4

Isabel drifted in and out of a swirling rush. It wasn’t sleep, because she was aware of things happening-people speaking, but not understandably, swooshing noises as she zoomed from tunnel to tunnel-this one orange, this one blue, this one green. Hands manipulated her body and her face, and she suffered the occasional discomfort of being punctured. But reacting or moving didn’t occur to her, and it was just as well, because it wasn’t a possibility. Finally the colors and noise submerged into a merciful, vacuous black.

A high-pitched beeping and intermittent wheezing disturbed her rest, stirring and prodding from the depths. She tried to ignore it like she would a fly, but like a fly, it was insistent. Finally, she surfaced.

She blinked several times and found herself looking at pressed ceiling tiles. Her peripheral vision was obscured by her own swollen flesh.

“Look who’s awake.”

Peter’s face appeared above her, smiling. His eyes had dark crescents beneath them and his chin was flecked in stubble.

“The nurses said you were coming around.” He pulled a chair up and sat next to her, reaching through the bars in the bed rail. His hand was warm and familiar to her: he was missing the first two sections of his left index finger, bitten off by a chimpanzee while he was doing graduate work at a primate center in Rockwell, Oklahoma. She tried to tighten her fingers around his, but was too weak. He reached through with his other hand and stilled hers.

Isabel mumbled, but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Her tongue moved, but her teeth wouldn’t budge.

“Your jaw is wired. Don’t try to talk.”

She lifted a hand and found it encumbered by a finger clamp and loops of IV tubing. She freed the other from Peter’s grasp and gingerly investigated her face. Her fingers met a maze of plaster, gauze, and tape, the tender lumps of swollen lip and lines of wire crisscrossing the brackets that had been glued onto her remaining teeth. Her eyes swung to Peter. She signed, TELL ME.

“Your jaw is broken and you have a concussion. They had to reinflate your lung, so you have a chest tube, and your nose-”

NOT ME. THE APES.

Her efforts were truncated and awkward. She fumbled through the spelling of words that usually took two hands to sign, and improvised others.

“Ah,” he said.

PETER?

“They’re… kay.” The corners of his lips twitched upward in an attempt to smile, but his eyes gave him away.

A cry escaped Isabel’s wired mouth.

INJURED?

“No. I don’t think so. But we’re not sure. They’re still in the trees. In the parking lot. They won’t come down.”

ALL OF THEM?

“Yes.” He stroked her hand and spoke calmly. “Everyone is working on it. The fire department is there. The Humane Society and Animal Control are there. I’ve been going back and forth.”

Isabel let her gaze drift to the ceiling, and then to the window. Sleet drummed the pane, fat droplets of near-hail that coated the black glass. Her eyes welled with tears.

“It will be okay. I promise you,” he said. He took a jagged breath and let his forehead rest on the bed rail. “Thank God you’re awake. I was terrified…”

TAKE ME THERE. PLEASE. IT’S TOO COLD. THEY’LL DIE.

The beeping of her heart monitor sped up.

“Isabel, I can’t.”

MAKENA IS PREGNANT.

“I know, and I promise I’ll make sure she’s okay.”

WHO DID THIS? WHY?

“Extremists. The bastards claim they ‘liberated’ the apes. Wait till you see the video statement. Very Al Qaeda. It’s all over the Internet.” He clenched and unclenched his jaw, his eyes fixed on some point beyond the wall. He suddenly seemed to realize she was watching and softened. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just…” He looked down and was silent. A moment later, she realized his shoulders were heaving. He was crying.

After a while he collected himself, wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands. “When you’re up to it, the police want to talk to you.”

She blinked deliberately to indicate assent.

“There’s something else you should know. Celia has been taken in for questioning.”

Isabel’s eyes snapped open. OUR CELIA? ARRESTED?

“No. Not exactly. But she’s being held as a ‘person of interest.’ Apparently she has a background in animal activism. I wish I could say I’m surprised.”

Isabel’s mind raced back over Celia’s time at the lab. Although Isabel had shared several of Peter’s concerns over language, she had never doubted Celia’s devotion to the bonobos.

NO. THEY’RE WRONG. I DON’T BELIEVE IT.

Peter looked on sadly. Isabel closed her eyes, sending tears down her cheeks.

A silence stretched between them, broken by the patter of hail and all it implied for the tree-bound apes. When she opened her eyes again, Peter was staring at her. He exhaled, and raked a hand through his hair.

SHOW ME.

He nodded reluctantly. “Are you sure?”

YES.

He looked around the room, in the bathroom, and then went into the hall. After a few minutes, he came back with a hand mirror. He stood by the bed, pressing the reflective side against his sweater.

“This is all very fresh-you know that, right? You have the best plastic surgeons in the city. You’re going to look fine. You’re going to be fine.”

Isabel stared, waiting.

Peter cleared his throat and positioned the mirror above her. He tilted its flashing surface until a face came into view.

Isabel found herself looking at a complete stranger. The scalp and cheeks were swathed in gauze. The nose was broad and smashed, with an absurd nose diaper taped loosely beneath the oxygen piping to catch the bloody runoff. Its flesh was swollen and blue, with specks of reddish purple. The eyes were slits between swollen pads of flesh and the white of one was scarlet. Trembling fingers appeared beside the face, and these were indisputably hers. The mirror disappeared.

Isabel took a moment to absorb what she’d seen. She looked to Peter for comfort but he was still clenching and unclenching his jaw.

MY HAIR? GONE?

“For now. You have fifty-some stitches in your scalp.”

TEETH?

“You lost five, I think. You can get implants. And the stitches, all under the hairline. When it grows back no one will know. Really, it could have been so much worse. You could have been burned.”

The clock ticked, the sleet pelted.

DID YOU CALL MY MOTHER?

“I did.”

AND?

Peter paused and reached for her hand. He brought her fingertips to his lips. “Oh, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. I really am.”

***

The police came by that afternoon, two plainclothes detectives in dripping shell jackets. They stood some distance from the bed as they waited for the ASL interpreter, and were clearly uncomfortable. Isabel remembered the vision in the mirror and understood their reticence.

When the interpreter finally arrived, Isabel shook off her oxy-pulse finger clip and let loose with a flurry of double-handed signs.

The interpreter watched her hands and then spoke. “Are the apes still up in the trees? Have they had any water or food? It’s too cold for them. They’re delicate. Prone to pneumonia. Flu. One of them is pregnant. Who is with them?”

The detectives exchanged glances. The older of the two asked the interpreter, “Can you please tell her we need her to answer some questions?”

“Speak to her,” he replied, cocking his head toward Isabel.

“All right,” said the detective. He shifted his reluctant gaze to Isabel, who blinked expectantly. He cleared his throat and practically shouted, leaving a space between words and phrases. “How many… eople… ntered… he lab… fter… he explosion?”

I AM NOT DEAF, she replied. As an afterthought she added, FOUR, MAYBE FIVE.

“Did you recognize any of them?” The cop’s brow glistened and his eyes swung between Isabel and the interpreter, clearly unsure about whether to look at the hands that created the words or the mouth that uttered them.

NO. THEY WERE WEARING FACE MASKS.

The other cop spoke: “Is it true that Celia Honeycutt exited the lab immediately before the explosion?”

YES.

“Was she acting strange in any way?”

NO.

“Nervous? On edge?”

NO. NOTHING.

“The people who entered after the explosion-did any of them say anything?”

COULD NOT HEAR. EXPLOSION.

“You didn’t hear or see anything-”

COULD NOT BREATHE. COULD NOT HEAR.

“Dr. Benton said an animal rights group usually has a presence right outside the lab. Were any of them in the lab that night?”

DON’T KNOW. FACE MASKS. I ALREADY SAID.

“What do you know about them?”

ALMOST NOTHING. THERE’S A GUY NAMED HARRY, LARRY, OR GARY. MIDDLE-AGED. TALL. WELL-DRESSED. AND A GREEN-HAIRED KID. THERE’S ONE TATTOOED KID AND A FEW WITH DREADLOCKS AND SMELLY PONCHOS. A COUPLE OF PREPPY TYPES. MOSTLY THEY JUST LOOK LIKE STUDENTS.

“Have they ever threatened you?”

NO. THEY WAVE SIGNS WHEN WE DRIVE PAST.

“Have they identified themselves as part of an organization?”

I DON’T KNOW. HAVEN’T SPOKEN TO THEM.

“You’ve never heard them say anything about the Earth Liberation League?”

NO.

“Did you notice anything strange last night?”

YOU MEAN OTHER THAN BEING BLOWN UP?

The detective scratched his forehead with stubby fingers. “Before that. Did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary?”

NO. BUT THE BONOBOS DID. THEY KNEW SOMEONE WAS OUT THERE. THEY SMELLED SMOKE. ASK THEM WHEN THEY COME DOWN.

“What?” The detective froze with his pen pressed to his pad. “No, never mind,” he said. He sighed, put his pad and pen in his shirt pocket, and massaged his temples. “Okay, well, thank you for your time,” he said, addressing a portion of wall between Isabel and the balding interpreter. “I hope you feel better soon.”

GET THE APES DOWN, said Isabel. AND TALK TO THEM.

She stared resentfully as the police thanked the interpreter and left. She knew they had no intention of speaking with the apes, even though it was clear the apes knew more than anyone. She knew the police thought she was nuts. She had encountered this reaction more times than she could recall, but never, never, had she felt so desperate about it.

***

A nurse brought Isabel’s dinner, which consisted of clear liquids. Juice of some sort, and a brown plastic thermos of clear broth with stiff green flakes sprinkled on the surface. The nurse, Beulah, turned to Isabel.

“You’re looking much better. Ready for some dinner? I know, it doesn’t look like much, but your doctors want us to take it slowly. How about some TV?”

Beulah raised the head of Isabel’s bed and flicked on the television. She took a seat by Isabel, dropped the bed rail, and reached for the juice.

“Don’t try to lean forward. I’ll come to you,” she said, guiding the straw to Isabel’s lips.

Isabel sucked some apple juice through the straw. It was almost painfully sweet. Her tongue was huge and clumsy, and she was suddenly aware of stitches along its side, poking out like the stiff spines of a caterpillar. It took a couple of tries to coax the liquid down her throat.

“You all right?” asked Beulah, looking momentarily back at Isabel.

Isabel nodded weakly.

“I can’t stand the news anymore,” said Beulah, reaching for the remote control. “Everything’s so depressing. The economy, that oil spill, the war…”

Isabel touched Beulah’s hand to still it. The scene had just cut to the parking lot of the language lab, with a newscaster standing out in the drizzle. She wore a yellow hooded raincoat, her shoulders hunched against the cold. People crowded around the edges of the parking lot beyond brightly painted barricades.

“… ontinuing drama playing out at the Great Ape Language Lab at the University of Kansas. The public is urged to remember that while these apes have a peaceful reputation, they are still wild animals, many times stronger than adult male humans, and capable of inflicting grievous injury, even ripping off limbs…”

Isabel’s eyes shot open.

The camera panned past the tops of the trees, where the bonobos sat miserable and wet, huddled against the trunk, seeking protection from the wind.

“Many groups have converged in an effort to save the endangered animals, which have been stranded in the treetops since an explosion last night destroyed the building that housed them and critically injured one of the scientists. Today the home of the university president was vandalized. The animal rights extremist group Earth Liberation League has claimed responsibility for the attacks in a video released on the Internet, but the authorities have yet to… h! My goodness!”

A crack resounded, and the camera swung to a man with a gun on his shoulder and then to the top of a tree. At first, there was nothing. Then one of the bonobos began to sway. Amid screeching and yipping, the others plucked the tranquilizer dart out of his thigh and tossed it to the ground, but it was too late. The stricken bonobo-was it Sam or Mbongo? It was too dark and too distant for Isabel to tell-collapsed and dropped from the ring of hairy black arms that tried to keep him upright. Another crack, another bonobo. This one seemed to split in two midfall, the parts spinning and tumbling through the tree branches. One landed in the center of a piece of round canvas held at its edges by firemen. The other part-Lola, Isabel now realized-hit the frame and bounced back into the air. There was a collective gasp from the crowd and news crew alike as the firemen lunged forward with outstretched arms.

Isabel let out a muffled cry and struggled to get upright. She knocked the juice from the nurse’s hand, spilling it across both of them. The insulated brown thermos slid across a puddle of condensation, as if pushed by an invisible hand, the broth sloshing from side to side.

“Stop. You’ll hurt yourself! Stop!” said Beulah, and when Isabel did not, she pressed the red call button and held Isabel’s wrists and shouted for help, which came pattering down the hall in the form of other uniformed figures and a syringe that was emptied into the valve on Isabel’s intravenous line.

Well, thought Isabel, when she realized what had just happened, at least they didn’t shoot me out of a tree. The television and its falling bonobos was clicked off, and shortly thereafter Isabel sank back against the lowered bed, her panicked desperation neutered by the blissful numbing of drugs.

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