The following short story is an original work of fiction by Manuel Gonzales, the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. This unique artistic collaboration between author and architecture studio results in a physical manifestation of the story in Austin’s Waller Creek ~ form following fiction. This light installation is part of an Annual Juried Public Art Exhibition, CreekShow curated by the Waller Creek Conservancy. This is the second collaboration between Manuel and HA Architecture, prior project can be viewed here.
What surprised people most about the kraken — aside, that is, from the fact of the kraken, its sudden appearance in their neighborhood, the fact that it had emerged from their Waller Creek, which fed into a small pond that some people tried to call a lake — was how fast it could move over dry land. That it could move over land at all. What with the tentacles and the gills — if a kraken even had gills — and the myths, so many myths about them coming from the darkest depths of the wildest seas.
Here it was, wrecking havoc through downtown as it made its unsteady way toward the college campus and student duplexes.
The thing was mostly tentacles, hard-muscled and thick, a brackish black that glinted slick under the street lights. The arms swung and twirled and crashed down on cars and fire hydrants and slapped through streetlamps and the upper floors of the tallest buildings in town. A thick muck trailed behind it as it coiled its way through the streets, and in the muck were the broken and smothered bodies of those who hadn’t been able to get out of the way fast enough, the few of them still conscious, still breathing, wondering what the hell was going on, why all this was happening.
But in fact, only Helen knew why it was here, or rather, Helen was the only one who thought she knew.
The kraken was here because of her.
We won’t go so far as to say that Helen summoned the kraken. We won’t take it so far as to say that her heartache and sorrow were so formidable that they manifested as a mythical sea beast that crawled itself out of a creek to terrorize the town that she called home. What we might say is that it’s kind of like how, when you break up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, it seems like every song on the radio is a love song? Or how when you buy a Toyota Tercel, it seems suddenly that every car on the road is also a Toyota Tercel? Except for, instead of a love song or a Toyota Tercel, Helen has a kraken, one she deeply believes is here for her.
She wondered from what black watery deep her broken heart might have summoned a kraken.
There was the lake, she supposed, just outside of town, but the last time she had gone there with her best friend Jeremy, he had told her the lake was a man-made affair and the only creatures in its depths were catfish and some sickly bit of perch that had been dropped in its depths sixty years ago and left to breed.
“Think some of the catfish had sex with the perch?” he asked.
“Gross,” she said. Jeremy had brought her out to the lake so they could make out, maybe even try their hand at sex of some sort, but by the time they got there, they’d each gotten wind of the kind of disaster that would have been. Or else seeing each other in the bright moonlight had cooled their fires. Instead, they sat on the hood of Jeremy’s mom’s car and looked out at the green-black water and talked about the fish for a while. “I bet the catfish ate all that perch,” she said.
“Well, actually, catfish are bottom feeders.”
“You’re a bottom feeder.”
This was just a few weeks after her mom had quit life at home with her and her dad, and Helen couldn’t tell if Jeremy had taken on the idea of bringing her here because he thought making out at the lake like everyone else might throw her mind off being left behind to fend for herself and her father, or if he’d expected there’d be some easy pickings this time around, her being emotional and fragile and all. Once they managed to wend their way through every rumor they could remember about the lake and the perch and catfish and what spirits might inhabit the lake — a husband and wife had once driven their car with their two kids in the back right into the lake and let it sink and drown the lot of them — Jeremy placed a clammy, sticky palm against the side of her neck and when she turned to look at him, he gave her the full burning eye-gaze treatment and said, “You wanna do this?”
She puckered her lips and shook her head just enough to make her bangs fall into her face and said, “Not really, not anymore.”
His hand dropped and he smiled and said, “Yeah, me either.”
He leaned back on the hood of her dad’s car until his back met the windshield, which concerned Helen since Jeremy wasn’t the skinniest dude she knew. There were more than a couple of small dings in that windshield that she imagined could crack wide open at the slightest touch, and there wasn’t much that was slight about Jeremy. “Careful where you put yourself.”
Instead of listening to her, he grabbed her by the back of her arm and pulled her back, too, and for a moment she wondered if he was really going to go through with his making out plan, but then he shimmied himself into a comfortable spot, his arm pressed against her arm, the two of them lying next to each other, and he said, “What’s your dad going to sell this time?”
She shrugged. She didn’t know. Her father had always been full of some scheme or other.
The car-wash business, the vitamin supplements, the toy hovercrafts he sold out of the trunk of his car, the bran muffins he sold out of a wicker basket he carried with him downtown from office building to office building. Lately, he’d turned to exorcisms and spirit wranglings and éances, tea-leaf readings and card throwings, but even those, she knew, were schemes not so different than the time he thought he could make enough money to retire on selling cans of Green Smoothie Powder online.
Her mother leaving, too. She counted that among her father’s schemes. Of course, that probably wasn’t any part of an intentional scheme on her dad’s part, but she left, Helen was sure of it, because of all the schemes, so the way Helen looked at it, the intentions didn’t seem to matter much.
“Pixie dust?” Jeremy asked. “Fairy powder? Oh, is he going to make you clean houses again? Or fish tanks? Didn’t he have you cleaning fish tanks for a while? In office buildings or something?”
“That was like,” she said, and then, exhausted by the thought of talking even more about her dad’s new projects, she said, “we did that once. Yeah. But like a long time ago.”
“He should bottle air. You know. Like, English Meadow Air, or Rocky Mountain Air, or Fresh Snowfall Air. He could buy a ton of glass bottles, the old timey kind, and use cork stoppers and put some fancy labels on them.”
She shook her head. “Where’d he get all that air? When would he be able to go to the Rocky Mountains for air?”
“That’s what makes it so perfect,” he said. “He wouldn’t. It’d just be, you know, air, just like regular air in the bottle, and the idiots in this town would eat that up.” He laughed. “People are stupid. People would totally buy that stupid air.”
After a while, Helen got tired of popping mosquitos between her nails, of swiping them off her face and neck, of slapping at them in the air, and she asked Jeremy to drive them back to her house.
They snuck inside through the garage, where she paused by a shelf full of Coke cans and asked Jeremy, “You want a Coke?” which was supposed to be a joke — her father had, almost two years ago, bought cases of Coke when they’d gone on sale, so many cases of it, which they hadn’t been able to finish before it all went flat, that she couldn’t imagine drinking it all even before she graduated high school, but her father didn’t care about that. He’d paid for them, and he wasn’t going to buy any more until they’d finished what he’d already bought. But Jeremy had forgotten or he was really that thirsty because he said, “Sure, I’ll take one,” and she said, “They’re warm, just so you know,” and he shrugged, and because she felt bad about it, she took one too. Then they went into the basement, which wasn’t built out or renovated, except for in the corner, where her dad had put together a tiki bar set-up — a free-sanding counter he’d bought from The Home Depot, some ugly brown and white tiki-faced mugs, a plastic bag full of miniature umbrellas, a couple of stools, all set up on the uneven concrete floor of the basement. She’d seen her father come down here for a drink once, right after he’d set it up, a few months before her mother left, mad he couldn’t convince her mother to come down for a drink, too, which, Helen couldn’t blame her mother. The basement smelled wet and like a cave, which was why Helen and Jeremy liked it, but there was nothing sweet or romantic about the basement, and the bar looked out of place and sad, all by itself in the corner, while the rest of the basement was still covered in grit and cobwebs. After that night, her father had never come back, not even for the two bottles of dark rum he’d stored there, which was for the best, since she and Jeremy had finished the rum off a long time ago.
They sat at that bar for ten or fifteen minutes and drank their flat Cokes, and Helen wished their past selves had left some rum for their future selves. They’d exhausted all the things they might have talked about sitting by the lake not making out and driving back home and she wondered if Jeremy was trying to wait her out, drink enough flat Cokes until she’d been worn down and would agree, finally, to the making out he’d had planned for them. Which was when her father hollered down to offer the two of them some of the oatmeal he’d just made, to which Jeremy rolled his eyes and mouthed, “Gross,” and whatever spell Jeremy had been trying to weave was broken and they finished their flat Cokes and he went home.
Staring at it from her bedroom window, Helen wondered where the kraken was going. She would have expected it to head straight for her house, straight for her, but it seemed to be pushing forward down the path of least resistance, down the widest, flatest street downtown.
She snuck out the back door and climbed over the back fence and walked over to Jeremy’s house.
When he opened the door, he said, “Holy shit, have you seen the,” but before he could finish, she grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him to her, and gave him a kiss. Then he tried to shove his thick tongue past her lips and she pushed him away and said, “Nope, never mind, no.” And then she said, “Can you get your mom’s car?”
In the car, Jeremy was all pout and piss, but Helen didn’t care. She tried the radio, hoping for news, but at the very least, some crappy top-forty hits to break the silent treatment Jeremy was handing her, but the kraken had wrecked all the radio towers by then and all she got for her troubles was static. She tried the CD player only to suffer through the Spin Doctors, and she was about to tell Jeremy to just stop the car, the ride wasn’t worth the silence, she would walk the rest of the way, but before she could speak up, he went wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the sight of the kraken suddenly in front of them. He should have slammed on the brakes but didn’t, and Helen had to grab the wheel of the car and yank it right and the two of them swerved just past a tentacle slap-crunching the concrete and into the storefront of a Payless Shoe Source.
Other versions of this story exist.
Other versions of every story exist.
Versions in which Helen’s mother didn’t leave. Versions in which Helen’s mother died. Sometimes in a car crash, sometimes of cancer, sometimes a mugging, once in childbirth. Versions in which Helen’s mother left, but only for a few weeks, and then came back. Or left but took Helen with her. Or didn’t leave but instead forced Helen’s father to leave, and versions in which she didn’t force him to leave, either, but in which he left on his own. Versions in which Helen tracked down and confronted her mother or tracked her down and chickened out or tracked her down and tried to confront her but her mother ran — literally ran — away from Helen and kept looking over her shoulder to see if Helen was still following her only to run blindly into an intersection and be killed by a driver, who was also not paying attention. Versions in which she was narrowly missed.
In some versions of this story, Helen is older, younger, not here at all, has an older brother or a younger sister or vice versa or both, and in at least one version, Helen is a boy.
In every version there is the kraken.
In one version of this story, Helen yanks the steering wheel and she swerves the car but not quite far enough and the tentacle slap-crunches not the road but the driver’s side of the car, killing Jeremy instantly. But in a flash, and before the tentacle lifts the car into the air and tosses it as if it were no heavier than a toy, Helen rolls herself out and onto the street and is stumble-running out of the way and pushes through the front door of the Payless Shoe Source because she has no idea what else to do or where else to go. She throws herself forward, then, and just in time, as the same tentacle smashes through the storefront glass of the strip mall, and sheers the roof off the building, clean off, and shoe boxes and cheap shelving and drop ceiling tiles tumble around and on top of her, and she thinks she’s safe because the kraken doesn’t notice her — for what it’s worth: the kraken doesn’t notice anything, is blind, in fact, though no one realizes this, is blind and in some pain and is wracked with fear and confusion and if it could consider its fate thoughtfully would be right now wondering how it arrived at this place, full of so much light, hot and sharp-edged and heavy, everything here is so damn heavy, heavy and dry, heavy and so, so dry — but as it moves on, as it continues blindly down its path of least resistance, one of its other tentacles crashes down on Helen, still hiding and trembling under a pile of shoes, killing her in an instant.
In another, Helen is driving Jeremy’s mother’s car and Jeremy isn’t even with her. “No way,” he told her, “no way are we driving at that thing. If we’re going anywhere, we’re driving away from that thing.” (Which actually does happen in yet another version of this story, the two of them and Jeremy’s mother driving out of the city limits, feeling lucky to have escaped, surprised they didn’t hit more traffic, only for the car and everyone in it to be crushed unexpectedly by a military tank that had been deployed to stop the kraken and then thrown by one of its many tentacles, thrown much farther than the occupants of the tank could have predicted.) Helen socking Jeremy in the stomach and whispering, Sorry, in his ear as she grabs the keys from his loosened grip and steals the car from the garage. Helen alone in the driver’s seat, swerving around one tentacle and then another tentacle and for a second she catches a glimpse of the kraken’s milky white eye, and she is stunned by its size, so large and liquid she wonders what would happen if she dove right into it, as if through that orb existed an entire other universe, one in which, if she jumped inside it, she would find herself standing barefoot on a cool-sanded beach, staring at the ocean, debating whether she should take one last swim before dinner, or maybe it’s a world made entirely of shrimp, or maybe inside the kraken is a world that has no krakens, or maybe, but she is mesmerized by the thing’s eye a second too long and her car careens into a fire hydrant and knocks the water loose, the water spraying the unsuspecting kraken, which flails about, crushing Jeremy’s mother’s car and killing Helen inside of it.
So far, there is not a version of this story in which Helen does not die.
In this version, however, Helen ducked out of Jeremy’s mom’s car just before one of the tentacles blindly smashed it flat. She caught the smallest glimpse of Jeremy rolling out of the way, too, but on the other side of the kraken, the other side of the street, and after that, she didn’t have time to look back over her shoulder to see if Jeremy was smashed flat, and by the time she pushed herself through the debris of the Payless Shoe Source storefront, she could feel the tears pooling in her eyes and sliding down her cheeks.
Customers and employees were huddled together in the middle of the store and she screamed at them all to run, jesus hrist run, but they were already screaming and to be honest, she couldn’t distinguish her own voice from the rest of the other voices, could barely hear any of those from all the sounds of fire and destruction and the sirens coming from outside, and so gave up on screaming and instead grabbed the nearest person she could, grabbed a little girl by the back of her shirt and dragged her to the back of the store, dragged her away from the kraken’s tentacles, away from the smashed car and the broken glass, dragged her away from her own mother, who was screaming at Helen, now, screaming, Let her go, let my daughter go, but who then stopped screaming when she herself was almost knocked flat by the herky jerky swing of a tentacle, and after that she ran after Helen and her daughter, still frightened and confused, certainly, but her fear and confusion now correctly directed at the kraken and not Helen, who was at that very moment pushing through one door that led to a break room and then through a heavier door at the back of that room, which led outside, to the back of the building, and then once outside, she set the little girl down and told her to keep running, to keep going, and don’t stop, whatever you do, don’t stop, and then Helen stopped and held the door open for all the people who should’ve been coming out right behind her but there weren’t any.
Helen sobbed. She let the door shut and turned and ran after the little girl but the little girl was gone and Helen found herself standing in the middle of an empty backlot, tears streaming down her face as behind her a kraken continued to rage through downtown.
She turned just in time to see a large military tank thrown to the far end of the southeast part of town. And gunfire, there was suddenly a lot of gunfire and shouting but a different kind of shouting. Angered, organized, militarized, not as much the terror-filled, panicked from before.
Helen put her hands in her pockets and bowed her head and walked home. She wasn’t even sure anymore why she thought it would have been a good idea to head towards the kraken. She crested a hill that allowed her to look down on the town, to survey the damage the kraken had done, and then to see, much to her surprise, the kraken itself, bleeding and broken, or not broken, did krakens have the ability to break? If not broken, dying, anyway. A shudder and tremble rippled across the tentacles. Helen imagined if the kraken had anything with which to gasp, it would have now taken its last gasp.
Helen had expected her mother to come for her.
Helen harbored vivid images of her mother knocking on the door or announcing her name over the school intercom and her mother would be there to pick her up and they would swing by the house to collect her things and then they would drive off in her mother’s new Corvette. For whatever reason, she always pictured her mother driving a new Corvette. And when that would happen, Helen imagined telling her mother, No. No, I won’t, I won’t abandon this family, I won’t abandon this life, not like you did. And then she would show her mother the front door, and her mother would take one step outside and then, full of regret, break into sobs, and then she would stay. Or sometimes when she imagined it, her mother would just leave because that seemed more like her mother than the sobs thing. Which hadn’t kept Helen from packing a small bag, anyway, full of her favorite books, her sketch pad, two of her favorite and oldest stuffed animals, Bear and Doretta, a necklace her mother had given her on her seventh birthday, her first tube of lipstick, which her mother let her buy when she was ten, and a pair of cufflinks in the shape of whiskey bottles that had been her grandfather’s cufflinks, just in case, when her mother arrived to take her away, Helen had a last minute change of heart, just as her mother was about to drive off and leave her stuck with her father for the rest of her life.
But more important than that small bag of her most prized possessions was the fact that her mother hadn’t come for her, so that bag never mattered.
Which was what she was thinking about as she walked down the hill, back to where the kraken was, or had been, since, being dead now, it wasn’t really a kraken anymore.
Now it was just flesh and meat and bone. If krakens even had bones.
Helen stared at the kraken, large and undulate. Police barricades and fire engines, their lights swinging red and white and red and white, prevented her from getting too close. She wondered what it might have left behind in order to come here. As large as it was — and it was large, its tentacles reaching at least two blocks out from Main, the glistening mass of it spread out from sidewalk to sidewalk across the street, it was difficult for Helen to look at for too long. She was distracted. All the people around her — military personnel and county police and firefighters and EMTs, and all the regular people, neighbors and shop owners and students milling about and staring at the kraken and pointing and taking selfies — all the movement kept drawing her away. Every woman and every girl and sometimes even the men, any person with long, dark brown hair who swam through her periphery caught her attention, turned her head, made her wonder, Is that her?, until finally, most everyone else had gone, and not one of them had been her mother.
Sighing, she turned, and in the shadows just outside the spotlight perimeter the first responders had set up, she saw a figure coming towards her.
Her father, she thought, and started to walk quickly towards him, happy, for the first time in a long time, at the thought of seeing him, but it wasn’t him. It was Jeremy. His face bruised, his arm covered in a crust of dark, dried blood. His pants were ripped and he was missing a shoe.
They didn’t dive into the I-thought-you-were-dead routine, or even hug, though Helen felt like she could do with a hug right about now. They just waved weakly at each other, said, Hey, and, Weird, huh?, and then started walking, side-by-side, back up the hill, back to their neighborhood. They reached Jeremy’s street before her own and he stopped and took her hand and said, “You can come stay at my house if you want.”
She shook her head. “Thanks, but I want to go home,” she said, and for once, she meant it.