from him once more, blowing off Bill as she went to a flat patch of ground a small distance from the others and pitched her tent, hammering the stakes down into the loamy soil.
“You can have your old spot back,” Bill said quietly. “You don’t have to be all the way over here by yourself.” She grinned and him, and her whole face seemed to glow with newfound health.
“I don’t work for you anymore, Bill, or have you forgotten?” He smiled too, then, and they forgave each other, for twice-daily voicemails, for ignoring those twice daily voicemails, for various fights. It helped that they were equals now, that neither had the upper hand. “Fill me in, Bill. Who do I work for, and what am I doing for them?”
“You’re doing research for the Florida State University Anthropology Department. They were very lucky to be the first to get a real field study on the behavior and daily life of early humans. They have paid well for this opportunity.” He folded his hands. “I suggest you do not disappoint them.” She nodded.
“You’ll be taking notes on their behavior, trying to get samples of any of their food and clothing. They want pictures of their house, their habitat, details on their anatomy, recordings of their speech. If they’ve developed a complex language, which it seems they have, they really have, the University can get a team of linguists started on decoding it so we can communicate with them.” She fought back a cringing reflex at the rudeness of what he was asking her to do, but her curiosity overcame her. She wanted to learn the answers to these questions more than anyone.
“Alright, then, I’ll start right after breakfast.” She paused, and her forehead creased. “Bill, you called them human. Does that mean I win that argument?” He refused to meet her gaze.
“Well, we’ll know soon enough.” She felt a prickle of fear go down her spine.
“Where have you and Adriano been these past few days?”
“Here at camp! Calling your cell phone every day! Jeez, Reilly, don’t go ape on me!” Her blue grey eyes flashed like burnished steel.
“How do you know about their language? You never even heard them speak!” He resumed staring at the ground, but did not answer him.
“You didn’t even see their nest, their home! Did you? Did. You?” She took a step closer to him just as he began to back away. “What did you do?” He rolled his eyes.
“Nothing, Reilly! I just sent some samples in to the lab. Think they were going to start chucking money at this project without any evidence?” Melissa felt her face go very, very red.
“What did you send? Answer me. Answer me right now. I need to know what you sent!” He took another step away, looking a bit scared.
“The pot we found the first day! Some of the plants used in their nest-house-thing. A tongue swab for DNA testing!” Her eyes held their cold fire.
“What do you mean, ‘And?’” He spluttered.
“I don’t believe that that was all you sent,” she said slowly. “Tell me what else you sent in, for real this time.” Bill finally gave in, but not before he had put a little distance between them.
“I sent them a test subject. Whoa, calm down Reilly, they’re not going to kill him!” She stopped her advance, but stood looking murderous a few feet away, hands balled into twitching fists.
“Who? Who did you take?” He looked uneasy.
“What? Have you named them now? They aren’t people! It’s not a who, it’s an it!”
“It is a who. Who did you take? Which person? I really need you to to tell me who it was.” He threw his hands in the air with exasperation.
“It doesn’t matter, Reilly! But, fine, it was the little one.” Her hand went protectively to her hat.
“You mean the little boy? The one I followed?” He nodded sheepishly. “How could you? He’s just a kid! He doesn’t need to be in a laboratory! He doesn’t need a crew of scientists taking blood samples and cheek swabs! He needs his family! He needs his home!” Bill looked a bit guilty.
“They’ll send him back when they’re done with him, Reilly, they really did say they will. But, Reilly, it might be a while. This is the best opportunity they’ve ever had to study human ancestry. Think what science could gain!”
“But he’s just a little boy! I’m not going to do work for an organization that would kidnap a little boy!” Bill shrugged.
“Then do it for yourself. Research them in their natural habitat. Learn about them. Learn from them. You don’t need to work for the University. But, Reilly? Don’t you think I’d love to be in your place? Don’t you think I’m curious?” She scowled at him.
“I do think you’re curious, Mr. Chandler. I just don’t think you’re curious the way I am.” She stared into the depths of the forest for a moment, and thought she saw a flicker of movement between the trees. “I’ll do it. But first, I have a few calls to make.”
Anna Reilly Killian was having a slow day. She was a reporter for the Sun Times, one of the best they had, actually. And she was trying to write a piece on a new building that was going up across town.
Though she was young, relatively new on the scene, she was a rising star in the reporting world and had published many important articles. She knew the secret to selling papers was to make people stop and think. When she arrived at the scene of a piece she knew all the right questions to ask that would make for an exciting read, that would sell papers. Her headlines screamed across the front page every morning, her articles were read by millions every day. That was because she wrote about who and what and when and how and why, and when she couldn’t find the answers, she improvised. And today, she had all that and more, but she could not make a story that people would want to read.
No one cared about a new skyscraper that was being built downtown, even if it would eventually be the nineteenth highest building in the world. They wouldn’t pay to read about how construction was under budget and ahead of schedule, even if it would eventually house the offices of the top executives of Green City Landscaping and Co.
It was a boring piece. It did not deserve front page, but it was not a good day for news, and she knew it. So she typed out a final draft and slouched in her chair, looking through it over and over to make sure it was free of error, and then just out of habit. It wouldn’t be due for another couple hours, and she couldn’t bring herself to submit easily the driest writing she’d done since she was hired six years ago. She was thoroughly entrenched in her loop, reading to the bottom and then casting her eyes up to the top again, gently tracing the outline with a pencil, when the phone rang.
“Melissa? Is that you?” She grinned tiredly. A call from her sister was a welcome distraction from her actual job. But Melissa didn’t seem to want to chat. “Are you – Are you sure? Mel, that’s the biggest news I’ve heard in a long time. That’s the biggest news I’ve heard ever!” She leaned forward a little in her seat with visible excitement. “You’re kidding! You found monkey people out in the woods somewhere?” Anna could hear Melissa grind her teeth in annoyance. “All right then, not monkey people, hominids… Mel, this is big news! You’ve just got no idea… no idea…” Melissa was pretty sure she did have an idea of what the public would do when they heard this, and she reckoned it would sell some papers for her sister as well. She emailed her with a couple of pictures, one of the nest with a mother and daughter just outside it, one a close up of a man’s face, and bulleted notes on everything she’d seen. Not just descriptions of the people and how they lived, but of the way they’d been treated, of some people’s blatant refusal to accept their humanity, of the fact that a little boy had been stolen from his home, that his fingers, nostrils, eye sockets, and language was grounds to deny him human rights. Anna read it over excitedly. Even in this form it was a powerful piece. Melissa, as well, could have had a great future as a journalist. She hoped silently that people would side with her. She could not change the mind of the world alone.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Anna smiled wide, tossed the previous article in the wastebasket, and began to write a piece that would soon end up front and center of the paper of everyone in Chicago.
Archeological Field researchers in Spain have made a shocking discovery. In the words of Melissa Reilly, an American Archeologist, “They’re people, I don’t care what you call them, that was a little boy I saw! They’re people!” These living fossils do bear many human characteristics, although DNA testing has classified them differently. But does this disqualify them from receiving basic human rights?
Harvey Klein read the article with a snort. Everywhere you could find monkeys, you would find people who would insist that they were special monkeys. Melissa Reilly was surely one of these, and probably a hippy too. He hated that people like her got so much media coverage for doing harebrained things. He turned the paper over to the sports section.
Reilly says no. “They are human. I saw them with my own eyes. They looked human. They acted human. They had emotions and ideas. I saw them get angry and happy and bored. I heard them talk, and when I couldn’t understand them, they communicated with me anyway. They solved a problem, they built a house, that little boy knew I would never harm him, so he trusted me, he brought me to his home. He waited for me when I followed. They have human bodies, human minds, human souls. So how could you possibly say they are any less human than you?”
Abigail Derrymore wiped a tear from her eye. She could not believe how badly people would mistreat their own kind. The next day, she joined a crowd of protesters in the park. Of all the signs waving in the air, hers was held the highest.