Recommended Reading: The Universal Physics of Escape.


She bends forward, pushing back a cumbersome, invasive purse (which frequently distresses her by banging into people in crowds, ruining her otherwise perfect unobtrusiveness, but which she nonetheless carries because it is a gift, and expensive, and holds an entire magazine without the need to fold it) and sees in the tank before her something foreign but unmistakable: an eye. It pops out from a piece of PVC pipe affixed to the bottom of the aquarium and floats there, bobbing on the end of a slender stalk, swaying in the water. It seems, if she is reading it correctly, to be squinting at her.

“Guys,” she says without moving. “Come here.” Another eye springs from the tube and nods in the water, looking directly at her.

“Mom, they have an eel back here,” her daughter says, coming down the aisle.

She drops the heavy purse from her shoulder and puts her hand up to the glass as Lily moves in beside her. Several slender white feelers slip out of the hole, tap the lip of the pipe and latch onto it; two more unfurl into the water and reach up toward them. Bubbles shoot from the back corner of the tank and swirl around like space dust in the water. The eyes and, disturbingly, the head of the octopus sway with the currents, never still.

A loud clank comes from the next display, which makes the octopus flinch. A worker is changing a piece of equipment. Pumps whir and buzz; the whole place is working loudly like a ship or a large factory. Water is splashed on the floor, pooling in the low spots under the rows of tables, puddles permanent enough to be sprouting bits of vegetation and scum. The man responsible for the noise is bent over the next tank, examining some mechanism; the back of his t-shirt features a large orange wave with “Instant Ocean: Just Add Water” printed over it in bright purple letters. He looks like a seaman—rough beard, green knit cap, big yellow Wellies, a product of his environment, certainly, if a bit out of place, given that the ocean is three hours east of here. Lily jogs down the aisle to fetch her older sister, eager to show something new to her for a change. The octopus is half out of the tube now, several arms reaching out into the water, the rest firmly suctioned to the pipe. It is unmistakable: the thing is eyeing her. When the girls appear the octopus draws back and flushes a muddy olive color.

“Cool,” Samantha says.

“I didn’t know they changed colors, mom,” Lily says.

“Me neither,” Claire says, moving her hand down. Just then it lets go of the pipe and flows, (it doesn’t so much swim as billow), eyes first, its body hanging from the two stalks, a sack of—what, she doesn’t even know—brain? bouncing behind, and attaches to the glass near her hand. She moves it left and the octopus follows. Its suckers press against the glass like little hungry mouths, pressing flat, then letting go. Lily puts her hand up by the top of the tank and the octopus climbs toward it. Several tiny legs roll and unfurl in the churning water at the surface.

About The Author 

Elizabeth Gonzalez’s short stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the Midwest, SolLit Selects, Greensboro Review, Post Road, and many other publications. In 2011, she received the Howard Frank Mosher Prize from Hunger Mountain for “The Speed of Sound,” and in 2012 she received the Tusculum Review Prize for “Shakedown.” She works as a freelance writer and editor in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. The Universal Physics of Escape won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and is her debut story collection.

About The Book

This award-winning collection of eleven short stories takes readers on a journey both scientific and spiritual. Kevin Morgan Watson, publisher at Press 53, writes, “Elizabeth Gonzalez is a master of dialogue, an artist at creating vivid settings, and an encyclopedia of knowledge about the world surrounding her characters. These stories uncover truths that make the reading experience memorable and each story remarkable.” 

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Article originally Published in the February/March 2020 Issue “Short Stories”

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