Garish carnival lights obliterated the moonless sky and cast colorful shadows across muddy pathways between the tents.
“A single dollar to see Octavia, wonder of the sea! Count all eight legs for yourself, and what legs they are!” The barker lifted his pant leg to waggle a tattooed calf.
Octavia, the Squid Girl. I rubbed my right arm where scabbed skin came away in flakes. The outline had healed and I was ready for shading.
“Hey big guy, we’ve been waiting for you.” The barker whipped off his hat to reveal greasy black hair pasted to his balding skull.
I dropped a bill into his hat and he leered at me with gold-capped teeth.
The tent was packed to the gills, everyone craning their necks towards the brightly lit stage. The barker’s hands flitted like butterflies, catching the audience’s attention and then releasing it. I’d seen it all before and lounged in the back, amused by the excitement.
“Ladies and gents, behind this curtain swims the beautiful Octavia. Now, if you’re of a sensitive nature, kindly leave. No refunds.” He paused for one dramatic moment but no one moved.
“Show us the girl!” a man shouted. Wolf whistles broke out and the barker put a finger to his lips until everyone settled. He swept his arm out as the curtain rose to reveal a tank shrouded in darkness.
A lithe figure swam in rapid figure-eights. Water sloshed over the tank lid. A drum rolled louder and louder. The audience shivered, waiting. The lights slammed on.
Octavia’s black hair whipped back in a dramatic arc, her sequined bikini top sparkling against tan skin. Water cascaded across the stage and drenched the first row. She angled herself on the tank with two human arms, then swung her hips until eight glorious squid tentacles dangled over the edge. Hypnotic. Mesmerizing.
I leaned forward, enchanted by her beauty despite seeing it countless times before. A woman cried out and fainted, hauled out of the tent by her husband.
My heart caught in my throat. Octavia was a goddess. A strong nose above full lips. Almond eyes lined with ebony kohl, smeared by moisture. Black bangs framed her face and waist-length hair flowed down her back like a waterfall of ink. As if in response, my arm spasmed from fingers to shoulder and I clutched it against my chest in a desperate attempt to quiet the movement.
The eight tentacles radiated outwards to expose a fleshy, throbbing siphon in the center.
A mother muttered, “For shame,” and pulled her gaping children from the tent. I stood transfixed. Two long, delicate tentacles rose to frame Octavia’s face before she arched back and fell into the water. I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
The velvet curtains closed with a dramatic swoop and the audience booed.
“If you want more, come back tomorrow!” The barker bowed and disappeared behind the curtain.
He led me backstage, but only after I greased his palm with a hundred big ones. We were joined by two other shady fellows who acknowledged me with a silent nod.
Octavia lounged against the tank edge, her human arms holding her above water. Her tentacles churned below the surface in an entrancing rhythm. She didn’t look at us and kept her eyes lowered. Sparkling dew drops of water clung to her skin and lashes.
“Does she talk?” One man asked, reaching a hand out towards her. I resisted the urge to slap his hand away but the barker moved first.
He stepped between them with a deft movement, then took Octavia’s chin in his hand to look into her eyes. I envied his familiar way with her. “You know what happens now. Be a good girl.” She jerked away and glared. He turned to me. “Big guy, take Octavia under the arms.”
I realized he meant me. I’d never been asked to assist before. My hands shook as I did as he asked. Her skin felt cold and her bikini top sequins dug into my forearms. Her head lolled against my shirt, leaving a wet spot against my thudding chest.
“On three, we lift her from the water to that table there.” He nodded at a metal slab, an autopsy table with drains in each corner. “One, two, three!”
As soon as we hauled her from the water, she writhed and fought. Her body was surprisingly heavy, lined with muscles rippling under tan skin. Painted nails scratched my cheek and the barker got a mouth full of tentacles, but we held on. Her beautiful mouth warped into silent wails when she hit the cold metal surface.
“Hold her steady!” the barker shouted through bloodied teeth.
I wanted to scoop her up into my arms and escape this place. But that’s not why I was here. She thrashed once more and went limp.
The barker wiped sweat from his brow and dug among her tentacles, exposing the siphon. Purple ink seeped out, pooling in the drains, and into a glass jar that had been prepared for the occasion. We placed Octavia back into her tank where she sank to the bottom.
The glass jar contained several ounces of shining liquid. Behind us, a tall blond woman stepped through the tent flap. She set a leather case on a table next to a padded bench and laid out her equipment: a tattoo gun, alcohol, gauze, and black latex gloves that she snapped on with professional efficiency.
“I’m ready,” was all she said.
With reverence, the barker handed her the liquid. She poured it into a small pot and gestured for me to sit down.
I laid on the bench and offered her my right arm, still in progress: the healed outline of Octavia, swimming free in the deep ocean.
Her quiet eyes gazed at me from my bicep and her tentacles twitched when the tattoo artist pushed the vibrating shader against my waiting flesh.
About the author:
Rachel is a filmmaker and writer living in the Florida panhandle with her husband, two children, and three cats (2 black, 1 torti). She has recently ventured into prose after over two decades of producing indie horror films. Rachel loves filmmaking, assembling miniature DIY dollhouses, and jigsaw puzzles with her kids. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Diet Milk Magazine, Aphotic Realm Magazine, Dark Void Magazine, and PulpCult’s Unspeakable Vol II. To view Rachel’s films and news on published works, visit agirlandhergoldfish.com