SHORT  STORIES

Pale Blue Lines

“We got one. Make sure you only handle it with gloves.”

“Alright.”

“Actually, just use nets. Last thing we need is a massive fine, what with audits coming up. Fix up the exhibit and put it straight in. And get it done by the end of the day.”

My supervisor limps away, huffing and groaning. I find myself hoping his leg is giving him as much grief as he just gave me.

Crouching down, I pick up the clear container and raise it to eye level.

There she is. All four centimetres of her, clinging to the top of her glass travel bottle. As I tilt the container toward the light, she glides over the bottleneck, her throbbing blue lines pulsating around her body like tiny bolts of lightning. I smile in spite of myself, amazed at her miniature, lethal beauty.

“You could kill me,” I tell her softly, “you could kill thirty-five of me.”

I gently place the container back on the ground and get to work. It is vital that I seal it. She is small enough and yet possesses the ability to make herself smaller. So small she could fit through an opening one-tenth her size. I can leave nothing to chance lest she find an escape route.

Two hours later, following meticulous moving, measuring, cutting, grinding, shaping and frustrated grunting, I stand, knees protesting as I straighten and lower legs tingling at the sudden flood of blood to my feet. I step back from her new exhibit to admire my handiwork. Certainly not the prettiest, but safe enough to keep her secure, I decide. I tug my phone out of my pocket with still damp hands and call my supervisor for the okay.

“Nah. Just keep it in the bucket overnight. If the tank isn’t secure and it gets out, we’re in shit. You’ll thank me later.” He hangs up. 

I stand with the phone by my ear for a minute, until the rude dial tone forces my hand down, and anger gives over to resignation. I make my way slowly back to her container, scoop out several litres of water with a small bucket, and replace them with clean, filtered water. I take one last, long look at her before I drop in a weighted silicone tube for oxygen supply, and the steady bubble stream disturbs the water surface, obscuring her from my view. I secure the lid tightly and resist the urge the put foam under the bucket for insulation. She would be fine overnight despite a drop in temperature. She was used to it.

The next morning, I skip the mindless chats with colleagues and make my way directly to her overnight tub. The airline is draped along the concrete beside the tub, fizzing away pointlessly. Someone had already been to see her. I unscrew the lid carefully, check the underside to make sure she isn’t hanging on, and peer inside. She appears paler this morning, a dull, motley, grey blob resting on the bottom. Sensing movement, she begins to unfurl her arms one by one and slides across the bottom of the tub towards her bottle. Relieved to see her moving, I begin taking water out of the tub with a small bucket and replace each with new, clean water. One in, one out. As I tighten the lid securely, I hear the unmistakeable shuffle of work boots approaching and brace myself for another unachievable to-do list.

“Hey!” my supervisor calls. His head pops around the door frame. “You planning on putting it in anytime soon?”

“Yes,” I reply, I’m getting her ready now.”

“Hurry it up, then. And get rid of the rocks you’ve put in there, too. We can’t have it hiding all the time and the less rocks in there, the less chance it has to camouflage. Chuck the bottle in but that’s it. Even if it thinks its hiding, it won’t be.” His head disappears and the scuffling of boots follows.

I wiggle my jaw, and grind my teeth, a frustrated mute. With a sigh, I remove the lid from the exhibit and set to work undoing the miniature tidepool I’d lovingly created the day before. I leave two small, relatively flat rocks lying on the bottom, separated by a few inches of sand. I check to make sure she is well away from the glass bottle in the tub and reach in for it. As I pull it out, I notice a small pebble on the inside sink to the bottom. Turning it over, I empty the contents and watch the pebble rise and fall with the motion of the water as it gurgles out, but it does not follow. It stays, lodged in the neck of the bottle, too awkward to fall out. I shake the bottle several times, tipping it back and forth to force the pebble into the bottleneck at different angles, to no avail. I glance at the bucket and the little grey blob on the bottom of it, willing myself to understand her instinct. I carefully pour some sand into the bottle, reasoning it will cover the pebble and give her some memory of home. Suspending the glass bottle on the rocks like a bridge, I content myself knowing she will have at least a few spots to escape the camera flashes. Little defence it was against shrill shrieks and pounding fists, the impatient slaps and booming knuckle taps against the glass. All of which would create a thrumming and unnatural rhythm in her new…home. I don a pair of neoprene gloves and slide an extra pair of elbow-length rubber gloves on top, taking no chances. Kneeling beside the tub, I reach in with a small plastic jug and will her curiosity to compel her inside. Something stronger than curiosity overcomes her and she darts away quickly, her body rolling over her tentacles, her blue lines lighting up like a neon warning sign. I pause for a moment, then inch the jar toward her carefully. Immediately, she pushes herself off the bottom of the tub, at once double her usual length and zooms away like a miniature missile, only to hit the opposite side of the tub. She shoots upwards, bobbing like a cork at the surface as gravity keeps her submerged. I tilt the jar beneath her, hoping to scoop her up from underneath without her noticing. She jets away once more, darting to the bottom of the tub and following the curved contour of the base, searching for a hiding place. I remove the jug and allow the water to settle. Her siphons pulsate a little faster than usual as she breathes away her stress. I try to ignore the bitter taste at the back of my throat. Sitting back on my heels, I count slowly in my head, and hope she knows I mean her no harm.

“Need a hand?”

I startle. My supervisor ambles in, pushing his glasses up the sweaty bridge of his nose.

“Uh no, actually I’m just –” I begin.

“Here. I’ll do it.” He pulls at his shirt around the armpits and above his gut, where the material tends to stick to his sweaty skin on humid days like this one. He snatches the jug out of my hand then reaches around me, grabbing the net lying between the tub and my knees. He approaches her from both sides, jug and net in either hand. Defeated, she pales to a ghostly grey. She tucks her tentacles in, trying desperately to appear inconspicuous. As the net closes in, she latches onto the side of the tub and flashes her bright blue warning in a last-ditch attempt to defend herself.

My supervisor sniggers as he slams the net against the side of the tub and wrenches it to the surface.

“Like that was going to save you,” he chortles. He sticks the net into the exhibit and flips it inside out unceremoniously. A heavy, sticky feeling trickles its way from the crown of my head to the nape of my neck. My ears begin to buzz, and the hot sensation continues across my neck, into my throat and settles, cold, in my stomach. Revulsion. Disbelief. The beginnings of guilt.

Satisfied, my supervisor wipes his hands on the back of his pants, takes a last look at the dispersed sand in the exhibit. “That’s how you do it. Now cover it properly and be quick about it,” he barks, pointing to the tank. I nod mutely and he limps out.

I wait a few minutes. Finding a small, glass rod, I begin to gently shift the sand back in place to cover the starkly mirrored bottom. She does not move while I work. She tucks herself away in the sand between the base of the bottle and one of the small rocks that holds it up, hiding from the viewing panel. I take one last look at her, at her rapidly pulsating siphons and her paleness, so in contrast to the bright blue of the day before. I sigh to myself and cover the tank.

The following morning, I race to the exhibit without dropping my backpack. The tank is dark, the timer still thirty minutes away from beginning the artificial sunrise.  Still, in the darkness, I see her tucked away in the front corner, tentacles curled up, presumably fast asleep. Satisfied that she is okay, I set about my morning tasks and decide to leave her be until she decides to wake.

I return an hour later with half a raw prawn in my hand, my sleeves pushed up and beads of perspiration forming on my forehead. I’m excited to spend more time with her now she’s had time to settle in her new place and, with any luck, forget day before. I lift the lid cautiously and remove the air line. The water ripples to a standstill and she responds to the movement, a slight pulsating of her tentacles tells me she knows someone is there. I pull a small piece of meat from the prawn in my hand and press it onto the end of a strand of fishing line. Slowly, I offer it to her, keeping my hand out of the water. At first, she pushes herself ever more tightly against the wall, inching her way slowly to the shadow like a suction cup. She delicately unfurls a single tentacle and reaches out for the morsel. Her tentacle shouldn’t be long enough to reach it but, but she extends it to almost twice its normal length to investigate this new thing. When she touches the prawn piece, the effect is instantaneous. She immediately reaches out four other arms and engulfs the prawn piece. Her three remaining tentacles stay securely stuck to the wall. Three lifelines. I keep as still as possible so as not to spook her, knowing the dozens of suckers under her tentacles can feel even the slightest vibration from my unsteady hands. Coiling her tentacles around the feed line, I wonder if she has any idea how dangerous she is. And strong. I pull gently on the line to see if she’s finished her meal. It does not budge. I try again carefully, mindful that any harder might damage her little alien fingertips. She lets go of the wall in one sudden jerk and inches her way across the sand towards her chosen den: the crevice between the neck of her bottle and the rock supporting it. I smile sadly, unsure if she holds the line out of curiosity or ownership.

The following day I find myself peering into her tank, my head resting on my folded arms. She seems more at ease today, tucked into the fine sand lining her den. The water around her begins to bloom slowly under the artificial light, the agitated surface creating a sense of oceanic rhythm, if poorly imitated. After about ten minutes, she unfolds her tentacles in a typical morning stretch, her siphons expanding and contracting easily with each breath. I press the pad of my thumb to the viewing panel, amazed it’s the same size as she is. I smile to myself and turn away, already anticipating interactive time with her. My phone chirps in my pocket, and my smile vanishes as I read a message from my supervisor.

I’ve gone past the tank a bunch of times and can’t see the damn thing because of all the shit in there. Take the rocks out by opening hour today.

I stare at the plain instructions and will myself to find a way to avoid following them.

I return several hours later, clutching a crab leg in one hand and a small feed stick in the other. Kneeling beside the tank, I delicately squeeze the flesh out of the crab leg, lacing it onto the tip of the feeding stick. I gently remove the lid and take out the aeration line, waiting for the surface of the water to ripple to a still. There she is, tucked between the neck of her bottle and one of the small rocks, but the sudden increase in light levels have her attention. She uncurls one tentacle, then another, caught between curiosity and caution. I extend the feed stick toward her slowly, keeping it a few inches away from her until she decides to close the gap. She shoots toward the morsel in half a second, engulfing the food immediately like a miniature neon balloon. I release tension on the feed stick and watch, bemused, as she settles on the sand and begins to inch her way back to the rock, like an otherworldly puppy on a leash. Once in her den, she pulls the piece of crab off the feed stick and tucks it up beneath her body to the awaiting, venomous beak. I retrieve the feed stick slowly, content that she has eaten, disappointed it’s the most I can do to engage with her. Tomorrow I would start introducing some shells and stones into the tank for her to play with, if only to enrich one hour of the long, repetitive day.

The next morning, a colleague of mine steps in front of me, deliberately blocking my path, a smirk playing on his wide, pink mouth.

“Hope you didn’t name it yet,” he says in a singsong voice, “should’ve checked the tank properly.”

I shove past him quickly as images of a dried little carcass stuck helplessly to the concrete overwhelm me. As I approach the tank, my eyes scramble desperately over the rocks and sand and bottle, willing to see safe beneath the water. My stomach floods with dread as I see the pebble wedged in the neck of her glass bottle. I reach in and grasp the bottle tightly, bringing it to the surface for a closer look. The pebble I had found the day I welcomed her into her new home. Not a pebble, I now realise in dismay, but a cork. Worn, darkened and brittle from the effects of salt and time, but nonetheless a perfect fit to create a watertight seal, whether intentionally or not. Her strength to cut herself off from her life supply could not be undone. Inside she lay, tentacles uncoiled, and mantle splayed lifelessly. Her once brilliant, blue lines now ghostly pale.