I still didn’t believe the troop could have seen me, heard me, or smelled me, but they must have detected me somehow, because obviously they were not merely expressing their distaste for the undistinguished architecture of the bungalow. They were in a rage of a kind that I had seen before, a fury they reserved for humanity.
Furthermore, by their schedule, dinnertime had probably arrived. In lieu of a mouse or juicy spider, I was the meat dish, a refreshing change from their usual fare of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, and birds’ eggs.
I turned a hundred eighty degrees from the window and headed across the living room, hands out in front of me. I was moving fast, blindly trusting in my familiarity with these houses. My shoulder clipped the casing on a doorway, and I pushed through a half-open door into the dining room.
Although the monkeys continued to restrain themselves, operating in attack-status silence, I heard the hollow thumping of their paws on the wooden floor of the porch. I hoped they would hesitate at the front entrance, tempering their rancor with caution long enough for me to put a little ground between us.
A tattered blind, though askew, covered most of the single window in the small dining room. Too little light penetrated to bring meaningful relief from the gloom.
I kept moving, because I knew that the door to the kitchen was directly in line with the living-room door through which I had just entered. This time, passing from room to room, I didn’t even knock my shoulder against the jamb.
No blinds or curtains covered the pair of windows over the sink in the kitchen. Painted with a thin wash of moonlight, they had that ghostly phosphorous glow of television screens just after you switch them off.
Under my feet, the aging linoleum popped and cracked. If any members of the troop had entered the house behind me, I couldn’t hear them above the noise that I was making.
The air was thick with a foul miasma that made me want to retch. A rat or some wild animal must have died in a corner of the kitchen or in one of the cabinets, where it was now decomposing.
Holding my breath, I hurried to the back door, which featured a large pane of glass in the upper half. It was locked.
When this was a military base, personal security had been assured, and no one who lived inside the fence had reason to fear crime. Consequently, the locks were simple, keyed only from the outside.
I felt for the doorknob, which would have a lock-release button in the center. Found it. I would have turned it and torn open the door — except that the shadow of a leaping monkey flew up across the glass and fell away just as my hand closed on the cold brass.
I quietly released the knob and retreated two steps, considering my options. I could open the door and, pistol blazing, stride boldly through the murderous monkey multitudes as though I were Indiana Jones minus bullwhip and fedora, relying on sheer panache to survive. The only alternative was to remain in the kitchen and wait to see what happened next.
A monkey leaped onto the sill of one of the windows above the sink. Gripping the casing to keep its balance, it pressed against the glass, peering into the kitchen.
Because this mangy gremlin was silhouetted against moonlight, I could see no details of its face. Just its hot-ember eyes. The faint white crescent of its humorless grin.
Turning its head left and right and left again, it rolled its eyes, squinted, then went wide-eyed once more. By following its questing gaze, which roamed the kitchen, I deduced that it couldn’t see me in the darkness.
Options. Stay here and be trapped. Plunge into the night only to be dragged down and savaged under the mad moon.
These weren’t options, because either choice guaranteed an identical outcome. The worst kook surfer knows that whether you get sucked over the falls on a fully macking shore break or just get pitched off the board and do a faceplant in some seaweed soup, the result is the same: wipeout.
Another monkey leaped onto the sill at the second window.
Like most of us in this movie-besotted, Hollywood-corrupted world, if I succumbed to the narcissist in me and listened to my mind’s ear, I could probably hear a film score underlying my every waking moment: gluey sentimental string-section indulgences when I am stricken by sadness or sorrow; tear-evoking, heart-stirring full-orchestra rhapsodies when I enjoy a triumph; droll piano riffs during my not infrequent spells of foolishness. Sasha insists that I look like the late James Dean, and even though I don’t see the resemblance, I am appalled and ashamed to say that at times I take pleasure in this supposed resemblance to such a celebrated figure; indeed, it would require little effort for me to conduct periods of my life with the edgy score of
Although I am as capable of self-delusion as the next guy, I decided against the most cinematic of my options, electing not to swashbuckle into the night. After all, though charismatic, James Dean is no Harrison Ford. In the majority of his handful of movies, sooner or later he got the crap beaten out of him.
I quickly sidled across the floor, away from the windows, but also away from the entrance to the dining room. Within a few feet, I bumped into cabinetry.
These cabinets would match those in every house in Dead Town: plain but sturdy, with birch frames, their shiplap doors painted so often that the shallow grooves created by the overlapping joints had all but disappeared under the many coats. The work counters would be laminated with one color or another of speckled Formica.
Before any of the troop entered the kitchen from the front of the house, I needed to get off the floor. If I stood with my back to a wall, pressed into a corner, dead motionless, breathing as noiselessly as a fish passing water through its gills, I was still certain to give myself away. The linoleum was so curled and so undermined by tiny pockets of air that it would crackle and pop from any unintentional shift of weight, from no more than a heavy
In spite of darkness so thick that it seemed viscous, and in spite of a stench of decomposition strong enough to mask any scent of me that they might otherwise detect, I didn’t think I’d have much chance of escaping the troop’s notice during a search of the kitchen, even if they conducted it strictly by touch. Nevertheless, I had to give it a try.
If I climbed onto the countertop, I would be restricted by the narrow space between the Formica and the upper cabinets. I’d have to lie on my left side, facing out toward the room. After drawing my knees toward my chest, curling compactly into the fetal position, so as to occupy as small a space as possible and to make myself more difficult to locate, I wouldn’t be in an ideal posture to fight back if I was found by one of those walking condominiums for lice.
By body contact alone, I followed the cabinetry to the corner, where the kitchen in every one of these bungalows features a broom closet with a tall lower compartment and a single shelf at the top. If I was able to squeeze into that narrow space and close the door after me, at least I would be off the treacherous linoleum and beyond easy reach if the troop probed-poked-groped-tapped its way around the room.
At the end of the cabinet row, I discovered the broom closet where I’d expected it to be — but the door was missing. With dismay, I felt one bent and broken hinge, then the other, and patted air where the door should have been, as though just the right series of magical gestures would charm the door into existence again.
Unless the horde of monkeys that had followed Curious George onto the front porch was still huddled there, devising strategy or discussing the price of coconuts, I was nearly out of time.
My hidey-hole was suddenly more hole than hidey.
Unfortunately, no alternative presented itself.
I fished the spare magazine of ammunition from its pocket in my holster and clutched it in my left hand.
Holding the Glock ready in front of me, I eased backward into the broom closet — and wondered if the reek of death that saturated the kitchen might have its maggoty source in this cramped space. My stomach slithered like a ball of copulating eels, but nothing squished under my shoes.
The closet was just wide enough to admit me. To fit, I had to scrunch my shoulders only slightly. Although I am nearly six feet tall, I didn’t have to hunch down; however, the underside of the storage shelf pressed hard enough against my
To avoid second thoughts and an attack of claustrophobia, I decided not to pass the time by listing the ways in which my hiding place was like a coffin.
As it turned out, I didn’t have any time to pass. No sooner had I stashed myself in the broom closet than monkeys entered the kitchen from the dining room.
I heard them just beyond the threshold, revealed only by a barely audible conspiratorial hissing and muttering. They hesitated, apparently scoping the situation, then entered at a rush, lantern eyes aglow as they fanned out to both sides of the door, like SWAT-team cops in a TV drama.
The crackling linoleum startled them. One squeaked in surprise, and they all froze.
As far as I could determine, this first squad consisted of three members. I couldn’t see anything but their shining eyes, which were revealed only during the moments when they were facing in my direction. Because they were standing still, swiveling just their heads as they surveyed the black room, I could be sure that I wasn’t seeing the same pair of eyes as a single individual progressed from place to place.
I was breathing shallowly through my mouth, not solely because this method was comparatively quiet. Using my nose would result in a more sickening exposure to the vile stink. Already, a sludge of nausea oozed back and forth in my belly. Now I was beginning to be able to
After a pause to analyze the situation, the bravest of the three monkeys moved — and then went rigid when the linoleum protested noisily again.
One of its pals took a step with the same result, and it, too, halted warily.
A nerve began to twitch in my left calf. I hoped to God it wouldn’t develop into a painful cramp.
Following a lengthy silence, the most timid member of the squad issued a thin whine. It sounded fearful.
Call me insensitive, call me cruel, call me a mutant-monkey hater, but under the circumstances, I was pleased by the anxiety in its voice.
Their apprehension was so palpable that if I said “Boo,” they would leap, screaming, straight to the ceiling and hang there by their fingernails. Monkey stalactites.
Of course, totally pissed by that little trick, they would eventually come down again and, with the rest of the troop, tear my guts out. Which would spoil the joke.
If they were as spooked as I believed they were, they might conduct only a token search and retreat from the house, where after Curious George would be the troop’s equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.
The increased intelligence conferred on these rhesuses is as much a curse as a blessing to them. With higher intelligence comes an awareness of the complexity of the world, and from this awareness arises a sense of mystery, wonder. Superstition is the dark side of wonder. Creatures with simple animal intelligence fear only real things, such as their natural predators. But those of us who have higher cognitive abilities are able to torture ourselves with an infinite menagerie of imaginary threats: ghosts and goblins and vampires and brain-eating extraterrestrials. Worse, we find it difficult
I was counting on these creatures being, right now, nearly paralyzed by a daunting list of what-ifs.
One of the squad snorted as though trying to clear the stench out of its nostrils, then spat with distaste.
The wimpy one whined again.
It was answered by one of its brethren, not with another whine, but with a fierce growl that dispelled my cozy notion that all the monkeys were too spooked to linger here. The growler, at least, was not intimidated, and it sounded tough enough to ensure the discipline of the other two.
The three proceeded deeper into the kitchen, past the broom closet, and out of my line of sight. They seemed to be full of trepidation, but they were no longer inhibited by the noisy flooring.
A second squad, also composed of three members and also revealed only by their eyeshine, entered the room. They paused to survey the unpierceable darkness, and one by one they looked in my direction without any indication that they detected me.
From elsewhere in the kitchen arose the continuous crackle of the brittle linoleum. I heard a scrabbling and a thump, noises no doubt made by one of the first three monkeys as it climbed onto a counter.
The button on my cap was pressed so firmly between the crown of my head and the shelf above me that I felt as though God’s thumb was thrust against my scalp in a not so subtle announcement that my number was up, my ticket punched, my dime dropped, my license to live revoked. If I could have hunched down an inch or two, the pressure would have been relieved, but I was afraid that even with the monkeys making a racket, I would still be heard as my back and shoulders slid along the walls of the narrow closet. Besides, the twitching nerve in my leg had quickly evolved into a mild cramp, as I had feared that it would; even a minor change in my position might contract the calf muscle and cause the pain to flare into intolerable agony.
A member of the second squad began to move slowly toward me, its bright eyes sliding nervously from side to side while it felt its way through the cloying murk. As the clever little beast approached, I could hear it rhythmically slapping its right hand against the wall to keep itself oriented.
In another corner of the room, rusted hinges squeaked. One of the shiplap doors banged shut, its loose joints rattling.
Evidently, they were opening the cabinets and fumbling blindly inside.
I had hoped that they would not be intelligent enough to conduct a thorough search or, conversely, that they would be too intelligent to endanger themselves by poking blindly into places where an armed man might be waiting to blast them to monkey hell. They were smart enough to be thorough, all right, but too reckless to be as cautious as the situation required. From past encounters, I had already known all this about them; but having jammed myself into the broom coffin, having regretted doing so almost as soon as I was encased, I’d been in denial.
The wall slapper was still coming toward me, no more than three feet away. Its eyes continued to blaze at the gloom on all sides of it, not just at me.
More hinges squeaked. A warped cabinet door stuttered open with some resistance, and another door banged shut.
The cramp in my calf abruptly became more severe. Hot. Sharp. I clenched my teeth to keep from groaning. I had a headache, too: The cap button felt as if it had been pressed all the way through my skull, into my brain, and had begun working its way out through my right eye. My neck ached. My scrunched shoulders didn’t feel too good, either. I had a nagging pain in the small of my back, a spot of tenderness in the gum at an upper right molar, a queasy feeling that I was developing serious hemorrhoids at the tender age of twenty-eight, and was in general feeling pretty much, you know, blah.
The wall slapper stopped slapping the wall when it reached the corner and discovered the cabinetry. It was directly in front of me now.
I was almost four feet taller than this monkey, and a hundred twenty pounds heavier. Though it was unnervingly intelligent, I was a lot smarter than it. Nevertheless, I gazed down at it with dread and loathing, cringing inwardly, with no less repulsion and fear for my life than I would have felt if this had been a demon risen straight from Hell.
It is easy to make jokes about the troop when you are at a comfortable distance from them. Yet a close encounter reduces you to primal fear, fills you with a heart-chilling sense of the
The sympathy I’d had for them earlier was still with me, markedly diminished, but I couldn’t feel the pity at all. Good.
Judging by where its bright eyes were focused and by the fumbling sounds its hands made, the monkey was exploring the face frame to which the broom-closet door should have been attached.
The Glock weighed less than three pounds, but it felt as heavy as a granite gravestone. I tightened my finger on the trigger.
I would have to count the shots as I squeezed them off — and save the last round for myself.
Above the other sounds in the kitchen, I heard the monkey pluck at one of the loose and broken hinges from which the broom-closet door had once hung.
The total depth of my pathetic hiding place was only two feet, which meant I was standing mere inches from the inquisitive primate. If it reached inside, there was no chance whatsoever that it would fail to discover me. Only the terrible stench in the kitchen prevented it from smelling me.
The cramp in my left calf twisted like barbed wire through the muscle. I was afraid that my foot was going to start twitching involuntarily.
Elsewhere in the room, a cabinet door banged shut.
Then another opened with a squeak of hinges.
Linoleum crackled under small, quick feet.
A monkey spat, as though trying to rid itself of the air’s foul taste.
I had the curious feeling that I was about to wake up and find myself safe in bed, beside Sasha.
My heart was racing, and now it hammered even faster when Sasha’s face bloomed in my mind. The possibility that I would never hear her voice again, never hold her again, never look again into her kind eyes: This was as frightening as the likelihood that I would be torn apart by the troop. And more terrifying, still, was the thought of not being at her side to help her cope with this strange and violent new world, of leaving her alone when, at the next day’s end, night returned home to Moonlight Bay once more.
Before me, the monkey remained invisible except for its luminous eyes, which seemed to grow brighter as it peered suspiciously into the broom closet. Its attention traveled upward from my feet, across my body, to my face.
Its night vision might be better than mine, but in this pure liquid blackness, which was as unrelieved as that four miles down at the bottom of the sea, I was sure that we were equally blind.
Yet our eyes locked.
We seemed to be in a staring contest, and I didn’t believe that my imagination was boiling over. The creature wasn’t looking at my brow or at the bridge of my nose; it was looking directly into
And it didn’t look away.
Although I wasn’t betrayed by eyeshine, as the monkey was, my eyes might be serving as mirrors in which its radiant glare was dimly reflected. Perhaps it detected the merest pinpoint glimmers of its own fiery scrutiny returned to it, wasn’t sure that it saw anything at all, but remained transfixed by the mystery.
I considered closing my eyes, letting the monkey’s bright stare fall upon my unreflective lids. But I was afraid that I would miss its sudden blink of comprehension and would fail to shoot it before it launched itself in at me and, perhaps, bit my gun hand or climbed my body to claw and chew my face.
Meeting its gaze at this close range, with such intensity, I was surprised that my fear and thick revulsion could coexist with a mess of other powerful emotions: anger at those who had brought this new species into existence, sorrow over the hideous oncoming corruption of this beautiful world that God has given us, wonder at the inhuman but undeniable intelligence in these strange eyes. Bleak despair, too. And loneliness. And yet…an irrational wild hope.
Standing in my line of fire, unaware that it was vulnerably exposed to an emotional basket case with a handgun, the creature burbled softly, more like a pigeon than a rhesus. The sound had an inquisitive quality.
One of the other monkeys shrieked.
I almost fired the Glock reflexively.
Two additional voices scolded the first.
In front of me, the monkey spun away from the broom closet. It scampered deeper into the kitchen, drawn by the commotion.
In fact, the uproar indicated that all six were now gathered at the farther end of the room. I saw no shining eyes turned in my direction.
They had found something of interest. I could imagine only that it was the source of the putrid odor.
As I eased up on the trigger, I realized that a glutinous mass had risen into my throat — maybe my heart, maybe my lunch — and I had to swallow hard to get it down and to be able to breathe again.
While my eyes and the monkey’s had been locked, I’d fallen into a curious physical detachment so complete that I had ceased to feel the spasms of pain in my cramping calf. Now the agony returned, worse than before.
Because all the members of the search party were distracted and making noise, I exercised the cramped muscle as best I could by shifting my weight firmly back and forth from heel to toe of my left foot. This maneuver relieved the pain somewhat, although not enough to ensure that I would be able to move gracefully if one of the monkeys invited me to waltz.
The conferring members of the search party began to jabber in louder voices. They were excited. Although I don’t believe they have a language in remotely the sense that we do, their bleats and hisses and growls and warbles were obviously argumentative. They appeared to have forgotten what they had come looking for in the first place. Easily distracted, quick to fall into disorganization, prone to put aside mutual interests in favor of quarreling among themselves — for the first time, these guys seemed an awful lot like human beings.
The longer I listened to them, the more I dared to believe that I would get out of this bungalow alive.
I was still rocking my foot, flexing and contracting my calf, when one of the quarrelers broke away from the rest of the search party and crossed the kitchen to the dining-room doorway. The instant I saw its eyeshine, I stopped moving and pretended to be a broom.
The monkey halted at the dining-room threshold and shrieked. It seemed to be calling to other members of the troop, who were, presumably, waiting outside on the front porch or searching the bedrooms.
Answering voices rose at once. They grew nearer.
The prospect of sharing this small kitchen with even more monkeys — possibly with the entire troop — punctured my half-inflated hope of survival. As my shaky confidence rapidly gave way to confident desperation, I examined my options and found no new ones.
The depth of my desperation was so abyssal that I actually asked myself what the immortal Jackie Chan would do in a situation like this. The answer was simple: Jackie would erupt out of the broom closet with an athletic leap that landed him in the very midst of the search party, drop-kick one of them between the legs, karate-chop two of them in their necks as he somersaulted to his feet, get off a cool one-liner, break the arms and legs of multiple adversaries during an astonishing pirouette of flashing fists and feet, execute a series of charming and hilarious rubber-faced expressions the likes of which no one has seen since the days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, tap-dance across the heads of the remaining members of the troop, crash through the window above the sink, and flee to safety. Jackie Chan never gets calf cramps.
More monkeys entered the kitchen. They were chattering as they came, as if the discovery of any decomposing critter was the ideal occasion to call in all the relatives, open a keg of beer, and have a hootenanny.
I couldn’t discern how many joined the original six searchers. Maybe two. Maybe four. Not more than five or six.
None of the newcomers showed the least interest in my corner of the room. They joined the others around whatever fascinating mound of rotting flesh they had discovered, and the lively argument continued.
My luck wouldn’t hold. At any moment they might decide to finish their inspection of the cabinets. The individual that had nearly discovered me might remember it had sensed something odd in this vicinity.
I considered slipping out of the broom closet, creeping along the wall, easing through the doorway, and taking refuge in a corner of the dining room, as far away from the main traffic pattern as I could get. Before they had entered the kitchen, the first squad of searchers must have satisfied themselves that no one was lurking in that chamber; they wouldn’t thoroughly inspect the same territory again.
With my cramp, I couldn’t move fast, but I could still rely on the cover of darkness, my old friend. Besides, if I had to stay where I was much longer, my nerves were going to wind so tight that I’d implode.
Just as I convinced myself that I had to move, one of the monkeys sprinted away from whatever reeking pile they had gathered to discuss, returning to the dining-room doorway. It shrieked, perhaps calling for yet additional members of the troop to come here and sniff the vile remains.
Even above the chattering and muttering of the crowd clustered around the dead thing, I could hear an answering cry from elsewhere in the bungalow.
The kitchen was only marginally less noisy than a monkey house at a zoo. Maybe the lights would come on and I’d discover myself in a Twilight Zone moment. Maybe Christopher Snow wasn’t my current identity but merely the name under which I had lived in a previous life, and now I was one of
As though I had tempted fate merely by thinking about the lights coming on, a glow arose toward the front of the house. I was aware of it, at first, solely because the monkey at the threshold of the dining room began to resolve out of the blackness, the way an image gradually solidifies on Polaroid film.
This development didn’t alarm or even surprise the beast, so I assumed that it had called for the light.
I wasn’t as sanguine about these changing circumstances as the monkey appeared to be. The shroud of darkness in which I’d been hiding was going to be stripped away.