When my little sister staggered through that rough-hewn doorway, blood still dripping artistically from the slash across her bellybutton where they’d sewn her up, and declared that she no longer needed my attention, she finally started to seem interesting to me.
You said to write about Beth, but really the important thing is how I met Carlos. He’s the whole reason we were in that Ethiopian hospital that summer, anyway. But I would never have met Carlos if I’d stayed in California with my sister, so I guess I do have to start with her.
I was six when Beth was born, and I remember being distinctly piqued when I finally figured out that she wasn’t going to leave as quickly as she had come. The first time my parents wanted me to babysit, Mom said, “Emily, you’re capable and self-sufficient, but Beth is only six. As the big sister, you have an important responsibility to keep her safe.”
I nodded, not to indicate agreement, but to end the lecture. I waved to my parents as they drove away and promptly retreated to my room with a bag of popcorn and headphones to plug into the TV. When it was almost time for bed, I rubbed my eyes, pulled the headphones off and went to wash the popcorn grease off my hands. I happened to notice my mother shooing a family of raccoons out the front door and my father with most of his torso inside the laundry chute screaming instructions to someone.
My mother greeted me. “How did Beth end up in the laundry chute? How did those raccoons get in here? Emily!”
I didn’t dignify the shouting with a response. She ought to have known that such was my power to ignore Beth.
My mother helped my father shimmy back out of the chute, groaning, with Beth’s tiny hands clasped in his and a giant gash in the side of his shirt. He was bleeding a little: he had pressed against something sharp inside the chute. Beth, however, remained unscathed. If my desire for her not to exist had been just a tiny bit weaker, I might have marveled at her complete lack of even the slightest bruise, not to mention that she had managed to entertain an entire family of raccoons in the house without damaging any of the furniture or the carpet.
To me, it was the same if she came out safely or if she ended up with several broken bones. I was fine before she got here and would have continued being fine if she had never been born. The neighborhood babysitters continued to make money off my parents for years.
At eight years old, Beth began showing signs of severe allergies. My parents had always made me take her to play with my friends or to the mall on the bus, and you can imagine my annoyance, but those allergies made taking her anywhere completely intolerable. Every step had to be planned out beforehand, by my parents, because I just didn’t have the attention span for the long list of things to avoid doing, being around, or thinking about. I would look longingly at the kiosk for the DMV and Talent Registry, a fascinating study in contrast. Psychics, telekinetics, and pyrokinetics all had to register as the freaks they were, right alongside the happy fifteen-year-olds I longed to be one of, applying for driving permits. Just the thought of someone reading my mind gave me the willies every time. I mean, they kept the firestarters out of public places for the most part, but every once in a while, I spotted a psychic with their special glasses, trying to blend in with the regular people. Sometimes even the girl at the cosmetics counter was wearing those crazy eye-protector thingies, and it always made me shudder to think of all the psychics walking around with contact lenses.
On the other hand, I don’t know what Beth enjoyed about the mall. If I wanted to look in the jewelry store, she’d tell me the gold was making her sick to her stomach. There wasn’t a single restaurant in the whole mall that didn’t give her hives just to consider. And forget going into an older store for going-out-of-business bargains. One sniff of the dust made her cough and sneeze so much, people looked at us as if we had the plague. At both of us, not just at Beth. I hated being implicated in her weakness.
Imagine my relief when my parents finally decided to create an antiseptic environment right there in the house, where she would have to stay while I went about my business.
One day, long after I’d effectively forgotten my sister’s existence, my mom was supervising while my dad re-sealed the heavy transparent plastic in Beth’s room’s outer doorway. The inner plastic curtain was apparently fine for now. They could never find an adhesive strong enough to withstand the weight of the plastic and the hermetic zipper entry and, since using staples or nails would let in too many contaminants, they just had to redo it every so often.
My sister was on her bed, listening to a pink plastic radio that my mother had sanitized inside its own plastic bubble before giving it to her. She watched our parents rebuild her sanctuary with eyes that were only slightly deadened with the disaffection customary to a going-on-thirteen-year-old. I walked up to the plastic curtain holding all five of my college acceptance letters.
“I’ve decided I’m going to Brown,” I announced.
My dad kept gluing, but his ears pricked up. My mother said, “I wasn’t aware you even applied to an East Coast school, Emily.”
“I did, to a couple.” The East Coast, obviously: as far away from Mom, Dad, and their constant preoccupation with Beth as physically possible. I had stacked the California pamphlets on my desk only to avoid questions.
“It sounds expensive,” my dad said, stepping off the ladder and stripping off his gloves.
“I got a scholarship,” I replied.
“But why can’t you just stay with in-state tuition?” my mother asked, getting smaller and smaller in her corner of the hallway.
My heart went out to her. I was almost sorry I hadn’t let her in on the process. But, no, she had been too preoccupied with washing Beth’s silverware with baking soda to notice my big decision-making saga. I held firm.
“Brown is the only university in the country with an Egyptology department.”
“Egyptology?” my parents both intoned.
The dirtiest, germiest, most contaminated subject I could imagine. Mummified bodies, dusty bandages, bones filled with age-old marrow, ancient embalming fluids, canopic jars teeming with the pulsing remains of internal organs. My mother changed my sister’s sheets every day, but these things hadn’t been washed for 5,000 years.
“Egyptology,” I affirmed.
Beth came to her inner plastic drape. Muffled through the layers, we heard, “That’s all the way in Rhode Island! That’s three time zones! I can’t even watch TV at the same time as you!”
At my bewildered look, my dad explained, “Beth turns her TV to whatever channel you have on out here. Didn’t you ever notice?”
Of course not.
I peered past the plastic panes separating us and glimpsed Beth’s hands at her cheeks in an exaggerated portrait of surprise.
“I won’t have time to watch TV, anyway,” I mentioned.
She shook her head, then retreated to her bed and clutched her stomach.
My parents took turns holding the video camera that sent a live feed of my high school graduation into Beth’s sanctuary. I refused to take the camera to Rhode Island. Video chat once a week, max.
When I got off the plane and stepped from the gangway into the airport, it was like all the commercial representations of freshness—sunshine, coolness, a crisp breeze. In reality, the air conditioning couldn’t keep up with the humid late summer day, but it seemed clean and sweet to me in my newfound freedom. I dragged my own bags to the taxi stand, which was my first up-close and personal experience with an eastern accent. The taxi driver understood me well enough, and I could make out that he said something about Brown University. It was all unintelligible local humor and chuckling until we took the exit for DownCity. Then, I realized I’d left the address of my dorm somewhere deep in one of the suitcases. I had no idea where I needed to get out. This was a little too much freedom. The driver scooted up the hill and what I now know to be Waterman Street. After a lot blubbering on my part, he took a sharp right on Ives to glide back down George.
How can I explain the culture shock, how different the whole place looked from anywhere I’d ever seen on the West Coast? The foreignness of the closely huddled buildings with little regard for modern design or city planning looked like the wide open fields of Egyptian heaven to me.
“Is this the Brown campus?” I asked, with little hope of understanding the answer. I could tell we were about to head back down the hill, and I didn’t want that—that was the last thing I wanted—and then I saw it. “Stop!” I shouted. “I belong right here!”
He hit the brake in time to pull in behind some happy family’s SUV with its blinkers on. George Street was likely the closest they could get to the dorms beyond, and it was as far as I was going on wheels, too. I stepped out and waited for the driver to heft my bags onto the sidewalk, transfixed by the scene that had inspired me. Etched in giant capital letters on the imposing square side of the John Carter Brown Library, the motto “Speak to the past and it shall teach thee” let me know I’d made the right choice. I imagined the masses of bacteria-rich dust bunnies accumulating between ancient books in the name of history and could hardly wait to dig in up to my elbows.
My roommate tolerated my refusal to ever clean anything in the dorm, and I made tons of friends by sifting people out in the dining hall, the Ratty. Allergic to shellfish? Goodbye! Peanut problem? Adiós! Pollen? Shoo! Dust? Off with you! I ended up with a group of the hardiest people ever to attend a university in the Eastern Time Zone. If I let them talk all they wanted during meals, I found that they entertained themselves and shared their class notes if I needed them.
I was leaving a final paper in my professor’s department mailbox on the last day of December reading period when I saw one of the graduate students pinning up a flier with a picture of mounds of dirt and happy people smiling amid the muck.
“Hey, what’s that?” I said even as he was turning to leave, a stack of papers crammed into his backpack.
“What’s what?” he replied, wearily.
“That.” I pointed, as if I couldn’t go up and read it myself. It was my right as an undergrad to be taught by these people.
He put his arm against the wall to balance the weight of his backpack as well as underline what the flier said. “Field Studies in Africa. Make the most of your summer. Study archaeology in the field with respected experts while earning course credit!”
“Ooh,” I said, mirroring his half-sarcastic tone. He looked familiar. “Hey, didn’t you TA one of the archaeology classes?”
“Intro to Prehistory, section 4, and Field Arch, section 5.”
I looked into his exhausted green eyes and wanted to drown. I hadn’t taken either of those courses myself, but if I’d known he was the TA, I would’ve signed up.
“Are you going to do the field study?” I asked.
He nodded with as little effort as possible. “Herding all the undergrads, probably getting Professor Marsden his coffee.”
“See you next semester,” I called to him as he trudged away down the hall. No one else was in the room, so I took the tacks out of the flier and folded it carefully into my backpack.
I hauled my bag downstairs from my dorm room all by myself. As I waited for the taxi to the airport, I clutched the folded flier with gloved fingers. It started the way he’d said:
Field Studies in Africa. Make the most of your summer. Study archaeology in the field with respected experts while earning course credit!
The Middle Awash of Ethiopia is the most persistently occupied place on Earth. Join some of the most important scholars in a unique field study where you can make a real contribution to the newest science being done right now. The fossils are eroding right out of the ground. You could discover an important six-million-year-old specimen yourself!
The photographic collage, arranged around the dustily happy people digging in the ground that had caught my eye at first, showed carefully reconstructed skeletons of Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus, and Homo erectus as well as a scenic view of what, strangely, looked to be Victoria Falls, and for good measure a tribesman of the Afar Desert complete with red, black and white woven clothing and Adidas sneakers.
Below the picture, the application procedure and other details.
I knew the Professor Marsden that enchanting grad student had mentioned was from Archaeology. It wasn’t unusual for the departments to court each other’s students like this. By taking the flier, I had just about ensured that I would be the only applicant from Egyptology. Studying the mounds of dirt in the picture, I realized there was a major that was much dirtier than Egyptology. Because even with mummified corpses, Egypt was mainly sand, and you didn’t get quite as filthy kneeling in the sand as you did in the millennia of accumulated grime in that ancient desert where nasty microbes first came together to eventually end up as primates.
The only thing I remember about Winter Break at home is looking up the name of that beautifully exhausted TA. His name was Carlos, and I confirmed his identity on the archaeology web page. His baby face smiled back at me from a mound of dirt on the glowing screen, no doubt a pictorial souvenir from some other fieldwork. He wore his hair parted down the middle, creating blond wings, the sort of towheaded color that most people grow out of during puberty. On anyone else it would have been hideous. I read his bio over and over until I could have recited it:
Carlos received a B.A. in Anthropology from Dartmouth College and went on to complete a M.Sc. in Archaeology from University College London. He is interested in the potential of new digital technologies for archaeological practice, particularly mobile geo-location services, in serving as a heuristic tool for both academic and non-academic audiences. His research interests focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and the African diasporas, specifically ethnography, anthropological demography, Historical Archaeology, material culture, cultural identity maintenance and social cohesion, landscape studies, comparative historical immigration studies, consumption and consumerism. Other interests include looking at ceramics under magnification and digging circular features and floor surfaces, but Carlos says that getting married was the most intensely anthropological experience of his life.
None of the boys I’d known in California had had enough focus to make it through a single history class without at least an exaggerated yawn. As if their current lives were more interesting. But in Carlos’s bio I detected a passion for life—as narrowly defined by the twin disciplines of Anthropology and Archaeology. To say that he was different from other men was a laughable understatement. As I stared at the digital photo, I heard the strains of a certain piece from my musical survey class the previous semester: Freude, schöner Götterfunken!… Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt!
It was love, like nothing anyone had ever felt before.
I was able to change all my spring courses so I would be eligible for the field study, and I started writing the application essay before Christmas. My application would be irresistible by the time they finally started comparing it to other candidates in the middle of March.
I took Museum Studies and Introduction to Material Culture, both of which would still count toward an Egyptology degree if necessary. Most importantly, I took Intro to Prehistory and Field Archaeology, making sure to get into the sections Carlos had been saddled with yet again. I sat in the front row when everyone else flocked to the back, certain that the closer I was to his green eyes, the more I would remember about things that might have happened one to three or even six million years ago.
And so I ended up in an Ethiopian desert my first summer after college. I didn’t go home at all, citing excessive airplane time to my parents, but stayed with a new friend on the Cape before leaving the States. With Carlos, Professor Marsden, and three other undergrads from Archaeology and Anthropology, I brushed the brown landscape with wide brooms to separate silt from fossil. The dust rose out of the earth in great foggy banks and clung to our hats, sunglasses, and loose cotton clothes. It was almost better not to shower, to stay dry and not create mud.
When we worked on the shaker boxes, Carlos usually chose me because we had the same rhythm. Back and forth, side to side, a mating dance to discover fossils. He was the only one who ever used the global phone at odd hours to call the States and check on his wife and their new baby. So imagine my surprise when he came running from the truck to where I was kneeling on the earth, sorting pebbles that might be fossils onto a crusty blanket, to tell me I had a phone call.
“It’s your mom,” he said breathlessly as we walked back together. His eyes shone.
I spat out some dirt and spoke into the receiver. “What is it?”
Tinny, tiny, the voice came back to me. “Emily, we’re coming to see you.”
“Who’s doing what?”
“Your sister wouldn’t let it go. Beth got a medical clearance and we’re all coming to see you.”
It had to be the connection. “Mom, it sounds like you’re saying you’re coming to see me.”
“We are. We have tickets for next week.”
None of this was possible or likely or desirable, but I played along. “Okay. But I can’t meet you at the airport.”
“Oh, we know you can’t leave the site.” The call suddenly cut off, apparently sympathizing with my discomfort.
I worked the next few days hunched over, looking but not seeing. One morning, Carlos noisily laid claim to what looked to be an intact hominid femur, so everyone moved to that site. The truck trundled up behind me as I used a soft toothbrush on the surface of the femur. Thoughts of Carlos still had a way of filling my ears and my heart. I was thinking about the raspy tiredness in his voice when he’d told me, “Emily, you’re the only one I can trust with this level of detail. Make sure none of the other students interfere.” My name in his mouth was like a melody, so I barely heard the commotion.
Finally, Carlos’s real voice startled me from my reverie.
“What are you doing? Are you crazy? We have an intact hominid femur in this area and you’re driving a truck through it!”
I looked up in time to see my father hopping out of the offending vehicle. “You have a what, now?”
My muscles protested, but I stood up and shaded my eyes in his direction. “An intact hominid femur. Femurs can tell us so much about where any hominid is in the evolution of upright walking.”
“You mean we didn’t just stand up one day, and that was it? I guess I never thought about it before,” said the man who had somehow engendered me.
“Oh my God, Dad,” I said, absently returning the hug and kiss my mother, so much shorter in Africa, was earnestly delivering to me. A shapeless blob was making its way out the door of the truck in clearly defined stages that included clinging to the door, gingerly stepping onto the lip under the door, and putting one cotton-clad foot at a time on the sediment-laden soil, all while clutching a surgical mask ever closer to her mouth and nostrils.
It was Beth, I recognize with hindsight. She was in some kind of hazmat suit made of puffy, crinkly, white material, probably the cost of her unprecedented desire to travel. My mother went to help her and she tried to wave at me and say, “Hi!”
Carlos was at my side, wringing his hands. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to get that truck out of here. This is a very delicate work site.”
“This is Carlos, Dad,” I said. “You really have to do what he says.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t want to ruin any scientific discoveries,” he said, then went to talk with the driver.
Maddeningly, they didn’t leave with the truck. Their presence was totally extraneous to my long, hot afternoons with the man of my heart. I set my relatives up with folding chairs under the tent where we kept the global phone and other electronic equipment and went back to work, crouching next to Carlos. He narrated, with unbelievable panache, each move he made and what he thought might be the story behind the femur. I would have chosen that moment to last for all time, no questions asked.
But there was a persistent, rough sound invading our enchanted space. Carlos kept looking over his shoulder, but I never heard it clearly enough to identify it until he said, “Emily, look at your sister!”
Painstakingly, I turned my head in the direction of the tent. Actors portraying my parents stood in complete consternation, looking down at an actress in the role of my sister, who wriggled and squirmed in the whirling dirt, maybe trying to escape the retching, hacking cough that propelled itself out of her mouth unbidden.
“I knew it! It’s the dust! It’s full of allergens! I knew it!” my mother said as she stooped in an attempt to hold Beth down.
I stood up, my body already resistant to the change in position. I knocked down a couple of the little orange flags we were using to mark fossil sites and had to prop them back up. By the time I made it to the tent, the coughing had become a prolonged, moaning scream and I heard my dad say something on the global phone about a medevac helicopter to Addis Ababa.
“No!” I shouted, knocking the receiver out of his hand. I lifted my mother’s hands off Beth and threw her over my shoulder in what I thought must be a fireman’s carry and jogged in the direction where I knew our truck would be, a half mile away. The driver took us to the site every morning from our camp and back again in the evening. We all walked the half-mile each way in order to lessen the risk of disturbing the fossils. This time, my sister’s screaming filled my ear instead of the gentle hum of Carlos’s voice talking about the day’s plan with Professor Marsden.
I hoisted Beth into the passenger side of the cab, and my parents and the driver came running up behind me. “Take her to the nearest medical facility,” I said to the driver, intending to turn back to the site. A great clamp that turned out to be my mother’s hand stopped me from speeding off. So I climbed in, too, and the four of us sat crammed so close together that we were able to squeeze the coughing out of Beth long before the driver gestured toward what looked like another mud hut in a small cluster of mud huts. The lack of movement had not stifled Beth’s high-pitched squeal, however.
My mother opened her eyes wide at the mud hut, as if by doing so she could convert it into a steel and glass grant-funded research hospital in San Francisco or Boston.
“They’ll take very good care of her here,” said the driver.
“I trust him,” I said as earnestly as I could, even though I wasn’t sure he was the same driver who brought us to and fro every day.
“Anything’s fine, really,” said Beth between gasps. “Just let me out of here.”
My dad opened the door from the inside and we all decompressed out of it. My dad and mom supported Beth’s weight between them as they walked to the uninviting corrugated metal door. An attendant in a lab coat answered the door and whisked us all inside. With the help of several more people, he absconded with Beth behind another unimpressive door. The speed with which Beth had disappeared into medical care impressed me and I tried to say reassuring things to that effect, but my parents insisted on pacing the waiting room, inspecting the plastic chairs and inscrutable pictures on the walls for something to do.
I was the only one sitting calmly—boredly, in truth—so when the doctor came from beyond the other door, she went to me and my parents gathered around us. The doctor was breathtaking, six and a half feet tall, with large, lucid eyes and closely cropped hair. Her lab coat was immaculate, so I guessed that she had changed it before coming to see us, because what she presented to us in a clear plastic bag was anything but clean.
Through the red gore and the grey-green foamy substance that seemed to writhe all over it, I could still see that it had, long ago, been the pop-top tab of an aluminum cola can. I held my hand over my nose and mouth and couldn’t keep back a few retching convulsions.
“We removed this from your daughter’s small intestine,” the doctor said with an intent gaze at my mother.
“Is this some kind of joke?” demanded my mother.
“Is Beth all right?” asked my father.
“She appears to be fine,” the doctor said calmly, setting the bag on the table next to my chair. I concentrated on her face as she continued, “She was awake during the extraction.”
My mother lunged toward the doctor, and her fists didn’t land on their mark only because my father held her arms. “What? You didn’t sedate her?”
“She refused, madam. She wanted to be aware of what was happening. We were able to make a very precise incision with her guidance. She told us she’d accidentally swallowed the tab while attempting to open an RC Cola can with her teeth.”
“What? Why?” shrieked my mother.
“She said something about impressing her sister.”
For some reason, everyone looked at me. “When did this happen?” demanded my mother.
“How should I know? It’s not like she was worth paying attention to until the doctor told us she stayed awake and guided the scalpels,” I said in an even tone, in an attempt to get my mother to calm down.
“It was just before I came down with all the allergies.” A thin but steady voice came from the doorway. I gazed at my sister, rapt. She was holding onto the doorway so hard, I was sure clumps of it were going to come off in her hand. Her hospital gown hung limply open on her frame, revealing a trickle of blood oozing from under the surgical bandage and over her white briefs. I was vaguely aware of my father covering his eyes from the sight.
“Since you weren’t paying attention to me even here in the Afar Desert, Emily, I decided I didn’t need your attention any more. And I decided not to have allergies anymore. It was time for the aluminum to come out.” I noticed her bare, pink feet lose their grip on the rough floor as two nurses came up behind her and one inserted the contents of a syringe into her naked arm.
He apologized to all of us in general. “She needs to rest. We couldn’t keep her in the bed.”
We all followed the nurses back to the recovery room, where they gingerly laid my fascinating sister in the bed. I had no memory of anyone trying to open a can with their teeth, much less a member of my own family, and I wondered how the tab had managed to stay so recognizable all those years in a corrosive environment. While Beth slept off the drugs, the doctor kindly brought chairs from the waiting room so we could all sit. She said she’d seen many more puzzling objects caught in people’s digestive tracts in the few years she’d been a doctor.
I think we all merely stared at my sister, at her rhythmically falling and rising chest, at the little mounds of her pupils darting under her eyelids. Beth looked a lot like me, I noticed: the straight brown hair, arranged in a way that she probably meant to look just like mine; the unruly eyebrows; the long, ramrod-straight eyelashes. I’d introduce her to an eyelash curler when this was all over. I felt strangely united with my parents as never before while the three of us directed all of our energy toward Beth’s wellbeing.
Her lips twitched. I laid my hand on her wrist. Her eyes snapped open, as clear as they’d been before she came down with all the allergies. “How do you feel?” I asked.
“Better than I have in years.” She sounded a little crusty, so I went to look for someone who could bring water.
When I came back to Beth’s side, my mother was in the process of doubting my sister’s statement.
Beth flipped the blankets off. “I feel fine. I don’t need pain relievers or bed rest, I only need to help Emily find fossils to impress that graduate student.”
My heart fluttered at the mention of Carlos. “That’s not why I do it,” I muttered, then nodded. “But, yes, if you really feel all that good, you can come into the pits with me and learn how not to disturb the evidence.”
She smiled widely: I guess she still wanted my attention after all. She sat up utterly unimpeded and made to throw her leg over the side of the bed, but my mother held her down and screamed, “Doctor! Doctor!”
The doctor came back into the room and smiled at Beth in a relaxing manner. “Feeling better?” Her voice was like honey. “Let’s take a look.”
She parted the flimsy hospital gown and gingerly lifted the surgical bandage. I wanted to look away, but I was too entranced. A pool of blood sloshed in the hollow of my sister’s stomach to the rhythm of her breathing. The doctor swabbed it up with a towel to reveal Beth’s bellybutton accompanied only by healthy skin and barely visible surgical thread that snaked in and out of her flesh. There was no sign of the incision, as if it had never been there at all.
“See?” Beth said. “What did I tell you? I can get up now.”
“You certainly can,” the doctor said, so improbably that my mother felt the need to intervene physically again, clapping Beth’s arms back onto the bed surface.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded.
My father was trying to appear reasonable, but he was standing awfully close to the doctor, staring so hard into her eyes I thought she might fall over.
“The first sign was when she was able to guide the incision while it was happening,” the doctor explained with admirable calm. “But now there’s no doubt that your daughter is one of a very special class of people. There are only maybe one hundred of them in the world at any one time.”
I helped my sister get dressed in the clothes she’d arrived in—not that she needed any help—while the doctor explained that because this was the cradle of humanity, she’d seen more than her fair share of cases. “The only characteristic these special people have in common is the healing ability your daughter has just illustrated. In fact, we call them Other-Talented Healers. There’s no telling what else she may be capable of. Her other Talent will probably manifest over time, now that we’ve extracted the aluminum from her system. We think aluminum is her kryptonite, the elemental substance that weakens her and takes her Talents away, but she should probably be tested to be sure. The only certainty is that she is physically fine.”
Beth came up close to my mother and said, “See? You really should trust my judgment.”
The doctor said, “That’s not a bad idea.”
While we waited for the truck that would take us all back to the hotel my parents had booked, the doctor placed a piece of paper with the contact information of the people she knew who were somewhat like Beth into my mother’s shaking hand. The doctor stood with us and petted my mother’s shoulder. I was free to give undivided attention to Beth while I held onto the sack with her former aluminum burden inside.
My parents arranged for a return home as immediate as possible. During the three days before the next available flight from Addis Ababa, I was busy seeing for the first time what it was like to have a sister, and trying to balance that with my unflagging interest in Carlos. Beth, now outfitted in a normal t-shirt, shorts, and sun hat, came out to the site every day with me. I was unsure whether it was appropriate to hold her hand as we walked and how much to tell her about my assured future with Carlos.
As promised, I showed her how not to destroy the evidence, and she learned quickly. We had plenty of time when we could have worked side by side in silence, but there was a new bridge building between us, and the girders were words. Most memorably, she said, “It’s really great that you’re digging up all this stuff now. You can carry the memory of these discoveries into whatever happens next.”
“What happens next?” I asked rather too shrilly. I glanced at Carlos, two pits over.
Beth wiped her arm across her beading forehead, creating a brown smear. “Well, no one really knows what happens after we die,” she said lightly, continuing to use a sharp dental instrument to define the outline of what might have been an ancient fingertip. “Or whether the end of the world will be a special case. I mean, when everybody dies all at once, will the souls have to wait in line? The traffic!”
“When everybody dies all at once?” I insisted.