My uncle Sam is missing. They say he’s dead. I know better.
Sam was my favorite relative. Most people ignore me because I’m in my bed all the time. But Sam always told me I was the best thinker he knew. He said because I didn’t have the distractions of regular kids, I could focus on bigger things. He would bring me books, no matter how advanced mom said they were for a kid my age, and then we’d talk about them on his next visit.
I miss him.
Sam is mom’s little brother, but he stands a head above her. Little doesn’t mean smaller in this case. It means she still treats him like a kid, which is something we have in common. She’d roll her eyes at his stories about all the adventures he’s been on, cluck her tongue when he’d bring me another book. She shut herself in her room and cried all day when they reported him missing from his last dig, something she didn’t even do when dad left her. I think she really loved Sam too, she’s just not good at showing emotions. Sam said that. Like when she’d get mad and yell at me, Sam said she was really worried and sad. Said she was afraid I’d leave her someday like dad did. I don’t know why she’d be afraid. I can’t get out of bed.
I’m still reading the book Sam left with me. It’s not too thick, but it uses a lot of words I don’t know. Some of them aren’t even in the dictionary. Some are words that haven’t been used in a long time, like “squamous” or “rugose.” Sam says the best words are ones that have been forgotten, because using a word too much wears it out. He says the most powerful words are the ones that have hardly been used at all.
Sam is an archaeologist, a word that got me double points on my last spelling test. He knows a lot about lost, secret things. He says being an archaeologist is like having a map of how the world used to be. He showed me once, on a map, how this whole state used to be underwater. We were under the ocean, he said, and that’s why there are no dinosaur fossils here like there are at grandpa Wayne’s place up in Colorado. Maybe we’d find some shells at the very most, but that’s about it. That’s why this newest dig was so important. They said he’d found the skeleton of something big, something that shouldn’t be there.
Mom didn’t like when he talked about fossils, because he talked about them like they were still alive. She said all those prehistoric monsters would give me nightmares. She was wrong, they only gave me dreams. I dream our house is underwater, that giant trilobites and nautiloids swim through our rooms. Sometimes the shadow of something big passes overhead, but I can never make out a shape in the dim light. I imagine that’s the skeleton Sam was looking for.
Sam said there are no impossible things. There is only what you see and feel with your eyes and hands. I miss him.
Sam’s dig was in the middle of the desert. The crew said they last saw him after lunch, looking out to the dunes and sipping water. He’d become really thirsty lately, and wasn’t sleeping too good. The bags under his eyes were almost as big as mine. He wasn’t doing too great. On his last visit he rolled up his pant leg and showed me a big, jagged cut on his ankle. He joked that’s where a sand-shark bit him and laughed. Mom scolded him for trying to scare me. But I knew he wasn’t. He always said something about how some things never really die…no, I’m getting that wrong. Anyway, that night I dreamed of sand-sharks, and lots of other things. I dreamed the fossil sea was still a sea, with everything moving and crawling and squirming around inside it. The waves were sand that lapped up against the rocks, and all the trilobites and nautiloids and everything else that had turned to stone lived beneath them. And something big swimming across it all, leaving a wake of sand that stood up high as the foothills…
That was when I woke up. My sheets were soaked with sweat.
Sam couldn’t get over the fossil. On the imaging software, he said the shape made no sense. It had bilateral symmetry, but the head was cephalopodal. Mom just nodded along. I don’t think she knew what those words meant. But I do. It had a squid-head on the body of something else. And nothing in all my nature books look like that.
That night Sam sat on my bed and we talked about things that swam in the prehistoric sea and I could tell something was really bothering him. I told him he could tell me, because no one listened to me anyway so I wouldn’t blab. He laughed. He told me I was the best student he’s ever had, and he almost wished he could take me to the dig. I asked him if he found a new species, would he name it after me? He looked haunted. He said it probably already has a name, it just hasn’t been used in a long time. I asked if words could go extinct too. This surprised him. He asked if I’d been reading my book. I said I’ve been trying. He smiled, and ruffled my hair. My reading lamp made the bags under his eyes look black. He said he thought words could go extinct, yes, but he thought certain words made fossils because they were too powerful to just die. And perhaps someone could excavate them and rebuild them, just like restructuring a fossil. I asked him how he found a fossil in a place he always said they couldn’t be. He just smiled and said he’d have the answer for me next time, then he kissed the top of my head and turned off my reading lamp.
Only there was no next time.
The rest of the archaeologists finished the dig. They never found what they saw on the imaging equipment. Instead they found a shelf of crinoid skeletons, which are plant-like animals and common as garden snails. They say that’s all it ever really was, the thing they saw was just a software error, but I know better. They say the knowledge that his great find wasn’t real broke Sam, but I know better. They say the mark on the upper left side of the fossil plate is just a coincidental shape, but I know better.
It’s a sneaker print. Right foot, size thirteen. The kind Sam wore.
Sam used to quote the book I’m reading now. It’s the quote that got him into archaeology in the first place. It says:
That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
I believe it. I miss Sam. I miss him so much it hurts sometimes. But I know he’s not coming back. I know it like I know the fossil plate they dug up wasn’t empty, the thing in it just swam off through the waves of sand and all the stone trilobites and nautiloids and crinoids. I don’t know exactly what it was, maybe I’ll never know, but I know what it took with it when it left.
My uncle Sam is missing. They say he’s dead. I know better.