This story is by Pattison Telford and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The last thing I expected to see was a father giving birth—it would be the final joyous spectacle of my life.
The barest twitch of my flippers propelled me, drifting with the warm current and skimming the glimmering sand that reflected the angling afternoon sun. I felt the caress of Tatiana’s hand along my calf, bare in the tropical waters. Glancing back over my shoulder at her, I communicated with a nod, a smile obscured beneath my diving regulator. Ebony hair rippled in a glossy, gravity-defying spray between the mask’s strap and her shoulders. I urged her along with a wave to the patch of amber coral and waving kelp strands ahead.
Gold mine! Colorful fins flashed in a delicate diorama as fish wove intricate paths through the undersea garden arrayed below us. Distraction befell me then, as I spotted him. A shy, encrusted seahorse peeked from between two swaying fronds of vegetation, his tail coiled for anchorage around one’s stalk.
His intricate markings and camouflaging texture brought an image to mind of a tiny mermaid urging him around, mounted on a finely decorated saddle. The grip of the encircling tail intensified, and he started a series of dramatic jerks. A slit opened on a pouch in his abdomen and spewed something into the water—wriggling shapes that formed a gauzy cloud. They were colorless, miniature replicas of their father. The seahorse was giving birth!
Tatiana’s mask hovered inches from my own and she gripped my forearm as we hung rapt, glued to this unexpected scene. I lowered the harpoon to a graceful landing on the sand beside me so I could use both hands, fin-like, to maintain my position alongside the seahorse. I reflected on the tiny life growing inside Tatiana, tinged with guilt that I couldn’t be as chivalrous as the male seahorse and offer to carry our baby myself.
As the cloud of tiny seahorses drifted and dispersed, another thrill of excitement passed through me as I swiveled to check out movement to my left. A small octopus wafted near my discarded harpoon, dappled orange dots playing across its midnight blue shape, wavering tentacles stirring up wisps of sand as it approached.
Not daring to look away lest I miss a moment of wonder, I nudged Tatiana and pointed. The curious octopus hovered over the shaft of the harpoon, coiling a tentative tentacle beneath the shaft. I smiled so broadly a few bubbles escaped from the corners of my lips, taking shortcuts to the sea’s surface. I could tell Tatiana was maneuvering to a better viewpoint above and a fraction behind me, her shadow a formless blob on the ridged sand. Her hand encircled my calf again, and we watched, entranced by the little octopus’ antics.
Our entertainer’s expressionless eyes turned to regard their audience, as it coiled a second tentacle around the harpoon. It poised to attempt a lift, despite being mightily over-matched by the size of the harpoon. The six free tentacles retracted, then surged. The harpoon lifted with astonishing ease just as I felt an unexpected wash of current along my back.
It felt as if Tatiana was kicking into motion above me, leaving me in the backwash of her flippers, but she didn’t surge forward into my field of vision as I expected. The shadow from above me still wavered, a shapeless blob on the rippled sand below, and her grip on my calf remained firm. I rolled a quarter turn, glancing back, before realizing how wrong I was. The grip on my calf wasn’t the soothing clasp of a lover, and the shadow wasn’t cast by Tatiana’s lithe form. Instead, the looming figure of an octopus twenty times the size of my little friend greeted me. A powerful sucker-adorned tentacle tightened around my leg.
Tatiana! That earlier whoosh of current was her being dragged backward by a third, even more monstrous octopus. Her regulator flailed, off to one side, and I glimpsed her wide eyes as she was spun in a barrel roll by pulsating tentacles. The octopus flashed in ascending waves of yellow and cobalt blue as it deftly ensnared her breathing tank and ripped it from her with a shuddering urgency.
I recoiled in panic, somehow escaping the rubbery noose around my calf. I grabbed for the harpoon, but the fleeing demon I had thought so cute but a moment earlier snatched it beyond reach. The shadow of the malicious monstrosity overhead engulfed me as it retracted into a kinetic ball, preparing for its next move.
I thrashed away from the shadow, head swiveling to locate the harpoon which must be somewhere on my left, then back to Tatiana being dragged away to my right. Two tentacles wrapped mercilessly around her left arm and another pair smothered her left leg, the octopus twisting her ruthlessly. Its body snaked around a darkened boulder before I saw the other four tentacles emerge around the other side to grasp Tatiana’s free arm and leg. She was spread-eagled on the rock, facing me, bending, bending. The octopus constricted behind her, sculpting her unnaturally around the boulder face. A final few bubbles escaped her whitening lips, her mask askew, revealing only one panic-stricken eye.
I scrambled to change direction to head to her rescue, instinctively feeling for the diver’s knife strapped to my thigh. But it was too late. Before I had even halted my backward movement, the tentacles tightened and strained. I could almost feel the grinding agony as her joints dislocated, and had to look away as her skin tore apart at the hip and a jagged eruption of flesh dissected her torso.
Breathing in rapid, shallow gasps that belied my diver’s training, I retreated into a coral-ringed hollow, a grotto with an opening overhead, just narrow enough to allow me to pass. Streamers of blood wicked away from the uncovered sections of skin where the harsh coral scrapes licked me like flame. The sandy base of the grotto pressed into my back as the unblinking eye of my pursuer edged into view. His shape elongated as he squeezed through the opening, advancing.
My eyeballs dried and my tongue was a shard of slate as my heart skittered against my ribs. Multiple rings of bubbles rose toward my pulsating pursuer as I hyperventilated. It was my breathing that preserved me—the titanic creature above me recoiled from my exhalations and retreated from the grotto to let the bubbles pass.
It flattened itself again and whipped through the gap, only to be frightened off a second time by an enormous blow through my regulator. I was the rodent in a silent game of cat and mouse as those two glassy eyes were joined by those of the smaller octopus. Another two of similar, hideous size joined, Tatiana’s diving mask clutched in the curled tip of a tentacle in an insidious challenge to my sanity. They surged toward the opening again and again, only to be repelled repeatedly by my frantic bubble-making.
Diving had always been blissful isolation for me, a tranquil world that let every worry slip away. But my current solitude was as distant from calmness as I had even been. Continuing to exhale a stream of ascending bubbles, I felt around me for a way to escape, daring not even to turn my face from the jagged gap and distant sky. Debris salted the sandy patch around me. I clutched at a significant fragment and hefted it into my tunnel vision.
My palm encircled a tree branch, slick with algae. But it was no tree branch that appeared in my vision as I lifted. It was a human femur, snapped in the middle, protruding from the cracked eye socket of a decaying skull.
I released it, pushing it as far from me as the closing-in confines of the grotto would allow. A litter of other bone fragments beneath me poked at my wet suit’s thighs and rear. Being alone was preferable to the company of my rotting companions. In a moment, I had gone from the dread of my isolation to the terror of human contact.
I suck hard on the regulator. Nothing. A seething tendril slithers across the surface of the coral toward me, followed cautiously by an unblinking eye. An even larger mass of boneless nightmare squeezes into the gap alongside the first octopus, the two of them obscuring all but the faintest glimmers from the water’s surface far above. Darkness shrouds me, or is the last oxygen leaving my system already? I grip my knife and dream of Tatiana.