MALIBU MOLLUSK REPELLED
June 3, 2019
Air Force fighter jets brought down a 1,200-ton tentacled creature on Monday after it penetrated the Coast Guard perimeter west of Los Angeles. 50 were killed and at least 300 injured in the rampage, the worst since 2004. In Washington, questions have once again been raised as to the efficacy of current Coast Guard countermeasures.
“Bigger guns would certainly go a long way,” Coast Guard chief Donald McCarthy told the Post.
A few years later, Zip and I drove down to Portland to meet Li’s family. We took Zip’s pride and joy, a decades-old, beat-up red Corvette. The roof was cracked, so it leaked when it rained, which in Seattle was a fairly significant issue, and the seat belts didn’t work—they just hung across your chest like lasagna noodles—but Zip’s love for the car was boundless and all-forgiving.
“I don’t understand your refusal to buy a new car,” I said, gripping the edge of my seat as the scarlet death trap rattled over a pothole. “What else are you doing with those paychecks?”
“Saving,” said Zip. “I’m not—”
“—a big spender, yeah.”
I fingered my two thousand-dollar watch. In two years as a ranger I’d acquired a spacious apartment and an orange muscle car, taken trips to Europe and Asia, and outfitted myself with a wardrobe that was, if not fashionable, then at least expensive. Meanwhile my bank account hovered around empty, and my credit card bills were multiplying.
Zip patted the dashboard. “I’m going to drive this thing until the wheels fall off, and then I’m going to buy new wheels.”
I’d taken a rough fall at the bouldering gym the day before, and my ankle was killing me. Climbing with Zip was humbling. Not as bad as when we’d first started, when I’d lacked the technique to tackle anything higher than a V3, but still pretty bad. Zip annihilated routes with holds the depth of credit cards, moving like a praying mantis, relentless and self-assured. Even after all the practice, I still found myself trembling through routes a person with half my strength and a bit more technique could have managed with ease.
You could tell Zip was good by the way veteran climbers watched him. Respect and jealousy battled it out on their leathery faces. Sometimes people clapped.
The Li family lived in a brick mansion up on a hill. Li’s silver convertible was in the driveway. When we rang the doorbell I considered running. What if they laid out a bunch of little forks and spoons, and I didn’t know which to use for what?
Zip was as calm as ever, though his right hand curled and uncurled, squeezing an imaginary tennis ball. His family had been just as dysfunctional as mine. Neither of us would ever have invited our friends over.
I fidgeted with my tie. Today was the first time I’d seen Zip in a button-up. It was a size too small. I hadn’t noticed until it was far too late.
The door opened.
We were not devoured.
It was pretty awkward, though. I went for the handshake while Mr. Li offered a hug; I switched mid-flight to go for the hug and ate a massive shoulder as he tried to match a shake no longer being offered… Zip barged through the door after me, discovered that there wasn’t enough room in the foyer for all five of us, and tried to step back outside just as Mrs. Li offered her own hug. Zip whipped back around to return the hug, which she’d already abandoned, then tried to pretend that he hadn’t seen it, fake-stumbling to explain all the jerky movements, except that he ended up actual-stumbling and knocked an expensive-looking urn off its table. Li caught it, of course.
“So,” said Mr. Li, beaming at his daughter over the dinner table, “You've been on how many expeditions together, now, the three of you? Nine?”
“Thought it was ten,” said Zip.
I lifted mashed potatoes to my mouth. Noticing Mr. Li looking my way, I nodded, hastening to swallow.
“We’re shooting for the record,” I said.
“Most expeditions by the same trio,” said Li. “Record is twenty-six.”
“Sixteen more expeditions?” exclaimed Mrs. Li.
“Jeez, Mom, have a little faith.”
Mrs. Li sawed her steak vigorously. I gathered there was something of an ideological divide in the Li household when it came to Li’s career choice.
“You don’t have to worry, Mrs. Li,” said Zip, puffing out his chest as his shirt buttons held on for dear life. “She’s in strong, capable, dare I say dashing hands.”
“Ha,” barked Li. “When that velociraptor went for your esophagus, who, exactly, evaporated its face?”
“What about when you were about to step on that boomslug?” said Zip. “Who was it, again, who said ‘Li, please take care not to step on that boomslug, lest you perish in an immolation of your own creation?’”
“I wasn’t about to step on anything,” said Li. “I was well aware of the slug, and as I recall, your oafish shout in that instance caused quite the—”
“Li thinks she’s our daddy.”
“You’re damn right I’m your daddy.”
“Boomslug?” said Mrs. Li weakly.
Zip crunched into a Brussels sprout. “Explosive invertebrate, bright orange, very bad to step on, but luckily pretty hard to miss, unless you’re—”
“—which is why I didn’t miss it, dumbass, I—”
“I saved Li from a crab once,” I said.
“Zip would have fallen in those beetleflowers if I hadn’t—”
“Anyway I’m like eighty-five percent sure I had the velociraptor situation under control.”
“That is such a load of—”
Mr. Li cleared his throat. Silence materialized.
“As long as we’re trading stories,” he said, “has she told you the one about the lions?”
“It’s a great story.”
“It really isn’t.”
“Go on,” said Zip.
Li glowered at him. Zip stuck out his tongue.
“It happened on a trip to the zoo,” said Mr. Li, “when Lindsey was seven years old.”
Mrs. Li laid a hand on his arm. “This still gives me nightmares.”
“We stopped to consult a map, and when we looked up, she was gone.”
“We searched the area—no luck. It was summer, and the crowds were positively teeming. Eventually we decided to find an information booth, a security guard, somebody who could help. Except there were no employees in sight. One finally went tearing by, holding his hat to his head. I grabbed his arm. What was going on?”
“Some kid had gotten into the lion enclosure,” said Mrs. Li.
“We found her cuddling with a lioness,” said Mr. Li. “They hadn’t laid a paw on her.”
“It was all over the news,” said Mrs. Li.
“She was famous.”
“Twelve million views.”
“An appearance on a late-night television program.”
Mrs. Li wiped her lips. “I still think that’s why she became a ranger.”
“Not true,” said Li.
“The things you put me through,” said Mrs. Li, turning to me. “What about your parents? Don’t they worry?”
The last time I’d heard from my dad was the day I left home, when he’d unleashed one last eyeball-bulging rant. Did that count? I looked to Zip for help.
“My parents are too busy working to worry,” he said.
Mrs. Li narrowed her eyes, and Zip looked sheepish for perhaps the first time ever, but then Mr. Li boomed a laugh.
“Understandable,” he said, putting a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Lucy’s a neurosurgeon, so God knows she works hard. Me, on the other hand…”
“You have your gardening,” said Mrs. Li.
Now Mr. Li joined Zip in looking sheepish.
“Have to keep busy somehow,” he said.
This was a man who had battled the forest for nearly a decade. Thirty years older than Zip or me, he maintained comparable muscle mass. It was simply impossible to imagine his hands cupping a plant bulb or trimming a rose bush. Tearing weeds out of the ground, though: that I could imagine him doing. Mercilessly.
“This expedition record,” said Mrs. Li, “who holds it currently?
“Roy LaMonte and the Briggs brothers,” said Li.
“I knew Roy,” said Mr. Li. “Fantastic poker player. Terrific mustache. Shame the way things turned out.”
“Still better than what happened to the Briggs brothers,” said Li. She stabbed with relish at her Brussels sprouts. “Mom, how come you never made these when I was growing up?”
“Your father does all the cooking these days, dear,” said Mrs. Li. “Mind if I ask what happened to the Briggs brothers?”
Mr. Li clicked his tongue. “Not appropriate dinner conversation, I’m afraid. Suffice it to say that the forest got them.”
“Pass the salt, please,” said Li.
“The steak’s more than salty enough as it is,” said Mrs. Li. “You’ll give yourself a heart attack.”
Li’s incisors gleamed. “Least of my worries, Ma.”
Mrs. Li passed the salt.
“Poor Roy,” mused Mr. Li. “After that trip—amazing that he made it out, by the way—he was raving mad. Wouldn’t stop talking about the things he’d supposedly seen.”
“What’d he think he saw?” I asked.
“Fantasies. Towers, pyramids, you get the idea. People, too.”
My fork, laden with another mound of potatoes, froze just short of my mouth.
Mr. Li raised a silver-flecked eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”
The look Li gave me said: Tell me later.
“No,” I said, and cleared my throat.
That night, Zip and I flipped a coin to see who got the guest bed. I lost and headed to the living room to set up on the couch.
I was digging for my toothbrush when Li came down the stairs. She looked amazing. I couldn’t quite figure out why—the pajamas weren’t revealing or form-fitting, so maybe it was the shapelessness itself that made it hot, somehow—but for a couple moments I forgot not only what she’d come down to talk about, but also the English language and my own name besides.
“What was that?” she asked.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
I gave up on the toothbrush and sat back on the couch. “It’s probably nothing.”
Li perched, cross-legged, on an armchair across from me. “Tell me, Tetris.”
I took off my watch and stared at it. The ticks reverberated in my fingertips.
“Before Junior died,” I said, “I thought I saw something. Something like what your dad described, across the chasm.”
Shadows cast Li’s features into stark angles and planes.
“An obelisk,” I said. “Script all over it. Junior saw it too. That’s why he left us behind.”
“And you thought Roy LaMonte—”
“Junior said he saw a person.”
“Like, a human person?”
“That’s all he said. I didn't see anything. Well, I saw something, but I couldn’t tell what it was.”
I strained to picture the scene, the shape vanishing into the forest. Might as well have tried to remember my mother’s face.
Li stared out the window. I looked too. There was nothing to see. I imagined Junior stepping into view, pressing his face against the glass. In my imagination, his eyes were shiny and black, even the parts that should have been white. When he opened his mouth, blood dribbled over his parched bottom lip.
My eyes watered. I peeled my gaze away from the window.
“You sure you saw something man-made?” said Li.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I wonder,” said Li, unfolding her legs.
She stretched, hands linked above her head. At the apex of the stretch, her shirt lifted up just far enough to reveal a strip of midriff. I averted my eyes.
“Enjoy the couch," she said.
"Beats a tree branch.”
I watched her climb the stairs.
When she was gone, I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. Then I returned to the living room and turned off the lights. The whole time, I studiously avoided glancing out any of the windows.
Immediately after falling asleep, I began to dream. I stood by the chasm in the forest where Junior had died. No matter how I stared into the darkness, though, I couldn't make out the obelisk on the other side.
The chasm seemed much deeper and darker than before. I knew that if I stood beside it too much longer, it would drag me in, but my feet stayed rooted to the ground.
At first, the forest was silent, but after a while I began to hear a rustling.
When I turned around, Junior was there, held aloft by the scorpion that had killed him. The stinger poked out through his chest, but his legs were still, not kicking the way I remembered. The scorpion blinked its many eyes, and I got the feeling it wanted to say something, if only its mouthparts were capable of articulating more than a complicated hiss.
“TETRIS,” said Junior, in a voice far too deep, as blood dribbled down his chin.
Reluctantly, I brought my gaze up to his face. His eyes were as black and shiny as the scorpion’s.
“I’m sorry, Junior,” I said.
“Under your skin,” said Junior in that awful, grating voice. His mouth was full of worms. “Your skin, Tetris. You have to know—”
I jolted awake before I could hear any more. Sweat slicked my body from neck to ankles, and my heart thumped violently against my ribs.