Sunday, August 4, 2013

DEVOLUTION by Peter Clenott

DEVOLUTION by Peter Clenott

What does it truly mean to be ‘Human’?

... Chiku Flynn wasn’t raised to be human. Born in the Congolese rainforest, she spends her first eleven years as part of an experiment. For her, the aboriginal—the primitive—is ‘normal.’

Just after her eleventh birthday, Chiku witnesses the horrifying death of her mother, and her father sends her ‘home’ to the United States, to a normal teenager’s life. But she can’t adapt. She is the proverbial wild child—obstinate and defiant.

When her father disappears, sixteen-year-old Chiku heads back to the primordial jungle, where she uncovers her own dark past and puts to use her greatest skill: she can communicate via sign language with the wild chimpanzees of Chimp Island.

But there is turmoil in the rainforest—civil war, environmental upheaval…and murder. The lives of the chimps and the safety of the people she loves depend upon one teenaged girl who refuses to be messed with—Chiku Flynn.



Perched on a branch in a tree at the top of Chimp Hill, the highest point on the island, Scallion studied the night sky. In times past, the moon, the stars, all of the bright objects set in the darkness above, would have held no meaning for him or for his fellow chimpanzees. With good reason their curiosity was focused on the earth and upon the rain forest in which they lived, how it fed them and nurtured them. This had been true since the beginning of time, since the first chimpanzee found a home here. Only the arrival of the girl and her parents had changed that, changed everything, in fact.

Scallion didn’t feel the wind breathing through his brown fur, didn’t feel its soft tickling. Sometimes the moon shone a brilliant red or even purple, colors reflecting off the water of the Mamba River, which flowed around Chimp Hill and created his island home. On those nights the young chimpanzee reflected upon days buried deeply but firmly in his memory when he and the human female played tag and leaped through the trees, wraaing and hooting and pretending they were of the same kind.

Tonight the mouth-shaped moon seemed to be frowning. The girl had explained to him, using her hands in a language her father was teaching them, that they all lived on a great big ball. Using the thumb and middle finger of her left hand she would pinch her right wrist and explain to them that their world made a circle every day so that light was a part of the morning and darkness an expected feature of night.

"The moon," she signed, touching her forehead with two fingers in the shape of the crescent, "is a ball of rock that floats in the air so far away birds can never reach it. Chimpanzees can never get there either, but our kind can." 

Scallion lowered himself down the tree, branch by branch. He was young, just entering that stage in his life when he would be mating with one of the females of the island or perhaps one who crossed into their territory from the nearby grasslands. He remembered the girl telling him one day when she shared a piece of banana cake that they had both turned eleven. The number meant nothing to him though she had tried to explain to him the passage of time, how the earth turned about the day star with the moon playing tag much as the girl and the chimpanzee did. It wasn’t long after that exciting birthday, when they had splashed and played in the river, that she vanished from his life never to return. The passage of time seemed forever from that long ago day, but he still missed her. Good night moon. Good night stars.

Maybe his sadness played into his feeling of unease tonight. On some evenings the crescent moon would be so bright the girl could read her books to the chimpanzees without use of her light stick. Tonight the moon made his fur stand on end. There was no appeasing it with hand signs or soft coos. The family was feeling edgy. They had eaten their evening meal and formed their nests in the trees, but none could sleep. It wasn’t just the moon that disturbed. It was the man, Tree Storm, the girl’s father.

Jumping to the ground, Scallion moved as quickly as he could down the slope of the hill to find his troop. His knuckles scraped the ground. Much as he attempted to walk as the tall hairless ones, he could not stay upright and erect for as long as they could. He admired his friend, the girl. She had learned to move like the chimpanzees such that even in the densest part of the forest, she could dart this way and that, graceful as a bird in the trees or as an okapi on the grasslands. She could throw, too. Once she hurled a rock clear across the wooden bridge to the mainland to hit a tree on the far side. Scallion’s arms were far more powerful than hers, but his attempts at hitting the tree always fell short or far to the left or right. What frightened Scallion was that two nights ago he had been right on target. Only the target had not been a tree.

At the base of the hill he stopped to listen, scared. Pop! Pop! Pop in the sky. Popping thunder. But not the kind of roar the clouds bring with the rain.

"Hoo! Hoo!" he called.

The chimpanzee no longer trusted the two-legs. The world had changed, was changing. More humans had moved into the forest chimp lands, an uncountable number, bringing with them much noise and anger. Outsiders. Strangers. Death followed them. They bled like the moon at its reddest, and the chimpanzees bled with them.

"Hoo! Hoo!" Sitting on his haunches, Scallion let out a series of plaintive hoos and beseeching waas. "Hoo-waa! Hoo-waa! Hoo hoo-waa! Where are you?" he called and listened.

Pan, their leader, the primary male, didn’t know what to do. Without Tree Storm, without the man, Pan acted like a young animal, seeking the comfort of the others. He hooted nervously just as much as Scallion’s sister Cream and his favorite playmate Black Bart did. Only Scopes remained at ease, watchful, but Scopes was different from the other chimpanzees. Under the man’s guidance all of the forest clan had been learning to use the fingers of their hands to make words, but Scopes could actually speak some human. Like the girl. Like her father. Like the scary men who were roaming the forest of the island hunting chimpanzees, stealing them, killing them.

"Hooo! Hooo!" Scallion had to wait only momentarily before his ears picked up a response. Eagerly he cried out again, "You hear? Come! Beach! Come!" Then he hurried in the direction of the cove where the ceremony would begin. Calls echoed throughout the island as group called to group to relay Scallion’s message.

The beach was on the river side of the island. The chimpanzees, about a dozen in all, were busy grooming one another, picking bugs and specks of dirt off each other’s fur. The youngest, those not clinging to their mothers, were playing catch-me through the trees much as Scallion had done in his younger days when the girl ruled his life like a fine strong big sister. All of them stopped what they were doing when Scallion came shouting into their midst.

"Talk time! Come! Beach!" He used his hands to sign the words he couldn’t vocalize, beating at the ground in frustration whenever he was misunderstood. Flynn, who the chimpanzees called Tree Storm because his arms and legs trembled and shook whenever he was angry with them, had been a good enough teacher. But it had been the girl who bonded with the primates of the Congolese rain forest. She would groom Scallion and the others, tending to them almost like she was their mother. All the while her calm voice and gentle manner made it easy for the chimpanzees to pick up her language. But she had been gone for so long, and her father, well, whenever he drank the hot liquid he ceased being able to teach anyone anything.

The clatter behind him, the chatter and jumping from the trees, told Scallion that his family was following him, but he constantly turned his head to make sure that he was not being fooled. Pop! Pop! Two nights ago there had been much commotion in the forest, yelling, shouting, humans arguing with the man known as Tree Storm. Scallion had been a witness to it, had been frightened by it. And now Tree Storm, Flynn, was gone, nowhere to be seen. Confusion followed in the wake of his mysterious disappearance. Scallion was just doing what his instincts told him to do whenever the forest clan was disturbed and had no one to turn to to tell them what to do. The primary male Pan was just too inadequate these days.

Along a path which ran through grass more than double his height, Scallion quickened his pace as though the moon could not wait. After a while he could feel the swifter air that flowed across the Mamba River carrying with it the odors of the distant world and the humans who inhabited it. He could smell fish and crocodiles and antelope and lion but nothing filled the air with such stench as the humans. The girl. She was different, always had been. She smelled like a chimpanzee. She smelled like family.

Scallion slapped a few last branches out of his way before his padded feet touched the pebbled surface of his beach. Here, unencumbered by branches, leaves and vines, the night sky beckoned the chimpanzees into a world of light and darkness, myth and magic. Bedecked in black with a speckling of white lights and a wounded lunar eye, the night was watching her children’s ceremony. Across the water a glow of another kind lit up the grassy flatlands. Burning lights. Hundreds of them. Pots boiling. Meat cooking. Fire rising into the sky. Humans. Invaders.

Pop! Trying to ignore the human noise, the young chimpanzee moved along the border of the beach and the forest until he came to a small cove. A row boat had been pulled up onto the shore years ago and left unattended on the rocks. Scallion stopped at the boat, whose owner had long since been lost to the crocodiles of the river, and, turning to face his family, he raised his hands, beckoning them in the fashion of a teacher to be seated. When they were and when Scallion was satisfied that he had their attention, he turned back to the boat and climbed inside.

The floor of the craft still wore streaks of red sheltered in places from the rain. An oar lay on the bottom, the one the girl had been using the day her mother died. Scallion had been a witness to everything, how a crocodile had broken the surface of the river to grab the boat’s unfortunate occupant. Now he gazed at his audience before bending over to dig in the collection of sand at the bottom. After a few scoops, his hand touched something hard, his buried treasure. He gripped it with strong fingers, looked once again at all of those intrigued eyes, then lifted the object high in the air.

Flynn had purchased the book for his daughter. She would come down to this very beach to read to her friends the tales of a man with a yellow hat and of his companion, a chimpanzee, like Scallion, who was very curious.

Scallion’s lips curled back to expose his teeth in a wide grin. Excited panting and hooting filled his ears as his family prodded him to tell them everything he remembered.

He waited for a hush. Oh, how he wished the girl were with him now. How do you really tell about a girl? How do you explain her importance? How even in the most frightful of moments she could speak in a way that took away all fears. Scallion had tried to do these things many times before without her. But the world was changing. Humans had invaded their land, and the two-legged father they had relied on all their lives was missing.

Scallion tried to cheer and comfort Pan and Cream, Black Bart and Scopes, but he longed for the old days and for the girl with the black hair and the eyes dark as the night. Their sister. Their teacher. The girl the chimpanzees called Talk Talk.


"See the wall? We gotta jump it, Jess. Keep up with me! They’ll bust us, if we don’t."

Oh, she could talk, all right. Once she got started, in fact, it was hard to stop her.

"Who? Everyone, that’s who. We just can’t let ‘em. Screw the world. We don’t cave for nobody’s shit! There’s no obstacle the PMs can’t tame."


She could leap and swing, too. Like a chimpanzee through the trees. She wasn’t all lip and tongue and vocal cords. Life’s barrier tonight was a four-foot-high concrete wall meant to keep her and her four friends from entering the prohibited construction area on the platform of the North Station T line. Chiku flew down the ramp on roller blades all the while yapping to her mates who were trying to keep up with her on their own skates.

"No rules. No laws. Just common sense and a keen eye for what’s what."

At the last instant, as the concrete barrier loomed several yards ahead, Chiku maneuvered up a ramped piece of plywood at full speed, tucked her knees under her chest, then thrust with all her might. Zooming over the wall, she landed sure-footed and flying on the other side.

"In a world without a safety net, she who has good balance rules."

Chiku spun about, kicking up a swirl of dust and debris. Her BFF Jess was right behind on roller blades but caught the top of her left boot on the concrete wall and took a tumble skidding across the hard tiled floor. Chiku caught her in her arms.

"Almost hit it, girl," Chiku said. She helped her friend up. "You okay?"

"Just minor scarring," Jess said. She showed off a scrape on her arm that cut across a tattoo of a skeleton wearing a bridal gown. Pink-haired Jess was heavier than Chiku and could tolerate the beating her body took whenever she freerode with her high school friend.

Both were sixteen. Both were tattooed. A tiny amethyst ring ornamented Chiku’s nose. Jess chose to have her eyebrows pierced. They wore black fingerless gloves and took no prisoners. While Jess was built to absorb the physical shocks that life could throw, Chiku was slender, wiry. Jess had never seen anyone, male or female, who could skate like her. Lithe and toned like a gymnast, Chiku wore her black hair in a shag hidden beneath a knitted woolen monkey hat that she pulled down to her eyebrows. Her jeans were ripped at the knees and her T-shirt told the observant passer-by ‘staring isn’t polite’. When she stared at you with her violet eyes, which she did whenever she wanted you to get the message she was pissed, she transfixed you.

"You were one lousy toe from the gold metal stand, hon," Chiku said. "Probably the Whopper Junior you had for supper." She gave her friend an encouraging hug.

"Again?" Jess wondered.

Chiku shrugged, her eyes already studying the multiple subway tracks for inbound and outbound trains, seeking the next challenge on the obstacle course of her life. Jess could just imagine what feat of physical magic the girl with the chimpanzee tattoo on her biceps was planning now.

"Boys? You gonna let two babes show you up?"

Chiku looked back at the three boys none of whom had taken Jess’s leap of faith. This was the best time of night to practice her peculiar art form, mixture of rollerblading with free running, a form of urban gymnastics that required daring aerial acts and risky hand-eye coordination. The Bruins had been playing a hockey game at the TD Bank Garden earlier in the evening. The crowds were gone now, except for those who filed into the local bars. She and her four friends would have to head home soon before the T closed down for the evening. For the time being, the station was quiet.

"How ‘bout trying something that’s not going to give me a nose bleed?" one of the boys said.

"Don’t care for heights, Andy?"

Chiku placed her hands on her hips and stood high on her blades. Andy was taller without skates but gawky and awkward, a senior bound for some four-year college. Then there were the Zambrowskis, Tim and Jim, a year younger than their mentor. Because their dad’s name was Robert, their classmates had taken to calling them the Bob Z Twins. They were built more along the lines of Chiku, all wind and energy, but they didn’t have her cunning and derring-do. They were special needs kids.

"I’ve got a better idea," she told them. "Lower to the ground."

She skated over to the plywood board and dragged it towards the closest train track. She was slender, but she was strong and had no problem lifting the first of two cinder blocks that she had used to slant the plywood into a ramp. Tim Zambrowski carried the second one and watched her create another ramp, this one ominously facing perpendicular to the inbound rail.

"We have to get to the other side to catch the outbound Greenline anyway, don’t we?" she said.

The boys gave way as she vaulted over the concrete barrier. She took each of the Zambrowskis in hand and propelled them ahead of her so Jess and Andy could draw alongside and they could all be privy to her philosophical take on the night.

"The mark of a heads-up chick," she explained to her friends as she steered them back up the ramp for the next descent, "is knowing how to be quiet. Not all this blah-blah-blah. You gotta be still, patient, like a snake. Us survivors, we know when to strike."

"But Chiku…"

"Most people don’t know how to shut the ‘f ‘ up. How to listen. We’re a country of empty-headed reality show junkies. Out in the jungle it’s different. You got to be silent. You got to be on your guard. You got to be on the alert all the time."


"That’s just the way it is."

"But Chiku, you don’t know how to be quiet," Andy said

"Or patient," added Tim.

"Or how to shut up. You haven’t stopped talking all night."

"I haven’t?"

"Do you ever listen to yourself?" Jim wondered. "Or make sense?"

Up ahead on the ramp a loud group of teenagers wearing Westlake High School jackets was making its way down towards the rollerbladers. The drinking age in Massachusetts was twenty-one, but kids could always find an adult to buy them beer, especially after a Bruins or Celtics game. These kids were stoned, a fact Chiku ignored. She wasn’t a moralist. In a pocket of the pack that was strapped to her back she kept her own plastic baggie of grass.

"I guess I forgot to take my Adderall today," she said.

At the top of the ramp down into the station, Chiku stopped. Her chest was heaving, not because she was winded from the climb up or because she wasn’t properly medicated. The world was her battlefield, and the North Station T stop was her arena tonight. She would give no ground though she didn’t expect her friends to take the risks she would take.

"You guys can wait for me on the other side of the track. I’m going in."

"What do you mean?" Jess asked.

"Down, over and across."

"Hunh?" Jim and Tim, the Bob Z Twins gazed down the runway, perplexed.

"There was a river in the Congo," Chiku told them. In her eye, she could see it this very moment. Dark and twisting in the rain forest night. Five years ago, was it? "Crocodiles lying in wait. One moment you’re floating gently down stream. The next these huge jaws clamp onto your shoulder and drag you into the water. Nobody ever sees you again."

"Shit, Chiku. Did that happen to you?"

"Duh! I’m here, aren’t I, Andy? Wait for me downstairs on the far side of the track. All of you."

"What are you going to do, girl?" Jess asked her.

"I didn’t make it across the river that night. Tonight, five years to the day, I’m going to."

The boys didn’t have a clue what Chiku meant. They hardly ever did though they liked to hear her just the same. She had that way about her. One at a time she had gathered them in. Loners. Targets. They were her lost boys. Her outcasts. Whenever she spoke, she seduced them. She had been to places, seen things, none of them ever would. Nothing the city had to offer intimidated her. Yet her voice was low and sultry, soft and conspiratorial, winding about their shoulders and drawing them close to her. All the boys felt it, even when she didn’t make sense.

Jess felt it, too, only something more compelling drew her to Chiku. The danger of her. The strength. The fearlessness. The defiance.

"Wherever you go, I go," she said.

"You don’t have to, kiddo."

"I want to." Then Jess did something that Chiku had taught her and the boys. Using her hands, she put her fists together and moved them in a circle, thumbs up. Next she made a circle with her index finger and ended pointing at Chiku with a fist, thumb and pinkie finger extended. "Together forever," she signed.

"That could be a mistake," Chiku told her but smiled, pleased that her friend had learned the language Chiku had first picked up in a school across the Atlantic. "I don’t want you to get hurt. This crossing is for me. If you don’t think you can handle it, back off. You hear? I don’t want to have to lug you home over my shoulder."

Chiku turned to the ramp that led into the bowels of the subway station. The kids from Westlake had reached the track, but she could still hear their boisterous laughter. Chimpanzees sounded like that sometimes, when they were scared. She kind of doubted these kids were afraid of anything. Not now anyway. They were drunk.

"You remember what I said," she told Jess as she got into a crouch, ready to push off on her blades. "I’m off my meds. Crazy. I do not want you to get hurt."

Jess winked. "Maybe I like being lugged."

"I bet."

Pulling her knitted cap down tight over her head, Chiku let out a howl. "Hoo! Hoo! Wraa!" Then down the ramp she flew, Jess six feet behind. Their bodies accelerated. The woolen braids of Chiku’s cap flapped in the wind. Chiku didn’t take a direct path down the decline but wove in and around the few pedestrians making their way into the station.

She ignored their shouts. She ignored everything and focused instead on that night in the Congo, on that terrible evening when she had been sitting in the stern of a boat listening to the chimpanzees calling to her on the shore. Dora. Dolwin. Scooter. Pan. Scallion was there, too, when the crocodile lunged out of the waters, a nightmare monster, so quick, so startling, and took her mother down, down, to her death.

Chiku and Jess hit the platform racing like cheetahs on the hunt across the savannah, arms and legs flying. Passengers waiting for trains appeared as dark images out of the corner of Chiku’s eye. Andy, Jim and Tim, on the far side of the track, yelled at her, but she didn’t pay them any mind. She could still feel the humidity of the jungle forest and feel the spray of water as the crocodile surfaced. All she had seen that night was a sudden dark shape latching onto her mother’s arm. Her mother had screamed. Once only. Then she had disappeared over the side.


Chiku shouted then abruptly was airborne. She knew full well a train was entering the station. Lights flickered. She could hear the warning ee-oo, ee-oo over the loud speaker. She could feel the warm breeze carrying in its wake debris down the line and across her cheeks.

This is my crocodile, she thought. This is my time. Here it comes. Here it comes. This time I win.

The train leapt out of the darkness at her. As she hurtled through the air reeking of garbage and human sweat and across the rattling metal track, Chiku braced herself for a hard landing. She touched down just as the subway roared out of the tunnel.

"Woo-hoo! Yip, yip, yip!"

Jess came right behind almost upon Chiku’s shirt tail. Swearing at the top of her lungs, she careened into her friend, tumbling them both into the crowd of drunken students from Westlake High. The two girls were way out-numbered.

"What the fuck!" The rowdies from Westlake gawked at the girls lying at their feet, all tattoos, spiked hair, and facial mutilation. Bleeding, dirty and tough. Chiku and Jess were just begging for a Royal Wrestling smackdown even if they were female. "Two punk ass bitches. What the fuck are you doing?"

"It’s called gut check," Chiku said. Brushing herself off, she picked up Jess who had added a cut to her forehead with the scrape she had earned on her arm before.

"You okay? That was awesome, Jess!"

"Jesus Christ, Chiku. I didn’t know the train would be so close!"

"That’s the whole point."

"You two lezzies must have a death wish," one of the boys said. Football big, he was eying Jess with interest.

"They’re dykes. Dykes do things normal girls don’t. Look at her muscles."

"Fuck you," Chiku said. "Hands off the shirt."

A third boy, smelling of whatever he had been drinking illegally, grabbed Chiku’s shirt and lifted the sleeve to reveal her chimpanzee tattoo. Two other boys circled around Jess and began touching her. They looked up only when the train/crocodile that had narrowly missed taking Chiku and Jess down, down, to their deaths closed its doors and took off.

"Great," the first boy said. "You made us miss our train. We oughta…"

"You oughta keep your hands off me."

Chiku didn’t wait for him to remove his hand from her sleeve. She slammed the palm of her right hand into his nose and pushed him away. Then she turned her attention to the two males who were bothering Jess, imposing herself between them.

"I wouldn’t," she said.

"Why? You want some, too?"

Chiku’s response was a hard palm to his solar plexus which doubled the boy over so that she could ram her knee into his face. He came away with a bloody nose, which did not set well with the rest of his friends. They were on the two girls in an instant, too drunk to care who they were hitting. Andy, Jim and Tim leaped to their friends’ defense pulling two boys off Jess, punching and kicking the Westlake kids from behind.

"Cops! Cops!" someone yelled.


Chiku was too into the battle to think clearly about flight. She growled, battling the boys as if they were the crocodile from the Mamba River. Her mother had put up no resistance, hadn’t any chance. Chiku was damned if she’d ever be put in that situation. She’d draw blood and do significant damage before anyone did anything like that to her.


This time it was Andy who shouted. One of the station attendants had called T security. Four armed officers in black uniforms converged on the melee, picking up and tossing bodies off a pile that consisted of a bunch of males slugging two struggling females. Chiku was hauled to her feet, threw a wild left hook at whoever had grabbed her, then took off, pulling Jess with her.

"Let’s go!" she hollered at the boys.

They weren’t drunk and they were all on roller blades, so when they jumped the turnstiles and headed back up the ramp, the security focused on the boys from Westlake High instead. One security guard got on his radio, but by the time any reinforcements could arrive to arrest the kids from Brookline High, they had disappeared into the night.

Out on Causeway Street skating towards Boston City Hall and the downtown, Chiku let out a loud hoot and raised her fist in triumph. "PMs rule!" she bellowed and spun around in the middle of Government Center plaza. The April night was still chilly but Chiku felt only warmth, the heat of battle coursing through her veins. She squeezed Jess in her arms then kissed each of the boys on the cheek, making them blush each in their turn.

"You guys were great! We kicked ass!"

"We almost got our asses killed," Jim said. He was breathing hard and had to take a seat up against a concrete abutment of city hall. There were many nooks and niches in the monstrosity built in the 1960s, places where kids could hide even in the middle of downtown Boston. Jess sat beside the Bob Z’s and watched Chiku do a pirouette on skates. She could be a ballerina, Jess thought, with a potent jab.

"That was such a blast!" Chiku said. "You see how we flew by that train?"

"Could have gotten both of you killed, Chiku," Andy said. "You are so wired tonight."

"Life’s a bitch," Chiku replied. "You got to slap it around a bit before you can get it under control. Like those pigs from Westlake. Hit ‘em once. They won’t come back."

Her energy never seemed to fade, especially when she went off her meds. When she finally crouched beside Jess, she was lit up, her body heaving, her nerves on edge, her eyes sparkling with an intensity that made Jess worship her friend.

Chiku took off her backpack, unzipped one of the pockets. Removing the baggie of marijuana, she rolled herself a joint and took a drag. "Anyone else?" she offered. "Maybe I am wired. So what? What else do we have?"

Jess took a hit. Andy tried it but coughed. The Zambrowskis begged off but looked to see what else Chiku stored in her portable treasury. Stale fries, Doritos, a half finished bottle of Mountain Dew, Gummy Bears—Chiku doted on sugar. And a stash of medications. They were the PMs after all, the Pharmaceutically Maintained.

"You know, we’re probably going to have to skate back to Brookline now," Tim said.

"Your parents going to be a problem? I’ll tell them we got out of a late movie."

"Won’t do any good. My parents…."

"Least you got some." Chiku reached into the pocket and took out a bag of medicine bottles. "Okay," she said. "Who’s ADHD?" Two hands went up. Mama Chiku doled out their evening meds. "Bipolar?" One hand. Jess’s. Chiku gave her a Depakote tablet. "Depression?" Chiku’s hand went up with that one. She swallowed two green pills. "Mood disorder?" That got all five hands raised. "God," Chiku said with a smile, "I love this family."

Brookline really wasn’t that far. Not on rollerblades. Once Chiku and her friends reached the Boston Common, all they had to do was follow Beacon Street straight out a couple of miles. There was traffic, of course. It was Saturday night, and they had to pass through Kenmore Square. The Boston University crowd was out in full. Boston College students partied at the local clubs, too, mixing with young elite from MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, Tufts, dozens of other universities and law and medical schools in and around Greater Boston, PhD candidates and scholars from every country on the planet.

Skating in, about and around them, Chiku couldn’t help wondering what the future held for her. Her parents were both anthropologists, and she supposed she had inherited their fine I.Q.s though her high school grades certainly were no indication. More pressure. More self-doubts. Needing to get ahead, unsure what ahead meant. Her mother had wanted Chiku to follow in her academic shoes.

"The African wilderness is disappearing," Samantha Burchill had told her daughter. "Even the chimpanzees are endangered. You have such a gift, dear. More than me. More even than your father. If you listen, you can hear the chimpanzees calling your name. They don’t do that for your father or me. This is the place for you. Africa."

Right, Chiku thought. Tell that to the crocodile.

"I’m only sending you home because you need to grow up around normal kids in the real world," Seth Flynn, her father, had explained to her. "Your mother wouldn’t want you to stay now. With me. Alone. With no friends but the hairy four-foot kind. I’ll bring you back. When the time’s right. When you’ve grown up."

I grew up five years ago, Chiku thought. Just nobody noticed but me.

The PMs skated down Beacon Street until it was time to split up for the night. Each of the boys said their farewells, sporting bruises from their fight in the T Station. Jess had a cut lip and Chiku a black eye.

"Can I come home with you?"

"Trouble at home?" Chiku asked her tag team partner.

"You know."

"No, I don’t."

Chiku took her friend’s hand and they skated together down a quieter side street off Beacon. The Burchills were known as America’s Leakey Family. The British Leakeys had become world famous for their digs at Olduvai Gorge and their discoveries of ancient hominids, the precursors of mankind. The Burchills had been studying the customs and systems of human beings since the 19th century. Five generations deep into the mess known as human civilization, Chiku was left, a primary example of human failure.

Her great-grandfather had taught at Harvard. Her grandfather won a Nobel Prize in socio-economics. Chiku lived with her grandmother in a pricey one-family brownstone that had been in the family for over a hundred years. Not only did she come from academia, she also came from wealth. Though no one would have guessed by her raggedy jeans bloodstained from where her knee had collided with some boy’s face. She figured she was more like her dad, a rough and tumble Irishman who had grown up poor, angry but brilliant and who had met her mother in, of all places, the Congolese rain forest.

"What’s up at home?" she asked Jess.

"Stepdad doesn’t like lezzies."

"Too bad for him. He hit you?"

"No. We just don’t get along. If he sees me like this, he might toss me out on my ass. My mom won’t stand up for me."

"Well, I will."

Jess snorted out a trickle of blood from her nose. She wiped away a tear, gazing shyly at the alpha female, her friend, who she secretly adored. "No more knees to noses tonight, Chiku, if you don’t mind. I’m kind of tired."

"Yuh, I guess, me, too," Chiku said. "Of course, you can stay. As long as you like. Grammy likes you. We’ll adopt you."

Jess wanted to kiss her friend on the spot, but they had reached Chiku’s home. Chiku bent over to retrieve a key hidden behind a black wrought iron gate beneath a loose brick. By the time she had stood up, her grandmother was framed in the doorway, calling out Chiku’s name, letting the intimate moment pass.

"It’s me, Grammy," Chiku called. "We have a guest tonight."

"Is that Christine?"

"No, Grammy. You know Jess. She comes over all the time. You know, the novelist."

"Oh, yes, the novelist." Lucy Burchill, stood aside, as the two sixteen-year-olds entered the foyer passing beneath a chandelier and onto a carpeted front hall. Lucy was Grammy, an octogenarian with sixty years of scholarship behind her, still sturdy and tall. The Burchill women were renowned for their height though Chiku seemed to be staying in the average range.

Chiku kissed her grandmother’s cheek and immediately felt ashamed that she had stayed out so late. When her father had deposited her in Brookline with Lucy five years before, her grandmother had still been maintaining a busy academic regimen, teaching at Wellesley. But in the past few months Lucy’s intellect unlike her stature had begun to degenerate. She’d wake up on a Saturday morning confused about where she was and why she wasn’t dressed and heading to her class. Or she’d turn on the stove and forget to shut it off. Or she’d just forget names, most everyone’s but her granddaughter’s.

"What happened to you, dear?" she said. She studied Chiku’s black eye. "Is that blood on your pants?"

"I fell off a curb, Grammy. We’re fine."

Chiku pulled off her knit cap and hung it up on a hook inside the foyer. She shook out her hair and took her grandmother’s hand.

"You’re so pretty when you dress for school," Lucy said. "I wish you would take better care of yourself."

"I do."

"You’re filling out so. Your father won’t recognize you."

"We’ll see next week. You’ve never met him, have you, Jess?"

"You’ve told me all about him. Sounds pretty cool."

Jess kissed Lucy Burchill’s cheek. "Is it okay if I stay here tonight, Ms. Burchill?"

"Well, you know how many spare bedrooms we have, Liz, is it?"

"Jess, Ma’am."

"I like it when Chiku has friends over. I miss the company. You might take a bath yourself, my dear, before going to bed. It looks like you fell of the same curb."

The two girls trotted up to the second floor. Lucy had a study on the first floor in an alcove facing onto a vegetable garden that she and Chiku both enjoyed working. Now that she was getting older and less stable on her feet, she had taken to sleeping near her work desk. Chiku had lugged down her own futon for her grandmother to use as a bed and generally slept herself in a sleeping bag on the floor.

"I like roughing it," Chiku explained.

"It suits you," Jess said. "I never could picture you curled up with Snoopy and slippers."

"In Africa I built a nest in the trees and slept with the chimpanzees."

"You’re kidding."

"I never told you? Sure. My dad let me do all kinds of shit. You’re gonna love him. I must have videos somewhere."

Chiku rummaged through her closet which was, apropos to her personality, a wreck. Watching her friend toss things around, Jess felt her swollen lip, a common memento when hanging around with the girl everyone at Brookline High thought was crazy.

"Here," Chiku said. She stood up holding a CD ROM, inserted it into her computer, then sat beside Jess on the floor, her legs curled up under her in a yoga position. "My dad’s the greatest. He’s been on the Animal Planet Channel a lot. You know the civil war they’re having over there?"

"Civil War? Like union versus confederates?"

"Jess, are you not in my social studies class?"

"Like people are dying?"

"Duh! Like thousands. My dad is trying to protect the chimps. The war has spread into the national park and the animal refuge lands. I worry about my troop. I haven’t seen them in five years."

The screen on the computer flashed a segment from a program on the Animal Planet. When Seth Flynn appeared, Chiku brought her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms around her shins. She stared with rapture at the image of the father/god she hadn’t seen in person for more than a year.

"The chimpanzees have called this part of the Congo home for tens of thousands of years," Flynn was saying. He was a burly man with curly red hair, handsome. He had not lost his Dublin brogue. Every so often Chiku would say a phrase that would just pop out of her mouth in her father’s dialect. He’d been a boxer in his college days and had shown his only child a thing or two. But what had fascinated Chiku the most about her father, the man the chimpanzees called Tree Storm, was his fearlessness and his love of the animals.

"Now the chimpanzee homelands are being invaded," Flynn was telling an audience of television watchers. "The war between the Hutus and Tutsis ended several years ago but has recently been stirred up again. Refugees are poring into the rain forest, not only taking up land but, driven by hunger, trapping and poaching the wildlife, including our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees. We must do what we can to stop this tragedy before it is too late and we alone among the primates survive."

"Wow," Jess said. She gazed at Chiku who was transfixed by her father. "You’re right. I would like to meet him. Maybe I could go to Africa with you. If you went back some day."

"Yeah, that would be cool." Chiku’s smile was brief. Somehow she doubted she would ever go back even though her dad had promised her she could go.

My grades suck, she thought. When he sees my report card, he’s going to go ballistic. Bye-bye Harvard.

Unwinding her legs, she replaced the first CD ROM with a second. "I think this is a family portrait," she said. "I haven’t looked at these for a while."

The next view to come on the screen was a hand waving at a camera before the picture extended to show an arm attached to a shoulder and then the face of a ten- or eleven-year-old girl wearing a Red Sox baseball cap.

"Oh, my God," Chiku said. "I look like a dorky Tarzan."

Jess giggled. The child Chiku on the computer screen was all arms and legs dressed in a leopard skin one-piece suit. "Papa! Papa!" she was saying. The hand that wasn’t waving at the camera was tugging a chimpanzee who was imitating Chiku wave for wave. At about four feet in height, the chimpanzee stood only a few inches shorter than his human female playmate.

"That’s Scallion," Chiku told her friend. "He was my BFF in those says."

"A monkey?"

"A chimpanzee, if you don’t mind. They share ninety-eight percent of our DNA, my lass. I was teaching him how to read."

"Real cool."

Whoever was filming the younger version of Chiku with the chimpanzee named Scallion moved the focus so that the viewer could now get a wider survey of the scientific research center that Chiku had called home for eleven years. Trees surrounded several tents and a shed. In the open space between the structures a number of other chimpanzees wandered into and out of view.

The precocious Scallion was sporting a wide grin and using hand signals to communicate to Chiku.

"He’s talking to you!" Jess said. "What’s he saying?"

"Come. Play. I taught him a lot. I love you." Chiku lowered the middle and ring fingers of her right hand making the sign for "I love you’ to indicate the most important human communication of all. When her mother appeared, Samantha Burchill, in khaki shorts, a pair of binoculars dangling over her matching shirt, Chiku stiffened and uttered a soft groan. Her mother was writing on a clipboard, looked up to smile at the film maker.

"My mom," Chiku said. "My dad must be taking the pictures. He specializes in linguistics. Mom was more interested in chimpanzee behavior. Me, I just liked to hang out with my homies."

"They’re cute."

"I might as well have been one of them. After my mother… died… I practically lived with them. Crazy as it sounds, I wasn’t so different from Tarzan."

"That would explain a lot," Jess said.

Chiku looked up as her bedroom door opened. Lucy Burchill peaked in, took one look at the computer screen and turned away. "You have a phone call, Chiku."

"This late? I didn’t hear it ring."

"It’s Cary."

"Why is she calling me?"

Chiku glanced at Jess who had no idea who Cary was.

"My sister," Chiku explained. "Half sister. Mom’s daughter, not Dad’s."

Standing, Chiku headed for the door. When Jess made to follow her, Lucy put up a hand. "Not now, dear," she said. "I’ll make you something, if you like. You look hungry." Then she shut the door behind her, cutting off any response Jess might have made, making it clear Chiku’s friend wasn’t to follow.

"Something the matter?" Chiku asked. She held her grandmother’s hand as they descended the staircase. "Cary would never call me…"

"It’s about your father." Lucy stopped at the bottom of the staircase and cupped her granddaughter’s face in her hands. There was no vacant look of dementia in her expression now. Only concern for her youngest grandchild. "You need to be strong, Chiku. The games, the fighting, they have to stop now."

"What do you mean?"

Chiku’s eyes met her grandmother’s. Her body tensed, tightened, coiled, the way it did when she was preparing a jump she’d never done before, a dangerous maneuver that made the eyes pop and the heart soar. Only now her legs were undermining her. They were shaking so much, she had to hold onto the much older woman to keep herself from falling to her knees.

"Take the call," Lucy Burchill said. "Cary will explain everything. Your father has disappeared."

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