Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight.
A/N: Hello again. Many thanks to my lovely beta, Sobriquett, for getting this back to me so quickly. Thanks also to all the great authors I have been WCing with over the last few weeks. It's been lovely to meet more people in the fandom. See you on the other side! x
Chapter 3: Imagine
When it's extremely cold, or when I am traveling from a cold place to a hot place, I always have a difficult time imagining what a different climate must be like. Even though I have lived in places with tundra and places with palm trees, I have never been good at retaining any tangible recollection of what it's like to be in other temperatures. This particular sweltering afternoon in coastal South Carolina was no exception. I tried to remember snow, ice, wind so cold that you gasped when you stepped outside, but all I could feel was the weight of air supersaturated with water molecules all around me as I walked to the paperwork table. Edward was following me.
"So what's next?" he asked. I pulled one of the coffins, a rectangular wooden box about half the height of a person, off the stack and dragged it to the front of the table.
"We finish documenting our guy, have Jessica look at it to get whatever metric data she can—probably nothing from the state of it – and we take it out." I pulled off a piece of neon orange flagging tape from a roll. I thanked myself for tucking a sharpie into the knot in my hair as I filled out the flag and tied it onto one of the rope coffin handles.
"Should I…?" Edward started, but I interrupted.
"Can you just grab the clipboard from inside that box there?" I inclined my head toward the grey plastic file box on the table. I wrote out the second flag and dropped it inside the coffin. I could feel myself slipping back into work mode. The buzz of the beer from lunch on top of my dehydration was making me feel strange and I was compensating by being more guarded than usual.
"This one?" He held up a clipboard with a blank summary form on top. I stood up and crossed the distance to him in one long stride. He handed me the clipboard. A shuffle through the papers on the clipboard revealed that it was ours from before. I'd written the photo numbers on one of the forms.
"Yeah," I said without looking up. "I think this is all we need. Can you take the coffin and paperwork to the trench and I'll tell Jessica we're ready for her?"
Edward lifted the coffin by the rope handle like it was nothing. Well, actually, they were just plywood. That didn't stop me from watching the muscles in his arms play beneath the skin of his arms that were shiny with sweat.
By the time I towed Jessica over to our remote corner of the trench, Edward had set the coffin on a bit of high ground, the lid perched diagonally across, and was looking down at the inundated skeleton, leaning a little to one side. It was picturesque. In any other situation I would have said he was posing, but his eyebrows were bunched together and his expression was distant until he heard us approach.
"Wow," said Jessica flatly. "This one's a mess."
"Yeah, I don't know if you'll be able to get anything from this one, but I'd rather you look than miss it, you know?" She nodded and knelt in the mud next to the skeleton's pelvis. Edward watched us and said nothing, apparently still lost in thought
Jessica picked at the sciatic notch with a balsawood popsicle stick. There were an infinite number of small roots woven into the pelvic bone, and the spongy bone matrix crumbled even more as she worked.
"Eh, yeah, I don't think I can really do anything, sex-wise, here." This elicited a chuckle from Edward. I rolled my eyes and knelt next to Jessica, who smirked but said nothing. To all appearances she was businesslike, but something about her body language set me on edge.
"The cranium is a little better," I said. "The mandible is in a couple of pieces, but it's all there. It looks pretty gracile to me, but this is my non-expert guess…" If I'd learned anything from working with osteologists, it was never, ever, ever question their opinion. Jessica was no exception to the diva osteologist stereotype, and she had no qualms about flexing her ego on a daily basis. Luckily it seemed that we'd come to some kind of understanding. I was happy there was one person on the project whose buttons I knew how to not push.
"You couldn't read the name plate?" We both glanced at the eroded metal rectangle on the skeleton's ribcage.
"Nope. It's gone, just like the skeleton. There's so much water, I'm sure it was in and out of water so much…"
Jessica nodded. "Oh well. Let me just take a look at the mandible and see if I can get anything. Were there teeth?" She moved along the side of the skeleton so she could reach the cranium, and I got out of her way by shuffling back a little, still crouched in the mud. Edward was still just watching, standing next to us, and I realized we hadn't drawn the damn skeleton yet, or taken the measurements.
"Shit," I muttered. "Jess, I forgot to measure this guy. I'm just going to put a stick in the ground, so go ahead and take the cranium out or do whatever you need to. Edward?" I sounded more annoyed than I meant to. His gaze immediately met mine, and he waited for me to continue. "Can you sketch the skeleton while I measure it?"
"Does it need to be to-scale?" I liked that he hadn't seemed overwhelmed by my request.
"No," I replied with a bit of a laugh. "It can be a stick figure, we just need to have an idea of the arm and leg position, the position of the name plate, just the basics. There's a space on the back of the second form on the clipboard."
He took a long step toward the empty coffin and reached inside for the clipboard. Jessica was working on defining the mandible and didn't seem concerned. Edward shifted the paper on the clipboard so the right page was up, and he became intensely focused as he looked at the skeleton.
I scrabbled around for the folding ruler. I opened it, thinking of the time a workmate had made a giant star out of a folding ruler. I liked thinking that hardly anyone had spent so much time with these kinds of tools that they thought to make a star out of a folding ruler. I also liked that I had a folding ruler with no imperial measurements at all. We had all joked about having no idea how many inches things were.
I pulled the sharpie out of the knot in my hair and wrote the 1-point-whatever-it-was on my trousers, then maneuvered myself through the mud between Edward and Jessica to the center of the skeleton, and held the ruler across. One more number, zero-point-something, got written on my trousers.
In my inarticulate subconscious, I wished I could remember the numbers or names or teeth or anything about these people. It could be me that was being dug up, someday. Wouldn't I want someone to remember me? Of course I would. All I could do was take care. In spite of the miraculous circumstances that had predicated the hand-excavation of these burials, you just didn't get a lot of time with each one.
All I could do was feel this profound underlying empathy for whoever it was, whatever their name was or life was like. It was all I had the capacity to give them, the care and time I could afford, in spite of roots and extreme heat and exceptionally distracting people. This was the last time they'd be where their families had left them, and that was, well, it was important. I was the one who had to move them, and it was so far beyond the pettiness and small drama of the everyday.
I snaked the folding ruler closed and tossed it back towards the mess of tools set on the backdirt pile. I looked at Edward to see he was still scribbling on the clipboard.
"Can you include the…" I started to explain, but then I realized it would be easier if I could see what he'd done so far. I stood up and stepped across the skeleton, my foot sinking into the mud. I absently noticed the tepid water permeated my shoes. Everything was just sticky; it didn't really matter if my feet were wet too at this point.
"You can check off female," said Jessica to Edward.
"On the other side of this page," I directed as I reached him. He seemed to reawaken and realize where he was. He stiffened almost imperceptibly as I leaned over the clipboard.
He'd done a photorealistic drawing of the skeleton from where we stood, bioturbation and all. Of course I hadn't mentioned that word. I'd never felt awkward about it before—it just meant disturbance due to biological factors, flora or fauna—but of course it sounded like masturbation. How childish could I possibly be?
"Wow," I said, still looking at the drawing. Sketch didn't seem like an adequate word at this point. "That's really good."
I felt more than saw him move slightly away from me, the clipboard bobbing slightly as his weight shifted and his feet shuffled back. I was hyper aware of the steam in the air and bodies and the hiss of his inhale the second before he spoke.
"Thanks." His voice hit the humid air like a pebble in a pond, and I imagined I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. It was a little like someone, maybe a thirteen-year-old-boy at a beach picnic from some idyllic and imaginary childhood, putting an ice cube down the back of my shirt. I fought a shiver. I shouldn't be shivering in this weather. Maybe it was just the sweat streaming from my hair and down my neck.
As I looked at the paperwork, a drop of moisture hit the grainy paper and blossomed outward. I straightened quickly and leaned away.
"Ew, gross!" I raked a hand over my hair and felt sand smear through the saturated strands. The drop of sweat had definitely come from me. "Ugh, nasty! I just ruined your awesome drawing!"
"Bella, have you looked at anyone other than yourself out here? We're all sweating buckets!" Jessica interjected. I flushed, definitely no longer feeling cold.
"That's true," I conceded. I huffed slightly and straightened up. Edward was still holding the clipboard out in front of me. "So," I began, "you'll want to write all present next to the diagram of the skeleton there, and then flip the page over and check off female." I clawed onto the routines of my work as a way out of this dungeon of social awkwardness.
I had Edward write down the numbers I'd written on my trousers in sharpie. I was sure it would wash off, but if it didn't, that didn't matter. Field clothes could never be resurrected. Maybe fieldwork was an elephant graveyard for clothes?
Jessica had started getting the cranium ready for removal. It was mostly underwater and it, like the rest of the skeleton, was riddled with tiny roots. I expected it to fall apart when we tried to lift it. Edward joined me with the coffin lid lying between us. Jessica used the coffin lids as a kind of work area sometimes, to see the excavated remains.
As expected, and in spite of the support of our six hands, the cranium collapsed when the three of us lifted it out. The roots were just too much. I was glad. It was nice to see that people really did go back to the earth eventually when they were buried. As a non-spiritual person I didn't really have much of an opinion on the whole afterlife question, but the level of natural intrusion was comforting in a strange way.
"Damn," Edward swore as the roots refused to release the occipital, which had been cupped in his hands. I smiled.
"It's ok," Jessica told him. "I'm pretty sure it's female, but I'm going to look for the third molars a little more before I give up."
"What do those tell you?"
"Adult or juvenile, in general. There are a lot of variables of course." Jess continued to geek out about dentition. Edward seemed interested, which irritated me. I moved away from them to start removing the hands.
"Are you guys really going to get anything from this? We need to move on." Jenna was standing behind me. She had a flat-bladed shovel in one hand.
"I'm almost done." Jessica was showing Edward the wear on the molars. His expression was arguably one of tolerance and patience but I knew that's what I was looking for. More pressing was the issue of the shovel in Jenna's hand.
"I'm going to get this arm out while those guys finish with the cranium, one second."
"You guys have been working on this one all day. It should be out by now." Her voice was almost sullen, and it seemed to get snarled in the heavy air while I considered her comment silently. No one else looked up, I assumed in order to avoid a full explosion of temper on anyone's part.
I quickly stabbed my trowel underneath the articulated left hand and pried at the dirt. It was so soupy that I could have made a drip sandcastle. Roots had grown through these bones like all the others, and they held onto the fragile phalanges like bizarre Velcro.
I started to announce that I was going as fast as I could, and was prepared to argue about the shovel but I never got that far because I saw something shiny in the mud on my trowel. When I scrabbled around in the mud, tiny fragmented bones and worm-like roots, I discovered it was a ring. It was on the ring finger. I held it up, the phalange still held inside the ring by the mud and root matrix.
"What's that?" Jenna asked sharply.
"A wedding ring?" I answered in an equally intolerant tone. I stood up and suddenly found myself surrounded by people. I held my palm open and everyone looked at the slightly macabre assortment.
The ring was flat; with maybe three inset stones, almost like a man's ring. Whoever this girl had been, I approved of her style. I could imagine wearing something like it myself, I thought wryly. I would have to be like the girl in Sex and the City and register to marry myself someday.
"Photo it like that and then take the bone out and photo it again." If Jenna wanted me out of the way that was fine with me, because if I were gone I wouldn't have to kick up a fuss about the shoveling. I nodded to Jenna and turned on my heels to climb out of the trench. To my surprise, Edward followed me, jogging a little to catch up as I fled across the moonscape of sand to the comparative peace of the paperwork table.
"What was that?" he asked when he reached me. I didn't have any idea where to begin.
"Oh," I threw my hands in the air, unable to find the words. "Jenna wanted to shovel that skeleton out because it was taking too long to excavate it properly." We reached the folding table and I exhaled loudly. I squinted at Edward in the bright sunlight, and he seemed concerned.
"Doesn't it all go in the new coffin anyway?" he asked in a slightly placating tone.
"Yes, in theory," I answered through my teeth. "I know we miss stuff, that's part of the way archaeology works, but that's not the problem." Now that I was thinking about it, I was starting to get much more frustrated. I thumped my hand onto the surface of the table, depositing the ring and its dirty phalange on the peeling wood veneer. Damp plumes of sand spread across the white plastic as my hand retreated.
"This has happened before. Jenna just wants this finished in no time at all, when the reality is that hand excavation takes time. My personal priority is to be respectful, but I don't think that's the same for Jenna. She has to worry about the fact that the project is hugely over budget because we've recovered a lot more remains than we planned to; she has legitimate concerns that are indicative of fundamental problems in the way we are managed"
The sun was making it hard to think. I tried to collect my rant into something that would make sense to an outsider. "It's just…" I lifted my hands for emphasis. "This isn't how I was trained to do this, and it's hard to reconcile sometimes."
"This isn't how I imagined it, either," he told me quietly. "Let's take this photo." He eyed the pile of ring-and-bone on the table.
"I think I need black backing and shade." I started rummaging through the piles of equipment. Edward helped me. He held the sheet over me while I fought with the overcomplicated camera. We took one set as it was, with the phalange inside the ring, and another set of the ring on its own. By the time we'd finished he'd made me laugh enough that I had control of my temper again. I was surprised that I'd been able to let my frustration go so easily.
I was pleased by the way Edward hadn't obsessed about the ring like so many people would have. Non-professionals had this way of hyperfocusing on artifacts, and it would take a semester of explaining to tell someone why this wasn't particularly useful. He seemed to be immune to the typical sensationalism that was so rampant in the uninitiated, and (in a purely professional capacity) I absolutely loved him for it.
When we finished I put the ring in a plastic artifact bag and labeled it. The lab would record it properly later.
"What are you doing tonight?"
I looked up sharply from the artifact bag to stare at him in surprise. I didn't know what to say or why he would ask.
I shook my head slightly as I spoke. "I think my housemate is having some people round for grilling and beers but I think it's just a really chill thing…" I trailed off, unsure if he was just asking to be polite or if it was the other reason that couldn't possibly be true. He couldn't possibly be thinking like I was.
"Um, you're welcome to come over if you want to. It's just sort of a random thing." I squinted at him in the bright sun.
"I'm not sure what Hip is up to but I'd like to stop by if it works out." His eyes were clear when he spoke, sea green and cool. My awareness was tunneling in until I was only seeing his eyes in his face. I realized we were yet again standing inappropriately close and stepped away, still consumed by his sea-foam eyes. They were the same color as the water in Venetian canals, I realized.
"Uh, here," I verbally fumbled. "Hip has my number but I'll write it down for you too." I ripped a corner off a piece of paper, pulled the pencil from the knot in my hair, practically blind from the sun on the gleaming white paper, and scribbled my phone number. I straightened and handed him the scrap of paper. Our fingers brushed and it was a startling combination of softness and roughness.
"Cool. So maybe see you later tonight." He pocketed the paper with a tiny but expressive grin.
"Yeah, um, hope so," I admitted before I could stop myself.
We made our way back to the excavation trench and found Hip, Viki, Jess, and Jenna all working on our skeleton. Hip was screening the sticky wet sand, and his lower legs were soaked with mud. Between all of us, the skeleton was eventually hand excavated and the surrounding soil was screened. Hip even got Edward to screen and Edward, rather than being worried about the mud, completely ignored it and by the end of the day was covered in sweat, sticky sand, and grinning hugely as a result.
Edward and I carried the now heavy coffin out of the trench and attached the lid with the power drill. Then all the kit got packed up and the day was over in the usual uncomfortable flurry. We held the gate open for Jenna to drive the cargo van through and take the skeletons to storage. Hip and Edward watched while I struggled with the gate chain, Hip bracing one side of the gate with his foot.
The lock clicked shut tidily and I picked up my more-than-an-armful of kit to take to my car. Edward took my unopened lunch cooler and gestured for me to lead the way to my car. I was again embarrassed with this level of chivalry. We both may as well have been mud wrestling at this point, so it seemed even more absurd than it had earlier.
He followed me to my car, and I noticed the sounds of the beginning of rush hour and people arriving home in the neighborhood. I fumbled with the front door lock and reached around to unlock the back, threw everything inside and motioned for Edward to put the cooler on the back seat. After closing the door I turned and looked down at the sidewalk.
"Thanks, so, see you later maybe." I felt his hand on my upper arm briefly and I looked up.
"In all likelihood." He nodded very seriously, which made me laugh.
"Ok, cool, well, later then."
"Yeah." He smiled one of his lightning-quick, blinding half smiles, and suddenly ducked to kiss me on cheek. I was taken completely by surprise. Because I couldn't decide how to react, I didn't react at all until he'd turned on his heel to walk towards his car where Hip was waiting, watching us uncomfortably.
Before I could think I jumped into the front seat and started the engine, wanting to be out of there and back in situations I knew how to deal with. I pulled out stupidly without looking onto the one-way street. I turned the air conditioning onto maximum and shoved a lever to the right for recycled air. I reached an awkward left-hand turn onto a main road and managed to start my iPod during the pause in traffic.
I stabbed buttons until I found shuffle songs and a trashy, forgettable pop song came on. It was fine. It had the right level of desperate confusion and utter simplemindedness. I felt like my thought processes were approximately at the level of an amoeba at that point. I turned the volume as high as it would go, realizing that other people could hear the music and see me car-dancing along but not caring at all. I needed the retreat. I was so happy the week was over.
I was home before I knew what had happened. The familiar traffic pattern of the drive home had been a blur, a comforting one. I knew it so well that I couldn't even explain the lane changes or timings of turns to anyone. It was a trip I knew without words by this point. It was a profound relief after the dizzying day.
I lost myself in the routine of cleaning up after work, grabbing my masses of kit from the car and dragging it into the house. Stepping into my room and immediately stripping off, sand floated around me as I undressed. I left my clothes in a dusty pile on the floor, wrapped myself in a towel and walked through the house to the shower. I shivered in the colder indoor temperature; my skin was still flushed and it struggled to adapt to the comparatively icy air.
The shower was meditative. I thought distantly about lunch, about the illicit beer, how Edward had been so unflappable about finding the ring, how curious I was about him and how little I had managed to learn. Except that I knew what his lips felt like on my skin. I knew what his hands felt like on my arm. I knew what his breath felt like on the back of my neck.
Standing under the burning, steaming shower I finally let myself bring a hand to my cheek where I could still viscerally recall the texture of his mouth-- springy, damp, silty, sticky sunscreen. I knew I'd tasted of sunscreen as well. What had it meant? I didn't think I would ever find out. I leaned my head back and opened my mouth to let the water stream in, finding it unpalatable but knowing I needed to rehydrate. I washed my hair and scrubbed my body with strawberry soap, and finally the water ran off me un-muddied.
When I finished, I walked back to my room in the same sandy towel I'd used earlier. I didn't care. I felt dry and empty, like I had no substance at all. I could be blown away. I had also been blown away by, um, things. Things I couldn't make the effort to articulate to myself any further.
I dropped the towel on the floor as soon as I closed my door, and collapsed into bed. It was only just five pm; I could sleep for a little while. I felt my mind blanking, but managed to reach for the bottle of water that permanently resided by my bed and drink the remaining third of the 1.5L bottle. I didn't bother replacing the lid after it was empty. I heard the resonant sound of the bottle hitting the wooden floor and unconsciousness overtook me.
Until a horrible noise jolted me awake. My phone was ringing. Or was it my alarm? They were the same sound. I dove across the room and dug in the pile of sandy field clothes for my phone. As I did I realized the sun had sunk and reddish light was flooding the room through the cracks in the blinds.
"Hello?" I spoke breathlessly into the handset.
"Bella!" It was a singsong voice I'd never heard before.
My forehead crinkled and I asked, "Who is this?"
"It's Alice!" Oh. Hip's 'Um Friend' or girlfriend or whatever she was. She sounded worryingly cheerful.
All I could manage in response was, "oh." She was unruffled.
"We heard you were grilling tonight so Hip and I are going to come by on our way back from the beach." I struggled to wake up enough to follow her quickly flowing speech. "You met Edward today, yes? He's with us too. It will be maybe an hour?" What time was it? I had no idea.
"Um, sure." I vaguely recalled mentioning this evening to someone earlier. What had I said?
"We'll bring some Magic Hat." Hip probably knew this was my favorite beer. My brain was starting to regain its connection to my body and I answered with a little more enthusiasm.
"Oh, wow, thanks."
"It'll be so great to finally meet you, Bella! Hip's told me you're the only cool person in the whole office." I doubted that, but whatever.
I laughed. "Honestly, the last thing I want to do is talk about work. My housemate is grilling; if you want to throw anything on the grill bring it along. I have no idea what we have in the house."
She laughed beautifully. It was like singing, even through the phone.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of all that! See you in an hour!" I could hear the smile in her voice.
"Alright then." She hung up, and I realized I was kneeling on the floor by my dirty field trousers, naked, in my room with a fine dust over everything and dirty underwear all over the floor. No one could see this. Innumerable expletives flooded my head, and I suddenly found myself very much awake.
I only had an hour. Edward would be here in an hour. At my house, possibly even seeing my room. I had to clean. What would I wear? My mind started to race and spin, and for the next three quarters of an hour, so did I. Digging out some normal person clothes, a cute band t-shirt that fit me properly, the cleanest, newest jeans. Oh, my hair was a disaster since I'd slept on it. I flitted frenetically around the house, my attention flowing easily from one thing to the next with hyper focus.
I'd just put the vacuum back in the corner when my phone rang again. It was Hip. He wanted to know what street to turn onto. I told him, and after I hung up I tried to breathe deeply. I'd heard Alice's odd, melodic laugh and Edward's, deeper but equally musical to me, in the background. I felt the sound from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. Oh, this evening would shock me. I was sure of it.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading. Please review. Also, I'd like to recommend that you check out a great one-shot by Sobriquett called The Shipwreck of Reason. Incredibly well written and has an unusual tone for twific. See you next time around! xx