A small girl’s palm pressed flat against the glass; two rows of delicate cups suctioned in greeting on the other side. Olivia swayed gently, back and forth, invisible to most during the lazy hours of the afternoon at the aquarium. Swaying too, Oscar let his remaining tentacles float freely while his great mantle moved in sync with the girl.
You came back, said Oscar to Olivia, his great fleshy body rippling and smoothing with delight.
You are still here, Olivia replied, her left hand fluttering and flapping with delight.
Colorful fish swirled and danced in the water behind Oscar, great clouds of beautiful movement that reflected the natural sunlight pouring down into the aquarium. Ancient reefs covered in life and dotted with debris: cast off shells and shoes, a cell phone, and a tire.
I am happy you are here, Oscar twirled a limb.
I am happy that I am here too. Do you want to play a game? A light flush rippled from Oscar’s beak to the top of his head.
What game? Olivia asked.
A mind game.
Sure. How do I play?
You don’t mind?
I don’t mind.
Then how can you play a mind game?
Olivia flapped her hand merrily. Oscar mimed her motion, his body bobbing gently in the sea.You are funny, Oscar.
I know.Is the water cold?
Oscar’s skin took on a bluish tone then changed back to his relaxed red-brown. No, the water is warm from the afternoon sun.
It feels cold through the glass, said Olivia. She pressed both hands and one side of her face to the glass, the cool Pacific ocean a wonderful sensation.
You are a lot warmer than the ocean, that’s why it feels cold.
Olivia watched as Oscar’s tentacles spread wide then retract, the suction cups scrunching over the glass. She raised a finger, he raised the tip of one of his appendages. A familiar mimicry they did each time Olivia visited the aquarium.
What do your suckers do?
Again, Olivia flapped with glee and Oscar played along with her. No puns or play on words ever left unsaid.
Do you get bored in there? Olivia stopped to look at Oscar. He kept one large orb turned toward her the entire time, the dark pool the only gaze she did not find uncomfortable.Yes, sometimes.
When I’m really bored, I play games with Hank, said Oscar.
Who is Hank?
Oscar pointed out an aquarium employee behind Olivia, an older man busy checking gauges and dials. Olivia recognized his squat frame and red kerchief. He was at the aquarium every week when she visited.
He captures the fish and fiddles with the tanks. So I do too, Oscar said.
You fiddle with the tanks?
Yes. This is the game I play with Hank. He turns a knob one way, I climb out when he’s not looking and turn it back.
Olivia glanced over her shoulder at the man. Hank doesn’t get mad?
No. He used to get confused but now he knows better. It’s not easy for me to get out anymore.Running a finger in circles on the tank glass, Olivia hummed a tuneless tune. I can’t get out either.
You live in a tank? Oscar asked.
No. I live in a house. I can’t leave it without mom or dad.
More fish swirled by, catching both Olivia and Oscar’s attention. Oscar let a tentacle float freely towards the fish but he didn’t try to grab any.
Your tank is missing four fish, Olivia observed.
I have to eat, you know.
They should give you something else to eat.
Why? asked Oscar.
I like to count the fish.
I like to count the people.
I don’t eat people.
Once more, the duo wriggled and flapped together, their movements full of joy and silliness. They were oblivious to anything or anyone around them, both caught up in the moment.
Footsteps fell nearby, and Oscar quickly retreated to his makeshift cave. Olivia stood alone at the glass, one small hand still pressed against it, her fingers splayed wide, seeking.
“Thanks for keeping an eye on her, Hank,” Olivia’s mother said to the aquarium keeper. She stopped beside Olivia and touched her daughter lightly on the shoulder, it was time to leave.
“Oh it’s no trouble at all, Michelle. Olivia stays right there, keeping her ol’ pal Oscar company,” Hank smiled widely at Michelle. “It’s always a treat to see those two together. He doesn’t come out for any of the other visitors, not like that anyway. You’d think they were having some kind of wild conversation the way they watch each other, bobbin’ and weavin’ and the like.”
Michelle smiled thinly. “It’s a nice idea, Hank, but Olivia doesn’t speak with anyone.” She gently prodded her daughter and said, “Time to go.” Olivia dropped her hand from the glass and left the aquarium with her mother, returning to a world of one-sided conversation where everyone spoke at, but not with, her.