He saw it on YouTube, he says. Shows me a video of the sleeping octopus. Patterns move—white, sand, brown—across its twitching flesh.
I watch him in bed, eyes closed, breathing in and out, and wonder what the world would be like if you could see people’s emotions on their skin. Fear is yellow; pallid and unhealthy. Love is deep blue, warm, calm and comforting. Anger is an unpleasant green that sets my teeth on edge and leaves a nasty taste.
I practice on my own at first, in the bath with the water as hot as I can stand. I stare at my hands, lobster pink in the rising steam, and I think about the last time I was happy. Joy is orange, like burnt embers or a long slow sunset. I sit there for an hour and once, twice, for a moment, the reddened skin seems to change its hue.
They do it for camouflage, he says, it’s an amazing evolutionary trait. I watch its alien body ripple and change as it dreams and wonder if it is hunting or hiding.
Today I feel yellow. I place one finger oh so gently on his sleeping cheek and a ring of colour pulses out, like ripples on a pond. Blue for love. Is he dreaming of me? In the morning I ask him but he says he never remembers his dreams. When I sleep I see the glass walls of an aquarium tank and yearn for the freedom of deep water.
After that it gets easier, little by little. The colours spring unbidden. Look, I say, pointing at the shifting lemon-and-lime patina on my arms and chest after an argument. He shakes his head, turns away.
Soon, I start to see his colours too. I don’t think he is aware of them. His dreams are often blue, like that first time, but in daylight he is muted. Indifference is an off-grey shade of lavender with which I am soon all too familiar. I waste days looking for a reason, but he never shows a hint of orange in my presence.
I wonder if I can hide like the octopus. Mottled skin fading against walls and carpets, until eyes slide right off me. But my colours are too bright; he always sees me.
While he flicks through videos online, I watch clips of my own in the bath with the door locked. Octopuses squeezing through impossibly tiny gaps, escaping their tanks at night to go after prey. Females who strangle their mates and eat them. I hear him move in the next room even as I feel the change; in the cradling water I am weightless, boneless, limbs coiling and uncoiling.
I think myself blue so he won’t suspect and extend my arms, gripping the faux-porcelain rim, sliding up and out.
Sarah McPherson is a writer of short fiction and poetry from Sheffield in the UK. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Corvid Queen, Atrium Poetry, Strix, and The Castle (Royal Rose Magazine), among others, and she had been long/short-listed in competitions including the Writers’ HQ Flash Quarterly Competition and the Reflex Fiction Flash Fiction Competition. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs sporadically at theleadedwindow.