The sun rose as he set off for the site. His students would already be there.
He was going to get the award for practising pseudoscience, for sticking to his dogmatic principles. It was blind faith that had precluded his turnaround. The molecular biologists with their DNA hybridisation tests had been proven wrong, and he was the only one who had resisted accepting their results. Now they were going to reward him for his intransigence. The awards ceremony was this evening. He anticipated looking smugly into everyone’s face as he accepted the cheque.
As he pulled into the makeshift car park at the dig site, he watched Kavanagh striding towards him, a toothbrush in his hand. They’d be able to get real tools once he won the award.
“We just found another shoulder blade,” Kavanagh beamed as he rolled down the window. “It corroborates everything you’ve been saying.”
“Where’s Catalina?” he asked.
It was Catalina who had phoned him and said: “You be’er come out and see dis.”
“Gone AWOL. She started getting some notions and wandered off. I think she’s gone back up to Site A.”
“On her own?”
He reversed out of the car park. Dirt was torn up as the car shot forwards. Three minutes later, he was at Site A, parking the car again. His most promising student was crouched over a bone, in nothing but her bra and shorts, even though the dawn heat didn’t yet demand bare skin.
She stood and ran to get her blouse a few meters away.
“Abert your ice!” she shouted at him, pulling her shirt on.
He waited in the car and got out when she had dressed.
“This better be good, Cata.”
They both moved towards the bone she had been stooping over.
“Eet ees bad, Doctor Jims. Berry, berry bad.”
Looking at the bone, he didn’t spot anything wrong at first.
“What is it?”
“Eet ees deh proximal phalanx of a tum.” She looked at him to see if he agreed.
“A what?” he asked, moving nearer the bone now, squinting.
“A th-umb,” she said, pronouncing the word carefully. “A tird deegeet on deh left fleepper…I tink…bud I am nod so sure.”
“No,” he said, “You’re right.”
The blood drained from his face.
“I am so sorry, Doctor Jims.”
“Have you told the others?”
“No. Just you.”
Years of research and digs wasted.
“So they’re not related to artiodactyls after all.” He walked the twenty meters to the edge of the cliff and peered over the side, contemplating throwing himself off it. “Maybe we should keep quiet about it till tomorrow.” She joined him a moment later and looked at him and shrugged in that frivolous way she had. He put his arms around her waist and kissed her slowly. She pulled away from his lips to catch her breath and as he kissed her neck she said:
“Oh Doctor Jims.”
He looked into her eyes.
He pushed her off the edge.
It wasn’t the shirt he had tried in the shop. It just about reached his trousers but the cummerbund hid everything. The collar was very tight around his neck. He stood before the full length mirror as Myra adjusted his bow tie.
“You’re as handsome as the day I married you,” she said. “Don’t let the tragedy spoil this evening, James.”
They left the house in the limo provided by the academy. Myra poured a flute of champagne and passed it to him but he refused.
“Too early in the evening, Myra. It’s inappropriate to celebrate.” He glared as she quietly opened the window and poured the champagne onto the road.
Half a million. He’d wrap up the dig after winning. Nobody would ever find out that the accident was anything but, or that he had been studying an evolutionary cul-de-sac for the last ten years, something no longer relevant. He’d move on to other research. He didn’t want to spend his days working on lies. The molecular specialists had been right all along but nobody would ever know.
The dinner was a choice of chicken or lamb with a vegetarian option. He had the lamb. It was succulent and tender. The mushroom sauce it was smothered in was delicious. But he couldn’t enjoy the meal; colleagues kept coming up to him to express their sympathy. Catalina’s brother had come from upstate to fly the body back to Lima, and the academy, in their wisdom, had invited him to the ceremony when he had arrived on campus. Her brother told him, with tears in his eyes as he took his hand tightly, that Cata had had great respect for the doctor. He had been a fine mentor. The doctor thanked him awkwardly for his kind words and told him that Catalina had been his most promising student.
The announcement came after the meal.
“For his lifetime’s work in the field of paleobiology…” began the MC, the chancellor of the university.
Myra took his hand as they watched from their table, then she looked into his eyes proudly and smiled. “…but mainly just for sticking to his guns…” There was laughter and she squeezed his hand. “…the Michael T Noakes Award for Excellence in Science goes to…” His heart leapt and he reached for his throat and unbuttoned his collar. “…Professor David Rhodes.” There was a ripple of surprise as across the room Professor Rhodes stood.
The doctor’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He answered it. It was a good way of hiding his disappointment.
“Hi Doc,” Kavanagh said, “You’re not going to believe this. The rain has uncovered a whole flipper and I have some terrible news.”
He went outside to hear the rest in the evening heat. He was still standing outside an hour later when the police car arrived, just as the sun went down.
“All Thumbs” made the top eleven (an Honorable Mention) out of 518 entries in the Reading Writers Once Upon a Day Contest