2   The Veldt

from the YA novel Baboon

       The next time Gerry opened his eyes, he was lying on his side, looking at a group of quite ordinary baboons. There were at least five of them, one very close. He could have reached out and touched it—not that he would have advised doing such a thing. He was sure the baboon was Hector, one of about forty in the troop his parents studied. He had never been this close to him, but he recognized the kink in his tail.

       Like the others, Hector was digging for something with his deft, black hands. Gerry watched him insert a forefinger into the soil and cut around a shoot with a quick sawing motion. Hooking his finger, he pulled a corm from the ground. He wiped it on his arm to brush off the loose dirt, examined it, and then bit into the root. Three more bites and the corm was gone. The monkey started probing for the next one. He glanced once at Gerry, then looked away, which struck Gerry as odd.

        It was then he noticed something wrong with his vision. The color of everything seemed subtly altered, like a photograph left out in the sun. He blinked deliberately, as if by doing so he might clear it up. But it wasn’t a problem of clarity. In fact, things were remarkably clear. The storm had scrubbed the air of dust and now the earth was beginning to steam under the late-afternoon sun.

       Then Gerry remembered the storm and the crash. As he tried to get up, he saw that he was lying on a thin, hairy arm ending in a hand. It was a baboon’s hand. He must have been thrown clear of the wreckage and landed on one of the poor animals. Startled, he pushed himself to a sitting position and looked around.

       Now the baboons reacted. Spooked by his sudden movement, they all stopped what they were doing and stared at him. Gerry froze. As his head cleared, he realized the seriousness of his situation. He was amazed that they hadn’t run away or threatened him. Apart from their natural instincts to flee from people, if they had seen him fall on a baboon, they must have realized that he was dangerous—if only out of clumsiness.

       And then they all returned to foraging, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about a boy falling out of the sky and crushing one of them. But when Gerry looked to where he had been lying a moment ago, he saw nothing but a patch of flattened grass.

       Without thinking, he reached up to shade his eyes and saw that same, thin baboon’s hand coming at his face. He flinched, and the hand stopped. For a long moment he just stared at the creased, black palm and the five delicate fingers.

       He wiggled his fingers.

       The fingers wiggled.

       It was his own arm he was seeing.

       To prove it, he turned the hand slowly from back to front before his eyes. He felt a soft grunt that started in his chest and rose in his throat. He looked down and saw his body.

       Somehow, he was a baboon. Or rather, his mind was residing in a baboon’s body.

       Wait. That couldn’t be. There was something he was missing, some. . .

       He brought a hand to his face. He had been about to press it to his forehead and comb his fingers back through his hair, as he usually did when he was upset, only there was no forehead. His hand—that black baboon’s hand—was one moment at eye level and the next touching a bristled brow of hair, and then above that. . . air.

      He had no forehead.

      For some reason, that was much more frightening to him than having a baboon’s hands. He paced in circles, trying to get away from this ridiculous idea that was, moment by moment, becoming more real. By now the other baboons— Ha! Other baboons—were staring at him and beginning to move away from this freak running in circles and wiping the air over his head.

      Nope. Still nothing there. Still no forehead. Still a baboon.

      He had to be dreaming. Or worse, he must have suffered some kind of brain damage in the crash.
Again, he remembered the plane crash.

      Where were his parents? What if they needed his help? But this was followed immediately by an even more ridiculous thought: they mustn’t find out. His father, especially, would be very unhappy with him if he were a baboon. What are you doing in there, Gerry? These are very serious animals. They’re not toys.

       As he looked around, he decided that he was having some sort of hallucination. He must have survived the crash and received medical attention. Perhaps he had been anaesthetized, and this was his reaction to the drug: some kind of vivid dreaming. He stood up as far as he could on his haunches and looked beyond the foraging troop. One of the other baboons watched Gerry, then followed his gaze around the savanna.

       They were nearing the end of the rainy season, and the grass, tall and green, looped its way to the hills in the distance. Here and there were groves of acacia trees.

       The next thing that Gerry noticed was the clarity of his far vision. He could pick out leaves on the trees and blades of grass halfway to the horizon. He must be having some kind of dream—it was too real to be real. He didn’t feel any pain, either. And you couldn’t live through a crash that tears a plane in two and not feel some kind of pain if you were conscious. Not a bruise or a broken bone. Surely he was drugged and dreaming.

       He was right next to a big acacia tree, and Gerry decided to try walking around it. He kept trying to stand up but soon realized that he was at his full height, at least as long as he kept all four paws on the ground. He felt like he was crawling, not walking. He circled the tree slowly, so as not to call too much attention to himself. It took him a few circuits to get the hang of the baboon’s gliding stride. Left front, right rear followed by right front, left rear. Left, right, left, right. That seemed to work. He stopped and watched Hector take a few paces. Yeah, that was it. He wondered how long he would have to think about walking. Four legs. It was a lot to keep track of.

       The third time he rounded the tree he saw the wreckage of the plane, about 100 yards away. He just stood there, staring at it. Then, as if to confirm what he was seeing, he raised his arm again so that he could take a look at his hand again.

       Still a baboon.

       This was really weird. What if he were all right in every way except that he somehow perceived himself to be a baboon? He’d heard of people with brain damage having some very strange reactions to their injuries.
What if his mother and father were lying in the wreckage, in far worse shape than he was? Injured? Or worse?

       What if they were dead?

       He didn’t want to go. But he had to go. What if they needed him? He knew they wouldn’t have hesitated a second. They would be looking for him, panicked.

       Without thinking, he broke into a kind of gallop. That happened without him even thinking about it. He was surprised at the ease with which he covered the distance. He wasn’t even breathing hard as he slowed to a walk again, now only a stone’s throw from the wreck.

       The plane had ended up in two pieces. He thought he remembered the cabin tearing in two, just behind the cockpit, right in front of his seat. But somehow the floor had only bent and now the whole thing had closed up again so that the cabin seemed more or less intact. One of the wings had snapped off—probably while the plane was cartwheeling after their first impact. The blades of both propellers were bent. Pieces of undercarriage were strewn over the grass. The stench of gasoline was overpowering, but Gerry was relieved. Through some miracle, there had been no fire. He remembered seeing his mother flung from the cartwheeling plane. At the front of the plane he saw a bloody crater of cracks in the cockpit window, where someone inside had struck it.

 

      Then he saw a man climb from the cabin door. It was his father. One leg of his pants was streaked in blood and he walked with a limp but he looked amazingly well considering the wreckage he had just left. Gerry took two steps toward him and stopped. He tried to call him, but all that came out was something between a bark and a cough. His father turned, saw him, then looked away. He was searching for something.

       “Gerry . . .! Joan . . .?” He kept calling their names.

       Then his father was limping away from him over the grass, toward a pair of seats lying on their side. Gerry saw that his mother was strapped into one of them. His father knelt beside her and Gerry was relieved to hear his mother’s voice—quite clear despite the distance. “Where’s Gerry?” she was saying. “Is he all right?”

       His father was undoing her seatbelt when the truck came. It left the road and bounced over the grass toward them—an ancient, creaking van with the word EMERGENCY painted on the side. Two paramedics in clean but threadbare uniforms got out.

       Gerry tried to think where they would have come from. There was an airport at Kondoa, but that was hours away by road. They must have heard Stan’s Mayday call and sent out a search plane, which had probably dropped the paramedics at the nearest airstrip. Maybe Ndedo.

       One of the medics went straight to his mother while the other retrieved a case from the back of the van. That was when Gerry saw his own body. It was a short distance away but he recognized his shirt. He was lying on his back and one leg was twisted at an odd angle. It was obviously broken and it hurt Gerry just to look at it. He forced himself to approach it, afraid of what he would see. He started walking toward the body. His body.

       It was not until he saw his own face that Gerry realized he wasn’t just out of his mind; he was out of his body. It was impossible, but here it was: the vessel that had carried him for the last fourteen years lay sprawled in the grass. It wasn’t a picture or a bad dream. It was real.

       There was only one conclusion: he was dead, and the myths of reincarnation were real. Of all the beliefs about what happens to you once you die—of ghosts and heaven and hell—this must be the truth. And, if it were true, then every person who had ever died had stood like this, looking at his own body through the eyes of some animal.

       He was afraid. He felt himself trembling, felt all the strength drain from his limbs and puddle beneath him. His father was pulling one of the paramedics by the arm toward Gerry. “Help my son,” he said. The paramedic and his father knelt by the body. The medic checked Gerry’s pulse and put the mirror of his stethoscope near his mouth.

       “He’s alive.” The paramedic removed a hypodermic syringe from his kit and began unwrapping it. Gerry’s father stood up. He looked directly at Gerry—Gerry as he was now—sitting no more than twenty feet away.
It’s me, Gerry wanted to shout. I’m here, Dad! He took a step toward him.

       Gerry could hardly believe what he saw next. His father stooped, picked up a rock the size of an orange, and threw it. Gerry had to dodge it to keep from being hit. It’s me, Dad! he tried to shout, but all that came out was something between a grunt and a bark.

       “Scat!” his father shouted. “Go on!”

       No, no. I’m your son! I’m here!

       His father picked up another rock and winged it at Gerry. “Go on, get out of here!” Gerry dodged the rock and retreated another few steps. He had never before felt so helpless. There must be some way to show his father who he was. If only he would let him come closer!

       The paramedic glanced up and frowned. “That’s a bold one,” he said as he worked.

       “How is he?” asked his father, returning his attention to Gerry’s body.

       “His vital signs are very odd.”

       “What do you mean, odd?”

      The paramedic shook his head. “I mean his heartbeat is strong and regular but it’s. . . so slow.” He pointed to the ambulance. “There’s an oxygen cylinder in the back.”

       His father went to the ambulance and returned with the oxygen.

       “Are you the pilot?” The paramedic took a clear plastic mask attached to the cylinder by a hose and strapped it onto Gerry’s face. He opened a valve.

       “The pilot’s dead,” he heard his father say.

       “Are you absolutely sure?”

       “Yes.”

      His father looked up and stared again at Gerry. He found another stone. It wasn’t large, but this one hit Gerry in the ribs and it hurt. A surge of rage swept over him and he charged the men, howling. He heard a series of sharp, threatening grunts and realized that the sound was coming from his own throat. He stopped just short of his human body and bounced on his haunches, thumping the ground. The paramedic stood up, looking as if he might run. Gerry’s father gripped the man’s forearm.

       “Just stay calm. We have to stand together. Look it right in the eye. Don’t look away.”

       “I don’t know—”

       “I do,” said his father.

       They stood there just staring at Gerry. Slowly, his anger subsided. He found himself pacing in a slow circle, grunting. It was as if he had no choice in the matter. Gradually, the rage fogging his brain cleared and he was able to think again. This wasn’t doing him any good. He turned his back on the men and walked off. When he was a short distance away, he stopped and sat down in the grass.

       “It’s all right,” he heard his father say. “I don’t think it will bother us now.” The paramedic returned his attention to Gerry’s human body while his father stood nearby, seldom looking away.

       The other paramedic left his mother, who was lying on the grass, and told the men “She’s stable. But I think we should get both of them to the hospital at Kondoa as soon as possible.”

       His father went over and knelt beside her. Gerry was too far away to hear what they were saying, but he saw him hold her hand and at one point he thought he heard his mother crying. He wanted, somehow, to tell them he was . . . what? That he was all right? He was not all right. But he was alive. And he was not in pain. He wanted to go to them but he knew that his approach would only make things worse. There was nothing he could do.

       The paramedics spent a long time working over his body, listening to his heart with the stethoscope. They straightened his leg and inflated a splint around it. They talked to someone on a radio and then they brought a stretcher and put his body on it and carried it into the ambulance. After a while, Gerry’s mother was able to stand, and his father helped her into the ambulance, too.

       One of the paramedics climbed into the wreckage of the plane and came out a short time later, stripping a rubber glove from his hand. There was blood on it.

       He closed the back doors to the ambulance and then got in. They moved slowly, keeping the pitching of the van to a minimum as they drove back toward the road. It would be little more than a pair of rutted tracks at this time of year and the driver would have to look hard to find it.

       Gerry could not see the road from where he sat, but suddenly the ambulance was no longer bouncing. It turned and picked up speed, moving straight and level. He heard the electronic yodel of its siren and watched its flashing lights disappear over the restless arches of grass. For a while, he stood on his haunches so that he could follow it for a little longer.

       Then he sat down again. He listened to the siren for as long as he could, until it was lost in the wind ruffling the grass.

       And then there was only the veldt, rolling to the horizon.