Signs of Amelia tells the story of a couple that fosters a chimpanzee named Amelia in an experiment to teach their autistic daughter sign language. After they return the chimp to the lab, the husband, Brad, breaks in to try to help her to escape. Later, when their daughter sickens and dies, they sue to free Amelia from a cruel experiment conducted by the lab. During the trial they try to show that the ape’s abilities—her memory, empathy and communication skills—entitle her to be protected from “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Constitution.
Great whooping sounds, a furious rattling, and a pounding like thunder spread through the lab. Brad felt the concrete building vibrate under him. The chimpanzees were banging and smashing on the steel slats of their cages, using their hands and feet. He dropped the bolt cutters he had used on the loading-dock door and pushed into the sound. He had to find Amelia before someone found him.
The cages were about five feet wide and were linked together internally by a series of guillotine-style doors, forming in some places, long metal tunnels where the animals moved freely between the enclosures. The sheer number of chimps in the room—there must have been fifty—temporarily immobilized him. His hope that he would instantly find her disappeared. The chimps kept up their drumming, muffling the sound of his feet. Hands reached for him through the bars. One almost grabbed his shirt. He kept running. The bleach smell barely masked the odor of the unwashed bodies, and he felt faint from trying not to breathe in the stench. He remembered Amelia’s sweet scent from the “no tears” baby shampoo they used for her nightly bath because she insisted on washing herself. He forced himself to slow down to a quiet walk. At the same instant, as suddenly as it had started, the pounding ended, though many stood and watched him. He felt more than curiosity—an unveiled hostility to his presence. A few sat down and closed their eyes. As he looked more closely, he noticed wounds across many of the chimp’s abdomens oozing with the neon yellow of Betadine smeared over scabbed puss and blood. Here and there he saw torn bandages flapping like dirty white flags.
When Brad finally spied her, Amelia was crouched in the corner of a cage, her spine smashed up against the bars. Three chimps stood over her. They looked about her size, so he guessed they too were around five years old. They milled back and forth in front of her, testing their fingers in the soft, fleshy areas of her body as if she were a piece of dough. The smallest relentlessly tapped her on the head. Amelia looked like she thought a pack of rabid dogs was attacking her. She had always been afraid of dogs. Brad grabbed a bag of oranges from a feeding bin and threw them into the connecting cage, luring the chimps away. He randomly punched buttons on the wall until a door between the cages clanged down and Amelia was alone.
She curled herself into a fetal position and rubbed her side. There was no bed; Brad saw red creases in her flesh from sleeping on the exposed steel bars. She moaned and licked her lips. Next to her, a long tubular water feeder hung from the side of the cage. Brad could not bear the thought that this chimp, who had lived with them for three years, who had played side by side with his daughter, had to drink water like a hamster or a rat. He could see Amelia in the kitchen at home, pulling back the tab on a soft drink can, swallowing the soda in one gulp, lightly cradling the sweating aluminum with her fingertips, the dexterous grace so incongruous with her blunt, little body.
“Amelia. Amelia!” he said, his voice trembling, but she shrank as far as she could away from him, just as she had from her tormenters. In the cage next to her, the three young chimps peeled the fruit he had thrown at them, popping the pulpy orange sections into their mouths while staring openly at him.
AMELIA HURT? Brad signed, moving his hand slowly and distinctly, in case she had forgotten her sign language in the weeks she had been here in this place. He gently rubbed her arm through the bars. Crumbs of stale food and who knows what else clung to her; he smelled decomposing fruit and feces. He refused to look at the piles of waste on the excreta pan beneath her bars.
He gulped back a sob and showed her what he had brought. Her hand grazed his as she reached for the doll. SORRY, Amelia signed, circling her heart with her right fist, clutching her dolly to her left side.
NO, he signed. SORRY ME.
Her hand shook as if with palsy and then burst with signs, and Brad had trouble understanding a word she said.
On her feet, she started jumping around in her small space. KATIE BLUE EYES? KATIE HERE? SEE AMELIA?
Seeing his daughter's name formed in the soft curl of Amelia’s hand, his doubts about the break-in disappeared. He shook his head and looked into her eyes, and it seemed as if she understood everything. For a few quiet minutes they stroked each other through the bars.
He heard a phone ringing at the other end of the lab.
A man's voice called out. “Hey, what are you doing in here?”
Amelia’s eyes seemed to fall back in her head for a moment the way the belly caves in with a breath. MAN BAD.
“WHO?” Brad signed, his back muscles tensing into knots of hard flesh.
NAME, Amelia said, then curled her longest finger toward her bottom in their personalized sign for ASSHOLE.
Brad and Amelia had come up with the sign for one of the kids down the block who was always trying to bait the chimp. His wife Laura would not have approved, so he and Amelia had kept the cuss a secret between them.
The man ran towards them, and down the rows, chimps hissed and spat through the bars. He wore a company jumpsuit, a huge blue BioSafe logo on his chest. Despite the mound of belly stretching out the front of his suit, he looked like he knew how to handle himself. Brad stepped in front of Amelia. The tempo of the man’s footsteps slowed as Brad stood his ground—he had been a tackle in college and was used to having this effect on people. Now that the lab employee was closer, Brad could see a shadow of black fuzz across the man’s shaved head. His eyes were so washed out that Brad could not tell if they were blue or gray. But he did not have time to decide. The man grabbed a cattle prod from its hook on the wall. The chimps hunkered down in their cages. Amelia hooted the way she used to whenever she had seen a dog. The sound—part bravado, part fear—echoed how Brad felt.
“Don’t point that at me. I’m Brad Covey. This chimpanzee lived with us.”
“She could ‘a lived with the Queen of Sheba for all I care. You’re trespassing.”
Just then another man ran into the room. Brad recognized him immediately. He was the tech who was supposed to be watching over her, who claimed to have named her Amelia when she was first born at the lab, before she’d been placed with Brad’s family for the sign language experiment.
“Tell him who I am, Bit,” Brad said to Hal Bitner.
Bit waved his arm. “Rex, the guy’s okay,” he said, but the tech did not lower the weapon.
Amelia’s arm snaked through the cage towards the prod, though it was too far away for her to reach. Seeing the chimp’s motion, the look on Bit’s face changed. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you gotta’ go. She has no idea what a jolt from that feels like.”
Brad shook his head.
Bit pointed to the buttons on the wall. “Did you mess with those? They control the cage doors.” He pointed to Amelia. “They’re not all like her. A few are worse than wild. Mean.”
Brad saw truth in the man’s eyes, but he did not budge.
“Vicious,” the other tech said, hand still gripping the weapon. As if to punctuate his point, a chimp roared at the other end of the lab and Brad heard the sound of pounding on metal. “I’ll shock this so-called pet of yours if you don’t move,” Rex said, turning the cattle prod directly towards Amelia.
Brad stepped away from the cage.
ME GO HOME, Amelia signed.
“Not now,” Brad said.
Amelia swept her hands up to and away from her heart to say, ME LOVE YOU. HOME!
Brad blinked hard. NO KEY. Not a lie, Brad said to himself. Not this time.
The day they’d returned her to the lab, she had stood in her room, holding her red plaid blanket and a bag of her favorite books.
WHERE GO? she had signed.
TREATS, Brad had told her. HOME SOON.
PROMISE? she had asked.
PROMISE, he’d signed, grateful he didn’t have to say the lie out loud.
I’m not leaving her again, he thought, as he took a step towards Rex. This time I fight.
The weapon rose higher and one pale eye peered at Brad as if looking through a telescopic sight rather than down a rod tipped with electrified metal coils.
“He’s leaving,” Bit assured Rex. He took Brad’s arm, trying to coax him out. “That prod will damn near knock you off your feet. Look at the chimps.”
Brad saw them cowering. All but Amelia. He shrugged free.
Bit pulled on his arm, harder this time. “It’s dangerous. I can’t let you stay.”
Amelia hooted to Brad and pointed to a toggle on the control panel. Above it were the numbers 595.
Brad flipped the switch. For a second nothing happened. Finally, he heard a click. Well-greased, the door to Amelia’s cage slid open in silence.
Short bursts of staccato sound blasted around them. Brad saw Bit’s hand drop from the alarm. Three uniformed officers ran in, revolvers drawn. Rex smirked and gestured with the prod for Brad to move away from Amelia’s cage. He manually shoved the cage door closed before Amelia had a chance to react.
“Thanks, Bit,” Rex said. He nodded at the fire alarm. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”
The men pushed Brad to his knees with their pistols. Cold bracelets encircled his hands.
Brad waited for Amelia to explode, but she lifted the cotton doll and held it in front of her face, extended out to him, whimpering softly. The last thing he saw before he was shoved away was each black “x” of the doll’s thread-stitched eyes.
“I’ll be back,” he vowed as Rex led the group to the exit.
On the parking lot, Bit leaned in close and whispered, “Seeing you is only gonna’ make it harder for her. You gotta’ let her go. She’s a lab chimp again.” He touched Brad’s shoulder lightly before heading back inside.
Brad closed his eyes to block out Bit’s words, but he felt their truth in that gentle touch.
The three guards stepped aside for Rex.
“Try this again, and you won’t get off so easy.” The iron in Rex’s voice seemed to fuse with the metal pressing into Brad’s wrists. “I’ll make sure you end up in a cage like them.” Brad followed the direction of his gaze and saw the bars stretching in perfect intervals in a long line down the ugly building.
He’d played enough football to recognize that game-over feeling in his gut. He nodded his cooperation, and the men escorted him to his car. The cuffs came off with barely a click.
The beefiest guard pushed him down into his seat and slammed the door. Brad gripped the wheel, watched the bones of his knuckles harden to points. He concentrated, noting every angle, every crease in the skin. When he was almost convinced the hands belonged to someone else, he turned the ignition and drove home to his wife and daughter, concocting a story of a plump mattress, a shelf loaded with picture books, and Amelia climbing to the top of a jungle gym with her new friends.