Ever since middle school, I had always suspected Charlie Scarberry was a colossal squid in disguise. He was big for a twelve-year-old; the kind of kid who would eat anything, including the vulcanized rubber eggs and cardboard pizza crust from the cafeteria. He would always go crazy on fish stick day, but that in its self is not enough to suspect someone of such a ridiculous thing.
No, it began one day when I was entering the restroom as Charlie was leaving. I greeted him as we passed, but he turned his large, bulbous eyes to the floor with guilt and waddled briskly down the hall. I didn’t think much of it until a moment later when I entered the bathroom and found it freshly painted wall to wall with a black, sticky, foul-smelling substance. The mess radiated out from the corner stall as if someone had set off some kind of fishy tar bomb. It smelled so bad I threw up in the trashcan and ran to the school nurse to call home sick.
The kids always suspected it was I who had so befouled the bathroom that day, and I never heard the end of it.
After that, a colossal squid in disguise was the only conclusion that made sense. There’s no way any human body could produce that much nasty, viscous waste. I followed him with a suspicious eye, and though I tried to remain as unbiased and objective as possible, everything just came together. The way his bulbous, golf ball eyes were set nearly on opposite sides his head, the bizarre beak-like curvature of his nose and under bite, the blotchy redness of his skin and the way it constantly gleamed of briny sweat, the weird fishy smell that both followed and preceded his presence, and I could swear I could hear a squishing sound whenever he sat down.
I stayed close, abandoning my AD&D group to join the school band and the football team just to get into his circle of friends. He was a monster on the yards. He couldn’t run for shit, but nobody could knock him down, and he never dropped the ball. It would stay in his possession through the most skull mangling blows with only a single finger in contact. I swear I saw his arms extend to make a catch on more than one occasion. After a game, he always lingered for nearly an hour in the locker room showers, and it always reeked of fish when he was done. No one but I knew his true nature, and even I admit that he could’ve been the greatest professional player in history if circumstances hadn’t changed.
We had all just graduated high school when it happened. Charlie had won a scholarship to USA and I was going to follow him against my father’s wishes. If my father had had his way, I would’ve gone to MIT. My grades were good enough, but I had to become a Jaguar with Charlie. My entire life had become a sad masquerade of lies and sneaking out late to follow him, trying to find some piece of solid evidence that he was a giant squid. I could never get past the dogs that guarded his trailer park’s meth industry. They always surrounded his darkened trailer, drooling. I was relentless in my attempts, though, and I grew strong and agile in both mind and body. My perceptions were constantly heightened. Madness and paranoia were my only companions. I could tell no one of my suspicions; I had not gathered enough evidence to convince even myself that I was not insane. But I did not let madness stop me; I knew that one day he would slip up and I would be vindicated. I became Charlie’s best friend. He told me all his secrets, or what he said were all his secrets, but he would never invite me to his place, nor would he accept an invitation to mine.
Before we left for Alabama, though, Charlie and I went on a road trip with a couple other members of the football team: Chris Fisher, a line backer, and the quarterback, Josh White. Josh, Chris, and I had all brought our girlfriends: Kristi Miller, Sarah Acton, and Anna Lane, respectively. Charlie never had a girlfriend and was the constant source of jokes in that regard. All of Freshman year was a laugh riot from the sole incident of his spectacular failure in asking out Danielle Wheaton. The sheer scandal of Junior year saw poor Nancy Stoker totally ostracized when she supposedly kissed him after prom. The truth was he had tried to kiss her but she slapped him and splashed the slimy membranous liquid that constantly wets his skin onto her face. I saw this through an air vent, and with that I will never speak of Junior prom again.
Anyway, Chris, Kristi, Josh, Sarah, Anna, Charlie, and myself were all packed into a seat-less blue Ford Econoline. Nearly seat-less, anyway; there was of course the driver and passenger seats, but the only other place to sit was a captain’s chair stolen from a junkyard and bolted through the thin metal floor to a piece of plywood underneath place in such a manner that it in no way interacted with the frame of the vehicle. The rest of us sat on the unfortunately shag carpeted floor. Beyond the inch deep wilderness rug and a cooler there were no other amenities or decorations. Like so many things in life, the fantasy of an airbrushed awesome party van was far removed from the affordable reality. It was hot, dank, and smelled of gasoline and fish, but we loved the thing. We called it the Thundertank.
Being the vehicle’s owner, Chris was driving, often drunk. We left Ohio in July and headed south to Tampa. Charlie seemed quite eager to get there. He told us his parents (whom none of us, including myself, had ever seen) took him there every year and he knew all the best spots to hang out and go swimming. The trip was slow, though. The Thundertank was a beast on gas and couldn’t push more than 50 on the highway. No one could operate the temperamental vehicle other than Chris, who was a bit of a whiner when it came to a lack of food or drink or restroom breaks. So our road trip became more of a tour of the Walmarts of Appalachia. Charlie was noticeably agitated.
We stopped in Lenoir City, Tennessee on the third day and parked in the Walmart parking lot to spend the night. Josh, Chris, Sarah, and Kristie all packed together in shared sleeping bags up near the cargo door, while Anna and I shared a blanket in back beside Charlie. We had all been drinking that night and were pretty well passed out, except me. I never slept anymore, especially there, then, in the back of that van, with Charlie, whose nocturnal activities had thus far been elusive to me. The previous two nights had been a bust; we’d stayed in motels in separate rooms and I had obligations to keep up appearances with Anna. In another life, perhaps I could’ve truly cared for her, but Charlie. Charlie. Charlie was my sole obsession, and I weep today for my false passion with Anna.
That night, though, we had all decided to camp out in the van and save our dwindling money supply until we reached Florida. Charlie had insisted we find a motel, even though he’d been camping out in the van the whole time anyway. With that I won the debate, and at last my opportunity had arrived.
As the others slept, I lay still with my eyes closed but my ears absorbing every sound. Charlie was restless, I could hear the squishing sound he made as he turned this way and that. He stopped for a moment and lay silent, do doubt checking to see if we were all still asleep. I barely breathed. I heard him squish quietly to his feet and unlatch the back door. He stepped outside and carefully pushed it shut.
He would not escape that easily. I skipped a beat, opened an eye, then quickly, silently, and with precise movements slipped away from Anna’s embrace, landed a single toe between Josh and Chris, and leapt into the driver’s seat. Checking the mirrors, I could see Charlie walking to the edge of the parking lot in nothing but his forest green underwear leaving wet footprints behind. His head seemed to swell and he stopped for a moment to hold it, as if trying to reposition a balanced bowling ball. I rolled down the window and jumped out, landing noiselessly. I ran diagonally to the semi truck parked nearby and made my way around it unnoticed. I waited and watched as he headed towards the empty highway.
I had to follow him, but there was no more cover and the lights of the parking lot eliminated all shadows. I stepped out from behind the truck. I had to walk silently behind him and make sure I could see him when he crossed the darkness of the highway into the field and then the woods beyond. He stopped for a moment again to hold back the swelling of his head, but I made one step forward. He turned and saw me! He let out a horrible shrieking sound and blasted the parking lot with a jet of black ink tearing right out of his devastated underwear. He ran and I followed, taking the long way around the foul oil slick.
He was demonstrating speed I had never before seen in him. He ran as if he had six legs. His stride became longer, and longer, and impossibly longer. He practically leaped across the highway in two or three steps and into the field on the other side. I pushed myself hard to keep up. As I crossed into the field, he had already reached the woods. I could hear the tearing of branches and the cracking of trees. I turned south hoping to cut him off, knowing his only possible destination would be the Tennessee River.
I kept a grueling pace, vaulting over logs and tearing through brambles. I reached the small creek than ran through those woods, and it was evident that he had beaten me to this path. He must’ve returned to his full size by then. Sticks and branches twelve feet above me were snapped and broken. A tire swing floated mournfully beside its broken leafy branch. The muddy banks of the creek were lacerated on both sides as if whipped by thirty-foot anacondas. I kept to the sides as much as I could, crossing the water only when I had to. It was at the most violent five miles I’ve ever run.
I eventually emerged across the street from a shopping center, where a light night driver sat waiting for a red light. In front of his car was a trail of sloppy wet tentacle prints still slick with mud and ink. I ran across the street and crossed his path just as the light had turned green and he started to move. He stopped again suddenly and honked and yelled, but I did not stop or turn back. I ran on towards the river.
But Charlie was gone. The night was too dark, the clouds obscured the moon, and the still, black water revealed nothing in the reflections of distant streetlights. I stopped and waited there at the banks of the Tennessee River for hours, watching, listening, waiting for something, anything; some sign that Charlie was out there. I jumped at the slightest ripple, but there was nothing.
Daylight came all too soon. The others found me standing by the river. They were worried and, asked me where Charlie was. How could I tell them? Would they have believed me? With Charlie gone, I’d lost six years of my life, my sanity, and my soul. What could I say?
“The damn squid got away.”