Wynona rubbed the lump on the back of her head in sullen silence as Maxine and Carla laughed at her. The iceball had caused her to see stars and fall to the ground in shocked agony. Iceballs were illegal according to the unspoken rules of schoolyard snowball fights, but Maxine and Carla didn’t care. They went out of their way to badger her, and often recruited others in the class as well.
Ignoring the catcalls and jeering of her tormentors, she picked up her backpack and trudged across the snow-covered lawn and into the comforting warmth, and relative safety, of the school itself. Here, for the most part, she was protected from physical abuse. Aside from the occasional tripping, books scattered from her arms, or glasses knocked from her face, her only tribulations were of the verbal kind. She had learned long ago to retreat inside of her head, to a place where the spiteful words couldn’t reach her, to avoid the bullying.
“Out of my way, freak,” a rough shoulder shoved her into the doorframe of her first period class. Wynona looked up as Carla shoved her way past with a glare, and a promise of more to come in those eyes. Of course, they had followed her inside. With a small sigh, Wynona realized today was going to be one of those days. She took a moment to buttress her internal fortitude. She was going to need it.
Carla was smaller than Wynona. Skinnier. Her long neck, pale skin, and large nose, underneath a shock of unruly red hair, made her like a human-chicken mutant to Wynona. Her small and weak chin made her look even more birdlike. Her appearance and size notwithstanding, she was perhaps the biggest bully in their grade. With an acid tongue and no compunction against physical violence, pretty much everyone walked on eggshells around Carla. Even the teachers.
Maxine was a different story. She was beautiful, and everyone loved her. Dark skin, almond eyes, and a soft voice; Wynona never understood why she gravitated towards and followed Carla. They should have been incompatible, and yet they were best friends. While she didn’t have the sadistic cruelty of Carla, her jabs and taunts were nonetheless more hurtful to Wynona. Because she, unlike Carla, had a choice. Carla was just a bad egg, through and through. She hated everyone and bullied indiscriminately. But Maxine was not like that; she was nice and friendly to everyone. Except Wynona. So her vitriolic attitude towards Wynona was more personal, for reasons she never understood.
With a small sigh, Wynona found her regular seat, at the back of the class and as far away from Maxine and Carla as she could manage. She spent her time before class doodling in her notebook, ignoring the paperballs that managed to hit her and her desk with annoying consistency. By the time Mr. Duke, the science teacher, walked in there were half a dozen crumpled up balls at her feet and around her desk.
“Wynona, please pick up your trash,” frowned Mr. Duke as he set his briefcase on the desk.
Knowing better than to argue, Wynona picked up the paper and dutifully discarded it in the trash can at the front of the class. Carla sniggered and kicked her feet as she walked past. Wynona ignored her.
“Okay,” said Mr. Duke as Wynona found her seat, “You’ve been studying common ancestors in science and genealogy in social studies. They’re actually very similar and today we have a lab that will demonstrate both to us.”
He pointed to a rolling cart that was set up in the corner of the classroom. “This,” he said, “is on loan from the University. It’s a DNA sequencer, connected over the Internet to the University mainframe. It can, with a little effort, find a common ancestor for any two living beings. All we have to do it supply it with a drop of blood from each.”
Pitor, the school’s resident science geek, raised his hand and asked a question without waiting for acknowledgement, “What does that have to do with genealogy?”
“Good question,” said the teacher. “I could use this machine to find the common ancestor between you and a donkey.” The classroom erupted in laughter and Pitor’s cheeks reddened. “But how accurate can it be to find a common ancestor between you and, say, Maxine?” Maxine smiled at Mr. Duke, winning him over like she did every teacher. She was a favorite.
Pitor frowned, “That’s what I asked you.”
“Take a guess,” prompted Mr. Duke.
“Well,” he began, “I suppose if it’s tied into the mainframe and we have DNA for everyone’s ancestors we would know exactly who, in the past, was a common relative.”
“Right,” said Mr. Duke. “But we don’t have DNA for everyone, so the best the machine can do for two people is estimate how far back in time two people shared a common relative.”
This was going to be a fun lab. Students were all looking at each other, wondering and placing bets on how far back in time they shared common ancestry. Cliques and groups were organically forming in anticipation of using the DNA sequencer. Predictably, Maxine and Carla paired up, proclaiming in shrill voices that they were going to go first to see how closely related they were. No one offered to pair with Wynona.
With a wave of his hand, Mr. Duke quelled the talking, with limited success. The excitement of the lab had the entire class murmuring in a low hum, even after his admonishment for noise. “First,” he said, in a loud voice that was heard over the din, “We’re going to find the common ancestor for a human and ….” He paused.
Silence finally fell as the sentence hung in the air. With a showman’s flourish, Mr. Duke finished his sentence “… a bat!”
A young lady in a white lab coat walked into the classroom, carrying a cage with a small bat in it. “This,” said Mr. Duke, “is Ms. Berry. She’s a graduate student at the University and is here to help us with the lab today. Ms. Berry,” he said to the grad student, “what can you tell us about the bat?”
Ms. Berry cleared her throat nervously. “This is a healthy specimen of <i>desmodus rotundus</i>, or what you might know as the vampire bat.” A collective “ooooohhhh” sounded from the class. Ms. Berry continued, “It’s pretty common to the Americas and is one of only three parasitic mammals, mammals who feed from the blood of other animals. No, not humans,” she smiled. “Usually livestock, like cows.”
Mr. Duke picked up the dialogue, “The vampire bat and a human have a common ancestor. We both evolved from the same distant ancestor in the past. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what kind of animal we share a common ancestor with?”
“A dinosaur,” said Carla immediately.
“A fish,” said Pitor.
Other guesses were shouted, mostly variations of the first two. Wynona shook her head at them all. Carla had already said dinosaur, so shouting out “T-Rex” was the same thing. “Shark” was the same as a fish. She hated it when students shouted just to have a voice. It made no sense; just shut up and wait. The lab would prove the common ancestor soon enough.
“Ok, ok!” shouted Mr. Duke, not at all pleased with the cacophony of sound he had elicited from his last question. “Let’s run the test and see.”
Ms. Berry held up a small vial of blood, “I drew this sample from our vampire bat friend here at the University before I came here.” She poured a tiny drop onto a slide and inserted it into the DNA sequencer.
“Now,” she said, “I just need a drop of human blood. She held up a small device that looked like a diabetes needle. “This is a diabetes lancet,” she confirmed Wynona’s suspicion. “It doesn’t hurt and can get a drop of blood from a tiny prick on your finger.”
“I’ll go first,” said Mr. Duke. “I assume you all trust I’m human, so my blood is as good as yours to compare with the bat.” A small laugh from the class. Wynona groaned.
Ms. Berry inserted a new needle into the lancet device and extracted a small drop of blood from Mr. Duke. Placing on a slide, she inserted it into the DNA sequencer next to the bat’s blood.
“Now,” said Ms. Berry, “we wait. It should only take a minute.”
It took less than a minute. In half that time, the computer display lit up with results, which Mr. Duke projected on the wall for all to see. On the screen was a small, mouse-like, animal.
“This,” said Ms. Berry, “is the common ancestor for the vampire bat and a human. It was a small shew that thrived about sixty-five million years ago after the cataclysm that killed the dinosaurs. It lived on a diet of mostly insects and was the earliest placental mammal we know of – meaning it is the common ancestor for not just humans and bats, but any mammal with a placenta. Like whales, bears, lions, cows, and the like.”
Wynona looked in awe at the depiction on the wall. That everyone in this room came from the same animal species millions of years ago was amazing. She glanced over at Carla, who for once was not spewing vile but was instead staring in rapt wonder at the display as well. We are all the same, Wynona thought. We all come from the same place and are not so different after all. She almost, not quite, but almost, felt a connection between her and her tormentors.
“Ok class,” said Mr. Duke, breaking her reverie, “I know you’ve already paired up with someone. Grab your partner and line up; we’ll see how closely related you are.”
Excitement filled the room as students shoved desks out of the way, found their partner, and jostled for position as close to the front of the line as they could. Wynona was partnerless, at the back of the line.
Maxine and Carla went first. Carla cried out in pain at the tiny prick of the lancet. Not so tough after all, thought Wynona. After a minute, their result came back.
“Maxine and Carla,” said Mr. Duke over the class, “share a common ancestor about two hundred and thirty years ago. A European ancestor. Both Maxine and Carla also have bits of Neanderthal DNA in them as well, but Carla has almost twice as much as Maxine.”
The entire class laughed but nervously quieted down as Carla spun to glare at the laughter, her face as red as her hair. Quieted down, but not completely. Everyone was still smiling. Wynona smiled to herself as well; it figured Carla was a Neanderthal. Mr. Duke had, with a well-placed observation, diminished some of the power of the bullying duo with his statement. She felt a rush of gratitude towards the science teacher.
Pitor and Sam shared an ancestor eight hundred years ago and were both related to Ghengis Khan. Both strutted away from the machine with their chests puffed out and heads held high. Mr. Duke was making sure to reward the students he liked with what the students would think was a positive result.
Chris and Ashley had a shared relative a hundred and seventy years in the past, a Native American ancestor and probably a member of the Cherokee tribe. Wynona grinned as they both did an impromptu rain dance around the room. The rest of the class whooped and did Indian cries with them.
Finally, only Wynona remained untested.
Mr. Duke looked at her with a sympathetic smile, “Odd man out again, huh?”
“That’s ok,” he said, “I’m sure someone wants to go again.”
No one wanted to pair with Wynona, but everyone wanted to go again. Hands shot up. At random, Mr. Duke chose Klaus – a classmate who ignored her like everyone else, but had never picked on her. Maybe not so random, Wynona realized.
The pinprick was painless, as promised, and both student’s blood was inserted into the DNA sequencer. There was no result after a minute. Then two.
Ms. Berry looked at the machine, a small worry line across her forehead. After three minutes, the machine spit out a result. No match.
Carla laughed out loud.
“Probably a glitch in the Internet connection to the mainframe,” explained Ms. Berry. Let’s run it again.”
Another drop of blood from Klaus and Wynona. Three minutes later, the same result. No match.
The class hissed ominously and Carla laughed again. Wynona hated that laugh. Mr. Duke shushed everyone. “Run Klaus and me,” he said, offering a finger to the lancet.
The results came back in less than thirty seconds. Mr. Duke and Klaus shared a common ancestor five hundred years in the past, from Africa.
Ms. Berry frowned and looked thoughtfully at Wynona. A ball formed in the pit of Wynona’s stomach as she looked away.
“Now me and Wynona,” said Mr. Duke quietly. The classroom had gone strangely silent as well, anticipating the result.
Four minutes later. No match.
A tremble formed in Wynona’s legs and she felt a heat rush begin to crawl up her back and to the nape of her neck. Carla and Maxine started laughing again, but it was strangely muted to her ears.
“One more test,” she heard Mr. Duke mutter. “Just one more. Wynona and the bat.”
She shook her head. “I don’t ….”
“It’s ok,” said Mr. Duke. “Just one more. Class is almost over.”
Reluctantly, she nodded and allowed another drop of blood to be drawn from her finger. Ms. Berry poured another drop of bat blood on a slide. Both were inserted into the machine.
Wynona sat down in Mr. Duke’s chair as the inevitable result came back on the screen, staring accusingly at her.
She heard Carla’s annoying laughter right by her ear as the bell rang and the class filed out the door. “You really are a freak,” she whispered as she shoved her way past.