Whatever Mr. Nancy said or did to him in the van, or whatever those last words were all about, it did the trick for Earl one way or another. He did the job that evening and barely thought about it for the rest of the night.
Instead, two things stuck in his mind from that day. The first was the marked difference he saw in his friend on the light rail. He lounged against the bike seating area, out of breath and his feet up, his mountain bike hanging on the rack across from him. He was wearing sneakers and baggy gym shorts (which meant he wasn’t like the other self-important chamois-wearing cyclists, not bikers, from the city he moved away from), and he had his long brown hair out, a proud leonine mane un-gelled and free to swish and flow about. Sure, he was a little skinny, and he had the voice, which wasn’t Earl’s favorite voice to have, but looking at him now, he seemed… attractive.
He sure must have been, because Earl soon realized that he had been ogling. He grumbled to himself and did the best he could to glance back at his phone and pretend he was reading an article or something all along, or maybe fuck around with his headphones, but it was too late. I was usually better than this back in the city, he thought as he shook his head. Best not to make a big deal, hopefully he never noticed and I’ll never... but then he remembered that that was his standby excuse for the last place he lived, and of course he’s going to see him again.
His phone buzzed with an airdrop notification, which he also forgot to turn off because apparently that was just his day to be a complete idiot. To his horror, it looked like a text from precisely that young man. He looked up wide-eyed in his direction, against his better instincts, and saw him smiling. He gave Earl a nod as if to say look again. He did, and it had his contact info.
His name was Leo, because of fucking course it was.
The other was the strange dream he had that night, which, based on what his subconscious decided to give him, was proof positive that dreams are nothing more than the brain just throwing out random bits and detritus of the day before into the great big dream dumpster.
A mish-mash of all the past couple weeks presented itself to Earl that day. He showed up and put on the Tardy suit as usual, then dragged himself into the private booth at the scheduled time. There was the man in the commercials, Bobby Enfantino himself, a little heftier in real life than he allowed himself to appear on television, and he along with his crew of fifteen or so giving off quite a bit of the energy of a divorced dad recording YouTube rants about family court and right-wing politics while sitting in the front seat of his truck wearing wrap-around shades and a baseball cap.
Every one of them had a special Tardigrades-issue aluminum bat, and from inning two all the way to the seventh-inning stretch he endured their sort of racist and sexist banter as well as their casual thwacks upon his back. Ads for almonds and pure-California orange juice flashed in between innings on the Jumbotron, which even though they lasted only a quarter of a minute or so, brought the game and the proceedings to an eerie halt each time.
Pure California orange juice. It’s not from Florida!
Around the middle of the eighth inning, the Jumbotron then began to play the same song Earl heard in the van on the way to the bike shop with Mr. Nancy. At this point, the dream shifted its point of view to make Earl feel like he was watching himself, his soul disembodied and floating directly above his body in tardigrade form.
An Enfantino stooge guzzled down a beer before grasping his bat with a laugh and winding up for one more swing.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls
The man swung and neither hit nor missed.
He blinked for a moment and realized that the Tardy dummy caught the bat with a single hand mid-swing.
The Tardy snatched the bat from the man and took a swing of his own. The man’s head came off with a sickening crack and half- dangled off his shoulders like a game of tee-ball.
The others dropped their beers and watched with their mouths open, frozen in shock.
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
Tardy grasped the shoulders of another man, twisted his arm around his back, and shoved the bat inside his mouth, helpfully open wide from the screaming.
Earl could hear the voice of Lady Tardy, begging for help, I’ve always relied upon the kindness of strangers, and his own disembodied voice, of course, of course I will.
As Enfantino himself scrambled to he door and tried to get out, shaking and pulling at a locked knob that wouldn’t budge, private security agents in black suits pulled out their glocks. Tardy reached for one, twisted the man’s arm into his belly, and unloaded the gun into his stomach.
I love you, the Earl in the suit kept saying in his voice as the dreaming Earl looked on helpless, as he dispatched the other security guards using the first dead one as a human shield.
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all
I’ve always loved you…
Earl in the suit walked over to Enfantino, who was still ramming his shoulder into the door to break it down, and with one hand turned the man around to face him. Bracing Enfantino’s shoulder with his left hand, Tardy smashed the palm of his right hand into the man’s head, snapping his neck back and killing him instantly.
But I think you’re moving too fast
…and I’m pretty sure I always will.
Repeating those stupid parting words of Mr. Nancy over and over again, Earl in the suit pulled out a butterfly knife and swished around the blades for a moment, because why wouldn’t you if you bother to have a butterfly knife? Then it was all red, and the smell of gasoline, and the smell of smoke in your hair after you stand next to a campfire for a while, and finally a bang and the classic dream feeling of falling over backwards that signaled Earl to wake up.
Earl only got in a single text of hey edgewise to Leo from the light rail before he found himself with directions to his apartment and time to meet him there. Leo lived in a building on top of one of those brown withered hills Earl had been hearing about so much, and though the bike ride there consisted of a near-perfect forty-five-degree incline up which made him lose his breath and get off and walk halfway, he had to admit it looked nice and bougie enough for him to maybe want to live there someday.
He eventually found the place and Leo buzzed him up and inside. When he entered Leo’s apartment, the latter immediately ushered him into the bedroom and started taking off his clothes. Without any direction from him, Earl did the same. Without another word, without the awkward talk of how long since you’ve been tested, are you a top or bottom, or anything, he brought Earl to the bed beside him and began to jack off.
Again, Earl followed his lead, not really needing much prompting at this point. It was a little refreshing, to be honest. He was worried how he was going to broach the fact that he was a little out of shape and apparently not the best lay, at least according to the last three or so mediocre OKCupid dates back in the city, but it didn’t seem to matter. If Leo enjoyed the sight of slightly-pudgy Earl on his bed enough to take care of himself, well, then that took a load off of Earl’s back. There was no pressure this way, it was as if he was telling Earl to leave his baggage at the door and come as you are.
It was only after that Earl began to speak to Leo, that they then found out anything about each other at all. Only after did Earl find out that Leo was a social worker, that he was as much on the left as Earl was, that is, believing in it and taking any chance to talk about it that he could get but not wanting to go out and march or canvas or do much else about it, and that he was equally in the middle of both the complete essays of Montaigne as well as Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
In the middle of lounging on his bed in their boxers and watching the latter, the commercial break cut to an update for news at eleven:
Bobby Enfantino and his entire entourage had tragically passed away the night before for a freak accident en route from a Tardigrades game. After his Escalade swerved from a bridge on the Capitol highway and through the flimsy guardrail, it instantly killed Enfantino and everyone else before the gas tank exploded with them still inside. Though there was not much more forensic evidence given the gruesome nature of the accident, some of the bones recovered from the scene had signs of breaks that were consistent with auto collision trauma.
Leo merely let out a harumph at the screen and took another long pull of his vape pen, which periodically offered to Earl, forgetting that he had refused each time.
—Whatever, he would have been a shitty mayor anyway. Make up a single complete non-issue to hammer in to the voters and then roll in with a bunch of sweeping right-wing reforms. My dude wanted to build another prison in the county and also revoke the city’s sanctuary status. Fuck him.
He didn’t seem to notice Earl, silent with his eyes fixated on the screen.
—Not that I was going to vote though, and I mean not that I want to parrot out another tired trope from South Park, but I mean really, what are my choices? Either this douchebag, or a withered-up neoliberal slug who literally got caught having underage sex in the DR but will still get re-elected anyway because we’ll never not vote for a democrat here. In fact, I bet it was his camp who put out the hit.
—The… the hit?
—Well, yeah dude. Oooh, his car exploded after falling off a bridge, completely accidentally, fuck out of here. This state has one of the strongest economies in the country. I mean forget about tech, with agriculture alone we could be our own country if we really wanted to. Do you know how many fruits and nuts we grow here that not a whole lot of other countries can grow for themselves? And we really think they’re ever going to let all that slide for even a second, so the California Trump surrogate can water the lawns on the hills and deport all the brown people?
Earl wasn’t thinking much about what Leo was telling him, and sort of half-accepted in his head that it was all true. Instead, he thought most about that night, when he had the insane dream, the night before he found out Enfantino had died. That day, he went to put on his mascot costume and smelled gasoline.
In any other context, this would be the luckiest day in Earl’s whole life. He wouldn’t have even cared if there was some sort of internal accounting error and it didn’t actually belong to him, he would have taken it and moved out to LA, or anywhere but here. If only he hadn’t had that conversation with Leo.
He approached Mr. Nancy’s desk and stammered, holding the torn-open envelope in his shaking hands.
—I, ah… noticed something weird about my paycheck, sir. I was wondering if…
—Something weird, huh? Well, what’s the matter, missing some hours, or something doesn’t add up right…
—…it’s for fifty thousand dollars.
Mr. Nancy was taken aback for a moment, until after some thought he leaned back into his reclining chair with a nod and a smile.
—Oh, that’s right. You did the private event for Mr. Enfantino. That must be the gratuity the client left.
—The client? Bobby Enfantino left a gratuity of fifty thousand dollars?
—Well, sure. We get some high-profile clientele every now and then, it’s not unheard of. And this Enfantino character sure seemed like a man of means. Or, he did anyway… such a shame…
—This is insane, this is more than I’ve ever made in a year…
—Well, you must have have done a real good job, I’ll say! Well, you go and enjoy it now, just don’t spend it all at once.
Mr. Nancy’s countenance suddenly turned grim, his mere frown making Earl jump with a start.
—Really, though, don’t spend it all at once. It looks suspicious. At least wait a month until the FBI gets off our back.
Earl stood frozen in front of Mr. Nancy’s desk, his legs shackled in place by the icy glare coming from his boss. After a few seconds, Mr. Nancy let out a guffaw.
—Ah, I’m just kidding! I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself, that’s the joke I always make when a mascot gets his first big gratuity check like that. Ha ha, I get ‘em every time! Every time!
Everything in Earl’s current situation made him feel filthy, like he had sat on an unpapered public toilet seat for the whole day. He still hadn’t deposited the ridiculous check, still had it folded up in the envelope and shoved in his bag somewhere. He hadn’t seen Leo in a while, had barely gone outside of his apartment if he didn’t have to go to work. And while before the mere daily humiliation of doing the Tardy dance usually got the better of him, nowadays, now that he was paying attention and learning a thing or two about it, even the actual baseball was repellent to him. This time the Tardigrades won in the ninth inning, after a straight 0/0 for the rest of the game, because the opposing pitcher loaded all the bases with foul balls and walked them to home plate. He was learning about the game, true, but only in so much of a capacity to know that he was surely watching some of the worst examples of it.
As he left the locker room that night, and as he looked over his shoulder and saw yet another replacement Tardy slated to perform the latest private booth show, he saw the young man give him a look, the same dumb smiling look that all the other trainees had while watching those dumb training videos, for all purposes no different than one of those hunters in the thrall of the female vamp Tardy. Earl quickly turned around and left as the doltish mascotted man put on the Tardy head, becoming the thing completely.
He decided to see Leo that night, and ultimately he was glad he did. The first thing he asked Earl, after they jacked off together again, of course, was what did he like to do, and he told him he was a writer. He told him about the dumb book he wrote, and stammered and backtracked a lot as he tried to explain it to him, oh it’s a fantasy novel but it’s like postmodern and good and it’s a hero’s journey but the protagonist is the villain and he’s tricking all the others and there’s this part where they go to a city under the water and it’s supposed to be like the time he went to Japan, stuff like that. Leo surprised him even more by telling him he’d like to read it. Earl even sent him a file that night. Leo even read the first few chapters to himself, he even nodded to himself as he looked them over.
Leo then got up and put on some music.
—It might sound dumb, but I’ve been listening to this nineties music playlist a lot. It’s weird because I’m a nineties kid, and when I was a kid it was like the sixties and seventies are old people music, and now it’s like nineties music is what old people like now. You know?
Earl nodded. He should have seen Leo more often than he did before. He put him at ease, made him forget about all the nonsense with the Tardigrades and Mr. Enfantino and weirdly-nice Mr. Nancy and bad baseball and everything else. And he wanted to read his book. That was a plus.
Earl had always coasted on skepticism that bordered on unhealthy for as long as he could remember. If life was going to disappoint him anyway, it seemed to hurt less when he expected it to by default. Even the move out here was just a means to an end he wasn’t even sure he was invested in anymore. But now. Could he live here, set down roots here? It wasn’t so bad so far, was it? He did get a job a week or so after he flew in, and he also has a sort of boyfriend. Who knows, maybe after a few more meetups they could move on to actual sex. Hell, maybe now he’d even write something even mildly sexual for once. Was he changing his attitude about this place, or was it changing his attitude from without? There was something to be said about the ocean, after all, the one force that could stop a century and a half of this country’s awful manifest destiny mindset.
Leo curled up against Earl’s body and rested his head and Earl’s rising and falling chest.
—I’m glad we just met like this. Like we didn’t have to meet up on bullshit dates and spend a bunch of money and waste time on conversation before we got to this place, you know?
They shared a moment of silence together, one that Earl was relieved to realize did not make him even a little nervous even once.
—I loved noticing little things about you on the train. Like the way you made a little grunt every time you lifted your bike up to hang it on the rack. Like it was five hundred pounds each time. It was cute… I feel like I learned everything I needed to know about you, just watching you on the train. Maybe it sounds kinda stupid but, in a way… it’s almost like I’ve always loved you, and I’m pretty sure I always will.
Earl fell asleep not long after that, with Leo’s head lying on his chest, letting the playlist go on to the end.
In the nightmare, Earl was woken up in a deep red room, still in Leo’s bed and in his boxers, by Mr. Nancy and some regulars at the stadium. They brought in a fireman’s hose and told Earl to strip even his boxers and hosed off the blood caked on his naked body. Then Mr. Nancy wrapped a large towel around Earl’s shoulders and brought him once again in his van back to the office, turned on a light, and sat him beside his desk, giving him a cup of pure California orange juice and a handful of almonds.
But, of course, it wasn’t a nightmare, because when he woke, he found himself with a towel wrapped around his shoulders, holding a cup of pure California orange juice and a handful of almonds, and sitting beside Mr. Nancy’s desk.
—We’ve been calling it “two-factor authentication.”
—Oh, it’s like when you try to log in to your Amazon account or what have you. It asks you for a password and then it asks for your…
—No, I ah, I know what two-factor authentication is. I don’t quite understand what you mean by…
—Oh. Well, it’s simple, really. See, even though you’re a highly-trained agent, you spend most of the day in a state that’s what we call “asleep.” We wake the agent, or “arm” him, with a highly specific phrase he’s unlikely to hear elsewhere, and then we activate him, or “detonate” him if you will, when he hears another highly specific musical cue. One that’s of course part of the usual regiment of jock jams we have on rotation at the stadium, I might add…
—So it’s true. I’m a sleeper assassin. And he found out somehow, and you made me kill him. But how did he know…
—Well that’s the freaky part. We didn’t, and he had no idea. He said the arming phrase totally on accident, and then put on your detonating song right after. What are the odds! And boy howdy, did you ever explode tonight. You really painted the town red with this young man…
—I didn’t… but I…
—Well hey, don’t beat yourself up over it, it’s not your fault. Golly, you must be in a shambles inside over this. How are you feeling? Any nausea, any crippling feelings of guilt?
—Uh, not really, no… I’m pretty squared away with the fact that I didn’t kill anyone of my own volition. Mostly I just feel… incredibly violated…
—Ah, well at least there’s that.
—So, what was all this about? Are you in league with mayor Holzer, or with big agriculture? Did they order the hit on Enfantino?
—It’s not nearly as exciting as all that. In fact, I wager it’ll disappoint you when you find out.
Mr. Nancy took out a smartphone from his pocket, pushed a few buttons, then showed Earl the screen. It was an older woman, perhaps about ten years younger than he was, in a photo array of herself in bikinis and mai-tais and sun.
—Meet Linda Enfantino. You know how it is, you meet someone, you fall in love, and then the honeymoon ends, and the life insurance policy begins, and there’s a clause in it that says it will only be disbursed if there’s no foul play involved. Of course, no one’s the wiser that the private booth space she rented out for his birthday was all a set up for… well, you know.
He let out a giggle that disturbed Earl as he sifted through the photos on her profile.
—On a cruise to Panama now, I think. I told her, you want to keep a low profile, you don’t want to flash around stuff like this so soon after his passing. But what are you gonna do? Then again, most folks my age never really can wrap their heads around this “social media” thing these days.
—Look I… thank you for giving me the job and all, but I don’t want to kill anyone ever again. It’s… I have these nightmares, where it feels like I’m watching it happen, but I’m the one doing it. I’m trapped behind my own eyes, forced to watch myself do these things… it’s horrible…
—Well, now that’s strange. The way we set up the training, you’re not even supposed to realize it’s going on. In fact, it’s supposed to be quite nice…
—The training? Do you mean those stupid cartoons?
—Well, sure. What, you think we’re gonna pay you hourly to watch those things if they’re not also teaching you how to load a gun or kill someone with kung fu? But back to these nightmares. How is it you’re seeing all this? What does the beautiful lady tell you?
—The beautiful lady?
—Yeah, sure, you know, from the cartoons?
—…there’s no beautiful lady I remember. Just Tardy wearing a dress. An awful, fleshy, tubular monster with little insect arms and an anus for a mouth, wearing lipstick and long eyelashes.
—The subliminal auto-suggestion is quite clear. It’s designed to make you see the most beautiful woman you can imagine. Just like the hunters when Bugs Bunny puts on a sexy dress. A perfect representation of your ideal sexual desire…
—I’m gonna stop you right there. I’m gay, so I wouldn’t have imagined, ah…
Mr. Nancy took a long pause with a frown, and took a big pull of his glass of juice with his straw.
—Hm. Now that… makes a lot of sense.
—…your entire subliminal mind control training program doesn’t take into account someone who might not be heterosexual? In the year 2019?
—I know, it’s a shame, See, I know it’s in the vogue lately to make fun of “boomers,” as we’re called these days. But even little old boomer me was alive in the year 1964, and even back then, so long ago, you know what one of the biggest songs of the year was? “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” And I like to think I change along with the times, so when this happens, I can’t tell you how disappointed it makes me feel. Me even more than you, I’m sure.
—Look, I’m sure you mean well, I do. But like I said, I really can’t keep working here if it means I have to kill people.
—Well, now we reached an impasse then. I appreciate your situation, but you see there’s not a whole lot of value in a Tardy mascot that doesn’t kill people.
—But, you can’t let me go either. I already know way too much. How do you know I won’t go around and tell a bunch of people…
—Oh, well sure, there’s always that. But then you’re talking about going to the press, and are they going to believe you, and how far up does this whole operation really go, and how much are they really pulling the strings behind the curtain, and so on. Why not just spare us both the trouble and wrap up that seventies political thriller before the beginning credits roll, what do you say?
—There has to be something you can do? How about… a rate increase? If you gave me twenty-three an hour it would be at least a little adjacent to what I used to make in the city.
—Twenty-three an hour and no killing people? Now that’s just cutting my own throat!
Mr. Nancy hesitated, keeping his eyes trained on Earl, before he opened a file on his desk and flipped through some pages, glancing at one Earl couldn’t help but notice was blank.
—I think that’s in the budget.
—And why not benefits too? No copay or deductible nonsense. I want to go in and forget for a little while that I’m an American.
Mr. Nancy gulped down the last of his juice and blew out an exasperated sigh.
—Twenty an hour. Medical benefits.
—And no killing people.
—And no killing people.
Now it was Earl’s turn to mull it over. Why not? At least he had a bit of a raise, and at least he could get his teeth checked after years since the last time he set foot in a dentist’s office, and maybe he could finally get those weird moles on his back checked out. And who knows, once the heat from all this died down a little, maybe he could even deposit the check from the Enfantino hit. He wasn’t married to the place after all. It was just something to do while he was here, before he made the move to LA, and to Jon. It was only something he had to do for a little while to survive. Just like a tardigrade.