“Doug, I wish you’d listen to yourself.”
Amanda sat on the living room floor, rocking back and forth on her bottom and cooing to herself, while Mom and Dad argued in the kitchen. Albert stretched out on the couch and sipped at his tall glass of ice-cold milk, watching Amanda and wishing he could be out riding his bike instead.
“What? What’s wrong with what I just said?”
It was too hot to ride bikes anyway, but Albert wanted — needed — to pop a wheelie, a big wheelie, preferably in front of a crowd, if for no other reason than to show that smug sixth-grader Timmy Vivant that he could.
“Oh, I don’t know, that you regret it?”
Timmy had spit on him at lunch the other day, hawked a big ol’ loogie right on the back of Albert’s head. It must’ve been easy, Timmy being so tall and all. He’d whipped around only to be face-to-chest with the older boy, whose white-and-blue–striped polo somehow looked both too big and too small. He’d had to crane his neck to meet the ginger’s stupid snaggle-toothed grin.
“Well, what if I do?”
Albert had wanted to bag Timmy right in the balls, bag him good, so he’d drop to his knees right there in the lunch line. Then maybe Albert could spit on his head.
But he hadn’t. Instead, he’d wiped the loogie away with a napkin and moved on to the corner table to sit with his fellow fifth-grade nerds. He’d shot Timmy a nice hot glare, the kind of look Dad said burned holes in people, but it hadn’t been very satisfying.
“I just can’t believe that,” Mom said. “After all we went through, after all this time. What, do you want to call the lab and give her back?”
Albert smiled at the thought of burning holes in Timmy Vivant and sipped at his milk. He’d been upset when Mom had made them all switch to one-percent for Dad’s heart, but he’d gotten used to the difference.
“What the hell would I want to do that for?”
Little Amanda was sitting on the floor, playing with her toes now. Albert watched her, his baby sister in her little dark curls and red ladybug dress, and sipped his milk. She almost seemed to shimmer in the sunlight that streamed in through the window.
“You know very well that’s just what you want!”
Albert glanced back over the top of the couch. Mom was standing in the middle of the kitchen, by the stove, waving her arms near her sides as she talked. The from-scratch mac ’n’ cheese and fresh garden peas she’d been making were all but forgotten. Supper would be late again.
“It’s just that it’s different now than it was.”
Albert remembered the first time he’d seen Amanda as The Ape. It seemed forever ago now. A mouse had somehow gotten into the living room while they were watching what would become Amanda’s favorite movie, Mighty Joe Young — one of Dad’s creaky old black-and-whites; Albert knew there was a more recent color version, remembered wondering why they weren’t watching that one instead. Amanda had stood up in terror when the mouse ran across her foot, and suddenly she was seven feet tall and covered in thick black hair, with a nine-foot arm span, two-inch canines, and dark brown eyes. She stayed that way for a while, pacing to and from the kitchen on her knuckles like a nervous animal, even after Dad had caught the mouse and taken it outside. Albert had cried, his own terror locking him to the couch even after she’d returned to the living room and turned back into a girl, but he didn’t like to think about that part.
Mom and Dad had had a lot of explaining to do that night.
“Oh, all right, so let’s send her away. Everything would be fine, right?”
Between mumbled words of comfort and apology, they’d told Albert that Amanda was a mutant who was being hurt by bad people Mom used to work for. Mom and Dad had rescued Amanda, adopted her, just like they’d told him when he’d first met her there, in the living room, the week before. So, they hadn’t really lied — but it was a secret. Because if anyone found out they had her, Amanda might be taken away from them, taken back to the bad people who’d been hurting her. Keeping her here, keeping her a secret, was the right thing to do.
Dad’s open palm came down hard on the countertop. “Jesus, Margaret, you know I don’t want anything to happen to her.”
That was during third grade. Amanda had been a toddler, and she’d barely changed since, except to be The Ape every once in a while. Albert had grown to like The Ape, after a fashion, but there was something horrible about it all the same. Albert hadn’t been able to play in the living room since the day of the mouse. It just wasn’t the same anymore, pretending to be a monster between the couches. Not with a real monster sitting between them.
“Oh, fine, Doug.” Mom had that sarcastic tone she knew Dad hated. Albert cringed, knowing this meant the fight was far from over. “Fine. I’m sure some other family would be happy to take her in, make her safe.”
They kept at it, as they had more and more in recent years. They would probably get divorced, Albert thought, just like Timmy Vivant’s parents, if it wasn’t for Amanda. As Timmy had proven, a mere son wasn’t enough to hold a failing marriage together.
When Albert turned back to Amanda, she was The Ape.
She was very near, her too-human eyes pleading. One gigantic, ink-black finger pointed at his glass of milk. Albert shook his head violently no. She’d been getting in his face like this a lot in recent months, always mooching his snacks and taking sips from his juice. More often than not she was The Ape when she did it, like she knew that form made it harder for him to refuse her, harder to ignore her.
“Oh, don’t be like that, Margaret. Don’t you ‘fine’ me. Just don’t. This is real.”
Amanda, The Ape, kept pointing at Albert’s glass, inching her huge body even closer to the couch. She screwed her protruding mouth into a gorilla’s approximation of a puppy-dog expression.
“No,” Albert said, holding the glass closer to his chest.
“Well, excuse me! You think I don’t know we’re talking about our children?”
Amanda stopped pointing, reached for the glass. Even on her knuckles, she towered over Albert on the couch. The pleading had gone out of her eyes.
Albert swatted her hand away.
“I said no,” he snapped. “It’s mine. You’ll just barf it up on the carpet anyway.”
He’d never snapped at her like that before. But her looming so close, demanding what was by every right his, reminded him of Timmy Vivant grinning down at him. It made him mad. He took a long gulp of milk, giving The Ape his best burning-holes-in-you glare.
Amanda stared at him, her eyes brightening. A deep grunt issued from somewhere in her throat, too low for Mom and Dad to hear.
“We only have one child, Margar—”
She reached for the glass again, faster this time. Faster than Albert could evade or intercept. He had an eyeblink’s moment to realize that maybe he wasn’t safe, maybe he should’ve been more careful, before the giant hand closed around his, squeezing it until the glass broke, crushing it until the shards sliced his flesh and the bones cracked.
The house was silent for a heartbeat as he sucked in a breath and Mom and Dad turned to look, their fight interrupted. Then he was screaming again, and so were they. Amanda was still holding his hand, still squeezing it, and now she was hooting loudly.
For Albert, the entire house seemed to fade away. The pain was unbearable. Blood and milk welled out between The Ape’s fingers, dripping down onto Albert’s lap and forming little pink puddles in the folds of his jeans before soaking in. He shut his eyes to keep from vomiting.
“Just let go now, honey!” he heard Mom shriek. He wondered if she was urging him to faint, or to die. Then she clarified her addressee: “Amanda! Let go, Amanda! Let go, LET GO OF HIM!”
Albert felt The Ape’s grip tighten, felt the bones grind together, felt the shards cut deeper.
He felt her start to tug at his arm.
Oh my God she’s going to rip off my arm, rip it right out of the socket just like the guy did to the monster in that story Dad read —
He couldn’t scream anymore, but his face was wet with tears. Mom wasn’t screaming anymore either, but she was mumbling quietly, a mile a minute. Alternating between begging God to intervene with promises of devotion and begging Amanda to let go with promises of candy. He couldn’t hear Dad’s voice at all.
Then Amanda — The Ape — screamed, roared —
And let go.
Albert opened his eyes, careful to look anywhere but at the mangled ruin of his hand. Amanda was pawing at a white tuft that looked like the birdies they used for badminton in gym class. It stuck out of her chest like a conical flower. The Ape backed away from the couch, stumbled, and collapsed in a twitching black heap.
Albert saw Dad enter the living room holding a skinny green gun. Then he glimpsed his own hand, and knew no more.
He came to still lying on the couch, feeling groggy. His hand hurt a lot, but not as bad as before. Risking a look, he saw it was bandaged, with each finger set in a metal-and-plastic splint and the whole thing arranged in a padded sling across his chest.
Albert felt like some kind of crippled cyborg. It might’ve been almost cool if it didn’t still hurt so much, and if his assailant wasn’t still in the room.
The Ape was asleep on the floor, belly up. He wondered if she would be sorry when she woke up, and realized he didn’t even care. He hated Amanda, hated her even more than Timmy Vivant.
Mom and Dad were sitting on the other couch, talking in harsh whispers. They didn’t seem to notice that he was awake.
“We should’ve taken him to the hospital, Margaret.”
“And told them what?”
The house was dark except for the soft glow from a solitary lamp and the brighter light from the kitchen. It was late. Albert’s stomach growled inaudibly, and he realized they’d never eaten dinner.
“We could’ve staged a break-in, told them we don’t know where the ape came from.”
“‘The ape?’ Is that all she is to you now?”
Dad had taken the form of a little boy. Himself, at about Albert’s age, complete with a T-shirt advertising some long-forgotten cartoon from the 1990s. The skinny green gun looked like a comically large toy in his hand.
He looks just like me.
“Margaret, let’s cut the bullshit.” Hearing little-boy Dad cuss was even funnier than seeing him with the gun, but Albert couldn’t laugh. This was all too real. “Things have changed. It just won’t be possible to keep her here anymore. She won’t obey.”
“I can’t believe you shot her.”
“It was just a damn tranquilizer, and I didn’t have a choice! She attacked our son.”
“And I went to five different pharmacies to get the supplies we needed —”
“Right! You had to do that just to avoid suspicion, when a real doctor could’ve helped him better and fast —”
“Christ, Doug, you said yourself he’s going to be okay! And turn that thing off, I can’t take you seriously looking like that.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. You know how sensitive it can be.”
Dad picked up a tiny white rectangle from the little end table — the living room remote — and pointed it at the ceiling, pressing a button. The little boy fizzled and faded away, leaving grown-up Dad in his place.
“Why would Amanda hurt Albert?” Mom started to cry. “My God, she likes Albert!”
“She’s been mature for a while. Maybe captivity is making her aggressive.”
“She’s not in captivity. We rescued her from captivity.”
“You know what I mean. She’s cooped up, when all she probably wants is to run around in the woods, like we used to let her before the developments started popping up. Now she doesn’t even get fresh air.”
Albert looked over at The Ape, still lying on the floor. Mom or Dad had removed the empty dart, but one giant hand was still cupped over the massive chest. It rose and fell with slow, steady rhythm.
“How long until she wakes up?”
“Shouldn’t be much longer.”
“You going to shoot her again?”
Dad started to say something, hesitated.
“Only if I have to,” he said at last.
“Oh, Doug, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. She’s too heavy to move on our own, if she won’t go to her room …”
Her room was Dad’s workshop, once upon a time. Just off the living room. It was bigger than Albert’s, upstairs.
“She will,” Mom said. “I’m sure she will. What about Al?”
“He can stay home from school for a few days, but he’s got to go back sometime. His hand will be messed up. People will ask about it.”
Albert hadn’t considered that. He wondered what Timmy Vivant would say when he went back to school with a crooked hand.
I’ll bag him good if he so much as snickers.
He only wished he could do the same to The Ape. Instead, he’d have to settle for burning holes in her from a distance.
“We’ll have to come up with something, I guess.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Doug. Maybe — maybe Al slammed his hand in the car door.”
“Himself? By accident?”
“Of course. What else could it be but an accident? He slammed his hand in the car door.”
“You almost sound like you believe it already yourself.”
“We’ll all have to believe it to make it work. And just what’s that supposed to mean, anyway?”
“Nothing. But how could he even do that to himself? By accident?”
“Okay, well, maybe you did it.”
Dad shot her a glare, burning holes better than Albert ever could. “If either of us did this, it was you.”
Mom stared back at him, opened her mouth as if to pursue the matter, and then seemed to think better of it.
Dad sighed. “She’ll be awake soon.”
The three of them watched the sleeping gorilla on the living room floor and waited.
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