Promise (a work of fiction)
The water is warm, clear, and shallow. My wife, S.B., holds my hand as we wade, and fish of all types swim around our legs. The sun is high and bright and the tall windows of our sprawling, two-story beach house shimmer in the light. Our dog snoozes on the deck, oblivious to the monarch butterfly sitting on her head. Our kids are all smiles on the shore, working together to build a giant sandcastle. It makes me happy to see them like this. My daughter not bossing him around. My son not teasing her. I am calmer than ever before.
“We did it,” I say to S.B.
“We did,” she says, squeezing my hand. “No more bills. No more work.”
“Finally,” I say. “We can travel!”
“And you can write!”
“It’s a dream,” I say.
There is a slight tapping on my left heel. When I look down into the water, I see a big, plump goldfish pecking at my skin. It pecks and pecks and pecks until suddenly I am awake. In bed. In our old house near downtown Alpena. It was only a dream after all.
My nine-year-old daughter stands alongside the bed. Tears streaking her cheeks. She’s tapping my heel with her finger.
“He’s dead,” she sniffles. “Floaty’s dead.”
She turns and walks slowly out of the room. Head down, dragging her stuffed unicorn behind her. S.B. stirs, props herself up in bed.
“What’s going on?” she asks.
“I was just in the ocean with you. We were holding hands. The kids were actually getting along. There was a goldfish by my foot, but it turned out to be a crying kid.”
“What? Which kid?”
“The little one,” I say.
S.B. looks at her watch.
“It’s not even seven…”
“I know, I know,” I say, as I get out of bed. “I got this. You stay here.”
As I walk down the hallway to her room at the other end of the house, I know what has happened. The big, bulgy-eyed goldfish that my daughter bought for twenty-one cents is dead. From the moment she spotted it bumbling around in the big aquarium far away from all the other fish, she loved it. But something wasn’t right. Its floater seemed off kilter. It weaved up and down and side to side through the water. And it kept bumping into the glass.
“I don’t know, kiddo. I’d pick another one.”
“No, no, no!” she said. “He is the one! Look at him…he’s so cute. He just needs some love. That’s all.”
“Seriously, you really need to pick another fish. Look at this one here. Nemo! You love Nemo!”
“No, Dad. Everyone wants a Nemo. I don’t want a Nemo.”
I tried again.
“What about these sleek blue ones? They look good.”
They were smaller, quicker, and seemed more normal. They sliced through the water effortlessly and had just the right amount of fear. They were cautious about coming near the glass where our big faces stared in at them. Not like the bumbling orange oaf, bonking its mouth against the glass, ogling us with its goofy eyes.
It was no use. She dug deep into her pocket and pulled out a handful of pennies. She smiled, blinked her big blue eyes, and just like that, it was over. She paid the cashier and hugged the sack of water all the way home where she decorated a fishbowl with marbles and stones. She cut a picture of a dolphin out of a National Geographic magazine and taped it to the glass.
“Nobody wants to be alone,” she said.
We followed the directions given to us by the store, and she even searched online about caring for goldfish. She’s always a happy person, but she yesterday she was happy times three. Singing to the fish. Staring at the fish. Reading to the fish.
“What’s its name?” I asked, as I kissed her forehead and tucked her in for the night. She stared at the fishbowl utterly amazed. The big orange wonder knocked itself against the glass over and over again.
“That’s Floaty,” she said. “It took me all day, but I finally thought of it, and his name is Floaty.”
“It’s a he?”
“You don’t see girls acting like that.”
Now it is morning, the fish is dead, and I know that it will be hard to get her to come around. Something like this–her little heart breaking–could sour her for days. Couple this with the way her brother has been teasing her–about her hair, her laugh, her teeth, her height–and we are in for a long haul if I don’t nip it in the bud. My first task is to stop into my son’s room and warn him not to make fun of his sister or Floaty today. No flushing the toilet jokes. No asking if fish is for dinner. None of it. Period. But when I look into this room, he isn’t there. A lightning bolt of dread shoots through my body as I cross the hall to my daughter’s room. I can hear her crying and hear my son too. I fight the urge to open the door. Instead, I stand outside and listen.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Floaty is free now.”
I nudge the door open just enough so I can see them. She is curled up on her bed, the fishbowl and poor dead Floaty clutched to her chest. My son is beside her. Patting her back.
“Are you sure?” she sniffles.
“I’m sure,” he says. “Floaty is with Chloe and Teddy and Henry.”
“You think they are all together? All our pets that died?”
“I know it,” he says and wipes his eyes.
“But how will he live without his water and bowl?”
“He doesn’t need that stuff when he has love and friends.”
“You mean Chloe and Teddy and Henry?”
“Yep, and you. You still love him, don’t you?”
“I do,” she says and cries a little harder.
He has big tears coming now too.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he says.
“Promise?” she asks.
And at this moment, I know it is not my place to enter the room. I back away, slowly, and walk back toward my wife and our bedroom so I can share what I have just learned.
KJ Stevens – husband, daddy, writer – lives in Alpena. His Stories, Observations and Wonderings will appear the second Thursday of each month in The Alpena News. K.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read him here the second Thursday of each month.