Let Me Tell You About Helen

by Lisa Beebe

If her skin changed color every time she saw me, that had to mean something, right? Yes, of course it did. 

Helen had climbed aboard a fishing boat somewhere off Catalina. The aquarium didn’t have room for her, so Dr. Long had offered up the tank in the lab. 

“Octopuses are escape artists,” I told him. “You’ll need a lock for the tank.” I forwarded him an article about an aquarium runaway. 

“I’m sure it’s fine the way it is,” he said. “And besides, where would she go? We always keep the lab doors closed, so the most she could do is hide.” 

Long was thrilled to have a new subject for his cephalopod experiments, but anytime he attached an electrode to Helen’s skin, she pulled it right off. He wondered aloud if implanting the electrodes would be more effective, and I felt myself cringe on her behalf. She had climbed onto a boat out of curiosity. She hadn’t agreed to any of this. 

Helen made it clear she didn’t like Long, squirting him with a jet of water anytime he approached her tank. She never did that to me. When I worked at my desk, which was adjacent to her tank, she watched me closely, pressing her eyes against the glass. If I reached into the tank to stroke her skin, she wrapped one arm around my wrist, gently working her suckers. 

Whenever Long wasn’t around, I’d offer her treats and toys. I loved watching her guide an unlucky shrimp into her mouth or play with one of the action figures from my desk. As soon as I dropped the toy into the water, she’d move it around in her tank as if she knew it was a tiny person. 

I felt like it was my responsibility to protect her from Long’s experimentation. 

I got a big Ziploc bag—a five gallon one—filled it with water, and practiced carrying it around my apartment in a hiking backpack. It was heavy and awkward, but I could manage it. That Friday, I brought the backpack to work with the empty plastic bag inside. 

As soon as Dr. Long left for the weekend, I filled the plastic bag with salt water from Helen’s tank and signaled her to get inside. She gave me a skeptical look, so I guided her in with my hand. She clung to my index finger with her suckers.

I left the tank open, so Long would think she’d escaped. 

We got to the ferry just before sunset. My backpack was heavy with Helen inside, but the ticket takers were used to tourists with baggage, and nobody paid us any attention. 

As the boat launched, I stood near the bow with everyone else, watching the sun go down. The water reflected the colors of the sky, which was turning pinkish purple. Just before the sun ducked below the horizon, I walked to the back of the boat. It was empty. 

I set my backpack on a bench, unzipped it, and opened the plastic bag inside. 

“Helen,” I whispered, knowing she couldn’t understand me, “This is it.” 

She lifted an arm out of the bag and wrapped it slowly around my hand, as if she knew she was doing it for the last time. 

When she let go, I heaved the bag up to the side of the boat, and dumped it over the railing. 

Helen was gone. 

I wanted to stare at the water, just in case she surfaced for a final goodbye, but I forced myself to turn away. I crumpled the plastic bag back into my backpack and zipped it shut. 

I sat there on the cold metal bench as the boat moved over the waves, and I hugged the backpack to my chest, even though it was empty. I wondered if Long would guess the truth, and I realized I didn’t care. 

By the time I rejoined the other passengers at the front of the boat, the sky was almost black.

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