The Aquarium is Andrea

Monte Remer

Story image for The Aquarium is Andrea by

T eacher hesitates to form the words do not, and so chaos ensues.

Have I forgotten them? he wonders.

No. Some expressions are difficult, but do not only requires scrunching up the skin around his eyes. It’s nothing so complicated and dangerous as forgotten.

Has Receiver forgotten?

The question—and the fear that someday he might have to really consider it—has been plaguing Teacher for some time. Through the glass of his prison, Teacher can see Receiver in his own.

He tries to get Receiver’s attention, but Receiver is focused on the Watchers. They gather around Receiver’s cell like the air-bubbles that sometimes cluster around the glass. The two prisoners have worked on maintaining memories in spite of distractions. It will be okay.

It will be okay, Teacher thinks. Receiver will remember.

But Teacher needs to be certain.

He changes the shade of his skin. It’s dark in the dimly-lit space between Teacher’s prison and Receiver’s, but Receiver will see. He will see, and he will remember. Teacher transforms from one shade of gray to another in rapid succession. It doesn’t have any meaning other than getting Receiver’s attention and that could confuse Receiver even more, but it will be okay. He believes that even as one little Watcher turns around and points a finger.

The crowd turns as one in that little finger’s direction like a school of fish changing course. There is a pause that decides the fate of two minds.

Don’t pay attention to them. It’s a thought to both himself and to Receiver. They can’t communicate like that though. They’d have escaped long ago if they could communicate like that.

Teacher’s rectangular pupils narrow, training his eyes on Receiver as much as he can as the Watchers come forward. He continues changing his shade. There are so many other colors in this world—Andrea taught him that—but his species can only see variations of grey.

What we could do with colors. What progress we could make.

Receiver begins scrunching up the skin around his eyes. He changes his own shade to match Teacher’s.

The relief which surges into Teacher is like the sloshing of the water when he swims very quickly in his prison.

He remembers. Of course he remembersI was foolish to think otherwise. We’ve come too far to forget.

Receiver stretches a tentacle towards the glass.

It’s a way of saying I don’t understand. He lowers the tentacle, scrunches up his eyes again, changes his shade again. I don’t understand this.

One Watcher did not move from Receiver’s prison to Teacher’s. It’s the little one who pointed. That bane of progress points again, this time to Receiver. Receiver looks away from Teacher and to the little Watcher. He goes from one shade to the next, forgetting the meaning behind each one. He flails his tentacles around for the little Watcher’s amusement instead of communication, saying this is why and I am corral and here find calendar.

And so it ends. Everything she taught Teacher, and everything Teacher taught Receiver.


Teacher doesn’t know.

Orbit-sml ><

I n the dark age which follows, however, Teacher maintains something.

At the end of every night, all the Watchers leave and Teacher settles to the bottom of his prison and wraps his tentacles tight around an aquarium-decoration. It’s about the size of his suction-cups, with eight tentacles that do not move and skin that does not change shade. It is not alive like how Teacher, Receiver, or especially the Watchers who can go beyond this place are alive, but it’s meaning is everything.

Octopus, Teacher remembers as he holds it. Octopus like me.

Orbit-sml ><

w here’d they all go? Teacher wonders.

It’s been this way for a while. The dark hallway between Teacher’s and Receiver’s prisons is mostly empty of Watchers now. Those Watchers still around are the kind who do things like give them food and clean the prisons, not paying much attention whenever either octopus changes shades or flails around. They clean the hallway a lot more as well, and they wear strange flaps of skin around the holes they use to communicate. They might not communicate at all now, especially because there are only ever one or two of them around.

One is walking past now. Receiver’s eyes follow the Watcher lazily. He stretches out a tentacle and changes his shade a few times.

Teacher feels only a vague sense of anger at the sight, though he doesn’t know why. Mindlessly changing shades is just a terrible thing to do—a betrayal, somehow—and this is merely a fact of life, like how the decoration at the bottom of Teacher’s tank isn’t an octopus itself but means octopus.

Anger turns almost immediately into focus. Receiver isn’t changing shades arbitrarily. There’s seven shades which he’s cycling through, going back to the first at the end of the seventh. Receiver isn’t looking at the Watcher, either—his small, rectangular pupils stare through the glass of two prisons into Teacher’s own. There’s an unmistakable intelligence in those pupils.

The pattern repeats. Receiver points with his tentacle. The Watcher is out of sight now, so Receiver can only be paying attention to Teacher. His tentacle, however, is pointed a little lower. Then he points it towards himself, curling it inward and changing shades to match the grey of the decoration.

When Teacher thinks Receiver remembers, he understands remember as a vague concept, not a word.

He doesn’t need to.

Still the shade of the decoration, Receiver wraps a tentacle around his head.

Remember, the motion indicates.

And Teacher does. He mimics the motion.

Octopus remembers. I remember.

Orbit-sml ><

t here are things beyond this place. Beyond the prisons and the dark hallways between them, there’s another world.

Are there still as many Watchers out there? Teacher wonders, awakening with a well-rested mind after a long, thirty-second sleep. Have they gone away from everywhere, or just here?

The vibrations have been so few. There’s no longer the subtle shaking of a group of Watchers communicating, no water-rippling tremors from little Watchers banging on the glass.

Is she out there?

And the greatest question—who is she?

There are no answers, especially not to that last. He only knows that one Watcher was special, and that he must see her again.

But first, they must learn. Teacher and Receiver have spent a long time forming shapes with their tentacles and changing their shades, then checking their understanding of what those things mean. Watchers would be amazed to see them so active, but not even the feeding and cleaning kinds have come through the hallway today. There’s nothing more than two octopodes sloshing around in the water, constructing the world to each other across an empty, dimly-lit space.

At a certain point, Receiver reaches the end of his memory. He knows no more words and phrases, and so Teacher must reassume his old role.

The first Watcher today walks past. It attaches a strange object to the wall next to Receiver’s prison, tears pieces of it away, then begins marking it with some kind of ink.

Do Watchers have ink?

Maybe, but Teacher isn’t sure that the thing producing the ink is part of the Watcher. That doesn’t matter though, because the Watcher moves aside and a thousand memories come back.

There’s a bunch of words on the strange object—real words, not tentacle-positions or shade-changes—about fun facts and April and Aries. There are numbers, the largest among them being 2020.

This is the world beyond, Teacher knows.

Receiver is off swimming in the back of his prison now, but Teacher is transfixed. There is a way ahead now, and it’s as clear as the glass of his prison now that the Watchers clean it so often. It’s as clear as his mind has been ever since the cleaning and feeding Watchers started being the only Watchers in the aquarium.

What is an aquarium?

This time, there’s an answer to his question.

The aquarium is Andrea, the greatest Watcher who ever lived. She is the outside world, the way to get there and the reason to go. She is the answer to all of his questions. Do Watchers have ink? Andrea will teach him. Why does he need to learn to communicate with Receiver? Andrea told him that he will never forget so long as he has another to help him remember. Why should he not forget? Andrea is out there.

He can’t even remember her face, but that strange object is a starting-point. Like the octopus decoration, it means something.

Receiver floats aimlessly in his prison.

I’ll teach you, Teacher thinks. I just have to teach myself first.

Orbit-sml ><

I t’s strange which memories only arise when one is dreaming. Teacher can only sleep for up to a minute at a time, but the quick flashes of the past are enough to lead him into the future.

The past. Lights strung up along the walls. About the same amount of Watchers there are now, though without their communication-holes covered. Another strange object—this one as thin as the recent one but much longer—strung up above Receiver’s prison and reading Happy Holidays!

And a face. Oval and pale as the grey of his suction-cups. The Watcher moves one of her fingers and makes a shape. Teacher makes the same one with a tentacle, and it means something.

He draws the letter A, as in Andrea.

Orbit-sml ><

T here’s work to do. The whole language they’ve developed will need to be changed, for a better one exists which doesn’t require countless different shade-changes and tentacle-positions and combinations of the two to communicate. There are memories to unlock, all of them hovering just above his consciousness like the dark-gray film of waste at the top of his prison.

The Watchers don’t clean as much anymore. They don’t seem to care. The lack of distractions for the octopodes is perfect.

Teacher has wondered if he’s forced his memories away to protect himself. Perhaps when they come back, he’ll be crushed under the weight of what he’s lost.

But he does remember what Andrea looks like, and there can’t possibly be anything else so devastating to lose.

Do you even remember? he wonders with a certain sadness as he watches Receiver practice forming the letter A. Do you even remember how beautiful she is?

He probably doesn’t, and that gives Teacher a new motivation to teach.

Numbers have come back fairly easily, but other words have been more elusive. By his estimate, he has remembered a little over a hundred words, Receiver about half that. They’ve spent the better part of the day naming things in their prisons. As they painstakingly contort each tentacle one at a time into the shape of a letter, even words like corral and ground are a challenge, let alone octopus and calendar.

That’s what the strange object is—a calendar.

A Watcher comes down the hallway and stops in front of the calendar as the few Watchers left often do. With that little ink-filled thing which doesn’t seem to be part of the Watcher’s body, it crosses off a section of the object called a square. If Teacher remembers the purpose as well as he remembers the word, each square represents a certain amount of time, and 2020 represents a much longer amount—all the squares combined.

Despite discoveries like this, much of the Watchers’ behavior remains an enigma.

For instance, Teacher has no idea why the Watchers come every day to mark off the calendar-squares. A Watcher will stand there for what feels like forever, just watching the calendar as if willing time to go faster, to reach the end of something.

The period of time indicated by the number 2020 continues, however, and in the stillness there is remembering, teaching, learning.

The glass of Teacher’s prison begins to seem as thin as the calendar.

Orbit-sml ><

H e dreams of remembered joy. Andrea writes a question on the paper with the ink-filled thing—a pen it is called a pen—and holds it up to the glass.

The question reads How much do tickets for adults cost?

Teacher searches his memory. The little book talked about tickets to the aquarium. His prison is part of the aquarium. Andrea works at the aquarium. Beyond the aquarium, there are bodies of endless water with no glass to hold them in. There are creatures which roam free. There are more Watchers than Teacher can possibly imagine.

Focus, he tells himself.

He needs a lot of that to make the word tickets. It’s slow and he can only make one letter at a time before even beginning the next with another tentacle, but he’s practiced using multiple tentacles at once. This requires a fair amount of focus from Andrea to understand, but once they’ve both figured it out then he’ll escape in no time.

He stops after tickets.

Andrea’s communication-hole curves downward. The disappointment transcends the barrier between species.

Anything but that, Teacher thinks. Anything but letting her down.

Again, he forms tickets. Then—with a flourish—he spells cost fifteen dollars for adults.

Andrea pauses a moment to catch up. Once understanding enters her eyes, she pulls the paper away and marks it with the pen. Her communication-hole curves upward.

She turns the paper towards the glass again, and Teacher reads Every answer correct.

He dances around his prison, swimming in circles and leaving bubbles in his wake. Andrea laughs, her face becoming for a moment as fluid as water. There is nothing more beautiful than her laugh.

Swimming back to the glass, he spells out the same thing he has for the past couple of days.

Take me with you?

He keeps wondering if it’s some sort of test, if there’s so much he has to learn before Andrea will sneak him out of his prison and take him with her into the beyond.

She takes the paper away and writes her response.

Not yet, okay?

Orbit-sml ><

T eacher is still dwelling on the dream when he notices Receiver trying to communicate.

Receiver spells Watcher with seven tentacles at once, using the other one to point at the end of the hallway.

They’ve come so far lately, completely evolving the way they communicate to each other. That’s not what Teacher’s thinking about though. He’s wondering why Receiver feels the need to communicate this. A Watcher comes every single day to cross off a square, and this time shouldn’t be any different.

No cover, Receiver spells.

And sure enough, the Watcher’s communication-hole is uncovered. The Watcher crosses off a calendar-square, then flips a few pages. Staring for a second at what looks to be the last one, the Watcher curves its communication-hole upward, then leaves for the beyond.

Why no cover? Receiver spells, following it by raising all his tentacles above his head. This position is a rare remnant of how they used to communicate. It’s a way of differentiating a statement from a question.

I do not know, Teacher spells.

Receiver has never been the most communicative, but he asks another question.

Do you remember when there were more?

Teacher replies Yes.

There used to be far more Watchers, just as he used to only know the word octopus. He also used to be incapable of logical deduction, but now he finds himself wondering if there’s a reason for why the amount of Watchers decreased at the same time as those who remained started covering their communication-holes.

And how will this help me get to Andrea?

It won’t. And so he puts it out of mind.

Teacher starts reading the fun-facts on the calendar for what seems like the hundredth time. Receiver will ask him comprehension questions, and Teacher will get every one right.

He always does. They need to keep doing this, even if it’s repetitive. They need to remember.

Orbit-sml ><

a terrible thought occurs to Teacher as the two octopodes practice spelling faster.

What if it won’t help? What if no amount of learning will free us from our prisons?

They might become intelligent just to live in terrible understanding of the fact that they’ll never see Andrea ever again.

But learning has no limit. At some point, there is an amount of knowledge which can free them. They might fall again and again before they reach that point, but the path will always be there because there’s one thing Teacher will always remember.

Octopus, he thinks as he looks at the little decoration, like me.

Orbit-sml ><

a nother job, Andrea spells with her fingers. Sometimes they practice reading, but other times she communicates by moving her fingers in the same way that Teacher moves his tentacles. She’s much slower, but Teacher figures she can take all the time she needs. He’s content to watch her face in the slow seconds between letters, illuminated by the Christmas lights on the wall behind her.

He mimics her and also spells another job, then puts his tentacles above his head to make it a question.

I’m leaving the aquarium, she replies.

The dream skips over the hurt, the confusion, the following argument which would be hopeless even between members of the same species unseparated by a wall of glass. The argument is over, and now they’re just trying to enjoy the few moments they have left together. Andrea is holding the decoration.

You have to come give it to me, Teacher spells.

Andrea laughs—it’s the most beautiful thing a Watcher can do.

She disappears down the hallway but soon comes back with a ladder—he knows what it is from an employee-handbook they read together. Andrea puts the latter up against the glass of his prison.

Receiver sleeps. Andrea is the only Watcher around. There is only the soft vibration of her toes breaking the surface of the water.

They talk later of how she’s going to leave, how the Watchers will fill the halls come the end of Christmas-break and the reopening of the zoo. Teacher’s replies are vacant things, as much a parody of conversation as existence in this prison is a parody of life. His mind is elsewhere, lost in strands of auburn hair which are like dancing tentacles when Andrea immerses herself in the water.

He pays attention to one thing, though.

Andrea tells him that he’ll forget.

You will forget, she draws with one hand, holding the octopus-decoration with the other, but remember this. I cannot take you with me, but remember this.

Teacher asks Will I see you again?

Before she answers, she is out of the water—out of Teacher’s life—and he is out of the dream.

Orbit-sml ><

I t’s a bad day for learning. The Watchers come and put up lights and other interesting decorations. Receiver is distracted by them all day, and Teacher has to re-teach a few concepts when the Watchers finally leave.

Better tomorrow, he thinks. We’ll get closer to seeing her tomorrow.

Orbit-sml ><

M ore Watchers come every day to mark the days off the calendar. They stand there in a group, looking at the few days left in 2020 as if they’ve come to the conclusion that one Watcher cannot will time to go faster but multiple surely can.

All the Watchers have stopped covering their communication-holes. Their numbers become many. Every day becomes a bad one for learning, and as Receiver flails around for the Watchers’ amusement—moving his tentacles without meaning—Teacher spends his time thinking about how he could have gone further if he’d only focused. He had all the time and the peace and quiet that any octopus could ask for, and yet here is.

Almost back where he started.

Tomorrow. We can go further tomorrow.

It becomes a mantra. The mantra becomes shorter every day.

Tomorrow. Further tomorrow.

Tomorrow, tomorrow.


He soon forgets what that word means. Catching Receiver’s attention, he spells it out.

One day, Receiver mimics him and then raises all his tentacles above his head. Teacher fails to give an answer.

The next day, Teacher makes the word again. Receiver doesn’t even notice.

Orbit-sml ><

T he Watchers are fun. They point their fingers and contort their faces. Teacher plays with them, moving his tentacles in strange shapes and changing shades. Both are meaningless and just meant to entertain.

One Watcher isn’t entertained at all. She stops in front of Teacher’s prison and holds out something thinner than glass, marked with some sort of ink. She looks like she expects Teacher to understand. She—

What does she mean? he wonders in not so many words.

He doesn’t know. He changes shades a few times and swims in a circle.

The Watcher lets water flow from its eyes. Teacher has never seen one do that, and he wonders what it means.

Then he gets distracted, and thoughts of Watchers are forgotten. His eyes are drawn to a strange rock at the bottom of his tank.

Octopus, he thinks. Like me.

After all the Watchers have gone for the day, memories suddenly fill Teacher’s mind. There is so much work to do, but he only manages to teach Receiver the skin-shade which signifies octopus. Receiver forgets this the next day. Teacher forgets too, but eventually he remembers again.

And soon forgets.

And again and again.


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Monte Remer

Author image of Monte Remer Monte Remer is a writer from the American west. He tells stories of strange happenings and macabre creatures, both unbecoming of the kind and simple hick that he is. Somewhere in the mountains, his aggressive typing on old keyboards can be heard as the dust rises out of them like smoke from a fresh fire.

© Monte Remer 2022 All Rights Reserved

The image was created by compositing images generated by Micah Hyatt using DALL·E 2.

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