Somewhere, Something, Something

Fiction by Archer Sullivan

“Mark went to college,” Caleb said, his face pressed as close to the tank as mine. The room smelled like salt and algae and burned metal.

“Yeah…” I started. But I couldn’t think of anything else to say.  Caleb’s uncle Mark going to college didn’t completely connect to what I was seeing in the little outbuilding behind Caleb’s house.

“He didn’t finish, though,” Caleb said.

We watched the lobster meander around in the tank, half walking and half floating, its three antennae wobbling around, sensing its new surroundings. There was a bubble maker in the tank but no rocks or pebbles or lobster castle for the lobster to hang out in. There was a metal circle with algae growing around the rim. Otherwise nothing. The lobster didn’t really need anything else. Something Mark knew.

“They sent him home,” Caleb said. “Because they reckoned he was unstable.”

I nodded.

Unstable was just college-talk for crazy.

But Mark hadn’t been dangerous bank robbing crazy or waving guns around crazy or even crazy like my own second cousin Bud who had been half run over by a county road maintenance truck and now collected a check.

Caleb tapped the glass of the tank. The lobster didn’t seem to notice. The lobster wasn’t any different from the last lobster. It was the same lobster. We knew that for sure now.

I looked at the dick and balls on the lobster’s claw. I let out a laugh but I also kind of felt bad. Seemed kind of mean to the lobster, who couldn’t possibly know what a dick and balls was. Or maybe he did. He was a different lobster from every other lobster in the world, different from anything or anyone else in the world.

“What do we do?” Caleb asked.

I shook my head.

“Lobster costs a lot don’t it?” I said.

Caleb and I both looked at the lobster. It looked at us.

About a week before this, Caleb’s Uncle Mark had gone into the outbuilding where he’d been pretty much living for at least the last three years, strung a rope up over the rafter, looped it around his neck, and hopped off the seat of an old wicker porch chair.

I’d been staying over which is why I was there at the scene of a crime, in case you were wondering. I’d come over after a Summer Ball game and just never left, which used to happen a lot. And when Caleb’s mom went out to the building to tell Mark there was breakfast, she found him.

It was her scream that brought me and Caleb around from the chicken coop where we’d been opening up the coop and checking the water which Caleb did every day and I did only when I stayed over. She had screamed first like she’d stepped on a snake. A stunned, surprised, lightning bolt scream. And then she’d screamed her brother’s name and a lot of Oh God! Oh my God! Help me!

If you’ve never seen a dead person before, let me say now that it can be damn nasty. I’d seen my great grandpa lying dead in a nursing home bed and I’d seen my cousin Mark all dressed up in a coffin after he’d wrapped his Ford around a tree but I’d never seen anything like Mark hanging there with all the blood drained down to his hands and feet like water balloons ready to pop. And there, beside him, the lobster tank bubbling away and the lobster inside waving its antenna around and him, the only witness to Mark’s suicide.

“Oh Lord,” Caleb had said, his breath more than his voice. And he sounded just like his dad and I thought, at that second, that it was Caleb’s dad, standing behind us. And then I realized that it was just Caleb. Just Caleb sounding like his dad.

Of course, his dad did come running up right after that, told us to go back in the house and call 911. And it was his dad, a couple hours later, who finally seemed to realize that I was still hanging around his house while the cops and the EMTs and whoever else trampled over the property, in and out of Mark’s building.

He said, “Jacob, you should probably go call your folks to come get you.”

But he sounded hesitant. Like he didn’t want the family to be alone. Like Caleb needed me to hang around in the borrowed T-shirt I’d slept in that said All Aboard! In big bubbly letters and, under that said, FIRST METHODIST VBS.

There was no cell service out where Caleb lived so I started into the kitchen where the phone was. When I got there, I saw Caleb standing at the kitchen door, staring through the window. He was looking outside at the building where Mark was sitting or I guess slumping in the wicker chair, Caleb’s dad having cut him down.

Caleb’s mom had always told Mark to make sure he shut the door. “But did you shut it good?” she would say as we were all sitting down for a meal. And Mark would always quietly walk back to the outbuilding and give it a good, hard yank before finally re-arriving at the table for supper. But whoever had shut the door to the building this time I guess hadn’t shut it good. It was hanging open just enough that, from where we stood, we could see Mark’s balloon hand resting on the arm of the chair and the lobster in his bubbling tank and Chief Goodman walking down to the building with a couple of deputies who were barely older than me and Caleb. I forgot all about the phone.

“Goddamn,” Caleb whisper-talked. Again, he sounded just exactly like his dad. I looked at Caleb and back at the outbuilding.

I watched Chief Goodman shaking his head, the deputies standing there with him, their hands in their pockets, looking pale and sick.

Couple hours later, my dad called Caleb’s house.

“Good Lord, Jacob, you want us to come get you?” he said. Of course he’d heard about Mark hanging himself. Everybody’d heard. Everybody in town knew. The preacher and his wife and three of Caleb’s mom’s cousins and a mess of guys from Caleb’s dad’s work had all been by. The fridge and even the deep freeze was full of snoopy casseroles.

“I think Caleb needs me to stay here,” I said.

“You sure?” said my mom, she was on the other line now. But it didn’t sound like either of them were too anxious to get me back home. You don’t need a snoopy casserole to get a gander at a family all torn up with grief and bafflement when you’ve got your very own twelve-year-old spy hanging out there tending the chickens.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

People will let you do all kinds of things when someone dies. Especially when someone like Mark dies like Mark died. Regular rules and permissions are forgotten or forgiven or both. Over the next couple days my mom called three times to talk to Caleb’s mom or talk to me. And no one ever said, “Oh Jacob, you sure you don’t want to go home now?”

It’s like Mark had died and left a vacancy and I’d been right there to fill it so why not. Nobody questioned it. I wore that Vacation Bible School shirt for two days and then Caleb got the idea we should do laundry. We rounded up all the dirty clothes in the house and did it all at once, stuffing everything in the washer and standing there in the basement reading the directions on the back of the washing powder box, clueless about laundry because we’d both grown up with moms.

We brought the clean laundry upstairs and emptied the basket on the living room floor and folded everything on the sofa while we watched old VHS tapes of Kung Fu movies that had belonged to Mark. Caleb’s mom cried in another room and Caleb’s dad went back and forth between the phone and the kitchen TV, turned down low.

Some of Mark’s clothes were in the clean laundry and Caleb said, “Those would probably fit you pretty good.”

And that’s how I started wearing Mark’s clothes.

Creepy at first, I guess, but I liked wearing a UK t-shirt which had actually come from the college itself and not bought in the Walmart. It said, WILDCAT DISCOVERY! And there was a picture on the front of the UK mascot in science goggles holding a test tube.

Wildcats don’t strike me as being a super smart animal but you’ve got to work with what you have, I guess. Can’t just up and change your legendary mascot to a dolphin or an octopus last minute. Things don’t work that way. You are what you are.

As it was, I was wearing that shirt the day we went back into the outbuilding and looked at the chair where Mark had slumped. Caleb’s mom had remembered, as we were eating breakfast, that there was still a lobster out there and no one had thought of what to do with it. We’d never decided whether the lobster had been Mark’s pet or Mark’s dinner but I guess we’d had enough stuff die in the outbuilding so Mark’s mom was feeling bad about noone going out to feed it or even check on it. Caleb and I had volunteered to go out there and have a look around and try to feed it and no one argued.

There was a big glossy catalog of coffins laying open on the kitchen table. We’d all eaten hashbrown snoopy casserole for breakfast. There’d been no juice and all the milk was long gone so I’d had a regular cup of water from the kitchen sink and watched with my mouth open as Caleb made himself what I figured was probably the first cup of coffee of his entire life. He put in sugar and powdered cream and stirred and drank it down like Gatorade and then we went straight outside.

“Shit,” he’d said, when we got into the outbuilding.

The outbuilding was pretty much like Mark had left it. There was a flannel shirt hung over the back of a chair at an old rickety desk. There was an old army cot in the back corner with a blue and peach quilt and an old pillow rumpled up together. There was a window that let in light enough to show a bunch of magazine pictures tacked to the wall. Cars and girls but also stuff from some kind of science articles like diagrams of molecules and brains and weird graphs.

But it wasn’t any of this Caleb was looking at. He was over at the tank, his fingers pressed to the glass. The lobster was there, sure. But there were also lobster parts. The water was dirty with pieces of shell and little chunks of flesh.

“What the hell?” I said.

Caleb shook his head.

We stared at the lobster and the lobster stared at us and the bubbler bubbled and outside we heard some chickens scratching around for bugs.

One lobster. Plus lobster parts and shell pieces and ugly water.

“What happened?” I said.

Caleb shook his head again.

We found a net and cleaned the lobster junk out of the water the best we could. We found some gallon jugs of fancy water in the cabinet under the tank and a salt mixture with instructions and, just like down in the basement with the laundry machines, we stood there reading off the back of a box and doing our best.

Afterward, we looked at the lobster pieces we’d taken out.

“Maybe it… molted?” I said.

“Like a cicada?” Caleb said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Yeah,” Caleb said. “Like a fish bug. Like crawdads. Crawdads are just fish bugs, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“And lobsters are just big crawdads.”

“Okay,” I said.

After that, we’d forgotten that we’d gone in there to feed it. The sun was bright and the cicadas were chanting and, inside the house, Caleb’s mom was talking to some lady from Caleb’s church. The window was open and we heard the sounds of her putting away another casserole and the sounds of the lady from church making little sympathy noises as Caleb’s mom talked about the way Mark was when he was younger. How he was always so sensitive. Sweet, she said. A good boy.

I had barely known Mark when he was alive, in spite of my being at Caleb’s house about a billion times. He had been a tall skinny guy with glasses so thick it made his eyes look humongous. He was what my mom calls a “soft talker” like he was worried the full sound of his voice might hurt something or someone. I read an article in the grocery store aisle once about a karate guy who could channel his energy so strong that his shout could kill animals.

How do you go about learning a thing like that?

You just go in the woods and holler at squirrels?

In any case, Caleb’s dad finally came around the house and told us to go out to the old barn and see if any of Mark’s old stuff was still out there because he was going to pack everything up.

“What are we going to do with it?” Caleb asked.

Caleb’s dad shook his head. We went to the barn.

Mostly, it was full of old crates and pallets, empty bags of farm stuff from back when Caleb’s dad still had subsidies. There were tobacco sticks and little bits of rope hanging around, cobwebs hanging from the ropes and dried out dead bugs hanging from the webs. We opened the door into what used to be a workshop and found a whole mess of stuff.

“This is his,” Caleb said. Again, I turned. Almost couldn’t believe it was him I’d heard. That’s how much Caleb sounded like his dad. I stared at Caleb.

“What?” he said.

“Nothing,” I said. I looked back at the workshop and the worktable and all the old cardboard boxes that said, “Mark” on the front in big permanent marker. The boxes mostly had old clothes and old books, all of it musty. But then there were bigger boxes. Wooden trunks. These were full of weird do-dads. From one trunk Caleb pulled out a metal box (shoebox size) with a bunch of other little metal boxes (cigarette box size) soldered to it, all connected by wires. None of the little metal boxes opened but it sounded—when we shook it—like the little boxes were full of church mints.

I held the box and turned it over, listening to the church mints shift around, looking for some way to open it or turn it on or, hell, anything. I said, “Man, your uncle was—”

“Yeah,” Caleb said. “I know.”

We moved deeper into the workshop all the way against the back wall where there was a rusty table saw and a pegboard of old farm tools but also more of Mark’s stuff piled up.

That’s when we found it. The second lobster.

It was sitting in another tank, smaller than the tank in Mark’s outbuilding, maybe ten gallon. There was a bubbler plugged into an ancient looking power outlet screwed into the wall. Just like the other tank, this one had a big metal circle inside it, salt crystals clinging to its rim. This lobster looked like the other lobster, just angrier. Probably hungrier, I figured.

“We should get it out,” Caleb said.

The tank was situated underneath another one of Mark’s weird machines. This one was shaped like a lampshade but there were no bulbs in it. Instead, all over the inside of the big silver lampshade, it was more of those little boxes, more of those little wires. On the outside, there was a circuit board with a bunch of tiny red and black square buttons. No labels. No explanation. Like whatever this was was as self-explanatory as a toaster. This lampshade—which looked like it weighed about a ton—was welded to a big metal arm that was clamped to the edge of the worktable. Listening close, I almost thought I heard a hum. Could’ve been the cicadas, but I didn’t think so.

“What?” I said, remembering that Caleb had been talking.

“We should get it out,” Caleb said, again sounding like his dad.

“Okay,” I said.

But this turned out to be a thing that’s easy to say and not so easy to do. By the end of our attempt, Caleb and I were both wet with salt water and the lobster was still in the tank. He was missing one of his little wiggly antennas now though, thanks to some ill-advised maneuvering with a tobacco stick.

“Why was your uncle keeping some damn lobster out here anyway?” I breathed, as we started back toward the house, thinking we’d poke around in Caleb’s mom’s kitchen for some kind of tongs.

“I don’t know,” Caleb said. And then he stopped in his tracks and looked back at the barn, a sour-tasting look on his face.

He said, “Why’d he keep a lobster in the outbuilding? Why’d he live out there when we’ve got a spare room all ready to go upstairs? Why’d he come back here when he could’ve gone all the way through UK on that science scholarship? Why’d he go there in the first place if all he was gonna do was come on back and hang his damn self?”

Now he didn’t sound like his dad. He sounded like him. Like the him from when we were even younger. Like the him that had cried when he broke his grandma’s cuckoo clock trying to snatch the bird as it popped out. The sound of his little boy sorrow wrenched at my chest.

“Why’d he come back?” Caleb said again, his voice almost breaking.

I said, “Come on.” And led us down to the creek where we skipped some rocks for a while and didn’t say anything at all.

We forgot, at least for the rest of the day, about the tongs and the other lobster. When we got back to the house, Caleb’s mom was praying with a quiet church lady group in the kitchen so we snuck up to Caleb’s room and ate the rest of a can of Pringles he’d stashed away and played video games on an old system that used to belong to Mark.

That night, I woke up sometime after midnight. I’d been asleep on Caleb’s floor, the sleeping bag he’d loaned me was all the way unzipped and half hanging off. It was a hot, still night. Caleb’s house didn’t have any AC and my mouth tasted like bad dreams and stale Pringles. I got up, went to the kitchen, and poured a cup of water from the sink. I tiptoed out onto the back porch and stood there where some air could hit me. I drank the water, eyes closed, in big, noisy gulps.

When the cup was empty, I brought it down from my face and saw Mark.

He was standing at the edge of the porch and was mostly dark with shadow but it was him. Tall and skinny, thick glasses. He was holding a cardboard box that said, Mark but I couldn’t see what was inside it.

Soft and calm, he said, “Are you wearing my shirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.

We looked at each other for a little while.

“You never saw me,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

I guessed I was dreaming. My mom said one time she found me standing around in the middle of the night with the fridge door open eating butter out of the brown plastic tub. She said when she asked what I was doing, I told her I was grazing. She said she flicked me in the ear and woke me up and made me brush my teeth and go back to bed. Moms are like that. They’ve seen everything.

I closed my eyes. Flicked my own ear with my free hand.

When I opened my eyes, Mark was gone.

I went back to the kitchen, poured another cup of water, drank half and poured the other half down the sink. Then, I closed the door behind me. Locked it. Went back to the sleeping bag.

The next day, we went to the outbuilding. Checked the lobster.

“Damn,” Caleb said, sounding like his dad again and not like little kid Caleb.

There was more lobster trash in the tank. Hunks of dark brown claw half floated in the dirty water.

“How much does a lobster molt?” I said.

“His whole body?” Caleb said.

“But it seemed like his whole body yesterday,” I said.

And that’s when we saw that this lobster was missing the same antenna as the other lobster. The angry barn lobster.

“Do they molt their antennas too?”

Caleb shrugged.

Now you’ve got to understand that me and Caleb were modern dudes. We might not’ve had good internet or a single dang movie theater within a fifty mile radius but we were still fluent in the video game/comic book/movie-version of science. Gamma rays, cloning, time travel, all this stuff seemed just as real as New York City, the Grand Canyon, and bullet trains. It was Caleb, though, who jumped to the whole, “Lobster Copy Machine” thing.

Got to hand it to Caleb on that one.

Maybe he’d seen more movies than me.

Or maybe, I realized way, way later, that he’d spent more time with Mark than anyone had realized. And also, that as much as Caleb was starting to sound like his dad, he was also his mom’s kid and that meant he shared a whole bunch of DNA with dead Mark. He was walking around with a ton of the same puzzle pieces that had made Mark just jiggling around inside of him.

“Let’s find those tongs,” he said.

I said, “Okay.”

And a little while later, we were back in the old barn fighting a lobster with a pair of salad tongs. I pictured Caleb’s mom—like I’d seen her before—with those tongs, doing something with a great big salad and laughing at their family’s Fourth of July barbecue which I guessed would probably be canceled this year. And I pictured her back at the house, standing in the living room in front of the muted TV, ironing a black dress. That’s how I’d seen her before we left.

When Caleb got the lobster out, he told me to write something on the lobster’s claw.

“What?” I said.

“Don’t matter. Just something we’ll be sure to see later.”

The lobster clacked his claw at me and barely missed my thumb and that’s when I grabbed it and drew the quarter-sized dick and balls with the permanent marker we’d nabbed from Caleb’s mom’s craft box. I snorted when I saw it but when I glanced at Caleb, he didn’t look like he thought it was funny.

He looked the way parents and teachers look when they’re disappointed in you but not enough to say anything. It’s about a half-step under an eye roll.

Too late, though. I’d used the permanent marker and now the lobster had a dick and balls claw tattoo. 

“Okay,” Caleb said.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting him back,” Caleb said.

“And then what?”

“Then we wait.”

“Okay,” I said. Because clearly Caleb was in charge at this point. Like yesterday Caleb getting all tore up and almost crying had never happened. Would never happen again. I wiped my hands on my shirt—one of Mark’s Governor’s Scholar t-shirts—and followed Caleb out of the barn and back to the house.

We swept and mopped the floor that day. And we washed the empty snoopy casserole dishes and stacked them up in the drainer. And we vacuumed the living room and when Caleb’s mom came into the house from wherever she’d been, she looked around and started to cry again. The opposite of what I’d figured we were trying to achieve but then she gave Caleb the biggest hug and kissed me on the top of the head and told us we were the best boys and to make sure that if we ever needed to talk to anyone, that she was there.

And I felt like she was the one who probably needed to talk to someone but I knew that someone wasn’t me and, no matter how grown up Caleb was sounding lately, it wasn’t him either.

The next morning, both of us in church clothes for Mark’s funeral, we went down to the outbuilding.

I was tugging at the sleeves of my sport coat. Caleb’s mom had informed me that this was the sport coat Mark had worn when he went to the state science fair and got some big trophy. I thought probably that trophy was somewhere in a box with Mark on it in big black letters. I’d sure never seen it.

Caleb yanked open the door and we went inside and looked in the tank.

“Mark went to college,” Caleb said, his face pressed as close to the tank as mine. The room smelled like salt and algae and burned metal.

“Yeah…” I started. But there was nothing to say. I’d spent the last week wearing all the shirts that signaled to everyone with eyeballs that Mark was going to go somewhere, be something, do something. It all sounded good when people said it but, I realized, standing there next to the wicker chair that Mark had kicked out from under himself, that it didn’t mean anything.

Go somewhere. Be something. Do something.

Somewhere. Something. Something. It was just nice words made out of ignorance and hope in equal measure. Somewhere. Something. Something.

More than here is the unsaid end of that thought. Nobody wants to insult their home. The place they are, the things they do, the life they live. Nobody wants to say that if somewhere and something is better than here then here must not be that great.

Go somewhere better. Be something great. Do something more than what we do here. What we all do here.

“He didn’t finish, though,” Caleb said.

We watched the lobster meander around in the tank, half walking and half floating, its three remaining antennae wobbling around, sensing its new surroundings.

“They sent him home,” Caleb said. “Because they reckoned he was unstable.”

I nodded.

I looked around the room at the army cot where Mark had slept. His mom had told us to grab his quilt from the bed. I didn’t see the quilt, though. I kneeled down to see if maybe it had fallen off the bed but still didn’t see it. I only saw some more cardboard boxes and the edge of a metal circle. She wanted to carry that quilt with her today. It was his baby quilt, she’d said. The one Caleb’s grandma made when Mark was just a squishy little pink grub. A human bug who would molt and molt endlessly until he became the Mark who would kick the chair out from under himself. 

Caleb tapped the glass. The lobster didn’t seem to notice. The lobster wasn’t any different from the last lobster. It was the same lobster. We knew that for sure now.

I looked at the dick and balls on the lobster’s claw.

“What do we do?” Caleb asked.

I shook my head.

“Lobster costs a lot don’t it?” I said. I was thinking maybe we could make a hundred lobster copies. Sell them to the Buy & Save the next town over, where they had lobsters in a tank and a huge section of stuff that was marked organic and my mom said cost more than she made in a week. Lobsters probably sold for a lot, I thought.

“Hmm,” Caleb said.

And he rolled up his sleeves and put his arm right down in the tank like it wasn’t nothing. The lobster clicked and clacked his claws at the air but Caleb just ignored it. I went behind him as he carried the lobster down to the creek and put it in. It disappeared under the water.

“Okay,” Caleb said.

We hopped over the place where the lobster had gone and went to the barn and took that lobster out too. The angry lobster. Lobster Prime. The only lobster, really.  He waved his dick and balls claw at us and Caleb grabbed him like you’d grab a snake and soon that lobster was in the creek too.

“You think they can survive in freshwater?” I said. “It’s not the same as where they came from.”

“It’s better this way,” Caleb said, a voice not his own but not his dad’s either. And not Mark’s. And I realized Caleb had been molting too.

“Better?” I said.

“Yeah,” Caleb said. “They can’t stay here in those tiny tanks. They’ll die. They’ll die either way.”

We stood and watched the water burble past. The sun shone. The cicadas sang. The lobsters were gone.

Caleb said, “It’s better this way.”

“Okay,” I said.

Back behind us, Caleb’s dad hollered that it was time to go. We turned to face them. Mark’s mom stood beside the car in her black dress, staring at the outbuilding. We rolled down our sleeves and walked to the car.

Archer Sullivan

A ninth generation Appalachian, Archer Sullivan now resides in Los Angeles where she is a real life Beverly Hillbilly. Her crime fiction can be found in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazineToughRock and a Hard Place Magazine and Shotgun Honey.