Breathless Page 11

“Are you babbling?”

“Sounds like babbling, doesn’t it? A lot’s happened. I don’t know what to make of it. Of them. Maybe you will. They’re in the living room.”

Cammy followed him across the kitchen. At the threshold of the hallway, he halted. She almost collided with him.

He turned to her. “I’m half afraid to take you in there.”


“Maybe you won’t be surprised. You’ll have a name for them. Then it’s not something, after all. It sure seems like it is. Something, I mean. But what do I know? I’m babbling, aren’t I?”

“Which sure isn’t like you.”

“They ate my chicken. Some was Merlin’s chicken. I’m assuming it was them. I don’t have actual proof.”

“I’m not here to make an arrest.”

“But who else would’ve eaten it? Maybe whoever switched on the lights in the workshop.”

Clueless but game, Cammy said, “Maybe the light switches smell like chicken. That would be proof of something.”

After turning away from her, he at once faced her again. “I don’t care they ate it. What surprises me is they would come right in. In the house, I mean. Wild animals aren’t that bold.”

He started toward the living room, but three steps along the hallway, he stopped and turned to her. She collided with him.

Steadying Cammy with one hand, Grady said, “Wild, bold—but not dangerous. Just the opposite. Almost tame. Like somebody’s pets.”

He let go of her and headed along the hallway again.

Expecting him to halt suddenly, Cammy hesitated to follow.

At the living-room archway, he glanced back. “What’re you doing? Come on, come on.”

In the front room, Merlin sat at attention. He glanced at Cammy, and his tail twitched, but he didn’t hurry to her as he usually did. He was captivated by the two creatures in front of him, on the sofa.

They were the size of six-year-old children. They sat as kids might sit, not on their haunches as a dog or a cat, but on their posteriors, legs straight in front of them.

In its forepaws, each held a dog toy, which it was examining with interest. A plush yellow duck, a plush purple bunny.

They were almost like plush toys themselves: dense, lustrous, snow-white fur. Furless and coal-black noses, lips, and paws.

Grady said, “Well? Is this really something? Is this something or isn’t it?”

Cammy glanced at him. Nodded. Found her voice. “Yeah. It’s something, all right.”

She put down her medical bag. Her knees had gone weak. She sat on a footstool directly opposite the animals.

Their skulls were not long like those of dogs, but round, and their faces were flat compared to the faces of dogs. Their nose leather and lips seemed feline. They looked more like otters than like cats, but they were not otters.

Because their heads were larger in proportion to their bodies than was usually the case in animals, the enormous eyes didn’t seem grotesque, and they weren’t protuberant. When they blinked, their lids were as black as their noses and lips.

Other aspects of the creatures were different from anything Cammy expected in furred mammals. Above all else, however, their eyes compelled her attention.

Some nocturnal animals, like African bush babies, had large eyes in proportion to the size of their heads. None she could think of was a fraction as enormous as these.

“Large eyes aren’t essential to night vision,” she said, as much to herself as to Grady, thinking aloud. “Diurnal-nocturnal animals, like dogs and cats—they’re able to see well in the dark because they have large pupils and a lot of photoreceptors in their retinas.”

Many animal eyes lacked a sclera—the white—as prominent as it was in the human eye. In most dogs, the sclera became visible largely when the animal looked sideways. The pair on the couch seemed to have no sclera whatsoever.

“The iris,” she said, “the pigmented portion, appears to wrap the eyeball far enough that the sclera never rotates into view.”

This alone suggested the possibility of numerous structural differences from the eyes of other animals. The cornea’s convex arc was a more impressive engineering feat here than in the human eye. The anterior and the posterior chambers of the aqueous humor must be shaped differently and must integrate in a unique fashion with the iris at the iridocorneal angle.

As a veterinarian, she was compelled to study them more closely, but she was simultaneously restrained by amazement, by astonishment, her mind and heart equally affected. Her stomach muscles fluttered, and her hands trembled as if palsied.

The animals shook-smelled-chewed the plush toys. The one with the duck offered it to the other, and they traded duck for bunny.

Merlin wagged his tail, as if pleased that they seemed to like his stuff.

A kind of wonder had overcome Cammy, akin to what she felt among the horses at High Meadows Farm. But the word wonder didn’t do this feeling justice. This was more profound. The right word eluded her.

However many differences might exist between these eyes and those of other animals, only their color impressed as much as did their size. They were golden but not uniform in hue. Several shades played through them: from gold dust to flax, to amber. …

“The irises don’t appear to be striated,” she said.

From the arm of the chair on which he now perched, Grady said, “Appear to be what?”

“Striated. The light and dark crossbands of muscle fiber—the striae—that radiate from the center of the iris and give texture to it. Sometimes the way light plays in light-colored eyes, they seem to be cut like jewels, to sparkle.”

“Sure. Okay. Striated.”

“But these aren’t. There’s a wholly different texture. I’d sure like to look at their eyes with my ophthalmoscope.”

“I think they might let you.”

She raised her hands to show him how she trembled.

He said, “You’re not afraid of them, are you?”

“No. No, they seem docile. It’s just … just what they might mean. My God.”

“What? What’re you thinking?”

“I’m not thinking anything.”

“You’re thinking something.”

“No. I don’t know. But they sure as hell mean something.”

“I told you they were something. But I thought you’d have some idea what.”

“I don’t. I don’t know what.”

“I thought you’d at least have a theory.”

“I do medicine. I don’t do theory.”

He said, “I’m gonna turn off the lights. Wait till you see their eyes in the dark.”

The creature with the purple bunny found the squeaker in it.

“Wait,” Cammy said as Grady moved toward the light switch.

“Wait for what?”

Squeak, squeak.

In case the squeaking meant a play session was imminent, Merlin got to his feet.

“Their forepaws,” Cammy said. “I didn’t notice till now. I was so taken with their eyes, I didn’t notice their forepaws.”

“What about them?”

Squeak, squeak, squeak.

Cammy’s knees still felt loose, her legs shaky, but nervous energy brought her to her feet. “They aren’t paws. They’re hands.”

“Yeah,” Grady said. “Like monkeys.”

Her hands were suddenly damp. She blotted them on her jeans as she said, “No. No, no, no. Not like monkeys.”


As a man of impeccable personal hygiene, Henry Rouvroy longed to take a bath. His activities since arriving at the farm had caused him to break into a sweat more than once.

He would be forced to costume himself as a rustic for the next few years, to pass as Jim. But he refused to be reduced to one of the Great Unwashed, either intellectually or physically.

With his tormentor on the prowl, however, he dared not be na*ed and vulnerable. The noise of the bathroom shower would leave him deaf to an enemy’s approach.

The most he could do was wash his hands. As he quickly filled the sink with hot water, he rolled up his shirtsleeves.

From the soap arose a cheap scent, a poor imitation of the fragrance of roses. The lather was not as rich as that of the fine soaps to which he was accustomed. In fact, it felt like slime.

When Henry stocked the cellar for the possibility of society’s collapse, he would have to lay in a good supply of the right soaps. No doubt their shampoo, hair conditioner, toothpaste, and various toiletries were also purchased because of price and were inadequate.

The condition of his fingernails distressed him. Unspeakable grime was embedded under every one.

How could he have eaten dinner with such filth under his nails? Perhaps, like a malign fog that begins as wisps of mist, the rural way of thinking crept into a newcomer’s mind without his awareness. One day you neglected to clean under your fingernails, and a week later you found yourself chewing tobacco and buying bib overalls because you liked them.

He must guard against an unconscious slide from sophistication into uncouth practices and boorish ideas.

In the soap dish lay a small rectangular brush with medium-stiff bristles, clearly meant for scrubbing the stubborn grime of farm work out of knuckle creases and from under fingernails. Henry applied it vigorously to the disgusting scum under his nails.

As he labored, he realized with dismay that he would no longer be able to avail himself of the services of a manicurist twice every month. Ensuring the health and attractiveness of his nails, of his cuticles, would henceforth be his responsibility and his alone.

His hair. With a shiver of horror, he suddenly understood that he would have to cut his own hair.

In the surrounding county, in this kingdom of rubes and hicks, barbers could no doubt be found, but he suspected that they learned to cut hair by shearing sheep and would do him up in full redneck style. Anyway, when anarchy swept the nation, venturing out to a barber would be as foolhardy as walking barefoot through a snakepit.

The water was foul, lukewarm. He had cleaned four fingernails to his satisfaction. He drained the sink and filled it again.

He scrubbed, scrubbed. He drained the sink once more and filled it a third time.

When his hands were clean, he felt that he had washed away not only the filth but also every stubborn vestige of superstition. He believed that he would suffer no further from paranoid fantasies of the resurrected dead. Good-bye, Jim.

With the shotgun in hand, Henry toured the house one more time.

In the kitchen, he stared at the glow leaking under the braced cellar door. He was disturbed by the light pooling below, down there where only darkness ought to be—pooling, rising, insinuating.

He stood there for so long, gripping the shotgun so fiercely, that eventually he became aware that his hands ached.

He returned to the bedroom and stood staring at the faux sleeper under the bedclothes, the make-believe Henry composed of pillows and rolled blankets. The simulacrum was convincing.

As his flashlight brightened in his hand, he doused the overhead light with the switch by the door. He left the door open. The hallway light was too dim to relieve the deep gloom in the bedroom.

He retrieved his shotgun and took it into the empty half of the closet, from which he earlier removed Nora’s clothing. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, leaving the riddled door open. He clicked off the flashlight.

Outside, the tormentor would see the glow of the living-room lamp, the other rooms dark. He would most likely sense a trap and wait for Henry to step out of the house before making his move. If the sonofabitch dared to use his key to come inside, Henry would be ready for him.

The simulacrum under the bedclothes looked like someone sleeping.

If the tormentor stepped into the room, switched on the lights, and opened fire on the fake Henry, the real Henry would return fire from the closet, killing him.

Sitting in the dark, Henry recalled the shape on the bed, under the covers. He could see it clearly in memory.

A real man lying on the bed would present exactly the same form as the pillow-and-rolled-blanket dummy. Exactly.

He knew the sleeper was nothing but pillows and blankets because earlier he arranged them under the covers. He knew. Just pillows and blankets.

Henry listened for a distant door to open. He listened for the stealthy footsteps of an intruder. He listened intently for the sound of the bedsprings adjusting to a shifting weight.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Yet.


For Cammy Rivers, the sudden recognition of the nature of the creatures’ hands was a wardrobe-to-Narnia, tornado-and-Toto moment, when the well-known land of a lifetime suddenly proved to be—to have always been—one door away, one wind away, from another reality.

The creature with the plush yellow duck found the pressure point that made the toy speak: Quack, quack.

At once, its companion answered with the purple bunny: Squeak, squeak, squeak.

Panting in anticipation of play, Merlin stood poised to move whichever way the action might go, looking from one to the other of his new friends.

Quack. Squeak, squeak. Quack, quack. Squeak.

Throughout most of her childhood, Cammy had wished desperately for a magic moment, for a wave of change to wash away the way things were, for all that seemed impossible to become possible in a wink. Having given up long ago, having been old and without dreams even before her brutal childhood ended, she now found herself on the brink of an event potentially so momentous that it seemed to have the power to put her past in a new perspective, to diminish the memory of her suffering, and to open a door through which she could step and be transformed.

Squeak. Quack. Squeak. Quack, quack, quack.

The word wonder was inadequate to describe the feeling—both emotion and sensation—that flowered in her more fully by the minute, and the right word no longer eluded her. But she feared that speaking it even to herself would jinx her, would ensure that what seemed to be momentous would turn out to be mundane.

Squeak, squeak. Quack. Squeak, squeak. Quack.

Sitting on the footstool again, Cammy remained riveted by the animals’ hands as they squeezed the toys. “No, not like monkeys. There’s over a hundred species of monkeys, some with hands instead of paws, but not all. Those with hands don’t always have thumbs.”

Grady rose from the arm of the chair behind Cammy and knelt beside the footstool on which she sat. “These guys have thumbs.”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, they sure do. And some monkeys have thumbs that help them hold things. But only capuchins and one or maybe two other species can pick up things between their thumb and forefinger.”

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