The chimpanzee stopped short right at the moat. And not one of the cute, tan-faced charmers usually conscripted into the entertainment industry; this one was enormous. It sat, tense and coiled at the precipice. It stared at me with human eyes that followed us as we started walking again. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
Noah turned into a small niche and withdrew a set of keys from his pocket as we approached a small structure disguised by large plants and trees. The door read employees only.
“What are we doing?”
“It’s a work room. They’re preparing for an exhibit on insects of the world or something,” Noah said as he opened the door.
I hated the idea of killing anything, but at least bugs reproduced like—well, like roaches—and no one would miss a few.
“How’d you work this out?” I asked, looking behind us. My skin prickled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched.
“My mother’s done some volunteer work here. And gives them an obscene amount of money.”
Noah flipped on the lights, illuminating the long metal table in the center, and closed the door behind us. Metal shelves lined the walls, holding bins and plastic tubs. Noah walked around, his eyes scanning their small labels. I was rooted to the doorway, and couldn’t read them from where I stood.
Finally, Noah held up a translucent plastic box. My eyes narrowed at him.
“What are those?”
“Leeches,” he said casually. He avoided my stare.
A wave of disgust rolled through me. “No. No way.”
“You have to.”
I shuddered. “Pick something else,” I said, and rushed to the far side of the room. “Here.” I pointed at an opaque tub with a label I couldn’t pronounce. “Somethingsomething scorpions.”
“Those are poisonous,” Noah said, studying my face.
“They’re also endangered.”
“Fine,” I said, my voice and legs beginning to tremble as I walked over to a transparent box and pointed. “The big-ass spider.”
Noah walked over and read the label, still holding the box of leeches close. Way too close. I backed away. “Also poisonous,” Noah said evenly.
“Then that will be plenty of incentive.”
“It could bite before you kill it.”
My heart wanted to escape from my throat. “A perfect opportunity to practice your healing,” I choked out.
Noah shook his head. “I’m not going to experiment with your life. No.”
“Then pick something else,” I said, growing breathless with terror. “Not the leeches.”
Noah rubbed his forehead. “They’re harmless, Mara.”
“I don’t care!” I heard the insects in the room beat their chitinous wings against their plastic prisons. I began to lose it and felt myself sway on my feet.
“If it doesn’t work, I’ll take it off immediately,” Noah said. “It won’t hurt you.”
“No. I’m serious, Noah,” I said. “I can’t do it. They burrow under skin and suck blood. Oh my God. Oh my God.” I wrapped my arms around my body to stop it from shaking.
“It will be over quickly, I promise,” he said. “You won’t feel anything.” He reached his hand into the tank.
“No.” I could only croak this in a hoarse whisper. I couldn’t breathe. Multicolored spots appeared behind my eyelids that I couldn’t blink away.
Noah scooped up a leech in his hand and I felt myself sink. Then …
My eyes fluttered open.
“It’s dead. Unbelievable,” he said. “You did it.”
Noah walked over with his palm open to show me, but I recoiled, scrambled up against the door. He looked at me with an unreadable expression, then went to discard the dead leech. When he lifted the bin to replace it back on the shelf, he stopped.
“My God,” he said.
“What?” My voice was still nothing but a shaky whisper.
“They’re all dead.”
Noah put the bin back on the shelf with an unsteady hand. He walked among the rows of insects, eyes scanning the transparent tubs and opening the others to inspect them.
When he reached the spot he started in, he stared at the wall.
“Everything,” he said. “Everything’s dead.”
THE STENCH OF ROT FILLED MY NOSTRILS, AND a voice buzzed in my ear.
“Biologists are reporting that the fish kill in Everglades City was most likely due to oxygen depletion in the water.”
Images of bloated, belly-up alligators appeared in my dark consciousness.
“A startling number of alligator corpses are thought to be the culprit.”
I had done that. Just like I’d done this.
Noah surveyed the destruction with empty eyes. He couldn’t look at me. I couldn’t blame him. I wrestled with the doorknob and bolted into the darkness. An assault of screeches and howls and barks met my ears. At least the slaughter was limited.
I was disgusted by myself. And when Noah followed me outside, I saw that he was too.
He avoided my eyes and said nothing. The sight of his hands curled into fists, of his revulsion, stung my heart and made me cry. Pathetic. But once I started, I couldn’t stop and didn’t really want to. The sobs scorched my throat, but it was a good kind of pain. Deserved.
Noah was still silent. Only when I dropped to the ground, unable to stand for a second longer, did he move. He grabbed my hand and pulled me up, but my legs trembled. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. Noah wrapped his arms around me but as soon as he did, I just wanted them off. I wanted to run.
I struggled against his grip, my thin shoulder blades digging into his chest.
“Let me go.”
“Please,” I choked.
He loosened his grip by a fraction. “Only if you promise not to run.”
I was out of control, and Noah knew it. Afraid I’d do even more damage, he had to make sure I didn’t ruin anything else.
“I promise,” I whispered.
He turned me to face him, then set me free. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him, so I focused on the pattern of his plaid shirt, then at the ground.
We walked wordlessly amid the snarls and shrieks. The animals were all awake, now; the antelope had herded together at the edge of their exhibit, stamping and shifting in fear. The birds flapped, frantic, and one pelican dove straight into an out-cropping of rock as we approached it. It fell to the water and emerged, dragging its broken, limp wing beside it. I wanted to die.