Neema cowered in the corner of the pen, her back turned to the mass of people gathering behind her. She clutched eight-month-old Kanoni to her chest.
Dr. Grace McKenna totally sympathized with her gorilla. She didn’t want to face the crowd, either. This was the fourth tour in as many hours. With Neema’s pregnancy and Kanoni’s birth, Grace had managed to put off the event for almost eighteen months, but finally the governing board at the local college had laid down an ultimatum. Her grant was still at risk, but if she refused to hold a public display, there would definitely be no more funding for her gorilla language project.
To make matters worse, Grace’s associate Josh LaDyne had rushed off to Philadelphia after his father had a heart attack. She was stuck with managing the entire day. Neither she nor her apes were used to the din of calypso music blaring from the popcorn seller’s cart and the shouts of excited children. Her head throbbed, Neema was headed toward a temper tantrum, and there were still a couple of hours to go.
She slipped in between the gorillas and the fence. Neema, her gaze full of reproach, hunched protectively over Kanoni, who nursed at her mother’s breast with round worried eyes.
Grace placed her hands gently on the sides of Neema’s massive head and pressed her forehead to the gorilla’s. A low mournful sound rumbled from Neema’s chest.
“I know.” She kept her tone soft and low. “I know you don’t want to be here. You’re safe. Kanoni is safe. Just a little bit longer, and it will be over. Please stay calm. Please behave.”
She leaned back and peered into Neema’s cocoa-colored eyes. “Okay?” Grace made the hand signs as she spoke. “You promise to be a good gorilla, yes?”
Abruptly swinging her head upward, Neema planted a rubbery kiss on Grace’s cheek. Grace smiled and quickly brushed her hand over Kanoni’s head. She patted Neema on the shoulder, and then stepped away from them. As she neared the door, her gaze was stabbed with a piercing glint of sunlight from the lens of a television camera. Several student reporters and camera operators were attending her open house this afternoon, hoping their work would be chosen to air on the college’s local public access station, which broadcast student-produced programs twenty-four hours a day.
Grace let herself out of the cage and turned to face the crowd pressing against the wire mesh.
“I can’t see the gorillas!”
“Make him turn around!”
Grace scanned the gathering, looking for anyone who was acting strangely or was obviously sick. Her biggest worry was that a visitor would feed a gorilla a poisoned treat. Next, that an infected human would transmit a fatal disease to her apes. And third, that this event would be a disaster and the college board would cancel her funding. Their budget vote was only a week away.
“Are those monkeys real?”
“Mommyyy! Make the ‘rillas talk!”
Forcing her face into a smile, she held up her hands. “Quiet, please! The gorillas aren’t used to so many people.”
“Hey, gorilla!” A little boy laced his fingers through the temporary fencing and shook it, clanking the steel mesh against the support poles. “Hey!”
Grace leaned toward him. “Shhh! No shouting! And no yanking on the fence.”
His mother glared. Grace tried for a less strident tone as she asked the child, “What’s your name?”
The boy frowned and stuck his thumb in his mouth.
“Landon,” the mother said.
“Well, Landon, it’s like this. Neema and Kanoni want to be your friends, but when you yell at them, they think you are mean and scary.”
The boy’s expression slipped into a mischievous grin. Uh-oh. The kid liked the idea of being mean and scary.
“Landon.” Detective Matthew Finn materialized from the crowd’s midst. He squatted down and thrust his badge toward the child. “I’m a policeman. Do you know what policemen do?”
Landon’s mouth hung open as he silently regarded the dark-haired man with the shiny gold badge. He slowly shook his head.
“When people make trouble, it’s my job to take them to jail. Have you seen anyone here making trouble?” Matt looked around as if trying to spot a criminal in the crowd.
Landon quickly shook his head.
“Well, help me keep an eye out, okay?” Matt held up a hand for a high-five. After the little boy smacked his hand against his, Matt stood up.
Grace gestured a quick thank you sign to him, and he nodded back before vanishing back into the crowd. She said to the audience, “Let’s be very quiet and see if Neema wants to visit with us.”
Looking down the fence line, she spotted the camera operator again, as well as two familiar heads of strawberry blond hair. Eighteen-year-old Brittany Morgan knelt on one knee, her arms around her toddler daughter Ivy, who stared raptly through the fence at the gorillas. Grace smiled at the friendly faces.
“Neema,” Grace said softly, “Some friends came to visit you. Look! It’s Brittany. And Ivy.”
Tiny black fingers appeared on top of Neema’s broad shoulder. Then Kanoni’s head emerged, her soft black baby hair standing up in wild disarray as usual. The infant gorilla’s eyes were liquid mahogany brown, huge and curious.
The crowd murmured a collective “Awww.”
“’Noni!” Ivy chirped. The toddler’s fingers were clutched tightly to the chain links. Her red curls bobbed as she bounced on her toes. “’Noni!”
Brittany stood up. Focusing on the gorillas, she gestured in sign language as she spoke. “Neema, Kanoni, come see us.”
Neema glanced over her shoulder, suspicion darkening her eyes. Kanoni wriggled out of her arms and scampered across the grass to see Ivy. As they watched the interaction of baby human and baby gorilla, the crowd cooed and murmured. But when Neema turned and swung forward on her knuckles to follow Kanoni, several visitors gasped. Those closest to the fence took a step back.
Strangers were never quite prepared for the size of an adult gorilla, even a relatively small female like Neema. When the mother gorilla sat down a few feet behind Kanoni, the crowd visibly relaxed.
“Come here!” Landon yelled.
Unfortunately, Matt was no longer present to chastise the boy. His mother laid a warning hand on his shoulder.
“When are they gonna talk?” A freckled girl slumped against the fence.
Neema jerked her head sideways to glare at the noisy children. Then she slapped at one ear and shook both hands in the air, touched her mouth and slammed her hand down through the air.
Grace again held her hands up. “Please keep your voices soft,” she said. “Neema is talking. She uses a version of American Sign Language. She just signed loud, bad.” Grace signed the two words for the group. Inside the enclosure, Neema repeated the signs, indicating her agreement.
“Did you see that?” A young woman in the front row elbowed a friend. “Sweet!”
“Neema uses about five hundred signs, and she understands many more spoken words,” Grace explained. “She recognizes Brittany as a friend, because Brittany works here as a volunteer.”
Neema made a quick cradling motion interspersed with other gestures.
“Neema says baby Ivy here; baby Kanoni here. Ivy is the only other baby that Kanoni has ever seen.”
“Here’s another one.” A man held a squirming infant out toward the wire mesh.
Grace signed and pointed to the infant. “Neema, Kanoni, come see this baby.”
Neema glanced at Kanoni, who now clung to the fence, her long black-haired arms stretched above Ivy’s, her finger-like toes thrust through the mesh on either side of the toddler. The baby gorilla’s eyes were locked onto her friend’s blue-eyed gaze as if girl and gorilla were communicating telepathically.
Deciding that Kanoni was safe for the moment, Neema scooted toward Grace. The throng of visitors shifted backward another step. Even the infant’s father withdrew the baby a few inches. Neema sat in front of the squirming bundle. Then she rose onto her knuckles and pressed her enormous face to the fence in the baby’s direction, flaring her nostrils. Murmurs ran through the crowd. Finally, Neema rocked back onto her rump and began to sign.
“Small baby there,” Grace interpreted.
Neema pinched the fingers of her right hand briefly against her flat black nose.
The infant’s father asked, “Does that mean what I think it does?”
“Stink,” Grace confirmed.
The father pulled the infant close to his face, sniffed at the diaper, and then held the baby out to the woman beside him. “Your turn.”
The crowd chuckled. The mother gave her husband a disparaging look, then took the baby and walked away toward the parking lot.
Grace let her gaze stray to the camera for a few seconds. She hoped that exchange would make the local newscast this evening. It was a wonderful example of Neema’s communication skills.
One woman waved a hand in the air. When Grace nodded at her, she asked, “How does Neema refer to Brittany and Ivy? Does she spell out names in sign language?”
Grace smiled. “Neema can’t spell. Gorilla fingers are not as dexterous as ours, and I’m not sure letters would make sense to her. Neema uses signs to refer to everyone. She signs ‘cheek’”—Grace demonstrated the sign for them—“to refer to Ivy.”
“How peculiar,” a man remarked. “Why ‘cheek’?”
Grace called the red-haired toddler. “Ivy, where’s your smile?”
Ivy grinned, displaying deep dimples in both plump cheeks. The adults laughed. Ivy squealed, pleased with the attention.
“Neema is signing smile-cheek.” Grace pointed as the gorilla gestured toward her own thick black lips and hairy jaw line. “She calls Brittany red tail, for obvious reasons.”
Brittany obligingly shook her head, swishing her ponytail.
Kanoni, excited now, raced to Neema, briefly swung on her mother’s arm, and then scampered back to Ivy.
“What sign does Neema use for Kanoni?” a man asked.
“Neema calls her daughter Little Bird.” Grace demonstrated the gestures. “We believe she named her that because of the chirping noises a newborn gorilla makes. For our own benefit, we humans translated ‘bird’ into Swahili—Kanoni. Neema’s name is Swahili for ‘divine grace.’”
“Don’t you have three gorillas?” Landon’s mother asked.
Grace pointed to a distant pen built around what had previously been an old horse barn. The enclosure was more than two stories tall, fenced on sides and top like an aviary. An extensive net of ropes stretched from hooks in the fencing, forming play platforms at various levels. In the highest corner was a snarl of blankets.
“That lump you see at the top of the netting there is Gumu, Kanoni’s father. Gumu is twice as big as Neema, but he’s more afraid of strangers. That’s because when Gumu was a baby, he saw poachers in Africa shoot his whole gorilla family.”
Multiple heads shook. Parents glanced at their children with concern. She’d probably hear next week from the college board about how inappropriate this depressing topic was for a public event. She was willing to take the flack. People needed to know about bad things happening in the world. How could anyone hope to change anything for the better otherwise?
“I want to play with Gumu,” Landon said.
“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” Grace told the little boy. “Gumu could hurt you.”
“But I would be his friend,” Landon argued. “He wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to be friends with Gumu,” Grace told him. “He gets upset when he’s scared. And he’s super strong. He might not mean to, but Gumu could kill you.”
The mother laid a protective hand on Landon’s shoulder, and Grace instantly regretted using the word “kill.” Damn, the camera was still recording. She hastily explained to the crowd, “Gorillas are several times stronger than people. And sometimes they bite, especially if they’re scared.”
“Neema, can you show us your teeth?” She signed the question as she spoke.
When the gorilla’s gaze connected with hers, Grace felt a flash of anxiety. Neema’s expression was distinctly annoyed. Grace had removed everything from the temporary pen, but under duress, Neema was capable of manufacturing her own ammunition and lobbying feces at the target of her anger.
Praying that Neema would not act out, Grace turned back to the visitors. “Showing teeth is not a natural thing for a gorilla to do,” she told them. “What we humans would call a smile indicates fear or aggression to gorillas. But I’ve had Neema since she was a baby, and I trained her to show her teeth so I could brush them.”
She asked the gorilla once more, “Where are your teeth?”
Neema flashed a quick grin, displaying sharp, fang-like canine teeth.
“Good Lord,” Landon’s mother exclaimed.
“Most gorilla teeth are a lot like ours, but gorillas have bigger, longer canines,” Grace said. “Male gorilla canines are particularly impressive—Gumu’s are several inches long.”
Neema knuckle-walked to Kanoni, scooped her up, and retreated to the far corner of the pen, turning her back on the crowd. The gorilla was at her limit of tolerance for the day.
On the other side of the fence, Ivy fussed at the loss of her simian playmate. Brittany swung her daughter into her arms. “Dr. McKenna, could you show us the gorillas’ paintings?”
Bless you. “Of course. Please come this way.” She led the group toward the small gallery of bright acrylic abstracts.
Walking backward to address the following crowd, she told them, “Neema and Gumu have many fans in the art community. Sales of their paintings help fund our work here.”
She wondered now if those sales could completely fund the project if the college voted not to renew her grant. Neema and Gumu enjoyed painting. Could she have them paint more? Was Kanoni old enough to participate, or would the baby gorilla drink the paint?
Near the barn, against the background of calypso music, she heard the plastic clack of a portable toilet door. That annoying sound had been repeated dozens of times this afternoon. She couldn’t wait to get rid of the noisy odiferous boxes tomorrow.
In the temporary plywood gallery they’d constructed for this event, the questions continued, seemingly endless. Did the gorillas have favorite colors? Yes. Gumu’s was fuschia and Neema’s was purple. Did they finger-paint or use brushes? They used various brushes and sometimes sticks—gorillas loved tools of all sorts. Did they have favorite subjects? They painted a lot of flowers, and the gorillas often ate the bouquets afterward. The last comment provoked a ripple of laughter from the gathering.
The volunteer at the cash drawer sold several posters of gorilla art and two framed prints. Although the noise and crush of bodies were intense, the visitors all seemed friendly, and she was grateful to Matt for weeding out potential troublemakers at the gate. Their relationship was still in the developmental stage, so she’d been surprised and pleased when he volunteered to handle security for her open house event.
Either Matt had done a stellar job, or maybe the community of Evansburg had finally accepted the idea of signing gorillas living in their midst. Still, five hours of open house seemed like an eternity. Grace envied Gumu, resting in solitude high above the throng of humans.
* * * * *
“The last visitor just drove out,” Matt reported on Grace’s cell phone an hour later.
“Hallelujah! I’m putting Neema and Kanoni to bed. C’mon up and have a beer.”
With the music and the crowd gone, the compound now seemed wonderfully serene. Neema knuckle-walked across the grass between Grace and Jonathan Zyrnek, her most trusted employee. Kanoni rode her mother’s back like a jockey, clutching Neema’s coarse shoulder fur.
“Tired?” Grace slid her hands against her own chest to make the sign.
Neema ignored her, paying abnormal attention to where she placed her hands and feet on the ground.
Ah, the cold shoulder treatment. Definitely preferable to gorilla revenge. Grace tried again, sliding a curled hand down the front of her shirt. “Hungry?”
Neema shot a quick glance at the tub of food that Grace carried, and then faced straight ahead toward the barn enclosure, pretending disinterest.
“I have cauliflower. Cabbage. Peaches.”
Neema paused to sit back on her haunches. Kanoni peeked over her mother’s shoulder. Strawberries, Neema signed, then yogurt. Two of her favorite foods.
Grace smiled. “I might have some of those in here.”
They stopped in front of the padlocked gate. As Jonathan fished a key from his pocket, Kanoni grabbed the rim of Grace’s food tub and pulled, trying to see the contents. Grace pried it back from her baby fingers.
Candy, Neema signed. Tree candy Neema good.
“Don’t push your luck,” Grace told her. The gate swung open and they all stepped inside. “Maybe you can have a lollipop tomorrow, if you’re good again.” She laid out the items on the food shelf, pulling the lids off cartons. “Yogurt! Strawberries!”
Neema swung Kanoni to the ground and grabbed a handful of strawberries, shoving them into her mouth.
Gumu’s nest of blankets remained curiously still.
Grace shielded her eyes with a hand against the low sun. “Gumu! You’re missing strawberries.”
“He’s still pouting,” Jonathan remarked. “He’s been up there all day. You know what a wimp he is with strangers. He’ll come down and eat as soon as we all clear out.”
Jonathan was probably right. When he spotted strangers, the silverback’s first tendency was to hide. Gumu’s agitation turned to violence only when they came too close.
The corner of a blanket shifted slightly. Then there was another ripple along the fabric bundle. Gumu was a hulking 340 pounds of muscle, but he could be a scaredy-cat when it came to people. According to the rescue organization he’d come from, he had not only seen hunters kill his mother and other family members, but he’d also been present when they hacked them into pieces for bush meat. Any creature with an ounce of intelligence would find it hard to recover from that. He was probably peering out from under those blankets, biding his time until he was absolutely sure all the strangers were gone and it was safe to climb down.
Matt Finn approached the fence with a weary expression. Dust from the gravel road streaked his dark pants and shirt, and he carried several small picket signs in his right hand. Beside him was a young rent-a-cop with pimples on his brow and a sand-colored buzz cut. Grace didn’t know the younger man’s first name; Finn referred him to only as Scoletti or “the rookie.” Together, Finn and Scoletti had spent the last five hours strolling through the compound, keeping an eye on visitors and volunteers alike.
Finn peered through the wire mesh. “Everything in order?”
“Just finishing up.” Grace picked up the empty food tub, checked the gorillas’ water bucket—nearly full—and then let herself out the gate. Jonathan followed and clicked the padlock shut.
“Zyrnek.” Finn nodded at the volunteer.
Jonathan was equally curt. “Detective Finn. Most people call me Jon now. Or Z.”
“Z?” Scoletti asked.
Finn raised an eyebrow. “Since when?”
“That’s what Neema calls me. I have a T-shirt like that.” He made a quick motion, carving a letter Z into the air. “It gets weird, having a Josh and a Jon working around here. And since my dad got out and is living with me, it’s confusing to have two Zyrneks around, too.”
“Got out?” Finn asked pointedly. His gaze shifted from Jon Zyrnek to Grace’s face, checking to see if she got his drift.
Jon crossed his arms and stared Finn down. “Dad was released from Monroe twelve weeks ago. He works at the auto salvage yard. He’s staying at my place until he gets a few paychecks in the bank.”
“What was he in for?”
Jon squirmed for a second, but finally muttered, “Robbery. Fraud.”
Scoletti looked from Finn to Jon and back again, no doubt wondering what to make of this conversation.
Grace sighed. Jonathan Zyrnek had been with her over a year now, but Finn still didn’t trust him. The kid started working at her compound as a community service sentence after his conviction for an eco-terrorism stunt. He was still a member of the Animal Rights Union.
While Finn knew only Jon’s record, Grace knew Jon. With a father in prison and a mother in and out of rehab, Jonathan Zyrnek had spent most of his teen years in foster care. The young man had a big heart and a quick mind. A natural leader, he organized her staff and volunteers and doled out work assignments. Best of all, Gumu trusted Jon almost as much as he trusted Josh LaDyne, and her big male gorilla tolerated very few humans.
LaDyne was in the throes of finishing his Ph.D. dissertation and would leave the project within months. Although Jon was not an academic who could design tests and document her research like LaDyne, she hoped Jon would take LaDyne’s place as backup gorilla keeper.
Jon turned his back on Finn to tell her, “Sierra and I are on duty tonight.”
“Thanks, Z.” She gave his arm an affectionate squeeze.
Jon’s companions in ARU crime, Caryn Brown and Sierra Sakson, worked for her, too. She depended heavily on the ARU trio. All three were fluent in American Sign Language. They helped with training as well as basic care of the gorillas. They also claimed to have some sort of commando training. Grace didn’t ask for details; she was just happy they considered it their duty to guard her compound.
All three had stayed with the gorilla language project after their court-mandated sentences were up. Now, thanks to the financial support of the local college and sales of the gorillas’ artwork, Grace was able to pay the three an hourly pittance, far less than they deserved.
Finn held out the signs to Scoletti.
“What are those?” Grace asked.
“Only two troublemakers.” Matt turned the small hand-painted signs so she could read them as he handed them off to the rookie.
Apes Cant Think or Talk. Only humans have souls.
I am NOT a monkey’s uncle.
So maybe the atmosphere at the gate had not been as peaceful as it had been inside.
Matt dismissed Scoletti. “Good job. See you at the station.”
The rookie bumped knuckles with him before walking back toward the front lot where his car was parked.
Sierra and Caryn and a small cluster of volunteers were slumped against the picnic table across the yard, waiting for a final word from her. Grace strolled toward them. “Thank you for a great job today, everyone. I hope you can all stay to celebrate.”
Their expressions perked up. She looked over Jon’s shoulder to focus on Finn and invite him, too. He jerked a thumb toward his chest and mouthed My place. Steak. He mimicked drinking a glass of wine. Hot tub. His intense gaze suggested even more.
From the enclosure, Neema grunted softly, calling Gumu. Kanoni chirped in response.
Grace focused on her staff again. “Crew, there’s a keg of beer in the staff trailer. Pizzas, too. Have a party. You earned it. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She had planned to stay with her volunteers, but Matt’s invitation sounded like heaven. Adult talk, or even better, no talk at all. And no gorillas.
Happy quiet. Neema listened to the birds. She liked to watch the little ones that flew in and hopped around. She liked to hear them sing. She hated big black birds. Grace had a name sound for them: crows. They stole her food. Their noises were loud and ugly. Crow shouts.
She put another strawberry in her mouth. Good sweet cold. Her favorite red food. She picked up another. Kanoni grabbed for it. Neema grunted and flashed her teeth. Kanoni let go. Crouching over the pile of fruit, the baby picked up a strawberry with her lips, and then moved it around inside her mouth with a question on her face.
Good, Neema signed.
Snow walked over to the strawberries and sniffed, moving his whiskers. No cat food, Neema signed. Gorilla food Neema. Kanoni stretched her hand out to grab the long white tail. Snow ran into the barn.
Neema grunted for Gumu. Come tickle Neema. Chase. Laughs came from the trailer where Z and the others stayed. Then music started again. She hooted louder for Gumu. No Gumu sound came back. She sniffed. Only dirty smells from toilet boxes.
Neema pushed a chunk of cauliflower into her mouth, then swept Kanoni into her arms. Clutching the baby to her chest with one arm, she pulled herself into the webbing and climbed to Gumu’s nest. She poked his blankets with a finger. Kanoni sucked a corner of a blanket into her mouth.
The blankets felt apart.
No Gumu there. Only his nest.
From this high place, Neema saw a tiny piece of red-orange sun, almost gone. White dust over the road. Grace gone in gun man’s car. Almost dark.
Z laughed from the trailer across the yard. Then Caryn did, too. Funny jokes? She wanted Grace to come back, tickle her, make her laugh. Tickle Neema, she signed to Kanoni. The baby stared, her eyes big. Neema pushed out her lips and dug her fingers into the baby’s stomach. Kanoni hooted and rolled over backwards, then scampered down the netting, wanting a game of chase.
Was Gumu hiding in the barn? Was he sleeping in her nest, using her blankets? Did he have strawberries? Did he have candy? She climbed down the rope webbing, landed on the ground with a thud. She hurried into the dimness of the barn. Kanoni followed.
Dark inside. She knuckled her way over toys and blankets. The tire swings were empty. No Gumu in her blankets. Snow and Nest cats curled up there, washing each other’s faces with pink tongues. Grunting, she signed gorilla nest mine, but they were not watching.
No Gumu in the corners. No Gumu on the tree trunks. On the floor was a big wet spot. Neema caught Kanoni as she scampered by. Creeping closer to the big dark wet, holding Kanoni tight, she looked at the spot out of the corner of her eye. Red wet. She leaned close. Meat smell. She touched her fingers to the red and tasted the wet. Meat wet. Red meat smell. Bad, hurt, she signed.
Where was Gumu? Kanoni slipped from her arms into the wet red. Raising her baby arms, she slapped them on the red dirt and rolled across the wet.
The red smelled like meat. Gumu was gone. Bad, Neema signed. Bad. Bad. Bad.
When Spencer was meat, he was gone. Was Gumu meat? Was Gumu gone for always?
She backed away from the meat smell and turned toward the back of the barn. Light. The wall was open, just a crack. It never was open before. She walked to the crack, looked through the open. Cars were there. She put a hand on the wall and pushed. It slid away. She could get out, away from the meat smell.
Was Gumu out? She hooted for Gumu. Kanoni’s hand brushed her leg as she tried to slip past. Neema caught her by a foot. The baby screeched.
Neema squeezed through the opening. Out. She sat in the dust between the cars and pulled Kanoni into her lap. More bad meat smell. More car smells.
Gumu? She hooted. Kanoni copied her cry. A crow shouted back.
Meat. Bad black bird noise. No Gumu. This was bad. Bad. This was danger.
~ END OF FREE SAMPLE ~