More than anything, this tweet…
[S] Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. But usually it’s Destrozzor, a 60-foot-tall robot who’s been trying to kill me since I was eleven.
…was the catalyst for launching Longer Thoughts. It wasn’t the first tweet of mine that sounded like a decent story premise, but it was the first one that I acted on. And it came out well enough that it seemed like a good excuse to launch the blog, whose URL we’d secured a few months before.
I wrote “My Own Worst Enemy” in little chunks of time I had over a span of two days, and I don’t think it’ll spoil the experience for you to know that it ended up going someplace that was very unexpected to me. It is fictional, but at times is honest almost to the point of being autobiographical. Thank you to Mrs. Storm for lending her considerable editing talents, and to Len Peralta and Paul for giving it a look and getting me past the “I suck” barrier.
I’ve uploaded a FREE pdf version to Lulu.com, for thems (like me) who don’t like to read stories off of web pages. I hope to make an ePub version available at some point, but the conversion process is rather fussy. But by all means feel free to read its 4,000+ words here.
Cover design is based on a photo by Flickr user KingDaveRa
My Own Worst Enemy
by Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo
Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. But usually it’s Destrozzor, an 80-foot-tall robot who’s been trying to kill me since I was eleven.
I know, I know. You’re thinking to yourself “how can someone possibly be alive after thirty years as the sole target of a semi-sentient murderous machine?” I guess it’s like most things: you get used to it over time. It also helps that he’s not very fast, and you can literally hear him coming from miles away.
No, I wasn’t always this casual about my deadly nemesis. And my first encounter with him was anything but casual.
It was the last week of the school year, just before my summer of Atari. Me and my friends stood around during recess speculating about what it would be like next year at McClellan Junior High, which we’d toured earlier that day.
“Can you believe they have an Apple ][?” said Carl Ginsberg, wiping his glasses. “I’m going to learn programming.” It’s funny to think about it now, but the most sophisticated computers we’d encountered up to that point were Carl’s Intellivision and Tim Gallagher’s Space Invaders game watch, which of course he played as we talked.
“You heard what the guidance counselor said–only kids in Gifted and Talented get to use the computer,” said Tim, eyes glued to his wrist. Carl snorted and laughed, a sound pitched exactly halfway between a downshifting diesel truck and a cat attempting to eject a hairball.
“We are, without a modicum of doubt, the most erudite kids at this school,” he said, walking his laugh back down through its lower gears. “We’ll get in.” Tim looked up just long enough to shoot Carl a skeptical look. “Well, at least Tim and I will.”
“Hey! Why not me?” I protested, nearly choking on my banana-esque Hubba Bubba gum.
We spent the rest of recess in awkward silence, which wasn’t really so different from most other days. I didn’t realize it at the time, but after classes ended for the day, I would never see either of them again.
The following morning they posted the G&T list. Sure enough, Carl and Tim were on it.
I was not.
In truth I don’t think I really cared about getting into G&T. Sure, my friends would be there, but I’d heard that in G&T you had to do a paper every week in every class, plus pages and pages of math–including tons of word problems. I knew I was smart enough to do the work. But why should I have to run through a bunch of hoops to prove it?
As I stood staring at the list, an iron grip clasped down on my shoulder. At first I thought it was Dax Ferguson seeking revenge after somehow (correctly) deducing that it was me who’d half-filled his football with milk. But after three stabbing heartbeats went by and my face still wasn’t planted face-down against linoleum tile, I made a second guess. “I’m not late!” I said to the hand. “Homeroom isn’t for another five minutes!”
“FIFTEEN minutes.” My guess was correct! “Though I do need ten minutes of your time right now.”
Mr. Kahn steered me away from the list and into an empty classroom, closing the door behind us. My mind raced as I tried to think of what I was in trouble for, but I drew a blank. Some of the other teachers didn’t care for my sense of humor and its classroom applications, but Mr. Kahn seemed to get me–and he always made it clear where the line was–so I never caused him trouble. I even usually turned in my homework to him on time. He motioned for me to sit in a classroom chair as he leaned against the teacher’s desk. A single boom of distant thunder shook the walls. That’s funny, I thought as I glanced out the window to the right of Mr. Kahn, the sky was clear when I got to school.
“I noticed you were looking at the Gifted and Talented list,” he said, arching his fingers together.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Favorite teacher or not, I wasn’t about to divulge any more information than necessary until I knew what his game was. The walls boomed again, and I looked away from him and out the window. Blue sky. I turned my head back to find a gigantic hand in my face.
“Hel-looo! I’m still here.” Mr. Kahn was smiling, but I could tell that he was annoyed, just like the time I finished his test with half an hour to spare, and started to build a castle out of paper on my desk. I wasn’t bothering anyone, and he couldn’t have missed the level of detail I put into the battlements, but he reprimanded me all the same. “You’re making me start to think the other teachers might be right.”
That got my attention. Aside from Mr. Kahn, every other teacher at school had always been out to get me. Now I might get the proof. “About what?”
“About you,” he said, retreating behind the desk. The sky thundered again, closer, but I managed to keep my eyes on Mr. Kahn, who apparently cared nothing at all about matters meteorological. “You’ve shown incredible ability, especially this year. Even Mrs. Yancey has been impressed with your performance on tests.”
My heart soared. I still didn’t know what Mr. Kahn was getting at, but if I was even drawing praise from my dreaded math teacher, maybe they’d decided to give me next year off. But Mr. Kahn wasn’t done.
“The thing is, the Gifted and Talented program isn’t just about being smart. I haven’t noticed it from you in my class, but the other teachers tell me that you have to be asked time and again to turn in homework assignments. And when you do, it’s the bare minimum required.”
It was true: homework simply wasn’t one of my priorities. My mouth opened to offer up all of the reasons why, but before a single syllable could trickle out, the biggest boom yet shook the room. Mr. Kahn’s eyes followed mine out the window, but he was on too good a roll to let a localized weather anomaly break his momentum.
“So here’s the deal,” he said, crossing back in front of the desk, hands knit together. Outside, a group of third graders ran by. They looked frightened. “There’s room for one more student in G&T, and the other teachers have agreed to let me decide whether or not to give you the slot.”
Mr. Kahn paused as a horrible screech cut through the air, like a thousand garbage trucks operating their crushers simultaneously. Outside, a crossing guard herded a group of panicked, crying kindergartners out of a bus and into the school. There was a terrible ripping sound…
“Will you please look at me?”
…and an uprooted tree flew across the parking lot. I wrenched my eyes away from the window and back to Mr. Kahn.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling again, though somehow it made him look sad. “I’ve decided, however, that it’s too important a decision for me to make. I trust that you’re smart enough to understand what I’m asking.”
“Yeaaaaah…” I said absently, feigning thoughtfulness as I turned to look directly out the window–just in time to see a gigantic iron hand crash down on the school bus, crushing it in the middle like a beer can. As the bus shuddered and began to lift off the ground, I realized with horror that the driver was still inside. Even from a distance I could see the whites of her eyes, dilated to the size of paper plates. The crossing guard came back into view, risking her own life as she beckoned the driver to jump down.
I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just jump. The bus was still only a foot or two off the ground, moving slowly, and the door was wide open. And it would probably take less energy to jump than the amount it was taking her to cling to the steering wheel and scream…
The hand was back in my face, and when it moved to reveal Mr. Kahn, he wasn’t smiling anymore. “Look, you’re a good kid, and I really believe that you’re capable of doing great things,” he began. The school bus lifted up and out of sight with the driver still cowering inside. “But unless you make a heartfelt commitment to change your habits, it won’t work out.” A few metal pieces sprinkled the sidewalk, followed by what looked like a large wadded up mass of yellow-orange tinfoil. As it dawned upon me that I was looking at the coffin of a school employee, a metal foot larger than the bus slammed down, pounding the vehicle’s remains into a scrap tortilla.
Mr. Kahn stared at me the whole time, oblivious to the carnage taking place just outside the window. “So I’m going to ask you simply,” he continued,“and I won’t ask again: do you want to be in the Gifted and Talented program?”
Before I could answer, a terrible grating screech sounded from directly overhead, like a rusty fork the size of an oak tree scraping down along a sky-high chalkboard. I could hear kids running in the hallway, some of them screaming. The door flew open and Mrs. Yancey’s frazzle-haired head poked inside.
“Mr. Kahn–oh, thank god!” she said, head bobbling. “No one knew where you were, and I–um, we–we feared the worst. We have to get out of here!” Mrs. Yancey’s voice did what no amount of thunder or bus crushing could accomplish, and Mr. Kahn’s head bounced to attention like it had been hit by a dodge ball.
“What’s happening? Are the Gifted and Talented kids safe?” he asked, springing to his feet.
“Yes! They’re being taken to the underground bunker, out by the jungle gym. Now come on!”
“Okay, but we have to take him with us!” shouted Mr. Kahn, pointing at me as the room began to shake. A long crack appeared along the joint where walls met ceiling. “He has potential.”
“It’s too late!” yelled Mrs. Yancey. Sunlight shot through the ceiling as hunks of concrete fell into the classroom. Mrs. Yancey ran to Mr. Kahn, and he put his arms around her as rust-flecked iron fingers reached through the room’s new skylight. Air rushed in reeking of ozone and burning oil, accompanied by a deafening, clacking roar.
“Save yourself!” Mr. Kahn screamed, jerking his head towards the open door. Before I could as much as flinch, the gigantic hand gripped the ceiling and ripped it free. A plume of concrete and insulation rushed at my eyes, and I snapped them shut.
Even through the cloud of debris I could feel the June sun warming my cheeks, and I opened my eyes to meet my fate. At first all I saw was a dark grey blur rising high up into the sky against a lighter grey background. Towards the top were two malevolent purple pricks of light, sweeping right and left. The roaring sounds died down to an uncomfortably loud hum with an undertone of arrhythmic clacking. I stood transfixed as the haze cleared, and in my peripheral vision I saw that my teachers were frozen in awe.
“Impossible!” said Mr. Kahn.
“Lord have mercy…” whimpered Mrs. Yancey.
“Destrozzor,” I said, reading the metal plate riveted onto the towering robot’s chest. In that moment I may not have known where it came from, or who built and programmed it, but I knew for certain that its sole purpose was to seal my fate. As the dust settled, Destrozzor’s shape came into sharp relief.
“Look at the size of it!” marveled Mr. Kahn, who still had Mrs. Yancey attached to him like a cat clinging to a high tree limb.
All in all, Destrozzor looked like the robot a seven-year-old would construct out of cardboard and duct tape–a bulky collection of ninety degree angles and cartoon rivets–albeit in this case eighty feet tall. Only its under-sized, neck-less head had any curviture; it was like a single grey gummy dot perched atop a stack of hi-fi components.
Destrozzor loomed forward with a rasping whir, arms at its side, casting the classroom into darkness. Back and forth its head swept, blazing pinprick eyes dead and steady.
“What’s it doing?” asked Mrs. Yancey.
“Scanning,” said Mr. Kahn. But I knew the whole truth.
“It’s here for me,” I said, bravely. “Only my death will stop it.” I jumped to the middle of the room and began waving my arms up at my executioner. “HEY! Down here!”
“Don’t be a fool!” shouted Mr. Kahn, but it was too late. Destrozzor’s head changed course and its purple eyes fixed on me. A terrible roar rose up as its engines kicked in, and a plume of black smoke billowed out behind it. An steady intermittent buzzer sounded, and its right arm slowly rose into the sky.
“Come on!” I shouted. Determined to meet my fate head-on, I met its cold gaze. Destrozzor’s arm paused, its metal fist high above its head. “COME ON!” I yelled, drinking in the roar of the robot’s engines, savoring every clink and grind. The arm began to swing down, and I braced for impact–
“NOOOOO!” shouted Mr. Kahn, and suddenly I was flying face-down towards the open classroom door, propelled by my teacher’s shove. I landed hard, losing my wind, but momentum carried me out into the hallway. Behind me a thunderous, cracking explosion told me that I would never see Mr. Kahn or Mrs. Yancey again.
But the middle of a battlefield is no place to grieve. As a fresh wave of debris scoured my face, instinct kicked in, and I realized I had to make it to the Gifted and Talented bunker before Destrozzor recognized that I wasn’t dead. Lungs on fire as I sucked in air, I got to my feet and started down the hall. Looking back through holes in the ceiling I saw my nemesis still peering down into the classroom, scanning, scanning. Other children were in the halls, cowering under water fountains or curled up against the walls. I knew that their only safety was to be as far away from me as possible. I ran faster.
I flew through the recess doors in stride. Behind me Destrozzor was bent over the classroom, arms down, sifting through the rubble. I shot across the blacktop and angled towards the jungle gym. Fifty yards away I could make out the bunker hatch, and it was closing.
“Wait!” I shouted before stumbling on a book that must have been dropped by one of the future G&T kids. Fire shot down my arm as I slammed down on my left shoulder, facing the school and Destrozzor.
The robot froze in place, engines idling back to an easy clack. Its turret head began to spin around, and my stomach fell into itself as I realized I was in the middle of the blacktop and completely exposed. Just before Destrozzor’s scanning eyes reached me, the hatch hinge gave a high-pitched yawn and slammed into place, drawing the behemoth’s attention.
Squeaking and scraping, Destrozzor straightened itself to full height and turned its body to align with its head, directly facing the hatch. Below him in the school, some of the braver kids took the opportunity to make their escape. Good for them.
But my only chance for survival was getting into that bunker. Destrozzor let out a shrill, metallic howl as he disgorged a scalding cloud of steam. He’d be in motion soon, but I knew it would take the robot time to build up momentum–I should have just enough time to make it to the bunker. I scrambled to my feet and shot forward, sneakers digging down the asphalt.
Thunder shook the ground with Destrozzor’s first footfall. I kept my running. The second thump came quicker and harder. I lost my glasses. The sound wave from the third rearranged my internal organs. I was almost there. And then–
–Destrozzor’s shrieking whistle split my skull, and I crumpled to the ground 20 feet short of the hatch. Rolling onto my back I saw Destrozzor’s foot planted just behind me, his opposite arm raised high. Ears ringing from the sonic blast, I saw his red-flecked iron fist begin to descend. Bravery deserted me and I closed my eyes.
Into the air I flew as the ground under me bowed upward. Another stab of pain as I landed on my shoulder again. Already temporarily deaf, I opened my eyes and was nearly blinded.
Destrozzor’s head dominated my field of vision, flush to the ground and facing me. His eyes were large as beer kegs and roiled with purple electric plasma. I could have reached out and touched it, but opted to scramble back–I’d played Berzerk before, and wasn’t going to risk electrocution. His head tracked my movements, but as I scuttled away I saw that he’d buried his attacking arm into the Gifted and Talented bunker, all the way to the shoulder. He was pinned.
And so were Carl and Tim.
I added them to my grief deferral list, and tried not to imagine them at the bottom of that bunker, squishing through the cracks of Destrozzor’s rusty iron fist like blackberry jam. I staggered to my feet, took one last look at my school, and found the energy to run home.
Of course my family and I moved that very night–as far away as possible. It all happened well before the internet existed, so it’s not surprising that it didn’t make the national news. Even the local stations didn’t cover it, but in those days they rarely paid attention to anything that happened in the suburbs.
Years later I learned that the local authorities passed the incident off as a gas main explosion, which also stands to reason. I mean, would the town be taken seriously if they put “robot attack” on a disaster relief form? Unlikely.
I found not one but three silver linings in the wake of the attack. One: I was now aware that a 80-foot tall robot named Destrozzor was trying to kill me–and knowing is half the battle. Two: I had survived Destrozzor’s attack relatively unscathed, and now lived far, far away. Three: to help me recover from my end-of-school-year trauma, my parents bought me an Atari 2600.
Technically the video game system was also for my brother, but I knew it was intended for me. Gary was four years older and completely absorbed in sports, so after he got bored with it one week later, the console, joysticks, paddles, and all of the attendant cartridges were mine, mine, mine. And when I say it was a silver lining, I don’t mean because I just wanted to have fun playing video games.
Not at all: it was an opportunity to take the initiative against Destrozzor. Only a handful of people in the world could have built him, I reasoned; so too was the Atari 2600 a similarly sophisticated creation. Therefore, whoever built the first must have crossed paths with the person or persons who built the other–perhaps it was even the same guy! And if that was the case, his digital fingerprints should be all over the games. So all summer long I dedicated every waking moment looking for clues in the games, playing them over and over again–Combat, Adventure, Superman; it didn’t matter what–and growing thick callouses that I knew would serve me well the next time I came face to face with my own worst enemy.
Of course I now realize the key flaw in my reasoning–even in 1980, far more sophisticated computers existed–but even though it meant I didn’t make any friends that summer in my new neighborhood, I don’t regret spending the entire summer with my Atari 2600. I’d meet plenty of kids in September when I started at my new school (which, oddly enough, was also called McClellen Junior High, though it didn’t have a Gifted and Talented program).
And as it turns out, my instinct to stay on guard was prescient–Destrozzor would strike again. It was during my senior year in high school, while on a weekend college tour with my dad. I’d previously seen a couple of schools, but it only took a few hours for me to fall in love with Tech and its comp sci department. I’d have to take out loans and work a job in the cafeteria to afford it, but if I could stick it out, in four years I’d be able to write my own ticket.
Saturday night came crisp and clear, and I couldn’t have been happier about my decision, despite the fact that my busy schedule probably wouldn’t allow me the time to join a fraternity or a band, or to date, or play Nintendo, or just hang out, or really do anything at all except study and work. I had an appointment with a college representative early the next morning to make it official, so my dad and I headed back to the hotel right after dinner to get a good night’s sleep. We’d just exited the car when I heard it: a low, distant boom, followed by a clacking screech. My dad tried to convince me that it was probably just noise from a nearby construction site, but I knew better. After a giant robot robs you of your beloved friends and your two favorite teachers in the world, you WILL NOT EVER forget the exact audio frequencies it generates.
We drove home that night. And the next day after reading that the hotel where we stayed had been burned to the ground by an arsonist (a likely story!), I knew that I had indeed just barely escaped Destrozzor’s clutches. I also knew that coming back to Tech in the fall would not only put my own life at risk, but the entire student body’s as well. So as much as it pained me, I chose a different school that was far, far away and, regrettably, didn’t even have a comp sci department at all.
Aside from the occasional distant boom and this one time that I thought I saw Destrozzor’s outline on the horizon, the incident at Tech was the closest I’ve come to actually seeing him since the McClellan Massacre. But that’s not to say he’s stopped trying to kill me; he’s just refined his tactics in response to my vigilance.
Like the night during college when I gave my car keys to my old friend Tim at the start of a party so that I could drink and not be tempted to drive. Tim left early, taking my keys with him, and yet four hours later when I was ready to leave, there they were on the kitchen counter. I realize now how they got there, but was too drunk at the time to think anything of the fact that the keys rested on a small pile of rust and metal filings. And even though no one was killed in the crash, Destrozzor’s gambit probably did me more direct harm than all of his other attacks combined. To this day my insurance still costs a fortune. Or at least more than an assistant call center manager should be asked to pay.
But no attack strikes harder than one to the heart, and I must say that even ten years later I’m not quite over Destrozzor’s last gambit. I’d been living with Mina for over a year, and knew that she wanted to marry me, start a family, and all that. She was subtle, but the hints were there, like asking me what she thought we’d be like as old people, or pointing out the differences among different types of baby strollers. It truly was Destrozzor’s most cunning ruse, and I should have realized it sooner. Yet there I was with a ring in my pocket, waiting for my would-be fiancé to show up at our favorite restaurant. But when she arrived at the table wearing glass earrings that looked sort of like little purple plasma beer kegs, it all fell into place. Only a robot could have been as perfect as Mina.
I still feel bad sometimes about leaving her at the table, and for changing my phone and e-mail, and for moving to another city. But I just repeat to myself over and over that she wasn’t a real person, and before long I feel better.
I’m as mystified as anyone about how an 80-foot-tall robot could go unnoticed by the general public for 30 years. Or how such an automaton could sneak into a fraternity house and place a set of keys on a counter top, or transfer its consciousness into an impossibly-advanced android body and trick me into believing it loves me, and that I’m in love with it. But unlike myself, most members of the general public have a boundless capacity to ignore the obvious, even when it’s gouging at their face.
It’s like this YouTube video I saw a while ago, where this filmmaker hung dollar bills from a tree and videotaped people’s behavior as they walked by. You’d think it would make for a very short video, with the first person who comes along nabbing all the money.
But you’d be wrong. A few people took a buck or two, but most just walked right by. Didn’t even notice it. Perhaps they thought it was a trap. Maybe the filmmaker chose to film in a neighborhood full of hippies who did’t care about money. Or maybe the minds of the people walking past the treasure tree simply rejected what their eyes were telling them because it failed to match up with the comfortable reality they preferred to see.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad I’m not one of those people. If I were, Destrozzor would have defeated me a long time ago.