Zip’s parents hated each other, but, for religious reasons, they refused to get a divorce. They also refused to use birth control. It wasn’t a great combination. Zip was their fifth child, and by that point they’d quit even trying to come up with names, which is how he wound up Zachary Taylor Chase.
“The most fucked up thing in my childhood was the way we went through pets,” Zip told me once at Thai Restaurant, our favorite Thai restaurant. Palm-sized silver fish swam fin-to-fin in an endless slow arc around an aquarium beside us.
“My dad spent most of his time at work,” said Zip. “There, or the bar, or his girlfriend’s place. Avoided our house like it was radioactive.”
I’d skipped breakfast that morning, and my stomach was beginning to turn on itself.
“He sounds like a piece of shit,” I said.
“That’s what he was afraid we’d think,” said Zip, “so he kept bringing home puppies. For the optics.”
I sipped my water.
“My mom hated that,” said Zip. “She was already raising six kids by herself, and she didn’t like animals to begin with. Plus these dogs were a representation of my dad. Three of them ran away, two got hit by cars, and another one died in our backyard because she refused to take him to the vet.”
“He could at least have gotten you fish, or something.”
“Oh, he did. We had fish for a while. Keeping them alive is impossible, though.”
“Can’t be that hard.”
“Don’t feed a fish for a couple of days and it’ll die. But if you feed it too much, that’ll kill it too.”
“Like the pandas at the zoo. The ones they can’t convince to mate. Isn’t evolution supposed to weed that out?”
“I don’t think fish even want to be alive,” said Zip. “If the water’s too cold, too hot, too blue, too wet—any excuse they find, they’ll pounce on it and die, and then when you find them floating at the top of the tank they give you that look, like it’s your fault—”
He puffed his cheeks, widened his eyes, and furrowed his eyebrows.
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s a reproachful fish, right there.”
Zip bought a pug puppy when his first paycheck came through. His apartment didn’t even have furniture. He was sleeping on a pile of blankets. Getting a dog was priority number one.
He named the puppy Chomper. Chomper was a big fan of me, so much so that he lost control of his bladder every time I visited. At first Zip found this hilarious, but by the sixth or seventh time he was exasperated.
“Can we stop coming to my place?” he said, grabbing paper towels off the fridge.
“Your TV’s bigger,” I said. Chomper was running figure eights through my legs, so I leaned down to scratch him behind the ears.
“You’re a good boy,” I said. His little pink tongue drooped happily out of his mouth.
“Don’t say that,” said Zip, mopping. “Don’t tell him that.”
Even Li liked Chomper, and she hated dogs.
Whenever Zip went on an expedition, he left Chomper with his sister. The worst part of watching him vanish into the pit was knowing that he’d never retrieve his dog.
The darkness yawned.
“We’re going after him,” I said.
“No shit,” said Li.
A few months earlier I’d run into Sergeant Rivers at a bar near RangerCorp headquarters. After a few drinks I asked if he thought he’d made the right decision by trying to save his partner. He tightened his lips and rubbed the rim of his empty eye socket.
“The smart thing to do,” he said, “is not always the right thing to do.”
Side by side, Li and I rappelled into the abyss.