“Alright Jake, try to be quick this time. I have to take your sister to soccer practice in just a few minutes.”
My mom stopped the car right in front of Eric’s house. With a laugh and a tired smile, she turned to me.
“You kids make it so chaotic all the time.” She sounded slightly irritated. “I can’t wait until you’re out of the house, so I can do something other than being everyone’s chauffeur.”
“Sorry, mom.” I sighed and tried to unclick the scorching hot seatbelt buckle without burning my fingertips. I had to sacrifice an entire hand to open up the car door.
Hopping out of my seat, I scurried to Eric’s front door. Out of habit, I reached up to knock, but then remembered and dug the key out of my pocket.
Mid-July, it was scorching hot in the middle of Arizona. I was stuck here, swimming in my own sweat while Eric was off on vacation. He left me behind to care for his fish, his pride and joy. It took him three months of chores to prove he was responsible enough to take care of it.
I shoved the key into the lock and swung the door open. I looked back to my mom and she waved to me impatiently to hurry up.
The minute I stepped inside I was met with a rush of cold air on my skin. We don’t have an air conditioner at home, so I spent most of the summer camped out at Eric’s house, shooting hoops until we overheated, and then playing video games in the basement until we had cooled off enough to do it again. Sometimes, we would have soda as a treat. The un-caffeinated kind, of course. Both of our parents agreed we are too young for caffeine.
I slipped off my shoes and tossed them next to the door. I breathed for a second, then headed to the back of the house.
My feet slid on the hardwood floors, and I made a game of sliding from one to another like I was ice skating.
Well, I tried to spin at least. I ended up with my elbow smacking against the hardwood floor, making my arm feel all tingly.
Shaking my wrist, I walked into the kitchen to find the fish.
Eric left me a note on the fridge with information about feeding. And a few other things too. I pulled it down, even though I read it yesterday.
Hey stinkface, Thanks for feeding my fish. Enjoy being a mature, responsible kid like me for 5 whole days. You should give it a big pinch of food every day, about the size of a quarter. Speaking of the size of a quarter, that’s the same size as your brain. I know you miss me. From, Eric
He was right, I did miss him.
I pulled a stool over, climbed onto it, and peered into the tank, looking for the goldfish’s black and orange spots.
The fish tank was big, at least to me. It had three plastic plants, which were bright purple and pink. The rocks at the bottom were light blue, dusted in fuzzy green. Algae, Eric said it was called. In the middle, there was a big white rock with a hole so the fish could swim right through it. That was my favorite part, the rock. I wanted to swim under an archway like that.
I couldn’t find the fish right away. He wasn’t swimming around or hiding behind the big rock. I pressed my nose to the glass, leaving a little smudge.
Eventually, I found him huddled behind the pink plant.
He seemed to be almost lying on the bottom of the tank. Taking a rest, probably. I’d be tired from all that swimming.
Satisfied with having found the fish, I grabbed the jar of food. I took a big pinch of green and yellow flakes, pulled the top off of the tank, sprinkled in the food, and closed it up. I pressed my nose back up against the glass.
It was time for my favorite part: watching the fish eat.
But the fish didn’t move. Instead of his usual frenzied feeding, he just lay next to the plant.
Slightly irritated by his lack of response, I tapped on the glass. Maybe I just needed to wake him up from a nap. I rested my forehead against the tank and tapped even more.
“Come on, fishy,” I urged. I knew my mom was waiting impatiently in the car, but I didn’t want to miss watching the fish dart around to catch his lunch. I prodded the glass a final time.
He didn’t even flinch.
“Go, get your food.”
In a final attempt to wake him from his slumber, I pulled off the lid again and reached directly into the tank. My hand looked strange and distorted through the glass, so I waggled my fingers, admiring how they appeared to change shape.
Then, I reached down to poke the fish. I nudged his slimy, scaly, skin, but he didn’t move.
Why wasn’t he moving? I started to panic. There was only one reason I could think of.
I reached down again, this time closing my hand around the fish, and pulling him higher up in the tank. Surely this would wake him up. I let go, giving him room to start swimming.
But he didn’t swim. He sank.
When his motionless body hit the bottom of the tank, my worst fears were confirmed.
I took a shuddering deep breath.
Another breath, this one catching in my throat, turning into a sob.
Dead because of me.
Tears formed at the corners of my eyes and trailed down my cheeks. My lungs felt tight like I couldn’t breathe fast enough.
I’d killed my best friend’s fish.
My hand was still in the tank, hanging limply in the water. I pulled it out slowly, leaving the fish where he had fallen. Tears were running down my face, snot was leaking out of my nose, fish water was dripping down my arm. I was a wet mess. I was a murderer.
Five days. Eric had left me in charge of his fish for five days. Such a short time and I had still managed to kill his fish. I didn’t even know it’s name.
Eventually, I put the lid back on the tank and stepped down from the stool. I walked over to the sink and rinsed off my arms and face. I scrubbed at my hand for a whole minute, trying to erase the feeling of scales from my fingertips.
I dried my hands, and then realized I had no idea what to do. The fish was dead, and Eric’s family wasn’t going to be home for another two days. Should I just leave it? That felt wrong. Leaving a dead body in a tank for them to find. My insides twisted with guilt. But what else was I going to do? Hold a funeral without Eric?
I decided to call Eric’s mom. She would know what to do.
I pulled the stool away from the fish tank and dragged it over to the cabinet that had the phone on top. I climbed up and grabbed the phone and the post-it that had her phone number on it.
Setting the note on the counter, I punched the numbers into the phone and held it to my ear. It rang once, twice, and then Eric’s mom answered.
“Hi Mrs. Perry?” My voice cracked as I spoke.
“Is everything alright?” She sounded worried.
“Y-yeah. Well not really.”
“Are you okay?” Now she sounded alarmed. “Did you get hurt, or-”
“No, no, I’m fine. It just…” I swallowed, holding back another wave of tears.
“Just I- the- the fish,” I choked out, “He’s dead.”
The other end of the phone was silent for a second.
“Oh honey, it's alright,” she said, her voice soft and sympathetic. “He was getting old anyway. It’s time for him to leave this world and move onto the next, you know?”
“I-I guess,” I said, my voice shaky.
“Everything is going to be fine. We needed him out of the house anyway, to do our kitchen remodel. He’s in a better place.”
“Yeah,” I sniffed. “What should I do? Like with the fish?”
“Just leave him where he is, okay? We’ll take care of it when we get home.”
“See you soon, okay? And really, it wasn’t your fault.”
“Okay. Goodbye, Mrs. Perry.”
The call ended with a beep, and I put the phone back on the cabinet. I pushed the stool back into the corner, where it belonged.
I took one last look at the fish. It lay on the bottom of the tank, pale orange with faded black spots. Dead. Left and moved on. Just like Mrs. Perry said. Out of the house.
Those words seemed familiar.
“I can’t wait until you are out of the house,” My mom had said.
Did she wish I was gone? Dead?
I could feel the prickling of tears at the back of my eyes.
“Goodbye,” I whispered to the fish.