Radial Symmetry (5 of 10)
Tentacle 5: Fiercesome
" . . . the leftern hunting tentacle strikes while the prey is distracted . . . "
When Molly was fired for the first time, she was given twenty minutes and a cardboard box for her belongings. She had felt shame, to be sure, but also a sense of relief. She had hated the job — being a PR flack for a national book chain — and the firing hadn't been a surprise. Being fired from the presidency, however, was a bit more complicated. She didn't want to think about it.
It was night when Trael came to the Giant Squid, and the moon hung in the sky, half-full and as clear and bright as brand-new nickel dropped in the mud. Trael slipped out of their trailer on cat feet, careful to ease the squeaky front door open silently, careful to keep the screen door from banging against the jamb. He didn't have to worry about waking his father, who worked nights and was already gone, but he didn't want to wake up his brother, Jarwaun. Jarwaun had school early, earlier than Trael, and he also had his math class first thing in the morning, and he wasn't good in math. Jarwaun had stayed up past midnight reviewing his notes over and over again for a big test, the desperation so clear on his face that an 8-year-old could read it, and Trael was worried that Jarwaun wouldn't pass it. If Jarwaun didn't pass this test, then it might mean an E on Jarwaun's report card when it came in a week. Sometimes it was bad when his father saw that Jarwaun had failed another class. Sometimes it wasn't anything.
Trael was careful not to slip or get muddy as he crossed the mushy, rain soaked dirt yard and slipped beneath the blue tarp beside the wreck of Hazel's trailer. He breathed in the air and the blue; it was humid and warm, like being inside the glass Conservatory on Belle Isle. The shaved man, Devo, had tightened all of the gaskets, removed the non-functioning legs from the velocitating suit, and stopped the leaking, but the Squid was alone now, under this tarp. Trael lay belly down on the glass dome of the Squid's suit and sighed.
"How you feelin', Mr. President Squid?"
Trael could see the Squid shift and coil in behind his dirty dome, and watched his eyes shift focus from one point in the middle distance to another, but whatever he was looking at would have to be out beyond the blue tarp, and so Trael knew that the Squid was looking at something only in his mind.
The Squid's PA speaker sighed and fuzzed with static, but he said nothing.
It hurt to see the Squid like that, motionless and helpless, and so Trael turned his head and felt the cool glass against his warm cheek, and stared at the blue tarp, letting his eyes slip out of focus, so that maybe he would be staring at the same place as his friend.
"You feel better tomorrow, maybe. The hippie man brought the shaved man, and he get you fixed up in no time. I seen. I know. He a good mechanic; you can tell just by the way he hold his tools, the way he sure as he looks at the machines. He a good mechanic, and he get your ride goin' again. Maybe even make it better, with a flamethrower and spinners and hydraulics, like in Spy Hunter or a James Bond movie."
The Squid hung motionless and said nothing.
"Once you good again, we play checkers, and I'll let you win. Not let you, I mean. I'll show you how, what the tricks are. Show you how to see the board right . . ." He trailed off.
They lay together for a long time, and Trael began to think he saw what the Squid saw, the endless even blue of some murky ocean, but the knowledge that the ocean, no matter how deep, was just a scrim, a flimsy cover over some other alien world, a world that you weren't for, and they didn't want you, but into which you would push because pushing out and further was everything you were, and pay no mind to what other people wanted or what you should.
"I think," Trael whispered, turning to look into the optically perfect, if sightless, eye of the monster, "I think your man Rob might be a bad man, but he the only man I knew you'd talked about from before. I thought he could help. I hoped."
The Squid's squawkbox hissed static again, then clicked, and let our a long sigh — not a hush of static, but a true sigh animated by the voice of the Squid.
"HOPE," the Squid sighed, "IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS."
"True that," Trael said. He looked into the Squid's deep eye, and it looked upon him, and there was some twist of anguish in it that Trael knew in his heart; he had been alone in the room when his aunt died, when the cancer put its final twist to her.
"THERE IS NO BALM IN GILEAD," he told Trael.
"I tryin'," Treal sighed, holding the sob back, "But I'm just a lil man."
"BUT YOU ARE TRYING," the Squid agreed, then sighed, and slid back into silence and sleepless dreams.
Devo crawled on the Giant Squid's immobile bulk like a plover in the mouth of a crocodile. Swearing, tapping, adjusting, lost in his own perfect world of destroyed mechanisms crying out for a savior. The Giant Squid slept and muttered beneath Devo's ministrations. His fever warmed the air around him and his dinner-plate sized eyes were clouded and distant.
"Yo, Devo, what's the prognosis, man?" Rob shouted, standing atop a rusted Chevrolet Citation. They had hauled the squid to a junkyard Downriver, owned by a hillbilly friend of Devo's named Procter. Devo had towed Ivan's broken truck with his enormous tow truck—a truck that Donny kept calling a "wrecker"—and, Russian nesting doll style, the Squid had been crunched into the back of Ivan's truck. Rob had made a joke about the nesting dolls to Ivan, who responded coolly that they were called "matrowshka," and then went back to staring quietly at his battered dually.
"Do you think you could maybe do some work on my truck, too?" Ivan asked Devo.
Devo didn't even look up, just called past his shoulder, "I'm not your pet mechanic." Ivan scowled and took a long pull from the whiskey bottle he was holding, then coughed raggedly.
"Prognosis. That's an interesting word." Hazel's father chimed in. He was sitting behind Rob on the hood of the Chevy and was nursing a Corona. "It's Greek, obviously. 'Gnosis' means knowledge, specifically knowledge about the world. And 'pro' means before. So it means 'knowledge aforehand.' Many people use the word to mean guess or prediction, but that's not strictly accurate. It's more like a premonition or a hunch."
Devo grinned at Mr. Zywicki and stood straight up, balancing atop the dome of the Giant Squid's broken land-suit. "I like that. It's got poetry to it." Devo's well-sculpted torso was streaked with grease and sweat and a fresh butterfly tattoo shone wetly on his chest. "Give me three, maybe four hours and I can get the life-support going better-than-minimal again. Another few days and the rest of the suit will be operational enough, but it's just a short-term solution. Without the lab-gear I can't do anything permanent." He rubbed a grease-blackened hand across his shaved head and grinned again. "Well, that's my premonition at least."
"Dude, how did you afford this truck?"
Devo had finished work on the Squid's suit for the night. The pumps and atmosphere-scrubbers were functioning again, cleaning the Squid's poisoned waters. They'd hauled Ivan's truck back to the trailer park where Donny lived, and where Hazel's wrecked mobile home still lay strewn across her lot. The remnants had clearly been picked through by neighbors.
Devo was screwing the knobby top of a garden hose into a port on the underside of the suit. When he had made a connection he flicked a toggle switch and set the scrubbers to humming. Immediately the water in the dome of the squid's tank began to clear and cool.
Rob asked again, "Devo, how did you pay for this truck? You never had much cash on hand back in the lab, you were always bumming shit offa me and Spider and that accountant guy."
Rob sat in the dirt next to Devo, his cold hands wrapped around a mug of tea Donny's mom had delivered, "I'm pretty sure it was Meeks, dude. His name, I mean." Ivan, nearby, was taking apart a man-sized bulldozer they had stolen from the junkyard.
Devo grinned again. "My severance package, holmes. I bought a friggin house, too, up in Rochester. And it's not one of those McMansions that's gonna fall apart in ten years, kind you see sitting around all over the Northern suburbs, like someone dropped the Monopoly box. Naw, it's a hundred-year-old Victorian. Real sweet." His face darkened, saddened. "I asked Spider to move in with me, but he—I dunno—had a change of heart."
"Severance package? What the fuck? You got a severance package?" Rob's mouth dropped open and he spilled hot tea on his knee.
"No doubt. Half a million cold in a single check." Devo grinned wickedly. "I swear, it looked like I'd overdosed on Viagra I tented my pants so badly."
"I didn't get . . . Hey, Ivan! Did you get severance pay?"
Ivan shook his head slowly. He put down his ratchet and unscrewed the top of the bottle of Jameson's and took a deep pull. "That Sang fuck still owes me my last paycheck." He handed the bottle to Rob.
"Well," Rob took a swig from the bottle and stood unsteadily to his feet. "We need to go get our money, hoss. What's fair is fair."
Molly was driving. She wasn't sure where to go. She didn't have her own place, and was nearly broke. Her presidential salary was frozen pending investigation, along with her bank accounts. Where could she go? Who would take her in now, after how badly everything had gone?
Molly's parents had moved West after the plants had closed down. Her father had chased a middle-management job to New Mexico. She had never visited them there, and didn't even know the address. Her secretary had taken care of that. Had taken care of too many things, she realized.
All of her new, hip Washington friends had stopped talking to her when the subpoenas hit. It reminded her of nothing so much as middle school. Cliques meeting in secret to decide who could be talked to and who couldn't. Which jeans were cool and which were. And pity to the girl that wore her Z. Cavaricci's on the wrong day. Swap "jeans" for "lunch with the wrong committee", and there you were.
More than anything, Molly was disappointed to realize that the leitmotif which would play out, over and over, in her life was middle school.
At least she had kept her car. No family, No friends. Where could she go?
A thought occurred to her, and Molly pulled off at the next exit and parked beside a BP station. She dug through her glove box, and then her trunk. Finding only a map of Massachusetts and a carefully folded Burger King place mat, she went inside and bought a coffee-machine vanilla cappuccino and a road atlas, then sat at the single booth and traced herself a path to I-75, and north to Detroit, once known — entirely unironically — as the Paris of the Midwest.
Ivan pounded loudly on the tin door of Donny's mother's mobile home. "Hey D! We need help!"
"We need weapons!" Rob shouted, face pressed against the screen.
A light flicked on, and Rob fought the urge to run. Something about being here, in this trailer park with all of these boys made him feel like a teenager again, like he shouldn't be out after dark. The door opened a few inches and Donny peeked around the corner.
"Guys, my mom is totally asleep so you need to just, y'know, be quiet."
"We need weapons!" Rob shouted, even louder. He hadn't drank in ten months, and clearly could not recall when to say when.
Ivan opened the screen door. "We have just found out that our old employer gave a co-worker half a million american dollars as severance, while we received nothing. We demand justice and require weapons to pursue it."
Donny blinked. "Ivan, you worked there for three months. I don't think you get severance when you're a temp."
"We need weapons!" Rob yelled even louder, stumbling slightly. "Also, I appear to have, like, fell off the fuckin' wagon. Fell under the wheels and shit," he waggled his eyebrows in a manner that he thought looked pirate-ish, but to the casual observer seemed to be the early symptons of Parkinson's disease, "Spun."
"Donny, my little American friend. It is the principle of the thing. Now go get your weapon chest or my drunken ex-co-worker here will keep yelling until your mother wakes up and spits fire upon you."
Donny sighed. "Fine. Meet me in the tent."
Rob and Ivan stumbled behind the trailer, and Rob tripped into the tent, breaking one of the poles and scattering dice everywhere. When Donny finally made it out to them, the tent's case was hopeless, and they were obliged to meet on it instead of in it.
Devo's wrecker barrelled down I-75 toward Downtown Detroit. The towers of the Ren Cen stood tall, dark, and lonely against the horizon, while the lighted splendor of Windsor danced across the river.
" . . . and so I wanted to settle down, maybe get civil-hitched. Buy a nice Victorian we could fix up. Rent one of the flats to some yuppies. Maybe see about adopting, or getting one of our dyke friends to conceive for us." Devo explained to Rob and Ivan, who sat side by side on the spacious bench of the tow-truck. They each had a weapon borrowed from Donny's chest gripped in one hand, while the other passed the bottle back and forth.
"How would that—"
"But no, he had to go get religious on me." Devo stared ahead and grimaced. "Spider's dad never really approved of, well, me, so when he passed away and left this giant grudge in the family, Spider thought he had to make it up to him by going straight."
The truck hit a pothole and jumped suddenly, all three of the men glanced backwards, at the flatbed of the wrecker, where the Squid was chained down. Devo and Ivan had gotten the water purified and lucidity was returning to the Squid. They also had managed a kludgey fix for the velocitator's broken legs by mounting him onto the stolen bulldozer. His two hunting tentacles still operated well enough, so they left those attached, but now instead of striding across the landscape he would be rolling tank-like, on two mechanized mud-crusted treads.
Ivan was insanely proud of this fix, although Devo secretly doubted it would even work. Ivan kept gesticulating as he spoke, drunkenly swinging the nunchucks he had borrowed from Donny around the truck's cab, and so Devo kept his doubts to himself.
"The last time I spoke with him he said he had to find a nice 'señorita to father a child and do his family honor.'" Devo gripped the wheel tighter. "Then he said some really mean things."
Rob, who had sobered somewhat, laid his katana down across his lap and patted Devo's bare shoulder. "That really . . . that really fuckin' sucks, man. I'm 100% legit for-real sorry you got hit with shit like that."
They exited the freeway and pulled on to the empty streets of Detroit, steam bursting forth from the manholes around them. Devo drove them to the entrance of the parking garage and waved his badge, which opened the door.
"Why the fuck am I the only one whose old badge doesn't work," Rob asked, but was ignored.
The garage was empty, save one dented Volvo station wagon parked in the furthest spot from the door. It had a Notre Dame sticker across the rear window, and an ever-growing puddle of green coolant below it.
A tall, thin man stood next to the Volvo staring at a cell phone he clutched tightly. He wore a button-down, short-sleeved shirt and taupe pants under a cheap, bulky, navy-blue K-mart parka. Wire-framed glasses perched on his nose owlishly. He was stooped and shaky. In short, Leeks was an Ichabod-crane looking mother-fucker.
Devo gunned the truck's engine and drove straight towards the accountant, pulling alongside him. Ivan jumped out of the truck's cab waving a pair of nunchucks and screaming. Leeks, in turn, screamed and turned to hide in his car, dropping his keys in the process. He stooped to grab them, only to find that Rob's workboot had already called dibs.
"Meeks, m'man," he shouted jovially, the words riding the crest of a wave of whiskey fumes, "we were just coming to see you." Rob stepped off of Leeks' key ring, replacing his boot with the tip of Donny's replica katana.
"What do you?" Leeks gulped for air like an amusement-park Carp begging for food. "What do-" His eyes glazed and he sat down heavily in the puddle of coolant. "I . . . I'm having car trouble, is all."
Rob softened, dropped his nerd sword. "Shit man, we didn't mean to scare you so bad. It's cool, it'll be okay. We just had some questions about back pay and taxes and shit like that. And hey, look!" Rob pointed back at Devo, who was leaning with crossed-arms on his truck. "We brought Devo. He can totally fix your car."
Devo scowled, "Miller, I'm not your pet mechano-monk—"
Leeks panted and looked up at them with wet eyes. "Really? Because this, this certainly looks bad." He dipped his finger in the coolant pool, and held the green-slicked pad up for the trio's inspection.
Ivan squatted down, looked Leeks straight in the eye and gravely said, "There is nothing Mr. Devo cannot fix."
Rough hands woke Trael. They were hairy and hard and shook him, pinched him with stoney nails. It was dark in his bedroom, but he could see short men standing atop his brother. He could see long limbs gripping razors.
Blackened teeth smiled too close. A laugh that smelled of dusty corner stores and an aunt sick with the smoking cancer. Rubbery lips leaned close and hissed in guttural, rudimentary French, "Si vous luttez ou cri nous saignerons votre frère et vous envelopperons dans les bandes de sa peau."
All Trael could say in French was "My name is Trael, I speak French," but he nonetheless got the gist of the threat.
Trael stared up at Claude, balled his hands into fists and nodded slowly. "I'm ready."
And the chimpanzees laughed and laughed and laughed.
Molly crested the last hill of I-75 and saw the lights of Detroit spread out before her. Such a shabby town, she thought, like an old flannel shirt you wear on laundry day, or when you've been dumped. Still, it was beautiful in its sincerity.
She turned West and headed towards the lab where the only friends she had left in the world worked, where they surely would be up planning some childish prank or arguing about what "shithead" really means or watching porn or something.
Molly sighed loudly in her car and let herself cry for the first time in a year.
Leeks sat perched on the back of his car while Devo banged around under the hood. "You're all a bunch of assholes," he opined absently, "Except for Leeks, who is OK."
"So what was it you wanted to ask me again? About tax withholdings?"
"Where did Devo's severance pay come from? I thought the lab closed down?"
"No, no." Leeks shook his head and removed his glasses to polish them. "That was just to keep the Giant Squid out, I think. Mr. Sang had intended for the Squid to be diverted playing President for much longer. As soon as he was gone to Washington, Mr. Sang refurbished everything with many generous grants from the Department of Defense and several other wealthy contributors."
Rob blinked. "But . . . but how could there even be a lab without Lord A?"
Leeks leaned in close and asked, "Rob, what exactly do you think this lab does?"
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson