The Come­back Squid

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - GRAEME HOUSSIN

I BE­GIN MY PRE-FIGHT RIT­UAL by wig­gling my arms, as al­ways. Then I roll my ten­ta­cles up like a cou­ple of Fruit Roll-Ups, hold them there for ten sec­onds, and then shake them out again. It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that squids only have ten­ta­cles, like oc­topi; we ac­tu­ally have eight arms and two ten­ta­cles. It’s pretty easy to tell which is which. The ten­ta­cles are way longer, and they’re usu­ally the ones we use to dole out sick punches and jabs.

I wig­gle off the wood bench to look in the mir­ror of the locker room. I would sigh, if I had vo­cal chords. Nat­u­rally, the chro­matophores in my skin have changed colour to blend in with the ugly yel­low lock­ers around me. Not a hot look, and it def­i­nitely clashes with my custom blue shorts that fit per­fectly around my eight arms. I nor­mally don’t care too much what I look like, but if I’m go­ing to be the first pro squid boxer, I’ve gotta look the part.

There’s a knock on the locker-room door. Be­fore I can wig­gle over to open it, my hu­man manager, Deb­bie, barges in as usual, wear­ing a shim­mery sil­ver blouse. Her long hair cas­cades down her shoul­ders like waves on the ocean, and her sea-blue eyes light up when she sees me.

“Yo!” Deb­bie shouts, grin­ning. “There’s the champ! You get­ting ner­vous, bud? Wait, don’t an­swer that!”

She bends down and lifts me up by the crooks un­der my ten­ta­cles, even though she knows I hate that. Or maybe she doesn’t. I’m not ac­tu­ally phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble of telling her. It makes me feel like a dumb pet in­stead of a pro fighter. She swings me around in a cir­cle, as though we’re waltz­ing, and my arms flap around em­bar­rass­ingly.

She grins at me, then stops abruptly.

“Don’t give me that look,” she says crossly. I wasn’t aware I had any mo­tor con­trol over my face. “The big match is about to start. Come on, dude! Get pumped up!” I stare back at her and lamely wig­gle my arms around.

“Maybe some TV will help calm your nerves,” she sug­gests, rest­ing me on the wood bench again. She sits down next to me, grabs the re­mote con­trol and flips on the an­cient box TV hang­ing in the cor­ner of the room.

It’s on the sports net­work. Two at­trac­tive hu­man an­chors are dis­cussing tonight’s match. I feel my stom­ach drop.

“It’s the match of the cen­tury!” the woman says. “Heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion Rex Brick­son will be, for the first time in box­ing his­tory, squar­ing up against a non-hu­man chal­lenger! That’s right, folks: new­comer Squid Jones will be tak­ing Brick­son on for the ti­tle of World Cham­pion in tonight’s highly an­tic­i­pated fight.”

“That’s sure putting it lightly!” the man says. “The whole world will be watch­ing. Now, typ­i­cally in box­ing, both op­po­nents must be at the same weight…how­ever, due to the species dis­crep­ancy, the World Box­ing As­so­ci­a­tion has made an ex­cep­tion! It’s clear that not every­one’s pleased with the new rules. Ear­lier to­day, Brick­son took to Twit­ter to slam Jones, say­ing ‘Tonight, I’ll prove cephalopods have no place in pro sports, hash­tag cala­mari!’ There’s been no re­sponse yet, as Jones doesn’t have a Twit­ter ac­count…prob­a­bly be­cause smart­phone screens don’t rec­og­nize suc­tion cups!”

Deb­bie winces as the an­nounc­ers laugh, then flips off the TV. I feel a chill run down my man­tle, al­though that could just be be­cause I’m nat­u­rally cold-blooded. She gets off the bench and kneels in front of me, look­ing into the clos­est eye.

“Hey, Squid,” she says, her voice ten­der. “You’ve worked so hard to get where you are. Don’t let a jerk like Rex Brick­son get to you, all right?”

I stare blankly at her again.

“You can’t get dis­cour­aged now!” she pleads. “Not af­ter ev­ery­thing we’ve done to­gether. Don’t give up, Squid. You can do it.” There’s an­other knock on the door.

“Come in,” Deb­bie says.

A vol­un­teer opens the door slightly and pops his head in. “Ex­cuse me, Mr. Jones,” he says. “You’ve got some­one here who re­ally wants to meet you.”

Deb­bie looks at me. I blink once, our code for “yes.” She turns to the vol­un­teer.

“Let ’em in,” Deb­bie says.

The vol­un­teer swings the door open and steps aside. In walks a hu­man woman wear­ing a red dress, car­ry­ing in her arms a lit­tle squid.

“Mr. Jones?” she says, grin­ning sheep­ishly. “Oh, wow, it’s re­ally an honour to meet you. I’m sorry to bother you, but…you’re my son’s hero. It would mean the world to him to get your au­to­graph.”

She pulls a ticket from her pocket. “Would you mind?”

I look at the lit­tle squid in her arms. He’s al­most en­tirely cam­ou­flaged him­self to blend into her red dress, but his lit­tle black eyes blink at me with a kind of child­like won­der. I stare back for a mo­ment be­fore blink­ing once to Deb­bie.

“Of course,” Deb­bie says, lift­ing me up. The lit­tle squid’s eyes light up, and he turns bright orange. “Who should he make it out to?”

“Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Jones!” the mother says, hold­ing out a pen. I wrap my ten­ta­cle around it and hover it over the ticket. She blushes.

“Well, uh, this is a lit­tle em­bar­rass­ing,” the mother says. “My son’s name is Squid too.”

I look down at Lit­tle Squid and wink as I scrib­ble aim­lessly on her ticket. I have no idea how to write, so the au­to­graph ends up look­ing like a bunch of lame squig­gles, but the mother passes it to her son none­the­less. Lit­tle Squid’s beady black eyes shine as he holds the ticket in his ten­ta­cle.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Jones,” the mother says. “Good luck tonight. We’ll be cheer­ing for you!”

The vol­un­teer swings the door shut be­hind them, and Deb­bie places me back down on the bench.

“See, Squid?” she says. There are tears in her eyes. She wipes them away with a smile. “This is about so much more than you.”

The lights flicker twice. Deb­bie looks up and grins.

“It’s time!” she says.

She fishes out my two custom box­ing gloves from my bag and care­fully slides them on my ten­ta­cles, then car­ries me over to the mir­ror. I’ve turned a beau­ti­ful sil­ver colour, match­ing Deb­bie’s blouse.

“Knock ‘em dead, tiger,” she says to me. “I mean…Squid.”

She sets me down on the ground and holds the door open for me. I wig­gle across the ce­ment floor, shim­my­ing my arms back and

forth to pro­pel me for­ward. I wig­gle my way down the hall­way to the door­way of the sta­dium, where the vol­un­teer waits with a head­piece and a clip­board. Only a thick black cur­tain sep­a­rates me from the sta­dium. I can hear the crowd scream­ing as the lights go down. The an­nouncer’s voice echoes through the hall­way.

“In­tro­duc­ing first…com­ing in from the red cor­ner, weigh­ing 213 pounds…cur­rent World Cham­pion Reeeeeeeeex Brick­soooooon!”

Rex’s theme mu­sic plays. I imag­ine him waltz­ing up to the ring, ham­ming it up as al­ways. I think about how great it’ll feel to punch him right in that smug mam­malian face of his.

Fi­nally, af­ter a few min­utes of non-stop cheer­ing, the an­nouncer starts up again.

“And now, for the chal­lenger,” the an­nouncer shouts into his mi­cro­phone. I have to strain to hear him talk over the loud mix of cheer­ing and boo­ing from the au­di­ence. “In the blue cor­ner…weigh­ing just twenty-four pounds…the first ever non-hu­man chal­lenger...Squi­i­i­i­i­iid Jooooooones!”

My theme starts to play and the vol­un­teer pulls back the cur­tain. “Good luck out there, Mr. Jones,” he says. “I’m root­ing for you.” I salute him with my ten­ta­cle as I wig­gle into the sta­dium. I’m met with a wall of noise, both cheers and boos. I slide my eyes back and forth, tak­ing in the au­di­ence. I see a few diehard Brick­son fans shout­ing and throw­ing pop­corn at me, but they’re far out­num­bered. Hun­dreds of peo­ple, hu­mans and squid alike, cheer me on as I wig­gle to the ring. They’re wear­ing my T-shirt, shout­ing my name, wig­gling their ten­ta­cles in the air.

I wrap my ten­ta­cles around the rope and pull my­self into the ring where I find my­self face to face with Rex Brick­son. He tow­ers above me, six and a half feet of pure mus­cle, and beats his box­ing gloves to­gether men­ac­ingly as I take my place. The referee stands be­tween us, look­ing a lit­tle un­cer­tain.

“So, we fi­nally meet, Jones,” Brick­son growls at me through his mouth guard. I couldn’t trash talk him if I wanted to. In­stead, I look up at him, try­ing to ap­pear as men­ac­ing as pos­si­ble. I don’t think it works very well.

“Say, I was think­ing,” Brick­son con­tin­ues, “af­ter the match I was gonna grab some­thing to eat. Wanna join me? I was think­ing…sushi.”

He smiles at me, show­ing off rows and rows of per­fectly white teeth be­hind his red mouth guard. I pull back my arms and show him my beak. He gri­maces.

“All right, boys, I want a nice, clean game,” the referee says. “Now touch ’em up.”

I hold my ten­ta­cles up. Brick­son taps his gloves against mine and stares me down, all jokes gone.

The bell rings, and we en­gage. Brick­son im­me­di­ately low­ers into a boxer’s stance, hop­ping from foot to foot. I rise up on my arms and sway from side to side, ten­ta­cles in the air, mim­ick­ing his stance. He cir­cles to my left and I in­stinc­tively hop to my right, re­gain­ing my ground. Brick­son is speed­ier than he looks, but lucky for me, cephalopods are known for their speed.

I jump in and swing my right ten­ta­cle up. My hit con­nects im­me­di­ately to his jaw be­fore Brick­son can re­act, and the crowd gasps.

“First punch is an up­per­cut from Jones!” the an­nouncer says. Brick­son frowns down at me and rubs his jaw with one of his gloves. He bounces back and forth again, and tries to psych me out a few times. He goes in for a jab, but I dart to the left—right into his cross punch.

It hits me hard. I fly to the edge of the ring, bounc­ing weakly against the rope and onto the can­vas. I lie there lamely for a sec­ond.

“Right off the bat, that’s a knock­down by Brick­son!” the an­nouncer shouts. “Not a good start for Jones!”

The ref starts to count, but I hop up be­fore he can get past one. I can hear the au­di­ence laugh­ing, and wig­gle back to the cen­tre in shame.

How did I come to this? Not five years ago, I was just an­other squid in the ocean. Now I’m here, fight­ing a hu­man in a ring for en­ter­tain­ment. I’m out of my league.

Brick­son winks at me from across the ring, then re-en­gages. I spend the round dodg­ing his hits, only get­ting a few good punches in my­self. Round one is over be­fore I even have the chance to wear him down.

Back in my cor­ner, Deb­bie is wait­ing with my wa­ter bot­tle. “Come on, Squid, you can do this,” she says to me.

The roar of the crowd al­most drowns her out as she dumps the wa­ter bot­tle up­side down on top of me. It re­minds me of the ocean, of ev­ery­thing that I left be­hind for this. I look up at her and she gives me a small smile.

The next two rounds fol­low the same pat­tern. I’m hit over and over, thrown across the ring like a pup­pet. Mid­way through the third

round, Brick­son hits me with a right hook so pow­er­ful I bounce off not one, but two ropes be­fore hit­ting the can­vas. The referee hangs over me, pump­ing his arm up and down. The au­di­ence shouts along with him.

“One…two…”

I look over at Brick­son, jeer­ing at me from the far cor­ner. “…three…four…”

I look back at Deb­bie. Her gaudy sil­ver blouse glim­mers back at me, and she nods.

“…five…six…”

I look into the au­di­ence. I see the mother in the red dress who vis­ited me back­stage, and—

“…seven…eight…”

—her son. Lit­tle Squid is seated next to her, clutch­ing his au­to­graphed ticket, beady black eyes fixed on me.

“…nine…”

This isn’t about me.

I hop up, and the crowd goes wild. I wave my ten­ta­cles above me, storm­ing across the ring to Brick­son, wig­gling as fast as my lit­tle arms can go. Brick­son is look­ing over me at the crowd, wav­ing his arms in the air in cel­e­bra­tion. A per­fect tar­get.

It’s about so much more than me.

Pow.

I hit him square in the jaw with a right up­per­cut. Brick­son hur­tles back­ward into the ropes, his feet fly­ing up into the air. The crowd gasps as he rests there, look­ing down at me in shock.

Be­hind me, I can hear Deb­bie cheer­ing.

“A strong up­per­cut by Jones!” the an­nouncer says. “Can you be­lieve the power be­hind that punch? Un­be­liev­able! Who knew the squid had it in him!”

Brick­son stands again, and we shad­ow­box for the next minute un­til the round is over.

Deb­bie douses me in wa­ter again, and, to my sur­prise, plants a kiss on my man­tle. I look up at her and she gives me a wink.

The next round starts. Brick­son comes in fast, wav­ing his arms around like a ma­niac. I dodge ev­ery punch and get in a few strong jabs, but noth­ing too solid. I can feel Brick­son’s anx­i­ety rise as I bob and weave un­der his wide swings.

I may be fast, but there’s no way I can knock out a pow­er­house like Brick­son with just my ten­ta­cles. I need some­thing else…some­thing more.

He comes at me with a wonky jab, and I counter with a cross. Winded, he stum­bles back, look­ing down at me with wild eyes.

“No way!” he shouts, his voice ob­scured by his mouth guard. “There’s no way I’m los­ing to a—a squid!”

He dashes at me, wind­ing up for a hook. I lower my right ten­ta­cle, and—Wham.

The up­per­cut hits him square in the jaw, stronger even than last time. Brick­son’s legs swing out from un­der him and he crum­ples to the can­vas, un­con­scious. The referee doesn’t even need to count.

For a mo­ment, the sta­dium is en­tirely quiet. Then, like the tide rush­ing in, I’m hit with a wave of sound from all di­rec­tions. Cheer­ing floods the sta­dium, wash­ing out the boos from Brick­son’s diehard fans. The referee stands next to me, proudly grabs my left ten­ta­cle, and holds it up.

“I can’t be­lieve it!” the an­nouncer shouts. His voice is barely a hum be­neath the ear-shat­ter­ing cheer­ing. “Squid Jones has won the World Cham­pi­onship with an in­cred­i­ble fourth round knock­out! Ladies and gen­tle­men, we have our very first squid World Cham­pion!”

Sud­denly, I’m in the air. Deb­bie has come up from be­hind me and lifted me up for every­one to see. In the au­di­ence, I see Lit­tle Squid’s mother hold­ing him up in the air, wav­ing him around as well. Deb­bie spins me around in a waltz as cam­eras flash and re­porters clam­ber into the ring for an in­ter­view. For the first time, I ac­tu­ally don’t mind be­ing lifted up.

Deb­bie low­ers me to her eye­sight. She’s beam­ing from ear to ear, but tears—salty, ocean-like tears—drip down her cheeks.

“Oh, Squid,” she says. “I’m so proud of you.”

She pulls me in closer.

“Can I…kiss you?” she asks in a whis­per.

I blink once.

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