You know this was all an ocean once, don’t you?”
“This desert? It’s pretty dry now. Especially if you’ve drunk all the cider. Did you drink all the cider?”
“About four million years ago, it was all sharks and crocodiles and fish right here. And plesiosaurs before that.”
“The Loch Ness Monster was here?”
“Yep. One maybe swam right here and sat on a stromatolite. That’s what those knobby rocks are, or were.”
“Huh. Must have been uncomfortable.”
There’s silence and Jenna pops the lid off another bottle of cider to cover the awkwardness. Jake looks at her uncertainly, not sure if this is The Moment, or not.
The campfire flickers and there’s raucous laughter from the two groups below the rocky ridge where they are sitting. Ricky has brought out his guitar. Jake wishes he had something talented and impressive like guitar skills. The group laughs at something witty Ricky’s said.
“Did I show you my shark tooth?”
“What are you, a surfer boy?”
“Not really. I was at the beach last week and it washed up under my hand. I brought it because I thought you might like it.”
“Huh.” As the tooth passes into Jenna’s hand, he wonders if she feels the same static charge that he does from that momentary touch. “It’s smooth. I thought shark teeth were all jagged, like a saw.”
“This one’s a fossil. It’s been in the ocean for hundreds of years, I don’t know, maybe millions, picking up minerals.”
“Nice.” She tries to hand it back to him, but he waves it away.
“You have it. You could, maybe, put it on a necklace or something.”
“You should keep it. You found it. You'd look good in a necklace.”
“No, no”. This isn’t going at all the way Jake had envisioned. Maybe he should wait until tomorrow. But tomorrow will be another day of dust and hot sun while his group samples for biological life in the endless salt pans, and Jenna’s group sits under shady hats swatting flies while they sketch geological formations for their art class. And the next day they’ll be moving on, separately.
“Shark lose lots of teeth,” he finds himself saying. Oh, great. More shark facts. “They have rows of them, so when one falls out, the next row moves up.”
“Would save on brushing. I guess.”
“Their teeth are coated with fluoride, so even if they get stuff caught in them, they don’t go rotten and smelly.” Worse and worse, now he’s talking about disgusting teeth. Are his own teeth rotten? Did he brush them this morning? Did the onion in tonight’s chili give him bad breath?
“That’s awesome. I wish I had teeth like that. I think that chili gave me onion breath. If I was a shark, I could just let them fall out and get a new lot. Like my Grandma. She has a whole set of falsies.” Jenna laughs and holds the triangular tooth so that the moonlight catches the sheen and the shape of it. “It’s amazing to imagine something so old just lying on the sea floor.”
Jake laughs too. This is better.
Jake dares to touch the tooth in her hand, running his finger around the outline of it. “It’s a White Pointer tooth. You can tell by the shape. The ocean that was here, the Eromanga Sea, it would have had even bigger sharks, Megaladon. One of their teeth would be the size of your hand.”
He slides his hand over hers and leans forward.
She leans back, pulling her hand away. “Wouldn’t want to meet one of them.”
Jake takes a breath, leaning back again. This was not The Moment, then. And it might never come at all.
There’s another burst of laughter from the shadows around the campfire.
But she doesn’t leave.
“They were like whales, enormous.” Shark facts, again.
“I wonder what they’d say if I put them in my paintings. Desert with floating fish. The sand dune ripples already look like the sea floor.”
“That’d be amazing. You’re an amazing artist.” He’s seen what she does with paint, far and away better than any of the other art students.
“Oh, you’re the art expert, are you?” She shoves his shoulder. His skin tingles there.
“I know what I like. Your pictures look like something, not just, you know, a mess of stuff.”
“You mean I’m a literalist. I paint what I see.”
“Not if you include fish in the desert.”
“I’d be painting their echoes, what was there once.”
“Echoes. Yeah. I never thought of it that way. That’s what we are, maybe even some parts of us were part of that sea, and we’re, sort of, their descendants in a way.”
Satisfied that when she pushed him away, Jake didn’t make himself obnoxious, Jenna smiles and strokes his face with the worn tooth.
“Kiss me, you nitwit.”
Later, fingers interlaced, they lie looking at the ancient stars, and feeling the invisible ocean above them.