I flicked through the oversized pages of the morning newspaper from force of habit, barely registering the articles, while my Bialetti espresso pot perched silently on the hob in a glowing nest.
Outside, skeletal branches waltzed with the north wind but inside, protected by triple glazing and central heating, my silk pyjamas and satin dressing-gown were concessions to modesty rather than comfort. You never knew which neighbours might have their binoculars trained on your window. I rudely discovered that I was the subject of intense study a month ago when someone, presumably the passive aggressive wife of my admirer, left a box on my doorstep. Inside was a single cupcake, spoiled only by the word whore, daubed on the top in red icing. She’d probably baked it herself. Unfortunately, the ennui of my neighbours’ empty, provincial lives had started to infect me as well. I was so bored I even considered visiting my mother. I rustled paper until I found the holiday listings. Time for a change of scene.
The doorbell dragged my gaze from the page and my feet to the hallway.
A smiling stranger greeted me. “Have you heard the good news?”
One of the buttons was missing from his cheap grey suit and, between the front panels of his jacket, I glimpsed infinite darkness. Beyond him, the world was engulfed by freezing fog so dense that the wind seemed unable to disperse it.
I shivered. “It’s a bad time.” The comforting scent of coffee warming on my stove filled the hallway. It would burn if I didn’t cut this short.
He flipped open the tattered khaki of his courier’s bag. I anticipated a pamphlet covered in smiling faces and sunshine; instead, a goldfish bowl containing a tiny octopus balanced on his wrinkled hand.
A dozen eyes fixed their combined gaze on me, and a plaintive voice wriggled inside my mind. “Save me and save yourself.”
I splayed my fingers to support the weight evenly when he transferred the fishbowl.
The stranger nodded. “I knew this was the right place.” He stepped away from the door.
The muscles in my right arm shook. I wanted to grab him, pull him back and refuse his strange gift, but the bowl was too bulky for me to hold in a single hand. “Wait. What am I supposed to do with this? Who sent it?”
The man faded into the mist, leaving my questions unanswered. I couldn’t even draw my flimsy robe around myself for warmth. I growled at the veiled street then took my burden to the kitchen.
I set the bowl gently on the kitchen table, switched off the hob and stared at my new—pet didn’t seem like the right word.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Good News, and I’m here to put your life back on track.”
My bills were all paid; I’d been promoted at work, and my handsome boyfriend, Trent, was attentive, sometimes nauseatingly so. As I considered my situation, how comfortable and lucky I was, a desire for change grew inside my chest. Even ten years earlier, I could not have imagined that being an adult would make a person feel so empty. Financial security, a lover, and an unlimited supply of coffee were all well and good, but were they really all I should expect from my life?
“That’s why I’m here.” The voice sounded like melting chocolate. “We can save each other.”
“What do you need?” My higher brain was repulsed. Look around. Everything you could ever desire is here. You’re living a better life than you have any right to expect. Following the advice of a voice in your head is madness, but my yearning was stronger than logic.
“Take me to the beach.” The plea was delivered with such urgency that I felt I must obey without delay and pulled my cashmere coat over my pyjamas then grabbed my car keys.
A vast world stretched away in three directions, but the only sign of humanity was a fishing boat tumbling on distant waves. I couldn’t watch the vessel without my empty stomach churning in sympathy with the broiling water, so I gazed up at soot-coloured clouds before reverting my attention to my aquatic companion.
“Mother’s close,” it said. “She’ll put everything in perspective. You’ll see.”
Wind stabbed through my coat, finding no resistance when it encountered my nightclothes. “Aren’t you cold?” I asked.
“It won’t matter soon. Move closer to the sea.”
Salt and musk hung in the air despite the bulldozer wind.
“What’s she like, your mother?”
I saw her moonlike body rise, iridescent. A thousand eyes glared above colossal jaws that contained an army of dagger-teeth. I tried to blink the vision away, hoping vainly that it was all in my head.
A dream. Of course, I was still curled up under my satin comforter on the pocket sprung mattress I had invested in a few months ago. It had cost me a month’s salary but felt like sleeping on clouds. Money well spent.
I pinched the skin above my wrist, but the creature remained.
“I don’t want this,” I pleaded, letting my rational mind take the wheel. Within the chasm of her mouth, I glimpsed the same infinite darkness that had yawned through the gap in the stranger’s jacket. I dropped the bowl and turned my back on the ocean.
My car was hidden by the sea wall, but its warmth and flimsy metal shield called to me. I managed a single step forward before the shifting sand dragged me down, sucking my foot into its jealous embrace until I fell forward. Shards scratched my chin and clogged my mouth with salt. Using my nails as anchors, I fought for every inch of progress while muscles strained, tendons snapped, and my eyes streamed hot brine.
“Please, let me leave.”
“Are you sure?” the octopus asked.
I nodded emphatically. “I’m not the one.”
“Then, you must take me with you and choose another.”
Who? My mother would be too weak from her arthritis to hold the bowl, although whatever waited beneath the water might provide relief from her pain. Would Trent leap at a chance to save me and fulfil some heroic fantasy? A stranger would be easier—less guilt, and I could pretend they deserved it while letting the tiny octopus work his magic on their weak mind rather than mine.
“You, only you,” the ocean roared.
Water lapped against the fishbowl, each wave reaching higher than the last. If I waited much longer, the choice would be made for me, like so many others before. My father purchased my house. A friend had pushed me into my current relationship, and in turn, Trent had chosen me for the job in his advertising agency. Now, the ocean seemed determined to decide my fate. I crawled towards the bowl and Good News, who was anything but. Salt itched my eyes as spume pummelled my face.
Blinking, I stared into the horizon and the Cosmic horror that filled it. I would reclaim my agency if it was the last thing I did.
I leaned across my kitchen table, staring at my miniature monster. What now? I could keep it as a pet but how big would it grow?
I searched for the number for the local aquarium. “Hi, do you take donations?”
“Pardon me?” the female voice answered.
“I have a baby octopus.”
A click and silence. Did she think I was a prank caller?
The creature in the bowl lifted an arm and waved. I laughed. If the creature was a curse, I should pass it to the creepiest person I could find. No better place to find creeps than on Tinder. A few swipes left, and I found a match.
He answered the door in a blue shirt and jeans. The flinty glint in his watery eyes belied his shy smile. I passed a bulging carrier bag across the threshold.
The man peered into the bag then looked at me. “Are you coming in?”
“I’ll return tomorrow,” I lied.
“That’s that,” I told myself as I marched away. I hope so, my higher brain replied.
I drove to the end of the street and parked at the crossroads, not knowing what to do. I could not stop thinking about the helpless creature trapped inside glass. He needed his mother. I remembered my childhood, tucked tight in bed while my mother sowed stories in the warm air before planting a kiss on my forehead.
Dont! My mind flailed in protest as I touched the steering wheel. Please, it begged as I made a U-turn and headed towards the man’s house.
The man placed the goldfish bowl on the passenger seat of an Audi, and I reached for my mobile phone, but who would I call? When the man pulled away, I followed him. Should I ask my boyfriend to meet me at the beach? Together, we could warn the man not to summon the creature from the ocean and doom us all. When I turned my car around, moments ago, had I planned to take the baby octopus back to the beach and face the same consequences? I could not answer that question, having not thought that far ahead.
When the Audi turned right towards the beach, I turned left and found myself pulling up outside Mother’s bungalow. Her eyes sparkled when she saw me at her door, and she seemed young again, vibrant, and pain-free. She pulled me into a strong embrace and her curled fingers felt like claws against my spine.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Of course, she knew. Mother had always been able to read my emotions, perhaps seeing in my face a mirror of her own fear and emptiness.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I promised her, and it wasn’t a lie, not really. As I stood on her doorstep, embraced by her self-sacrificing love, I knew without doubt that my mother would protect me, keep me safe, even from the end of the world. I felt unequal to that love, unworthy, and promised myself, that if the world wasn’t about to end, I would visit her more often.
Something blocked the sun. The darkness was thick and humid, like a quilt under which I might hide from night-time monsters.
“Come inside,” Mother said, ushering me into the sitting room, where we sat on antique chairs too large for her modern bungalow.
Rain pounded the window, shaken from the shoulders of the rising horror, if my imagination could be believed. Mother cupped my chin and pulled my gaze from the storm to kiss me on the forehead. I hoped that Good News’s reunion was as poignant as my own, and that his mother would be similarly completed by his presence. Maybe her devotion would prevent her from unleashing madness and destruction on humankind. It was a slender hope, but enough for me to accept my mother’s offer of tea and cake and endure her questions about my love life.
The truth made her sad but gave me the impetus to break things off with Trent, realising that I used him like I used my dressing-gown, for appearances rather than love. My higher brain did not object to this decision, only suggesting that a change of career should be considered while I was cleaning house.
Curtains of rain threatened to drown me as I left Mother. I refused to look up. Afraid. If it was darker than it should be that was because storm clouds obscured the sun, not an ancient God heralding the end of sanity. I would head home, make more coffee, and plan the rest of my life. My future was mine to choose. I was finally free.