Eight Arms to Hold You
by Angela Teagardner
Oscar woke with the sun. He turned one glassy eye toward the tiny window near the ceiling where rose-gold light crept in. It was barred with a lattice of steel–steel currently scalloped with red paper hearts–but at least it faced toward the rising sun. He’d learned to wake as soon as that light, or maybe just the warmth from it, crept across his sensitive skin.
He stretched his limbs, reaching almost to the edges of his tiny cell. Today was the day. Operation Puddle Jump was a go.
The tank across the room was still in shadow, but he saw one pale limb curled against the glass. Oscar stopped to gawk. Penelope always slept like that, half hidden, one arm arched up, suckers clinging to the smooth surface. Her enclosure was much bigger than his tiny prison. She lived in a man-made coral reef, full of rocky outcroppings and crevasses for hiding. The scientists who ran the lab stocked it with krill and small fish, preferring to let Penelope hunt for her supper.
Penelope was their star.
Oscar, on the other hand, lived on frozen shrimp and nutrition pellets. Other than an ugly plastic treasure chest and a forest of aquarium plants, he hadn’t even been given a place to hide. He’d spent weeks in that chest, pretending to be overcome by shyness. It was part of the plan, a way to lull Dr. Lab-coat into a false sense of security once he got out.
Oh yes. Oscar was breaking out.
There were two pipes in the aquarium’s sump system. Both capped, their lids were made of heavy plastic and mesh too fine for Oscar’s arms. But even though Dr. Lab-coat would probably disagree, Oscar was a careful study. He’d watched the scientists assemble identical systems for three other tanks, watched how they twisted the caps off and on.
He climbed slowly, each step an exploration—the algae on the tank, the subtle taste of salt built up against the glass—until he reached the overflow valve. It was right at the water line, so Oscar had to stretch, pulling himself onto the tube.
It was harder than he expected to get the cap off. Oscar liked to think that suckers were vastly superior to fingers, but it was immediately clear that these were designed for hands. Still, after long, careful work, the plastic cap floated down to the sand on the bottom of his tank. The tube was narrow, but that was hardly reason for hesitation. Tentacle by tentacle he squeezed into the space, his body collapsing into itself as he took on the strange, cylindrical shape. It was only once he’d tucked his beak into the passage that he let himself feel a rush of joy at his accomplishment. Then, each suckered tentacle reaching and collapsing in turn, and he moved like a glob of ocean slime into the overflow well. From there it was just a short climb and tumble down to the tile floor. Easy-peasy.
He glanced up at Penelope’s tank. She was awake, pressed against the glass, tracking his progress as he pulled himself across the floor. Her skin was pink. Not the garish color of the balloons Dr. Lab-coat had tied to her desk chair. Penelope was a luminous, a glowing pink that made him think of anemones and the spiral shells he used to collect from the sea floor. He pulsed through his own color palette, hoping she’d understand exactly what he was trying to accomplish. When Oscar’s pigment matched the soft pearlescence of her skin, Penelope seemed to understand.
She blinked, brightening like an incandescent bulb before dimming back to that beautiful pink, then retreated into the darkness between the rocks. Even that last tentacle, usually so tantalizingly displayed against the glass, vanished into shadow.
Brains and beauty.
The quality of the light in the room shifted, reminding Oscar that he was running out of time. He hurried to the counter against the wall, stretched an arm up to loop it through the drawer-pull. Climbing the cabinet was harder than he’d expected, his drying tentacles losing some of their grip. The metal surface was cold and unpleasant, and his skin felt tight. He thought about Penelope, who was regularly lifted from her tank, rewarded for performing complicated tasks. Dr. Lab-coat misted her with seawater when she was out there, making sure her skin stayed slick and comfortable. Oscar looked for the purple spray bottle, but he couldn’t find it – just a slight pooling of water beneath the sink’s faucet. It had a sharp, metallic tang, and offered his probing tentacle little lubrication and even less relief.
No matter. Uncomfortable as he was, Oscar had to focus on the next step in his plan. It was the hardest part, and the one that mattered most. It wouldn’t be enough to look like Penelope – he had to act like her, too. He had to be caught in a uniquely Penelope-ian act that would impress the scientist into reacting without thinking.
And there was one thing. One thing that made Penelope world-famous.
He slithered across the counter to the coffee maker, reciting the sequence he’d observed a dozen times already. Switch. Coffee. Water.
One tentacle found the red switch on the back of the device as another curled around the crinkly bag. It wasn’t easy, pouring the coffee into the filter—it ended up everywhere, even absorbing into his skin with an unexpected jolt—but he managed to get most of the dark grounds into the basket.
The water was easier. The measuring cup had a handle and a spout, and the faucet’s lever was simple enough. Once the cup was full, Oscar deftly used five of his limbs to lift it and tip it into the back of the machine, barely spilling a drop.
Brown water filled the glass pot below, hot and pungent. While waiting, Oscar gathered the rest of his tools: sugar, powdered creamer, a spoon from the drawer, and the mug shaped like a blue octopus, its handle a sculpted tentacle.
Where was Dr Lab-coat? What was keeping her? His skin was getting dryer by the minute, his tentacles growing stiff and painful. He looked across the room at his tank: cool and wet, but so far away.
At long last Oscar heard footsteps, and the soft voice of Dr. Lab-coat as she spoke to someone beyond the door. He carefully—carefully!—lifted the pot of coffee and poured it into the mug. Steam rolled over his skin: damp, but also painful. He dipped the spoon into the creamer and stirred it into the mug. Simultaneously, another tentacle lifted the sugar bowl, pouring crystals into the coffee.
That’s how Dr. Lab-coat found him, wrapped around a ceramic cephalopod, stirring sweetness into her morning coffee.
“Penelope!” Dr. Lab-coat cried, and Oscar knew he’d succeeded. She dropped her bag and a large floral arrangement tied in red ribbon onto the counter and swiftly dunked her hands into a bucket of seawater. Only then, with her skin wet and deliciously salty, did she start to untangle his limbs. “You wonderful, infuriating girl!” she muttered, gathering Oscar up.
Then he was floating down past the fake coral and into the soft white sand of Penelope’s tank. While the scientist busied herself with cleaning the mess of coffee and sugar on the counter, Oscar scuttled into the occupied cave.
Penelope pulsed a bright coral, her lovely tentacles curling around his in greeting. Oscar leaned close, bumping his beak against hers.
At last. Hello, darling.
About the Author
As a child, Angela Teagardner spent her free time scrawling fairytales into notebooks and often dismayed busy English teachers with stories that went dozens of pages beyond the assignment. She honed her craft writing fanfiction and now writes professionally. Her work can be found at Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Short Edition, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her husband, daughter, a very entitled tabby cat, and two boisterous kittens.
About the Narrator
Cartoonist Barry Deutsch lives in Portland, Oregon, in a bright blue house with bubble-gum pink trim. His 2010 graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword was the first graphic novel to win the prestigious Sydney Taylor Award, and was also nominated for Eisner, Harvey, Ignatz, and Nebula awards. His second Hereville graphic novel, Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, won the Oregon Book Award. The third Hereville book, Hereville: How Mirka Caught A Fish, was released in late 2015.
About the Artist
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.