It began with the Bichon. She was a foul-tempered dog, but loyal in her way. We sent her to scare a Halloween prankster, but she came back with a baby's head. There was no blood. The skull was pliable, the eyes very real. We called 911, or rather I called 911 while Michelle crouched behind the divan.
We expected sirens, uniforms, a cranky detective. What we got was a boyish man with a lizard on his head, and a gorilla that spoke in sign language.
"Where's the rest?" the boy said. A chrome shield on his chest read Joe Gatford. Mirrored shades hid his eyes.
The gorilla grabbed Joe Gatford's shoulder and pulled him around. Stubby fingers worked through a sequence. Rust-colored flecks showed in the creases of its knuckles. Baby's blood? The beast could tear a child apart without trying.
"You have the right to say nothing," Joe Gatford said. "Do you understand?"
In the reflection from his glasses Michelle stood and nodded timidly.
"Start at the beginning," Joe Gatford said. "What do you remember?"
"We heard a noise," I said. "Kids, we figured. They like to smash pumpkins."
The gorilla signed quickly. "Parents don't realize how dangerous that is," Joe Gatford translated. I swallowed, eyes refusing to leave that hairy brute. Was it a costume? Had we interrupted their Halloween party? I couldn't imagine the size of the man within.
"Continue," Joe Gatford said.
I swallowed. "We let Churchill—that's our dog—Churchill out to chase them away, and he came back with the... with it." A frantic scratching sounded at the pantry door. "Churchill!" I shouted. The ape looked nervous. Joe Gatford signed something, and its gaze shifted to the stairs leading to the second floor.
"Do you have children?" Joe Gatford said.
"No," I said.
"We've tried," Michelle said so quietly I barely heard.
"My wife is infertile," I said. "We've put in for adoption, but..."
Joe Gatford nodded. The gorilla signed.
"What did it say?"
"She sympathizes," Joe Gatford said. "She wanted a baby too." The gorilla picked at the fur on its forearm and grunted.
A woman? That was even more difficult to believe.
Michelle moved to my side. "Does she have a name?"
"You couldn't pronounce it," Joe Gatford said. "Let's not get distracted."
"I don't know what else we can tell you," I said.
"You said you applied for adoption?" Joe Gatford said. An ache opened like a sinkhole in my chest, and the jagged emotions I'd packed away released. I staggered, but managed a nod.
"Condolences," Joe Gatford said. His voice was level. The mirrored shades reflected my crumpled face.
The lizard shifted. I startled. Until then I had thought it was a costume prop. It leaned down, tongue spiking out and in.
"Ah," Joe Gatford said. "You may have something there. Are there other childless couples in the neighborhood?"
"Simpsons," Michelle said. "Two doors down, across the street."
"North or south?" Joe Gatford said.
"South," Michelle said.
The gorilla made a sign and shambled outside. I had not thought it could move so fast.
"That could explain the division," Joe Gatford said.
He shrugged. "They don't really understand humans. To them it's like parceling out treats. Or maybe it's a trick, I don’t really know." He picked up the severed head.
"What are you doing? Isn't that evi—"
"Shh." Joe Gatford pressed a finger to his lips. "It may not be too late." The lizard went still, eyes focused intently on the baby's face.
I eased Michelle onto the divan. Her eyes were bright. Tears streaked her cheek. It occurred to me that this might be a nightmare.
The gorilla reappeared, bloody bundle—a baby's body!—clutched to its—her—chest. Michelle gasped. I knew I should comfort her, but could not look away, would not look away.
The gorilla laid the bundle down, and Joe Gatford placed the head next to the ragged stub of its neck. The lizard hopped onto the baby's chest, eyes blinking slowly. It began pumping up and down on its forearms.
"You're in luck," Joe Gatford said. "Tonight is a magical night. It may be enough."
"How can you do that to a child?" Michelle whispered. "Make them stop, please make them stop."
The lizard paused.
"Up to you, lady," Joe Gatford said. "There are other childless couples."
Outside—pop pop pop pop-pop—the sound of fireworks, real children challenging the night. Churchill whimpered from the pantry.
I stared into the baby's face. Dead eyes met mine. I sensed a consciousness struggling.
The gorilla reached.
"No," I grated. "Don't stop." I wanted so badly to believe. In the distance a siren blared.
BIO: Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he works with a group of dedicated citizens to revive a proud downtown. His work has appeared in various print and online journals, including The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Microliterature, and Connotation Press. His first collection, Glass Animals was published by Pure Slush Books.For more, see www.stephenvramey.com