Melissa heard stones skittering on the path below her. She straightened up, sweeping an arm across her face to wipe away her sweat. Lindsey, one of the first year grad students, was walking up the path toward her.
Melissa set down her trowel, arching her back to release the inevitable stiffness from kneeling in one position too long.
When Lindsey got close, the young graduate student asked, “Doctor Greenwood, is there something else I can do? I’m bored.”
Melissa winced at the whiny tone of Lindsey’s complaint. Reminding herself to be more positive, Melissa tried to pretend her grimace was due to squinting against the noon sun. She attempted a reassuring smile and said, “First Lindsey, call me Melissa. I was serious when you first-years arrived yesterday: we’re not formal at this dig.”
Lindsey nodded, but her annoyed expression remained.
With a sigh, Melissa gave up on being positive. “Archeology can be hard, especially fieldwork. What is it that you don’t like?”
“Well, it’s just that I’ve been digging all day with this little trowel, and I haven’t found anything.”
Melissa sat back a little on her heels, looking up at Lindsey and considering. Gesturing at her trowel, Melissa said. “Me too. I’ve been here since the dry season started about two months ago – haven’t found much.”
“But you excavated that whole tomb last year.”
Melissa nodded thoughtfully. “If you’re very, very lucky, something like that happens once or twice in a career, but it takes a lot of time with a trowel before that sort of lightning strikes.”
Lindsey looked crestfallen, “Oh.”
Melissa waited a bit, then added, “I was here for three years, slowly digging and mapping before I found the tomb.”
“Do you think you’ll find another one this summer?”
“Remember Lindsey; I said ‘once or twice in a career.’ So no, not another one this year. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Well, when can I help work on the excavation of the tomb you found last year?”
“That’s for the upper-year grad students. Doing that sort of work takes a couple years of experience, which means this year and next, you’ll be gaining that experience.”
“Well, that sucks!”
Melissa’s frustration finally gained the upper hand, and she said, “Tell you what Lindsey, you can go back to your dig spot and start gaining that experience, or you can go back to your tent and pack up. Zerezghi should be here later today. He can take you back to the airport tomorrow.”
Lindsey glared at her, then stomped away. Melissa shook her head sadly, feeling simultaneously amazed and amused by the sense of entitlement radiating from the young woman.
With a sigh, Melissa started to reach down to pick up her trowel, but the thin wail of an infant interrupted her. With a grunt, she stood up and looked downslope toward the camp, listening for another cry, so she’d know who’s baby it was. While she waited, however, she felt her milk letting down in her breasts. Chuckling quietly to herself, she realized that her body had already decided it was Daniel. With a shrug, she started downslope.
When she pulled the mosquito netting apart to step into the tent, she saw Nattie standing with Daniel on one hip and Ammanuel, her infant, on her other hip. As soon as Daniel saw Melissa, he spat out his pacifier and threw himself forward, reaching out with both arms. Nattie kept a firm hand on the squirming infant, not the least bit surprised by his vigorous response.
“All right, all right,” Melissa laughed, unbuttoning her sweaty shirt and unsnapping her nursing bra on one side. “You’re growing too damn fast.”
Nattie handed her Daniel, saying, “He be a big man, like his papa.”
Melissa laughed again as she took the squirming infant in her arms and guided him to her nipple. “He’s growing fast, for sure.” Daniel latched on and settled down into steady suckling.
Melissa walked back out of the tent and settled into her favorite camp chair, in the shade of a Cotton Tree. She hummed a nursery song, trying not to worry about the batch of first-year students that had just arrived. Already, two of them looked as though they were completely useless.
Nattie's husband, Abraham, interrupted her musing by walking up to announce, “Zerezghi call on the SatPhone. They just clear Wakena Pass. Be here, couple of hours.”
Melissa smiled in relief, looking across the rift valley to where the pass cut through the undulating ridge line. It was too far for her to see the Land Rover working its way down the dirt trail from the pass, but she wanted to imagine that she saw a small dust cloud. “Thank you, Abraham.”
“No problem, boss lady.”
* * *
Daniel was solidly back to sleep by the time Melissa heard the Land Rover’s engine growling up the wadi. She stepped out of the tent, shielding the afternoon sun from her eyes with her hand. The Land Rover bounced along the track, before braking to a stop in the clearing where Melissa waited. Its rear passenger door flew open. A blur of an eight year-old girl shot across the intervening space and launched herself into Melissa’s open arms. “Mommieee!”
With an audible grunt, Melissa absorbed the impact. “Hey Little Stuff, you’re getting kind of big for that now.”
“I missed you sooo much mommy.” Tears were now flowing from her daughter, who was clamped tight around her.
“I missed you too, Kimmy.” Melissa looked up to see Erik coming around from the far side of the Land Rover, with his hand resting on the shoulder of an eleven-year-old boy who was teetering between childhood and the promise of the man he would become.
Melissa reached out, “Jacob.”
The boy hesitated a moment longer, then ran to hug her as fiercely as his sister. Erik stood back, hands on his hips, with an amused smile. “They missed you.”
Melissa nodded, feeling tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “I can tell.”
* * *
The heat of the day was dying away as Melissa ledKim and Jacob back to the camp, after showing them how the excavations had progressed since the previous summer. Erik was sitting on a blanket and playing with Daniel under the Cotton Tree. Kim ran over to excitedly tell her father about all the new work.
Melissa and Jacob joined them, sitting down on the blanket. When Kim paused for a breath, Melissa interrupted, “Slow down Kimmy. Nobody’s told me anything about how things were at home while I was gone. How did school finish up?
“Fine,” they both answered.
Melissa looked over to Erik. He said, “No problems. They both did well. Jake will be in the advanced track again next year. It sounds like Kim’s going to be in the accelerated math section for fifth grade.”
Melissa looked back to her children, “So what did you do for fun?”
Kim burst out, “Auntie Serena came for a week with Brian. He and Jake played video games the whole time.”
“Not the whole time,” Jacob retorted.
Melissa cocked her head at Erik. He laughed, saying, “Most of the time.”
Kim burst out again, “And Auntie Serena stayed in a guest room this time, not in your room with daddy, like she usually does when you’re home mommy. I asked daddy why, but he said I should ask you.”
Melissa looked up from her daughter’s penetrating stare to see Erik trying to hide a grin. “Dad did, did he? Well, I guess it’s because Auntie Serena is such a special friend of both daddy and me. It probably didn’t seem the same because I wasn’t there. I’m sure when school begins and I’m back home, Auntie Serena will visit again, and this time, she’ll stay in our room, back to normal.”
* * *
In the evening twilight, Melissa and Erik walked hand in hand away from the main camp toward the separate tent that Abraham and Zerezghi had set up for them further down the wadi.
Glancing back at the main camp, Melissa said quietly, “Kimmy and Jacob barely made it through dinner.”
“You know what it’s like. It was two days of flying and driving to get here.”
“Yeah. By the way, thanks for no warning about Kim wanting to know why Serena stayed in a guest room. I can’t believe you ducked that one, so Kimmy could drop it on me!”
“Ah, it seemed like a mother-daughter thing. Besides, to tell you the truth, I’d forgotten she asked.”
“I guess I must have been hoping she’d forget.”
“Kim, forget something? Ha! So, what’d Jacob say about Serena’s sleeping arrangements?”
“Nothing. You know him. He’s pretty quiet. And he was having a lot of fun playing with Brian. You know how the two of them hang out on-line all the time. They really love being together. It’s too bad Brian doesn’t go to the same school as Jake.”
“Yeah, I tried to talk Serena into coming over here with Brian this summer, but she’s so busy with her new store… guest room, huh? Do you mean to tell me that the two of you didn’t find some quiet time?”
Erik chuckled, “Well, she did slip down to my room a couple of nights.”
Melissa snorted, “Only a couple of nights? Maybe you’re getting old.”
“Old!” Erik stopped, taking her hands in his. “Remember Dr. Greenwood; you’re going to be forty this year, and we made a pact that we would get old, fat, and grey together.”
“Well, I might be turning forty, but you’ll be forty-five. That’s feeble and ancient for certain.” She shook her and said with mock concern, “I don’t know dear, after such a hard journey getting here, maybe I should just let you go to sleep tonight – no hanky-panky.”
He asked sternly, “Feeble? You’re calling me feeble? It sounds as though you must be seriously in need of a spanking.”
She nodded ‘yes’ back at him vigorously, then whispered helpfully, “And probably a good whipping too.” They both laughed.
When they reached the entrance to her tent, she pulled back the mosquito netting and led him inside. The interior was large and open, with two sturdy tent poles near the center. Soft, thick rope dangled from each tent pole. At the bottom of each pole was tied another short length of the same type of rope.
She walked to stand between the poles. With her arms outstretched, she could just reach the ropes that were hanging down.
Erik smiled. “I see you’re well prepared.”
“It’s been months. You have no idea how much I missed you.”
“Me too.” Erik walked slowly around her in a circle, watching as she undressed. He paused by a camp table that she used as a desk, spotting a Roman short sword being used to hold down a sheaf of maps. Leaning over to admire the sword, he said, “This blade is in amazing shape. Doesn’t something like this belong in a museum?”
Melissa stuck out her tongue at him, “I’ll have you know that I uncovered that artifact on my own time, during that scouting trip to Barbalissos, so it wasn’t part of any grant funding. As far as I’m concerned, that means finders, keepers.”
Erik smiled, straightening up. “And the Syrian authorities didn’t say anything about your little souvenir when you left?”
She shrugged, stepping out of her pants. “Their government’s still a mess. Besides, you’re the one who wanted to marry Lara Croft. And I’ll remind you; you’re also the one who got me into sword fighting. So it’s all really your fault, despite your prissy concern for petty export rules… uh, Master, sir.”
“My, my, let my slave go off on her own for a couple of months, and she completely forgets her place.”
Melissa, now completely naked, kicked her clothes aside. With a sly grin, she reached out to the ropes hanging from the tent poles on either side. She rotated her hands in a practiced circle, catching the ropes hanging from each pole and winding a loop around her wrists. “Your slave girl is so grateful for her Master’s return.”
Erik sighed, taking in her beauty and turning serious. “I do love you so much. I am amazed every day that I have you in my life.” He stepped forward her to wrap his arms around her.
“Uh-uhn,” Melissa said, backing away and shaking her head firmly ‘no.’ “You’ve got to whip me first and fuck me up the ass. We’ll get to the gushy lovey-dovey stuff later.”
Erik laughed, “Alright, alright.” He looked around for her floggers and whips. Instead, his eyes stopped on a weather-worn woman’s purse hanging from a tent strap. In the dim light, he could barely make out the tapestry patterns of children playing soccer in the fabric sides.
Melissa looked back over her shoulder at him, seeing him gently stroked the worn fabric. He carefully unsnapped the purse’s latch and reached in, then lifted a red ball gag halfway out.
Erik cleared his throat, paused, then cleared it again. Melissa’s face softened. She knew he was pushing back tears.
Quietly, she said, “You know I’ve kept it all these years.”
He nodded, “It was my wedding present to you.”
“I even took it to Kimmy’s games, that year she played soccer.”
He smiled, eyes closed. More lightheartedly, he protested, “I’ll remind you that I wound up taking her to every practice and most of the games.”
“Not fair. I had a heavy teaching load that semester.”
He nodded again, sliding the ball gag back into the purse, a tear escaping the corner of one eye. “I really missed you this time. Mel, I love you so much.”
She let go of the ropes and walked over to him, putting her arms around him. “I love you so very much too.”