Angelfish, boxfish, two sea snails, striped grunt, surgeon-fish, hermit crab–Octo ate them all. He outgrew the Sea Monkeys Jamie bought to feed him and he started eating the other fish. So Ma and Daddy say it’s time to get rid of Octo.
Angelfish was the first to go. It disappeared. Jamie thought it might’ve got sucked into the filter and died. I’ve got to clean the filter, thought Jamie. But the angelfish was under Octo’s mantle, being eaten. When Octo moved, a day later, there was wide-eyed angelfish, fins gone, jumbled bones, a strip of skin waving in time with the filter’s bubbling. Jamie got the net. He flushed the angelfish. He didn’t tell Ma or Daddy.
That stupid fish tank smells, said Rebecca.
Jamie, if you’re going to have an aquarium you’ve got to keep it clean, said Ma.
But that was months ago. Now Octo’s eaten everyone else, too. Now it’s just Octo, sitting quietly, thinking.
Jamie tries to get Elsie help him make seawater, but she won’t.
Not in my job description, says Elsie. Elsie’s the care provider. She’s old and has a limp and can’t work. She gets more money from the government if she comes for an hour on the days when everyone else is at work or school. She makes lunch and gives Jamie pills.
She’s from Queens. Sometimes she stays longer than an hour if Jamie gets her talking. Like the Monday after the weekend when Jamie first got Octo.
Look Elsie! said Jamie. He brought Elsie to the tank.
Whoa! She backed up.
Isn’t it cute? Octo was teeny-little, swimming around the tank. He was the size of an umbrella you’d put in a tropical drink. He swam back and forth opening and closing his legs like a tiny umbrella.
I wouldn’t say cute, said Elsie getting closer to the tank. But it’s somethin. It sure is somethin. You sure you can keep that in a tank?
Jamie told her what the man at the store had told him: that Octo would only survive if the water is kept fresh. Jamie would have to siphon out a little every day and replace it. Otherwise, when Octo squirted ink like he did when Jamie first put him in, he would make the water poison and die.
What do you mean siphon out water? asked Elsie. Jamie tried to show her–he started sucking on the siphon to get it going–but Elsie had turned and walked to the kitchen saying, I can’t watch this.
That day Elsie ended up telling Jamie about the giant octopus that was displayed at Coney Island when she was little. You had to pay the guy a quarter, right? And he lets you into this tent, this long, dimly-lit tent, and the minute you walk in you can smell the rot. Professor Whoever from Wherever is talkin about how he’s traveled the world with this exquisite specimen. And laid out on this big piece of canvas was this dead octopus, half rotted away. Musta been fifty feet long.
Was it real? asked Jamie.
Sure it was. If it was fake it woulda smelled a whole lot better.
It must have been a giant squid, said Jamie.
You going to eat that orange or not? It’s good for you.
I’m gonna eat it.
Octopus, squid, what’s the difference? said Elsie. Jamie tried to tell her but she just went on. And there was the freakshow with the man with the stretchy skin and the bearded lady and all of that. Of course that’s considered cruel nowadays. They don’t have that kinda show.
They don’t have it any more? said Jamie. He was disappointed.
Of course not, said Elsie.
Do they still have Coney Island?
You never been to Coney Island? What are you talkin, a kid like you?
Elsie shook her head and picked up Jamie’s plate. Where they keepin you?
That day Elsie stayed a full two hours. When she pulled on her coat she said, What am I doin, staying so long. You think I get paid extra for this? No sir-ee I do not.
That was when Octo was tiny, when he was still satisfied with tiny brine shrimp. Later, when Octo got sea snail number one, Daddy laughed.
Damn thing’s goin after its own now, said Daddy. Mean mother. Thinks he’s a big shot.
It wasn’t a little snail. It was giant. Jamie would follow it around the tank. Its soft part made an oval against the glass, and Jamie would watch it up close, seeing its tiny mouth open and close, littler than a freckle, going wow, wow, wow, eating its way so slow around the tank. One morning snail number one was a bump under the brown web between Octo’s two front legs. Octo wasn’t moving. The black bars in Octo’s eyeballs watched Jamie. You’re eating one of the sea snails, aren’t you? said Jamie. Octo looked but never blinked. His eyes were always wide open. If my eyes were that wide open, I’d look scared or wondering, thought Jamie. But Octo never looks scared or wondering. He just looks like he knows.
Two days later, in the corner of the tank was a pile of the snail shell in three pieces.
That Octopus eat one of them snails? said Elsie. She never got too close to the tank. She always scowled when she talked about Octo.
Yeah. I think so, said Jamie. Look. He piled up the pieces in the corner. It’s like when I eat peanuts.
Ugh! said Elsie. You oughta get rid of that thing. It ate the angelfish, too.
I’m not getting rid of Octo, said Jamie.
That night Daddy said, Damn thing’s going after its own now.
What’s that? said Ma. She was feeding Jacob.
The monster ate one of them snails, said Daddy.
Not a monster, said Jamie.
That thing . . . said Ma.
I hate it! said Rebecca.
Shut up! said Jamie.
You shut up, said Rebecca.
You both shut up and eat, said Daddy.
I don’t see why Jamie gets to keep that stinky thing and I don’t get to have a dog! said Rebecca.
Yeah! Dog! said Nancy.
Shut up, said Jamie.
Jamie gets the aquarium because he’s the oldest, said Ma. When you turn thirteen we’ll think about letting you get a dog.
That is so unfair! said Rebecca.
Until then, said Ma, there’s no use in whining about it.
That is so unfair! I hate this! He gets whatever he wants!
Do not, said Jamie.
Now listen you two, said Daddy.
Yessir, said Rebecca. You get whatever you want just because you’re a boy and you’re stupid.
Becca! said Ma.
I am not stupid, said Jamie.
All right, said Daddy. He was standing up.
Nancy was crying now.
I hate this place! said Rebecca twisting out of her chair. I hate it! The chair fell over and she ran off.
Becca! yelled Daddy walking after her.
Now Jamie, settle down, said Ma moving toward him. Don’t cry honey.
Jacob banged his tray.
Jamie hush now, please honey, don’t cry. Ma’s hands were on Jamie’s shoulders.
Judith! Daddy yelled from the other room. Will you shut him up?
Nancy was crying.
I am not stupid, said Jamie.
Now that all the others are eaten, Jamie feeds Octo dead shrimp from the store. Ma lets him.
Octo doesn’t move much now. For one thing he’s too big. His legs are the length of the tank, and then some. They reach the far end then coil against the glass. The coils twitch. He heaves in, stops, then his funnel opens and water billows out, pushing aside the blue gravel till there’s a bare spot. Sometimes he gets up and his skin turns into spines and he glides to a different corner. For a few seconds every part of him is flushed pink, coiling and uncoiling, then he’s still again.
He’s bored, thinks Jamie, plopping a shrimp into the tank. He likes eating live things better. The shrimp flutters down and lands on one of the coils. Octo doesn’t move, but his eyes now watch the shrimp from across the tank. Nancy kneels down next to Jamie. Sit still, Nancy. Maybe he’ll eat it while we’re watching.
Octo breathes in . . . breathes out. Two legs begin to uncoil.
Rebecca passes behind Jamie and Nancy on the way to her room, then comes back and looks into the tank. Jamie can see her reflection in the glass. She puts her hands on her hips, all bratty.
Is that thing eating?
Shhhh! say Jamie and Nancy. Octo has turned the underside of two legs toward the shrimp. Now the shrimp starts to inch up Octo’s legs, being passed from one sucker to the next, toward his mouth.
I cannot even tell you guys how much that grosses me out, says Rebecca.
Shut up! whispers Jamie.
Go on, Becca, says Nancy. You’re ruining it.
No problem! says Rebecca and she tosses her hair and marches off to her and Nancy’s bedroom and closes the door behind her. Then her music comes on, loud.
Octo begins again, slowly passing the shrimp from sucker to
I don’t think it’s gross, whispers Nancy.
Good, whispers Jamie.
I like Octo.
Well I think he likes you, too.
Really? How can you tell?
Well, when he’s scared he turns white, and when he’s mad he turns red. But now he’s his normal color. That means he’s comfortable with you. He knows you like him, so he’s not afraid.
You mean he can tell me from Rebecca or Ma?
Of course he can, Nancy.
And I’m the only one he likes?
Uh-huh . . . other than me . . . and maybe Elsie.
So can I always watch him eat?
Can I feed him?
No. I have to feed him.
Without moving too much, Jamie puts his arm around Nancy. Octo freezes for a second, the shrimp already half under his mantle. Then he draws in the rest.
Jamie goes to the bathroom and makes seawater. Before dinner is when he’s allowed, because no one else needs the bathtub. He fills the tub half-way, adds a teaspoon from the blue bottle to take away the chlorine, then adds a scoop of sea salt, pushes up his sleeves, and swishes the water with his hands. He drops in the little glass hydrometer to measure the saltiness, and leaves it for a while.
During dinner, Elsie calls and tells Ma she’s still sick and won’t come tomorrow. Ma will have to leave him his lunch and set out his pills again. Elsie was sick yesterday, too.
She’s not quitting, is she? asks Jamie.
No, she’s not quitting, says Daddy, she’s just sick, right Ma?
I don’t think she’s quitting, Jamie.
Jamie would be sad if Elsie quit.
Gloria, the caretaker before Elsie, had quit. Jamie had fired Rita, the one before Gloria, because he hated her. She was always late and hardly talked to him and made the same thing every day–macaroni and cheese and an apple. Jamie’s proud of this. I fired her, he likes to say. Before Rita, Jamie used to go to school during the mornings at Empire State Developmental Center. He got kicked out because of his Fits of Rage. He’s glad, though. He couldn’t stand going to school with retards. Now that his Fits of Rage have stopped they might send him back. But he’d rather stay home.
After dinner, he checks the hydrometer in the bathtub. The water is just right so he takes a bucket to the living room. He sucks on the siphon to get it going and accidentally takes in a salty mouthful. He spits it into the empty bucket. Then he gently pours in some new water as old water runs through the siphon, filling the empty bucket.
Octo watches him calmly. He’s used to all this.
Late that night, Jamie has a dirty dream. He wakes up, and he’s made a mess. This has happened before. The first time Ma said that it was okay. This kind of thing was supposed to happen, and it was nothing to cry about. She said next time he should go to the bathroom, clean up, and go back to bed. No big deal.
But Jamie can’t help but feel ashamed. He holds his privates tight with both hands. The digital alarm clock says 12:23. He feels weak and he wants to cry. He wants to fast-forward time until he’s clean again and back in bed and about to fall asleep.
He slips out of bed and shuffles into the dark hall, hunched over, still holding himself. He’s careful not to make any noise–he doesn’t want anyone to find him. Ma and Daddy’s light is still on so he’s extra-quiet as he passes their door. They’re talking.
I’ll take him to the docks at Williamsburg and we can dump it in the river. If he thinks it’ll survive he won’t get that upset.
Ron, there’s no way we’re going to do this without him throwing a fit. I just don’t think it’s worth it.
Well it has to happen sometime. The living room smells like shit, the thing is huge. Sure, it was cute for a while, he had somethin to be excited about, he was real responsible about it, but it’s gotten way out of hand. You looked at it lately? It’s huge! It must be fuckin miserable in that little tank.
I know, I know.
You just explain how sad Mr. Octopus is, Judith. Make him feel bad for keepin it in a tank when it could out in the ocean with its little sea friends . . .
Oh Ron, don’t make a joke.
I’m not makin a joke. You explain it to him, and then the three of us will go for a little drive down to the river–Jamie, Pops, and the monster. Simple’s that.
That’s not going to work! That’s not how Jamie thinks. He loves it. He doesn’t talk about anything else.
All the more reason . . .
I know, all the more reason to get rid of it. It’s not good for him anymore. All I’m saying is . . . I don’t know. We just better be ready for a fight.
As Ma says this, her voice is louder and there are footsteps. Jamie runs back to his room and ducks behind the door. Ma opens her bedroom door and the hall is brighter. Then the bathroom door closes and he hears the sink running. Jamie tears off his pajamas, wipes himself with the shirt, and stuffs it under the other clothes in the hamper. He opens the bottom drawer carefully and pulls on clean pajamas. Then he curls up in bed, and pulls the covers over his head, trembling. The bathroom door opens, the light flicks off.
I’m made of rock, thinks Jamie. I’m a statue. He holds his breath. Ma’s footsteps come down the hall, past her own door, to his.
Jamie? she whispers from his doorway.
He holds completely still.
She pauses. One onethousand, two onethousand, three onethousand. Then her feet pad away.
You can breathe again but don’t cry. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry. Four onethousand, five onethousand, six onethousand. Did she close her door?
He hears Ma close her bedroom door.
Don’t cry don’t cry.
He thinks of the things that usually put him to sleep.
He’s in a treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean.
He’s a baby chick still in its shell.
There’s a secret about Octo that Ma and Daddy don’t know. Octo once escaped from the tank.
It happened at about one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon three weeks ago. Jamie had been looking at a comic book on his bed, waiting for Elsie, when he heard a loud bump come from the living room. Elsie? he called, but she usually buzzed once or twice to be let in before she used her key. Jamie ran to the living room and saw the tank tipped over on its side and water running across the stand and pouring down, turning the orange carpet brown. Octo was heaving himself across the carpet with his back legs, waving his two front legs before him. His body was pale, almost white. He reached the corner between the bookshelf and the wall, stopped, huddled into the corner and reached up, searching the wall with his front legs. He whipped them around the bookshelf and pulled down some books which fell open onto the floor.
Oh no, oh no, said Jamie, stomping the floor, not knowing what to do. He ran to the bathroom, started filling the tub with cool water, threw in a scoop of sea salt, then ran back to the living room. Octo had dragged himself along the wall to the sofa, coiled his legs around the sofa’s feet, and was stuffing himself beneath.
Oh no! cried Jamie. He grabbed Octo’s body and pulled. Octo turned from white to red at Jamie’s touch and black ink dribbled onto the floor. Jamie had never felt Octo before. Octo’s skin was sticky, and as Jamie pulled he felt like rubber. Oh please Octo, let go. Jamie quit pulling, knelt, and started unwrapping Octo’s legs from the sofa’s feet. Another of his legs coiled around Jamie’s arm. Please, pleeeease, Jamie was crying now. Finally Octo gave up. His whole body relaxed and Jamie picked him up. He was much heavier than Jamie imagined. His legs dangled and tried to wrap around Jamie as he carried Octo to the bathroom and put him into the tub. Octo rippled red and white and again squirted ink at Jamie. He lunged away from the running water to the far end of the tub and gathered his legs in coils with the white suckers showing. I’m so sorry, Octo. Jamie hated to scare Octo so. Don’t move, just sit still. Jamie turned off the water and ran back to the living room. He knew he had to settle himself down and get things cleaned up before Elsie came, but he couldn’t stop crying. Stop crying! he said to himself and struck his fist hard against his thigh. Stop! Stop! Stop!
He righted the tank, replaced the cover and light which Octo had pushed onto the floor, and dragged it, stand and all, into the coat closet. He scooped up the gravel which had fallen onto the carpet and threw it in the kitchen trash. He went to the bathroom to get towels and Octo was still curled up, pale now, with dark rings around his eyes, and the water was murky with his ink. Just stay there. Everything’s gonna be okay. Jamie grabbed three towels from the shelf, ran back to the living room and started mopping up the water on his hands and knees. It stunk and everything was still blurry even though he had stopped crying and his nose dripped and he didn’t wipe it.
The buzzer buzzed.
Oh no. He quickly bunched up the towels and threw them into the closet. Then he went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were red and wet and his hair was a mess. He washed his hands, splashed his face and flattened his hair.
The buzzer buzzed twice more impatiently.
Okay, Octo, just be quiet. Everything’s okay.
He went back to the living room, but before he could buzz her in, he heard Elsie coming up the stairs.
Jamie? What’s goin on? You okay?
Jamie undid the latches and opened the door for her. Yeah, I was just going to the bathroom.
You sure? You been cryin? She touched his chin and made him look her in the eye.
Phew. Elsie wrinkled her nose and fanned herself with her hand. That pet of yours stinks to high heaven. I don’t know why your parents . . . but she didn’t finish because she knew it upset Jamie when she talked bad about Octo. She limped to the kitchen, without noticing the dark spot on the carpet in the corner, or that the tank was
She opened the fridge and bent over. Bologna again? Or beans and franks?
Bologna, please, said Jamie sitting down at the kitchen table.
How’s your Mom and Dad?
They’re all right.
Yeah? They gettin along?
You’re lucky kid, you know that? To have a family that gets along. You should see my family. Get us all in one room, everybody’s either yellin at each other or not speakin to each other. One or the other.
We don’t always get along. We fight.
Take my little sis Sarah. She hasn’t talked to her daughter for two years, two years, and ya know why? Because she married an Italian Roman Catholic. Two years! You know how long that is? It’s torture for both of them, but they won’t give in and call the other. I tell her, Sarah, you’re missing out on your daughter and your beautiful grandson. He’s gonna grow up not knowing you. Why do this to yourself? But she won’t budge. So stubborn just like our father. Mayonnaise, right?
Anyways, so she won’t budge. I tell her, you’re a Jew livin in Bensonhurst. You run the risk. What do you expect? Now if I could show her your parents, maybe that would do somethin. Your mother’s Jewish right?
And your father’s an Italian Roman Catholic, right?
And look, they get along, they live in this nice apartment, they have good-lookin kids . . .
Elsie pinched Jamie’s cheek, but he didn’t smile.
What’s the matter kiddo? You’re not talkin to me.
Jamie had only been half-listening to her. He had thought he heard a sloshing sound from the bathroom, then decided it was his imagination.
I don’t know, he said. I don’t feel good. I’m sick.
Well go lay down then. I’ll call you when it’s ready. You don’t look so good. She put the back of her hand against his forehead. Go lay down. Rest. Go on.
On the way to his bedroom, Jamie peeked into the bathroom. Octo was still in the same position, but he had returned to his normal spotted pinkish-brown. Just a few more minutes, whispered Jamie and closed the door.
He lay on his bed, closed his eyes, and listened. Elsie began to sing in the kitchen. Jamie believed in the power of crossing fingers. He crossed his fingers on both hands and tried to cross his toes in his shoes. Please don’t go to the bathroom, he said in his mind. Don’t even go in the living room. Just stay in the kitchen. If she found Octo and saw the mess she would tell Ma and Daddy and they would hate Octo more than they already did. They might even decide he had outgrown the aquarium and make Jamie get rid of him. He imagined taking Octo back to the pet store. The man would be surprised to see how big Octo had gotten and he’d say it’d be easy to sell Octo to a new owner. He’d put Octo in a tiny tank, and Octo’s frightened eyes would watch Jamie. He wouldn’t understand why he was back here. What if the new owner didn’t feed him right or change the water? Now Jamie was crying a little, just imagining it.
Elsie’s singing burst through the kitchen door and into the hallway. Jamie crossed his fingers so tight his knuckles popped. The bathroom door slammed. Then Elsie screamed. Jamie screamed too. He ran to his doorway to see Elsie backing into the hall, clutching her chest with one hand and holding up her pants with the other.
Elsie! It’s okay! He just got out and I haven’t had a chance . . .
What in the hell? Elsie tucked in her big shirt and zipped up her pants. Scared the livin . . . Look at me. I’m shakin like a leaf. What in the hell is that thing doin in there, boy?
Don’t tell, Elsie, please! He just got out and I had to put him somewhere till . . .
Got out? Oh God, I have to sit down.
Jamie followed her to the kitchen, tugging on her shirtsleeve. Please, Elsie, don’t tell Ma and Daddy. It’s nothing really. I just gotta put him back and everything’ll be okay.
Quit pullin me, kid. Elsie sat down heavily at the kitchen table and put her palm to her forehead.
You’re not gonna tell, are you Elsie?
Settle down. Just give me a second. You said it got out? What do you mean, it got out?
He just pushed the lid off his tank and crawled out.
No, it’s okay, Jamie wailed. He never did it before. I’ll just stick the lid on tighter. Don’t tell! Jamie clutched Elsie’s arm and shook her.
Would you get off? Elsie pushed him. I won’t tell, just settle down, kid. Quit cryin. I’m the one who just got the pee scared outta me.
So you won’t tell?
No I won’t tell. None of my business anyways.
Jamie sat down and wiped his eyes. Really?
Yeah. But you better clean it up. And if they ever do find out, I
didn’t know nothin and had nothin to do with it. You got that?
And you owe me one, kid. Now eat. I’m leavin. This place is too much for an old woman. Damn near gave me a heart attack.
And don’t go tellin your mother I left early either.
Don’t get paid to deal with this.
After she left, Jamie cleaned up. He sprayed disinfectant on the carpet. He went to the bathroom, dipped the bucket into the bathtub, and nudged Octo toward it. Octo calmly climbed in. He made all new water for the tank, and took bucketful after bucketful to the living room. It took all afternoon. He tested the water. Then, very carefully, he poured in Octo. He fastened the lid to the top of the tank with a few pieces of black electrical tape
Since then, Octo has never escaped, though Jamie sometimes finds him snaking one leg up to press against the lid.
Rebecca hasn’t talked to Jamie or even looked at him for two days. She goes through these phases, when she’s so sick of him she has to pretend he doesn’t exist. If he says anything to her she gives him a dirty look or just turns and walks away.
This time she’s mad because she’s tired of sharing a room with Nancy. Jamie’s always had his own room, she complained to Ma. Why can’t he share for a while? Ma told her that Jamie is a teenager and needs his own space and went on about how he spends the whole day at home while she gets to go to school and to her friends’ houses–talking like Jamie wasn’t listening even though he was.
Two days went by, Rebecca not saying a word to Jamie. Then, on the third day, Rebecca comes home from school earlier than usual, before Ma and Daddy are home from work. Jamie’s watching videos on TV. Rebecca sits down on the far end of the sofa. Jamie looks over. She stares at the TV, scowling.
Hi, says Jamie.
Rebecca looks at him calmly, then turns back to the TV. They sit in silence, then Rebecca says, You know, you could like, volunteer to share a room with Nancy. It’s only fair.
Why should I?
’Cause! You’ve always had your own room, and I’ve always shared. I never get any privacy. I can’t even talk on the phone in private. I’m either out here and everyone can hear me or I’m in there and Nancy’s crawling all over my bed wanting me to play with her. I have to shut myself in the hall closet to have a simple conversation!
You can take the phone into my room if you want.
That’s not enough! I want to have my own room! Look, we can trade off. I can have your room for a few months then you can have it back for a while, like that.
No. I need to be by myself.
Oh screw you, Jamie! You get everything you want and you just can’t share, can you!
I hate you, you know that? Rebecca yells and throws a pillow across the sofa at Jamie. Sometimes I wish you’d just die!
Shut up! Shut up or I’ll tell!
Screw you, you big baby! You are such a pain in my butt.
How am I a pain in your butt? I leave you alone. I don’t even talk to you!
You don’t even know how miserable you make me, Jamie. You should hear how the kids at school make fun of me! They say I have a retard brother and it must run in the family. I get that all the time because of you!
Jamie lunges at Rebecca, punching aimlessly. Rebecca shrieks, pushes him onto the ground and kicks him hard. He pulls her down, and they roll across the carpet, punching and slapping until Jamie’s head strikes the leg of the coffee table. He lets out a hoarse bawl and digs his teeth into Rebecca’s arm. She pushes and scratches his face until he lets go and curls into a ball.
I hate you! she screams. Her voice cracks and she bursts into tears. She hits him again and stands up. I hate you so much!
You’re gonna feel bad later for saying that, Jamie whimpers.
No I won’t! I’ll never feel bad ’cause it’s the truth and I’ll never say I’m sorry! She stumbles away from Jamie.
He feels beneath his eye. There’s a little blood.
Look what you did! he cries.
I don’t care! She’s standing beside Octo’s tank, holding her arm where Jamie bit her. You’re such a sissy! I can’t believe you bit me! She glances down at Octo. You and your stupid ugly pet. She hits the glass with her fist and Octo glides to the opposite corner.
Leave him alone, says Jamie. He jumps to his feet and moves toward her.
Daddy’s getting rid of that thing, you know, says Rebecca, backing away from Jamie into the hallway.
He is not!
Yessir! I heard him tell Ma he’s gonna pour Lysol in there and kill it.
And she told him not to and he said it was the only way to get rid of it and you’d think it just died.
Liar! Jamie lunges for her but she runs into her bedroom, slams the door and locks it. Jamie pounds on the door. Liar! You’re lying!
Am not, comes Rebecca’s voice and she laughs meanly. Your stupid pet’s dead!
Jamie howls and beats the door.
Rebecca! You’re lying, aren’t you! When did you hear that?
Rebecca is ignoring him now. She turns on her music, then starts to sing along. He pounds one more time then goes to his room, locks the door, and lays down, trembling. He thinks back to when Octo ate the hermit crab. It was the last one to go and the only one Jamie actually watched Octo eat.
He had been sitting by the tank watching the crab overturning gravel with it’s scissor-claws, looking for food algae to eat. It was happier, Jamie thought, now that it didn’t have to compete with the snails.
Suddenly, Octo pounced, covering the crab with his legs and quickly drawing it under his mantle. The crab scrambled under Octo for just a second, then it was still.
Wow, Jamie whispered to himself, and he thought, should I have stopped him? But how could I? He was so quick! Jamie had not known Octo could move so quickly.
Now, laying on his bed, Jamie thinks of how Octo fools everyone by being so calm. He spends his life sitting, watching, taking in what’s going on, so everybody thinks that’s all he can do. Then, when he needs to, he strikes quick like a snake.
Ma knocks on the door. Jamie?
I’m taking a nap, Ma.
Yes. Go away, please.
Jamie lies on his bed thinking until Ma knocks again and says, Wake up, honey. Dinner’s ready.
Okay. Just a minute.
He rolls out of bed, tucks in his shirt, and stands up straight. He walks out, down the hall, and into the dining room.
Jacob is laughing and smearing gravy across his face and kicking the legs of the high chair. Eat right, Jacob, says Ma who’s spooning mashed potatoes onto her plate.
Daddy’s cutting Nancy’s roast beef for her and telling a story from work about how Johnny Rosso’s gonna transfer to the Bronx rather than deal with the district supervisor, who everyone hates.
Mommy, why isn’t Rebecca talking? whines Nancy.
Mind your own business, says Rebecca.
Is there something wrong, Rebecca? asks Ma.
No. Tell Nancy to mind her own business.
Jamie! says Ma. What’s that on your face?
Everyone looks at Jamie who’s standing in the doorway.
You have a scratch on your cheek, honey, says Ma standing up. You’re hurt.
Ma holds his chin and looks close under his eye and says, There’s dried blood. Who did this?
Everyone’s watching except Rebecca who’s frowning down at
Jamie says, Rebecca.
Rebecca doesn’t look up.
You two had a fight? Is that what’s wrong? said Ma turning toward Rebecca.
Rebecca shakes her head and quietly says, No.
Ma turns to Jamie, who says, We were just playin, Ma. It was an accident.
Ma licks a napkin and wipes hard under his eye. Too much rough-housing. You two should be careful.
Ow! Easy, Ma.
They sit down. Jamie eats quietly while Daddy goes on with his story. Ma alternates between listening to Daddy and cleaning up Jacob, who has settled down now and is shoving one spoonful of mashed potatoes after another into his mouth. Rebecca doesn’t look up. Nancy glances from Jamie to Rebecca, then back to Jamie. She begins to cry quietly. After a minute, Ma notices.
Nancy, what’s wrong?
Nancy sobs and big tears fall into her food.
Honey! What is it?
Nancy wipes her nose and between sobs says, Jamie and Becca hate each other.
Nancy, they don’t hate each other, says Daddy.
Mind your own business, Nancy, says Rebecca.
Shush, Rebecca! says Ma, then to Nancy, Sweetheart, everything’s all right.
Stop crying and eat, says Daddy.
It’s okay, Nancy, says Jamie quietly because he’s next to her. Shh.
Nancy doesn’t stop crying, but wipes her face with her napkin and begins to eat again.
Jamie is surprised the next day when the buzzer buzzes at one o’clock and it’s Elsie. She hasn’t come since Monday, and it’s Friday.
Elsie, you’re back!
I’m back? Where’d I go? Just been a little sick.
Are you all better now?
I’m a little better. When you’re my age you’re never all better. How bout you? You been okay by yourself?
Yeah, Ma’s been leavin lunch for me, and I just sit around and watch TV. Pretty boring. I thought maybe you’d quit, and Ma just hadn’t told me.
Quit? Na. Why would I quit?
I don’t know. I thought maybe you just got sick of me.
What are you talkin about? Sick of my little friend? Elsie shakes Jamie by the shoulders and he laughs. No way!
Elsie sits down at the kitchen table and Jamie tells her about how mean Rebecca was to him and about the fight. Telling the story makes his chest tighten and his eyes tear, but he stays calm, even when he gets to the part about Octo.
And she told me Daddy’s gonna kill Octo. She said he’s gonna poison him and not tell me a thing about it.
Yeah. Pour Lysol in his tank and kill him.
Sounds like your sister’s making up stories.
You think so?
Jamie, your sister’s havin a hard time. You gotta leave her alone when she wants to be left alone . . .
. . . and sometimes you gotta leave her alone even when she wants your attention, ya see? Once you prove she can’t make you laugh or cry just like that, she’ll start treatin you like a real person. Things’ll be okay, kid. Wait and see. Elsie puts her hand on Jamie’s shoulder and heaves herself up out of her chair. She goes to the fridge.
Jamie says, So last night I didn’t dream about anything but Daddy killing Octo. I spent all morning checking where all the poisonous stuff is, like Lysol, bleach, fingernail-polish remover . . . sort of memorizing how everything’s arranged under all the sinks.
So if I find Octo dead, and I see that the Lysol’s gone or the bleach is in a different place, I’ll know Daddy did it.
Jamie, you’re dad’s not gonna kill it. And if he did, then what? There are more important things . . .
At least I’d know, Elsie. I’d know he did it.
Elsie was quiet. Then she said again, There are more important things, kid. What happens if the octopus dies on its own, eh? I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s way too big for that tank. It hardly moves anymore. What then? You gonna blame your dad for that?
Not if he doesn’t do it.
I’m just afraid you’re gonna get all upset and blame him anyways. Just remember, kid, he’s your dad. He wants what’s best for you and you gotta respect that.
What if he doesn’t know what’s best for me? What if he does what’s bad for me?
You gotta respect him still.
That’s not fair.
But that’s how it works.
Well . . . he doesn’t want what’s best for Octo. That’s for sure.
Ah, what’re we arguin over anyways? says Elsie, setting a bowl of soup in front of Jamie. Your dad’s not gonna kill Octo.
But Elsie’s wrong. Late that night, Jamie is going in and out of sleep. He can’t get comfortable. In his dream he’s in tentacles and branches and seaweed. He’s holding his breath, then he gasps, surprised that he can breathe water. Now he’s out of his dream and out of sleep and he kicks off his sheet cause it’s hot. Now he’s underwater again and the difference between being awake and being asleep doesn’t make the same sense. He’s at a wall of coral and he touches the surface. It’s sticky. His hands stick. Then his nose burns at breathing bleach. Or is it just the thought of breathing bleach?
A bump from the living room yanks him out of sleep. He knows what it is, but he can’t believe it–partly because he knew it would happen (and can never believe when those things actually happen), and partly because his head’s only halfway out of the dream.
He’s out of bed and stumbling down the hall and he hears Daddy’s voice. Shit . . . Shit!
There’s the tank, knocked to the floor, the glass broken like a spider-web. The lights go dark, then flicker back on. One big and one small spot of wet are growing on the carpet: the smelly tank water that poured against the wall over the socket, and the ammonia that grows out of a plastic bottle. Daddy’s coming toward Jamie. Aw . . . now Jamie . . . Lights off again, then on. Octo’s white on the orange carpet with all his legs coiled tight to him, polka-dot suckers exposed. Jamie, c’mon . . . back to your room . . . The socket sparks and the lights go off except the hall light. Jamie’s mind is crying like a baby and his body is flying into a Fit of Rage.
Daddy grabs his arms and holds him down. Easy Jamie! Settle down!
Ma, in her nightgown, rushes in. Ron! What’s going on? she asked. She clutches Jamie from behind and he elbows her, but she holds on. Shhhh, she whispers into his ear.
Between Ma and Daddy, Jamie can’t move.
What did you do Ron? asks Ma.
What do you think? he asks. Shoulda done it long ago.
How can you say that?
They think Jamie’s too frantic to hear, but he’s taking it all in.
Let me go! he says again and again, first screaming, then his voice cracks into a whimper. Please, let me go.
They let him struggle away.
Nancy! yells Daddy, Go back to bed! Nancy, who was standing in the doorway in her nightgown, runs off.
Jamie picks up Octo. His long legs drop limp, almost to the floor. Where are you taking that? asks Daddy. Jamie, sobbing, carries Octo down the hall. Ma follows him to the bathroom and watches him put Octo in the tub and start filling it, adding sea salt bit by bit
Now Jamie, what are you doin? asks Daddy from the doorway.
He might live! wails Jamie.
Jamie, your pet’s dead. And it’s not just me that killed it either.
Go away! screams Jamie. I hate you! This is the worst thing that ever happened and you did it!
Don’t you talk to me like that, kid.
Daddy steps forward, but Ma stands to stop him. Ron, don’t. Just leave him alone.
What, has this place gone nuts, that a kid can talk that way to
Go away! screams Jamie.
Ron, go. I’ll take care of this.
You two are nuts. Ya gonna bring that thing back to life? The thing is dead. And it’s happier that way I’m sure.
No he’s not, says Jamie. He might live if we keep him in here. We can take him to the ocean and he’ll get better.
Take him to the ocean? Daddy laughed. But Ma was already saying, Honey, it’s all right. We can take him to the ocean.
What did you say, Judith?
Go, Ron! she yelled.
Nuh-uh, this is crazy. This isn’t right. You think a kid could talk to his dad that way when I was a boy? My Pop woulda smacked me upside the head. None of this coulda happened. This is all so fuckin nuts! An octopus livin in my fuckin living room, stinking up the place, and Jamie thinks it’s the most important thing on earth. It’s all that matters, right? Even though everyone else hates it and the girls are scared to death of it, right? Now Jamie runs the place. We gotta pay good money to feed the ugly thing, so Jamie don’t get upset. Fuckin nuts! And if it decides to take a stroll around the apartment while we’re at work, no problem! Jamie’s in charge now and the octopus can do what it likes.
How did you know that Octo got out? cries Jamie.
Elsie. How else?
Jamie’s head drops and he doesn’t move or say anything for a moment. Daddy clenches and unclenches his fists. Then Jamie says in a small voice, so they know he means it, I never want her to come here again.
Oh Honey, says Ma and puts her arms around him.
I don’t want her anymore. I don’t want any more care providers.
See? says Daddy. Thinks he runs things now.
Judith waves him away.
Jamie turns his back to Daddy and looks down into the tub.
Don’t worry, Jamie, says Ma as she turns off the water. Tomorrow morning we’ll take him to the ocean and let him go. He’ll be okay.
Daddy stomps down the hall yelling something, but no one’s listening now.
Jamie puts the bucket on the floor of the back seat, gets in, and braces it between his knees. Nancy sits in the back too, and Jacob’s in his seat between them. Rebecca’s in front with Ma.
While Jamie was putting Octo into the bucket, Ma had woken up Nancy and Rebecca and got them excited to go on rides at Coney Island. Jamie knows it’s just because Daddy’s grumbling and needs to be left alone.
They drive. The avenues are like the alphabet–M, N, O, P–leading to the ocean. They pass housing developments, nice neighborhoods with lawns, Jewish men with hats and beards.
Octo looks smaller, sort of deflated. The water is foggy with bits of brown flesh.
Suddenly the signs aren’t in English anymore. Nancy asks what kind of writing it is and Ma says it’s Russian and it means we’re almost there.
Ma parks and they get out of the car. She puts Jacob in the stroller, and they and walk across the lot. The bucket is heavy so Jamie has to walk slow, squinting in the bright sun, but he doesn’t want Ma to help him. They walk down a narrow alley between two old brick apartment buildings the color of sand. They climb stairs to the boardwalk. Rebecca helps Ma with the stroller. Old people sunning on benches open their eyes just a little to watch them cross the boardwalk. The sky is perfectly blue and steam is rising from the sand into the hot morning. The stroller won’t go onto the sand, so they all wait on the bottom step while Jamie walks across the beach. Nancy wants to go, too, but Ma says to hush, let Jamie do it alone.
It’s hard to walk on the soft sand. Jamie staggers across the beach and climbs onto a jetty made of big rocks extending out into the ocean. He hugs the bucket to his chest. It smells bad, but then ocean air gusts the smell away. Jamie hobbles from stone to stone down the jetty, careful not to slip.
About halfway down, he stops. The water looks deep, with sand churning up from the bottom. He puts the bucket down on a flat stone and sits down beside it. A big wave comes and soaks his foot. The water is freezing cold. Much colder than Octo’s tank.
But it’s okay, because Jamie knows that Octo is really dead. Daddy killed him. Slowly, he tips the bucket. Water trickles, then pours out, then Octo slides out like a lump of trash. He plunges into the water and sinks out of sight. Bye, Octo, says Jamie.
He imagines Octo coming back to life down there in the dark. Filling back up like a balloon, spreading his legs and crawling to deeper water. He imagines it, but his heart isn’t in it. He’s just telling himself a story, like Ma and Daddy do, to settle him down.
He leaves the bucket there because he doesn’t need it anymore, and returns to the others.
They all walk down the boardwalk toward the amusement park. They stop at an open air restaurant for fried egg sandwiches and tater tots, and sit on a bench watching the ocean while they eat. Nancy and Rebecca are talking about the rides, but Jamie doesn’t listen.
People are jabbing umbrellas into the sand and setting up lawn chairs. Two black women in bathing suits wade in the water up to their knees. They laugh and shift from foot to foot, hugging their arms to their chests.
When they’re done eating, Ma gathers the trash and says, Well kids, ready for the rides?
Nancy and Rebecca ride the bumper cars, but Jamie stays with Ma and Jacob. The park is getting crowded. He feels nervous. He’s not used to being around people.
Ma laughs at Rebecca speeding around in her tiny car, and at Nancy butting heads with a teenage boy. Look Jamie, she says.
Yeah, I see.
They go to another ride where Nancy and Rebecca spin around in cars shaped like bumble bees. The cars go up and down and Nancy shrieks and giggles. After they get off Rebecca says that she’s bored with these kids’ rides. She says she wants to ride the roller coaster. Ma says okay, but it’s the last ride cause Jamie’s tired.
Jamie can’t know this but, down on the beach, Octo has washed up onto the sand. He lays in a brown tangle of legs until a wave comes and rearranges him, taking two legs and setting them like clock hands that say three o’clock. Then another takes him further onto the sand and turns him upside down so if you looked, you could see the little beak in the middle where all the legs meet.
Two little girls, twin sisters, are digging with pink plastic shovels. One notices Octo.
What is that thing?
They walk over and look down at him.
It’s like a sea animal or something. ¡Mira Mama! she calls to their mother.
¿Mama, qué es esto? asks her sister. She takes her plastic shovel and gives Octo a shy prod.
Their mother, sitting in a lawn chair, lifts her sunglasses. ¡No lo toques, Mija! she yells.
Ew, says the first girl. That thing is so gross.
But what is it?
¡No lo toques! calls their mother.
There are two signs at the roller coaster: One has an arrow and says you must be this tall to ride the cyclone, the other says no single riders.
Oh no! whines Rebecca. Nancy’s too little, and I can’t go on by myself. She looks up at Ma.
Don’t look at me, laughs Ma. I’ve got Jacob.
Rebecca turns to Jamie. Jamie, will you go with me?
Jamie kicks at the dirt.
It’ll be fun, Jamie. Please? Otherwise I can’t go at all.
Jamie is silent. He doesn’t want to go.
And I really want to go, says Rebecca
All right, he says finally.
They walk between the rails and give the man their tickets. There are only four other people riding. They climb into the middle car, the man locks down the guard rail, and the cars begin ticking slowly forward.
Jamie doesn’t respond.
Look, I feel really bad. I’m sorry I fought with you and stuff. I’m sorry I scratched you . . . And I didn’t mean it when I said I hated you. I was just mad.
The car lurches into an incline.
Jamie says nothing. He isn’t mad at her, and wishes she’d just leave him alone. He watches the blue sky as they climb up and up.
And I’m sorry your pet’s dead. I really am. I’m sorry about everything. Jamie? Come on. Please say you forgive me.
But suddenly they’re roaring down. Their hearts leap into their throats and they both scream. Rebecca’s scream has a laugh in it, but Jamie’s is pure terror, like he’s facing death. He grabs Rebecca’s arm tight and doesn’t let go the whole ride.