Giant Squids & Knife Collections (Kipperman's Curiosities)
monsters aren't meant to be touched.
June's parents buy the squid on kind of a whim. Her little brother has always been into marine biology, and the idea of surprising him with his own giant squid had appealed to June's mother when she spotted the sign in the curiosity shop on the border of a small town they stopped in for the night on the way to Colorado.
Their yard is barely big enough for the tank, so June's father has to knock down a few of the trees that they planted when her brother was born. June's pretty sure that her brother is going to love the squid for about three days before he gets bored, but she likes its long tentacles and inhuman face, so she makes sure to pay attention when her dad teaches them how to feed it. * The squid gets sick about a month after they bought it, and none of the local big animal vets have any idea what to do, so June writes back to the shop. It's not hard to find the address online. She asks if they know what kind of treatment the squid might need, how they're supposed to take care of it.
She gets a short, terse response three days later, the handwriting a pinched and careful cursive.
You're not supposed to take care of it, the letter says. It's a giant squid. It's not supposed to be touched by humans at all.
It's signed "TSK."
That's a little rich, June writes back before she can think about it, coming from the shop that sold him to us in the first place.
This time there isn't a response, which kind of proves June's point.
The squid lives, though, just gets better all on his own, and June is surprised by how relieved she is. She's surprised by how badly she wishes he would respond when she presses her hand up against the glass of the tank. He looks at her with a monster's eyes and June wants to find a way to tell him I'm sorry.
She hadn't been, not before that stupid letter with the stupid cursive, but now whenever she looks at the squid all she can see is the hundreds of ways that he is too big for their small backyard, surrounded by cramped trees.
"You were right," slurs June into the phone during her second week of freshman year. She's staying local, still sleeps in her bedroom and can almost touch the top of the squid's tank when she reaches out her window. She's pretty drunk. She has no idea how she's planning to get home.
She wakes up the next morning with a headache, starfished out on her friend Tony's floor. Her phone's message light is blinking.
She doesn't check it until she's on a bus back to her house. It's probably her mother, concerned she didn't come home, or her brother, wanting to borrow her car. She hadn't taken it to the party, knowing she was probably going to end up too drunk to drive. June is responsible.
But the number her voicemail recites to her isn't one June knows, and neither is the voice on the other end, soft, sad, just a little gravely.
"Uh, hi, this is Toska Kipperman from Kipperman Curiosities. We received a message from this phone number last night. I . . . if you were calling about the giant squid, I just wanted to say thank you for understanding. And . . . I'm sorry if the letter I wrote you sounded rude. I hope that he is doing well." A brief pause, hesitant. "Okay. Well, have a great day. Goodbye."
June pulls the phone away from her ear and stares at it. After a minute, she forces herself to hit redial.
The phone rings once. Twice. Three times.
After the sixth ring, someone picks up. The voice is younger than the girl on the message had been.
"Hello, Kipperman Curiosities, you've reached Wabi. Can I help you?"
"Uh--" begins June, panicking, "No, I--I was calling about--"
"Yes?" Wabi sounds patient. Unrushed.
June blurts, "Um, is Toska there?"
A beat. "Toska?" Wabi repeats. "Yes, she is. I'll have to go get her. Can you hold?"
"Sure," June agrees, blindly relieved to have a few minutes to collect herself, Christ. She doesn't know why she's sweating. She doesn't know why this matters. She doesn't know why she even called back.
She breathes into the pause and has almost calmed down when the voice from her message says smoothly, "Hello, this is Toska."
June blinks hard. "Hi," she says, somewhat stupidly, and then can't think of anything else.
She thinks maybe she can hear Toska frowning through the phone, though she has no idea what Toska even looks like. "Can I help you?" Toska asks after a few breaths of silence. She sounds bemused.
"Oh," June says, chickening out at the last minute, "yes, I wanted to--can I order products over the phone?"
She's not sure why she suddenly doesn't want to admit to being part of the family that bought the squid, that keeps him in a cage when he ought to be in the ocean.
". . . Yes," Toska says slowly. "But I'm not the one that handles those kinds of orders. I work in the seamonsters and cursed weaponry sections."
"I want a sword," June hears herself blurt, and then buries her face in her hands when Toska lets out a low, quiet laugh and June's stomach blossoms in a puff of heat.
Fuck, June thinks.
She gives the dagger to her brother, because what else is she going to do with it? She didn't want the damn thing in the first place.
She keeps the note that has been slipped inside the box, though. She recognizes the handwriting: Thank you for choosing Kipperman's Curiosities. Enjoy your dagger. Be good. -TSK
"Be good," June reads out loud, a little faintly.
Tony raises his eyebrows at her over his copy of Dante's Inferno. "Huh?"
June sighs, shaking her head. "Nothing," she tells him miserably. "It's just that I've realized that it's possible I'm a lesbian."
"Oh," he says after a minute. He sounds a little disappointed. "So I guess we're not gonna have sex, then?"
She throws a book at him. "Gross, no."
He shrugs. "All right. So what's the lucky girl look like?"
June flops back onto her bed, glaring at the ceiling with all the power of the cursed dagger she just willingly put in a fourteen-year-old's hands. "Dunno," she admits. "I've never seen her."
Because June is apparently an embarrassing sap, she sends a note off in the mail the next day. She doesn't address it to Kipperman's Curiosities, just to Toska herself.
Thanks, she writes, trying to keep her handwriting indistinguishable from the first time. She's banking on Toska not realizing that her address is the same one that wrote about the squid being sick.
She doesn't expect anything back, has fully prepared herself for being alone forever. But at breakfast the following Saturday, her father hands her a letter. She'd recognize the sloping Ls anywhere. She tears it open and feels her mouth curl up into a smile as she reads, Take good care of it. -TSK
June goes online that night and starts looking up things cheap enough for her to buy. Her friends have birthdays and she has closet space. She could definitely find use for a pair of katanas.
At night, June climbs out her window and into the tree that stands between the house and the tank. She sits on one of the lower branches and dangles her ankles in the water. Sometimes the squid moves toward her, curious, but whatever he thinks of her feet, he never stays long.
"I'm sorry," June tells him, watching his tentacles push up against the glass when he swims. He doesn't pay her any attention.
June doesn't know what they expected when they bought him. He is not a dog. He can't love humans. He probably can't love anything.
"I'm sorry," she says again.
"Hello, you've reached Weapons and Monsters," Toska sounds amused. "Are you putting together an army, or what?"
June coughs a little laugh. She feels herself blush. "Am I--sorry. Am I bothering you?"
"No," Toska answers, too quickly. "No. Not at all. I'm glad you . . . I'm happy to help however I can."
June nods, though she can't be seen. "My friends are all really into, um, weaponry," she lies, wincing even as she does it. "I thought I'd, you know, cater to their interests this year instead of just getting them socks."
"Not that I normally buy them socks," she adds.
"Right," agrees Toska. "Socks would be weird. Go with daggers instead."
This is the most horrible conversation June has ever had.
"Yeah," she agrees weakly, and is gratified to hear Toska laugh, long and low, perfect. Sad around the edges. She always sounds a little sad around the edges.
June doesn't--it's not that she wants to make her not-sad, not that she wants to erase the dark purple of Toska's words, because she doesn't. It's such a part of everything, such a perfect border to all the syllables that Toska gives her over the phone, June doesn't want to do without it.
She wants to close her eyes and listen to Toska talk forever, about anything. About everything.
Sometimes she asks for really specific orders, things that will keep Toska on the phone as they go through the inventory together. Whenever this happens, June hears snatches of things going on in the shop: the other two girls that work there (Toska's sisters, she finds out), customers trying to find the right words or looking to buy poisonous cacti.
Once, Toska comes to the phone with a harsh greeting. June hesitates before she says, "Is this--a bad time?"
Toska sighs. June can imagine her pinching the bridge of her nose. She must have dark eyes, light skin. She must have a sharp jaw, broad shoulders. June is sure. June is so sure.
"No," Toska mutters. "No, sorry. It's my sister. Leala likes to sell people the wrong plant for what they need. She thinks it's funny, but it just means we're going to have to process their complaints or returns later, and obviously I'm the one that has to do it because it's not like I have anything better to do, right?"
It's the most she's ever said about herself and June tastes all the words hungrily, staying silent just long enough to know that she's not getting anymore. She says, "Hey, I, uh. I'm sorry. My little brother sucks. I mean, he's, you know, like still an infant basically so I guess he can't help it, but. Still."
Toska's laugh is breathier than it usually is. Sadder. Closer to tears. "Yeah," she agrees. "Well, that's how it goes. So who are you weaponizing today?"
"My dad," June lies, and does her best not to look at the corner of her bedroom, where an arsenal has begun to crowd up against the walls.
The squid dies the summer after June's junior year.
His body doesn't float to the top. June thought all carcasses made for sunlight, but the squids just sinks down, all the way to the bottom. It's not deep enough, she thinks as she stares down into the water. It was never deep enough. The body has so much farther that it wants to fall.
She's not sure why, but the thought of just leaving it there--of burying it--of doing whatever her parents plan to do--makes her feel sick, so she makes Tony bring his truck over and they haul the body into the back. It's too big, and gross, and both of them are covered in slime and body parts by the time they cover it with a tarp and some bungees, but they drive all the way to Padre Island and wait until the middle of the night to unload him.
They don't have a boat so they just roll him out into the waves, retching and and shuddering, until the undertow catches him and drags him back and away.
Tony throws up on the sand and June cries all the way back to the hotel, but when Tony takes her hand on the drive home and says, "You did the right thing," she nods.
She stops calling Toska.
For one thing, she owns so many knives and daggers that she has to register as a collector. For another, she's spent pretty much every penny she ever saved up from working part-time after classes.
And the squid is dead. The squid that Toska sold to her, entrusted to her, is dead. When they had rolled its body back into the ocean, bits of its slick flesh had come off under her fingernails. She can't stand to hear Toska's voice laughing because she doesn't know that.
But she can't tell her, either.
So she helps her dad dismantle the squid tank and dates a girl in her Organic Chemistry class. She never sounds sad when she laughs. She writes in girlish print.
"Jesus, you're a mess," Tony tells her, sighing as he presses a kiss to her neck. She's been crying on him, drunk, because she doesn't love the girl from Orgo and she's pretty sure she's about to get dumped because of it.
June throws a ninja star at a target on the wall and gets a bullseye. She can only ever do it when she's so drunk that she sees double.
June graduates with honors. She goes out with her friends to celebrate and comes back home so drunk that she has to crawl up the front steps.
There's a package in the foyer. It's wrapped in brown paper, tied together with a string.
She stares at it for a long time, at the little Kipperman's Curiosities logo stamped on the corner, on the achingly familiar cursive that's curving around her name and address.
She forces herself to drink three big cups of water before she feels okay enough to cut open the wrapping, and her hands shake when they pick up the note that's attached to the cover of a Smithsonian book called The Giant Squid: Searching for a Seamonster.
The note is folded in half. She flicks it open.
If it had to be somebody, I'm glad it was you. -TSK
June feels like she's going to vomit when she steps into Kipperman's Curiosities. Her hands are shaking.
A tall, willowy girl with a square face smiles at her from the register. She walks with an odd kind of grace, off-rhythm but smooth. "Can I help you?" she asks as she approaches.
June nods. Her mouth is dry. "I'm looking. I, uh, I wanted to buy--a knife."
The girl nods. Her nametag says Wabi. "Of course. I can help you with that, if you'd like. Did you have something specific in mind?"
June shakes her head, jaw going a little slack. She hadn't thought this far. She hadn't considered shifts or days off or the fact that it's been a year and maybe Toska doesn't work here anymore.
"No," she says, and then, the words spilling out of her, "No, I was actually hoping I could speak with Toska? I wanted--I don't want to buy a dagger. I don't want anything, I just--I wanted to talk to her, if she's still here? If she's--it's been a long time, I know that, I just--"
"Oh my God," Wabi interrupts, pressing her hands to June's shoulders. "You're June. I--Tozz isn't here. She doesn't work here anymore."
"Oh," says June, and looks hard at the ground. She tries not to cry.
Wabi shakes her head. "No, no, stay here, I have something for you." She dashes back to the counter and rustles around underneath it, emerging with a word wrapped in careful plastic.
"Retrouvailles," June reads, her fingers skimming along the thick ridges of the L's. They are Toska's L's.
"The happiness felt when you see someone that you haven’t seen for a long time," Wabi says. "She wanted me to leave that here for you. In case you called again."
June nods. Her hands are shaking. "Where is she now?" she asks, every word sticking in her throat.
Toska lives in an apartment above a movie theater. Wabi gives her the address and June just--walks there. She can't trust herself behind the wheel of a car, and it only takes half an hour. She keeps her word clutched in her hand the whole time, drunk with the promise of it, clinging so tight that her fingers bleed.
She bought enough weapons from Toska to invade Mexico, but this is the first time she's ever cut herself on something from Kipperman's Curiosities.
When she gets to Toska's front door, she doesn't knock. She stands with her forehead pressed up against the wood and tries to breathe.
When she's under control enough to manage it, she just says, "Are you home?"
There is a long silence and then she hears the click of a lock sliding open. She steps back. The handle turns.
Toska does not have dark eyes or light skin, does not have a sharp jaw. She is round and soft and bright-eyed, green and gold and blue, so perfect that June starts shaking again, holding retrouvailles to her chest as if it could speak for her.
Toska doesn't say anything, just looks at her, every graze of her eyes like a physical touch, and June is too dizzy to be embarrassed when she collapses into Toska's outstretched hand and fits her face into the place where Toska's neck meets her shoulder.
"You finally made it," Toska murmurs, hands coming up around her middle to pull June in close. "It took you long enough."