Isabel leaned through the doorway, her eyes scanning the dinner carts. Only two-year-old Lola reacted to her presence, glancing briefly in her direction. She was tiny, as bonobo babies are, and clung to Bonzi’s chest and neck, alternately mouthing her mother’s nipple and letting it slide from her lips.
The bonobos lolled on the floor in nests of carefully arranged blankets, watching
Bonzi was more precise about her nest than the others-she always used exactly six blankets, swirling them over each other and folding the edges under so there was a soft rim all the way around. Isabel, who was prone to a certain precision herself, loved watching Bonzi poke and fiddle with her nest, which had to be just so before she’d invite Lola in, slapping her hands to her chest and signing, BABY COME.
Jelani and Makena lay head to head on their blankets, reaching up with lazy and long-fingered hands to examine each other’s faces and chests and rid each other of imaginary bugs. When John Clayton, Seventh Earl of Greystoke, slid Miss Jane Porter’s filmy nightdress off her shoulders, they tipped up their chins and exchanged a languorous kiss.
Sam sprawled on his back with an arm behind his head and one leg crossed over the other. His foot bobbed, and he worked a watermelon rind, scraping the last of the sweet flesh off with his teeth. Mbongo had set up his nest across the room and wrapped a blanket firmly around his new backpack to keep Sam from noticing its suspicious girth. Mbongo had punctured his own bouncy ball almost immediately, and so had “borrowed” Sam’s. Mbongo flashed impressive canines, his gaze flitting nervously between Sam and his precious blanketed lump. He lifted a corner of the fleece and peered beneath, then hurriedly tucked the blanket back around it. He was enjoying his secret too visibly. It wouldn’t be long before Sam noticed.
Not wishing to disturb movie time, Isabel said nothing as she retrieved the empty carts. She rolled them out one by one and passed them off to Celia, a nineteen-year-old magenta-haired intern. When all the carts were in the kitchen, the two of them began to clear the remains of dinner. Celia stacked the plastic soup bowls while Isabel scooped up peels and stems, dumping the fruit and vegetable detritus into the disposal and running water over her hands.
Celia finally broke the silence. “So how did the big visit go today?”
“It was good,” said Isabel. “Lots of conversations. Lots of great pictures-the photographer’s camera was digital so I’ve already seen a bunch.”
“Anyone we know?”
Celia snorted. “Catwoman and Pigpen! Love it. So what did the apes think?”
“I only let John in. She had a virus, so I sent her over to Linguistics instead.”
“David and Eric were here? On New Year’s Day?”
“They have a fancy new spectrum analyzer. There’s no keeping them away from it.”
“And how did that go?”
Isabel smiled at the plate she was holding. “Let’s just say I owe them one. That woman is a real piece of work.”
“Ha! Did Pigpen know ASL?”
“His name is John. And no. I translated their responses.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “Mostly.”
One of Celia’s pierced eyebrows rose.
“Mbongo called him a ‘dirty bad toilet’ at one point,” Isabel explained. “I may have paraphrased that one a little.”
Celia laughed. “And what did he do to deserve that?”
“A game of Monster Chase gone hideously wrong.”
Celia picked up a plastic dish and held it at various angles, trying to determine whether it had been washed or licked clean. “In Pigpen’s defense, Monster Chase
“It was much worse than that. But we showed him how it’s done,” said Isabel. “Monster Chase, Monster Tickle, Apple Chase, we did it all. Much to the delight of the photographer.”
“Did Peter come in today?”
“No. I haven’t seen him,” Isabel said carefully.
At the previous night’s New Year’s Eve party, Isabel had been uncharacteristically thrown for a loop by a sorry excuse for dinner (four tiny cubes of cheese) and three strong cocktails (“It’s a Glenda Bendah!” the host, and husband of Glenda, had exclaimed as he thrust a glass of the iced blue concoction into her hands). Isabel didn’t normally drink-had in fact just purchased her first bottle of vodka so she’d have something on hand to offer guests-but this was the first social gathering of the people involved with the Great Ape Language Lab since Richard Hughes’s death, and everyone was working hard at the appearance of being merry. It was exhausting. Isabel tried to keep up, but when she staggered into the powder room and encountered her own flushed, intoxicated face in the mirror, she saw something even more frightening than the gorilla mask in Monster Chase was supposed to be: she saw an earlier version of her mother, weaving and pale. Isabel was unused to wearing makeup and had somehow managed to smear lipstick up one cheek. Sections of hair stuck like twigs from her updo. She ditched the remains of her third Glenda Bendah in the sink, dissolved the blue-tinged ice cubes in running water, and tried to creep out before she could embarrass herself further. Peter, who was not only Dr. Hughes’s successor but also Isabel’s fianc?, found her in the lobby in stockinged feet, slumped against the wall with her high-heeled shoes dangling from a thumb. When she looked up and saw him, she burst into tears.
He crouched next to her. He held a hand to her forehead. His eyes filled with concern. He went back upstairs and returned with a moist, cool cloth, which he pressed to her cheeks.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he said moments later, helping her into a taxi. “Let me come with you.”
“I’m fine,” she said, and promptly leaned out of the car to be sick. The cabdriver observed this with alarm through the rearview mirror. Peter lifted the hems of his pants to inspect his shoes and leaned forward to examine Isabel more thoroughly. His eyebrows formed a lopsided
“I’m coming with you,” he declared. “Wait while I get my coat.”
“No, really, I’m fine.” She groped through her purse for a tissue, beyond mortified. She couldn’t stand for him to see her like this. “Stay,” she insisted, waving a hand in the general direction of the party. “Really. I’ll be fine. Stay and ring in the New Year.”
“Are you sure?”
“Completely.” She sniffed, nodded, and straightened her shoulders.
He watched a moment longer and said, “Drink lots of water. And take Tylenol.”
She nodded. Even in her inebriated state, she could tell that he was considering whether to kiss her. She took mercy on him, pulled the door shut on her taffeta dress, and waved the driver onward.
Isabel had no idea what happened after she left. The party hadn’t quite reached the lampshade stage, but that was certainly the trajectory-veiled grief, an endless supply of alcohol, and resentment on the part of a select few over Peter’s appointment made for a strange and unpredictable atmosphere. Peter had been at the lab for only a year, and there were some who felt the position should have gone to a person with a longer investment in the project.
Nearly twenty hours later, Isabel still felt wretched. She leaned her belly against the edge of the counter and snuck another fleeting glance at Celia, whose shoulder-to-wrist tattoos were displayed in full glory because she was wearing an orange “Peace” tank over a bright purple bra-in January. It wouldn’t surprise Isabel at all if Celia had attempted a bit of political maneuvering at the party. A little dancing, a little flirting, maybe even sidling up to Peter when the ball dropped, angling for a midnight kiss.
Isabel sighed. It wasn’t as if she could take it personally: her relationship with Peter was not yet public. He had proposed only a few days earlier, after an accelerated and passionate courtship-Isabel had never fallen so fast and so hard-but for various reasons, including an ongoing and rancorous custody battle with his ex-wife and concern over how it would be perceived by the department, he felt it best to keep things quiet until they moved in together. Besides which, although Celia apparently had no idea, Peter disliked her.
“What?” Celia stopped digging vegetable peelings out of the bottom of the sink and glanced down the length of her arm.
Isabel realized she’d been staring at the tattoos. She turned her eyes back to the dishes. “Nothing. I just have a headache.”
Bonzi rounded the corner and ambled up to them. Lola rode on her back, jockey-style, tiny fingers laced over her mother’s shoulders.
Celia looked over her shoulder and called out, “Bonzi, did you try to kiss the visitor?”
Bonzi grinned gleefully and spun on her behind, propelling herself with her feet. She touched her fingers to her lips and then her cheek, twice, before crossing both hands over her chest, signing, KISS KISS BONZI LOVE.
Celia laughed. “And what about Mbongo? Did he also love the visitor?”
Bonzi considered for a moment and then wiggled her fingers beneath her chin and swept her hand downward, signing, DIRTY BAD! DIRTY BAD!
“Did Mbongo think the visitor was a dumbass?” continued Celia, stacking clean plates.
“Celia!” Isabel barked. “Language!”
This was precisely why Peter had been unhappy when Richard Hughes had bestowed the coveted internship on Celia over a half-dozen other deserving candidates. He was worried about her colorful language. If one of the bonobos picked up an offensive phrase and used it the requisite number of times in proper context, it would have to be included in the official lexicon. It was one thing when a bonobo came up with an insult like “dirty bad toilet” on his own, and quite another to acquire “dumbass” from a human.
Although Bonzi had been conversing with Celia, she was now looking intently at Isabel. Her expression shifted to worry. SMILE HUG, she signed. BONZI LOVE VISITOR, KISS KISS.
“Don’t worry, Bonzi. I’m not mad at you,” Isabel said, speaking and signing simultaneously. She threw an accusatory glare in Celia’s direction to drive her point home. “Don’t you want to watch the rest of the movie?”
“Sure, I can make coffee.”
WANT CANDY COFFEE. ISABEL GO. HURRY GIMME.
Isabel laughed and assumed a posture of mock offense. “You don’t like my coffee?”
Bonzi sat on her haunches, looking sheepish. Lola climbed over her shoulder and blinked at Isabel.
“Touch?. Neither do I,” Isabel conceded. “You want a caramel macchiato?”
Bonzi yipped excitedly. GOOD DRINK. GO HURRY, said her hands.
“Okay. You want marshmallow on that?” said Isabel, using Bonzi’s term for the sweet froth on the top.
SMILE SMILE, HUG HUG.
Isabel threw the damp dish towel over her shoulder and wiped her still-clammy hands on her thighs.
“You want me to go?” Celia said.
“Sure. Thanks.” Isabel was surprised by the offer, and also grateful, on account of her lingering headache. Celia’s shift had technically ended almost a quarter of an hour earlier. “I’ll finish up here.”
Celia waited as Isabel lined the carts up against the wall. “Ahem,” she said finally.
Isabel looked up. “What?”
“Can I take your car? Mine’s in the shop.”
Mystery solved. Isabel nearly laughed out loud. Celia wanted a ride home at the end of the night.
Isabel patted her pockets until a lump jingled.
GRAB PICTURE, said Bonzi.
“Take the video camera,” Isabel said, tossing the keys in a perfect arc. “And make sure you ask for decaf. And skim milk.”
Celia nodded and snatched the keys from the air.
All the bonobos-but especially Bonzi-loved watching videos of humans carrying out their requests. The bonobos used to ride along on limited errands, but all that stopped two years ago on the day Bonzi decided to steer the car and nearly wrapped it around a telephone pole. She’d simply reached across and grabbed the steering wheel. Isabel managed to brake before impact, but not before running off the road. This happened less than a week after Dr. Hughes’s car was swarmed at a McDonald’s drive-through when the driver of a passenger van in front of them glanced in his rearview mirror and spied Mbongo-who had successfully talked his way into a rare and cherished cheeseburger-riding shotgun. Moments later adults and children alike mobbed the car screaming, “Monkey! Monkey!” while trying to thrust their arms through the windows. Mbongo’s response was to dive beneath the backseat as Dr. Hughes closed the windows, but that, followed by the Bonzi-steering episode, sounded the death knell for public outings.
The bonobos missed their contact with the outside world (although, when asked, they were absolutely firm in their belief that the double electric fence and moat around their outside play yard was there to keep people and cats out rather than bonobos in), so now Isabel and the others brought the outside world to them by video. At this point, the local shopkeepers thought nothing of being filmed for the viewing pleasure of the neighborhood apes.
“Try to run over some protesters while you’re at it,” said Isabel.
“There’s nobody out there,” said Celia.
“Really?” said Isabel. There had been a gaggle of protesters outside the gates every day for almost a year, silently holding placards that showed great apes undergoing terrible procedures. Since the protesters obviously had no clue as to the nature of the work being done at the language lab, Isabel always ignored them.
Celia opened the viewfinder of the video camera and then flicked the switch to check its battery. “Larry-Harry-Gary and Green-Haired Freaky Dude were there before dinner but they were gone when I went out for a smoke.”
“‘Green-Haired Freaky Dude’? This from the girl with hot pink hair?”
“It is not hot pink,” Celia said, fingering a pixie curl in front of her ear. “It’s fuchsia. And I have nothing against his hair color. I just think he, himself, is an asshat.”
“Celia! Language!” Isabel whipped her head around and noted with relief that Bonzi had wandered back into the TV room, thereby missing this opportunity to enrich her vocabulary. “You have
Celia shrugged. “What? They didn’t hear me.”
Isabel felt her eyes wander over to Celia again. The intern’s body art fascinated and repulsed Isabel almost equally. A labyrinthine swirl of nudes and mermaids tumbled down her shoulders and frolicked along her forearms, their hair and breasts entwined with the scaly limbs and tails of creatures borne from hell. A smattering of horseshoes and daisy-eyed skulls rained down on the whole, which was sharply rendered in reddish pinks, yellows, purples, and ghostly bluish greens. Isabel was only eight years older than Celia, but her own brand of rebellion had been to bury her nose in books and ride the scholarship train away from home as far and fast as possible.
“Okay. I’m off,” Celia declared, tucking the video camera under her arm. Isabel went back to the dishes, listening as Celia’s footsteps receded down the hallway.
A moment later, the door creaked open. Isabel spun on her heels. “Wait! You do have a valid driver’s-”
The door slammed shut. Isabel stared at it for a moment, then tucked a bottle of Lubriderm under her arm and went in to watch the end of the movie.
Sam had reasserted ownership of the ball, and Mbongo was sulking in his nest, the picture of desolation. He wore his new backpack, whose concave shape betrayed the ball’s absence. His shoulders slumped forward, and he hugged his arms across his chest. Isabel knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Did Sam take his ball back?” she asked, signing and speaking at the same time.
Mbongo stared forlornly ahead.
“Do you need a hug?” asked Isabel.
At first he didn’t respond. Then he signed with a flurry: KISS HUG, KISS HUG.
Isabel leaned in and took his head in both hands. She kissed his creased forehead and straightened his long black hair. “Poor Mbongo,” she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “I’ll tell you what. Tomorrow I’ll get you another ball. But don’t carry this one in your teeth. Okay?”
The bonobo pulled his lips back in a smile and nodded quickly.
“Do you need some oil? Let me check your hands,” said Isabel, reaching for his arm.
Mbongo obligingly stretched it toward her. Isabel took his hand and ran her fingers over it. Although the lab had humidifiers going all the time in the winter, the air still couldn’t compete with that of the bonobos’ native Congo Basin.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. She squeezed a glob of Lubriderm onto her palm and massaged it into his long, heavily knuckled hand.
As one, the bonobos turned to face the hallway.
“What is it?” Isabel looked from face to face, puzzled.
VISITOR, signed Bonzi. The rest of the apes remained motionless, their eyes trained on the door.
“No, not a visitor. The visitors left. The visitors are gone,” said Isabel.
The apes continued to stare down the hallway. Sam’s hair rose until it stood on end, and a pricking like tiny spiders crept over Isabel’s neck and scalp. She rose and muted the TV.
Finally she heard it-a muffled rustling.
Sam pulled his lips back and screamed,
The rustling stopped, but all eyes-human and ape-remained on the hallway. After a moment, the rustling was replaced by a muted jiggling.
Sam’s nostrils flared. He turned to Isabel and signed urgently, VISITOR, SMOKE.
“No, not a visitor. It’s probably just Celia,” Isabel said, although she couldn’t hide the apprehension in her voice. Celia hadn’t had time to get the coffee and return. Besides, Celia would just come in.
Sam stood up and swaggered a few bipedal steps.
The females swung to an even higher perch and backed against the wall. Mbongo and Jelani darted around the corners of the room on all fours.
Isabel let herself out through the partition that defined the bonobos’ inner sanctum and stopped to check that it was locked behind her. In eight years of daily contact, she’d never seen the bonobos act like this. Their adrenaline was contagious.
She flicked on the light. The hallway looked as it always did. The noise, whatever it was, had stopped.
“Celia?” Isabel asked tentatively. There was no answer.
She walked toward the door that led to the parking lot. When she glanced behind her, Sam galloped silently past the doorway of the group room, a dark and muscled mass.
Isabel reached for the doorknob and then retracted her hand. She leaned in close to the door, her forehead nearly touching it.
“Celia? Is that-”
The explosion blasted the door entirely out of its frame. As it carried her backward, she processed that she and the door were being propelled down the hall by a billowing, rolling wall of fire. She felt lucid and detached, parsing the events as though examining consecutive frames of a video. Since there was no time to react, she recorded.
When she slammed into the wall, she noted that her skull stopped moving before her brain did. When the door came to a stop against her, trapping her upright, she observed that the left side of her face-the side she’d had pressed against the door-took the brunt of the impact. When her eyes filled with stars and her mouth with blood, she filed these facts away for future reference. She watched helplessly as the fireball whooshed past the door and rolled onward toward the apes. When the door finally tipped forward and released her, she crumpled to the ground. She couldn’t breathe, but she did not appear to be on fire. Her eyes shifted to the empty doorway.
Shadowy figures in black clothes and balaclavas swarmed in and spread out, strangely, frighteningly silent.
Crowbars swung and glass flew, but the people didn’t speak. It wasn’t until one of them knelt briefly by her head, with oversized rubber-band lips mouthing the word “Shit!” that she realized she couldn’t hear. And still she couldn’t breathe. She fought to keep her eyes open, fought the crushing weight in her chest.
Black-and-white static, the roar of a million bees interrupted by the fluttering of her own eyelids. A vision of boots running past her. She lay on her back with her head tilted to the right. She moved her tongue, fat as a sea slug, and pushed one, two, and then three teeth from the corner of her mouth. More static, longer this time. Then blinding light and crushing pain. She was suffocating. Her eyes drifted shut.
Time passed-how much, she didn’t know-but suddenly she was being yanked around. An acrid latexed finger swept through her mouth, and a bright pinpoint of light illuminated the veined landscape of her inner lids. Her eyes sprung open.
Faces hovered over her, speaking urgently to each other. She heard them as though through surf. Gloved hands scissored roughly through her T-shirt and bra. Someone suctioned out her nose and mouth and covered them both with a mask.
“-respiratory distress. No breath sounds on the left.”
“She has a tracheal shift. Get a line in.”
“I’m in. Any crepitus?”
Fingers massaged her chest. Something inside cracked and popped like bubble wrap.
Isabel tried to gasp, but succeeded only in producing a rasping wheeze.
“You’re going to be okay,” said the voice attached to the hand attached to the oxygen mask. “Do you know where you are?”
Isabel tried to inhale, and the pain was like a thousand knives. She mewed into the mask.
A male face appeared above hers: “You’re going to feel something cold on your skin. We have to insert a needle to help you breathe.”
A freezing swipe of antiseptic, a long needle flashing above her and then down and into her chest. The pain was excruciating, but accompanied by instant relief. Air hissed through the needle and her lung reinflated. She could breathe again. She gasped and sucked so hard the mask inverted against her face. She clawed at it, but the hand holding it stayed firm, and Isabel discovered that even though it flattened against her face, it still delivered oxygen. It stank of PVC, like cheap shower curtains and the type of bath toys she avoided buying for the bonobos because she’d read that they exuded fake estrogens when the material began to break down.
“Get her on a backboard.”
Hands maneuvered her sideways, holding her head, then eased her onto her back. A radio sputtered in the background.
“We have a female, mid- to late twenties, victim of an explosion. Tension pneumothorax-needle decompression performed in the field. Breath sounds present. Facial and oral trauma. Head injury. Altered level of consciousness. Ready to evacuate-ETA seventeen minutes.”
She let her eyes drift shut and the bees swarmed again. The world was spinning, she was nauseated. When the crisp night air hit her face, her lids snapped open. Each movement of the gurney was amplified as its wheels crunched through the gravel.
The parking lot was full of flashing lights and sirens. Velcro straps prevented Isabel from turning her head, so instead she turned her gaze. Celia was off to the side, screaming and crying and pleading with firemen to let her past. She was still clutching a cardboard tray of grande caramel macchiatos. When she caught sight of the gurney, the tray and drinks splattered to the ground. The video camera swung from a strap on her wrist.
“Isabel!” she wailed. “Oh my God!
When the front wheels of the gurney met the back of the vehicle and folded beneath her, Isabel caught a glimpse of a dark shadow at the top of a tree, and then another, and then another, and she bleated into the mask. At least half the bonobos had made it out.
The ceiling of the ambulance replaced the starry night and her eyes flickered shut. Someone yanked them open, first one, and then the other, and shone a light into them. Against the ambulance interior she saw faces and uniforms and gloved hands, bags of intravenous fluid and crisscrossing tubes. Voices boomed and radios hissed and someone was calling her name but she was helpless against the riptide. She tried to stay with them-it seemed the polite thing to do, given that they now knew her name-but she couldn’t. Their voices echoed and swirled as she sank into a chasm that was beyond the bees and darker than black. It was the complete absence of everything.