The Clothing Department
His legs were cramping. The sliding door was pressed against his elbow. When he looked out the little finger hole there was nothing to see except the next clothing bin over, just a few feet away. How long had it been? An hour? He had lost track. It was too dark to see his watch, and the position of his arms kept him from grabbing his phone. He had jumped into this bin so fast he didn’t have time to take it out. It had been quiet out there for a good fifteen minutes.
It’s still on. It’s now or never.
His pulse quickened and he started breathing heavier.
Take it easy. Move slowly, no sound. Control your breath.
He slowly pulled his arm across his stomach, supporting some of his weight on his face. Straightening his arm, he slid it out to his side then, bending at the elbow, very slowly, gripped the cell phone and pulled it out of the holster. He eased it back over his stomach, inching it as quietly as possible nearer his face. He opened it. The battery looked just over half full. He quickly turned down the volume of the ringer.
Better yet. Turn it to vibrate. No, not even vibrate. He didn’t know how well they could hear. Can’t be too careful. Not after what I saw.
His mind rolled on. How could this happen? There must have been a dozen, maybe more. He had never seen chimpanzees outside of a cage. How the hell did they get here? Where did they come from? Jeezus, the poor guy with the head…he grimaced at the memory. They were so much bigger than he imagined they were. Even Cheetah barely came to Tarzan’s knees. But these? They had to be chest high anyway, maybe more. Their chests were like barrels and their arms looked like stove pipes. He chuckled, would anyone today know what stove pipes were? If he got out of this he would have to use another analogy when explaining it around the Mr. Coffee. Speaking of coffee. Or water. Or anything drinkable. A cold beer? That would hit the spot. But then I would have to pee.
Forget the coffee.
His thoughts were interrupted by a screech loud enough to wake the dead guy. He jumped so hard he very nearly whacked the top of the compartment with his head. All it would take is one thump. But what was happening out there? Another screech electrified the air, a little different from the first.
A different voice? Two of them arguing maybe? Fighting over the spoils? Different voices?
Criminy, he never thought of chimps having different voices. Maybe you only hear it when two are together.
It got quiet. He listened intently. He wanted to call or text someone but oh man, if they heard him there would be hell to pay. He keyed the phone. It lit up. Double checked the battery. There were barely two bars lit, poor connection.
He extended his neck slightly to look out of the finger hole. Nothing.
It was now or never. He touched “messages”. There was a small but very audible beep.
Silence the keys!
After turning down the volume as far as he could, he scrolled down to “Anna”. He touched it. He turned the phone sideways so the screen widened and the touch pad opened.
“U ther?” he typed.
He waited. He waited some more.
Where the hell is she now? Why can’t you text 911?
The screen went dark. Should he try to contact someone else? No. Remember the battery. Don’t waste it. He lay in the dark trying to figure what to do next. He had to shift again. It was only a matter of inches but he still could not straighten his legs or arms. His neck was getting tight. He turned his head trying to loosen the muscles a little. He laid his forehead on the back of one of his hands crossed in front of him. He raised his head again then carefully stretched his neck to look out the finger hole.
He saw nothing. Except for another eye directly across the aisle staring back at him.
He pulled his head back quickly.
Shit! Who is that? Or, WHAT is that?
He put his eye back to the hole. The eye was blue. It was a terrified eye looking directly at him. He caught a little bit of color. Mascara. It was a woman. Or was it one of those weird guys who like to dress up as a woman? No, if it was one those guys why would he be in the men’s clothing area? Gotta be a woman. Shopping for her husband probably.
What the fuck am I gonna do now?
It was a little comforting he supposed, but one minute ago he only had to worry about himself. He craned his neck to look out again. She was still looking. He could see her fear was consuming her. If she gives herself away, if they discover her, what will happen next? He knew, he knew, just as sure as hell he knew. They would tear her to pieces and then…shit…then they would start tearing apart all the bins until they found him. He had seen them on TV, what the hell was it when he was a kid? Some kids’ Saturday morning show. Wasn’t Buffalo Bob, no, that was Howdy Doody. Well somebody had a smart little chimp. And now he got it. That was a baby fucking chimp! They didn’t dare put a full grown chimp on the show, it would tear them apart! The monsters running around this store, hell, they were the real thing.
His eye had slipped from the hole. He looked back out. She had her other eye looking now and, what the…? She had one finger in the hole! Is she gonna open that damn thing? He aimed his eye at hers, stupid of course, but he tried to bug his eye out. Alarm! That is what he was trying to say.
STOP! Jeezus H Christ…!
Right at the last second she hesitated. He saw her hesitate and he nodded his head. Yes, yes, yes. She pulled her finger out of the hole and looked at him. Her eye questioned him.
“What should I do?” her eye seemed to say.
That was good, that was real good. He put his finger up to the hole, just one finger to tell her to give him a minute. Maybe two. But don’t do anything now. Slow down. He looked at her from behind his finger. He opened his eye wider.
“Do you get it?” he was asking.
She nodded quickly. She got it. Thank holy fucking God.
He slumped down. He had to catch his breath. He had to think. How did this start? What the hell was going on? He took some deep breaths. Chimpanzees. What the fuck?
That’s when it hit him. He still cussed too much. It’s what broke up his second marriage. It wasn’t like he literally meant these things. He just said ‘em. What the hell is wrong with that? Was supposed to be healthy to express yourself. And this is the U.S of Fucking A after all, free speech and all that. Sure doesn’t extend to home does it?
And now? If I get out of here alive how will I ever tell this story without a lot of beer and cussing up a storm. Anna’s gonna be pissed off, his kids are gonna jump his shit. And just when he’s got a story that would make them piss…
’scuse me, wet their pants if they were here.
He needed a plan. He needed a real plan; they couldn’t afford any mistakes now. But who is she? Does she know what the hell to do or is she one of those hand-wringing women who always need someone else to do the heavy lifting?
Enough of that. Figure out a way to get to her. Or she to you. If either one of them get spotted by one of those apes the plan goes down the shitter. For both of us. Then it hit. How’re we gonna work together? There is no extra space in this damn little bin. It’s full of shirts in packages waiting to go up top. She probably has the same problem. If neither of us have the room we’re gonna have to work separately. Without communication, that’s just great.
He looked around as best he could. Wasn’t easy turning in this space. He craned his neck. It was too dark but the bin had a lot of room if it wasn’t already full. He coaxed his cell phone out again and touched it so the little screen provided some light. It was like a dim candle in the little space but better than nothing. Some boxes of shirts were stacked right by his shoulder. He eased the top one down, then the next just enough so he could see on the other side.
Criminy! There was nothing there! It’s been empty this whole time. He coulda had more room a long time ago. He nudged his fist against the bottom box. It slid back slowly but enough to show him he could get more space out of this little area. He managed to push this stack of boxes across to the door on the opposite side of the bin that would look out on the next aisle over. Then he slid the second pile, then a third. In a few minutes he had made enough extra room for another person, although they would be on very friendly terms rather quickly. He just hoped she wasn’t one of those overweight damsels who would sink the fucking life boat if they tried to climb out of the water.
He looked out the hole. She was still there waiting. He put his thumb up, hoping she could tell what he was thinking. She looked encouraged. Desperate, but encouraged. He would settle for that. He waited to see if she got it. She did. He slumped back down.
A plan, he needed a plan. He couldn’t out run them, he couldn’t out fight them. Maybe they would leave on their own. Would be great but was a lot of luck to ask for. He listened. It was very quiet. Maybe they were gone.
He leaned up to look out the hole. Shit! He looked right into the back of one hairy leg. Standing right outside his door! All he can see is the back of the leg and part of the animal’s ass, but it looked big. And strong, very fucking strong. He fought to control his breathing. Slow, quiet, waiting. He heard the animal make a sound. A signal? Talking? Do they talk to each other? Hell, on Animal Planet they just make funny faces and wiggle their ears. But they must talk in some way.
He leaned up to look out. It was moving an arm, signaling to another to come with it. He moved back down so it wouldn’t see his eye. He saw the shadow of the second one pass over the hole. No sound. Very still. He could hear his heartbeat. That’s a new one.
A piercing scream hit his ear drums so hard he almost thumped his head on the low ceiling above him. Then a voice, a human voice.
“NO! NO! STOP! Ahhhhhhh…”
The apes screamed in response. He heard the screaming of a man and the screeching apes. Horrible sounds of destruction. He heard bones cracking. The man’s voice abruptly stopped but the apes continued. It sounded like victory. It sounded like…victory.
They’re searching aren’t they? Searching. There must be other people hiding and they know it.
I’m fucked. Just badly fucked. No way out without them seeing me. Just sit here and wait. Wait for ‘em to find me. Then scream like that poor bastard. Think man, think.
He peeked out, just in time to see one of the apes dragging the dead guy past him down the aisle. She was looking too, and she looked terrified. She raised her eye to him, pleading to him. He held up a couple of fingers trying to tell her to wait. They were safe for now and he needed to figure out how to buy time. He listened. He listened for a long time. He looked back at her. She was still waiting. Good girl.
But he knew what he had to do. Had to happen eventually. How many hours had passed? He had gotten here about noon on his lunch break. His phone now said 5:30. The offices were getting out and the sidewalks out there must be full of people. But he hadn’t heard anyone else. No one seemed to be coming into the store. Why not? He heard nothing in fact, no sirens, no door pounding, nothing.
He checked again behind him. There was enough room for both of them. He put his finger in the hole in the door, closed his eyes and took a breath. He slid the door a few inches and waited. Nothing. He took his cell phone, opened the camera app and pushed it out the door a bit. He clicked a photo and looked at it. Nothing. He repeated the process in the other direction…still nothing. He slid the door a little farther. A trail of blood from the dead guy ran down the center of the aisle. He motioned for her to open her door. She slid it very easy. Just a kid, couldn’t be out of high school yet. He remembered now, she had been a few steps ahead of him when he was walking in. He leaned out to look at listen. It was quiet. He motioned to her to come over to him. She shook her head, looking terrified. He swallowed. He had to conceal his own terror, try to calm her. He moved his hands very slowly, calling for her to come quietly. He pushed the door open all the way and slid to the other side of the bin to make room for her. She looked like she was gathering her courage. He peeked out one more time, all clear. He motioned his hand one more time.
She pushed her door open, quietly rolled out and crab walked on all fours, making sure not to put her hands or feet in the blood trail. In seconds she was inside and almost spoke to him. He held up his hand to silence her, then reached across and started to slide the bin door closed. That’s when he saw it. The door was still open on the bin she had left. She saw it too and started to go back out. He pulled her arm, and shook his head no. He finished closing the bin door.
They were squeezed in together, but at least each had company.
“What is your name?” he asked her in a whisper.
“Sarah,” she whispered back.
“Ben,” he said in reply.
“I’m scared,” she said and tears started to roll.
“Me too,” he told her.
Christ, she’s just a kid.
A sudden scream. They had found another.
“NO! NO PLEASE!”
A human scream of utter terror howled through the large room, and the apes screamed back, tearing and ripping.
Sarah covered her mouth while a flood of tears rolled out of her eyes and covered her hands. Ben clenched his jaw. He had no plan, no idea at all… His shotgun was at home, safely in his closet. It would be sore comfort even if he had it because it might get one or two of them, but they would swarm him. A gun wouldn’t do much good against this anyway. Too many and too strong.
Sarah was calming a bit.
“You have a phone?” he asked her.
“Did you try to text anyone yet?”
“Yes”, she whispered back. “But the signal…”
She had pulled them out of her jeans pocket and showed him. Only two bars.
Just then they heard a thud. Someone, or something, pulling a door shut. Then footsteps. They sounded like they were coming down the steps from street level.
“1013, your status.”
“1013, inside the store. Looks empty. I’ll keep checking”
“That’s a cop,” he whispered.
Sarah clenched her eyes shut and crossed her fingers. They heard 1013, or whatever his name was walking.
“Hello? Police! Is anybody there?”
He wanted to shout. He wanted to run to the cop. But if he was calling out he didn’t see the chimps. Were they gone?
More footsteps from the cop, then…
“Go ahead 1013”
“I’ve got a streak of blood on the floor. A lot of blood. Start some backup.”
“Copy 1013…no contact yet?”
“No, not a soul, and start a supervisor my way”
More footsteps. They seemed to recede, then it sounded like they were moving to the other side of the bin.
“Police! If anyone’s here show yourself now!”
Silence. Ben clenched his lips together. Sarah started to say something but he cupped his hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide as she looked sideways at him.
“Shhh…” was all he said.
“You hear me? This is the police! I’m telling you to come…”
A screech so shrill it could break glass filled the room, followed by a chorus of shrieks that almost made Ben wet himself.
“GET BACK! GET…” the officer said and they heard two shots ring out.
Mayhem. It sounded like the store was being destroyed. The gun started rapid firing…they lost track of how many shots they heard. And the sound of the shots moved. The cop was trying to escape. The shooting stopped suddenly.
“1013! 1013! BACKUP, BACKU…”
Sarah and Ben froze. They heard a gurgling sound. Then a thud and another, followed by that scream…the scream of victory. Then the sound of hands beating chests and more inhuman screaming. They heard ripping and tearing, a wet sucking sound that Ben knew he would never ever get out of his mind.
Then a thud, and Sarah looked out the finger hole and almost shrieked before Ben got his hand over her mouth in time. He had to wrestle her silently, tightly, to keep her quiet.
“Stop,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
Sarah finally began to relax. She nodded. Ben eased his hand away. He leaned past her to look out the hole. The cops head lay just beyond the door, rolled down the aisle like a bowling ball.
Ben sat back and took a deep breath. They heard steps, like the slap of a hand on linoleum. The stocky legs of one of the apes stopped by the door. Ben leaned over to look. The ape picked up the head and looked at it. Then it hauled back its arm and flung the head out of sight.
“HOO, OOO, AAHAH!”
Then it moved on, and they could hear the other apes copying the cry.
That’s when he got it.
“They’re laughing,” he whispered to Sarah. “They’re fucking laughing.”
Another series of steps. One of the animals came by pulling the body of another ape, two or three bullet wounds were in its chest. Then another, pulling the headless body of the cop.
The cop’s radio must be nearby. They were trying to reach him.
“All units on this frequency, we have no response from1013”
“Copy dispatch, start all available units”
“More cops on the way,” he whispered to Sarah.
“We have to warn them,” she whispered back.
“What? We can’t warn them.”
“We have to. We need that radio,” she said.
He studied her. She had a different look in her eye.
“We need the radio,” she said again.
“How do we…no, we can’t do that.”
“Let me guess,” Sarah said, “between us who is the quickest?”
“Are you calling me old?”
“I’m saying we need that radio. Seems I’m the best one to do it.”
Ben squinted his eyes, trying to accept this. She looked at him.
“I’m only seventeen, I exercise every day. I’m smaller. And I bet you got bad knees or back or something…right?”
Ben hesitated. “Knees,” he said.
Sarah nodded, confident in her assumption.
“1013…1013…come in 1013”
“All units, still no response from 1013”
“Copy dispatch. Two of us are out now. It’s very quiet in there.”
“The radio has to be nearby. Don’t waste time if you can’t find it quickly. Get back here.”
Sarah nodded. She put her finger in the hole and slowly began to slide the door open. Once the door was open she waited a moment. Nothing. She leaned out carefully and looked both ways in the aisle. Nothing. She slid out carefully, not wanting to contact the blood on the floor. She crab-crawled to the edge of the bin and checked both ways. It was clear so she moved to the next one. At the next intersection she looked again. A large pool of blood lay to her left. Near the edge of it was the police radio. She checked each direction and moved toward it. She had to lean out to reach over some blood spill, but got her hand on it and lifted it carefully. It had some blood splashes on it, but it was still working. As she started to back away, she saw it. The cop’s gun, just beyond the main blood pool. She laid the radio down carefully, and still on her knees, began reaching for the weapon.
Ben listened for any little sound. It was so quiet. Where was she? What is taking her so long? He heard no screams so he figured she was ok. But wait, what if she decided to go for the door? What if she didn’t come back? His anxiety got the best of him. It had been a good five minutes. He reached for the door she had closed behind her and slowly slid it open. He heard nothing. He started to lean out and Sarah almost ran right into him with her head. He scooted back and she quietly crawled back inside, closing the door after her.
Ben saw the radio in her hand and grabbed it. He wanted to turn down the volume in case it went off again.
“Nice work,” he whispered.
She pulled the gun up from under her shirt. The gift of a lifetime. She handed it to him.
“I don’t know how to work this,” she told him.
Ben removed the magazine from the bottom. It still had a few rounds in it and he figured it still had one in the chamber. But he quietly racked it anyway. An unfired round popped out and the action pushed another into the chamber. He lowered the hammer carefully and added the ejected bullet to the magazine.
“Looks like we have five shots.”
“What do we do now?” she asked him.
The radio spoke suddenly, almost too low in volume to be heard.
“1013, status, repeat, 1013 tell us your status”
Almost on an impulse, Ben keyed the button and whispered into the radio.
“1013 is…1013 is dead”
“Who is this speaking?”
“My name is Ben. We are trapped in a clothing bin.”
“Okay Ben, where is 1013?”
“The apes killed him.”
“Apes? Did you say apes?”
“Yes, nearly two dozen full sized chimpanzees. They are killing everyone they find.”
“Stand by Ben.”
“All units, do you copy the radio traffic here?”
“1025, copy you dispatch. Did that guy say chimpanzees?”
“Affirmative 1025, he said chimpanzees, about two dozen.”
“Ben. Ben can you hear me?”
“Yes, go ahead,” he replied.
“Where in the store are you?”
“I am with a teenaged girl Sarah. We are in a bin approximately in the center of the men’s clothing department.”
A screech pierced the air and they heard footsteps running in their direction. Ben turned the radio off. One of the apes began banging on the bins. It sounded agitated and angry. They heard it walking nearby, hitting the bins with fists, banging on them as it passed each one.
Sarah and Ben stared at each other. Ben raised the gun to be ready. A powerful fist hit the side of their bin and Sarah started. Then it hit another bin close by, and then another. It screamed in defiance and frustration. Sarah squinted at the piercing sound. The fist hit their bin again. Out the hole, they saw the powerful hairy leg standing. It hit the bin across from them where Sarah hid earlier. Another scream, and the cold, solid slap of the beasts hands on its chest.
Then silence and the view of the leg disappeared as it moved off. They heard the ape screaming at the others somewhere else in the store. Sarah and Ben both took deep breaths, their muscles as taut as piano wire.
Ben waited at least five minutes before turning the radio on again. He gradually turned the volume up from the beginning until he heard the gentle hiss of voices. He held it to his ear to see what was being said. It was just chatter about the arrival of a SWAT team in a few minutes. He was terrified to speak another word. What if the last chimp was waiting quietly nearby, listening for the human voice?
A long period of silence ensued, no one on the police radio said anything. Sarah and he did not speak. It was as if everyone, including the apes, were watching and waiting. The silence was maddening. A drop of sweat dripped off Ben’s nose.
Sarah started and he looked up. A finger was in the hole in the door. A small finger of one of the chimps. It pulled out. An eye appeared at the hole and the small animal’s brown eye looked directly at Ben. The finger reappeared. It slowly slid the door back, an inch at first, then another, until a chimpanzee toddler stood looking at them. A little baby of a thing. Sarah and Ben froze, their eyes wide with fear. The tiny ape suddenly smiled at them, its teeth pure white attached to very pink gums. Sarah and Ben slowly looked at each other, holding their collective breath, neither able to move or decide what to do.
Sarah turned back. The little monkey was rolling its head back, baring its teeth in a wide smile. Sarah decided to smile, a wide toothy grin to match the baby ape’s smile. The animal’s smile widened to its maximum. It was still not making a sound though. Ben decided to smile as well, the three of them, two humans and a baby chimp with silly grins on their faces. In a zoo it would have amazed and dazzled anyone standing nearby to witness this display of cuteness. But this was horrifying.
Without warning, the baby crawled in with them, landing on their laps, its smile wide and agreeable. The only parts of Ben and Sarah that were moving were their hearts, pounding like drums. The little chimp reached up and touched Sarah’s hair, patting it and running his little hands down the side of her head and over her cheek in a caress that would have been welcomed in another setting. Sarah began to move her hand up to behind the young creature to its head, where she began to caress its head in the same way, as warmly and she could.
One screech could bring a torrent of angry adult chimps down on them. The little thing looked at Ben. He had a pen in his pocket from work with a shiny button on top. The baby took it out of his pocket and began to examine it, turning it over and over trying to understand what it was. It saw the shiny button and fingered it, noticing it moved slightly. It finally pushed and the tip of the pen popped out of the other end. When the little guy saw this it smiled another wide smile and looked back and forth between the two humans.
Ben smiled and nodded, wanting desperately to keep the animal quiet. He looked at Sarah. He made a motion with his eyes toward the door, trying to communicate to her to slide the door shut. She got it. She pulled her hand from the baby’s head and drew her arm back until she could get a finger in the door hole. Then she slowly pushed it forward until it was shut.
“What do we do now?” Sarah whispered.
“I don’t know but keep smiling.”
The baby chimp played with the pen. All was quiet outside.
“They’re going to miss him soon,” Ben whispered, his smile too hammy and fake for a human, but the baby chimp didn’t realize it.
“I’m terrified,” Sarah said.
“Keep smiling and rubbing his head.”
“I will, but for how long?”
The baby chimp put the pen in his mouth, tasting it in an almost human way.
“I think we have to make a decision.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“We need to get out of here.”
“I’m thinking…can we slide out holding the baby and crawl for the door?”
“What if we don’t make it?”
“Can’t think of that Sarah. You have to be committed.”
The little chimp started pushing on the pen’s button, making the tip go in and out. It suddenly rested its head against Ben’s chest, working the button on the pen. He glanced at Sarah.
“He likes you,” she whispered.
“Yeah, I guess. He’s gonna break that thing soon, what we gonna do then?” he asked.
Sarah squinted her eyes.
“I know we have to…” her voice trailed off.
“He could screech any second and you know what will happen.”
“I know, I know…”
“Ok, you carry him. Roll out on the floor and slide toward the doors. I’ll come out behind you with the gun. Don’t rush it.”
“What if we just put him outside and close the door on him?” she asked.
“Sarah, he can show them where we are. What if he cries out? What if it makes him mad?”
“I know, I just thought…”
“I understand, but we have to go.”
“Okay, take a breath, and slowly slide that door open.”
Sarah moved her hand away from the baby chimp’s head to slide the bin door. Ben reached up to continue rubbing its little head.
When the door was pulled back far enough, they were fully exposed. They could hear the chimp voices far behind them.
“They still don’t notice he’s gone,” Sarah whispered.
“Good,” Ben told her. “When you’re ready…”
Sarah took a breath. She stuck her free hand out onto the floor for support, and cradled the little chimp with her other. She eased herself out and sat down on the floor. Then she pulled the little chimp out and took it in her lap. She glanced back and saw nothing, but she heard the rustle of the animals and their voices told her they were speaking to each other about something. Ben sidled over to the door and waited for Sarah to scoot forward with the baby so he could climb out. He’s knees were stiff from sitting in one position for hours and his back ached.
Sarah slid forward on her butt, holding the baby chimp and pulling with her feet on the tile floor. Soon Ben was out. He stretched his legs painfully to try to limber up. The talking of the chimps behind them was growing louder and more animated.
“Go!” he whispered to Sarah.
Staying clear of the blood smears on the floor, she rolled on her hip until she could curl her legs back and boost herself up on her knees. Then she cradled the baby beneath her while she began to crawl forward using her other arm. Ben did the same, but he almost dropped the gun. Sarah was moving ahead. He finally got moving on his hands and knees, working to keep the gun from clanking on the floor.
A screech ignited the air, a cry of distress, like the cry of a mother who discovered her baby missing.
Sarah started moving faster. Ben had to ignore the pain in his knees but adrenaline and sheer terror moved him forward. They were half way to the stairs to the front entrance when the baby screamed to its mother.
A cacophony of screaming ensued, the sound of the apes charging toward the noise.
“RUN!” Ben screamed.
Sarah got up and started running. Ben got up, a knee failed and he pushed back up. Then he ran limping behind Sarah as she clutched the baby. It had started screaming now, agitating its adult family even more. Ben glanced back to see them running and leaping over the bins to catch them. Sarah was on the steps and Ben barely caught up to her when the big males slid to stop ten feet away. The others in the group began to fan out. Fortunately they couldn’t get behind them very easy but they didn’t need to. They would catch Sarah and Ben before they reached the top step. Ben realized they had stopped because of the baby in Sarah’s arms.
“We have the baby,” he told her. “Give him to me.”
She eased the baby chimp into Ben’s arms.
“Now get behind me.”
The chimps were frozen in place, watching the humans clutching their baby. The hesitation gave Ben a thought. He put the gun to the baby chimps head as it grasped it little arms toward its family.
The biggest male took a step forward.
“Don’t!” Ben shouted at it, raising the gun more and angled it down toward the baby’s head.
The animals froze in place, but one of the females began crying out and almost mewling like a dog. Ben considered she must be the mother.
“What do we do?” Sarah yelled from behind Ben.
“Start backing up the stairs, slowly, one at a time. When you step up, guide me up one behind you.”
With each step up, several of the large males moved forward, clearly looking for an opportunity. After a few steps, the largest chimps moved even faster.
“Stop or I’ll shoot!” he yelled.
“They can’t understand you,” Sarah told him.
“I think they do or they would charge.”
A couple more steps and the large males became emboldened.
“How far to the door?” he asked her.
“Ten to fifteen steps!”
Ben stopped. The baby chimp was getting restless, reaching out to its family and beginning to screech to them, setting his nerves on edge. He lowered the gun and stood facing the animals. He suddenly lofted the baby high in the air over the heads of its waiting family.
“RUUUN!” he screamed.
Sarah took a few double steps. Ben turned and, even with his bad knees, began pumping up the stair way right behind her. As they neared the top the doors burst open as armored police officers stormed in ahead of them, machine guns at the ready.
“GET DOWN!” one of the officers screamed.
Sarah and Ben fell on the top step, right at the feet of the SWAT team. The air was filled with the staccato bursts of the machine guns firing back down behind them, the cries of the chimpanzees shocked and desperate, falling under the barrage of hundreds of nine millimeter bullets. As the screaming of the apes began to wane, two of the officers grabbed Sarah and Ben and hauled then through the doors, through the entryway and out into evening dusk. The officers pulled them out and behind the parked police vehicles. There were two waiting ambulances and Sarah and Ben fell against the side of one of them, safely out of harm’s way.
And at last, everything began to slow down. Ben looked around. Four medics were in front of them, propping them up, studying them.
“Are you hurt?” one of asked.
“No,” Ben said, catching his breath.
“I’m okay,” Sarah told them, her hands propped on her knees as she caught her breath.
The shooting inside the store could be faintly heard, and as the shooting died out, Ben began to imagine what it must look like inside.
The police commander approached.
“Good evening, how are you two doing?”
“Can I go pee?” Ben asked.
“Excuse me?” the commander asked.
“Me too,” Sarah added.
The commander, suddenly aware, shouted to someone.
“Sergeant! Sergeant! Over here!”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant asked as he drew nearer.
“Get these two people to…the facilities.”
“Facilities? Oh, right sir. Right this way please,” he indicated to Ben and Sarah.
Minutes later they climbed down out of two police vehicles each containing portable bathrooms for the use of officers at a crime scene. The commander was waiting for them, along with a couple of the medics.
“Better?” he asked them.
They both nodded.
“What about…what about the animals?” Ben asked.
“All dead. Turns out they had escaped from a truck transporting them across country to the zoo in St. Louis. A zoo out east closed and they were trying to transfer the animals. It sounds like they managed to tip the truck when the driver stopped to grab some lunch yesterday. They covered nearly twenty miles to get here.”
“And the baby chimp. Did it die too?” Sarah asked.
The commander pulled his radio out and keyed it.
“Any SWAT units in the store?”
“Yes sir, go ahead,” came the static reply.
“All animals are dead? Confirm?” he asked and waited.
“All except a baby chimp sir. Clinging to one of the females.”
The commander looked at Sarah. She nodded.
“Thanks,” she told him. “What will happen to it?”
“I don’t know, we’ve never arrested a monkey before, especially a baby one.”
“It won’t be killed will it?”
“I don’t see why. We’ll try to get it to St. Louis if we can.”
Two years later
Ben dialed. Someone picked up.
“Hello Betty, I’m trying to reach Sarah.”
“Ben, hello! Sarah’s not here now. Can I take a message?”
“Just let her know Anna and I are driving to St. Louis, to the zoo this weekend. We finally have permission to see her. We wondered if Sarah would like to come along. It will be a day long trip though.”
“Oh Ben, that is so nice. She has talked about it. I know she would want to go.”
“Great, we plan to leave Saturday morning and get back that evening. We can pick her up about eight o’clock.”
“Count her in,” Betty said. “If she can’t make it I’ll have her call you.’
“Terrific Betty, we’ll pick her up at nine.”
“And Ben, thanks again for helping her that day.”
“My life was on the line too. But she was no shy girl, Sarah’s got guts.”
He hung up.
Two days later around noon on Saturday, Ben, with Anna in the front and Sarah in the back seat, pulled into the St. Louis Zoo, parked, and got through the entry gates. A short time later they were meeting with the trainer in the chimpanzee exhibit.
“We named her Freya, after the Norse goddess of war. She has grown a lot. I’ve been experimenting in teaching her sign language and she communicates pretty well.”
“Amazing,” Ben told her.
“She is one of the brightest chimps I have seen,” the woman told them.
A minute later the outside door opened. Freya, much larger now, walked in. She came in looking around, thinking this might be her daily class on speaking with humans. When she saw Sarah and Ben, she froze. She studied the two.
“We estimate she was nearly one year old when she came to us, so that would make her about three years old now,” the trainer told them.
Freya took a step forward and stared at Ben and Sarah.
“You have visitors Freya,” the trainer signed to her.
Freya’s eyes glanced at the trainer. She squatted down but did not reply.
“Do you remember who they are?” the trainer asked.
Freya’s eyes went from Sarah, to Ben, and back. Still, she only sat and looked at them.
Ben knelt down and Sarah followed. Ben spoke.
“Hello Freya, do you remember me?”
The trainer interpreted for him.
“And me?” Sarah said.
Again, the trainer kept up. Freya only glanced at the trainer to see what was being said. But she remained quiet.
Finally, Freya looked at the two people and began to sign.
“You from old city,” she signed.
The trainer interpreted exactly, but explained it was Freya’s way of explaining the past place where they met.
“You care Freya,” the chimp said.
Ben looked at the trainer for the comment.
“Yes, they care about Freya, care about you,” the trainer told her.
Freya turned and squatted looking at the wall. Then she turned her head and looked at Sarah and Ben again.
“What’s wrong with her?” Sarah asked.
“I’m not sure. Her reaction is odd.”
The trainer signed something. Freya looked at her but did not reply.
“I asked her what is wrong,” the trainer told them.
Freya continued looking at the wall. She seemed to be thinking something.
“What Freya?” the trainer asked. “Tell me what is wrong.”
“Family want free,” Freya signed without looking at them.
“Family want free,” she signed again.
“No truck, no cage, only trees,” Freya signed.
The interpreter explained to Ben and Sarah.
They stared at Freya, unsure what to think or do.
“Freya,” Ben spoke at last. “We are sorry about your family.”
The trainer signed it.
“Family no more,” Freya replied staring at the wall
Sarah suddenly had a tear in her eye.
Freya stood and turned back to face them. She looked at the trainer, then to Sarah, then to Ben.
“One day, I grow, Freya have family,’ she began.
“Mate, children, male and female.”
The interpreter did the speaking of course, but even she was surprised. Freya was making a speech.
“Freya have strong family,” she went on.
“Many strong family.”
“We come, we come you, kill you family, you be sad, you be one like Freya. Then we kill you.”
Freya turned, walked to the exhibit door, turned the handle and pulled it open. She turned, extending herself as tall as she could, put her head back and screamed, a shriek of pain and misery that turned to rage as she stared at the humans.
Sarah, Ben and the trainer recoiled and backed into the wall, not sure of what was going to happen next.
Then Freya stopped, she cocked her head sideways and let out that cry Ben had heard back in the bin, when the large chimp had laughed. Freya’s lips curled back and she laughed at their fear and their misery.
She turned, crouched down and went out the door.