Wilma clutched her empty lunch sack and watched the jellyfish bob and sway out of rhythm with the Andean flute music the aquarium played on Mondays. It was her seventh visit to the jellies exhibit in almost as many days working here as an administrative assistant in one of the research labs. She always sought the moon jellies first. With their pale translucence, they reminded her of the negligees her aunt Gina used to sell in a little shop back home. Twice a week she had taken the bus there after school to sort and re-fold all the tangled bras, camisoles and garter belts, while her mom and aunt sat gossiping on satin stools in the back of the shop.
In the next tank, the glowing orange sea nettles were overflowing cauldrons that bounced off one another, throwing up their tentacles in a froth that roiled her stomach. Wilma turned away and tried to suck in enough air. She’d just gulped down her turkey wrap in the ladies-room stall, wanting to disappear.
During her first few days at the aquarium, Wilma had eaten alone in the employee cafeteria, rereading her welcome folder from Human Resources. At first she simply felt unheard at her new workplace, like a diver trying to talk underwater. No one seemed to notice her as she went about her job of making life easier for everyone. Then the pranks began, and it was hard not to wonder which of her coworkers was watching and laughing. First, Wilma noticed that the red lacquered fan she’d bought on a tour of Hong Kong was missing from her desk in the research lab. Later that afternoon she found it jammed in the dirt of the ficus planter and covered with a sticky film.
By the following day, someone had snatched the Russian nesting dolls that Wilma had lined up on her desk from tallest to smallest. Their red and black heads turned up near the coffeemaker, nestled among the tubs of non-dairy creamer. She knew it was no accident.
She wondered if someone resented her efforts to personalize her workspace so soon, so she took down all of the knick-knacks. This morning, though, she came in to find the discreet cache of tampons she kept in her drawer on full display, lined up like piano keys across her desk. The wrappers were intact, but damp.
No one in the lab remarked on the prank, but a pale-yellow complaint form appeared on her desk. Wilma filled it out. She got a prompt call from Christine, the Victim’s Advocate. She was told to show up to her appointment 10 minutes early, but not 15, to fill out more paperwork. It was now 1:04 in the afternoon. Wilma looked back at the moon jellies once more and walked down the hall to Christine’s office.
Christine had her computer monitor propped on a Harley rider’s atlas and an Emily Post’s Guide to Etiquette. A desk fan sounded a collection of wind chimes without ruffling her stiff grey hair. “Now tell me exactly what happened,” she said.
Since her separation, Wilma had done a lot of explaining to strangers—the lawyer, the bank teller, her realtor, her new landlord. Now everyone seemed to treat her as if she belonged to another, less reliable class of citizens. What Wilma couldn’t explain to them was that she had been quite reasonable, in fact, dividing everything in half, exactly—the hardware, the Christmas ornaments, the famous-pairs coffee mugs (Bonnie for her, Clyde for him; Frida for her, Diego for him, and so on)—all to save Paul any extra trouble beyond that of not loving her.
Christine tapped her pencil on her desk as Wilma finished her story about the pranks. “It’s probably Gavin behind all this.”
“He’s been a problem, off and on, since he arrived,” Christine said. “But Gavin was very special to a major benefactor and we can’t get rid of him. Not without violating the terms of the will.”
Wilma tried to picture a Gavin among the dozen or so grad students, post-docs and interns who floated through the lab, growing jellyfish from flowery polyps to silver-dollar-sized rounds to tissue-thin bells like the ones on public display. But she was having trouble connecting names to faces. “Where does he sit?”
Christine snorted. “You haven’t been introduced to Gavin? I don’t understand how they do things up there.” Then she opened a manila folder and pulled out an 8 by 11 glossy. “This is Gavin.”
Wilma took in the bulbous head, bulging eyes, eight wrinkled arms, and hundreds of suckers. She pushed out the breath she’d been holding. “I’m being harassed by an octopus?”
“A Giant Pacific Octopus,” Christine corrected. “Housekeeping sometimes forgets to shut the door to the tank room and he just—” Christine scampered her fingers across the desk.
“Why me?” Wilma had found herself asking this question a lot lately.
Christine shrugged. “Gavin probably saw a crack and just squeezed right on through. Between you and me—” She leaned forward. “You need to let him know you won’t take his shit. That, or you wait him out. They don’t live forever, though this guy seems to keep hanging on.” She snapped the folder shut. “Anything else I can do for you?”
When Wilma told her mother on the phone that night that she was the victim of a prankster octopus, she gave her typical response: “He probably likes you, hon.”
That’s what her mom had said when the boys in elementary school stole her purse. They tossed it around the classroom, taking out her little comb and brush, and a tiny precious bottle of perfume, which tipped over, filling the air with its terrible sweetness. “They tease because they like you,” her mom had insisted. But that was not true at all.
Wilma studied the one picture she had put up on her fridge since moving into this apartment. It was taken during her trip to Hong Kong with her mom and Aunt Gina. The trip had been their consolation prize to her after her separation. Mainly, though, it was an excuse to visit a man that Gina had met, who played in the philharmonic orchestra there. After years of being widowed (in the case of Wilma’s mom) and divorced (Gina), they were both trying to get “out there.” Wilma wore a sleeveless yellow dress in the photo that made her look washed out, her eyes like little kidney beans sunk into her pale face. Her mom and Gina were all shine and sparkle, from their eyeliner to their stiletto heels. Standing between the two of them, Wilma was the unlit letter in the neon sign.
When Wilma got to work the next morning, she found a puddle of purple-black ink on her desk chair and a trail of paperclips on the floor leading to the door of the tank room. This time it was locked. She knelt and squeezed two fingers under the door. The narrowest of spaces. She stared through the glass windows at the maze of pipes and tanks that filled the room. There were plastic buckets, turkey basters, and tongs that served mysterious purposes. So little had been explained to her. Gavin’s tank ran the length of the window. He was hiding in his cave now, rearranging himself in the darkness. All this time Wilma had not noticed him because he’d been holed up in there, studying her.
“The jellies are the only things he won’t eat.”
Wilma startled at the voice. She turned around to see a man with curly, thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail, who appeared to be doing hurdler’s stretches between two desks. He introduced himself as Martin and said he was a post-doc. His hair was wet like he had just stepped from the shower. “Gavin ate the seahorses, so they had to move him in here.”
“Lucky you. You’ve been singled out,” he said.
“Should I be flattered?” Wilma reached for a stack of paper towels and spread them on her chair. They watched the purple seep through the layers.
“He finds you curious,” Martin said. “Are you?”
Wilma put down another layer of towels, pretending she hadn’t heard the question. “How do you keep from getting stung handling the jellyfish?”
“When they’re babies, they can’t do much to you. For the grownups, we’ve got gloves,” Martin said. “Want to feel a jelly?”
“I’ll pass.” Wilma had been stung by on the beach as a teenager. It had hurt like hell, but even worse, her mom had to embarrass her by trying to set her up with the lifeguard who was dousing her leg with vinegar.
Later on, there was a birthday lunch for her supervisor. Wilma skipped it to revise a grant proposal he wanted done by the end of the afternoon. Not in my job description, she mumbled to herself. At least it was interesting work.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Gavin jet out of his cave, trailing what looked like pink party streamers. He was handsome in an ugly sort of way. Earlier, she had seen one of the aquarists come in for his scheduled feeding, tossing him a ball with shrimp tucked inside. Apparently, Gavin liked a challenge. When he tired of playing with his ball, he would squeeze his entire body up through a tube no thicker than a shower rod and come out the other end with a splash. Showoff, Wilma thought, and went back to typing.
Martin brought her back a piece of birthday cake, pointing out the cursive Ha of icing on top. “You’ve been working hard,” he said. “So I thought you should get the last laugh.”
“Or I can wait till I get this proposal done,” said Wilma. “Then it will be more like Ah.” She had made the feeblest attempt at humor, and yet Martin was laughing. She didn’t get him.
Wilma felt her phone vibrate and stepped out in the hall. It was her mom again. She wanted Wilma to know that she had sent her a yoga CD. “You seem tense. Anyhow, I ran into Paul at the gym, and I told him about your suitor.”
“I don’t have a suitor.”
“Of course you do. There’s Gavin.”
“He’s a mollusk, mom.”
“Well, anyway. Paul seemed a little concerned about this.” Her mother went on, breathy and excited. “You know, Wilma, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s rethinking things.”
When Wilma hung up, she found that her cake was missing except a few crumbs on the plate and a trail of them across the floor. She stormed over to Gavin’s tank. It was smeared with icing.
“You see Gavin take my cake?” she asked an intern sitting nearby.
The intern shrugged, too busy texting to look up. “Dude’s got serious camouflage.”
Wilma rolled up her sleeves and scooped the red ball out of Gavin’s tank. “Here’s how we’ll play this game.”
Martin stood nearby, squeezing something out of one of the basters. “Wouldn’t do that,” he said. “Last person took Gavin’s ball got a beak-full of cephalotoxin. Laid up for three days.”
“Fine with me,” Wilma said. Even though her heart was pounding up to her ears, she carried the dripping ball back to her desk and zipped it inside her purse.
The next morning Wilma found a thick stack of papers on her desk. The images on them were faint, but looked like they were covered with strands of pearls. Gavin had been on the photocopier last night. She flipped through the pages, amazed at how many had been needed to capture his likeness. On the last one an eye stared out at her, challenging her to blink.
“Wanna touch a jellyfish?” Wilma jerked in surprise. Martin stood there in a faded blue terrycloth bathrobe, holding an electric razor. He had missed a stripe of stubble on his left cheek.
“No, I’m looking for my employee ID. I think Gavin stole it.” Wilma raised her eyebrows. “Do you live back here?”
Martin rubbed his chin. “It’s temporary,” he said. “Anyway, once you’ve been chosen by Gavin, there’s not much you can do.”
“What was the last—victim like?”
“Well, she couldn’t take it anymore. Kind of light-brownish hair like yours. Couple inches shorter maybe.” He paused. “Gavin likes the pretty ones.”
Wilma blushed. “I can’t believe he wasted so much paper.”
After work Wilma stopped by the makeup counter at the mall. She dabbed her finger into the sample pots of eye shadow and stroked each iridescent shade across her palms. The store had a buy one-get one deal, so she left with a pair of striped hands, two shadow trios, and two eyeliners.
The next day she brought in a can of tuna to work and tucked the contents into Gavin’s ball. Then she hid it in the back of the coat closet. Before noon the ball had been returned, empty, to her desk. Wilma’s chest tingled as she thought of the swift response and not knowing what would happen next.
One night, a couple of weeks later, there was a knock at Wilma’s apartment door. It was Paul, her ex. He’d brought a tub of cotton candy, which they used to eat together, hands-free, pulling the strands of pink and blue apart with their tongues.
“You wearing makeup now?”
Wilma shrugged. She wondered how clownish her new eye shadow looked in the glare of the entryway lights. She hadn’t seen Paul in more than a month and found herself doing a secret inventory of his chewed-up fingernails, his high-arched eyebrows, and the thick blonde hairs on his calves. There was a bandage on his shin, probably from playing soccer. Paul used to keep his bandages on too long because he hated how the adhesive stuck to his hair. Wilma would sometimes yank them off for him in sneak attacks, calling him her “big chicken.”
Wilma invited him into the kitchen, fully intending for him to see Gavin’s likeness on her fridge. Paul opened up a couple of drawers, which seemed rather domestic of him. He pulled out a pair of spoons. He talked about seeing her mother at the fitness center. Her bench-pressing routine had been improving for a while, he said, but then she seemed to reach a plateau.
“Got to admire her,” he said. “At least she’s doing something.”
Wilma stiffened. What place of his was it to admire her mother, or not?
Finally, the talk turned to Gavin. Paul stared at the fridge. “How many of them suckers he got, anyway?”
“More than you’d think.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and studied Wilma. “Those hickies on your neck?”
“It’s complicated,” Wilma said. That afternoon, while the rest of the staff was attending a weekly research symposium, Gavin had snuck up behind her to yank off her earring. The suction had been incredible.
Standing in her new apartment, Paul seemed smaller than she remembered—at least compared to Gavin. Stretched end to end, Gavin was the length of her living room, his head the size of a piñata. He could open jars and turn four different colors. He had three hearts. And Paul apparently didn’t have a single one.
On the other hand, Paul didn’t smell like fish. Plus he got along with her mother. And they used to do that thing with the cotton candy, though now they were eating it from separate bowls. Wilma bent down to pick up the plastic lid that had fallen to the floor. On the way up, she was tempted to rip off Paul’s bandage.
Paul licked his spoon and set it down in the sink with a decisive clang. “I’m glad you’ve found someone,” he said. “Makes me feel better, you know? I think I’ve found someone, too.” He flipped open his phone and showed her a photo of his new girlfriend: high heels, two arms. No siphon.
After Paul left, Wilma went to the grocery store, bought 20 cans of salmon, and packed them in her workbag. She wondered what would be on her desk the next morning.
Wilma was late for work. It was one of those mornings when her toast burnt and every stoplight turned red. She tried to do a last-minute application of eye shadow in the parking garage, but she couldn’t find the extra set she kept in her workbag for just that purpose. When she finally got to the office, Martin was pacing in front of her desk and a crew was clearing out Gavin’s enormous tank.
“What’s going on?”
Martin gave her shoulder a little squeeze. “Gavin didn’t get back to his tank on time,” he told her. “Found him on the floor. All dried up.”
Wilma stared at the film of sweat along his hairline. She felt the weight of the salmon cans pulling down her shoulder. “What was he doing?” she asked.
Martin shrugged. “Just his time, I guess. Now you don’t have him to worry about.”
Wilma nodded and said she had to get to work. She searched the top of her desk and in each of her drawers, looking for a message from Gavin to explain what it all had meant. Why had he chosen her? But she found no signs of him—not even an empty shrimp shell.
That night, Wilma baked three large salmon casseroles, ate a few bites of one, and tossed the rest in the trash. She put on her mother’s yoga CD. As she inhaled and exhaled on cue, a soothing voice told her to think of everything that was keeping her out of the present moment. Put it into a boat. Now let the water carry it away. At first Wilma imagined Paul and Gavin occupying the same rowboat, but there was a fight over the paddles, so she had to separate them. In her next visualization, Paul paddled away first, leaving only Gavin, who soon filled his siphon with water and shot off into the deep.
Martin came by Wilma’s desk the next morning. He dangled a glove over her head so it tickled her nose. “It’s a good day to touch a jellyfish.”
“I have no interest in touching a jellyfish,” Wilma said.
Martin rocked back on his heels and up on his toes, staring at her expectantly.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said, unsure of what she was sorry for.
“Suit yourself.” Martin turned and walked back to his desk, twirling the glove by one of its fingers.
A few weeks later, when Wilma was hard at work on another grant for her boss, she got a follow-up call from Christine, the Victim’s Advocate. It had been 60 days since she filed her complaint. How was she doing now that Gavin was no longer a threat?
“Absolutely fine,” Wilma said. She’d taken a sick day earlier in the week to interview for a job at the local horticultural society. The salary wasn’t much higher, but they’d pay for her to attend a couple of grant-writing workshops. She wondered if Christine could even hear her over the wind chimes in her office. “Why would I be anything but fine?”
“Well,” said Christine, “sometimes there are lingering effects. Do you feel anything—lingering?”
Wilma felt a rumble in her stomach. She didn’t know, she said.
Christine gave a little grunt of disapproval. “Well I can’t tell you how to feel.”
On her last day of work at the aquarium, there was no cake or goodbye card; Wilma didn’t expect there to be. She thought she would at least experience a certain satisfaction at walking away from the coworkers who had treated her as all but invisible. Instead, there was another symposium that afternoon, and she found herself packing up her small box of things while the lab staff filed out the door before her. Martin stopped and gave Wilma a stiff handshake. They had hardly talked since Gavin’s demise. “So, you’re changing kingdoms,” he said. “From Animalia to Plantae.”
Wilma nodded. “If this doesn’t work out, there’s always bacteria, right?”
“Don’t forget fungi,” Martin said. “Good luck.”
When she was the only one left in the room, Wilma ripped off the marked-up month on her desk calendar. She stared at the new month ahead. Each and every box was covered with sparkling swirls in three different shades of lavender. Gavin must have gotten a hold of her eye shadow.
The door to the tank room was slightly ajar. Wilma walked in. She watched the jellies dance in the silence. Someone had left a glove draped over one tank.
Wilma removed the lid like she’d seen done before. She reached in and cupped a full-grown jelly in her hand, letting its lacy tentacles curl around and claim it. Then she slipped off the glove. For a moment she felt like she was folding satin again at her Aunt Gina’s shop, listening to the warm drone of women discussing possibilities. She handled the creature so gently, with such care and concentration, that it didn’t sting. At least not yet.
Susan Frith is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in publications including Sycamore Review, Potomac Review, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Air & Space, University of Chicago Magazine, and Johns Hopkins Magazine.