Chapter 21

Sarawak : 2004

Will

The leader of Pure Homeland, Abdul Sayid Al-Abdullah, had gotten his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida-Gainesville, returning to his hometown of Jakarta upon his graduation in 1999.

Al-Abdullah’s roommate during his first year at Gainesville was a man named Chris Avery. Avery was now a real estate developer in Tampa. To his many interviewers, Avery described Al-Abdullah as quiet, polite, and cerebral. Avery said that he and Al-Abdullah had mostly stayed out of each other’s way. Avery, a vegan in college, said that his and Al-Abdullah’s one, and ongoing, conflict had been about whether or not Al-Abdullah could keep the turkey cold cuts that he ate nearly every day for lunch, in simple sandwiches with butter and white bread, in their dorm room refrigerator.

Stephanie Walczek, in her eight-page profile of Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center director Wan Mohammed in The New Yorker, “The Orientation Director,” poked fun at those in her cohort who would extrapolate directly from the eighteen-year-old Al-Abdullah’s love of turkey cold cuts to his subsequent brutalities toward other, even higher, vertebrates:

At the suggestion that Pure Homeland’s decision to attack three Borneo orangutan rehabilitation centers might have been driven, in part, by a disdain for the hypocritical pretensions of some environmental activists, Mohammed laughs brightly and asks St. James if he’d like another piece of curry chicken. In any case, if Al-Abdullah’s primary ambition was to close down any of the centers, he may presently be a bit kerflummoxed by the net outcome of his actions. According to Mohammed, a continuous influx of micro-donations from far-flung locations like Tampere, Finland and Augusta, Maryland since the attacks has totaled in the “high seven figures” at the O/URC alone, a greater than 50,000 percent increase in the Center’s non-public revenue.

***

It had been fried chicken, not curry chicken. Will knew because he remembered having curry chicken two days before, when Marin had told them that she was leaving. Will knew because he had gone with Walczek to canteen only once during her stay at the O/URC and had been disturbed with her ability to dismantle and consume an entire fried chicken thigh within six minutes.

Will had compromised himself and witnessed the compromises of his colleagues many times since the night of the Pure Homeland murders, but the line on all of those compromises had been obscured and gray. The chicken, on the other hand, was a black-and-white matter of truth and embellishment, of purposefully switching out an incontrovertible fact in order to create a more convenient and persuasive reality. This was not harmless. (Wan thought it was harmless.) This was not funny. (Anwar thought it was funny.) This was certainly not Pulitzer-caliber journalism. This was the slippery slope. This was beyond the slippery slope. This was abuse of discretion disguised as poetic license. This was:

Chicken.

Will was angry about chicken. Will was so angry about chicken, in fact, that he was suffocating. He needed air. He needed to breathe more and purer molecules of it. He needed to put at least ten miles between himself and all other members of his own species. He broke O/URC rules and went hiking in the open jungle alone.

Will’s frustration wasn’t an innocent’s disappointment in human nature. Will’s seven years in grad school had sufficiently lowered his expectations in his fellow man to pragmatic levels. This was about a baseline standard of integrity and transparency in communication. What was lost through what Walczek had done with a single false word in her article was not justified by what was gained. Why could no one else see this?

Will moved quickly through the canopy. His natural pace alone was faster even than his tandem pace with his fastest hiking companion, Anwar. This was why orangutans traveled alone. The answer to the core meta-question of all who studied the species’ behavior—Why do orangutans live and travel alone, unlike all of the other great apes?—was, duh, speed. Question answered. Will could move back to Canada now and write a game-changing book: The Impatient Ape.

The hot thick air seemed thin of oxygen. Birds cawed far away and then close. The sun slipped through the trees in small patches of hot white nothing. Will was sweating now, the skin of his arms, torso, and face wetting itself: its only trick. He passed the familiar black stump that was the four-mile mark. The dirt felt dry and cakey with days-old rain under his shoes. Will slowed down a little, a breeze ran through the trees and cooled his wet skin, and he finally felt free.

Will stopped and stepped his right foot onto the root of a smooth, silver-barked tree. He crossed his arms over himself and grabbed his shoulders, stretching his back muscles slightly. He got his water bottle out and drank a long draught of sun-warmed water. Around him was so much authentic life magic that could not sustain him. He felt like the lost hero of a fairy tale, alone in the primary-growth woods.

Yes, anger, pettiness, self-righteousness, self-pity: Will had been guilty of it all the past few weeks. He was that guy who could not even be gracious about his lame and unearned fifteen minutes of fame. Hell, he was that guy who screwed his best friend and never called her again.

But Will didn’t care. It was no use, to Marin or to himself, feeling remorseful about the indefensible, or, even, trying to explain the most inexplicable moment to date in a life filled with such riddles as a single gay man who chooses to live the prime of his life in one of the most homophobic countries in the world, or a science-lover who pursues one of the least science-driven fields of the anthro-biological spectrum.

Will had witnessed no less than four primatologist nervous breakdowns during his tenure at the O/URC—various foreign visiting researchers and doctoral students who suddenly broke down in tears over a plate of rice in canteen or showed up in meet with packed bags four months before their scheduled departure, demanding a ride to Kuching. He’d despised all of these people for getting so far into their careers without figuring out that they couldn’t handle real primatology fieldwork. However, by this metric, Will was the worst of them all.

Will could politicize his case, wrap a rainbow flag around it, but that would belie the essential sameness of its fact-pattern:

  1. Human Male C felt lonely and adrift, missing the more enlightened culture of his home country.
  2. Human Male C repressed his feelings (see i.) until they expressed themselves in a destructive, unprofessional manner.

There was a rustle of branches, and the male orangutan Captain Kirk appeared on the opposite end of the clearing. In a thrilling and unprecedented gesture, he bounded on all fours towards Will.

It was their faces—full of all manner of contradiction: largeness and smallness, ugliness and beauty, brutality and peace. Who wouldn’t want to spend a lifetime, to sacrifice one’s own material comforts, a degree of freedom in one’s private life, for a chance at unlocking just one corner of the Pandora’s box that was the heart of this strange, colossal beast?

Captain Kirk brought his face to within a foot of Will’s and held it there for two slow blinks. Will felt the animal’s heat on his own cheeks, smelled bitter tropical fruit on his breath.

And then Kirk left, became one with the canopy in a way that Will would never be one with anyone or anything.

Will started walking again. The other story of course, and the point of the curry chicken paragraph in Walczek’s article, was that the O/URC was rich. Not ICT Industries rich, not Prince of Brunei rich, but the O/URC was on track to break ten million USD in online donations very soon. Even with the inevitable level-off in giving, such a large lump sum, in combination with their apes’ internationally-televised martyrdom, meant that the O/URC could successfully hold palm oil at bay for many years to come.

Will’s coworkers wished that the windfall had come to them for any other reason, of course, but they still seemed to appreciate the many positive things that it would make possible. Wan, Anwar, Linda, Gandau, Dilip, Nolan, et al. had all mourned the thirty Pure Homeland deaths and were moving on. Only Will persisted in feeling doomed.

The jungle path up until now had been relatively clear, but past the five-mile mark, a white “X” spray-painted onto a tree trunk, there was half-a-foot of botanical regrowth over the O/URC’s cut path. Will had his machete with him, but its blade was several weeks overdue for a sharpening. He didn’t care. If fried chicken could become curry chicken, if thirty dead orangutans could be a fundraising boon, Dr. Will St. James could use a dull axe to clear a hiking path.

Will held the machete by its wooden handle in both hands and swung to his right at the green and brown crawlers on the ground, releasing the wet ripe stench of freshly killed eden. He swung left at the same crawlers, the blade sticking in the dried husk of a thick brown one. Will stepped on it and inched his blade out. He struck it again in a narrower part of its neck further off the path. It went through. Will kicked the loosened stalks off to the sides with the toe of his boot and then stepped forward into the new nine inches of cleared path to start the process again.

Two hours later, Will had cleared a grand total of twelve yards of path, and his machete blade had only gotten duller. It stuck in every other weed with at least a two-inch diameter. Six yards back, Will’s palms had begun blistering through the protective layer of callous. Will hardly felt the pain of it. He had put canvas gloves on and continued hacking away. He didn’t have to look to know that the increasing moisture inside his gloves was only half sweat.

The choking noon heat was a detoxifying sauna. Will’s sore shoulders and knees no more exerted than by an ordinary weekday training session at the gym.

Trying to pry the blade of his machete out of a black root-like vine, Will felt dizzy. He left the axe in the plant, wiped sweat off his face with the uncovered part of his forearm, and reached into his backpack for his water bottle. His gloved fingers felt up the designed contours of his Swiss army knife, the foil wrapper of a protein bar, the plastic column of his flashlight, and a small spiral-bound notepad. Will sat on the ground and used both hands to keep the bag’s mouth open as he positioned it in the light. It wasn’t possible, but it had happened. The bottle wasn’t there. Will had left it when he’d stopped at the four-mile mark: one-mile-plus back.

Will’s head felt very heavy. He would rest and go back for the bottle. If he could only get his machete. Will hardly could muster enough sustained stamina and focus to locate it visually: see its square dirty blade stuck in that nasty black weed. He would have to leave it. It would only take him forty minutes to go back for the bottle and come back. Will knew that he was badly dehydrated, but he could walk—the lightheadedness was just like being drunk, affecting the finer skills of coordination but not the rote mechanics of stepping one foot in front of the other. He’d once walked thirty blocks home in Montreal in the dead of winter shitfaced drunk. He could walk one mile on a single, clear path. He pulled off his gloves, revealing two blood- and pus-streaked palms, and headed out.

Two years living in the jungle, hiking almost every day, and Will had never gotten heat exhaustion. He didn’t know whether it made sense or was ironic and absurd that it had happened the one time that he was alone.

Will hadn’t gotten far when he suddenly had to shit: the quick pain and downward pressure of some foul something moving towards his ass. He had to act fast to come out of this with his personhood intact. Will pulled out his notebook and tore two blank pages from it. He pulled down his shorts and squatted off to the side, relieving himself in the jungle. He wiped himself with the notebook pages and threw the dirtied paper off into the trees. He pulled his shorts back up and reached for the ground as he squatted and his head went ice cold with sweat.

Will came to to the spiraled plastic rim of a water bottle being pushed to his lip. He smelled Wan’s warm tamarind smell and felt Wan’s hand on the back of his head, holding it up. Will felt a vague urge to make out with his boss. Instead, he sat up with a dizzy pinch and drank. The visible world went in and out of black. There was a loud whack; wood was breaking behind him.

“Drink it all,” Wan said. “It will be a few more minutes still. Gandau’s making something to carry you back in.”

Wan stood up and walked—it seemed to Will a mile—away.

Will could smell his own shit roasting in the heat. He drank the water slowly and finished it. He could feel it in the bottom of his stomach.

“Sorry guys,” Will called out. “I owe you one.”

He lay down again and let the sound of Gandau’s chopping go quiet.

Will was conscious for brief moments of the journey home: lying down still on the makeshift bamboo stretcher as Wan and Gandau tied him to it; feeling water slosh the sides of his belly as they lifted him to their shoulders a few minutes later; hearing the rolled syllables of Wan and Gandau speaking quietly in Bahasa as they hiked. For most of the trip, however, Will’s more sophisticated powers of comprehension were obscured from him behind some kind of neurological two-way mirror, and his beast-like brain only understood that the body attached to it was overheated, strapped-down, heavy, and craving darkness and cool.

Will heard shouting and running. They were no longer on the jungle path. Will felt himself being lowered to the ground. He looked up and saw the front facade of med. Wan and Gandau untied the ropes strapping Will to the bamboo.

“Can you stand?” Wan asked.

Will nodded and placed his feet off to the side of the stretcher on the ground. He stood slowly, on jelloed muscles. His shorts were very loose, and he realized that they were still unbuttoned and unzipped. He quickly remedied this as one of the shouting and running people ran up to them and revealed himself to be Anwar.

“Whoa,” said Anwar. “What happen, lah?”

“You should go lie down in the air-conditioning and drink more water,” Wan said.

“Right,” said Will. “I should wash my hands too.”

Will walked to med, and for some reason—a male understanding of a male’s need for privacy in such a situation, he supposed—nobody followed him. He opened the front door and went inside the dark, dry, cool building, whose coolness and dryness felt even more delicious than usual. He walked to the left to the small private bathroom. He washed his hands and face at the sink with lots of the bitter antiseptic soap from the dispenser on the wall. His blisters stung mildly, but he felt better after. He found the one exam room with a mini-fridge, took a bottle of water from the fridge, opened and drank half of it, and then hopped up on the empty exam bed.

Will removed his boots and put the water bottle on the small stainless steel equipment table next to the bed. He laid down and closed his eyes.

Money talks. Neil Diamond, master locksmith of the Pandora’s box of the human heart since 1976.

What had Will been thinking? What a mess he had made of things. He supposed that he wasn’t the first person in the world—gay, straight, male, female—to let a fear of being/dying alone drive him to sleep with a friend that he wasn’t attracted to, but still.

Will pressed his blistered palms together, but the pain did not set him free. He heard the front door of the building open and close, followed by boot-steps in the hall. He felt creepy listening in silence.

“I’m in Exam Room A!” he called, sitting up and throwing his legs over the side of the table.

Wan came in a few seconds later with a peeled and opened young coconut with a red straw sticking out of its crown.

“This is from May,” Wan said. He held the coconut out to Will.

Will took it and took a weak sip of its buttery water, feeling undeserving.

“How do you feel?” Wan asked.

“Much better,” said Will. “Embarrassed. Thank you for finding me... carrying me five miles on a handmade stretcher... Best boss ever?”

“I try not to leave my staff for dead,” Wan said.

Will forced his throat to produce a laugh-like sound and sipped at his coconut.

“I feel embarrassed even asking,” Wan said. “It is not my business, but if you’re going to be hiking and clearing trails out in the jungle by yourself with no water and almost dying...”

“Oh my god, my water bottle!” Will said. “I had it, I swear, but I accidentally left it at the four-mile mark. Oh great, some macaque has brought it into the middle of the jungle to never decompose.”

“Oh, okay,” said Wan. “So that’s why you didn’t have water. That’s a relief, I guess. You’re slightly less crazy than we thought.”

Slightly less crazy? Will rolled his eyes: he didn’t know if he deserved that. “What were you too embarrassed to ask the crazy lone hiker?”

“What happened with you and Marin?” Wan said.

Will frowned. “What do you think?” he said.

“Come on, Will,” Wan said. “You stop hiking together. Marin leaves. You turn from the voice of reason around here to this very angry person. You should at least talk about it. I’m an animal doctor, not a psychiatrist. I won’t psycho-analyze you.”

“I never hear you talk about your personal life,” Will said.

“That’s not an answer,” Wan said.

Will sipped his coconut dry.

“Okay,” Wan said. “On Steph’s last night here, she came to my bungalow in the middle of the night.”

“You and Walczek?” Will said. “Isn’t she married?”

“Yes,” said Wan. “Nothing happened lah. We just talked. I am sure she loves her husband and would not cheat him. I think she just wanted to know if I have any feeling for her, you know? That she’s still a woman men want. After she left, I felt quite used actually.”

“Whoa,” Will said, purposefully but not mockingly invoking Anwar. “Geez.”

“And that is my personal life,” Wan said. “A talk with a married woman in the middle of the night. Quite sad, isn’t it?”

“Do you feel better talking about it?” asked Will.

“Yes, actually, I do,” he said.

“Me and Marin,” Will said. He wanted to tell Wan the truth, the whole truth, but now wasn’t the right time. Will was beginning to realize that his orientation had had little to do with what had happened with him and Marin. That it also had had little to do with his attitude problems and poor decision-making as of late. “I messed up big-time, basically,” Will said. “She’s smart, pretty, cool, and fun, but I just have never been attracted to her in that way. We slept together that night after we all got drunk in canteen—after I got us all drunk in canteen. But it soon became clear that I wasn’t interested in anything more. I’m a pretty awesome guy like that.”

“Poor Marin,” Wan said. “You two were so close... right?”

“It is what it is,” Will said. “Hopefully one day she can find it in her heart to forgive me.”

“We all make mistakes,” Wan said. “Even orangutans.”

***

The wild orangutan Daisy—several months pregnant—had injured herself in early November while being tracked by Linda and Gandau. She’d grabbed a rotten branch that had broken under her weight. She’d broken her right arm in the fall.

The O/URC had taken Daisy in, Linda had set her broken arm, and now she was in O.Q. waiting to give birth.

One week after Will’s heat exhaustion episode, Daisy went into labor. Unfortunately her water broke smack dab in the middle of one of Linda’s bi-monthly weekends in Kuching. Dilip was able to get a hold of Linda on her cellphone, but if the traffic was bad enough it was possible that she wouldn’t make it back in time. In which case, Will would have to deliver the first orangutan baby of his career.

Wan gave Daisy a small dose of sedation—only enough to keep her from running off in a panic—and he and Anwar brought her into med.

Will changed into scrubs and took his time washing his hands in the scrub room. Then he went into the operating room where Wan and Anwar were laying a fitful Daisy down on the operating table.

She screamed a bird-like screech and grabbed her distended belly with both hands. She kicked the table hard with her right heel, and the metal rang out like a gong.

Shhhh...” said Anwar. He placed the palm of his hand on her head. Even injured and pregnant, she was a powerful animal. It wouldn’t be a pretty delivery if she wasn’t calm.

Will called Linda’s cellphone, and when she picked up he put her on speaker. She started going over the steps of the operation, possible complications, and what to do in the event of each of the most probable complications. She asked Dilip for Daisy’s blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, cervical dilation, and heart rate. After Dilip updated Linda on Daisy, Linda asked Will to repeat as much of what she’d just told him about the delivery as he could remember. He did so, and she corrected him where he was wrong. Linda then said that she and her husband were still approximately an hour and a half away.

“Linda,” Will said. “I feel like in your instructions, there is this implied assumption that I can communicate with Daisy.”

“Can’t you?” Linda said. She hung up.

Will put on a pair of fresh latex gloves and walked over to the operating table. The double-arch-shaped bump of Daisy’s brow framed small cola-brown eyes whose large white lids—four of them, two tops and two bottoms—moved open and closed slightly. Daisy’s arm cast had been removed, and the fur that had been under it was still matted back around her arm, instead of brushed and loose. Her arms were twice as long as her legs and her shoulders broad: the inheritance of many millennia spent in the trees. Her breasts and abdomen were swollen to capacity: the hope of this inheritance’s perpetuation incarnate. Will reached over and gently felt the orangutan’s injured arm. It felt nearly healed. She and the baby could probably be taken back to the spot in Section A where she’d injured herself as early as tomorrow.

“You’re a fast healer like me, Daisy,” Will said.

Dilip, coming over with a razor to re-shave the small area on Daisy’s belly that had been cleared for ultrasounds, smiled. He looked down at the table, and his focus recalibrated on something. His smile disappeared.

“Is this blood?” he said. He hurried to the end of the table and moved Daisy’s right leg to the side. “She’s bleeding out her vagina,” he said. “This isn’t right.”

They called Linda again. Linda told them a few things to check, but she said she didn’t know what was wrong. She would have to see Daisy in person to be of more help. She was still an hour or more away.

They were on their own.

Will checked everything again. Everything was normal. The bleeding could mean something very bad or nothing at all. You don’t know what you don’t know, as he used to say.

He would have to take a leap of faith: in the universe, in himself.

“Make sure she has enough water,” Will said to Dilip. “She’s going to be okay.”

“And the baby?” said Dilip.

“The baby too,” Will said.

Dilip left to get a clean sippy cup from the med storage closet.

“You’re doing good, Will,” Wan said.

“If you want to jump in here at any point, be my guest,” Will said.

“No need,” Wan said.

Dilip came back with the water and gave the cup to Daisy. She’d never used a sippy cup before (they gave the apes in O.Q. water in bowls) but figured it out right away and drank it all.

Will mopped up the blood with some towels, and no new blood appeared.

“I have O.Q. duty,” Anwar said. “Take picture.” He left.

“I saw the camera bag in the closet,” Dilip said. “Why you keeping it here? Any reasons? Wan?”

“Since we’ve been having so many other cameras around...” Wan said. “I thought it best to keep ours in the air-conditioning until we need it. I’ll go get it.”

Was it possible that they hadn’t taken any photos since the durian-eating fiesta in the clearing outside O.Q., the day before the murders? And how had Wan had the forethought to move the nice, expensive camera to med in the meantime? Will was spooked, but not surprised. Some creatures just operate on a different level than the rest of us, he reminded himself.

Wan came back with the camera and took a few shots of Daisy, Will, and Dilip pre-delivery.

A half-an-hour later they started the pushing. Daisy screamed. Like a time-lapse video of a flower from hell, her lower body had opened and revealed its inside parts, but the precious fruit of the bud was stuck deep inside. Will found himself communicating—somehow—with the wild orangutan, telling her to ignore the pain and push her cargo into the world, and he felt her understand him, felt her let go of the knots of fear in her heart and trust him. Blood, cervical fluid and tissue, sweat, and fur Pollocked up his scrubs. There was the sour smell of all true things. If Linda and Wan had wanted this delivery to be Will’s trial by fire, it was downright Pentecostal to be in that room, to look at the violence between this animal’s legs, and hope for life, for a future of trees and fruit and climbing, sex and joy and learning and progress.

Linda swung the operating room door open and ran in in scrubs, snapping on a pair of gloves as the baby crowned: a swamp- and moss-covered stone stretching the jaws of Daisy’s hips. Its thin, sharp cry pierced the silence.

“Its lungs are working, at least,” Will said, clipping the umbilical cord and standing up from his crouch with the sticky, weightless newborn in his hands. It was a boy.

Linda squeezed some ultrasound gel on Daisy’s stomach and ran the transducer over her shaved belly.

“Looks okay,” she said.

Will gave Linda the baby.

“What are we going to name him?” she asked, with a loopy, unfamiliar smile.

Dilip brought over a metal pan filled with soapy water. Linda set the orangutan in it and washed its pygmy body gently. Wan took pictures.

“It’s Daisy’s son,” Will said. “Duke? Too clever?”

“Works for me,” said Wan.

Daisy was sitting up on the table now, and Linda handed Duke to her. Daisy cradled her son, rested her cheek on Duke’s chest, and closed her eyes, serene as the deepest ocean floor.

For the second time in the past several hours, Will was aware of others operating on a different level than himself.

The tears whose salt that he tasted moments later, alone in the locker room, may have sprung from the quite rational fear that he had no more leaps of faith left in him, none for himself anyway. Looking back at this moment later, however, Will was partial to a baptismal interpretation: holy waters cleansing him of the past and opening his heart to everything that would follow.

A crowd of O/URC staff had gathered on the front lawn of med, waiting for news of the delivery, the O/URC’s first wild orangutan birth in a very long time and the O/URC’s first opportunity to make up for the ground lost by the Pure Homeland attacks.

“It’s a boy!” Will said. “Healthy, three pounds, ten ounces. We named him Duke.”

Someone started applauding, and everyone else joined in. May started to cry. Most of the crowd then dispersed: back to work.

Linda’s husband, Cheh, had been among those waiting. He was dressed in a white dress shirt, blue tie, and khakis. When Linda came out a few minutes later wearing a blue dress and heels, Will realized that it was Sunday and that the Tsais must have driven straight from church. Cheh took Linda’s hand and kissed it, and asked Linda something in Chinese. Linda laughed and gave him a pithy reply in her most deadpan deadpan.

“Hey everybahhdy,” Cheh called. He waved at Will and the other four people still on the lawn. “Lin and I want everyone here to be some of the first to knowing: get ready for these excitement again in six months... Lin and I are having a baby!”

“What?” said Gandau. “You are pregnant? Three months pregnant?”

“Yes, and God be my witness,” Linda said. “I will not be giving birth in med.”

Everyone laughed, and there were hugs and follow-up questions and long calls to people on the porch of canteen and passing by on the lattice path.

After a bit of awkward socializing, Will went back into the med locker room to get his phone. There was a text message from Anwar:

Waaaaahhht??? Linda preggggg??? OMG scarry baby coming lah loL

Will chuckled and deleted the message, and Linda came in, alone. She zipped up the large handbag on the bench by her locker and swung it up onto her shoulder.

“Way to steal Daisy’s thunder Linda,” Will said.

“What?” Linda said.

“Just kidding,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, me also,” she said. She took a step towards the door. “It’s a good thing, Will,” she said. “That we’re moving on.”

“I know,” he said.

“Do you think if you could choose,” Linda said, “you would choose to have kept things the way they were before: no murders, no TV reporters, no money?”

“But Linda,” he said, “you never get a choice like that. And isn’t that ‘God’s’ judgment anyway?”

“Reverend Chua says that since the orangutans’ souls were pure, the sin and the tragedy of their deaths lies only in the killers’ refusal to know God. Reverend Chua says that the Sixth Commandment is not about the inherent sinfulness of killing as much as it is about taking away another human soul’s time on earth before that person has earned their rightful place in heaven.”

“So Reverend Chua would choose money and murders,” said Will.

“Reverend Chua is a practical man,” said Linda. She let that sit for a moment. “There are so many truly terrible things and so many truly terrible people in this world,” she said. “One three-letter word is not enough for every thing that every person does that is not 100% perfect.”

“Linda, there’s something you should know about me if we’re going to continue to work together as peers,” Will said. “I’m gay. Another one of those inadequate three-letter words... If that’s going to be a problem for you, I won’t take it personally, but—”

Will would never truly know what Linda had thought at this moment, any more than he could know for certain what Captain Kirk had thought that day, one week ago, staring Will down in the clearing in the jungle. All that he had were her words.

“Will, you’re a good man and a good scientist,” Linda said. “That’s all I need to know to work with you.”

“Well...” Will said. “I’m not that good.”

“The pregnant lady is always right,” said Linda.

Will laughed and tried not to get too blubbery.

After a festive dinner in canteen that night, Will went to office to check his email. He felt inspired to write to his father about Daisy’s delivery, and if he didn’t do it now while he was inspired, he never would.

Will let himself in through the front door and turned on the hallway light: he was alone. He walked to his office, unlocked and opened the door, and turned on the light. He sat down at his desk and turned on his computer.

He had approximately twenty unread messages. The top two had the same subject header— “It’s a boy-utan!”—and were from Marin and Wan, respectively.

Wan had emailed a few photos from the birth already: mostly of Daisy and Duke, but there was a funny one of Dilip and Will leaned over Will’s cellphone flipped open on a table, talking to Linda.

Marin had been on Wan’s cc: list and had replied-all back.

Will wanted to be a good man. Strange how the faith of another person in his inherent goodness felt just as unbearable as doubt.

He read Marin’s email again, thought that he could read guarded pain in between the lines. His kneejerk reaction to such pain—a mix of impatience, disgust, and pity—was not that of a good man. On the long, hard road to becoming the kind of man that truly deserved Linda Tsai’s god-defying faith, the first step would be the most difficult, but it could not be skipped.