by Corey Farrenkopf
I bought a mouse from the pet store. The clerk, Archie, whose name I finally learned from his laminated nametag, didn’t look at me. Two weeks later I bought a canary, orange as a tangerine. Archie remained aloof, his fingers scrolling through his smartphone. I thought he would notice when I purchased a hundred gallon aquarium, thirty some-odd fish, and all the filters/chemicals needed to develop an aquatic ecosystem in my bedroom. But no, Archie just chuckled under his breath at a photoshopped cat eating a taco. They didn’t sell cats. I would have bought one.
My brick apartment building was five floors. I lived on the fifth. Archie lived on the fourth. I heard the sounds of his life drifting through floorboards: a jumble of television, acoustic guitar, and fights with his on-again-off-again girlfriend. They had make-up sex in a bed ten feet below my own. I talked to him in the stairwell, small conversations about local sports and that Korean restaurant down the street. He loved Bulgogi. The conversations never made it much farther, so I sat alone in my apartment. My assorted pets scurried and squawked about. The hum from my aquarium filter reminded me of adolescent swim lessons and chlorine tinged air.
In the back of the pet store stood towering tanks of fluorescent blue water. A maze of straggly sea plants stretched up towards the surface. They housed the expensive merchandise: living coral, tropical fish, two sharks I doubted the legality of. That was where I first saw him, camouflaged half way between plastic diver bronze and blue river stones. The octopus hid, avoiding the lazy flick of the shark’s tail. With his worried looks, I knew I had to have him.
Archie finally looked up as the plastic, water-filled tank, crossed his conveyer belt.
“Never seen someone buy one of these,” he said.
“First time for everything, right?” I replied.
“Aren’t you the girl from upstairs?”
“Yeah. 5B. I think you live below me.”
“Yup. 4B. I didn’t know you were an aquarium enthusiast?”
“Only recently,” I said with a smile I hoped appeared coy.
“Cool. Maybe I could stop by sometime and check it out? I like seeing how people set up their tanks.”
I told him sure, of course, anytime, before I paid. Then I paused, wondering if there was some owner’s manual or instruction guide they gave to first-time octopus owners. Archie didn’t move to retrieve anything, so I left.
In the tank, the octopus took over the lower left corner, not that there was much room for him elsewhere. I would have bought a larger tank if I had the money. My other fish swam nervous circles at the surface, avoiding the bottom, only daring the depths when flakes of red food rained down. I counted them on the first day. Thirty-three. After the octopus arrived, the population dwindled until the tank was empty, devoid of fish. Even the snails that crawled over the mossy glass were gone. I thought Archie would have said something about keeping octopi away from other sea creatures, but he didn’t. And he never stopped by to see my fish tank, not that there was much to see anymore.
Once the fish had gone, the mice followed suit. Thin streams of water traced routes to and from their spinning wheels and wood chip homes. I didn’t think the octopus could climb the metal pedestal of the canary’s cage, but somehow he managed. Only three orange feathers drifted about the bottom of the cage when I woke up. Out of fear, I moved the tank into the living room, where it burbled and hummed on the other side of my locked door. I had nightmares, suction cups clinging to my eyelids, pointed beak snapping at my jugular. I dropped chicken legs and little-neck clams into the water to win favor. Each morning I would survey his tank, spotting where his mottled skin shifted into semblances of fake seascape. I made sure he was always there like a sick game of I Spy.
One morning I couldn’t find him among the painted coral and seaweed. No damp path lead towards my refrigerator, my cabinets of dried goods. Instead, it crept across the carpet, through my front door, and down the stairs at the far end of the hall. I traced its tracks until I arrived at Archie’s front door. On his welcome mat, amid discarded skateboard shoes and hiking boots, the pulpy body of my octopus lay slumped against the wall. I reached down and lifted the dead creature to my chest just as the door opened. Archie stood there in his boxers, pale white chest and dark hair disheveled. The octopus limbs dangled limp in my hands, suction cups cupping my chest.
“Did you knock?” he asked.
I couldn’t speak. The squishy limbs of the cephalopod pressed against me.
“What did you do?” he asked as a woman joined his side, bathrobe cinched at the waist. I turned and ran, retreating towards the stairs. I wanted to tell him I’m saving you from a tentacular death, but I knew he wouldn’t believe me. My octopus was dead anyway.
Even without an owner’s manual, I learned a few things from my month with the octopus. Keep them in empty tanks. Canaries are never as safe as the cage suggests. Lock your doors. Take a hint when a guy ignores you until you buy expensive pets. If he didn’t like you before the octopus, he wouldn’t like you after.
Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He works as a special education teacher on Cape Cod. His work has been published in Gravel, Sleet Magazine, Literary Orphans Journal, Wraparound South, The Santa Ana River Review, Fiction Fix, and The Avalon Literary Review. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.