Chapter 14: Gaz's Question
Dib didn't know if he cried in the days following their return. It seemed likely, after all. He slept for hours, twisted amongst the sheets that were by then streaked with blood from half-healed injuries. Violent dreams and nightmares crammed with panic and grief would shatter him awake like gunshot. If he sobbed beneath the blankets while he waited for his terror to subside before slipping back into a coma-like doze...then, well, at least no one saw him. When he finally woke up, in a more meaningful sense, he threw the sheets away. They were streaked with dried tears and sweat and blood which he was not particularly keen to spend hours bleaching out.
The weeks after his three-day-sleep were such a chaotic mess that Dib had mercifully little time alone with himself and his thoughts. The Swollen Eyeball Network was constantly pestering him about the details of the "Slenderman monster." The successful recovery of a child from a cryptid was exceedingly rare, and Dib's "victory" for the paranormal sciences was equally scrutinized and praised.
Being associated with the case at all disgusted Dib. Sure, he was glad that Joby had made it out alright, but every question about how he'd spent those two days was a brief descent into a nightmare he wanted desperately to shake from his mind.
The Swollen Eyeballs weren't the only ones to make Dib's transition back into normalcy difficult, of course. A glaring reminder of the horrid ordeal was attached firmly to Dib's arm, jarring him to the core every time he reached for something to his right. His father, wanting to test his experiment as much to help his son, had fixed Dib up with a robotic arm to replace the one lost to Zim's reactor. While it worked probably 90% as well as his original, Dib somehow knew that he would never quite get used to it.
The worst part about it was that he'd lost half of his nail-biting real estate. Every time he began to get frustrated and tried to chew on a fingernail out of habit, the bitter taste of rubber and metal and oil from the robotic fingertips bloomed in his mouth. It took several rounds of soda to wash the flavor back out again.
Perhaps a normal person would see this as an excuse to drop the habit forever, but Dib just redoubled the gnawing he did on his left hand. By now blood was near-chronically leaking from around his cuticles and favoring his left hand was just as painful as favoring his right robo-hand was inconvenient.
Even three weeks after all the miniscule pistons and imitation nano-muscles had been fused to his own nerves and tissue, writing with his right hand was an agonizingly slow process. Dib had spent the better part of a half-hour accidentally breaking pencils in half instead of filling in one of his college applications. The kitchen table was littered in wood and graphite fragments, on top of crumpled papers with "Dibth Mermbrein" scrawled across the signature line.
"Damn it!" he yelped, after smashing the sixth pencil to powder. He flexed the mechanical fingers, feeling the weird tendony pull in what remained of his arm. Something was configured wrong, he figured. One of the little gears or nanomuslces was out of whack. That was the only explanation.
Dib looked unhappily at his pile of forms. Most of them were due within a few days – if he didn't fill them out now, he'd be out of luck. But his arm…
He let his gaze slide out to the living room. Gaz's purple head was just visible over the back of the couch, her form bent over a book. Dib felt something quiver in his intestines at the sight of her, but he calmed it down. He needed help from someone. The Professor wasn't going to be home for hours, days maybe, and Dib couldn't function with one arm.
He thought vaguely about calling up Keef to come over, but Keef wasn't any good at mechanics.
He and Gaz had been carefully ignoring one another since the incident. Dib didn't think he'd said ten words to her in as many days. For the first time in his life, their silence was his doing. It was him barging up to his room and locking the door when he got home from school. He'd become the one who left early in the morning and ate late at night just to avoid her.
Dib told himself that he was doing this for her sake, so she didn't have to interact with the brother who'd evidently been a loathsome burden. In truth, every time he caught a glimpse of violet hair or honey-colored eyes stalking around the house it was all he could do not to scream.
It wouldn't do him a lot of good to scream now, of course. He needed Gaz's help with his arm if he wanted to get anything done today. Slowly, urging himself every step of the way, Dib got to his feet and walked over to the sofa.
"Hey, Gaz. I-I'm sorry to bother you, but my arm's acting weird. Do you think you could take a look at it?" He held his robotic forearm out. If it had a thick, blue vein at the wrist he'd be exposing it to her. Gaz looked up at him strangely, her brow furrowed, before closing her book.
"Finally decided to open your stupid mouth again, huh? C'mon, dad keeps the screwdrivers in the basement." She turned away from him and rolled out of the sofa, heading toward the door to the basement lab as Dib stared stupidly at her. So was that it? No insults? Just feigned ignorance?
Dib wondered for a moment if maybe it was a trick. Maybe she was going to lure him into the cellar and stab him or something equally insane – why else would she act so nonchalant?
Can you get over yourself for one damned second? She offered to help, you ought to be grateful.
For a second or so he stood there, trying to flex the malfunctioning muscles in his false arm in the vain hope that they'd spontaneously fixed themselves.
"You coming or not?" Gaz called up the stairway. Pause.
He descended after her into the gloomy darkness of their father's home lab – right now it was empty and desolate without any of his sparking experiments or booming laughter to fill it. Gaz cleared some room on one of the benches and fetched the robotic-repair kit from one of the shelves.
"Let's get this over with so you can whack off more efficiently, or whatever it is you need your arm for," she said. Without warning she grabbed the middle of Dib's mechanical forearm, fingers tight around the fragile false-muscles, and he pulled instinctively away from her.
"What's your problem?" She yanked at his arm, slamming it down on the table between them. The muscles in Dib's shoulders tensed at her touch, but he forced himself still. Both of his hands stayed balled into fists.
"What's my problem? What's your problem, Gaz?" The words were out before he could stop them.
"What in the hell are you talking about?"
"Three weeks ago you told Zim to go ahead and kill me, and today you're willing to fix my arm? What is it, Gaz? Am I a waste of space or not?"
Gaz stared levelly at him through heavily lidded eyes. She scrounged around in the repair kit with her free hand, keeping his arm pinned to the bench tightly. Without looking away she managed to find a screwdriver. Holding the steel tip above his mechanical wrist, she started to unscrew some of the tiny bolts with all the precision of a surgeon.
Dib let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. At least she didn't try to stab him with it.
"Geez, I didn't think that would upset you so much. I'll say 'I'm sorry' if it makes you start acting normal again," she said, half-disinterested as she popped open one of the tiny panels on his arm and set it aside.
"No." he said, resolutely, determined that she should hear him. She could ignore his words all she wanted, disregard them as easily as the barking of a dog, so long as he could get them into the world and out of him. "You can't just say 'I'm sorry' and expect that to fix everything. Look, Gaz, this isn't like when we were kids and you broke my Lego Millennium Falcon because you wanted another cookie. This time you damn near broke me."
Dib realized that if he moved even a few inches one way or another without warning he'd probably end up with a wrecked arm – her screwdriver would be rammed down amidst all the fake tendons and computer chips. It took nearly all of his focus to stay still, every other muscle in his body tensed to breaking.
"Hold this," Gaz said. She forced a few of the screws into his other hand, refusing to meet his eyes. For a minute or two she was quiet, focused on his robot-arm, eyes flickering as she thought. "Is that all you have to say?"
Dib took a long, sighing breath. He let his arm lie limply on the table, every muscle shrugging tiredly. "I can deal with being hated, Gaz. I can make my peace with people not liking me. For as far as I can remember no one's really liked me. But if you hated me just like the rest of the world all this time, I wish you would have just said it instead of acting like you gave a shit."
"I don't hate you, moron," she said flatly. Dib felt something tug at one of the metallic tendons deep in his arm as Gaz's screwdriver pried away. The urge to clench his fist itched at him, like wanting to sneeze at the dentist.
"Really? Then why the hell did you tell Zim to go ahead and kill me back in that insane asylum?"
"Because I was angry. Maybe I meant some of it, I don't know. You are a pain in the ass sometimes," she admitted, eyes still locked down at his arm. Her jaw was set in a tight line as she worked.
"Angry? About what?"
Suddenly Gaz snapped her head toward him, eyes burning. Dib pulled back instinctively away from her and felt her yank on his arm, pulling him closer. There were only inches between them. "I was angry that it's always your stupid shit that gets us into those types of situations. And I was pissed off that you tried to bargain yourself. That was a fucking dumb thing to do, I hope you know."
Dib hadn't expected her to find fault with that.
"Heh. I thought maybe you'd be flattered. Not every day your brother offers to be tortured to death for you."
She continued to glare up at him, holding his wrecked arm tightly, breathing the tense, tight air around them in huffy little breaths. Eventually, finally, he saw her loosen ever so slightly around the shoulders. She slumped down over the table, pulling him by the wrist until his forearm was back in the center of her workspace. The tips of his metal fingers twitched without his bidding as she started tightening metallic tendons again.
"It wasn't flattering, it was stupid. I'm not about to go the rest of my life knowing that my asshole genius brother got himself killed for my sake. That's the sort of thing that sounds really goddamn noble until you have to live with it. It's pretty hard for you to love me when you're dead."
"Huh. Being noble didn't have anything to do with it. If it hadn't been so obsessed with being noble when I was a kid, none of this would have happened in the first place," Dib said, bitterly, hearing Gaz's own derisive tone in his voice. It was a bit scary.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Watch it!" He yelped, feeling a painful spasm near his bone as her screwdriver hit one of the pseudo-nerves. He tried to ignore Gaz's little grin when he jumped. "I mean that I should have just left Zim alone back then. If I hadn't turned him in then he never would have started abducting and tearing apart little kids just to get to me. Or kidnapping you," he added, looking down and away from her.
"Dib, I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and shit a better argument than that. Maybe uncovering Zim didn't go the way you wanted, but if you hadn't done it, he'd have spent five more years terrorizing people. There might be a billion people dead instead of just a couple." Gaz rolled her eyes as she spoke, as if he was the world's dumbest paranormal investigator.
"What are you saying?" It was frustrating to him that she'd pointed out the greyness of the situation. The ambiguity. The impossibility of a right answer. He tightened his real fingers around the screws she'd given him, feeling the tiny bits of metal bite into his palms. "That this was the best possible outcome? Me without an arm, and six different prescription antipsychotics to my name, and that kid out in the boondocks who's going to need therapy until he's my age?"
"Here, give me those back," she said, holding one hand out. He obliged, handing her the screws, staring at her, trying to process her words. "No one ever said that being the Savior of Humanity would be easy, Dib. Or simple. Or black and white. You're the dumbass who assumed that when you started. It had to happen this way. Which, yeah, really sucks for you. But there really weren't a lot of other options."
Dib felt his teeth tighten together inside of his mouth at her words. He stuttered and stumbled at an argument but couldn't find any words for it. Instead he fell silent, leaning his hip against the table, watching as Gaz replaced the panels over his arm and trying to focus on her minute motions instead of his own thundering thoughts.
"Better?" She asked, finally releasing him.
Dib lifted his arm, flexed the fingers, feeling everything contract exactly how it was supposed to. Well, as much as it could being metal, anyway.
"Yeah, a lot better." And then, awkward, "thanks, Gaz."
"I guess I should have thanked you for trying to save me from Zim, anyway. Even if you sucked at it. So let's say that we're even, okay?" She planted her knuckles on one hip, raising at eyebrow at him.
"Heh. Fine. We're even."
Gaz turned away, heading for the basement door, her steps getting gradually quieter as she stomped up. Dib hadn't done anything much that day, but some quiet layer of exhaustion settled over him as he watched Gaz retreat back up the stairs. He let his robotic arm fall limply to his side, taking deep, calming breaths of the cool, musty basement air.
Finally he followed her.
As soon as Dib reached the top of the steps, he abandoned his plans to continue filling out college forms. His brain rattled around with half-formed thoughts, stretched emotions, and Gaz's already badly-remembered words. He pushed past the kitchen, past Gaz on the couch, and headed for the stairs to the second floor.
His bedroom was just as he'd left it, the window still tightly locked. Dib's arm was working much better now, and he was able to slide the pane of glass over his bed open with only one hand. Then again, the last time he'd tried to open the window was when he was a kid, so maybe he was just stronger now in general.
Dib stuck his head out the window, reaching up to grab the gutter that lined the roof. It took a bit more maneuvering than he remembered – being taller and heavier didn't help – but with minimal scraping and flailing Dib managed to lever himself up onto the roof.
Dangling his legs off the side, Dib settled down on the eastern side of the house. He crossed the tips of his boots, looking out across the landscape. The sun had already inched down below the horizon, casting a streaked orangey-yellow pallor over the town. Here and there lights were coming on down in the city, tall buildings glowing and car headlights scooting back and forth like neon ants through the streets.
Tipping his head back, Dib saw that Venus was already shining its pinprick light above the mountains beyond the town.
The world had certainly kept turning, whether Dib liked it or not. There it was, all out before him, spread like a map in perfect view from the roof of the Membrane house. He looked down at the robotic arm, flexed the artificially strong fingers.
He didn't have a lot of excuses left, he realized. Zim was really gone now. No longer rotting in a tube, terrorizing anyone, taking over the world.
Gaz was…well, Gaz was still there, he supposed, but that was really the most he could ask.
There was one less thing out there hurting people, and that had to count for something, right?
There wasn't anything else for Dib to do. Nothing but move forward, that is. Nothing but get on with his life, one tiny little day at a time. Nothing but find a new place in the turning world that wasn't defined by that screaming Irken he'd met so long ago.
It was some closure. Tiny. But something. He was free.
Dib leaned back, lying down on the rooftop still hot from the fading sunlight. He stared up at the faintly purple sky, watching the stars blink quietly one-by-one into existence.
Things could only improve.
I guess that's it, dears. I tried to do the best I could for all of you. I tried to do the story justice, and I hope I succeeded. At least a little bit. It's been quite a roller-coaster, I'm not going to lie. This story is the first thing I've completed in years. It's certainly the longest. It's been a fantastic experience, from start to finish, and a really fun return to the world of writing.
To those of you who've been here all along, or who've just found this story, I'm going to just say THANKS one last time. Even if you didn't review, you still read this and got to share in some of my experience, so you're important too! Seriously, I couldn't have done this without every single one of you.
So, just for funsies, I've decided to include some of my notes/reasonings for some of the things I did in the story. A bit of "bonus features" reel, if you will. I really like reading these in fanfictions that I've enjoyed, so I just thought I'd include it. No obligation to read the whole thing, obvs. I'd make it it's own chapter if that was allowed, but it's not.
And, if there's something else I did in the story that didn't make sense and you'd like explained, just leave a review or send me a PM and I'll be glad to update this and add it for future reference.
This is probably going to sound totally insane, but Dib having a messenger bag was REALLY important to me, so I tried to talk about it every chance I got. Bizarre, right? "Herp derp, we don't have time for any of that fancy-ass CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT or AMBIENCE. We're too busy emphasizing what the main character keeps his books in. DERP."
Seriously though, I think that there is a good reason for this. And that reason is that Dib would absolutely be a messenger bag kind of guy. Still no idea what I'm talking about? If you're in college (or, I guess, went to a big high school) look around campus one day at the kinds of guys who carry messenger bags. I can almost guarantee you that like half of them will be wearing dark jackets and probably jaunty hats of some kind. If you talk to these guys, they will tell you which version of Stargate/Battlestar/Star Trek was the best. At least, that was true at my school - it was actually kind of shocking the regularity with which messenger bags, black jackets and general brilliant dorkyness went together.
I guess at the end of the day I just couldn't resist making Dib a member of the Messenger Bag Brotherhood. He seemed to fit pretty well into their ranks. (For those of you following along at home, Stargate SG-1 was the best).
"SANDUSKY AND MEMBRANE"
Don't worry, everyone - I am well aware that Word of God has said that Professor Membrane's kids don't actually have "Membrane" as their last name. And yes, I'm usually a total stickler for whatever the creators say. I'm sure that this bothered a lot of people. There must have been rioting in the streets. It certainly bothered me.
BUT. But but but. All that said, at the end of the day, I really needed for the boy to have a last name. It becomes pretty damn difficult to work out a story with this kind of scope without mentioning last names anywhere. I didn't want to give him some random name like "Hofstetler" because that would completely throw everything off, and I didn't want to exhaust myself with dorky gimmicks where, like, something explodes every time Dib's last name is almost mentioned so you never actually hear it. Beyond that, probably half of the fandom has accepted "Membrane" as his last name anyway. So, yes. It really did pain me to violate canon, but it had to be done.
A major inspiration for this work as a whole was the novel "Frankenstein," by Mary Shelley. I happened to be reading it at the same time I started working on this, and the overall mood of the book had a big influence on how I wrote this. We've got a lot of similarities here. There's a screwed-up dichotomy between a wronged monster and a morally ambiguous scientist, a creature that stalks through the night and murders innocents just to get at the one person he hates, and the just general creepiness of the story.
Zim's got a lot in common with Victor Frankenstein's monster. He tries to fit into a society that will never accept him, is rejected by everyone and ultimately turns to violence and revenge as the only way to accomplish his ends. Dib's trying to do what he thinks is the right thing for the wrong reasons, and digs himself a whole that's too deep to cleanly climb back out of. Like Frankenstein himself, Dib eventually figures out that things have gone too far to ever really be set right again, so he has to make the best out of the horrible situation he's made for himself.
Essentially, this quote here I feel really highlights the core of the Frankenstein/the Operator tie in that I was really going for. Right before bringing the monster to life, Victor says this:
"I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."
Boom. I also tried to rely on Shelley's creepy story-telling style as I read, because I have literally zero experience in writing horror/suspense.
Of course, I'd be amiss to not cite the many, many Slenderman blogs and creepypasta stories out there as sources of inspiration and help. My personal favorite is Just Another Fool, but if you're interested in the Slenderman mythos at all, I'd recommend checking out the Slenderman page on TVTropes as a good starting point for links and general info. Zim is totally the proto-Slenderman. He's got the build (multiple tentacle-legs, simple face, uniform) and the personality (murderous creepiness, ties to children).
Furthermore, I played a lot of "Psychonauts" while writing this. If you've never heard of the game, just imagine if Jhonen Vasquez and Tim Burton made the movie "Inception" and you've got a good idea of what it's like. "Psychonauts" delves a lot into the issues of insanity, mental stability, hallucinations, and other things, so borrowed really heavily from its feel when trying to describe Dib's pseudo-descent into madness. It's also probably one of (if not the) greatest games I've ever played, so give it a shot if you like brilliant, quirky stuff. It's available on Steam for like $10, the greatest deal in gaming.
Right now I've got a handful of little projects rolling around in my head, and some starts to all of them. I'm horrible at deciding what to dedicate all my focus to so right now they're all just getting a little bit of attention. What currently has priority, though is a story I'm calling "Punch Club" – a retelling of the book/novel "Fight Club" set in the Invader Zim universe. I really feel like Zim and Dib have a very Tyler Durden/Narrator dynamic to them, and there are a lot of cool canon things to work with in making a "Fight Club" adaptation.
This story would be a fast-paced, first-person Dib snarkfest. Zim abandons Dib after high school, and without the alien to spur him on, the boy descends into indifference and mediocrity, eventually working for professor Membrane just for something to do. But Zim shows back up one day, full of insane plans for world domination, taco stands and informal boxing clubs, and Dib is so desperate for meaning in his life that he goes along with Zim's scheming.
So stay tuned, I guess, for this story whenever I get decently into it. I've also decided I need to work on some one-shots/short stories, because that's a really elegant form of storytelling that I'm not very good at. I'm going to try and post some of those in between now and when I start uploading parts of "Punch Club."
Otherwise, you all have been fantastic. No, really, I mean all of you. If you're reading this, you're my favorite. I never could have done it without you guys. Literally. Until next time, my darlings!