Here is Chapter Three…
The next morning, Ambigo awoke to the sound of hushed voices saying his name. They had all collapsed on the cots on the Medical floor with stomachs uncomfortably full the night before. He kept his eyes closed and his body still while he listened. Tad was speaking in a low voice with Father Garcia, “…but his name is Ambigo Thomas.” Father Garcia chuckled, “I know. His parents must have thought that was funny.”
“You can’t deny the significance. It’s another reason I think we should abort this mission.”
“Father Judean, you know the physics of this. I see no reason to abort.”
“I know who he is. I know who I am. Do you know who you are, Father Garcia?”
Despite the whispers, Ambigo heard every word. He heard Tad leave the room, but he stayed still until he heard Father Garcia leave. He opened his eyes to find Jaime looking at him from the bunk next to his. “So, who ARE you?” Ambigo pretended to be half-awake and didn’t respond, but Jaime’s unblinking eyes stayed on him, “Don’t bull shit me. I know you heard them. I don’t know how much you heard, but I could tell you were awake, so don’t give me any crap. Who are you?”
Ambigo stopped pretending that he didn’t hear the conversation, “I don’t know, Jaime. I’m a doctor. I’m a medical researcher. I’m on the emergency medical task force. I know you really believe in this whole thing, but I’m an atheist. I hope that doesn’t get in the way of things. Father Garcia didn’t seem to mind…” Ambigo didn’t know what else to say. He wasn’t a father. He wasn’t a husband. Since his parents had died, he wasn’t even a son anymore. Jaime looked him over, squinting, “So what did Tad mean?” Ambigo shrugged.
Jaime squinted at Ambigo, who tried to hold his gaze. It was like one of those childhood games and Ambigo feared that he would get a slug to the arm if he blinked, but he couldn’t hold his eyes open longer than Jaime. “Listen, you guys asked me to come here. When Father Garcia said that I might not be right for the job, all of you screamed your heads off in my defense.” Jaime looked away, “We were hoping you would be better than Dr. Baker.” Within a second, Jaime was face to face with Ambigo, grabbing him by the collar. His voice came out in a forced whisper, “Don’t fuck with this! If you get in the way of this mission, I will personally rip out every tooth in your fucking head and strand you in the past. Do you understand me?”
Ambigo had been brought to his feet by Jaime. The veins in the thin, young man’s arms bulged and Ambigo could see the tiny mechanisms between his eyelashes. He chided himself, “Don’t hit him. His machinery is far too important to destroy over a little fight.” “The only reason I’m not pummeling you into the ground right now is because your eyes are worth too much. I’ll just remember that threat when you need an adjustment.” Jaime’s face instantly changed from fury to terror. His bulging arm released Ambigo immediately and pushed him away.
Ambigo continued, “Like it or not, I’m going. I have no idea what Tad was talking about. But I promise you,” Ambigo reached up and put a hand on Jaime’s shoulder, “I give you my word that I won’t fuck this up.” Jaime jerked his shoulder away from Ambigo, “I’m watching you. If we fail, every second of every thing that you did will be right here in my body. They will beam me back, review the footage and find out what you did.” Ambigo had no doubts about the threats Jaime hurled at him, “Feel free to watch me, but it looks like it’s Tad that doesn’t want this mission to take place, not me.”
Ambigo left Jaime fuming in the room full of cots. He walked to the showers and let the hot water cover him. If this was going to be his last real shower in five years, he was going to enjoy it. He soaped up his hair and let the suds sting his eyes. After staring at Jaime’s unblinking eyes, he was grateful for the pain. “Who am I? That’s a good question.,” he thought to himself.
By the time he was out of the shower, he only had five minutes to get to the physics lab. They had told him last night not to eat anything after midnight, which explained the gorging of all the team members the night before. Daniel Baker not only had failed to mention the celebration dinner, he also forgot to tell him not to eat later than midnight. Luckily, Madi had mentioned it during the meal and Ambigo watched his tongue to prevent another round of Baker bashing.
He showed up to the high ceilings and unfamiliar machinery of the physics lab. Dr. Baker was there, looking refreshed from his shower and night’s sleep, “Dr. Thomas.” At the greeting, Ambigo felt the fear swell up in his chest. Here he was. He was going over two thousand years into the past. There was no turning back because he saw the look in Dr. Baker’s eyes. It was a strange mixture of envy and relief and it made an angry knot of fear fill Ambigo’s gut. “Dr. Baker.” Nothing more was said between them.
Jaime, half-dressed, scrambled over to Ambigo, “Listen, the rest of us know, but we forgot to tell you. Madi has some scars on her body. We have to do this thing naked, so don’t stare at her, ok?” The ire and fury of the previous hour was abandoned in an effort to spare Madi’s feelings. Ambigo consoled him, “I know, she showed them to me.” Jaime’s eye’s widened, but he immediately remembered to squint, “All of them?” Ambigo crinkled his brow, “No. just her left arm, but I noticed some scaring on her neck just below the collar line.” Jaime turned and noticed Madi coming into the large room, “Just don’t stare, ok?” Ambigo nodded.
Nameless technicians started to undress Ambigo and he came to the full realization of what this trip was going to entail. The true meaning of the phrase, “we can’t take anything with us” finally sunk in. They would arrive in ancient Israel, stark naked without food, money, medicines or equipment. He clung to his last pair of clean briefs, refusing to allow the technician to remove them. The other technician wrapped him in a fluffy white robe, “Please remove your undergarment.” Within the security of the robe, Ambigo pulled down his briefs. The other technician collected and folded them neatly with the rest of his clothing.
Simon approached Ambigo, wearing an identical robe, “They gave me laser surgery to correct my vision because I wouldn’t be able to bring my glasses. I should have had it done years ago.” Ambigo ran his hands along the sleeves of the robe, “This is nice. Better than the Ritz-Carlton.” Simon chuckled, “Don’t get used to it. Tad will have to do some sweet talking to get us some clothes when we get there.” Ambigo looked at his briefs folded neatly with the rest of his clothing. Simon quickly pulled him aside, “I’m told that Madi has some scars on her body. They say it’s pretty horrific, so don’t stare.” Ambigo patted his forearm, “I’m a doctor. Scars don’t scare me. Scars mean you survived. Scars mean you’re alive.”
He was led by the technicians toward the huge machine toward the back of the physics lab. Tad was already there, waiting. “Listen, Ambigo, I need to talk to you.” Ambigo nodded, “I know, Madi has some scars. Don’t stare.” Tad looked at Madi behind the cover of her bathrobe, “Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you that. No, I need to tell you that it’s not too late to decide to leave the mission. I truly believe we’re all going to make it back alright, but I understand if you might have some reservations.” Ambigo put his arm around Tad’s wiry body and pulled him close to his face. He whispered in his ear, “I’m not going to fuck this thing up. You hear me? And I have it on good authority that there’s someone who will rip out the teeth of anyone who does, you got that?” Ambigo looked Tad straight in the eyes and they held the gaze. This time, Ambigo won the staring contest and Father Judean lowered his eyes.
The technicians brought them each to the platform, standing them in a circle with their backs toward the middle. Each traveler was assigned a technician. Father Garcia was the last to arrive on the platform and the circle was complete. Ambigo’s technician approached him and asked for his robe. He reluctantly removed it. His final vestige of the present, he was ready to arrive in the past, buck naked. He looked at the technicians on either side of him. They walked away from his team members with their robes held open, ready to welcome them back. The last thing he saw was the warm, fluffy whiteness of the velour of his own robe.
The trip felt like the kind of dream that seems to last an eternity, but only takes five minutes when you check the clock. Ambigo felt as if he could see his entire lifetime within a blink of an eye and the entire history of the modern world in the time it took to breathe. It was a mind-numbing rush of activity and events and life and death that sped past him so quickly that he felt like he had ridden a thousand roller coasters and eaten a thousand hot dogs. When the blink of the eye was over, Ambigo vomited the remains of last night’s feast all over the desert floor.
“Oh dear God, they tried to warn us about this, but they were right. There’s no describing it!” Tad had also vomited. Ambigo looked to his right and Simon was on the ground, clutching his stomach. Father Garcia spoke, “Simon, are you ok?” Simon hopped to his feet, green with nausea, “Yes, sir.” It was as if an ancient training had kicked in and Simon was standing, ready for command, naked as the day he was born. Father Garcia put his hand on Simon’s shoulder, “Well, you look sick. If you need to throw up, go right ahead.” Only Ambigo and Tad had vomited, but the rest of the team looked sick. The nausea subsided quickly, Ambigo noticed. Simon still stood at attention, trying to shake off the dizziness.
“Stare much, Tad.” Madi’s voice was sarcastic and Tad stood up from his hunched position and moved away from his pool of vomit. “I wasn’t staring. I was looking for some houses or something…” Ambigo had forgotten about Madi and her scarred flesh. The moment she scolded Tad, Ambigo felt the morbid curiosity wash over him. He kept his eyes away from her and told himself, “They are just scars. I’ve seen hundreds of scars.”
The night air was cool and the setting had the feeling of a men’s urinal. All eyes were averted from each other and the landscape was scanned for signs of civilization. Tad patted Simon on the shoulder, “There’s a building in the distance. Maybe we should head over there.” Without a word, Simon followed Tad toward the building. Father Garcia signaled to Ambigo to stay with the rest of the team and allow the two men to go alone.
With nothing to occupy his time, Ambigo felt vulnerable and exposed. When he was fighting the nausea, he was distracted, but now, as he watched Tad and Simon slowly approach the house, he was suddenly aware of his nudity. He faced away from the other three members of the team. He didn’t feel like he could sit down on the rocks and scratchy underbrush and he felt uncomfortable standing. He fidgeted awkwardly and hoped that none of the others were looking at him.
“Stop looking at me.” Madi’s voice was calm, but forceful. Ambigo stopped himself from peeking at the offender. Jaime apologized, “Sorry, Madi… I just… It’s just…” Father Garcia spoke, “Waiting is harder than it appears, isn’t it, Jaime?” Jaime made some noise in agreement and the painful job of not looking and not sitting continued. Ambigo’s bare feet were poked and prodded by the stones underneath them. He thought that he would break the silence, “Sorry I puked. Maybe we should move away from it so that we don’t have to smell it.”
The others mumbled in agreement and they started to move closer to the building, but they could see Simon and Tad returning, so they headed toward them. “Any luck?” Father Garcia queried. Simon shook his head, obviously free from the nausea. Tad spoke, “He was some sort of priest and from what I gathered, he was worried about the scandal of accepting us into his house.” Father Garcia shook his head, “Did he have any ideas where we could go?” Tad forehead crinkled, “Nope, but there is another house beyond that building.” Let’s head that way and you guys can wait while we talk to them.” Simon spoke, “We should keep Madi in the middle of the group to protect her.”
They carefully walked along a faint trail and soon came upon another outcropping of two houses. Tad and Simon headed toward the closest one while the rest of the team waited, guarding Madi. “Father Garcia, please stop looking at me.” Ambigo consciously stopped himself. It was almost as if the phrase, “stop looking at me” made him want to look even more. Father Garcia mumbled apologies and Ambigo tried to think of anything to say to pass the time while they watched.
Madi rescued him, “I just realized that you didn’t get the orientation, Ambigo.” The muscles on his back tightened, but he didn’t know what to say, “No, did they have some class or something.” The three others laughed and Jaime responded, “Yeah, if you can call it that. It was basically the previous teams trying to describe it and failing miserably. Now, I can see why.” Madi laughed, “They all said that we’d puke, though. I didn’t.” Father Garcia chided, “Those first teams didn’t know about not eating after the six hour time frame. Some of them ate right before their trip. We should have warned you, Ambigo.” Ambigo shrugged, keeping his eyes on Tad and Simon, conversing with the tenant, “Madi warned me, so I stopped eating after midnight. It just… I don’t know. It felt like a roller coaster.” They all nodded.
Tad and Simon signaled for them to come to them and Ambigo was surprised at their luck. His feet were sore from walking on the dirt and rocks and the house looked clean and inviting. He felt the excitement of the others, but it was quashed quickly, “No luck.” This guy wanted all of us to work for him for six months in exchange for clothing. We don’t have that kind of time.” Tad was visibly disappointed, but Simon headed diligently for the next house in the distance.
“Dammit, Simon, stop looking at me.” Ambigo felt suddenly aware of Madi to his left and turned his gaze toward the house that they were approaching. The team felt reproached. Even though Ambigo hadn’t looked at her, he felt the shame of the others. They walked in silence.
“All that training they gave us was for nothing.” Jaime complained. Father Garcia calmly asked him why while they gingerly walked toward the next small home. “They should have had us walking barefoot over rocks to get some callouses on our feet. This hurts!” Ambigo laughed out loud, “That’s one training I would have been happy to miss!” They all laughed and waited while Tad and Simon finished the trek to the small cottage.
“This is the house,” Father Garcia sounded sure of himself. Jaime asked, “How do you know?” Ambigo concentrated all his sight on the house. It was small and barely standing. Ambigo suddenly felt that the team was missing another member, a structural engineer. Father Garcia finally responded, “This house needs us. This house needs us more than it needs the clothing that we need. Look, sheep.” In the distance, a flock of sheep slept on the sides of the grassy hills. The shepherd was heading back to the house in haste, leaving his flock unattended.
Tad and Simon were speaking to a woman at the home, trying to cover themselves discretely. All three were unaware of the quickly approaching shepherd.The closer he came, the easier they could see him. He leaned heavily on a crutch and rushed back to the home as quickly as his hobbling legs could take him. “Yes,” Father Garcia affirmed, “this is the house.”
The shepherd approached them and the woman came to his side. It looked like Tad and Simon spoke to him and an agreement was made. The woman went into the house and brought out a large bundle and handed it to Tad. Each of them eagerly took the clothing and covered themselves and returned to the group with the rest of the bundle. Ambigo impatiently walked toward them. He felt a wave of gratitude wash over him. He wasn’t alone. The rest of the team rushed to Tad and Simon, meeting them halfway.
“Thank the Lord!” They covered themselves with the thick and scratchy garments. It had been just a few hours ago when Ambigo had lovingly caressed the velour sleeves of the white robe. He was so grateful for the coarse material covering his body that the memory of the robe felt far more distant than just a couple of hours. “She was willing to give them to us for free, but at the last minute, Tad decided to offer to work for them. We are all supposed to help around her house for a month. She will give us a place to sleep…” Tad interrupted him, “Did you see her kid? It’s amazing he could even walk! Plus her house is falling down and the lambs are about to be born. That other guy wanted us to work for six months and she is so happy that we offered a month. She said she’d feed us…” Simon interrupted, “I don’t know where she’s going to put us. She keeps it clean, though. I saw worse places in Saudi.”
The two of them talked non-stop for the walk back to the cottage. Ambigo looked at the slant of the roof and the precarious way it hung over the walls of the home. He hoped that the cadence of their voices wouldn’t be enough to cause it to fall. Tad and Simon were talking to the woman in a language that Ambigo didn’t recognize. Madi, now fully clothed, rolled her eyes, “Aramaic. Damn. At least I can recognize it.” Jaime shrugged his shoulders and squinted at the woman, getting a good visual of her mode of dress and mannerisms.
Ambigo heard his name and realized that he was being introduced. The woman laughed at him. He smiled back, thinking of the perfect response in English, but unable to say it in this new language. Tad translated for him, “She thinks your name is funny.” Ambigo nodded, “Yeah, everyone does.” Jaime squinted at him, watching his every move. Father Garcia seemed confused, “Why does SHE think it’s funny.” Tad translated for him and she replied. Tad shrugged his shoulders, “She just thinks it sounds funny. She’s never heard the name Ambigo before. Hmph… I just thought she knew what it meant.”
The shepherd took him by the hand and pulled him toward the hills and the sheep. Ambigo looked at him closely for the first time and realized just how young he was. He had watched this boy running with such great speed from the flock to the house that he had expected a strong man, but instead he was being lead to the flock by a severely crippled boy of no more than thirteen years. He looked to Tad, questioningly. “Oh, he has a ewe in labor. It’s breech. They say that the ewes usually birth at night. He wants to you to come with him… Oh, I told him you are a doctor. Man, we didn’t even ask you about animal husbandry, did we?” The team burst into laughter while Ambigo was pulled toward the flock up the mountain.
The young boy spoke constantly to him. He tried to indicate that he couldn’t understand, but it didn’t deter the shepherd. He hobbled up the hill with surprising agility. Ambigo listened to his lilting voice and cringed at the hike ahead of him. Then he looked at the calloused and dark foot in front of him, carrying the entire weight of the boy’s body. He was suddenly grateful for both of his sore and aching feet. They might be unaccustomed to the long walk, but they both worked and he was happy for them.