Radial Symmetry (8 of 10)
Tentacle 8: Serenity
" . . . . . . "
Henry Zywicki stood on the freezing dock, snowflakes falling gently on to his stooped shoulders and clinging to his beard. He looked like nothing so much as the father of the seven dwarves, or maybe Santa, if Santa had taught community college instead of being in the gift distribution business. The full moon gently limned his silhouette and the silhouette of the smoking rivet gun in his hands. He chuckled and briskly walked past the immobile bulk of the Giant Squid.
"Mr. Squid, I've just fired a bolt into the engine of your clever suit there." Zywicki strode down the dock and spoke louder with each step. "And Melissa, your girlfriend, is slowly bleeding out into the Great Lakes. So I think you should comply and answer a few questions." He withdrew a slim cell phone from the pocket of his khaki trousers and held it up to be illuminated by the moonlight. "If you answer my questions truthfully—all of my questions—then I will call an ambulance and maybe they can save your girl."
The Giant Squid struggled to move but his treads had stopped responding. He reached forward towards the fat man with his titanium encased tentacles, extending them as far as possible. They shot forward like a chinese yo-yo snapping the air before their clawed tips. The tips came within a centimeter of Zywicki's grinning face, but were too short.
"I know all about you, you monster. You filthy thing. You pervert and destroy everything that you touch, but you can't touch me." The Squid drew his tentacles back and began to probe the broken engine of his velocitation suit. "You're wasting time, you diseased lump. Will you answer my questions?"
"YOU ARE HAZEL'S FATHER. HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?"
Zywicki looked to the sky, like a man questioning an inscrutable god. "Good Christ; you can't be this dense." He pointed out at the platform floating in the water, "This . . . whore is not my daughter." He frowned at the Squid. "I'll give you one last chance: will you answer my questions?"
Within the dome of his anti bathysphere the squid nodded.
Zywicki — the man the Squid thought of as Henry Zywicki — beamed again, placed his hands on his hips and faced the Squid squarely from twenty feet down the dock. "Who are you working for? When will your attack come? What have you and these terrorist elements in Detroit been planning? What have you been plotting since you disappeared from the Presidency?" His voice rose with each question, and he began shouting, spitting. "Are there more of you monsters on the way?"
"I WORK FOR MYSELF AND FOR THOSE THAT NEED ME. I AM AMERICAN NOW, SO I FIGHT FOR AMERICA. I HAVE NO ATTACK PLANNED. ONCE I DID DREAM OF WORLD CONQUEST, BUT A MOMENT OF REFELCTION REVEALED IT AS A PETTY GOAL. WHAT WOULD ONE DO WITH A WORLD ONCE IT WAS CONQUESTED? I HAVE BEEN LIVING IN THE WARREN NORTH DETROIT WITH MY LOVE HAZEL. NOW, I BEG YOU AS I HAVE NEVER BEGGED A GRUNTCHIMP BEFORE: CALL OF THE AMBULANCE FOR MY DEAR HAZEL. HER HEAT IS FADING, I FEAR SHE IS NEAR . . . "
Zywicki roared, "You are lying to me? To me? I have torn secrets from the mouths of the world's most dangerous, hardest men and you, this disgusting bubble of calamari, are lying to me. I guess you want Melissa to die." Zywicki held the cell phone out ahead of him as if offering it to the Giant Squid. Tentacles shot forward to grab the phone, but were again centimeters short of their goal. "She has minutes left. Answer my questions: why are you here? What were you doing with Melissa?"
The squid retracted his tentacles and resumed probing his engine, feeling for one specific part. "HER NAME IS HAZEL."
"Not according to her file."
"HER NAME IS HAZEL."
"What the hell do you care about this whore anyway?" Zywicki was red with rage, foam flecked his lips.
The Giant Squid's voice was icy and low. "DO. NOT. DO NOT SPEAK OF HER. DO NOT SPEAK OF HER IN ILL TERMS."
Hazel, on the floating raft, coughed and spluttered. A tiny cry drifted from her like the last plaintive mew of a kitten in a sack feeling the cold river water swallowing her body.
"Sang knows you're up to something. Tell me what or this whore will die, you dumb fucking beast!"
The Squid wrenched the axle free of his broken vehicle and launched his tentacles forward. Zywicki smiled secure in the knowledge that he was just out of reach. But the axle was several feet long and the Squid stabbed it, spear-like, through Zywicki's face. "SHE IS NOT A WHORE. AND I AM NOT AN ANIMAL." The Squid let go and Zywicki's body tumbled backward landing flat on the dock. His arm flopped to the side, dropping the cell phone into the river.
Driving his tentacles into the frozen earth, the Giant Squid slowly pulled himself forward and down the dock next to where Hazel floated. He looked and saw the stab wounds, the pools of blood, her fading heat. She was as close to death as anyone could be and still be considered close, and not yet there.
"HAZEL . . ." He said, but could say no more. The Squid glanced back at the garage with its workshop and tools, at the broken chassis and pump of his suit, and at the cooling corpse of Zywicki. "A WOUNDED DEER LEAPS HIGHEST" he muttered, more to himself than to Hazel. The tools and garage were not close, but the ground was hard and his tentacles strong, and he could drag himself across quickly, he thought. Quickly enough.
The trip back from Toledo was uneventful. The freeways were deserted and Rob zoned out, staring at the mile markers posted sporadically down the highway. They arrived back at the Shady Pines trailer park and made plans.
"Look, I need to do this fuckin' thing, alright? And I should go alone, because this is some freaky shit. I'll get that key so we can get into that storage locker, but I . . . shit, I don't know what might happen." Rob sagged, feeling the weight of responsibility heavy on his shoulders.
Molly put her hand on his shoulder, "I'm coming with you. No arguments. Let's go."
Rob stared at her, saw how much she had changed. Molly used to have a soft face. She'd come to work in sweats and laugh and figure out a way to bake cookies in the breakroom toaster oven. But that Molly was gone. She'd been burnt away. This Molly was hard, sharp-edged. She wore makeup that made her eyes shine fiercely and her clothes were all angles and heels and lines and skirts.
"You gonna protect me, Molls?" Rob asked. But Molly didn't answer, she just steered him into his Honda.
With Rob gone the remaining group was silent and ill at ease. Donny stared at his feet. Mohammed tossed his van keys from hand to hand. Devo gripped his forearm and flexed it nervously. Leeks stood very, very still with his briefcase held tightly to his chest, sweat beading on his wide forehead. Jarwaun looked at each of them in turn, made a decision and turned to leave.
"So," Donny began, "what should we-" But then Ivan stormed out of Donny's mom's trailer.
"Where the fuck have you been?" Ivan's face was red and his ears were dark as beets. "And where the fuck is my truck?"
"Oh man, Mr. Squid isn't back yet?" Donny asked.
"Do you see my fucking truck here? Do you see a giant sea monster in a plastic bubble talking crazy?"
Donny shook his head.
"Right. So, let's go get my fucking truck." Ivan hollered in Donny's face. "I still have about a million payments on that thing."
Mohammed tossed his keys high in the air and snatched them in one smooth motion. "Fuck it, yo. I'll drive."
"Dude, don't you have to be home, like, three hours ago?" Donny glanced at the time on his cell phone.
"Yeah, but I'm already late. And that's a binary state, see? I'm already late, I can't be more late." Mohammed shrugged and clambered into the driver's seat. Ivan jumped in next to him.
Donny turned to everyone else. "You guys want to come?"
"Naw man, I got some stuff needs takin care of." Devo shook Donny's hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "But you guys be careful. Things tend to get a little loco around the Squid, you hear?"
Donny ignored Leeks and turned to Jarwaun. "You wanna come, J?"
Jarwaun looked him in the eye coolly. "After we get the truck and the Squid, we gonna get Trael."
Donny nodded, a pained expression on his face. "Yeah. Yeah, man. The very next thing."
"Then I need to get something first from my uncle's house." Jarwaun looked deep into the trailer park and took a long breath. "Give me five minutes, then I'm good."
"Y'know, I never expected adventure to find me like this. I mean, I always knew that adventure was right around the corner and that it could happen at any moment, but . . . Well, look at Luke, right? He's just going to some garage sale with his uncle to buy some new appliances for their house and then he gets swept up in this amazing adventure, y'know? That's what I feel like right now. Like Luke. Motherfucking Luke Skywalker."
Jarwaun kept staring out the window. "Yeah, 'cept Uncle Owen went to that garage sale too, and he just die."
During the drive back from Toledo, as the sun sank low and gaudy in the west, Devo had turned to Leeks and asked, out of idle curiosity, what Spider's severance package had been. Leeks had looked him squarely in the eyes, and evenly, without a stutter told him that Spider hadn't taken a severance package because he still worked for Sang intermittently on special projects. He had said the words pointedly, and then sniffed and looked straight ahead. "In fact," he said, "I saw him just today, in the hall that runs from accounting back to the storage area and the kennels. Do you know," he said, "That even in the Squid's absence, dogs have been kenneled there? Almost as if we await his glorious return. Isn't that strange." Leeks made a show of looking at his watch, "Perhaps Mr. Ramirez is even there now. He has been there often, these last several weeks." Leeks looked up, and stared fixedly at the back of Jarwaun's head.
They had been silent for the remainder of the ride, and Devo had been thinking.
On the trailer park, in the snow that would not stick, Devo sighed again, then climbed into his wrecker and drove to Detroit, to the Renaissance Center, to the old offices and labs of his once-employer, the Giant Squid.
Devo was entirely unsurprised that, despite the fact he hadn't been employed with the lab for over two year, his ID badge continued to open the parking garage gate.
He started by riding the elevator all the way to the top, but the door wouldn't even open, ignoring his ID card. Then he went down a floor, to where records storage was, and the kennel, and Leeks' office. The door opened without hesitation. The security door immediatly off the elevator was chocked open with a stack of technical manuals; the office past it was dark, but the adjoining hall on the other side — through a door held open with a potted palm — was brightly lit. Devo could hear the dogs, in the kennel down at the end, barking and muttering as they settled for the night. He strode confidently through the darkened office, into the light, and wasn't shocked when Spider stepped out of one of the side rooms, gently pulling the door closed behind him, but still leaving a foot of clearance.
Spider didn't look shocked to see Devo, either, which was itself surprising.
"I thought you worked at Best Buy," Devo said plainly.
"I gotta this on the side, too."
Devo had come to tell Spider about Sang and the kidnapping, and all of it, but the phrase, the idea of having something on the side triggered a memory of the last time they'd spoken, and Devo was suddenly like a chimp with an electrode in his amygdala.
"Something on the side, eh?" Devo flushed, and forgot about the Squid and the kid and everything else, "Maybe Sang is something on the side for you, on the down low, while your Jesus and señorita aren't looking?"
Spider frowned and shook his head pityingly. Devo stopped, and breathed deeply, and fought the thing raging in his head back into its little almond-sized box in the middle of his brain.
"Listen," Devo said, "I think this is all really fucked up. How can you be working for this guy, Sang? Do you know he kidnapped some little kid, just to fuck with the Squid?"
Spider shrugged, "God made the path, and I'm tryin' to push through."
Devo groaned, "Christ! You were never like this before, with the God shit — you wouldn't even put up with normal boss-shit from Sang, and now . . ."
"I was always like this," Spider said, "We're always like whatever we are, except for sometimes we don't know it until we stop fighting how we run all the time and actually look at how we wanna roll."
Devo sighed, exasperated.
Spider closed his eyes, "Remember before you came out, like, even to yourself?" he opened them, "When you were a little kid? You realized that there had always been something inside you, like a wheel that rolled at a certain angle, and while you're a little kid, you don't really notice the wheel, 'cause it hasn't hit the ground yet; it's just spinning in the air, and it doesn't matter which way it goes. Then it touches down when you grow your pubes, and all of a sudden you feel kinda wobbly all the time. You look at girls, and you like them enough, but something just doesn't fit right, and you sorta always feel like you're that shopping cart with the one stuck wheel in front."
Devo nodded. He remembered this, and he understand.
"The Spirit of the Lord is the same way," Spider said, "We got more than one wheel in us, and my Spirit wheel didn't settle till after mi papa died. Not because of, just after. And for a long while I felt like I was running crooked, fighting that wheel and fighting it, and I didn't know why, and I thought maybe it was because I'd gotten used to running a crooked rut with my dick, and now I'd gotten straightened out. But you don't never straighten out, it's just what you are."
Devo snorted, "No señorita, then? So, what, you wanna get back together? Or did you already find some new fella?"
Spider looked pained, "It ain't like that. I'm not rebounding, and I wasn't never lying when I told you that you were the only guy for me, 'cause that's true. You the only guy for me." Spider saw what Devo was going to say and headed him off, "And there ain't no lady for me. Just you."
"This is nuts," Devo shouted, "It's crazy right at its core! You've got a Jesus wheel and a queer wheel, and it sounds an awful damn lot like they're crooked to each other!"
Spider looked at him, and the look was pity and resolve and a deep sadness, "Nothing in this world comes easy, kid."
Devo rolled his eyes, about to saying something to the effect of This is fucking crazy, there's nothing in common between coming out and finding Jesus when he glanced past Spider's shoulder and saw the little black boy sitting at the table in the dim room. There was a TV quietly running in the room, an old black and white Adam's Family re-run, but the boy was watching him.
"Holy shit," Devo asked, "You took that kid! The checkers kid!"
"I didn't take him," Spider said, tired, "I'm just watching him. I'm taking care of him."
Devo looked back into Spider's face, and he saw nothing there. Spider had always been a terrible liar, his moods and plots written so plainly on his face that you could actually read the next words to come out of his mouth off of his forehead. But now there was nothing there, not fear or sorrow or guilt, not murder or custodianship or boredom, not even the cold of resignation or the heat of anger. Spider was as blank and inscrutable as a statue in a shrine.
Devo, of course, hadn't changed a bit, and Spider could read him plainly, read the widening of Devo's eyes, the expansion of his wide and muscled chest, the set of his jaw. "You can't take him," Spider said plainly, "You can't hurt me, and you can't make me change my mind, and you can't take this boy. I'm sorry."
Devo had the overwhelming feeling that he knew how this movie turned out. "Let me guess: I can't do this and I can't do that, but I'm more than welcome to tell the Giant Squid where the boy — where Trael —" he nodded to the boy, "Is, right? That he's just fine and Sang has him?" Devo raised his eyebrows, "This is a trap," it was half question, half statement.
Spider shrugged, "I'm pretty sure the Squid is already stuck in a trap," Spider said, "If you think about it right, this is the way out of a trap. Sang's changed his mind about where the Squid ought to be, I think. I think that once the old Squid is back here and in his cage upstairs, then Trael can go home."
"I won't tell them the kid is here —," Devo leaned out, so he was speaking past Spider's shoulder. He caught a glimpse of Trael's wide, white eyes in the dim of the room, and spoke to him directly, "I'm sorry, kid. I'm gonna come back and get you myself, but I'm not gonna set up the Squid and those kids."
Spider shrugged. Devo would. He knew it, and Devo knew it. Spider didn't push it. He wanted to, he badly wanted to ask What you gonna do? Gonna call the cops, go down to their station in your fag rave-ware and tell 'em that the ex-President Monster's neighbor kid got snatched by a sinister oriental? The predatory thing in Spider wanted to push and push and push until Devo cried, but he wouldn't let it out. He breathed in, and thought of Jesus not fighting off the Roman's who came to arrest him, and he breathed out the word serenity.
Devo left, hating himself as the elevator crept towards the parking garage. In the buzzing florescence, he finally thought to wonder about why his ID card still opened the parking garage gate, but nothing else, and the answer came to him as quickly as the question. In that moment a had a clear vision of the world as a luminous spider's web, strands long and straight and, like the avenues of the city, either running out like spokes to be cut off by uncrossable freeways, or converging at a hub. You felt like you freely chose where you went, that you could go any which way, but really you just ran back and forth on a given strand, either out towards the abridged edge, or in to the center, and either way, somewhere, the spider who wove the web crouched and waited, and decided who was pulled in and wrapped in silk. Devo suddenly felt a glimmer of the Spirit that Spider knew, and he knew that the web's spider was names God.
And alone, in the elevator, Devo wept.
Seeing Devo, seeing Spider . . . and now Molly, her head against the cool passenger window of his Honda, was asleep in his car.
So, even though he was driving back into another shitstorm of memories, he was relieved on the way there because he was finally, again, alone with his thoughts.
A ring-necked pheasant bobbed out of the tall grass to the left as he drifted down a street of vacant lots and abandoned home. Rob had followed a side-street out of the city, and at noon, as the week approached the winter solstice, the sun beat down along the trail behind him, a faded glare from the distant south.
Rob slowed down to let the bird scurry across the street. He came to a complete stop because the bird was at the head of six or seven pheasants that darted fast across the street. Just before they hopped over the eastern curb, all seven took flight, scattering in the air toward tree limbs and gaping glassless windows. The fluttering, squawking squadron had been spooked into the sky by a small red fox no bigger than a house cat which had followed them at a trot out of the tall grass.
The fox stopped in the street in front of Rob and his Honda. It had black eyes and ears as big as radar dishes. It blinked, turned back to the pheasants which were making their respective escapes, and darted onto the eastern sidewalk. It turned to the south and Rob twisted in his seat to watch the fox run down the street after the smallest of the birds which had chosen to hop from one overgrown bush to the next.
The animals were gone before he thought he might wake Molly up.
This was exactly the kind of relaxing driving he had been looking forward to. He'd been a year clean living with his folks, but he was still temperamentally "chill." And every day Detroit's byways became more and more like some post-apocalyptic wildlife preserve, which only reinforced his inherent "chill-ness."
After Rob was sure no more wildlife was going to dart across the road, he took his foot off the break and drifted down the road, out past the edge of the city, to a huge junkyard with a sign out front by a wide-gated chain-link fence. The sign read: Shamrock Towing.
When Rob brought the Honda to a stop in front of the house in the front of the lot, Molly drifted forward and woke up. The hard edge of her jawline tensed. "Okay," she murmured.
"This is where Tom's stuff is now? Is this a relative's place, a cousin, an uncle?" Molly leaned forward and peered out at the lot and the house, the flickering neon shamrock green and glowing in one of the upstairs windows.
Rob just stared at her and furrowed her brow. This was exactly why he didn't want anyone coming along. He'd had a thing for this lady in what seems like another lifetime. There had been a time when he would have said anything his addled brain could assemble if he had thought it would have mattered to her. But now, after so much shit, after a year of madness and another of cold sobriety, he realized that it wasn't just Molly's jawline that had gone hard. Something in him had hardened as well. Years ago, if he had been faced with a question like that, he would have gotten lost in six different ways of answering it all in an attempt to figure out what the question meant. But now he was clear enough that he knew exactly what the question meant: Molly wouldn't understand a damn thing he said in reply.
"Not exactly," he said finally. Then he got out of the Honda.
Rob skipped up the porch steps two at a time and pounded on the door of the house-cum-office that squatted in one corner of the sprawling junk yard lot. Even though the sun was low on the southern horizon, even though the late December air smelled of burning fires and of coming snow, the air was only cool, warm by wintry standards, and Rob felt comfortable rocking on his heels for a minute.
Rob looked around the lot, the wrecks lined up in a nice row to the west, getting progressively older, rustier and more decrepit as the line went on. Assorted cats of assorted colors ran along the roofs of the cars, darting nimbly through holes in the glass, and through tears in the steel.
Rob pounded at the door again, but he could feel the house was empty after the final thump.
Rob slung his hands down in his pockets and hopped down the steps again.
Molly waited in the muddy lawn, her hands deep in her own pockets.
The grass was brown, the muddy dirt was furrowed, by the path that lead through the maze of ancient steel was still clear in Rob's mind. After several turns, ducks under leaning wheels, and careful side-ways scooching passed disassembled blocks of iron, Rob silently lead Molly to a small clearing protected by wet foggy plastic sheeting roped up to mossy tree limps and imposing industrial monoliths.
At the tip of the bulbous clearing, sitting beneath the crinkling shadows of the plastic, there was a black midget in a green Carhart sweatshirt flipping through two stacks of books: one old, ancient, and leatherbound; the other mostly tit magazines and gossip rags.
The midget licked a stubby black thumb and flipped through a farm girl pictorial.
Then the midget licked his other thumb and paged back and forth between two different calf-skin manuscripts. In the pages of one of the manuscripts was an illuminated block of Medieval script, framed by greens and golds. In the other book there were stark concentric circles interwoven with angled lines, tiny esoteric sigils, and elaborately scripted words written in undulating letters that Rob would have guessed were Arabic if Dearborn hadn't made him intimately familiar with the alphabet of a language he still did not understand.
"Hey," Rob said.
"That's a brilliant mother-fucking opener, Miller." The midget scanned the black, dense diagrams without looking up. Then, sighing, turned the page on the farm girl to a set of pictures of naked ladies touching each other while frolicking in a mountain stream.
"What happened to 'Beans' and all that shit?" Rob asked, referring to a nickname he'd carried for the better part of a year.
The midget closed the illuminated manuscript, tossing it on a collapsing stack a foot or so to his right. There were about seven or eight museum-old books on the collapsing stack. One of the books nearest the bottom had landed open, its spine noticeably breaking under the impact of the newest addition to the pile.
"I said," Rob tried again, "what happened—"
The midget sighed and closed his titty mag. He took Jugs Millennium and used it as a bookmark in his leather book. Then he brought up to the log-cum-lectern the final old book, a small red leather piece with a broken brass clasp. He flipped through it casually, and finally looked up to inspect Rob. He noticed Molly and narrowed his eyes.
He frowned at Rob.
From inside the van, Jarwaun called out. "We gotta hurry. I'm waitin' here."
The boys looked at the damage to Ivan's truck and declared it undrivable, possibly even untowable. And then a sound from the docks caught their attention. It was a sound like someone fisting jello, like cranberry sauce plopping whole from a can. It was a splorching, slurping noise followed by clanking and the sudden shrill whine of metal being cut. Donny rushed down the hill, across the crunchy frozen grass and on to the dock.
The wood was slick under his feet. Donny tripped and fell on hands and knees and felt wetness and slickness and stickiness all at once. The moon appeared from behind clouds and shone down. Donny looked down and saw blood and black fluids dripping from his palm. He saw pink wriggles of flesh sprayed across the dock. He saw the Giant Squid, half submerged in the water in his mechano-suit. He saw tentacles wielding knives and a rotary saw. He saw Hazel.
Black tubing wormed from her neck to her belly. Her legs were fused together with strips of striated muscle. Bits of metal shone brightly in the moonlight, stitched into her legs, eyes, throat. Donny screamed.
"Where you dig up the narc, Miller?"
"I told her not to come."
"Why you come? Didn't you tell your own ass the same thing?" The little man held his hands up to his mouth, making a crude megaphone. "'Don't go to the Shamrock, Ass.'"
Molly frowned. "I could be messing this moment up with a lot of detailed questions," she said quietly.
The Little Brother held up his hand. "Don't be laying 'need' down on me, chump. One year sober don't make you any more of an expert on what you need. Conscious mind where 'want' lives." He pointed down to his two piles of books. "'Want" piece of ass. 'Want' some arcane shit to get this and that done. 'Want' second chances at growing my ass up 'cause I fucked up the first go 'round."
Rob sighed and held his eyeballs in with the heels of his hands.
"'Want' to make a pass at this hard-ass bitch, but don't know the first way to go about it," the midget continued. "'Want' to fix things up with a crazy-ass monster for a boss because you 'want' a dad and a dog in one fucked-up package." Then he let his voice drop, his chin drop, and in his gravelly voice the midget rumbled, "Lord help me, the day I created mother-fucking squid..."
"Rob's crush is so completely done with, little man," Molly snipped, crossing her arms.
"Are you fucking finished? Can we get on with what I came here for?"
"Ms. Reynold? This boy is never done with a crush. They just stack up like cordwood in the cavernous reaches of his thick skull."
"Ah, Jesus Harold Christ from Hoboken! Why do you have to whipsaw around like this?"
Molly ignored Rob and stepped forward into the clearing. She wrinkled her nose and smiled, "Really?"
Little Brother smirked. "Sister, if I had time, I could show you a whole section of my garden dedicated to Rob's not-quite-abandoned objet's de lust." The man stuffed a few of his old books, and a few more skin mags into a leather satchel and hefted it up onto his shoulder.
"Garden?" She cocked her head quizzically.
Little Brother moved past them. "C'mon. we've gotta go that way anyway." The little man trundled up a hill and then down, and Molly and Rob followed to the very back fence of the lot where, beneath leafless trees they came to a formal path that lead through a gate.
The gate was open. On each post of the gate was a wooden sculpture of a cat.
"Oh, those cats are lovely," Molly sighed, forgetting for a moment that she was a hard-assed woman committed to maintaining control of a situation. She leaned closer to one of the carvings and saw that beneath the front paw of each cat there was a squirming toad also carved into the wood.
The little man turned sideways and slipped between Rob and Molly, through the gate, across a stout stone bridge and down a steep hill. As they followed behind, Rob felt a warm breeze and smelled spring lilacs.
At the top of the next hill, where the path split left and right, the little man stopped and turned to face them. They had each come most of the way up the hill, but stopped because they were at the man's eye level.
"You lost a key?" The little man asked Rob. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his Carhart and rocked back and forth on his heels.
"You probably know the run of it, homes. I don't see why you gotta ask."
The little man turned to Molly, "You guarding him, right?"
"Well... I'm keeping him on his task, if that answers the question."
"You taking responsibility for his ass?"
"I don't need..." Rob paused on the word. He didn't know how the hell his sentence was gonna turn on him, so he shut up and looked at Molly. She looked back at him, and though she was older and he was older, though they had both become different people, he still felt her presence, smelled her in the air, gave a damn what his hair looked like when she looked him over. And she could see that in his eyes, and though she was drawn and tired, he could see her face soften, and he could see a flush pink her cheeks.
"I'm here to keep him safe," she said, keeping Rob's eyes still with her own.
They both turned back to the little man on the top of the hill. The grass was green and the breeze was warm. The light in the garden was diffuse, cozy.
"You lost a key?" The man said again.
Rob beat his fists on his thighs, "Aw, c'mon on, man!"
The man frowned and Rob looked to Molly, the back to the man. He sighed.
"Yeah. I lost a key."
Little brother nodded. "Alright. People do that shit a lot."
"Great. Thanks a lot."
"Do you need my help?" The little man ignored him.
"Yes I need your fucking..." Rob took a deep breath. "Yes, please."
The man smiled. "That's good, Miller. That shit is good. But," he wagged a finger, "you gotta ask."
"I..." Rob wanted to tear his clothes off, cover himself in napalm, and set himself on fire. He turned to Molly and pleaded with his eyes.
"It's okay, Rob," she soothed. "I think I get what is going on here. Do you know this guy's name?"
Rob squinted at her.
"Not to introduce us!" She laughed. "I mean, I think in order to ask someone something nice, you should use their name."
Rob wanted to call him 'Mother-fucking midget what fucks with me all the goddamn time' but he figured that wouldn't fly. He bit his lip. He turned to the little brother. He knelt on his knees.
"Nice touch, Miller."
"Ah, hell, you fucking..." But Molly snapped her fingers and gave him her best angry mom look. Rob sighed. "Okay." Rob was on his knees. "Black Pete. I need to find this key. Could you, like, help me find... you know, this key. That I lost. That I need help finding. Like, please?"
Pete held his chin in his right hand, resting his elbow on his other arm that was crossed across his belly. He closed and eye and thought about it, his little face twisting in though.
Then he smiled. "Yeah, sure."
He shrugged and turned down the right path, which lead through a field. The prairie grass was tall and green, and grasshoppers scattered from the path as they followed Pete far out under the ascending gray sky.
At an oak tree, on a low hill, Pete paused and leaned over. He came up with a pair of panties. He stretched the elastic and flipped them Rob's way. Rob ducked and they flew past him out into the grass.
Pete looked out past the oak to the horizon where Rob could see a tiny silo just past a low line of trees. The little man reached out to the silo and took hold of it between his stubby index finger and thumb and, like it was a knob, he gripped it tight. Once he had a good grip on the distant silo, he tugged it back and forth, and it acted like a tiny handle on a tiny wheel, and when he pulled it one way, the sky overhead spun lighter and lighter, the hazy mass of the sun moving zenithward. But when he pulled it the other way, the spinning sky reversed and the sun shot backward toward the morning twilight.
Rob grew nauseated as Pete rolled the sky back and forth absently. Finally the little man cranked the handle of the wheel and the sky flipped from light to dark, then from dark to black.
The sky was deep and ebon. Pete was an absence inside of the absence.
The little man sighed, and Rob felt the dish of the plain spin again, and stars blinked open by the tense, by the hundreds. And a full moon ascended. And birds flocked through the bright night.
Molly fell to the ground in awe. Rob just felt woozy.
Pete wasn't a man anymore. He was an absence. A shadow shaped like a goat-legged satyr. He leaned against the silhouette of an oak tree, the shadows of grass rustling in the starry night.
A fire sprung up in the clearing beneath the tree, and it was a tree again. And Pete was a little man smoking a pipe. And the grass took on form.
Rob looked to where the midget pointed, and saw a tiny steel spider and a tiny spider made of chicken skin. They walked cautiously toward each other, like they were courting, and then the steel spider juked right, bounded left and feel on the flesh spider, pining it to the ground and injecting its venom.
"Know why you can't keep a herd of spiders and milk 'em, Miller?"
Rob looked at him blankly, "Because they're fucking spiders and not cows?" he ventured.
The midget sighed, shook his head and smiled, "You know what I always liked about you, Beans? You natural born dumb — not always trippin' yo ass up thinkin' you know what's goin on."
Rob took the compliment at face value and nodded.
"Spiders is cannibals: You put 'em together, one gotta eat the other. Nature's way. No one can squirm away from their nature. Nothin' can. Brick always gotta fall, and the bird fly. You know what I'm sayin'" the midget looked at him expectantly. Rob felt he was doing OK with honesty, and so he continnued.
"I don't have a fuckin' clue what you're saying, Mr. Myxlplyx."
"Means you gotta drop a tab and go to Hades, 'causin' gettin' lit is what Bean Kings do."
Rob slumped. "I didn't think I'd be seein' you again," he sighed. "I fuckin' hate you, man."
"I hate you two, chief. It's why we gotta keep runnin' into each other." He held out his hand. Upturned in his palm were a pair of old Plasticman tabs that Rob remembered from the early nineties.
The garden didn't make much sense to Rob, but he figured it was a place for lost shit. Good reason to come looking for Tom, for the key, here. What sent Rob in this direction in the first place. But as he looked down into Pete's leathery palm at thirty bucks worth of acid he'd freaked over losing back in ninth great, he felt finally the horrible weight of a place like this for a man like him.
He thought for a moment of the enormity of loss. He'd basically lost the first twenty four years of his life. He looked at Molly and knew that he had lost her long before he had even found her.
He wondered if the garden were even really just inside of the boundaries set by that gate. He wondered if he hadn't been living in this garden his entire life, if the Detroit weren't the garden, if the world weren't teetering right on the edge of this place.
He snatched up the two tabs and dropped them both, relieved at the prospect of going to Hell and taking a vacation from the now undeniably clear nightmare of his life.
He'd forgotten, for a while over the past year, why he had bothered taking drugs. But the sober depth of the moment had reminded him.
He looked to Molly for comfort, but she just frowned. "Jeez, Rob. I think there was supposed to be one for each of us."Before the acid could hit, (and he remembered that it was supposed to have been really really good acid), Rob almost cursed. He resisted not out of deference to Molly, but out of a sense of the sheer futility of the gesture.
Jarwaun saw dark squat shapes move past the van. He heard, down the road, a door slam shut. A thick voice shouted in some barking tongue. The van was warm and close around him, but still he felt exposed. Jarwaun slid forward and balled himself behind the driver's seat as monkey laughter exploded around him.
Outside, near the dock, Ivan and Mohammed turned just in time to see four chimps coming, charging at them, teeth bared and laughing. The chimps leapt high in the air and a pair of them each landed on Ivan, their foul monkey teeth biting into his shoulder, and into the soft flesh just above his belt. Another chimp tackled Mohammed about the knees while the fourth leapt onto his face and began choking him.
A fifth chimp strode forward, standing upright as any man. He had a cigar clenched in his rubbery lips and a stained beret perched on his monkey head. "Très bien," said Claude. He stood between Ivan and Mohammed, bent over and peered at them with his black doll's eyes. Claude took his cigar and pushed the bright cherry tip of it into Mohammed's soft cheek. The boy screamed and all the chimps laughed.
Claude turned to Ivan and drew a straight razor from beneath his beret. He grinned open mouthed with black stubby teeth and breath that stank of rot. "Répugnant Russe," spat Claude. He drew the razor open and the gleam of the blade danced in his eyes. He swiftly made a cut along Ivan's arm, and cackled. Then he placed the razor at Ivan's throat.
Donny ran up, swinging a twisted piece of what had been the Squid's chromed carapace. He struck Claude hard on the shoulder, sending the chimp sprawling in a heap down the slight hill. The other four chimps looked back and forth amongst each other and at their captured prey and did nothing. One chimp bit into the meat of Ivan's side again and chewed loudly. Ivan pummeled the chimp's back and shoulders, but it was like punching an upholstered brick wall. He screamed and screamed until he was breathless, then gasped and screamed again.
Donny rushed forward again, swinging the twisted plate like a mace and roaring as best he could. He swung in a fully-committed arc towards the chewing chimp, but as his arm came around for contact, Claude was there with his razor. Claude brought the razor up and into the flesh of Donny's wrist, and Donny's momentum carried his arm through it, through the blade.
The machine parts crashed into the chimp, and Donny's hand fell dangled limply, held in place only by a single scored tendon. Donny cried out and gripped the stump of his right hand, blood gushing forth and steaming in the chill night air.
Claude laughed wildly and drew the razor high for another swipe. Joy was smeared across his features. His arm came down in a blur, aiming for Donny's neck. A crack shook the night and Claude flipped backwards and lay still and silent and bleeding.
Jarwaun stood, his uncle's revolver in his hand, tears streaming down his face. He decided that this was no different than SWAT FORCE at the movie theater, just that the revolver was heavier than the pink plastic gun on its tether. Jarwaun had his initials in SWAT FORCE, at third place.
The gun cracked again, and again, and again, and again. One injured chimp clumped into the night, and the rest never moved again. Then there was silence, save for Ivan's and Mohammed's groans, Donny's weeping, and the high whine of a dremmel being wielded by the Squid down on the dock.
There was a man in a black sweater leaning against a pier piling. The air by the river was dense with mist, but the mist faded just up the hill at Rob's feet.
Rob stared at the man blankly.
"Just the same look Heracles gave me."
"I said, that's the same stupid look Heracles gave me. 'Cept o' course he had that fucking bitch of a dog on his leash, and a man what had no ass over one shoulder."
"I need to find Tom Olafsdottir."
"Hey, look, I'm just making conversation. I'm not looking to get involved." The man held up his hands, empty palms, showing he wasn't holding anything, least of all any responsibility.
Rob sighed. He turned to walk up the hill away from the river and the asshole in the black sweater, but as he turned he almost slipped and his ankle almost twisted. He looked down to get a better footing.
"Ah! Shit!" Rob wanted to run, wanted to leap, wanted somehow to hover six inches off the ground. Instead he froze. The entire hillside was people, just sort of a tangle limbs and torsos and heads. He stood on the expressionless face of an old man, and on a woman's boob. Neither really made any sound, but he could tell they were alive because their eyes flitted about absently, never resting on anything in particular.
"Gah!" Rob lifted his foot off of the ladies boob, but then had to put it down when he felt the cartilage of the man's nose shift under his weight. Remarkably, neither person seemed uncomfortable necessarily, and neither set of bones seemed to break under his weight. Finally he put both feet down again. Carefully he pressed his toe on the man's face, but nothing happened.
The man did look at him, though.
Rob moved his foot from the man's face to the hip of and adjacent body. A body whose head and feet were lost beneath the tangle of flesh.
"DO. YOU. KNOW. TOM. OLAFSDOTTIR?" Rob asked the man.
"I'm not deaf," the man said blankly.
Rob pursed his lips, snorted, and nodded. "Right."
"Who are you?" the man asked.
"I am Robert Miller. I am alive." Rob held his hand over his chest as though he were playing Hernando Cortes in a documentary for Elementary school children.
The man seemed unimpressed. "Who am I?" He asked.
"You are dead." Rob replied, still holding his hand over his chest. "I do not know who you are."
The man seemed to grow bored, his eyes drifting away. "I already did," he murmured, and then Rob could see that he was gone.
Rob shrugged and trudged up the hill, finding best purchase in the crooks of arms. He tried to avoid breasts and testicles, at first out of deference to the dead, but finally because they were kind of slippery. Hips were his best bet, and after a few minutes he got pretty good and hopping from hip to hip. When the hill grew a bit steep, he fell back on the few months he had been really into rock climbing, searching the slope for good hips to grab, good hips to toe off of.
Finally he crested the hill and was on a field of bodies that stretched for miles into the distance. Far to the west there was a black wall, and two gates. A few hundred yards away, though, there was a clearing where a silver-leafed ash leaned over a deep pool fed by a bubbling artesian spring.
Rob hopped from hip to hip until he came to the pool. He was relieved to step down from the bodies to the green grass around the pool. It was the only pleasant spot he could see anywhere in the vast expanse.
In the pool there swam a salmon deep down.
In the reeds on the far side, where the water crested the banks and made a low wetland, there stood a white crane.
On a low branch above the pool, amongst the silvery leaves, there was a small black bird.
Near him, mostly disentangled from the mass, there was a young woman, her eyes flitting around the sky.
Rob carefully pulled her from the mass and on a whim ste her up against the trunk of the tree.
"Why don't you leave her alone?"
Rob spun around, freaked.
None of the bodies had moved, none of the eyes were focused on him. They all just stared out at the millions of little things just beyond their grasp.
Worried, he knelt by the woman. He took off his sweatshirt and helped her pull it over her head. She was heavy. She didn't resist. Rob was creeped out, but he felt like this was important.
"Leave her alone. You don't know what's best for her."
Rob sighed and fell back on his butt in the grass.
"Are you talking?" Rob asked.
The woman focused on him. "Who are you?" she asked.
Rob grimaced. He wasn't sure what to do. "I am Robert Miller. I am alive." Rob held his hand over his chest. Then he sighed and let his hand fall to his side.
"Who am I?" she asked.
Rob thought a gesture might be better than an answer, so he cupped up some of the water and held his hands to her mouth. She drank instinctively, grabbing hold of his arms, pulling him close. She smelled freshly clean, like she had just stepped out of a marble pool.
She let his hands drop, sighed, licked at her lips, wiped her face. She was the first person he had seen who had closed their eyes. She looked relieved. Her face took on a pale pink, and she almost smiled, her eyes closed.
She looked at Rob. She reached out with a confused look and touched his face.. her hands were dry and warm and soft against his cheek. Then she looked past his shoulder and her eyes grew wide. She craned her head up. She stood. She looked down and saw she wore nothing but a ratty old sweatshirt. She covered her pubic hair with one hand and tried to crouch, tried to pull inside of the sweatshirt like a turtle into a shell.
Rob just stared.
Her eyes grew wider and wider as she looked around at the few square feet of grass, and island amidst this sea of flesh. Her breathing grew short and ragged. She shifted her weight from foot to foot.
A black bird flapped down from the tree and landed between the standing woman and the seated Rob. It looked up and caught Rob's eyes.
"Miller. I told you to leave shit well enough alone.
The woman held her mouth closed with both hands, but muffled screams bubbled out every few seconds. She ran out onto the field of bodies, but watched in horror as her feet pounded the flesh, sending her in a decaying arc out from the clearing and back again. But the bird turned to her as she approached.
"Cool it, lady!" the bird squawked, sending her back out on another arc across the bodies, hopping from belly to face to crotch, her hands falling from her mouth, screams erupting erratically, her arc returning to the clearing.
The bird flapped up into the air, and like she was in a movie, she shrieked at the sight and started to back pedal, falling down back onto her hands, crab walking backward across bodies, one hand slide down between an old man's legs, getting caught God only knew where, she looking down where her elbow stopped, the screams turning to whimpers and cries.
"Run to the river, damn you!" the bird screamed. "To the river you stupid woman!"
And without any consideration, without even thinking which way to turn, the woman yanked her arm free with such force that the man was pulled up and rolled over onto his face. She raced east to the hill, screaming the whole way. Down she went and Rob watched as she raced past the tiny form of the asshole in the black sweater, out the dock, stepping right out over the water like a girl leaping into a lake on a hot day. As she kicked her legs through the air, she yanked on his sweatshirt, pulling it off over his head, letting it falling into the river out beyond her.
Moments later, she crawled from the water, up the hill, to the edge of the mass of bodies. She flopped down and was immobile. She was naked again.
He watched his sweatshirt float down the river and away into the mist.
The bird fluttered back up to a branch.
"You were due for a new one anyway, Miller."
"How the hell do you know who I am?" Rob asked.
The bird flapped down to a reed, clutched the stalk sideways, and dipped his beak in the water.
"Mnemosyne," the bird said, coming back up. "Used to be a river, but demand has dried up and so it has too. No body wants to remember shit. That's how you get here, Miller. I drink, I see it all, I hang out in the tree, chill with the crane and the old king salmon. I see what I need to see, keep an eye on the dead. You hooking up with your old boss the squid because you figure sobriety is getting old, maybe you check up with some old friends. Your key is the way you make all that work. Drop some acid to get the key, key gets you squid, squid gets you back to before you were sober, maybe it can get you back to before you realized your life was all fucked up."
Rob wasn't gonna argue anymore, least of all with himself. Bird seemed to know what he was talking about, so he figured he'd listen for once, maybe even agree. "Yes," he said.
"That what you want? You want the squid back? You want the old life back? Chilling with homies, smoking down, maybe move back in with Suveer? Pretend everything cool?"
Rob teared up, choked up, sat down in the grass and looked out over all of the people laying on one another, not moving, not focusing.
Nobody is happy, he figured. No body is actually happy.
But these folk... well, at least they look content.
"You want the key, Miller?" The bird asked.
"Down by the river," the bird waved a wing, "you'll find your man. He's about ten feet down from where you first appeared. He just come back here. He been doing that a long time, never get passed the edge of old Lethe. He just goes and comes back, goes and comes back. Can't quit. It's funny. This is a place for quitting, but I ain't never seen someone so committed to quitting as that guy. He leaves just so he can quit again. Amazing shade, that Tom. Amazing shade."
Rob made his way back across the field of the dead. He trudged across faces and stomachs and scrotums and boobs and knees and ankles and shins.
At the river's edge he saw the woman staring into the grim sky of Hell. Her eyes were still red from crying, but her face was blissfully blank. She was in that perfect state of an infant that will never learn, never remember, never know the pain of life.
Ten feet down, Rob found Tom with that same perfect expression.
Rob knelt and felt across Tom's stomach, the skin familiar, almost comforting. He found where the pocket would have been, the pocket of the coat Sang had made of Tom's skin. Under the skin on Tom's side there was a hard metal cyst. Rob dug into Tom's flesh with his fingernails. He cringed, but Tom made no expression, no acknowledgement.
Blood poured from the wound finally, and Rob scraped the skin and fat away.
Tom finally looked into Rob's eyes. Rob's heart stopped.
"Who am I?" Tom asked. Rob stared into those blank eyes.
They weren't sad. They weren't in pain. But they weren't blissful or innocent either. They were just numb. Numb like a cow or a retard. Numb like some passive psycho, like a monster, like a dead man in a dead world. Dead and cold and beyond feeling anything.
Rob pulled the bloody key from the dead man's side. He held the key up to show Tom.
"You're the key to my story. Bird thinks he knows shit about shit, but he don't. River make you think you're stupid, spring water make you think your smart. But the first lesson about acid is that it's just a key to a pair of fucking doors. Which one you open, that shit is entirely up to you."
Tom, of course, didn't even know how to care. He stared at Rob, at the key.
"Who are you?" Tom asked.
Rob held the key to his chest. He stood and looked down at Tom.
"I am Robert Miller. I am alive."
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson