by Seth Fried
Whether or not it had been his intention to impress anyone, Loeka, the lab favorite, had managed to climb four thousand feet without modern mountain-climbing equipment—and those of us on the research team had to admit that was pretty damned impressive. Objectivity is important, but we liked Loeka. What was the matter with that? The ice had kept him in good shape for over seven thousand years, and in his wrenched-up face the flesh was warped into this total, excruciating grimace. The pathos of the whole thing was unshakable. After our third day of working on Loeka, Doc Johnson (who was somewhat of a relic himself and who until then hadn’t shown more than an ounce of emotion in his forty years as director at the Institute) started the day by reading aloud from a poem he had written about Loeka. The poem focused on what were presumed to be his last moments, shivering on the mountainside. In the poem, Loeka is determined to get back to his family but is too weak to move. In the end, he looks up at the stars and feels warmed by their distant light. His last thoughts are of the fate of his poor family, huddled together in some primitive, thatch-roofed dwelling. He bravely attempts to stand and keels forward, taking on the prone, abject pose in which he was found by Norwegian tourists more than a half-dozen millennia later.
The poem wasn’t very good. It rhymed too much, and Doc Johnson’s voice warbled in a way that made us feel uncomfortable. However, most of us were still somewhat touched. We watched Doc Johnson’s hands shake a little more than usual as he folded the sheet of notebook paper with his poem on it and returned it to the pocket of his lab coat. Gathered in a circle, our eyes misty, we began to get the sensation, a swelling in our chests, that what we were working on was important—that it was bigger than all of us.
There was something spellbinding about it, peering down the vast well of time at Loeka’s small, puckered face. While extracting a tissue sample for analysis, it wasn’t uncommon for any one of us to sing to Loeka sweetly or to talk to him as if he were an obedient child. Something about it softened us. Whereas before we would march down the sterile, artificially lit halls of the Institute, nodding to one another as we passed, the air around us a cold flutter of clipboards and clicking pens, we now began to stop and greet one another, laughing. Two weeks with Loeka, and some of the men started showing up to the lab in more brightly colored shirts and gag neckties. Some of the women traded their slacks for skirts that ended just below the knee, traded their sensible loafers for something with a heel; their vibrant, exciting clacks echoed down the corridors, which, once gray and subdued, now seemed charged with untold possibility.
Every day there were more newspapers and magazines clamoring for interviews about Loeka. We tried to be as calm and plainspoken as possible, but the fervor of the moment quickly overtook us. We delivered our interviews breathlessly to an unending bank of microphones. Yes, his leather boots were being developed commercially. Yes, they were surprisingly comfortable. No, his ax was made of copper. Yes! Yes! We gave the reporters large, toothy grins and finished one another’s sentences. We winked wryly at one another when a question was broad or obvious. When leaving the interviews, we took one another by the arm, walking back to our posts with a sense of privilege, a kind of giddiness.
There was an excitement building in us. The isotopic analysis of his tooth enamel, as well as the paleodontal staining, determined Loeka’s point of origin to be a small village in northern Italy near modern-day Varhn, some three hundred miles from the place of his discovery. We marveled: What could have caused him to travel so far, so high? Geological records confirmed that at the time of Loeka’s death, his native region would have been in the throes of a prolonged drought. This, combined with the fact that we found no processed grains in Loeka’s digestive tract, only conifers and berries, suggested that he was most likely a type of scout, heading out into dangerous, unknown lands to find a place more livable for his drought-wracked village. Instantly Loeka was miraculous and selfless. Loeka was endeavor. Somewhere in the lab a machine would whir and clap and we would draw our faces in close, waiting for the results. Our hot, eager breath clouding the film of some x-ray, we would imagine Loeka swaggering up the mountainside with savage bravado, mumbling softly to himself in some ancient tongue as the dangers increased, “I’ll think of something.”
It was no surprise that small romances began to bubble up throughout the lab. At the time, it seemed to make sense. As with teenagers in some high school play, it wasn’t long before our working in such close proximity, together with the general excitement of the task at hand, led to lingering glances over calorimeters, colleagues leaning in to share the dual eyepieces on comparison microscopes, the sudden, accidental brush of hands simultaneously attempting to adjust the needle valves of Bunsen burners. When we examined some of the pollen we found in Loeka’s colon, it turned out that the cells within the pollen were still intact, which meant that Loeka’s death could be placed sometime during the spring. Spring! Even Doc Johnson developed a somewhat platonic crush on Laurel, one of our interns. His eyes would follow her longingly across the lab as she shuffled papers or fetched a pair of forceps or, engrossed in some menial task and feeling unwatched, blew a distracted puff of breath through her dark, lovely bangs. Doc Johnson seemed afflicted but happy, and his old, soft leather briefcase bulged with what we could only assume to be an out-pouring of new, unreadable poems, which had most likely been written, in some harmless, impotent sense, for Laurel.
The lab was alive with a strange new confidence. We all moved with a rakish strut, our clothing slightly disheveled. Some of us high-fived and slapped backsides. Others adopted nicknames. Dr. O’Reilly started calling himself “the Clipper.” Dr. Clifford and Dr. Simmons demanded that we refer to them as “Scooter” and “Long Shot,” respectively. Dr. Stevens insisted that we call him “Big Tex,” despite the fact he was only five foot six and from Maryland.
The subtle flirtations in the lab grew into white-hot animal compulsions. We attacked one another’s blouse buttons and pants zippers in storage closets, revealing surprisingly taut, viral bodies long obscured by baggy clothing and the horrible fog of professionalism. Those of us who were married came home early, sending our bewildered children to their rooms long before their usual bedtime. We took our husbands and wives wherever we found them, in a loud clamor of unwashed pots, TV trays and laundry baskets. We scratched and pulled toward one another madly. Laurel began wearing ribbons in her hair, and one bright afternoon old Doc Johnson sauntered into the lab wearing a pair of white shorts and a striped boatneck.
We fell into our research as if it were the most lurid, tempting thing of all. We performed simple tasks diligently and with a heightened sense of responsibility. Our minds raced. When faced with various disjointed segments of data, complex mental associations, precise leaps of intuition and all-out breakthroughs were immediate and common. It was a pace that was not easily contained. During an idle moment, many of us would take the opportunity to scribble in the margins of our notepads ideas for the types of personal projects that hadn’t haunted our private ambitions in years. Rushing between tasks, we would write the titles of possible articles on coffee-stained napkins, quickly folding them into our pockets. We drummed our fingers while we worked, thinking about the world in terms of problems and philosophies of improvement. There was a creative mania spreading everywhere, a contagious energy which, though intoxicating, never distracted us from what our primary task: Loeka. We threw ourselves passionately into our investigation. We pursued it with the utmost care and fastidiousness, as even the simplest procedure had become for us a deliberate act of celebration as well as a rejection of the pessimism and doubt that we felt had characterized our lives up to that point.
Every morning we wrote out affirmations in the steam on our bathroom mirrors, sang with the radios in our cars. The world was new. Everything flew forward. One discovery unfolded into two, three, several. Laurel’s youth and beauty descended over the lab like a cloud. Doc Johnson’s heart rang out. In his eyes we could see the first cannon shot, the first launched ship, the first cry of victory and defeat. The world was ancient.
Some nights we threw impromptu parties on the high roofs of the Institute. We would watch the stars, wondering how they might have looked to Loeka some seven thousand years ago. Drinking champagne, we would laugh and lift our glasses. Drunker and drunker, we toasted in unison: “Loeka! Loeka!” We kept it up for as long as our voices held out, the toast becoming steadily louder and more jubilant—“Loeka! Loeka!”—until the name itself grew shorter, its vowels and consonants softer, eventually sounding, perhaps not coincidentally, something like “Life!”
Then they found the Big Man.
Just as our research was achieving new heights, a call came in about another body. On the same mountain where Loeka had been discovered, another natural mummy was uncovered several hundred feet higher. The Big Man, so named immediately due to his large frame, which early reports remarked as being intimidating even in death, was found, ironically, because of the attention the area had received as a result of the publicity surrounding Loeka. While we first expected something similar to Loeka (a thought which excited us), the initial photographs faxed to us back at the Institute were not promising. Unlike Loeka’s small, endearing face, with its features lumpy and vague, like something molded roughly out of clay, the face of the Big Man was freakishly well preserved and hideous. With a prominent forehead, sunken eyes and smashed-in nose, he had the look of something alien, violent and unfriendly. Most of us were put off by the photographs but easily recovered. Charged by the notion of a new specimen and all its mysteries, we cheered. We banged on the tube of the MRI machine, shouting in to Loeka over the sound of the Eric Clapton we pumped in sort of as a joke, as if to prevent him from being frightened by the incessant knocking sound produced by the machine. We hollered into the tube stupidly, telling Loeka, “You’re gonna have a little friend!” or “No, it’s his bwudda! He’s gonna have a wittle bwudda!”
Within days of the discovery, the Big Man was shipped to the Institute in a large, pressurized crate. Our playfulness over the idea of another mummy had subsided, and for the first few hours following the Big Man’s arrival we managed only to stare at the crate uncertainly. Most of us expressed uneasiness with respect to the Big Man and a desire to return our attention to Loeka. Our excitement about the Big Man as an abstract idea quickly gave way to defensiveness the moment he became a physical presence in the lab, as if the existence of the Big Man were somehow an affront to Loeka. Half the morning was spent in silence before Doc Johnson shuffled up to the crate and punched in the nine-digit passcode, upon which the crate opened with a slow and unsettling hiss.
We were anxious to see what we might be able to learn from the Big Man, but something about him had cast a shadow over our research. We managed to establish him as contemporaneous to Loeka, and we initiated the analysis of his tooth enamel, but tasks that had only recently seemed to perform themselves—so ecstatically involved were we in their execution—now seemed insufferable. One of us would return from a remote testing facility with a fresh printout, and all activity in the lab would stop. “Well,” someone would ask, “what does it say?” At which point whichever one of us had fetched the data would hold the paper uncomfortably, as if unsure which way to turn it, eventually saying, “I don’t know.”
The reaction from the press was marked by a curiosity that was similar to that with which they had received Loeka. However, their overall excitement was diminished. Even the sharp slaps of their flashing cameras were somehow less urgent. The questions asked were quietly skeptical, as if the inability of the Big Man to surprise them after Loeka allowed the reporters to call into question the value of both discoveries. If the presence of the reporters had once excited us, it now left us feeling a little upset, not only because we recognized that the press was fickle, that it was only able to judge the importance of things on their ability to awe and confound, but because, in terms of its misgivings and vague disinterest regarding the Big Man, we completely agreed with it.
It was not possible to approach the Big Man without first considering him in relation to Loeka; the differences between the two were staggering. Loeka’s anguished look, when compared to the hard, forbidding look of the Big Man, caused Loeka to seem no longer as courageous in his frozen torment as we had first assumed. Observing him next to the Big Man, we had to admit that Loeka’s expression didn’t appear as heroic as it did simply greedy for life. His expression was suddenly groveling and bullied. In our minds, Loeka began to seem like a coward. However, we did not find the brutish look of the Big Man more appealing. Rather, his impressive stature reminded us only of the incredible violence and cruelty of which the human body was capable. While all that had been found in Loeka’s digestive tract suggested the diet of a vegetarian, the Big Man’s was packed with one continuous hank of red meat. The Big Man made clear how dangerous the past must have been, how easily someone like Loeka might have been exploited, how grim and pointless would have been anyone’s fate, grunting, struggling in the dirt, if they were to have found themselves in the Big Man’s hands.
The Big Man had carried with him a bow, along with a quiver of bone-tipped arrows. Attached to his belt were two knives and a small leather pouch filled with human teeth. The ears of the Big Man were notched in several places, and his forearms were heavily scarred. We were repulsed. When preparing the Big Man for any of the countless procedures that were required, we squinted in disgust and breathed through our mouths, as if we were bathing a vagrant. We found ourselves so overwhelmed by our dislike of the Big Man that if we dropped an instrument or stubbed our toe on the observation table, we had to restrain ourselves from taking out our anger on the Big Man’s corpse or the surrounding equipment. We even had to fire an intern who, after a simple complication, swore at the Big Man and threw a scalpel at his forehead. An undergraduate from Brown named Kenny, he emptied out his work station in a huff, stopping to look over the lab and declare briefly that the situation was “such total bullshit.”
And while none of us had ever really liked that particular intern and had, in fact, been looking for a reason to let him go since the day he arrived, we still empathized with him. Though we would never admit it, many of us felt that the Big Man had it coming. When the thrown scalpel trembled to a stop in his forehead, many of us even smiled approvingly. If anything, we found it touching that this young man who had paraded around the lab for seven months wearing the same Rolling Stones t-shirt and referring to all of us as “Dr. Dude” had sensed in his own vacuous way that the Big Man represented something awful. It had worked on his nerves as it had ours. In fact, he may have said it best. Though we couldn’t put our fingers on it exactly, something about the Big Man was bullshit. However, Doc Johnson insisted, and in the end we were perfectly happy to see Kenny leave. We watched him depart without comment and then returned our attention to our tests, our spreadsheets, our mummies and our dwindling spirits.
Naturally, the air of romance in the lab diminished as well. As our enthusiasm for our work suffered, so did our attitudes toward our colleagues. We grew frustrated with each other. Those people in the lab who had excited us before—those with whom we had slipped off into storage closets for quick romps under fire blankets and between mop buckets, those who had only recently filled us with an unequivocal joie de vivre, our eyes meeting across the lab, our laughter booming out together in the decontamination chambers—those same people began to bore us. Even Doc Johnson appeared to suspect something suddenly undesirable about Laurel. It was difficult to say what. Perhaps it was the way she pouted when Kenny was let go. Or perhaps it was that he felt her looks were finally too childish (those ribbons!) or that her shyness, which had appealed to him at first, was really just the conceited silence of a brat. Perhaps he imagined in her face something that was ready to age prematurely, something fat, stupid and selfish. Whatever the case, around the lab his demeanor toward her changed entirely, and his briefcase slowly wilted.
We now regarded each other as almost poisonous. We saw our colleagues as robbing us of not only creative potential but also our ability to complete the most basic tasks. They were parasites, demanding, with their idiotic pleasantries and mere presence in the lab, more than we were prepared to give. All their good ideas were just simple variations on our own. We found their work insipid and kept our own as closely guarded as possible. Although, once we succeeded in avoiding one another or in driving one another away with harsh words, we just as quickly turned on ourselves. Left alone, we began to see our work as obscure and self-indulgent. We wondered if the quality of our ideas was actually dependent on the ideas of those we had just driven away. We wondered if we were parasites. Had our relationships with our colleagues changed so quickly because of something latently flawed that they had recognized in us? We began to think that maybe there was nothing wrong with them at all but that we were just oblivious, emotionally handicapped monsters, doomed for the rest of our lives to commit the same sins against all the well-meaning people who would ever be unfortunate enough to find themselves in our paths.
Those of us who were married started working late, despite the fact that, as our interest in our work waned, there was less and less to be done. We ignored phone calls from our husbands and wives and pretended to fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows. Our spouses, in turn, began to leave our suppers uncovered on kitchen tables, along with dejected notes, which, when read together over time, mapped out the course of their burgeoning frustration and doubt.
We started keeping bottles of Beefeater and Jameson in our desks. Our hygiene suffered, and the lab took on the musty, alcoholic stink of a frat house. Whatever romances survived the mood of dissatisfaction that had swept through the lab were finally extinguished by embarrassing, alcohol-fueled rendezvous in the unisex bathrooms. Grinding their bodies together perfunctorily, unable to arouse one another, colleagues would fall asleep on stall floors with their pants undone, drooling on each other and gently breaking wind. We became moody and reckless. One afternoon, someone threw a portable mass spectrometer out of a third-story window into the parking lot. Three days later, Dr. Cukerski, our radiologist, was arrested after he came home drunk and proceeded to knock his wife around their condo for the two hours it took for the police to show up.
We looked awful. We felt awful. Doc Johnson stopped wearing his toupee for the first time in fifteen years. Men worked in the lab for days at a time with their flies down, women with the backs of their skirts tucked into their nylons.
It was in the grip of this melancholy that we finally knew whom to blame: Loeka.
Yes, our original distaste was for the Big Man, but as things progressed we realized that he was only a small part of how all the promise surrounding Loeka had turned up empty. Once a brave, lone man so far up a mountain, now he was only some prehistoric patsy with a sour look on his face. Why couldn’t he have been alone on that mountain? Was that too much to ask? Why should something so simple and seemingly inspiring have to end up more complicated? It wasn’t what anyone wanted.
Then we discovered the arrowhead.
There it was, on the x-ray, the size of a walnut, with a small taper of wooden shaft still attached, lodged under Loeka’s right shoulder blade. Clear as day. Though we might have missed it if it weren’t for the fact that some of the lab technicians had been using x-ray films as coasters. The film, stinking of stale booze, bore a small circle of water damage, enclosing the arrowhead perfectly and revealing to us by chance what would later seem obvious.
After the arrowhead’s careful extraction, we confirmed that it was identical to the heads on the arrows carried in a large buckskin quiver by the Big Man. It was at almost the exact same moment that we received results of the analysis of the teeth that the Big Man carried in a small leather pouch on his belt. Having already characterized the Big Man as a simple brute, we assumed that his bag of teeth had been collected over a long campaign of violence spread out over a great distance. However, we were amazed to learn that these teeth, gathered from over forty different individuals, all responded to the paleodontal staining identically to the tooth sample we had taken from Loeka. These findings, paired with the results from the isotopic analysis, indicated that the teeth were all from the same point of origin, three hundred miles away and centered around a single population center near modern-day Vahrn: namely, Loeka’s village.
Stunned, we called for more tests. The Grayson came back positive. The Comparative Battery for Postdeciduous Tooth Matter scored in the ninety-eighth percentile. Laruth’s reactant showed a bright orange. Everything pointed to Vahrn.
Having wandered down from the far north, the Big Man had apparently collected the teeth of over forty individuals from a single village, Loeka’s village, in one unimaginable episode. For the first time in months, our curiosity was piqued.
If the Big Man had murdered Loeka’s entire village, it meant that Loeka, having somehow survived the attack, must have then pursued the Big Man over three hundred miles and up a mountain. The Big Man must have shot Loeka as he was pursued, before the two of them finally died in inclement weather at high elevations.
Loeka, willing to confront an extraordinary foe with only his diminutive stature and sad copper ax, was once again a hero—though not the hero we had at first envisioned. He was not some sensible man braving the understandable risks of nature in order to scout more suitable land for his people but a man driven by the madness of an unbelievable loss, a man subject to a pain that must have been more than he could bear, a man less willing to sit still than to die.
Thousands of years later, there they were, frozen on a mountainside like the lovers on the Grecian urn, caught in eternal pursuit: Loeka pitched forward, gripping his ax, forever awaiting the delivered wound that would kill the Big Man or the wound received that would set him free.
Setting an incredible precedent, several of the men in the lab shaved. Some of the women began combing their hair and applying lipstick as, in a roundabout way, the practice of hygiene slowly snuck back into the lab. Doc Johnson began wearing a toupee again, but one much more modest than the old, towering bouffant he had once sported. His new hair was more closely fitted to the scalp. He didn’t look as confident as he once had, but he now approached his age with some measure of acceptance; he walked through the lab in an attitude of slow determination and new maturity. Laurel received a bouquet of yellow roses, symbolizing both friendship and apology. In the absence of a card, she assumed they were from Kenny, but we all knew who had actually sent them.
And while we felt that old enthusiasm returning, we knew that this time we had to accept our admiration of Loeka for what it was: a bias. We had to guide it, stay in front of it. We had to talk down to it, like a dog. We marched through the lab, all of us stern but invigorated. We spoke brusquely to one another, offering up only short, informative declarations.
“Here is a beaker.”
“I have the results.”
“My goggles are broken.”
“You may borrow mine.”
We felt properly jaded and able to go about the task at hand. Our former zeal now appeared as childish as it did remote. Now our resolve was intact. Our upper lips were stiff, our brows furrowed. We were unflinching and dispassionate. At last, we were true men and women of science.
Of course, Loeka still managed to charm us. With the new twist on his story, it was not unlike having an old friend back in the lab. But we recognized this impulse as the same type of foolishness that had led us to act irresponsibly in the first place. We discontinued that line of thought and returned our attention to discovering once and for all the secret of Loeka’s death and the events that surrounded it. We were moving forward, setting out to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the Big Man, though the logistics seemed incredible, had murdered Loeka’s entire village and then been pursued by Loeka over a great distance. That was what had happened. It was our job to find out how.
The first thing we did was arrange another press conference. We were eager to see the looks on their faces when we showed them the arrow in Loeka’s shoulder and the Big Man’s bag of teeth. We even prepared an artistic rendering, which speculated what the Big Man’s assault on Loeka’s village must have looked like. Divided into twelve separate panels, the first pictured the Big Man slitting the throat of an elderly woman, while the second showed him smashing a man’s head open on a sharp rock. In one panel, the Big Man was sodomizing a boy, already dead. In another, he was eating the flesh of a small girl, still alive. He was pictured strangling the villagers, hacking off their limbs, blinding them, mutilating their genitals, peeling long strips of skin from their faces and chests and backs. Observing the sketches in all their gore, we knew that the press, which had once treated us so capriciously, would finally understand the magnitude of our work, the implications of our discovery.
And so, our suits crisp beneath our lab coats, we met the reporters who gathered.
We spoke with authority. We showed them the x-ray of Loeka’s shoulder and the test results determining both the origin of the arrow and the bag of teeth. We spoke of these items in a manner that was both technical and detached.
However, when these facts failed to rouse the reporters, who listened to us in a way that was surprisingly indifferent, we took the opportunity to depart from what we strictly knew. We began to speak with enthusiasm about the Big Man’s murderous rampage and Loeka’s pursuit. We spoke about all the things which, though they couldn’t yet be proven, could easily be extrapolated from the facts of the case. We spoke excitedly, gesticulating wildly. We felt the muscles in our necks strain against our collars. We worked ourselves into such a frenzy that, once finished, we were almost startled. As if our minds, thousands of miles away and up a mountain, had suddenly come crashing back into the room of reporters—who now were annoyed more than anything. They picked their teeth and looked at their watches. Most of the photographers, tired of holding up their cameras, had set them at their feet. The only audible sounds in the room came from the whir of the ceiling fans, the drone and flicker of the fluorescent lights.
We tried to gain their interest. We tried desperately to keep all the energy in the room moving toward our single goal of impressing upon the press the importance of what was being said. When we finally unveiled our speculative sketch, the room burst into flat-out laughter. The reporters began to leave, shaking their heads in disbelief; some stopped to catcall and accuse us of bad taste. We tried to defend ourselves, but things got a little out of hand. A shouting match ensued, and in the confusion Big Tex was forced to wrestle to the ground a reporter from the Washington Post. Tex split the man’s lip and then proceeded to chase a handful of reporters off into the parking lot.
The whole thing was a disaster. Nothing about Loeka made it to print, and two weeks later there was a picture in Popular Science of Tex flipping off a news van and pounding on its hood with his shoe. It was the first press conference we’d ever brought Laurel to, and the poor kid was pretty shook up. Doc Johnson found her crying underneath the dais, fished her out, and walked her back to the lab with his blazer over her shoulders.
We hung behind, listening to Tex’s mad shouts from the parking lot and Laurel’s sad little yelps from down the hall. We stood in the empty conference room, chairs toppled, notepads abandoned, speculative sketch torn asunder. It was enough to make one lose all hope. The only consoling thought was that we knew none of it was our fault.
In fact, we recognized our earlier efforts to be dispassionate as naive. Science was passion. If we wanted to prove something to be true, we had to act as if it already was. If we wanted to find three hundred uses for the peanut, we had to put the peanut to use. If we were being unreasonable, it was because science was unreasonable. We believed in Loeka. We believed that if we looked hard enough, we could prove what we felt we already knew.
The press conference had steeled our resolve. We set out to make use of every resource, to utilize every piece of evidence, to do whatever it took until our theory was borne out.
We called in an expert in terminal ballistics, a well-groomed man in military dress. He listened to our presentation concerning the Big Man and Loeka attentively, though when it came time for him to examine the x-ray of Loeka’s shoulder, he glanced at it only briefly before tossing it aside. With a smack of his lips, he posited rather glibly that the position of the arrow showed clearly that Loeka had been shot from behind. Furthermore, he said that the angle at which the arrow had entered his shoulder suggested that it had been fired not only from behind him, but from beneath him. Based on this evidence, he said it was far more likely that the Big Man had pursued Loeka up the mountain, shot him, and then moved on.
He was in surprisingly good shape for someone his age, and it took six of us to eject the ballistics expert from the lab.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, one of our own turned on us. Dr. Albergotti, charged with the responsibility of analyzing the leather pouch containing the Big Man’s collection of teeth, claimed to be able to prove with a high degree of certainty that the pouch had first belonged to Loeka, that the leatherwork was in keeping with the type produced in the area surrounding Loeka’s point of origin. He said that this, in conjunction with the report of the ballistics expert, made it far more likely that the Big Man had simply taken the bag of teeth from Loeka after stumbling across him in the wild and murdering him for no apparent reason. He mentioned that in many forms of pagan worship, individuals gathered relics of their dead. He concluded that the fact that the bag contained so many teeth from so many different individuals of the same area and time period actually supported our earlier assumption that Loeka’s village had been in the midst of a drought and possible famine at the time of his departure. When we asked him what a forensic scientist knew about pagan worship, he admitted rather sheepishly that he had Googled it.
Soon after that, some equipment went missing, and we had to let Albergotti go. It was nothing to involve the authorities over: some computer paper, a few staplers, a desk. There was no hard evidence to show that he had taken anything, but it was obvious to everyone that he was a dangerous element. We never did find that desk. After Albergotti was banned from the building, no one looked.
And while it was difficult to push forward, we did just that. We persevered. We worked thirty-two-hour shifts and didn’t complain. We pored over everything again and again—but something was wrong. The harder we looked, the less we found. Elusive, the evidence contracted and folded in on itself. Before our very eyes, it disappeared. We struggled to find the linchpin in our argument, the one thing that would make everything come clear. And just as the fight was most desperate, just as our courage was cresting, just as we saw ourselves about to plummet headfirst into either total failure or the purest discovery, Doc Johnson had a stroke.
It was a terrible thing, not just for him but for the Institute. When we watched him collapse into that tray of beakers, we suddenly felt sapped of all our strength. As he was lying there, groaning on the floor, his lab coat flipped up over his head, we knew it would be his last day at the Institute.
He recovered somewhat. He confined himself to his home, not far from the Institute, where Laurel visited him every day, reading him the paper and keeping him updated on our progress back at the lab. After months of difficult rehabilitation he was talking again and writing. After a while longer, he was walking and promising to be back in the lab again soon. Then he had four more strokes and died.
After that, everything happened at once. Members of the board came to inspect the Institute in the hopes of promoting someone among us to replace Doc Johnson as Director. However, there was some controversy when they found that in Doc Johnson’s absence we had started drinking again—not to mention the fact that when they asked us to produce the Big Man, none of us could find him. After an extensive search, we found him in one of the break rooms, his head wedged behind a microwave. We were fired, of course. Loeka and the Big Man were relocated to a facility at Stanford, and even in light of all her hard work the board decided that Laurel would not receive any college credit for her efforts.
When the photographs were released to the press of the Big Man as he had been found in the break room, along with the photos of us weeping in the parking lot as they took Loeka away, we had our fair share of embarrassment. Also, Dr. Redding from the Stanford program managed to get in a few shots at us on The Charlie Rose Show. But afterward it wasn’t difficult for any one of us to get a job teaching at some community college or working in a commercial lab, which can be pleasant enough. Sure, Dr. Redding would probably have something sharp to say about that, but it’s really not that bad. Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?
Seth Fried’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, One Story, Tin House, and many others. His work has also been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses and The Better of McSweeney’s Volume 2. His debut short story collection, The Great Frustration, will be published in May 2011 by Soft Skull Press.