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The Octopus

Submission for the aquarium competition

By Daniel BradburyPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read
"There was something in his eyes..."

Traditionally, we humans have placed ourselves at the far right of the intelligence bell curve. Not just that, but we tend to claim we're the only ones there. Pigs, elephants, a couple breeds of dogs might fall somewhere near the middle, but when it comes to smarts, we've just gone and declared ourselves the cream of the crop. I've always thought that was a bit self-important.

Crows can pass down knowledge to their kids. If you're nice to them, generations of birds will leave little bits of colored plastic and metal on your porch, or the hood of your car as tribute. Kind of makes the phrase "bird brain" seem a little silly. Elephants have rituals. Did you know that? When one of them dies, the whole herd lines up in front of the corpse. They take turns touching it with their trunks. Each one touches it only once, and then they never come back to that place again. Sounds an awful lot like religion to me. I wonder if they pray.

People are so quick to believe in that bell curve; I think if there was ever an argument against human intelligence, that would have to be it. As long as somebody with enough authority says it, nobody thinks twice. What if we just can't understand them? What if the languages crows and elephants speak are gesture based, like sign language? Maybe they're tonal like Mandarin or Korean? Maybe it's some system of communication that's so subtle or complex that we haven't even noticed it yet: an exchange of pheromones, or some tiny turn of the head.

Nobody asked me, of course. I'm just a janitor. But if anyone saw what I had seen I think they'd be wondering how much we deserved our spot on the bell curve, too.

I'd like to think I'm not an idiot, school and I just never got along. Too much time sitting down. I don't mind what I do for a living, I actually think it's pretty rewarding. How many people get to do something that concrete, that real? I don't move numbers around on a spreadsheet, I make sure the aquarium is clean. Peterson aquarium, if you're curious. You'll probably see it on the news pretty soon.

I keep things clean for the guests, the staff. Especially Dr. Bell. Peterson aquarium might not be the most prestigious place in the Midwest to come and see fish, but she was determined to run it like it was. Everything had to be spotless. The benches, the floors. Even the lids of the trash cans got a daily scrubbing. If there was so much as a speck of dust on her desk when she got in, I'd catch all kinds of hell. Dr. Bell was, well, I hesitate to use the phrase "dragon lady". I don't like to be sexist. But the truth of the matter is, just about everybody that worked in that place was terrified of her. She was mean as anything.

I don't know exactly how she came to be working at Peterson. She had a bunch of fancy degrees framed up on the wall behind her desk. California State, Eckert, she even had a degree from Oxford. Didn't make a ton of sense how she had wound up running an aquarium in this backwater city. I heard a rumor once, that she was kicked off of some prestigious research team for an experiment she tried to run under the radar. Something to do with dolphins. It might have explained her attitude, but I wasn't about to ask her if it was true.

A couple of months ago, there was a big to-do about the opening of a new exhibit. We moved the sharks into the coral reef exhibit (the "Reef Zone", on the sign) so we could clear things out for a new animal. It was a Southern Pacific Giant Octopus, caught a few miles off the coast of California. It cost the aquarium a lot of money to have him brought there, and Dr. Bell was determined to have him be the most important thing to happen to Peterson since she got the job. Apparently, he was one hell of a specimen. She put ads in the paper, got us a spot on the local news, had the tank decorated with signs and streamers she'd had custom made to look like tentacles. She even landed some kind of deal with a local brewery to have a special batch of pale ale made for the big day: it was called "Ship Disturber". Had this little woodcut graphic of a kraken tearing a ship apart on the cans. It was pretty good.

I'll never forget the day we loaded him in. The aquarium ran a competition online to name him for a few weeks. I think the top three were "Oswald" "Oliver" and "Beaky". I could never think of him as any of those, though. None of them fit. Internally, if I called him anything at all, it was "The Octopus." I was mopping the floor when they lowered him into the tank, they had him dosed up on something to make him easier to manage, but even then, he was amazing to look at. He was a beautiful animal. He might have been classified as a Southern Pacific Giant Octopus, but that didn't begin to describe the size of him. I don't know if the human growth hormone all those aging California socialites were injecting had run off into the ocean somehow or what, but he was huge. Way bigger than they were supposed to grow. They had to use this miniature crane to lower him into the tank. His skin was brick red on the top and this beautiful cream color on his underbelly. His head, if that's what it's called, and his tentacles were covered in these thick, white scars. But the thing that stuck out the most to me, even when he was doped up on whatever sedative they'd given him, was his eyes. I saw him looking at me. They were sad. Like he knew he wasn't supposed to be there.

I cleaned his viewing room a lot in the first few weeks. You'd be amazed at how much of a mess people make. Mostly he sat behind this fake lump of coral in the back left corner of his pen. He'd come out to eat, of course, but he didn't want to spend any more time than necessary getting gawked at by the guests. I can't say I blamed him.

I think it was the fourth week he was there, or maybe the fifth, that I started to notice what he was doing with the bones.

At first, I thought he was just playing with them. There was nothing else in his tank, after all, and I could only assume he must have been pretty bored. He'd take the fish bones from his meals and move them around on the floor of the tank with his tentacles. I suggested that we should put some other fish in the tank to help stimulate him, but Dr. Bell didn't want to hear any of that. "He's too aggressive", she said, "he'd just kill them. We don't want to alarm the visitors." I'm not sure what the visitors thought predators spent their time doing, if watching an octopus catch and eat a fish would have been too much for them. I dropped the subject. He kept playing with the bones. He would arrange them, particularly the spines, into patterns. Sometimes they were loose, disconnected. They almost looked like art, in a way. Other times they were grouped together in tight little formations. They were interesting, but they never stuck out to me as something other than that. Until that day.

I was cleaning the walkway above his enclosure. You wouldn't think Bell would have cared about the state of that thing, an old hunk of metal that was older than most of the people working there. But like I said, she was particular about keeping things clean. I'd just started to work on a particularly visible rust spot with my sander when I noticed something in the tank. It was the fish bones. It wasn't any of the abstract arrangements or loose groupings I had seen him do before; the bones were arranged into a clear, definite pattern. It shocked me so much I almost dropped the sander into his tank. It was like a pyramid: one fish spine on the top, one directly beneath it, then two, three, five, and eight.

I looked at him, and I swear to God he was looking up at me. Not just noticing my presence, but at me. He wanted me to see it. He wanted me to understand. Behind those huge black eyes was a thinking being, something way more intelligent than we had could have ever thought to give him credit for. My first thought was to run to Dr. Bell: this might be the most important discovery in the history of marine biology, she needed to know. But just as I was about to make my way off the walkway and look for her, I caught his eye again. What would that mean for him, if I told her? At best, it meant that he would never leave this tank. He'd be locked in there, stared at and studied until he died. At worst, they would just kill him. They'd pick him apart and try to figure out what made him the way he was in the name of science. As though that was supposed to do anything for anybody other than their own resumés. No, I couldn't tell anyone about this. This was between me and him.

I went down to the edge of his tank and he swam up to me, looking at me with those huge black eyes. "What's going on in there?" I wondered out loud. It's not like he could have understood me, but just as I finished speaking one of those tentacles started slithering up the side of the tank, looking for my hand. I don't know what made me touch it.

My mind exploded int0 an ocean of colors. I saw myself, bringing Dr. Bell to the tank. I saw her holding his tentacle, like I was. I saw her releasing him into the wild. I saw a flash of him, surrounded by other octopi. I jerked my hand back. "What the hell was that? Did you just...?" Of course, he didn't say anything. It was clear though, what he wanted me to do. I ran to get Dr. Bell. Obviously, I didn't tell her that I'd just had a telepathic experience with a sea creature. I made something up about the octopus being sick. I think I was still frazzled enough from what had just happened that I managed to make it look convincing. I led her up to the side of his tank, where he was waiting. I stood back, expecting him to offer her the single tentacle he offered me. For him to show her. That didn't happen.

He heaved himself up from the floor of the tank. He was moving so fast, neither of us could have reacted. His tentacles whipped up over the edge of the enclosure, and just like that, he had her. She didn't even have time to scream before he pulled her under. Maybe she couldn't. He might have been using whatever he used on me to keep her quiet. I was frozen. I watched what he did to her. Maybe it was whatever makes people slow down to look at a car wreck, maybe I thought she deserved it in some way, mean as she was to everybody. I just wish I hadn't looked. I still see her sometimes, you know, when I close my eyes. Mouth open, eyes full of shock and terror, the water turning red around her. Those tentacles are awfully strong.

I was terrified, but I couldn't move. He finished her, everything except for her legs. They were too bony, I think. Then he just sat there, staring at me. I wanted to scream at him, berate him for what he'd done. He'd killed her, and he'd as good as killed himself. Animals got put down all the time for way less than what he had just done. But I couldn't yell. I couldn't even open my mouth. He tricked me. That goddamn octopus tricked me.

There was only one thing I could do.

The next day was a blur. I stuck a ladder from the maintenance closet down into his tank and let him crawl out. I got him into the bed of my pickup truck and covered him with a tarp. We stopped every couple of hours so I could pour some water over him, keep him healthy. Finally, the truck rolled to a stop on some beat up little pier in the gulf of Mexico. This was it. "We're finally here." I said as I pulled the tarp off of him. "You're home free." Those huge black eyes looked up at me again, and the tip of a tentacle wrapped around my little finger. There was no explosion of color this time, just a sensation of warmth and calm. I think he was saying "Thank you."

I don't know what happened to him. It's a long way to the Pacific from where we were, even for something as crafty as him. I had to leave town, obviously. I'm not sure if they could have made a case against me for Dr. Bell's death, (what would it even be? Aiding and abetting a fugitive? Conspiracy with an octopus to commit murder?) but I didn't plan on sticking around to see if they could figure it out. School and I may not have gotten along, but I'm no idiot. I live in the mountains now. I can't tell you exactly where, obviously. I just needed somewhere quiet. Somewhere as far away as possible from the ocean.


About the Creator

Daniel Bradbury

Big fan of long walks in the woods, rye Manhattans, Spanish literature, jazz, and vinyl records.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (2)

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  • Alina Z2 years ago

    Pretty cool story! I loved your uneducated-but-smart janitor and the vengeful octopus. Nicely done!

  • Cory ryno2 years ago

    Awesome! Would it be ok if I narrate this?

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