by Kirby Ray
In which Jaiyesimi tries to help her grandfather solve the mystery of the Primogenitors.
PROLOGUE: The Way Back People
It was bedtime at the Oladele household, but one resident was anything but ready to go to sleep. Jaiyesimi Scott, six years old and knee-high to a grasshopper, was sitting in the guest bed down the hall from her grandparents bouncing her toy puppy along the sheets. She wore a red pajama shirt with her favorite cartoon character on the front and a pair of matching white pants. Every now and then, she glanced to the bedroom door, waiting eagerly for someone to show up.
Finally, her grandfather appeared in the doorway, cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief. Afamefuna Oladele cut a slight figure, being rather short and underweight, but he made up for it by carrying himself in a way that commanded respect. The elderly Nigerian man was wearing a crimson robe over a tank top and a pair of black pajama pants, with bulky slippers keeping his feet warm. When he saw his granddaughter nowhere close to sleeping, Afamefuna shook his head and tucked the handkerchief into his pocket.
"I believe I told you lights out at 8 o'clock, Jay," he chuckled as he crossed over to her bed.
The little girl sat up and cradled her toy. "But you promised me and Bowbow a story, Pop-Pop!"
"So I did, so I did," the old man nodded as he sat down at the foot of the bed. "I am sorry, dear; Pop-Pop had some work he needed to get done with. Suppose I tell you your favorite tonight to make up for it, hm?"
Jaiyesimi grinned and scooted back to the head of the bed. She beamed at her grandfather and told him, "Yeah! Tell us about the Way Back People."
As he adjusted his glasses, Afamefuna laughed. "Honestly, I don't know how you haven't gotten tired of this story just yet. Not that I complain; I'm happy someone is listening to it. Now, where do we begin?"
The stately man suddenly became more vibrant and energetic, as if he was the one not ready for bed. While he spoke and gestured about him, his granddaughter kept one eye on the wall behind him, where his shadow was cast by the light. If she looked carefully, she swore she could see the scenes he described play out behind him like a shadow puppet show.
"Way back before you and me, before knights and dragons, before the oldest of the old, there were a people that ruled the Earth. They were not so different from us in looks, but they had technology like nothing we have today. This society built machines the size of houses, towers that pierced the heavens, and cars that ran on the air itself; they were even able to make what you might call "magic". Yes, they built what we still can't do today.
"But just like us, there was good and there was evil. Some people abused these incredible tools and inventions for their own gains, and so there was much fighting in those days. Mad queens, dreadful armies, and even some who called themselves gods decided to take the world for themselves, but time and again they were beaten by the forces of good."
Jaiyesimi could just imagine the scenes her grandfather described. Shadows danced about on the far wall in some grand drama: cars flying through the air, giant robots crossing the countryside with mile-long steps, and soldiers of all kinds fighting in epic battles. She had heard so many of these stories in the past that she could practically see some of the faces that formed in her mind, from the mad Queen Darkheart to the cruel Master Morningstar to the tyrannical King of Black Stars. Yet every time these villains reared their heads, they were met by an army of knights armed like no other force on Earth. They were stronger, faster, and more capable than any ordinary human, and they came armed with weapons strong enough to strike down even the most dangerous of fiends.
But like every time she heard the story, the figures vanished like so much smoke at the end. Afamefuna told her, "No one knows what happened to the Way Back People; it is as if their world disappeared off the face of the Earth. We've found bits and pieces all around, but nothing more than that. The only signs we have left are the secret messages they left behind, and no one has ever been able to figure out what they mean."
"Like the one in St. John Park?" asked an eager Jay, even though she knew the answer.
"Exactly like it," her grandfather chortled. "Maybe we'll take a visit out there this weekend and see if we can't solve the puzzle. Would you like that?"
Before his granddaughter could answer, the old man heard his phone ringing from down the hall. He sighed and shook his head before telling Jay, "Sorry, dear, but Pop-Pop needs to get his phone. I'll tell you more tomorrow, okay?"
The little girl nodded understandingly; her grandfather was constantly busy with his work. "Okay. Good night, Pop-Pop."
"Good night, my little jay bird."
With a kiss to her forehead and another for Bowbow, Afamefuna turned off the lamp at Jay's bedside and shuffled out of the room. Jaiyesimi turned on her side and shut her eyes until she was sure her grandfather was far down the hall, at which point she shot up in bed. She slowly slid out from under the covers and onto the floor, and with stuffed dog in hand, crept over to her bedroom door. Bright eyes peeked through the crack and a keen ear listened for any sign of her Pop-Pop returning; finding none, she snuck out to the empty hallway.
The little girl looked to her toy, put a finger to her lips, and crept down the hall to Afamefuna's office with all the stealth of a cat. She had been down that hall so many times before that she even knew which parts of the floor to avoid lest she step on one and create a terrible creak. When she finally got to the darkened office, she slinked inside and made for the little lamp on the desk. It did not create too much light, but the meager amount it did was all she needed to find what she was looking for.
"Yes!" she whispered excitedly as she rifled through the papers on her grandfather's desk.
Pop-Pop had shown her his work time and time again, something the old man assumed was just a little game for the girl; there was no way she could understand what he showed her. Oh, how he doubted the power of a curious mind, one that was wise beyond its years. Jaiyesimi knew much more about the "Way Back People" than she let on: that her grandfather had classified them as the Primogenitors; that he had been documenting evidence of their existence for decades; and that he had turned up with almost nothing for his troubles. That was why she learned as much as she could, to try and help prove her grandfather right after all these years.
Jay pored over any new information she gleaned from the papers, but there was hardly anything new to be had; it was rare when they found even a slight hint of Primogenitor society. She copied down whatever she could find, anything that she thought seemed like it would be important, in the hope that she might find that missing link. Sadly, as learned as she was, there was only so much her young mind could comprehend, and she had to resign herself to another fruitless night.
"Do you know what we're looking for, Bowbow?" she softly asked her stuffed animal. When she shook the dog's head from side to side, she sighed and turned off the light. "Me neither. Maybe when we go to the park, we'll find something new."
After sneaking out of the office and shutting the door to the exact place it had been before, the little scholar crept back down the hall. She had one foot in her bedroom door when she heard her grandfather talking in a much more agitated tone than before. Curious, Jay slinked down even further until she was at the top of the basement stairs; Pop-Pop always took his calls in the spacious lower level. Like before, she craned her head around just enough to catch the conversation, which did not sound like any good news.
"Caster, please, you must get them to listen to reason. I can't--Caster, listen--I just need a little more time. We are so close to a breakthrough at the Hart Grove site, I just know it. This is going to be the big one; it's the first time we've found such extensive evidence. Talk to Doctor Oliver; he should be able to convince the board to extend the grant. We can't afford to lose our funding now, Caster, not when we're this close to the Primogenitors--not when we're this close to validation. Okay, tha--thank you, old friend. We're going to show them this time, you'll see."
Jaiyesimi retreated to her bedroom when she heard Afamefuna hang up and make his way to the stairs. So quick was she that when her grandfather poked his head inside, he found her exactly as he left her: curled up with her back to the door. With a small, sad smile, the old man shut the door, leaving a wide-eyed granddaughter to process everything she had heard.
The grant had been provided by Taylor University on the grounds that her Pop-Pop provide sufficient evidence of the Primogenitors. It was a lot of money to fund a hunch, well-founded though it might have been, and her grandfather had used it all as best he could to no avail. Months of digging and research had come up with nothing but more riddles with no answers to be found. Time was running out, and if the phone call was anything to go off, the Board of Directors was getting restless. Jay had seen her grandfather under pressure before, but this was something different.
"I don't think we're going to the park this weekend," the little girl whispered to Bowbow.
And she was right. By the time the weekend rolled around, Afamefuna was out in California with the rest of his crew, hoping against hope that they would find concrete proof of the Primogenitors. When he came home with his head hung low and tail between his legs, however, Jay knew that he had found nothing--worst of all, he had been let go from the University for what the Board of directors called "criminal stupidity". This blunder was the final straw for his credibility, and the aged professor found himself stripped of all credentials, leaving nothing to his name. All this was done in the span of two weeks; everything was happening too fast for the little girl to keep up.
After that, Jay and her family saw less and less of the old man: visits became more infrequent, he stopped babysitting her as often, and they never went anywhere near the cave in St. John Park. In fact, Afamefuna made sure that no one was able to enter the cave by convincing the city council to build a fence across the entrance. The young girl was crushed to see such a fascinating place walled off from the world, but after a few failed attempts to climb the fence and her parents scolding her for doing so, she gave up. Between that and her grandfather destroying all his notes and papers on the Primogenitors, there was a concentrated effort in the family to forget all about the Way Back People.
The little scholar, however, refused to forget; she would not let go of all these stories that had enthralled her so. While her grandfather was burning and shredding his research, Jaiyesimi preserved everything she had jotted down since she first learned how to copy and trace. It was nowhere near as extensive as Afamefuna's had been, but after the purge of his office, it was all the evidence that the Progenitors had existed, save for whatever the old man had shared with his team. All those scraps and notes were secreted away in a box that she kept under her bed, safe from prying eyes and guarded by her trusty Bowbow.
The saddest part of the whole affair was in how much Jay's beloved grandfather changed as the years went by. At first, he was sullen and moody, but still kind as ever; only in the quiet moments, when he was sure that no one could hear him, did he cry or get angry. Bitterness is a seed that takes time to blossom, however, and it grew inside him until Afamefuna stopped caring about anyone and everyone--his former colleagues; his friends; even his own family was not spared his contempt. His granddaughter was no exception, which was what led her parents to putting some distance between them.
"Pop-Pop is just a little upset right now, Jaybird," her father, Fred, would say to sugarcoat the situation. "He just needs some time to himself, that's all."
"You know how Pop-Pop can be," her mother, Yejide, told her a few years later, as if the former professor had always been a curmudgeon. "Best to just let him be."
When she was deemed old enough to know the "truth" (as though Jay was too dumb to see what was really going on), her parents told her how her grandfather had turned to drinking after the collapse of his career, and how he only got worse as he spiraled downwards. Rather than blame the university for the state of things, they put the fault solely on the old man--even her mother, Afamefuna's daughter. She called him a dreamer; her father called him a crackpot. Regardless of what they called him, they kept their distance and spoke to him only when absolutely necessary.
It was a small comfort when the young scholar got the news of his passing the summer before she started high school. Her parents told her that the old man had been very sick, but even though they danced around what it was, Jay heard the whispers and knew. Cirrhosis of the liver--that was what killed the brilliant Afamefuna Oladele; sickness and a crushed spirit. His granddaughter would have been crushed if she did not cling to the idea that it was somehow better this way.
The viewing was small, as was to be expected for a hermit, but it meant the whole world to Jaiyesimi to see even a few people show up. She recognized them as colleagues from his days at Taylor University, and while her parents conversed politely with them, the young girl preferred to keep her distance from the people responsible for driving her grandfather's depression. Instead, she paid more attention to another guest who stayed off to the side, far from the small crowd that hovered around her family. Curiosity struck the young scholar, as she knew this man's face from the rare visits he made to Afamefuna, yet she could not put a name to it.
He was a tall, gaunt man who looked like he had not seen the sun in ages, and the little blonde that was left in his hair was fast turning white. The lean man could not have been much older than her grandfather, but he carried himself in a different manner; even though he was not the tallest man in the room, he seemed to look down on everyone else. A sneer crossed his crinkled lips, yet when he caught Jay studying him, it changed into a small smile, one that made the hairs on her arm stand up.
"Forgive my asking, dear, but would you be Jaiyesimi Scott?" he asked in a posh British voice. When Jay nodded shyly, he let out a deep chuckle and remarked, "My word...I must have been away for longer than I thought; the last time I saw you, you were a tiny little thing. Are you leaving for university this fall?"
"Um, I'm actually going to start the 9th grade," the young scholar answered bashfully. She had never been one for small talk, especially not with total strangers. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"Dr. Caster Lea, my dear," the elderly man replied as he extended a bony, glove-covered hand. "I worked with your grandfather on the Primogenitor Project; I was his right-hand man, I dare say."
The name clicked in Jay's head, and she finally remembered the doctor from ages past. She had only seen him stop by Afamefuna's house once or twice, and every time he did, they always went into her grandfather's office for what felt like hours. Dr. Lea was always polite to her in the rare moments he spoke to her, but most of his time was spent talking business with her Pop-Pop. Still, it was good to see the old professor's partner again after all this time.
"Dr. Lea, right! It's nice to meet you again--see you again, I mean," the young woman fumbled, which earned another chuckle from the pale man.
"Likewise, Ms. Scott," Caster replied before glancing towards the coffin and let out a melancholic sigh. "I wish I had been by sooner but your grandfather refused to see me, so I busied myself in my own work and allowed this to happen."
Jay followed his gaze and crossed her arms as a chill ran through her. "I know what you mean. It got harder and harder to be around him, so I think everyone just gave up--even me."
"Ah, we mustn't blame ourselves, my dear, or we would be at it all day," the old man assured her. "It would be far better to remember Afamefuna as we knew him and not what he became, I think. For instance, any time I want to wax nostalgic, all I need is look at the key and I remember the old days once more."
The elderly doctor reached into his pocket and produced an obsidian rod as thin and long as a pencil. One end was perfectly flat, while the other had tiny spokes slighter than a needle, and when Caster handed it to Jay, the girl found that it was surprisingly heavy; it felt like she was holding a brick. She studied it intently, turning it over in her hands and noting every last detail of the "key", as Caster had called it. It harkened back to pictures and sketches of Primogenitor artifacts in her grandfather's notes, but even her encyclopedic memory could not recall this particular item.
"It's the first piece of Primogenitor society your grandfather ever found," the old man explained while Jay listened intently. "We were working together on an informal dig in the Caplan Mountains when he stumbled across this. It was unlike anything we had ever encountered before; there was not a single trace of it in any ancient civilization on record. I assumed it to be nothing more than some form of petrified wood, but Afame was convinced that we had discovered hints of a forgotten society. Being a skeptic, I was not so ready to accept that theory, but he persisted, saying he would find more evidence; you know how tenacious your grandfather could be."
Jay nodded and smiled at fond memories of her Pop-Pop bustling around the office in a frenzy, working so hard that he lost track of time and forgot to eat. "Yeah, that does sound like him."
Caster gave a fleeting glimpse of a grin and continued. "Despite my better judgment, I decided to pursue this endeavor with him--my funding, his genius. There were many hardships along the way, but I wouldn't have traded a minute of it. I won't bore you with every detail of our research, but we found all manner of fascinating artifacts over the years, including more of those keys."
"How do you know it's a key?" asked the curious girl as she rolled the rod in her fingers.
The old man answered excitedly, "Pictures and logograms! We found ancient drawings in Ireland that depicted Primogenitors using them to do all sorts of things: open doors, operate machinery, and even work miracles; the possibilities seemed endless. The only problem was that we could never find what the key was for, which might be the second biggest regret in my career."
Once more, his attention turned to the casket, and the gaunt man mused, "I miss him terribly, Jaiyesimi. How I wish he could have seen what I've accomplished in the years since we last spoke; the things I've uncovered would have vindicated our research."
Before the girl could ask what he meant by that, her mother, whose face was fixed in a terrible glare and scowl, intervened. Yejide hissed, "What do you think you're doing here, Caster?"
"Paying my respects," the old man curtly replied. "Is that so wrong?"
Jay's mother stepped between her daughter and the doctor, saying, "You have no right to be here--you're the one who encouraged his crackpot theories! I don't want you talking to my daughter and filling her head with the same lies you fed him for forty years!"
Caster raised his hands and replied, "Yejide, I can assure you, I was only reminiscing about your father--nothing more."
Likewise, the young scholar tugged on her mother's arm and explained, "Mom, please...we were just talking about how much we missed Pop-Pop; You-Know-What never came up, I promise."
At her daughter's insistence and pressured by the stares of the other guests, the matronly woman huffed in frustration and relaxed, though she did not move. She glowered at the elderly doctor and said through gritted teeth, "Get out, and don't ever come near me or my family ever again."
"As you wish, my dear," the elderly doctor replied, bowing his head out of basic courtesy. As he turned around, Fred marched up and clapped a firm hand on his shoulder, as if he needed another reminder that he was not welcome at the viewing. He grunted, "Really, Frederick--is that necessary?"
"We want to make sure you get the point," the father answered. "Let's go."
In all the hoopla, Jay forgot that she was holding Caster's key, and since she did not want to be chewed out by her mother, she quickly hid it up one of her blouse sleeves. Yejide, none the wiser, turned back to her and asked, "Jay, what were you really talking about with him?"
"Nothing--honest!" the young scholar lied to her mother's face. "He mentioned You-Know-What once or twice, but that's it. We were just talking about Pop-Pop and how great he was."
That seemed to relieve the matron, who sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry, Jaybird; I shouldn't snap at you. I just...I can't stand the sight of that man after he fueled your grandfather's crackpot theories, and I just lost it when I saw him."
"I understand, Mom," Jay replied as she fed her mother whatever she needed to hear to feel at ease. "He must not have been a good friend if he let Pop-Pop do whatever he wanted all these years."
"Exactly," Yejide remarked, feeling validated in her hatred of the elderly doctor. "Now, why don't you come over and say hi to some of the professors from Taylor University? Never hurts to make a few new connections."
The inquisitive girl plastered on a smile and went to mingle with the same people that ostracized her grandfather not ten years prior. She would shake hands, say a few kind words, and move on to the next, but her mind was miles away--specifically, back in her room and in the box of notes and designs. It felt like torture to schmooze with all these academics and listen to their pity for Afamefuna; she would much rather have been poring over every scrap of information she had. Surely there was something about the key in what little she had of her grandfather's notes.
By the time the viewing was over and she got home, Jay told her parents she wanted to take the rest of the day to herself; knowing how close the girl had been with the late professor, they allowed her to head up to her room for the afternoon. She sulked up the steps and down the hall, but as soon as she was in the sanctity of her bedroom, the young girl dashed to her bed and retrieved the old box full of notes and information. Sitting atop all the papers inside was Bowbow, a little squished and dusty, performing her duty of guard dog perfectly.
"Come on, Bowbow," the young scholar murmured as she placed her old friend atop her desk. With a flick of her wrist, the key slid out of her blouse sleeve and into her hands, where she studied it intently. "We've got a mystery to solve."