They’d seen a caiman at the zoo, her and Sadie, when they were little, maybe five and eight.
“What’s a caiman?” Sadie had asked their mother.
“It’s an alligator.”
She had read the sign and whispered to Sadie: “It’s not an alligator. It’s different.”
“I was just letting her know I still existed,” he said. “So I lit her pillow up. It was a harmless prank.”
You burned down half of campus, they said.
People watched as the fire burned, from the other, safe side of campus, where the arts buildings were. It was pretty, if you let it be, the way it was black and orange and danced with the red and yellow leaves of October in Ontario.
Thank goodness it was reading week. Thank goodness there was barely anyone on campus. Otherwise who knows what you could have caused. Do you understand the implications of your actions?
She went back for the caiman. At least, later she would tell herself she went back for the caiman. Once it was dead, it was easy to mourn its passing.
The truth was that she liked it. Her lab partner, a guy named Robert who was already crotchety at age twenty-seven, hated the thing. He called it Stinkeye and shuddered when he had to feed it.
She’d called Sadie to tell her, her first day on the assignment. “I’m a lab assistant now – we’re studying caimans.”
“That’s nice, Sab. What are you finding out?”
Sabrina had started to explain, the microbe that lived between the teeth, how they might learn to reconstruct molars, but she felt Sadie stop listening almost immediately. “How are the kids?” she asked instead.
She thought she was going back for the caiman, but when she reached the lab, she realized how silly that was, how improbable. How had she planned on carrying a caiman? Was she going to wrap it up in a towel, cradle it like a baby? Put it in a duffel bag, sling it over her arm? No, she could not save the caiman; she went back for the research.
She stood with her fingers to the glass tank, and thought that some understanding passed between them. She thought she saw, in its reptilian eyes, a knowledge of what was to come, an acceptance. Then they flickered shut and all that remained was its broken zipper mouth and its listless, horny skin.
She took all of the files on the caiman, all of the pieces of paper, all of the very important measurements and observations, she gathered it up and took it back to her apartment, where it sat in stacks on her living room floor until they were moved to a temporary lab where they bought another caiman.
The condemnable actions of one student have been responsible for the loss of countless hours of research and millions of dollars of lab equipment, the dean said.
And the death of a caiman, she thought. A charred little skeleton in the wreckage somewhere.
word by Charlotte Joyce Kidd
colour by Russell Cobb