Treading Water

by Tapanga Koe

Peter Ganglidge knows he is starting to lose control. Every day the pain gets worse, his energy is waning, and things are becoming harder to keep concealed. Still, he gets up, makes his coffee and toast, treks to the bus stop, to work, to the bus stop, then home.

So far, blessedly, the charade has held. Despite his secret tentacles – ever-churning just beneath the surface of his skin – he manages to soothe and quiet his thoughts, dampening them to whispers; keeping up his pleasant, ordinary appearance, maintaining his careful, deliberate words. Though it is exhausting, he has managed to remain anonymous – forgettable – to slip through life with a calculated mediocrity.

When he gets off of the bus in front of the factory this morning, he is tired. His back and head ache. He can feel his tentacles are swollen, swirling and swaying within. He is terrified that today will be the day that they finally break free and flop out for all to see.

He can’t go home though, can’t risk asking for yet another sick day. This point is driven further as he passes through the cafeteria on his way to the locker rooms. Men, younger, fitter, and willing to work harder for less, sit and laugh over coffee before their shift. The tentacles within Peter throb painfully, and as he pauses; his eyes water, hanging on their beauty – their stubbled jaws and broad shoulders – until the men take notice, and leer his way. Peter tugs down his cap, the tentacles once more quiet to bearable stirrings, and he hurries off to change into his uniform and set to work.

The first task of the day is a major one: a carriage on one of the knitting machines needs calibrating, the broken machine is holding up production. The solution should come easily; he’s done such a task a hundred times before, but today his worn mind is reaching for focus. He’s been working at it for some time when the boss comes. She is angry. Shouting. The tentacles begin pushing so hard against the backs of Peter’s eyes that his vision blurs with every beat of his heart.

The boss’s eyes stretch, and spittle flies with her words, but he is no longer listening. Instead, he is feeling the weight of the metal ratchet in his hand. He imagines how her face will twist in shock and agony as the ratchet crunches into the top of her head; the sound of bone cracking; the spray of hot blood.

His hand twitches but he doesn’t raise his arm. Her face twists, not with agony, but with disgust and surprise, and he realizes something of his innards must be working their way out; he quickly wipes at his nose to hide the dangling tentacle tip, allowing it to suck back up inside. Her face relaxes, and though she’s still angry, and now looks a little troubled, she stops talking at him and turns and walks away.

Peter gets back to work, thankful it was no more than a brief slip.

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It is the only slip that day, despite his aching exhaustion. He works late, just as he arrives early, to avoid the crushes of men in the locker room. He can never allow himself to think of those busy locker rooms, except maybe late in the night, in the dark. Then, the tentacles can flow freely, holding and caressing one another, finding release; but only at such an ungodly hour that, on the morrow, he can pretend it was nothing more than a strange and terrible dream.

He waits alone at the bus stop. The bus is late, and he is so tired; the realisation comes at him in a cold rush – what will happen if he doesn’t get home soon. Exhaustion is about to break him open; his tentacles are about to burst free. He gives up on waiting and begins to walk, hoping the effort will force his fleshy casing to maintain its hold until he gets home.

He hits Wellington. It is a street he’s journeyed many times within the steel cocoon of the bus, but never set sole to cement on. The scents and noise spill from venues and patios, wash over him – the clatter of voices, cups, and cutlery; wafting scents of yeasty beer; the sweat and clamour of boisterous men, men with glittering eyes and deep, throaty laughs.

The tentacles push, pounding heavy tattoos against his taut skin. Home is still many blocks away. It’s too far. He knows that he isn’t going to make it, that it is all going to spill out. He knows that he is powerless to stop it. The only decision he has left is where it might end, and that is an easy choice. The revelation that he is going to die comes with a rush of fear but also a sweet backwash of relief – the pain will finally stop.

He turns off Wellington, toward the water. It is easy. Automatic. He can smell the river – he’s always been able to smell it, no matter where he goes. It’s been a long time since he’s seen it, though long has he imagined slipping into its cool embrace – he never dared; water makes it impossible to keep hidden the moist, dark skin that seethes within, and so he’s always avoided the siren call of the river’s heady scent. But soon all would be revealed anyway, and better to be taken by the river than to be bashed to death – a monster – a spectacle – pulped to a gooey mash in the street.

He is ready – or so he thinks, but as the river comes into view he is suddenly pricked by doubt. He spots a riverside café and makes a plea to the frenzied masses inside him for one last, sweet moment of life, promising them he’ll go in soon.

He is shaking by the time he orders an iced tea. The man behind the counter smiles and takes his change. It is hard to breathe. The tentacles thrash, demanding freedom. His vision flashes red and black, red and black, popping with white starbursts. As his head grows light, Peter gives up on getting to the river and hopes that he will at least be able to stumble outside, to die in the fresh, open air.

“Sir? Can you hear me?”

“Hmm?” The flashing of his vision ebbs, but the world is still a haze before his eyes.

“Are you all right?” The barista’s eyebrows raise.

“This wash a bash idea.” Peter words are slurred by a tongue turned fat and squirming, sloshing in his mouth.

Then it happens; one gets loose, whipping out from between his lips and suctioning onto his nose. Peter falls forward, clutching the counter, and hears a collective gasp from behind. The iced tea spills; it is so cold, soaking his front. The tentacles heave and he hears his skin begin to tear. His skull groans against the pressure.

“Sir?”

He tries to answer, but his mouth is full as the tentacles thrust out. His knees give and he crumples. Then people are catching him, easing him to the floor. A half-dozen faces hover above; the group of men who’d been in line behind him. Some are gaping, others pull out their cellphones. Everything moves too much, their faces, their eyes, their bodies, leaving little lag lines in his vision.

It is not easy to close his eyes, they are so swollen and bulging, but he does it because he doesn’t want to see who will wield the bat, or the knife, or whatever it is that they use to destroy his eight slimy, fleshy appendages that now protrude from his tattered skin.

He is waiting. But nothing happens. No one screams or lashes out. When he manages to peak from one, bulging eye, he sees faces marked with concern – but only that – not horror, not disgust, not even surprise.

“Hello? 9-1-1? Hello?” one of the men speaks into his phone, then his face twists in anger, and then he says to the others, “They put me on hold!”

Peter reaches out a single tentacle, its suction cups stick onto the caller’s arm. “Plessss,” he begs, shaking his bulbous head, fearful of what the medical world might do to him. The world rolls as he is turned by the final shedding of his human flesh; his tubular, grey mantle is now fully out, for all the world to see.

The man holding the phone looks down. Peter stares back from one of his large, round eyes, confused because he is still seeing only concern – nothing more. He speaks through lips that are pinching and hardening into a sharp beak. “Jush lesh me dieeee.” The world is so dry, all the moisture has been sucked away, the air is like sandpaper, and it scratches his slick skin and scalds his lungs with every laboured breath.

“We have to get him into the water!” the barista shouts. With great care, several people lift Peter and carry him outside. “Throw him in,” the barista says. “I will follow.”

There is a moment of weightlessness, and then Peter is falling.

He hits the river with a splash, and he thinks, this is death, and it is good, because he feels no more pain. He is sure that he is dead because he has forgotten that in the absence of pain, there can still be life. He is drifting, now, carried off by the current.  

There is a distant splash, and then a voice, muted, but calling, “Hey, mister, hey!” Then another being, a white and beautiful, many-armed being, glides toward Peter and tentatively touches his brow.

“You’re an angel,” Peter thinks, though he might have said it aloud, he isn’t sure.

The creature laughs, a tinkling gurgle, as it gently wraps two tentacles around him and tugs him upward. As they break the surface, the creature who’d pulled him up is already transforming, the freckles forming on his cheeks, and his beak softening back into two pink lips. Peter blinks, and the creature’s face has once more become the barista’s, his beautiful eyes still wide with concern. Beneath the water, though, the barista remains transformed, using his many tentacles to keep them both afloat.

“Is he all right?” One of the group calls, they all stand at the bank’s edge, looking down. 

“I don’t know,” the barista replies. “I don’t think he knows how to swim!”

Another man comes running up to the group, red faced and breathless. The barista calls to him, “Tim! Come and help me. This guy’s getting heavy!”

“That’s because he’s starting to turn back,” Tim replied. “Oi, keep his head above water, eh!”

There is a searing sensation as the water enters Peter’s mouth and nose. He doesn’t know why the people on the river bank are not screaming, hurling rocks, or turning to flee in horror. Didn’t they see that there were not one, but two monstrosities before them?

Two. Another, like him.

At that moment, Peter’s world shifts—he realizes he isn’t dead, and he no longer wants to be. He begins thrashing, one hand slapping at the surface while his seven tentacles sway wildly under the water. Another splash sounds, as Tim leaps into the water, sprouting blue-hued tentacles as he falls. Then, he is helping the barista, and together, they pull Peter ashore.

The three of them lay panting, and Peter can feel his form solidifying, the tentacles coiling up, quietly caressing each other within his newly-formed, human skin. It hurts a little, a burning in his lungs, an aching behind his eyes, but already that is starting to fade.

Tim, who is already back to normal, helps the barista to his feet. They stare down at Peter, their fingers intertwined, their eyes piteous but kind.

“Are you okay, mister?” The barista asks.

“No,” Peter says. “But I think… I think I will be.” He gazes toward the rest of the group. All eyes rest upon him – they show no concern, or even take any notice – of the two men holding hands.

“Is there someone we can call?” the barista asks.

“No.” Peter shakes his head. “There’s no one.”

“Oh,” the barista and Tim exchange a glance. Then with a shy smile, the barista reaches out his hand. “I’m Johnathan. This is Tim.”

Taking Johnathan’s hand, Peter feels the warmth of another’s touch – something he hasn’t felt in so long. “I’m Peter,” he says. “Thanks.”

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Short story author Tapanga Koe has published works in Mystery Weekly, Aurora Wolf, Asymmetry, and Euonia Review, and anthologies They Have to Take You In (edited by Ursula Pflug, Hidden Brook Press) and That Not Forgotten (edited by Bruce Kauffman, Hidden Brook Press). Tapanga lives with her family in rural Ontario, Canada.

“Treading Water” (© Tapanga Koe) was published in Issue 11 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.