Ruin – a Short Story

I wrote this a few years ago to submit to an anthology that never got published. So, I thought I would share it here, now. Enjoy!

And yes, I know it’s Monday.

Three weeks into the dig, Hayley sat up, staring down at the object half buried in the bottom of the hole, dirt matting the faded blond hair and clogging the indented plastic nostrils, one blue eye cracked, the eyelid stuck at half-mast.  A Chatty Cathy doll just didn’t belong in a layer of earth from the 1600s.  All that should be in the trench was Native American pottery. 

“Dr. Sutherland?”  Her voice shook when she called out for the dig leader.  Dr. Graham Sutherland was head of the anthropology department at the University of Virginia.  Had been for decades.  He was known as the best at identifying Native American pottery, and had already published three papers on this particular dig.

The older man’s light gaze wandered in Hayley’s direction.  He was tall, white haired and blue eyed, fit and trim, and looked younger than his 70 years.   

With her bitter chocolate skin and tight short curls, wide nostrils and curvy figure, Hayley was what many called the epitome of a black American female.  Though her mother always told her she should be proud of her heritage, proud of looking like her mother, every time Hayley looked at the face in the mirror, her self-disgust reflected back in her blue eyes.  Those blue eyes were what she hated the most.  Those blue eyes told the stark truth about her heritage.

“Yes, Hayley?”  Dr. Sutherland strutted from the main trench, a fisherman’s cap on his head, multi-pocketed shorts hitting mid knee on his wiry legs.  “Did you find something?”

“It’s Dr. Kent, and yes I found something.  But not what you would expect.”

The professor smiled and set a hand on her shoulder, his fingers massaging into the flesh and muscle.  He leaned down and spoke directly into her ear.  “Let’s have a look-see, shall we?”

She moved away from his hand and stepped aside, pointing to the bottom of the hole.  “There.”  She hated the shiver that rode down her spine, but she couldn’t help it.

Dr. Sutherland bent over the hole, setting his hands on his knees. “Is that a…?”

“Looks like it.”

“It can’t be.”

“What do you want me to do?  It’s there.”

“But it shouldn’t be.”  Dr. Sutherland scratched his head, doffing his hat to slap it against his thigh.

“It is.”

He straightened, his sun-pink skin looking green.  “Don’t tell anyone you found this.  Go work on trench 2.”

“Yes, sir.”  Hayley backed away from trench 4, picking up her tools, shoving them into her olive green canvas bag.

“Have you catalogued anything from this area?”

“Um.  Yeah.  Lots of shards.  Even a nearly complete pot.”  Hayley shifted her tools; she wanted to get away from the trench.

“You’ve turned them in?”

“Yes.  Your rule is to turn them in ASAP so there’s no mistakes.”

“Right.  Right.”  The older man rubbed dirty fingers over his face, dragging down the jowls, smearing his face.  “Go ahead.  Go.”  He waved a hand at her.

“Yes, sir.”  Hayley walked back to trench 2, looking over her shoulder once at the dig leader.  He stood, a little stooped, staring down into the trench.

She couldn’t help her smile.

*&*

“Dr. Sutherland wants me back here for today.”  Hayley settled on the ground next to Sacha, one of Dr. Sutherland’s current graduate student. 

Sacha Hernandez was 22, tall and lithe, and engrossed in the pot shard slowly revealing itself from the dirt.  “I thought he assigned you to trench 2?  Only his graduate students are in trench 4.”

She was correct, of course.  Trench 4 was reserved for Dr. Sutherland’s best students.  No one else was allowed – not even a colleague from another school.  Trench 4 had some of the best artifacts coming out of it; Dr. Sutherland wanted to keep them in the family, so to speak.

Of course, that was before Chatty Cathy.

Hayley shrugged.  “He just changed his mind.  Told me to come work over here.”

Sacha sat back and stared at Hayley through narrowed eyes.  “He never changes his mind.  This is my fifth year with him.  I know him.”

Hayley struggled to keep the smile from her face.  Sacha wasn’t just Dr. Sutherland’s student.  Never married, rumor was he always took a lover from one of his graduate students. 

“You’ll have to ask him, Sacha.  I just know he sent me over here to work.”

“Sacha!”  Dr. Sutherland’s voice cut through the conversation, high and shrill.

The girl jerked up, catching the edge of the shard with her trowel, breaking it.  “Damn it.”

“Sacha!” 

“Just a minute!”  She threw her trowel down and hoisted herself out of the four-foot deep trench.  “Selfish bastard.  What the hell does he want now?” 

“Want me to keep working on this shard?  I think I can get the rest out and salvage it.”

“Sure.  Whatever.”  Sacha flipped a soiled hand and stalked off toward trench 2.

Sacha wasn’t really interested in Native American pottery.  She wanted to work the middle Americas – where her “ancestors” came from, to rewrite their forgotten history. 

At forty-five, Hayley was old enough to understand history couldn’t be rewritten – it could only be avenged.

She worked on the shard, slowly uncovering the rest of the large piece of pottery.  She’d been a little surprised when she’d been accepted to work on the dig.  Her degree – taking a good long time to complete – was from a mid-West university, and she’d been working on digs in the Southwest – Navajo territory – and only teaching for ten years. 

“Dr. Sutherland!”  It was another student, in another trench.

Hayley stood, dusting damp soil from her khakis, and looked over to the other trench.  Three young men, all scratching their heads, were looking down into the hole.

White hair standing straight up, face flushed, Dr. Sutherland trotted to the students.  One pointed into the trench. 

“No.  No.”  Dr. Sutherland sank to his knees in the grass, fingers curling into the sod.  “Sacha!”

The Latina student’s head appeared over the rim of the edge of trench 2.  “What now?”

“There’s another one.  Over here.”  Dr. Sutherland had a hand over his heart, and his voice rasped between gasping breaths.

Sacha jumped out of trench 2, and Hayley pulled herself out of trench 4.

“Easy, Graham.  Easy.  Calm down.”  Sacha reached him first, kneeling next to him.

“Calm down?”  The man turned on her, grabbing the girl’s upper arms and shaking her so that her head snapped back and forth.  “I’m ruined.”

“Hey, easy old man.”  One of the young men pulled his hands away from Sacha, dragging him back and keeping him away.  “No reason for that, dude.”

“No reason?”  He jabbed a finger at the trench floor.  “That is wrong!”

Hayley looked down, following the pointing digit.  There, half covered in brown clay, was another toy, a bright and gold cymbal stuck to a fuzzy stuffed arm.

Sacha rubbed her arms.  Bruises, faint but getting darker, formed on her biceps. 

“I’ve submitted data on this site.  I’ve published on this site.  I’ll lose my tenure if this gets out.”

He’ll lose his tenure.  Hayley swallowed her snort, coughing to cover. 

“You attacked, Sacha.”  The young man that had pulled Dr. Sutherland off the girl towered over the old man.  “You’re tenure can go to hell.”

“Do you honestly think her degree will mean anything if I lose my tenure?  If this gets out, you’ll all lose credits and have to retake classes.”  Dr. Sutherland panted, sneering at each student in turn. 

“Re-retake classes?”  The other young man, blond and slight of build, gulped and began to pace.  “My parents will kill me.  They can’t afford more classes.”

“Get that thing out of there.”  The professor waved at the trench.  “Stick it somewhere no one will ever find it, and don’t tell anyone you found it.”

The blond looked around at each of them, then jumped into the trench and dug, flinging dirt helter-skelter, regardless of any authentic relics it might contain.  In only minutes, the object – a chubby wind-up monkey – landed on the grass at Dr. Sutherland’s knees.

The blond head popped up out of the trench.  “I think I busted a shard getting it out.”

“Doesn’t matter.”  Dr. Sutherland backed away from the object, still on his knees, looking like it was a wild animal ready to attack. “Get rid of it.”

Sacha stood and picked it up, examining it.  “It doesn’t even look new.  It looks old, like it’s been in there a while.”

“Get rid if it!”  Spittle – white and foamy – gathered at the corners of Dr. Sutherland’s mouth.

“Yes, sir.”  Sacha pivoted, holding the statue at a distance, and walked back to trench 2.

“Where are you going?”  The professor’s voice was high and cracked.

Sacha spun back.  “To get rid of the other one, too.  I thought that’s what you wanted?”

*&*

That evening, in her hotel room, the credits from an unwatched movie running up the TV screen, Hayley sat cross-legged on her bed.  The polyester comforter stuck to the back of her thighs; uneaten Chinese food, the sauce seeping through the little paper boxes, grew cold in her hand.

“Dr. Kent?”  Sacha knocked on the door.  “Are you in there?”

Hayley stood and stretched, setting the box on the table before opening the door.  “Yes, Sacha, I am.”

The young woman stood outside in a thin t-shirt and sleep shorts, lime green flip flops on her feet.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you’d let me bunk in here tonight.”

“Sure.”  Hayley opened the door wide, letting the girl walk through.  “There’s two full beds.  You can have the other one.”

“Thanks.”

“You okay?”

“What do you think those objects mean?”  Sacha sat on the edge of the second bed, hands gripping her thighs.

Hayley shrugged.  “My mother had a collection, but I don’t know much about old toys.  I specialize in Navajo artifacts.”  She picked up the Chinese and held it out to Sacha.

“No thanks.  I had pizza with Matt, Sam, and Kyle.”

Hayley frowned.

“The guys that found the monkey.”

Nodding, Hayley set the Chinese back on the table.  “Probably for the best.  The sauce is pretty salty.”

“Graham is…”  Sacha’s mouth opened and closed but nothing more came out.

“Upset?”  Hayley sat back on her bed, self-conscious that her body was twice as old as her guest’s.  Nothing on the younger girl sagged; nothing of Hayley’s would be described as pert.

“That’s an understatement.  He’s frantic, pacing around the suite, tearing at his hair.  I’ve never seen him like this.”

“Well, he is… older.”

Sacha nodded.  “He always had good stamina, though.  I never expected him to act, you know, old.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Sighing, Sacha stood up and walked the room, looking at the identical pictures hanging over the beds, at the thermostat next to the door, at the “in case of a fire” directions posted on the door.  “We’ve been together for three years, you know.  Since before I got my undergraduate degree.  Longest anyone’s ever lasted.”

“Do you love him?”  Hayley had to ask.

Sacha looked at her, her brown eyes dilated to full black, shrugging.  ” His last girl got into Stanford for her PhD.  The one before that got into Penn State.”

“It wasn’t always a good thing.”

Frowning, Sacha turned from the door.  “I thought you didn’t know anything?”

“About his stamina?  No.  About other things?  I’ve heard stories.”  Hayley lay back on the bed, crossing her legs at the ankles.

Sacha wrapped her arms around her middle, rocking on her heels.  “I’m stuck.”

“No, you’re not.”  Hayley stood and walked to the younger girl.  Standing in front of her, she brushed stray strands of brown hair back from her damp face.  “It’s not like you’re married to him.”

“I suppose not.  But, everyone knows.”

“Do they?”

“Of course.  It’s common knowledge among his students.

“What does the dean say?”

“No one tells the dean.”

“Ah.”  Hayley nodded and walked back to the bed.  “There’s always a price to pay.  It may seem easy enough, no harm done.  But there is always a price.”

Sacha narrowed her gaze.  “Sounds like you paid a price.”

Hayley laughed.  “Yes.  In a way, I suppose I did.  I had to study hard and make sacrifices to pay for my education.  But yes, there was still a price.  Not for me as mcu as for my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“She made a mistake, took the easy way like you, and paid a high price.”

“How high?”

“She got pregnant.”

Sacha snorted.  “I’m on the pill.  And I doubt Graham is firing a full load.”

“Older men than him have fathered children.  And you can’t go on a dig with kids.”

Turning, Sacha paced away.  “Graham would do the right thing.”

“Would he?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”  Hayley crossed her arms.

“I just know.”  Sacha spun back.

Taking a breath, shaking her head, Hayley dropped her arms.  “Where did you put the stuff we found today?”

“In the trash.”

“What if there’s more tomorrow?”

“Why would there be more?”

Hayley shrugged.  “Why were there two today?”

*&*

Morning was bright and cool, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon. 

Dr. Sutherland paced the briefing tent, his movement jerky, his hair disheveled, his clothes rumpled, like he’d slept in them.

“If anyone – and I mean anyone – finds something off today, they are to tell me immediately.”  The old man spun, his fevered gaze ripping over students and professionals alike.  “Do you understand?”

Everyone nodded, murmurs spreading through the tent. 

“Get out there.  Hurry.  Before it starts raining.  The media will be here this afternoon.”

Hayley grabbed up her bag and sun hat, placing the latter on her head.  “Where am I working this morning?”

“What?  Huh?”  Dr. Sutherland looked confused.  “Who are you?”

“Dr. Kent.  Brigham Young University.  I worked trench 2 yesterday.  Until I found something… off.”  Hayley raised her brows.  Surely he hadn’t forgotten?

Sacha stood under the tent flap, Matt, Sam and Kyle behind her.  “We need instruction, too.  We were in trench 4.”

Panting, Dr. Sutherland rounded to the opening.  “You can’t work in trench 4.  I’m closing trench 4.”

“That’s why we need new instructions.”  Sacha shifted back.

Dr. Sutherland pulled at his face.  His blue eyes darted around, but they didn’t seem to focus on anything.  Swaying on his feet, the professor moaned.

“Graham?”  Sacha stayed outside the tent.

“Dr. Sutherland?”  Hayley stood her ground.  “Are you okay?”

Those blue eyes fixed on her and he raised one shaking hand, pointing a finger at her.  “I know you.  I know you.”

“Of course you do, Dr. Sutherland.  I’ve been working on this dig with you for three weeks.”

“No, no. no.  Before.  Younger.  I taught you.”

“No, sir.  I attended the University of Arizona, in Tempe.  I’ve never taken one of your classes.  I told you, I teach at Brigham Young.  It’s in Utah.  Have you ever been to Utah?”

The old man pulled at his hair and sat at one of the benches.  “No pottery in Utah.”

“Graham?”  Sacha stepped into the tent.  “Should I call a doctor?”

“If you don’t, I will.”  Matt ducked under the tent flap.  “A recommendation to Yale isn’t worth this mess.”

“Matt.  It’s more than a recommendation.  It’s a guarantee.”

“Not anymore.  Look at him.  He’s drooling.”  Matt stood over the professor, stopping to place his hands on his knees.  “A recommendation from him will be worthless.”

“Dr. Sutherland!”  The call came from outside.  The sound of pounding feet got louder, until a student ducked her head inside.  “I’ve found – something.”

Eyes wild, Dr. Sutherland staggered to his feet, pushing Matt aside and rushing out the door.  “Where?  What is it?”

“Well, I’m not sure, sir.”

They all followed the student back to trench 3.  A crowd milled around the top edge, pointing and whispering. 

“Out of the way, out of the way!”  Dr. Sutherland shoved students left and right; one landed on his bum in the dirt.  The whispering got louder, the pointing got harder, but no one looked in the trench anymore.  Instead, they stared at the professor.

“No!  No!”  The old man grabbed his hair again, spinning on the spot, stamping his feet into the grass.  “No!”

“Sir?”  A man approached, another man with a camera perched on his shoulder following.  “Are you Dr. Graham Sutherland?”

“Who are you?”  Dr. Sutherland’s sneer reached his ears.

“Tom Clark.  We had an appointment for a video interview.”  The reported jerked a thumb back at the cameraman.  “Someone called the station this morning and suggested we come by earlier than scheduled.  To avoid the rain.”

“You can’t be here, now.  You can’t be here.”  Dr. Sutherland stalked forward, advancing to within a foot of the reporter. “Get out of here!”

The cameraman circled, a light flashing red on his gear.  The reporter pulled out a tape recorder and microphone.  “Why?”  He held out the mic.

“Get out of here!”  Face purple, spit spewing from pale lips, Dr. Sutherland screamed at the reporter.

The cameraman hovered over the edge of the trench, ducking away from the camera’s sight to peer into the trench.  “Is that a Howdy Doody doll?”

“Looks like it.”  The female student that reported the discovery smiled into the camera and flipped her hair over one shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing?”  The professor grabbed the girl and flung her away from the trench.

“Hey!”  Matt grabbed the doctor, jerking his arms behind his back and holding him.  “That’s the second time you’ve done that.”

“The second time?”  The reported stepped forward, mic held out, eyes scanning the students.

“He grabbed me yesterday.  After another oddity was found in one of the other trenches.”  Sacha held up the sleeves on her shirt, showing the deep bruising on her arms.

The cameraman swung the lens from the trench and focused on Sacha.

“Oddity?  What kind of oddity?”  The reporter stepped forward, eyes trained on Sacha.

“Well, something that shouldn’t have been in the trench.  We found two yesterday.”

“Shut up!  Shut up!”  Dr. Sutherland struggled in Matt’s grip, and Sam and Kyle stepped forward to help restrain the professor.

“A Chatty Cathy doll and a stuffed monkey with castanets.”  Kyle spoke over his shoulder.

“Cymbals, Kyle.”  Matt smacked Kyle’s leg from where he knelt beside the professor.  “They were cymbals.”

“And your name is?”  The reporter pulled out a small notebook, looking at Kyle.

“Kyle Mitchell.  And that’s Sacha Hernandez.”  He pointed at Sacha, then Matt.  “And Matt Brendan.”

“I’ll fail you all.  I’ll make you pay.”  The professor was on the ground now, writhing to get free.

Matt used his body weight to hold him down.  “Professor.  Calm down.  You’re only making it worse.”

“Sir?”  A student from trench 1 ran over, slowing when he saw the crowd, the professor on the ground, the reporter and cameraman.  He held up an old Aunt Jemima bottle.  “We found this in layer 10 of trench 1.”

Dr. Sutherland twisted to stare at the bottle.  “What is that?”

“A syrup bottle.  Old, from the looks of it.  But not old enough.  I mean, they didn’t have Aunt Jemima back in Jamestown.”

“Let me see that.”  The cameraman stepped forward, lowering his camera and holding out a hand for the dark brown bottle.  The cap was rusted and dented, but the bottle was whole.  “They had these in the 60s.  This is an antique.”

“1960s, right?”  Sacha looked like she was going to vomit.  Sweat beaded on her top lip and temples, and her lips were pale and thin.  “This dig is from the 1600s.  Shit it’s an antique.”  She spit, like something foul had invaded her mouth.

“Can’t be, can it?  This dig is shit.”  The cameraman held up the bottle.  “Not with this in there.  Or Howdy Doody over there.  Probably a 50s toy.”  He jerked his head back at the trench.

“Get rid of it.  Get rid of it!”  Dr. Sutherland struggled again, throwing Matt off and standing, lunging for the bottle.

The cameraman jumped back, dropping the bottle, and took up his camera.

Dr. Sutherland picked up the bottle, fingers gripping it so that his knuckles turned white.  “It’s Aunt Jemima.  I’m ruined.  Ruined.”  He sank back to his knees, the bottle still in his clasp.

Students, reporter and cameraman backed away.  The reporter nodded to his partner and they trotted off, the reporter whooping about the scoop of the year:  the great Dr. Graham Sutherland’s breakdown over Aunt Jemima.

Students wandered off, talking and whispering, glancing over their shoulders at their professor.

Hayley stood over him, arms crossed over her chest, hands fisted.  She wanted to shout and jump, but she didn’t dare. 

Dr. Sutherland raised his head.  He looked lost.  At sea.  He turned his head and found her steady gaze.

Blue eyes met blue. 

“Jemima.”  He blinked, and frowned.  “But you’re not my Jemima.”

“You should have remembered sooner.  When I got here.  Before that even, before she died of cancer ten years ago.  Forty years ago, before we got kicked out of our apartment when she got laid off.”

Tears streaked his dirty face and snot ran from his nose.  He looked down at the bottle, shaking fingers stroking over the soiled glass.  “Jemima girl.”

“Is that what you called her?  Is that what you thought of her?”  Hayley walked forward, squatting next to the sobbing man, and patted his shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Daddy.  I’ll stay by you, just like you stayed by Mommy.”

END