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This kid I once knew

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The movie The Golden Compass comes out during Susan's last year in college, and some lazy Sunday afternoon when they're all hanging out at Hannah's apartment, Daniel explains the premise to them. They go around deciding what they'd want their daemons to be. Susan's informed by Patrice that hers would be an owl, or maybe a squirrel. She's not sure she's flattered by that, and it shows, because Tim nudges her with his shoulder and says, "Hey, no, it's good, I can imagine, an owl with big brown eyes just like yours on your shoulder, taking everything in. Smart, you know?"

"All right," Susan says, smiling because she's pretty much a sucker for Tim when he's like this, skinny face grinning and hands punctuating his quick speech. The conversation in the rest of the room is moving on, but they're been doing this thing lately, where they'll sit next to each other and have these little side conversations and smile at each other a lot. "But a squirrel? They're pests." Though it's not so much that as that they're so ordinary, when other people are being called lions and falcons.

"They're quick on their feet?" Tim suggests. "And they're kind of upbeat, you know, always working on something."

"Okay, sure," Susan says, somewhat mollified, less by the words and more by the way Tim's looking so hopeful that they'll make Susan happy. "So what do you want yours to be?"

"We decided for Tim!" Hannah says from across the room. "His would be a pot-bellied pig!" She nods emphatically, and Patrice chimes in, "Yes! Adorable! Awesome!"

"I'm…the hell?" Tim says. "Patrice gets to have a tiger and I get a pig?" He turns his face to Susan with an expression, like, help me out here.

"They're…" Susan starts, trying to put a good spin on it, and realizes she knows nothing about pot-bellied pigs. "Uh, yeah, I got nothing," she admits, and Tim sighs theatrically and then drops his head on her shoulder and says, "Oink." Susan laughs and slings an arm around his shoulder for a minute.

Later, when they're heading over to the Engineering library together, Susan thinks of tigers and daemons and Calvin crosses her mind. She thinks of saying, "I used to know this kid, my next door neighbor till we moved, he had this giant stuffed tiger, like, as big as he was. It seriously was like he had a daemon, he took it everywhere with him."

But she never has been in the habit of speaking about Calvin. When she still lived next door to him and they went to school together, she didn't want to get associated with his weirdness in people's minds. And then after the divorce when she and her mom moved out--she told stories about Calvin once or twice at her new school, because they were good stories, her parents' reactions on snowy days to his snowman extravaganzas and Mrs. W.'s face when Calvin had worn a cape to school and the time he'd thrown a snowball at her in the middle of summer and missed. But it felt too much like she was inviting people to laugh at the kid who'd bought her a bike horn for her sixth birthday party and helped her out of a puddle once when that asshole Moe had pushed her down, and so she'd stopped.

"What're you thinking?" Tim asks, and Susan shrugs and says, "Random, I don't know, you want to cut across the park?" They do, their shoes making awesome sounds as they scuffle through the fallen autumn leaves.

***

It's a few weeks later when Daniel sends their whole improv group an e-mail saying "check this out its fun1!1" and a link to a web comic called The Adventures of Spaceman Spiff. Susan reads the panels and grins; it's a strip about a kid imagining he's a valiant astronaut, encountering a vat of slime that turns out in the last panel to be his mom's cooking. His facial expressions are pretty hilarious. Susan clicks back through a couple of previous strips and laughs out loud at Spaceman Spiff's adventures on foreign planets that turn into bathtubs and swingsets and the bathrooms at elementary school. Then she glances at the artist's name scribbled in the corner of the bottom panel: C. Hobbes. And maybe it's because Calvin was already on her mind because of the daemon conversation, but she gets it right away and says, "No fucking way!"

Then she second guesses herself: she's absolutely sure that Calvin's stuffed tiger was named Hobbes, or at least 98% sure, and she thinks she remembers something about Spaceman Spiff in one of Calvin's games, but…

She reads the "About the Artist" link, but it's not helpful: "C. Hobbes always wanted to run off and explore the universe, and all his teachers probably wished he could." There's a cartoon instead of a photograph, and it could be a twenty-year old Calvin or not. Susan starts clicking back through the links again, and the cartoonist could be Calvin or it could be any once-hyperactive kid with a boundless imagination and a first grade teacher who really, really resembles Susan's.

She's gone back through three months of strips before she finds proof. When she does find it she hugs herself in delight and says, "You little shithead!" at the computer, because the horrible alien of the day babbling incomprehensibly turns into a girl with Susan's six-year-old haircut and the strip called her Susie Derkins. That's the smoking gun, because Susan remembers that day, when she was about seven or eight years old and they were squabbling while waiting for the school bus and Calvin, she thinks he must have been trying to call her a jerk and a dink at once but it had come out, "You, you derkin." She'd sputtered in response, because what did that even mean?

She's supposed to be outlining a paper, but she goes back to the very beginning of the archive and loses several hours to it. Her alter ego shows up as the nameless boy's nemesis every so often. Those strips make Susan laugh the hardest, even if sometimes they make her want to smack Calvin a bit in indignation: she hadn't been that bossy or that much of a prig! Honestly!

(Except ugh, she does sort of remember the bug collection project that's the basis for an entire week's worth of strips about Spaceman Spiff being forced to collect other alien life forms in order to stock an evil museum of horrors, before he sets everything free even though evil alien #3 aka Susie Derkins warns him of the effect it will have on his permanent record. Maybe she had been a bit of a prig.)

She skims through some of the user comments when she's done, and feels a weird proprietary pride when people love the strip. There are comments that say, "You pegged my childhood!" and "How did you know about my first grade teacher being an alien? Because she was one, I swear," and "Man, I had a Susie Derkins too, I wonder where she is now?"

C. Hobbes has written the occasional response: "I keep writing the FBI about Mrs. W., but they say they don't handle aliens" and "Mine moved away when I was about 10, last time I saw her was one night in high school, she was a knockout! hope shes happy wherever she is."

Another smoking gun. She remembers that last time in high school. She and her mom had only moved across town: it took her out of the same school district as Calvin, but she'd still see him at stores or restaurants sometimes. She went to the fall play at the other high school her senior year, a production of Dracula that had really incredible creepy, intricate sets, and she hadn't been altogether surprised when she saw his name in the program on tech crew and set design. She'd found him afterwards and said, "So those snowmen you always did were practice for this?" and he'd looked surprised and pleased and even a little shy when he nodded.

(She told her mom later that she'd run into him, which she then regretted because her mom had replied, "God, that kid, the one benefit about your dad getting the house was that we didn't have to deal with that being next door anymore, do you remember how he ran through babysitters? People refused to babysit you because they thought he might come over to play!" Which hadn't been where Susan wanted to go with that conversation at all.)

Susan almost comments herself in the forums, but that seems too public in case she's horribly wrong in a "you're so vain, I bet you think this comic strip is about you" sort of way. She does actually click to open a link to e-mail the artist instead. She thinks about what she could say: "Hey, is your pen name from a stuffed tiger you once had? Because I'm pretty sure I knew you. And I think it's awesome that you're doing well, and I'm flattered that I seem to be a recurring character in your comic strip. Also, this is going to sound weird, but my freshman year of college, I went with my roommate to watch her boyfriend audition for an improv troop and ended up trying out myself. I got in because they said I had an really good deadpan expression and was quick to respond to things, and I think some of that is down to you and your goddamn snowball sneak attacks. So thanks. And I hope you're happy too. And I think you should draw the Noodle Incident, because the truth of that deserves to be told after all this time."

The habit of Not Talking About Calvin holds, though, apparently even with Calvin. She doesn't write, except to write, "I love this one. I love them all," on her favorite strip, anonymously.

Someone brings up the strip during a break at the next improv practice. It gets some of them reminiscing about their childhood and first grade teachers and pigtail-pulling boys while Susan hugs her secret to herself. "My Susie Derkins was named Jessie Tong," Tim says reminiscently while they sit on the edge of the stage, legs dangling off. "She absolutely did not put up with any of my shit." Then he nudges her foot with his and says with his best crinkle-eyed smile, "What about you, were you some guy's Susie Derkins?"

"Yeah, maybe," she says, and can't help the grin that spreads across her face, which means yes, absolutely and completely and totally yes.