After growing up in Texas, Curtis James McConnell visited all fifty states and ventured into Mexico and Canada. “Bare Bones” is his first successful submission to OTP after years of trying. He is the recipient of the largest single grant bestowed by the Charles L. Lewis Endowment for the Arts, which he used to complete his forthcoming noir novel, Cherchez la Femme.
by Curtis James McConnell
I had been with the skull eleven days when Jenkins walked in at five minutes to eight. He had been on vacation. I hoped he had enjoyed it. He sure as hell wasn’t going to enjoy what I was about to show him.
“Hey, chief, whacha got there?” Jenkins piped. Ignorance is bliss. He poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Two-million-year-old skull,” I informed him dully.
Jenkins made a face and a sound like he was bringing up a hairball. “Well I hope it’s the guy who made this coffee. If so, justice has been done.” He poured it out. I said nothing as he got a fresh pot going. Then he strolled over and looked at the skull.
“Nice skull. Sulphur overdose? Where’s the one you called me about?”
“This is it.” I wouldn’t look at him.
“No, I mean the one Josiah sent us. What’s up?”
I stared into the skull’s eyesockets. Here it comes, I thought. I tried to keep my tone even. “This is the skull Josiah sent us.”
Jenkins still didn’t get it. “I thought he sent us one as old as—”
“He did,” I said.
“Right. So where is it?”
I took a breath. “This Homo sapiens skull, Dr. Jenkins, is, as near as I can determine, two million years old. Give or take ten percent.” I waited.
“Pull the other leg,” Jenkins said blithely, “it rings.” I continued to wait. He stopped. Something in the tone of my silence got through to him. “That’s impossible,” Jenkins said, as the first dark glimmer of what we were in for washed over him in a distasteful bath. He said again, “That’s impossible.”
“I know,” I said.
Jenkins came over and looked at the skull. I noticed he didn’t pick it up. He dismissed the matter, just as I had eleven days ago. “It’s too developed to be that old.”
Jenkins paused. He looked at the skull. I could almost see him counting the years. Every bit of training from high school geology to his time at this institute denied what was before him. “That’s impossible,” he said with less conviction.
I was barely audible. “I know.”
Jenkins broke his gaze from the skull and looked at me. “Man oh man. Have you been up all night with this thing?”
“Mostly. Since it came, really. Eleven days,” I said, rubbing my eyes. I got off the stool and stretched. “I caught little naps. It stared at me with that implacable grin, even in my dreams.”
We looked at it. It scornfully defied us with that brain cavity as big as our own, leering at us with those tiny teeth in that impossibly evolved jaw.
The coffee boiled over. I strolled over and turned it off. Jenkins wouldn’t need any. He was awake now. I casually wiped up the spill with a paper towel as he looked over the computer printouts of the carbon dating runs I had verified four times. He flipped the sheet away with a loud rattle. He didn’t even look at the chemical dating reports. He knew what they said. He bit his lip and thought a moment.
He tried again. “So it’s wrong. Some weird soil composition leeched the carbon out at an advanced rate of decay, making this skull seem two million years older than it is. This is probably Jimmy Hoffa’s skull.”
I showed him Josiah Thibert’s letter. As he skimmed it, I told him what was in it, more to hear myself—anyone—speaking. Anything to drown out the scornful laughter echoing down time’s misty, dank corridors.
“It was found in a pit with other skulls of the same age, below the flood strata, a pit in a dig with fossils around it all consistent with the era. All the other skulls were as undeveloped as the time frame suggests. Barely Homo erectus. Low ape-like foreheads, large gorilla-like jaws, fangs and diminished brain pans; presumably undeveloped cortices. All except our friend here.” The skull grinned, as if with pride.
Jenkins pursed his lips. He started to say something a few times, then went back to the pursed lips. Finally, he got it.
“That’s im—what you’re saying is, two million years ago, we had a fully developed Homo sapiens running around with a bunch of monkeyish Homo erecti.”
“That’s about the size of it. Unless Josiah is playing a huge prank on us. Not a common practice for a Nobel laureate who didn’t want to hire you because your tie was too loud.”
Jenkins paused. “Two million years… a brain…” It wouldn’t catch in his head. “That’s impossible.”
“You keep saying that,” I pointed out.
“I know,” he fretted.
I poured a glass of water. I sipped.
“The last time evolution got knocked on its ass this hard was Piltdown Man. And that took how many years before the hoax was revealed?”
I took another sip, telling myself to let him talk it out, let him get to it on his own.
He walked over to a chart, with a timeline and evolution down the various branches of the human family tree. “Evolution isn’t steady, we know that. Plateaus and spurts. Couple of gaps here and there, a missing link or two.”
He looked at the chart, as if willing it to come to life and agree with him.
He turned to me. “But until now, they’ve all had the courtesy to wait their turn in line. No one skipped to the front of the line two million years early.”
I waited. He was almost there. I wasn’t gonna do it for him. Not the first leap. Once he took the first one, I’d hit him with the second one, and that would make it all easier. He and I had to be on the same page for me to do it.
“What we have here—if this is really real, we have positive disproof of evolution.”
I smacked my lips. “Yup. Either that or we have proof of time travel,” I added with casual mischief. I shrugged, but this was just a curve ball for Jenkins.
“I mean—or time travel, yes. Aw, man.” He confronted the enormity. “Man oh man. Either way, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
The skull leered smugly.
Jenkins began pacing. “Well thanks a lot. Great. Freaking great. So what do we do? If we publish this, we’ll be lucky if all they do is laugh at us.”
I smiled and pointed at the poster above the coffee pot. It showed a picture of Galileo appearing before a Papal Tribunal. “Every idea that turns out to be true goes through three stages to acceptance. First it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, then it is accepted as having always been true.”
Jenkins just shook his head. His words were quiet, at first. “We can’t break this. We can’t be the ones to break this. We’ll become saints, heretics, mad prophets. Josiah just mailed us the coup of the century.” He stopped.
I looked up.
“I don’t want that,” he said.
I turned away.
“I didn’t sign on for that kind of glory ride. I don’t want to be a heretic,” he continued. “I don’t want to be a heretic, I don’t want to be a mystic, and I sure as hell don’t want to be a saint.” He looked at the skull. “Do you hear me?” he asked me.
“Do you hear me?” he asked it. He broke contact with the skull and came over to me. “And why was it just a pit of skulls? That’s too weird. This guy and his buddies must’ve had bodies under those skulls. Where’d they go?”
“Josiah doesn’t know anything about this society or its burial rituals. We just discovered it three months ago.” He looked at me, demanding more evidence. All he got was, “Africa’s a big continent.”
I took a conciliatory tone. “There’re probably hundreds of unknown proto-cultures within two hundred miles of this dig. If the civil war breaks out again we might even lose the other skulls.”
Jenkins threw his arms up. “And boy, how convenient for our hoax, the papers’ll say. Great.”
“I know,” I said.
“We have to do something,” Jenkins said.
“And what do you suggest?”
“Let’s send it somewhere else. We’ll have to let others examine it anyway. Let them break it.” He looked at the skull.
I spoke what he was thinking anyway. “That’s what Josiah did.”
Jenkins pursed his lips. “Yeah. Okay. And?”
I pursed my lips right back at him. I looked at the incredibly dark and deep sockets of the skull. If it had had eyebrows, they would have been raised.
“And so we’ll try not to be tormented too much after today,” I said, as I brought a hammer down on it.
The skull seemed to be smiling.
Copyright 2014 by Curtis James McConnell