Breathless Page 12

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

One of the animals made soft chortling noises that seemed to express delight, and the two appeared to grin at each other.

Making a timpani of the floor, Merlin galloped out of the room.

“Of monkeys, only capuchins and—I think maybe—guenons can move the thumb around to touch a couple of the other fingers.”

Grady counted, “One, two, three, four,” as he moved his right thumb to each finger on his hand.

“I don’t know of any monkeys that have fully opposable and extendable thumbs, capable of such dexterity,” Cammy said. “A lot of monkeys can’t hold things with their thumb, they just press the object between their fingers and palm.”

“Anyway,” Grady said, “these guys aren’t monkeys. They don’t look anything like monkeys.”

“Definitely not monkeys,” she agreed. “Some lemurs have pretty flexible hands, but these hands aren’t like the hands of any lemur.”

“What has hands like theirs?”

“We do.”

“Besides us.”


“There must be something.”

“Yeah. There’s them.”

Having made a selection from his toy box in the kitchen, the wolfhound thundered into the living room with a plush raccoon in his mouth.

The animals on the sofa reacted to that ring-tailed treasure with interest.

Hoping to tease them into a chase, Merlin bit the raccoon, and it produced a squeak identical to that made by the purple bunny.

As if disappointed that the raccoon lacked a unique voice, the creatures returned to the examination of their toys.

“Look at the way they handle those things,” Cammy said.

“What way?”

“The way they stroke the fabric.”


“Look at that one, Grady. Look how it likes the feel of the duck’s rubber bill.”

“Yeah, and Merlin loves to chew on it. So what?”

“The other one. See? The way it keeps rubbing its thumb across the bunny’s nose? I bet there’s something else they share with us besides the shape and function of their hands. A richness of nerve endings in the fingertips. Did you know, compared to other species, the human sense of touch is highly refined, it’s unique on Earth?”

“I didn’t know,” he admitted.

“Now you know. Unique on Earth. Or it was.”

As if tiring of the toy, one of the creatures tossed the purple bunny across the living room, where it bounced off the fireplace mantel and fell to the hearth.

Merlin dropped his raccoon and scrambled after the rabbit.

The second creature threw the duck to a far corner of the room.

The wolfhound seized the rabbit, dropped it, and plunged after the duck.

One of the animals began to pry up a sofa cushion, apparently to see what might be under it.

The other had taken an interest in Cammy. It slid to the edge of the sofa and leaned forward, staring intently.

At the centers of its beautiful golden eyes, the pupils were not black but a dark copper color.

Merlin returned with the duck. He squeaked the toy twice, but neither of the creatures wanted to play.

“Calling them ‘it’ doesn’t feel right,” Cammy said. “We ought to name them.”

“I don’t name every animal in the woods.”

“They aren’t in the woods. They’re here now.”

“Probably not for long.”

“Are you paying attention?” she asked.

“I thought I was.”

“They’ve moved in.”

“Wild animals don’t just move in.”

“Wild isn’t the right word for them. You yourself said they were almost tame, like somebody’s pets.”

“I did. I said that. You think they’re someone’s pets?”

She shook her head. “No. Not pets. But they’re something.”

“We aren’t making any progress. We’re back to the something theory.”

After discovering that neither of his new friends was in the mood for a chase, Merlin came to Cammy with the duck, squeaking it teasingly.

She rubbed his head and said, “Not right now, you big sweetie.”

Astonishment and amazement affected the heart and the mind only momentarily and couldn’t be sustained. The wonder that gripped Cammy was continuous, however, in part because the longer she observed the creatures, the more they intrigued her.

Their nostrils quivered frequently, suggesting that their nasal cavities were richly supplied with blood vessels and nerves, like the noses of dogs, and that their olfactory sense was highly developed. Their teeth were those of omnivores, quite human in shape, sharpness, and arrangement. In spite of the masking fur, their facial muscles allowed a wide range of expressions. Their toes were longer than those of humans, and the great toe appeared to be a kind of thumb, not fully opposable but functional enough to make them good climbers.

With every new observation, Cammy was further energized. Ideas, questions, and suppositions that gave rise to additional questions spun through her mind. The flint of one idea sparked against the flint of another and another and another.

Indicating the animal that perched on the edge of the sofa and stared intently at her, Cammy said, “She’s so totally mysterious, I’m going to call her Puzzle.”

Because the genitalia were well-concealed in fur and folds, Grady asked, “How do you know it’s a female?”

“I’m guessing. But she’s slightly smaller than the other one. And her tail isn’t quite as plumey.”

“Male peacocks are always showier than female, huh?” “It holds for a number of species, though not all. Male golden retrievers tend to have plumier tails than females.”

Puzzle slid off the sofa, onto all fours, cocked her head, and continued to study Cammy.

Immediately, the other animal turned to the cushion on which Puzzle had been sitting and tipped it on end to look underneath.

Grady said, “So you think the one searching for loose change is a male?”

“I’m pretty sure. But the names work either way. I’m going to call him Riddle.”

“Puzzle and Riddle. I guess that’s better than Ebb and Flo.”

“You should be forbidden by law from naming animals.”

“I still think Howard would’ve been a good name for Merlin.”

“You were going to call him Sassy, for God’s sake.”

“That was only to scare you into letting me call him Howard.”

Pointing at the female, Cammy said, “Puzzle. That’s you. But every puzzle has a solution.”

Seeming to confirm the judgment that these animals were not wild, that they were familiar with people, Puzzle scampered to the footstool, climbed into Cammy’s lap, and curled up for a cuddle, as if she were not a fifty-pound package but instead a lap dog.

Laughing, Cammy stroked Puzzle’s coat—and exclaimed at the density and singular softness of the fur. “Grady, feel this.”

He put a hand on Puzzle. “So soft, like mink.”

“Softer than mink,” Cammy said. “Softer than sable. Softer than anything.”

Under Cammy’s ministering hands, Puzzle purred with pleasure.

“Look at you,” Grady said. “You’re glowing.”

“I’m not glowing,” Cammy objected.

“I’ve never seen you glowing like this.”

“I’m not a lamp.”

“Your face is like the face of a saint in a painting.”

“I’m no saint.”

“Well, you’re glowing, anyway.”


The incident occurred in the afternoon, and Tom Bigger thought about nothing else all day and into the night before deciding what he must do.

He was vomiting into a trash barrel when it happened.

Without a shriek or shrill, a flock of seagulls swooped out of nowhere, wings beating the air low over his head. The mere act of ducking, turning, and looking up into the sun was enough to trigger vertigo.

A trash barrel stood a step away. If it hadn’t been there, in his confusion he might have thrown up on his shoes. He had done that before.

The barrel served a small rest area off the coastal highway. Two concrete benches offered vantage points from which to enjoy the sun-spangled sea and a curve of coastline.

Occasionally, on days when he looked as presentable as he got, Tom climbed up from the beach to panhandle the motorists who stopped to commune with nature. If he tried to beg when he was too rough-looking, the marks didn’t get out of their cars.

The name Bigger fit him better in his youth. At forty-eight, more than fifty pounds lighter than in his glory days, he was gaunt, although at six foot five, he still towered over most people. Large-boned, with wrists as thick as axe handles, with sledgehammer hands, he could knock down anyone, but the condition of his face ensured that no one ever challenged him.

Three times over the years, when the self-hatred became too poisonous to contain, he pounded his massive fists into his own face until the pain burned as fiercely as he deserved. Each time, someone found him, and he was hospitalized.

He accepted basic care but refused reconstructive surgery other than some dental work. He wanted to look like what he was: broken, the nonfunctional wreckage of a man. He wanted people to see the real him and to witness their pity, their disgust.

Humiliation kept his acrimony focused on himself. He feared only that one day his bitterness would turn to hostility against others and that he would act upon his enmity. He dreaded what violence he might perpetrate, what a horror he might become.

When he panhandled, he held a sign that identified him as a veteran, the survivor of a bomb blast in one Middle East conflict or another, but he was a veteran only of the war within himself.

On this day, shaved, hair freshly washed in the sea, wearing rumpled khakis and a parrot-pattern Hawaiian shirt, Tom appeared sufficiently presentable to take in thirty dollars and change in three hours.

He was alone in the rest area when the seagulls dived at him, the vertigo overcame him, and he vomited into the barrel.

Stomach purged, he took a pint of tequila from a pants pocket to wash the foul taste from his mouth. As he put the bottle to his lips, the incident occurred.

When Tom Bigger at last could move, he walked north from the rest area, until the sheer bluff became a steep sandstone slope. He descended in a shambling rush to the shore. On the beach, he realized that he had neither taken a swallow of the tequila nor held on to the bottle.

For some months, he had been sheltering in a ten-foot-deep cave at the base of the bluff, directly below the scenic viewpoint. With his bedroll and his few belongings, he kept a supply of tequila and a tin filled with joints of sinsemilla.

In recent years, he drank more than he smoked. Now, he wanted both, until he achieved oblivion.

For the first time in memory, however, he denied himself what he craved. Instead, he waded fully clothed into the sea and sat where the low surf broke gently against his chest.

On this stretch of state-owned coastline, in respect of certain endangered species, the beach was permanently closed to swimmers, surfers, campers, and fishermen. Bankrupt California didn’t have the funds to enforce much more than the tax laws, however, and Tom didn’t worry about being hassled by any kind of shore patrol.

The outer limits of the town lay almost a mile to the south, once a community filled with promise but now just another place where people waited for the end of one thing and the beginning of something worse. He walked into town most days, but no one from there ever came this far north on foot.

Over the years, he’d lived in many places: tents, culverts, junkyard cars, a half-collapsed barn, abandoned buildings. His hope had been that the cave in the sandstone bluff might be his last home.

Six months ago, he twice had a dream about living just above the high-tide line in a cave with smooth sinuous walls, where inflowing wind sometimes spoke in many voices. In the dream, the sea rose in a monster swell and came to him as he lay watching the water claim the stars.

After the second dream, he came to the coast and walked miles of lonely beaches and sandless shingle, until he found his current quarters with its smooth and sinuous walls. He had believed in the promise of the tsunami, and he had known what to do: Wait for the great wave, the drowning rush.

The incident in the rest area changed everything. He no longer knew what he should do.

He sat in the surf while the day waned. If the sea would not keep its promise to him, then perhaps it would wash into him an understanding of what he had seen, what it meant, and what he must do now instead of waiting for the wave.

Twice people in the rest area high above shouted down to him. He didn’t acknowledge them. Later, two young men descended from the bluff, either to see if they could help him or, more likely, to see if they could have some cruel fun with him. As they approached, one of them said, “Hey, dude, where’s your surfboard?”

When he turned to look up at them, they halted at the sight of his face. Their attitude and expressions changed, and they backed off a few steps.

As the two conferred in whispers, Tom raised his hands out of the surging water and showed them his huge fists.

The young men retreated to the bluff and did not return.

After a while, Tom moved farther back on the beach, so the surf broke at his feet.

Neither twilight nor nightfall brought understanding.

The moon silvered the froth of the breaking surf.

Far out on the black sea, ship lights moved north, moved south, grew brighter, then dwindled.

As if stepping out of time from a prehuman world, a great blue heron of singular size appeared to the south of him, a prehistoric presence almost five feet tall, wading through the shallow purling water of the collapsed surf, feeding as it progressed.

Heron often trumpeted during a hunt. This one stalked silently. The bird stopped near Tom’s feet and regarded him with its tiny moon-monocled eyes. Instead of spreading its immense wings and taking flight or issuing its threatening cry of aggression, it paused only briefly and then dismissively moved past him, continuing north along the shore, spearing small fish with its sharp bill.

The moon, the ships, the hunting heron seemed to have the same message for Tom Bigger: Rise, go, keep moving.

Suddenly chilled, he stripped out of his wet garments and left them on the beach. He dressed in one of his two changes of clothes: thick socks, walking shoes, jeans, and a denim shirt.

He packed six pints of tequila in his backpack and left the rest of his supply buried in the sand at the back of the cave, although he suspected that he would never return.

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