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“Sister Stew” by Corey Fawcett

Sister Stew

by Corey Fawcett

 

A short but powerful spiral of dizziness lurched through Diana’s head as she stepped out of her Oldsmobile 88. All she’d consumed during the 300 miles from Las Vegas to the abandoned military base now just yards in front of her were six miniature bottles of Malibu Coconut rum and fifteen Menthol cigarettes. The addition of the dry 105 degree heat gave her the strange sensation of being pulled in two different directions: her head to the sky and the rest of her body to the center of the earth. She was empty, anxious, and exhausted, but more relieved than she’d ever felt before. She knew her twin sister was here.

“It’s Gretchen. But you probably already knew that. Leave a message!” Diana had heard this recording upwards of one hundred times in the last three weeks. When she was afraid Gretchen might have been dead, the sound of her voice triggered Diana’s immediate tears. Now that she knew her sister had been ignoring her calls and living on a commune in Satan’s Asshole, Nevada, she could only feel rage. The rum did not help.

“I found you Gretchen. I’m fucking here,” she said into the phone as she paced around her car, accidentally kicking an empty bottle of rum underneath it. “I actually read between the lines of your obnoxiously cryptic letter and fucking found you. I went offroading for you. For like, hours. God, I can’t believe this. Oh, P.S., Dad probably won’t recognize you at this point, so good job with that.”

She threw the phone into her purse and turned to face the compound. Encased by a rusty chain-link fence were six rows of crumbling army barracks. She could see a handful of figures moving between them in the distance, some carrying baskets and one of them, what looked like a small child. “CAUTION: RADIATION HAZARD. DO NOT TOUCH SCRAP OBJECTS” read a sign on the fence.

“Idiots,” Diana muttered under her breath, hoping her anger would slow her heart rate down, which was beating faster by the second. Faces began to crop up in the windows of the barracks, and they were all looking her direction. She felt exposed and decided to open one more mini bottle of rum before walking towards the fence.

Diana wasn’t here to simply pluck her sister out of her new home and usher her back into reality. She had let go of the idea of Gretchen being a reliable fixture in her life years ago. When she moved away after barely graduating high school, she would go incommunicado for months on end, leaving Diana and their father Larry hanging for all the typical reasons: drug benders, obsessive romances, and sometimes a simple refusal to replace a nonfunctioning phone until Larry wired her money to do so. The irony of Gretchen’s current situation? The man who introduced her to the commune was someone she had met during a rehab stint. For years, Diana had the utmost sympathy and patience for Gretchen, which was fueled by her guilt-ridden feeling that even though they were identical twins, Gretchen’s youth was tainted by suffering in a way that Diana’s wasn’t. But now, things were different. Gretchen still caused Diana many sleepless nights – especially recently – but now she reserved all her sympathy for Larry, whose rapidly withering brain could no longer remember how to get him to the grocery store. Diana was head of the family now, and she was going to make damn well sure Gretchen knew that.

She swirled the rum around in her bottle as she watched more and more faces appear in the barrack windows. A lithe figure was pressed against the chain-link fence, looking in her direction, and then swiftly moving toward the opening. Diana shot her hand into her purse and fingered the long blade of the butcher’s knife resting at the bottom of it; the last thing she took from her apartment in Seattle before leaving for Vegas. As the figure came into focus, its scragginess grew more startling. The woman’s billowy pants that clung to her limbs revealed legs and arms biggest at the joints. The hair, though long, was thin and ratty, but Diana would recognize its warm auburn hue anywhere.

“Gretchen,” she said, anger petering out of her at the sight of the gauntness in her sister’s face. All traces of fat were scooped out of it and dark circles cradled her eyes. She was a skeleton. Gretchen threw her arms around her sister’s neck and leaned into her, crying.

“What is this place?”

“I can’t believe you’re here,” she sobbed into Diana’s neck, ignoring her question.

“Really? Because I told you I would find you. I sent you letters. Texts. Maybe forty voicemails.”

Gretchen shook her head, looking through tears into her sister’s eyes, which were at the exact same level as hers. “I don’t have access to external correspondences.”

Diana could feel a familiar stoniness coming on. “Is that so? There was nothing you could do? Don’t you just have to suck your leader’s dick to get what you want? Isn’t that how it works in cults?”

Gretchen was still shaking her head and looking down, her tears dotting the ashy dirt beneath them. “You don’t understand.” She was whispering, even though they were far out of earshot from everyone else.

“Well, Dad is dying. Early onset Alzheimer’s. Last time I visited him he was wearing a tux.”

Gretchen stepped back, open-mouthed. Diana waited for her to say something, but she remained speechless. She looked over her shoulder at a tall, bearded man who was now walking in their direction. Gretchen flung her arms around Diana again and put her mouth right on her ear.

“You need to leave now. NOW.”

Diana tried to push her off but Gretchen quickly grabbed her arms and feigned a loving embrace. The man was almost in earshot.

“You’re two breaths away from being vulture food. Fuck if I’m leaving here without you.”

“Saul, this is my sister Diana,” Gretchen said cheerfully, turning to face the man. “She’s come to cleanse herself.” Diana inhaled sharply ready to deny this but Gretchen dug her fingernails into her arm. The tip of one of them broke off and fell to the ground.

Saul was also skeletal, but moved with more buoyancy than Gretchen. He crossed his arms, accentuating his bulbous, knotty shoulders. “Oh, yes?”

Gretchen nodded vigorously. “Twins share a spiritual connection that transcends communication. We are stones nestled together under the river of time, and I could feel her becoming dislodged, so I cried out to her.” Gretchen beamed vacuously at Diana took her hand. “And she heard my call.”

Saul’s face remained unchanged. He looked at Diana.

“Yes, I knew Gretchen was in a better place,” she said, struggling for words. “And her…her calls…helped guide me here.”

Saul didn’t say anything for a long time. “Welcome to nowhere,” he said flatly, looking down his nose at Diana. “Starting today, you are nothing. Follow me and we will begin.”

Gretchen held Diana’s hand tightly as they followed behind him. Hordes of people spilled out of the barracks as the three of them walked past. They were wearing normal street clothes, but they were worn and faded by the sun. All the people were varying degrees of thin – from lean and sinewy to emaciated assemblages of skin and bones. Clothes lines hung between the windows and jugs of water sat next to the doorways. They looked frightened and somber, and the shadows in their faces reeked of sleep deprivation. There were no blissed out smiles, no plant life in anyone’s hair, no acoustic guitar players strumming about oneness and Earth power and peace and love. All was deafeningly quiet and colorless. In the distance, Diana saw thin, black wisps of smoke trailing off a large hunk of burnt metal. She glanced over at Gretchen, who was directing her unwavering gaze ahead. Diana thought they were leading her to the large tent at the end of the barracks but Saul took a sharp turn to the left and stopped above a large hole about ten feet in diameter and gestured to the ladder leading into it. Diana peered in and saw nothing but a half-empty jug of water at the bottom. “Go on,” said Gretchen with a smile. She widened her eyes minutely, and Diana recognized the urgent plea in them. She climbed down the ladder.

“This will be your home for the next two nights,” Saul said, crouching down at the top of the hole. “To become nothing, you must do nothing. You must consume nothing.” He paused for questions, which never came. “Soon you will be able to survive on air, light, and water alone, as the universe intended. But before you embark on your spiritual journey, you must rid yourself of the poison that is currently running rampant inside of you. Speak naught. Think naught. Eat naught. After this trial, you will be on your way to needing nothing and thusly purifying the earth of your artificial self. Every day we will get closer to obliterating that self.” Saul held out his hand. “The handbag may not accompany you on this journey.”

Diana gripped her purse tightly and stood up. “You know what, I think I’m good, actually. I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet. So if I could get out here, please.”

Saul threw his hands up. “We cannot force the sun to come up, or the birds to change their patterns.”

“Wow,” Diana said sardonically, the rum emboldening her. “That’s very true. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to talk to my sister for a bit.”

Gretchen shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“There is no privacy here,” said Saul. “We are bells uncast. We have no shells to hold secrets.”

“Well, I’d like to discuss our dying dad with her, if you don’t mind.”

“Ah, yes. I’m sorry about the suffering your father’s disease has caused you. But you must remember, he is not returning to oblivion, for he already is oblivion.” Diana briefly considered the idea that Saul might actually have some sort of psychic ability before she realized he had probably been listening to Gretchen’s voicemails.

“Hmm, yes. Very comforting. Gretchen, can we please just walk together for a bit? Am I not owed a moment’s reunion with my twin sister?”

Saul grabbed Gretchen’s shoulders and pointed her towards the large tent to their right.

“Here, we are all siblings, and all not-siblings, and there is no hierarchy of bonds. You are free to go. It’s the car or the hole.” Saul tightened his grip on Gretchen’s shoulders. The skeletons were watching from afar, and for a second Diana considered dragging her sister away as she thwacked her way through all of them with her butcher’s knife. They would probably drop like flies. But then she caught the eye of a young boy peering out from behind a woman’s wiry leg.

“Fine,” she said, stepping back toward the hole.

“The bag.”

She handed it over to Saul, who slung it over his shoulder knob. She hoped he couldn’t see the car key in her front pocket. Her stomach lurched as she watched him push Gretchen toward the tent and zip up the opening behind them.

Diana lowered herself back into the hole turned her eyes to the cloudless sky to consider her options. She couldn’t run back to her car to drive away and leave Gretchen in such a place. Maybe she could bring the car back around to the tent and –

“Saul, please reconsider!” Gretchen cried after Saul as he ferociously reopened the entrance to the tent and stumbled out of it holding a rag, a lighter, and a plastic carton. Gretchen clutched the waist of his shorts where he had stuck Diana’s knife. He pushed her off and sprinted through the barracks. She ran over to Diana, who was halfway out of the hole.

“A baby died…yesterday,” she panted. “Malnourishment…he doesn’t want anyone to know…we can’t leave…he blew up our only car yesterday…we’re stuck here now…no more supplies.” An explosion sounded in the distance. Diana, squinting through the blurry layer of heat on the desert floor, saw clouds of orange bursting out of her Oldsmobile 88. The blood drained from her face. “I have to get back before he sees me. Get down,” she demanded, palming her sister’s head and shoving her back into the hole. “This is for tomorrow. Don’t let him see!” She tossed a vial to her sister before scampering back into the tent.

Diana huddled into a crevice and held the vial up to her face. It was narrow with a golden brown body and black, nipple-like top. The fluid looked clear.

She heard footsteps and stuffed it down her shirt. Soon enough, Saul’s bearded face peered over the hole. “Ridding ourselves of such monstrous attachments is the first step to obliterating the self. You will understand in time.” Diana nodded, suppressing the desire to give him a mordant thumbs up.

“I do understand,” she said softly. Saul nodded and disappeared.

A wave of hunger surged over Diana and she closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears knuckling their way out. She had always been the more stoic sister, laughing, yelling, and crying far less easily than Gretchen. It had been like that since infancy. “One of you is a blazing fire, and one of you is the steady earth,” their mother Karen would say, poking the girls in their stomachs with a playful finger. The mantra rung true throughout their childhood and early adolescence, which Diana passed in quiet, studious solitude and Gretchen spent breaking rules and chasing after boys. Most of the time they were together was when Gretchen was grounded and forced to stay in their shared bedroom which Diana voluntarily and frequently inhabited. But despite their differences, they understood every fiber of each other. The two of them snapped together like puzzle pieces and they lived off each other in an emotional symbiosis; one igniting and the other dampening. But after Gretchen found their mother’s body hanging in their basement from an orange extension cord, Diana lost all power over her sister’s volatility. For years, the color orange was enough to send Gretchen into a fit of distress. Larry, whose affair with a coworker was exposed just before Karen’s suicide, was treated like a pariah by both of the girls in the aftermath. But Diana, bound by the same sense of duty to her family members that had just landed her in a hole in the middle of the Nevada desert, succumbed to his desperate need for their love and forgave him. Gretchen, however, had never come close. “I need to see her,” he’d pleaded to Diana after he informed her about his diagnosis. “She’ll come, won’t she? She has to come.”

Diana unscrewed the top of the vial and peered in. The pure liquid looked and smelled like water. “If this is acid…what a cliché,” she muttered to herself. There was only one way to find out. She used the dropper to wipe a tiny trace of it onto her finger and dabbed it onto her tongue. She sat back and wiped the sweat out of her eyes, waiting for something to happen. She thought she could feel some tingles but wasn’t sure if it had something to do with her empty stomach, which was changing from nauseated to ravenous and back again with the rhythm of a pulse. The last time she did acid was in college, and she’d spent most of her trip trying to keep a posse of Whitman-quoting, be-poncho’d white boys from driving down to the train tracks. “Never drop acid with anyone in a poncho,” Gretchen had told her, laughing, during a rare phone call. Just when Diana was afraid her sister had completely gone off the deep end and given her a vile of water, a black squiggle caught the corner of her eye. She jumped up, suddenly recalling that the Nevada desert was full of rattlesnakes. Another black squiggle. And another. But every time she looked, it wasn’t there. She settled back down into her crevice. The sky was a deep sapphire. Whatever the morning would bring, she was ready.

“Guest, it’s time.” Diana opened one eye and saw Gretchen and Saul peering over her at the edge of the hole. Gretchen was holding the handle of a wagon, which was filled with kindling, jugs of water, a bag of rice, and a large pot. “The newest guest brews our daily nourishment. After you prepare it as it pleases our wise leader, you will watch us consume it and return to the hole. In one day, you too will be able to partake. However, if you prepare it incorrectly, it will return to the earth and you will have to keep trying until you get it right.”

Diana climbed out of the hole and followed them to a fire that was already alive and well. Along the way, she positioned the vile so it stood upright underneath the front hook of her bra and screwed off the top, which she shoved down her underwear. The other skeletons, about thirty of them, were gathered around the fire in a circle, which Gretchen joined. Saul paced around her as she fastened the pot over the flames.

“So am I making like, rice tea here?” Diana asked as she opened the bag of rice. Saul just smiled. Diana looked over at Gretchen, who held a finger up to her lips. She hoped this wasn’t strike one. She slowly raised the bag to the edge of the pot, hoping a feigned reverence would gain her points. Before she reached for a jug of water, something in the pot caught her eye. The legs of a shimmering onyx beetle stuck out of the grains. She looked up at Saul, whose expression betrayed that he was anticipating this discovery. He was standing right in front of Gretchen, completely obscuring her face. Diana reached down and plucked the beetle out of the rice, holding it up by a leg for all to see, and bent as far into the pot as she could go to gently lay it back down where it came from. As she did so, the acid spilled all over the rice.

Diana let the water boil for a few minutes before putting the fire out. She turned to face Saul and clasped her hands behind her back, stepping aside to show that it was ready for his examination. She swore she saw his brows furrow slightly as he stared at the pot. But after a few languishing moments, he held his arms out and addressed the skeletons. “Come one, come all. And as you drink, remember you are weak. Remember you have so much left to accomplish.”

Diana ladled the rice water into cups and the skeletons filtered through wordlessly. Saul was the last one in line, and he swallowed his in a few gulps before withdrawing her butcher’s knife from the waist of his sagging shorts and pointed it into her stomach. “I’ll escort you back to your hole,” he said. Diana held her breath as grabbed her wrist and turned her around to guide her back to where she came from.

“I know she told you,” he seethed into her ear they walked, weaseling the tip of the knife further and further into the tough muscle of her lower back. Diana shook her head vigorously, which he ignored. “You can’t lie to me.” They were standing at the edge of the hole now. He twisted the knife ever so slightly, and Diana cried out. He breathed heavily into her ear. “This is for the best,” he said, his voice breaking a bit. “This is – ” he dropped the knife and spun to his left.

“FIRE!” he screamed, pointing with a quaking finger at Gretchen, who was running toward them. “FIRE! FIRE!”

He dropped to the ground and rolled back and forth, back and forth, getting further and further away from them. Gretchen picked up the knife and we escaped into the desert. I let her blaze the trail for us.

© 2014 Corey Fawcett

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“Calpurnia” by Corey Fawcett

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Calpurnia

By Corey Fawcett

I may not have been very smart but I knew what rock bottom was, and this was it.

I was wearing a beige custodial uniform and orthopedic shoes and watching trails of soapy water dry up behind my mop at the Des Moines Zoo. It was eleven on a Friday night, and a year ago I would’ve been doing tequila shots at Sampson’s with Vicki and Carla. Last time I spoke to them they told me they were sick of watching me steal and I told them to go to hell and smashed my bottle of B & J on the table. I saw Eddie at Walgreens a few months later and he told me I was welcome back any time. “I know things have been rough since your mom passed,” he said, putting a stiff hand on my shoulder. I thanked him but left the store without getting what I came for.

Tonight I was cleaning the octopus exhibit, but the cleaning part was mostly to pass time. I was really there to watch the tank. The octopus, a California two-spot, was named Calpurnia by a Shakespeare-loving biologist; something with which I sympathized as my name was Julieta. (“I just knew I would love saying it. Julieta, Julieta,” my mother Jolene would say. “Yeah, you would love saying it,” I’d snap back.) The light above Calpurnia’s tank kept short-circuiting and nobody new why. Someone would come in and fix it and like clockwork it wouldn’t work the next morning. When my boss Vince asked the custodians if any of us would be willing to do the late night once-over a little later than usual and keep an eye on the tank, I volunteered. Jolene had an octopus toe ring, and as it was nearly the anniversary of her death I was starting to take everything as a sign from her. And my usual routine of going home after work to watch cable and drink beer until I passed out on the couch was getting easier and easier to shirk.

Although I was beginning to take pride in my cleaning abilities, I still lied to people about my job. No one thinks they’re meant to be a zoo custodian, but I really wasn’t. I was pretty. Not just normal pretty, but the kind where you can make money from it. I’d been photographed by a few semi-professional photographers in the past: lying on a Mercedes in a bikini, straddling a motorcycle in cut off shorts and a bra, wearing just a tool belt while holding wrenches strategically over my nipples. Every time the photos were bought (mostly by auto magazines), Jolene took me out to Red Lobster where she would feed my dreams of hauling my perfectly teardrop-shaped ass to Hollywood. But I gained forty pounds after she died, cut my hair into uneven wisps, and rid the Airstream of my glamour shots. Walter, the zoo’s in house animal trainer, once told me I could be a model if I started exercising. “We can exercise together, you and me,” he’d say with a grin. That night I went home and ate an entire box of frosted sugar cookies.

I took a swig out of the flask nestled between my breasts and worked my mop over to Calpurnia’s tank, where she was weaving in and out of rocks and plants. Over the past few months she’d been caught out of her tank twice. The first time, she crawled right over the top of it and landed at the feet of a pair of zoogoers during opening hours. The second time, after the zoo was closed, an intern found her creeping up the side of a nearby fish tank. After the second incident she was given a new tank with higher walls and a cover over the top.

Octopus bimaculoidus,” it said on the plaque next to her tank.

Diet: mollusks, crustaceans, abalone and small fish

Calpurnia is a California two-spot octopus that was born on March 2nd, 1982. The two-spot gets its name from the pair of deep blue marks located below its eyes. It comes from the waters of central California to northern Baja California, and can grow up to three and a half feet long. Although the two-spot is usually brown, grey or yellow, it can change its color and texture to match its surroundings in milliseconds. If encountered by a predator, the two-spot confuses it by ejecting a cloud of ink in its direction and shooting out a jet of water to propel its escape. It kills its prey by squeezing it with its tentacles and smothering it in toxic saliva.

The two-spot typically passes its time looking for food on the seafloor or hiding from predators. It’s nocturnal, making it skilled at seeing in the dark. One interesting fact about the two-spot is that the female stops eating after laying its eggs and dies once they hatch.

I picked up my mop after reading the plaque and when I looked back at Calpurnia’s tank my breath caught in my throat. She wasn’t gliding around the tank floor anymore. She was suspended in the water with her tentacles fanned out, completely still with her eyes fixed upon me. I stepped closer to her tank, touching my nose to the glass. She had changed color from a mottled brown to a powder pink, the shade of my fingernail polish and the heart shaped stone that hung around my neck.

“Jesus!” I yelled. Calpurnia jetted to the front the tank and began to paw softly at me with her tentacles. I put my hand up and her tentacles migrated to it, stroking the glass underneath my palm. We stayed like that for a while until she turned back to brown and resumed moving around the bottom of her tank.

With trembling hands I pulled the flask out of my shirt again and shook the remaining drops onto my tongue. I stood there for a while watching the tank, not sure if the pulsing sound I heard was from the water that surrounded me or my own ears. I finished dragging the mop around the remainder of the room and left to put it and rolling bucket in the supply closet. When I came back Calpurnia was at the water’s surface staring directly into the light above her cage. I stopped in my tracks at the doorway and held my breath, afraid the slightest movement would make her go into hiding. She leaned her head back and shot continuous jets of water at the light through the small feeding hole in the cover of her tank. The light buzzed and then went out entirely. “That’s too bright for you, huh, Calpurnia?” I reached out to inspect the fixture and when I did, she unfurled a lone tentacle and reached through the cover hole to tap my hand. That was when my plan started forming.

Jolene taught me to steal when I was so young that I have no memory of our first conversations about it. Under her counsel I stole anything she wanted me to: food, jewelry, shoes, silverware, Christmas presents for relatives, friends, and myself. (“Nice,” I would mutter to the mall Santa Claus. “Not naughty.”) I even shoplifted my own communion dress. She spent four dollars on a pair of platform flip flops while I smuggled the sixty dollar dress out of the store under my jumper. My second grade class was scheduled to go to confession the next day. “Ms. Thatcher says it’s to give us a clean slate before we let the body of Christ into our own,” I told her. Jolene shuddered at the innuendo, squatted down to my height, and grabbed my chin. “Remember not to tell Father Bernie about our treasure hunting,” she said. “Because if you do, I’ll find out, and I will be very upset with you. You hear me?”

Oftentimes, she had me steal out of necessity: if she was unemployed and we needed a new microwave, if she got a speeding ticket and we needed to pawn a gold watch to pay it off faster, etc. But she wasn’t very discerning. I shoplifted whatever she wanted. “We’re no worse than everyone else,” she would tell herself in moments of drunken insecurity. “Everybody has something they do.” Well, I wanted Calpurnia, and I was going to do something.

Home was Evergreen Estates for mobile homes in an Airstream Trailer stuffed to the brim with stolen contraband. Jolene didn’t mean for the Airstream to be stationary; after I graduated high school we moved out of a little rambler on the north side of town and bought the trailer with the intention to road trip across the U.S. in it. “Then we’re gonna get you to Hollywood,” she said. “I hear they have great trailer parks there. And you can live with your old mom until you find something. And then you can buy her a five story mansion for her to put her feet up in. With a pool too,” she would tell me. But then she got sick: stage three neuroblastoma. I offered to work all the jobs I could to cover the medical bills, to steal cars, anything. Even though she refused I would find myself wide awake at four in the morning obsessing over inane, elaborate plans to rob the Tiffany’s at the mall. But she told me not steal a penny more for her. She had gotten in touch with her estranged parents for the first time in ten years and they agreed to finance the medical bills. I used all the money I had saved up for traveling to buy an above ground swimming pool for her to float around in in the backyard.

The next day I called Vince and told him what I saw at the zoo. “She shoots out water at the light. I think it’s too bright for her,” I told him. “Aha,” he said. “That damn thing’s more trouble than it’s worth.” I let out a high pitched giggle despite the banality of his comment. “Well, I’ll see your pretty face tomorrow,” he said to me, his voice changing. I could practically hear him wink. Perfect.

After hanging up I made a few stops downtown for rocks, sand, seaweed, clams, mussels, crayfish, little crabs, and a water thermometer. When I got back home I waited for it to get dark out and snuck into my neighbor Georgia’s yard to drag her hose into the swimming pool, careful not to knock over her plastic flamingos or Ten Commandments tablet. While I waited for the pool to fill up, I rifled through a box of Jolene’s things and got my hands on a big burgundy purse that still had the security tag on it. I didn’t have much to pick from as my grandparents had put most of her things in a storage unit, not sure what else to do with it. They chose to ignore the fact that she left behind hardly any money but a mountain of expensive clothes, accessories, and appliances with the price tags attached. They gave me access to her storage unit under the impression I was going to put more stuff in there, not take things out and pawn them. But Jolene would understand. Everybody has something they do, after all.

I slung the purse over my shoulder, drove to the zoo, and used my key to enter through the Employees Only door. When I turned the light on at the octopus exhibit, Calpurnia darted to the front of her tank and turned powder pink again. I was planning on standing on a chair, removing the cover of the tank, and scooping her out with my bag, but she had already started doing the work for me. She’d positioned herself underneath the hole in the tank’s cover and begun pushing her tentacles through it. “Not your noodle, girl. You’re gonna squish your brains!” I yelled at her as she wiggled her bulbous head through the hole. When I realized she was going to succeed I ran to the bathroom and filled my purse with water, returning just in time to catch her as she rolled off the top of the tank.

I stared into the purse. Calpurnia looked like a little organ that grew limbs. I imagined a cop pulling me over on the way home and me telling him I was transporting a kidney to an ill friend. “Don’t eat that!” I yelled at Calpurnia, horrified I forgot about the second half of the Twix bar I threw in the purse on the drive over. She released the chocolate from her clutches but sprayed a jet of water in my face. “You little goob,” I whispered to her as I slunk to my car at the edge of the parking lot. Once I started the engine I headed straight for the zoo gates. “Sit tight, Cal.” I set the purse in my lap and snapped the button at the top. I stepped on the gas and rammed the car into the zoo gates, which swung open easier than I thought they would. Calpurnia and I sped off to the sound of alarms.

I parked in the yard and headed straight for the swimming pool. Calpurnia looked jaunty as she swirled around in her new surroundings, so I left her alone to explore. I made myself a Greyhound and turned on the news, half listening. Although I couldn’t see the inside of the pool from my window, I kept staring out of it to make sure Calpurnia wasn’t climbing over the sides. Jolene’s owl figurines cluttered the window sill from end to end, all watching me watch the octopus with bulging eyes. Sometimes when we came home from a loot Jolene would turn all of the figurines around to direct their gazes elsewhere. “Breaking news,” said the newscaster on TV, “It appears that someone has broken into the Des Moines Zoo. Law enforcement is currently sweeping the area for suspicious activity. Stay tuned for more information.” I turned around the owls one by one and made sure their eyes were pointing toward the pool.

That night I rolled over onto my stomach in my sleep and woke up to the feeling of something cold and slick on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to a powder pink blur but after I blinked again I didn’t see anything. I closed my eyes, feeling the room spin. I’d drunk too much before bed.

Vince cornered me in the locker room the next day. “The octopus is gone,” he said. “That’s it. They’ve looked for her in the drainage system and all the other tanks. Whoever broke in stole her and hauled ass. Got in and got out. Why the fuck would someone do that?” He gestured at me to grab a powdered mini doughnut from the box he was holding. “It’s funny. The car in the security tapes kind of looked like the same model as yours. You’re not starting Noah’s Ark or something, are you?” Shit, I thought. The security camera. I shoved half the doughnut into my mouth and slowly licked the powder from around my lips, making eye contact with Vince who opened his mouth ever so slightly. “You’re funny, Vince,” I said, slapping his shoulder. “Besides, I got a key. I can waltz right into the zoo without messing up my car.” He smiled and brushed some powder off my chest before going back to his closet-sized office.

It didn’t take long for them to find me out. Just two days later the police knocked on my door while I was half-watching Magnum P.I. and half-watching the pool. I didn’t put up a fight and led them straight to the back yard, but the pool was empty. “She should be in there. I been watching her!” I said to the officers as they handcuffed me against the car. They searched the Airstream and the surrounding area but gave up after fifteen minutes. “It’s probably dead somewhere,” the tall mustached officer said, scanning the lot one more time before getting into the driver’s seat. “Those things aren’t even worth that much anyway.”

My jail cell roommate was a twitchy evangelical Christian named Emma. I made the mistake of telling her my entire story, even about the night I woke up to the pink blur in my bed. “Sounds to me like that octopus was possessed. The devil contaminated that animal, and that animal contaminated you. Be gone, devil!” she shrieked at me with her hands placed upon my head. I let her continue while I stared through our barred window at the cornfields, hypnotized by a thin trail currently being blazed through the sandy stalks toward the jail. Emma finished exorcising me and stared down at me, panting. “Oh, I think it worked,” I said. “I don’t feel evil no more.” She raised an eyebrow at me and went back to reading her Jodi Picoult novel. I gave my nails a new coat of bubblegum polish.

I awoke in the middle of the night to my cot drenched in sweat. In my dream I was trying to pull Jolene’s body out of the pool while Walter and Vince watched me bend over its edge, laughing and making kissy noises. Disoriented, I staggered to the toilet so I could sit on the cool steel and catch my breath. But something caught my eye first. A mottled brown tentacle was worming its way out of the toilet drain. I reached out to touch it and it coiled around my finger, turning a glowing shade of powder pink. Softly, I began to weep. As soon as I was out, Calpurnia and I were going to Hollywood in our Airstream trailer.

© 2013 Corey Fawcett