Okay, so the Seizure Pox plague was bad. I mean, seriously. Whichever motherfuckers set that apocalypse loose deserved whatever the CIA and the FBI and the goddamn NSA or whoever could come up with. Homeland Security, maybe.
But there were only two words I could think of for the flying tigers and lions and shit: Fucking Hilarious. I wanted to be the genius who came up with that one.
You never really saw them in the city, except maybe flying so far overhead you could hardly tell what they were, but one time T-Rex showed me a vid on his wrist implant that had me laughing so hard I snorted water out my nose. You see through the window on one of the downtown monoliths onto the deck, and there’s this dog out there, a beagle I think, and you can tell whoever’s snapping the vid is messing with the dog because it’s looking right at you and dancing around like it wants to come inside. Then a flash of orange-y fur and the dog is gone. Gone. But the best part is the sound the dog makes. It’s like he doesn’t even have time to bark, and he just goes “oorf!” as he’s yanked up into the air.
Maybe it’s because we were goofy on CyBeans, but T-Rex and Koan and me were laughing about that damned dog all the way down to the lake. Oorf!
Koan was the one who turned us on to catfish noodling. He came from somewhere south, where before the Pox they used to noodle for fun, apparently. I did it for food.
The spot we liked best was out by the old water cribs. Once, my mom had told me, the lake reached almost to the tops of the cribs. Water from the top would go down through them, into huge pipes under the lakebed, and to the city. Now they were useless and spooky, standing ridiculously tall out of the shallow water like a pair of crumbling fairy tale towers. Maybe the spookiness is why no one was ever out there by them. I couldn’t figure any other reason, because there were almost always fish there.
As usual, T-Rex was the first one into the water, stomping in without even taking off his boots. “Here, fishy-fishy,” he called, peering down into the water in the predatory way he now had. “Hey,” he said, looking up at me and Koan still taking off our shoes and jackets, “who wants to bet I catch the biggest one?”
We just nodded, pretending we thought T-Rex was funny. I, for one, was so jealous of his new infrared/UV-enhanced eyes that I wanted to pry them out of his face.
So we spread out around the cribs looking for the lakebed holes where catfish lived. What you do is stick your hand into the hole until a catfish bites it. Then you pull the fucker out of the water and go to shore, and then you can maybe knock him off with something, or else their bites relax once they air-drown. I swear, it’s the weirdest thing in the world, but it worked. So whatever.
Except it wasn’t working for me that day. I saw psychedelic colors and geometric patterns in the water and the blue spring sky and written on my own skin, but I didn’t see any fish. I could hardly even spot their holes. And even when I did find one, let me just add: nothing makes you feel like a ‘tard faster than crouching in the garbage and muck of Lake Michigan with your fist in a hole waiting for a fish to fucking swallow it.
Koan had waded out farther to the north, using his other trick. He’d sit in the shallow water like he was meditating or something, and wait for a trout to come to him. I don’t know why they did, if he had some secret bait or something. But then he’d tickle the trout’s belly and the fish would sort of go to sleep and he’d just pluck it out of the water. Koan was a strange duck all right. He could’ve had any body mod he wanted, but all he got were some old-fashioned tattoos of Asian writing on his face and arms. They weren’t even luminescent or chameleoskin.
Anyway, the sun hadn’t even come close to the tops of the monoliths when T-Rex and Koan quit. Koan only had one trout in his bag, or else he probably would’ve shared with me. T-Rex had a whole bag of catfish, plus a salmon he’d snagged with one of his forearm spikes. It was more than he could eat by his stingy self, but I knew he’d sooner throw them to the flying kittens than share with me, so I was no way gonna ask him. They left me knee-deep in the greasy lake with my empty bag on the shore, T-Rex shouting “we are the champions!” as they went. Sometimes I hated him.
Another hour passed, or maybe two, and I’d gotten desperate enough to wade far out where I’d have to dive under the water to get to the holes. I’d never been so far out before. Finally I found a spot with some boulders under the water and a little while after I got there I finally glimpsed a fucking fish. It was just hanging out next to a boulder, rather than in a hole, so I thought I’d try Koan’s tickling trick. I snuck up on the fish, standing on the boulder above it, and slowly reached out and touched it by the tail. That was when I noticed it wasn’t a trout or a catfish. It was some kind of pretty fish, like one of those fancy-finned Japanese goldfish people used to keep as pets, only big. It was as long as my arm, with shiny orange and yellow scales and long wavy fins. The fish didn’t dart away when I touched its belly; it just flicked its flashy tail and stayed where it was. After a while I felt it go rigid, and as quick as I could I grabbed it and wrestled it out of the water.
So I was standing on a boulder, far out into Lake Michigan, soaked but feeling triumphant, almost legendary, hugging the fish to my chest.
And then the stupid thing had to go and talk to me.
“Hey kid,” he said, and I was so startled I almost dropped him right back into the lake, end of story.
His voice was totally human. Maybe a little on the high side, but not, I dunno, fishy. “Put me back in the lake and I’ll make it worth your while.” His mouth opened round and wide when he talked, like an O.
I couldn’t really think of what to say. I mean, I’d never talked to a fish before, no matter how many CyBeans or SuperX tabs I’d taken. But I was thinking that if someone had figured out how to stick furry wings on a lion and make it fly, a talking fish didn’t seem so impossible.
“Yeah?” I asked. “Like how?”
The fish’s long pectoral fins moved against my chest, pushing with surprising pressure. They were almost like little arms. “Like however you want,” the goldfish said. “Whatever you wish for.”
I thought for a minute about all the sweet body mods I couldn’t afford on the money I made slinging for T-Rex. I thought about the monoliths, the sorts of people who lived in them. I thought about girls. I thought about the file under my bed: GED study guides, Northwestern and UIC-UC application forms, financial aid forms. Ultimately, though, I shrugged. How much could you ask of a goldfish? I set him down in the water in front of me, and he swam in a happy circle before looking back up at me with his spherical dark eyes.
“So what’ll it be?”
“Naw,” I said. “You go on with your life, little fish.” I looked around at the flat lake in front of me and the sun setting behind the monoliths on shore. “I just wish I had something for mom and me to eat for dinner.”
“No worries, kid,” he said. “Go on home to dinner. Catch you on the flip side.” The fish raised a fin to me before he turned and swam out into the lake, leaving a rippling wake behind him.
The shanty town east of Lakeshore Drive had been officially closed down a few years back, after the Seizure Pox ran its course and the city’s buildings sat half-empty. But they hadn’t got around to bulldozing it yet, and so it still crouched there against Millennium Park and the rest of the city, between the monoliths and the shrunken lake.
Those days the only folks there were the homeless kids who ran away from the orphanages, a few tramps and squatters who poached from the allotments and farms, the Docs, drug dealers, and various other nogoodniks like myself. I was born down there, in the luggage compartment of a stripped greyhound bus. I walked by the bus on my way home, patting the grey dog for luck. Mom used to tell me stories about that dog when she ran out of books to read me, heroic stories where the little greyhound pup always grew up to achieve his dreams. I hadn’t heard any of those in a while, though.
He was spotted orange like a rust Dalmatian now, but he still looked determined. If nothing else, this was one dog that wouldn’t be eaten by a flying tiger.
Home now was on the third floor of what had once been a college dorm. The only positive to it was that there were books there, stacks of them, that had been just left behind when the school closed. When no one could see me I’d smuggle the books into my room and read them, though it took me forever to puzzle through all the words.
Usually the dorm smelled like feet, or worse, but that day as soon as I got into the ground floor lobby I smelled food I couldn’t even describe. I mean, I don’t think in my whole life I saw food like I did that day. The lobby was crowded with all the people who lived in the building, former shanty-dwellers like mom and me. They’d pushed a bunch of folding tables from the dorm’s student center together to hold a feast. Just offhand I saw three plates of roasted meat, fruit salad, deviled eggs, and what looked like pies — I wasn’t sure, because I couldn’t recall ever seeing one before. There was no fish.
I spotted mom as she came out of the crowd toward me. She was holding a plate in one hand and a fork in the other, and — my favorite part — she was smiling. “You won’t believe it,” she said, hugging me without setting down either her plate or her fork. “The city came today and they finally installed our rooftop garden.” She was ushering me toward the tables now, gesturing with the fork. “There’s no veg, ‘cause they have to grow. But all the trees are mature. So there’s beef, pork, chicken, eggs . . . well, you see. It’s like a miracle. They installed the wire cage and the water system too.”
I nodded, looking at the spread. Our neighbors must have been cooking all evening. “Way to go, fish-dude,” I said. I hadn’t thought he could do it.
Mom looked at me funny then, her eyes narrowing and forehead wrinkling up like she was looking straight into my thoughts. “Fish-dude?”
I laughed. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Wouldn’t I?” She was serious then. Motherly. Her look was like a dare.
Still I tried to shrug it off, speaking as casually as I could. “I let a magic fish go today, and I guess this food is my reward.”
Mom just nodded. I couldn’t tell if she believed me or not, and I didn’t know which thought worried me more.
I woke up to mom sitting over my bed like a fucking gargoyle, and nearly shit myself. “Fuck,” I said, rubbing sleep out of my eyes and sitting up against the wall. “What the hell, mom?”
She was holding a cup of real coffee and smoking a factory-rolled cigarette. For real, something was up. I got really suspicious, though, when she handed both luxuries to me.
“I want you to go back to the fish.”
“What?” I asked. Coffee and adrenaline aside, I really wasn’t awake yet.
Mom looked at me with her firm teacher look. She’d been a teacher once, before the Pox. I’d been a student. When she spoke again she enunciated slowly and clearly. “I want you to go back to the fish, and ask for a better home for us.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Look,” she said, “you saved the fish’s life, right? And he offered you a reward. Now just because you didn’t think of it at the time doesn’t mean we should miss out on what we deserve.” Mom fidgeted. I thought she was regretting handing me the cigarette. “Don’t you want anything?” she asked, but she didn’t wait to hear. “I want to live in one of the monoliths.” She went to my window. I couldn’t see out of it from where I sat, but I knew the view: alley and cinderblock wall. “In the penthouse.”
“I dunno. That seems — ”
“Don’t you remember the stories I used to tell you? How if you worked hard you’d be rewarded?”
I nodded, but she was still turned to the window and couldn’t see me. “Yes,” I answered.
“And haven’t we worked hard? Don’t we deserve something nice?”
She turned back to me then, and it was with such a look of sadness and sternness covering a lurking threat that I didn’t see that I had any choice. The fish would have to be asked.
What I did have were priorities that momentarily outweighed mom’s nagging. As soon as she went back to her own room I threw the previous day’s clothes back on, still a little crunchy from dried lakewater. By then I was feeling clear enough to get out there and sling the seventeen CyBeans I had tucked into the seam of my vintage denim jacket. With the cash I’d been stowing in my hollow boot heels, if I sold these I’d just be able to afford a base-level body mod, like T-Rex’s spikes or some horns or maybe luminescent hair, if I could haggle the Doc down. Any of these would be a hit with the other slingers and basically a must if I ever wanted to get a promotion from T-Rex. I was still nowhere near affording the plug-ins I really wanted, though, the ones that would make me smart enough for a real career.
In the daytime people came out of their homes, and the marina and shantytown was almost a busy place. Even Grant Park had people in it that day, clean-looking people who walked dogs on leashes but were flanked by serious-looking men with rifles. I thought about flying tigers and giggled. Oorf! There was one kid about my age playing Frisbee with a Golden Retriever. His clothes looked like mine, denim with patches and shit, but I could tell he was a phony; the holes in his jeans had square edges. So I sold him two CyBeans for a third over shanty price.
So I’d sold all the Beans by the time the sun was overhead, and I was feeling pretty good. I killed a little time in the shanty, putting off mom’s errand, but finally there was nothing for it but to go.
I walked all the way out to the water cribs before I realized I didn’t know how to get ahold of the goldfish. I mean, it wasn’t like he had a cell phone. “Hello, mister fish?” I called, feeling insecure about it. Thankfully, my voice didn’t echo. “Fish-dude? Oh, mister magical fish?” It turns out there was a faster way to feel like a ‘tard. I picked up a flat lake rock and skipped it out over the water. It bounced eight times before sinking into the small waves. Finally, in a quiet, questioning tone: “Here, fishy-fishy?”
He popped up out of the water right in front of me like he’d been there all along, waiting for the magic words.
“You’re kidding,” I said, but I’m not sure he heard me.
“What’s up, bro?” the fish asked. He looked at me with his right eye, then adjusted in the water a little to use the left. Both seemed deep and dark.
I didn’t know what to say so I picked up another stone and flicked it underhand out past the goldfish. Ten skips. He ducked underwater and swam in a little circle before looking at me with the right eye again. “I’m sorry to bug you,” I said.
I don’t know if fish can shrug, but if they can that’s what he did. He waved one pectoral fin at me dismissively.
“And thank you for the food. You totally outdid yourself. I mean, I only asked for dinner, and you gave us the whole garden. It’s like that saying that if you give a man a fish . . . well, you know.” The fish’s eyes didn’t have pupils, so it was hard for me to read his expressions. I tried to explain. “It’s just a saying mom always used to say, about — ”
“I know the expression,” said the fish.
“Okay, right, cool. Anyway, thanks a lot.”
“No problem,” he said. “No scales off my tail.”
I picked up another stone and tried to skip it, but it just fell into the lake.
“What’s wrong?” the fish asked. He swam a few yards out on his back, watching me select the next flat stone.
“It’s my mom,” I said, winding up. “She wants to live in a fancy apartment. A penthouse, she says. She wanted me to ask you.” I looked the fish in the eye and let the stone fly. It skipped six times before the fish stopped it with his fin. I didn’t see how he was holding it without any thumbs or anything, but that fish somehow managed to skip the stone right back to me. It landed at my feet on the shore.
“No worries, kid. Go on home — it’s 1030 North State Street now, top floor. Your mom’ll be there.”
The sun glinted off the fish’s golden scales as he bobbed in the water. “For real. Anything else?”
Again I thought of the colleges, the illegal college prep plug-in mod that I figured was the only way I’d get there. I’m still not sure why I didn’t ask, but I know mom’s greyhound stories were on my mind, and not in the way she’d used them that morning. He’d never needed magic. “Naw,” I said. “You’ve done enough, little fish. Thanks a billion.”
Again he waved his fin at me and flipped away into the lake.
The penthouse was fucking boosted. I can categorically say that I’d never been in a home that big, never even thought they could exist. It was bigger than the elementary school I went to before the Pox, an entire floor of a monolith. We had our own kitchen, bigger than both our rooms in the dorm put together. We had a whole room stocked with food. We not only had our own bathroom, there were three of them, and they had bathtubs made from polished stone. There were two rooms for each of us. The floors were made of shiny strips of wood laced together in a pattern, and the ceiling was so high I couldn’t touch it even with a running jump. There were windows on every wall, more window than wall, and they looked out so high above the city that it felt like no one else lived in it.
Mom was there when I got home, and she was dancing with joy. Literally. She had on a long black dress and some wobbly-looking shoes that tapped on the wood floor, and she held a tulip-shaped glass by its stem in one hand, and a factory-rolled cigarette in the other. I mean, the apartment had come stocked.
“Check it out,” she said when I came in. She tripped over to a wall and flipped a switch, and the clusters of sconces hanging from the ceiling — which I’d taken for candleholders — lit up with warm, yellowish light. “Electric light.”
I stared, feeling like a yokel for being so impressed. I mean, it wasn’t like I’d never seen a lightbulb before. Of course we hadn’t been wired in the greyhound bus in the shanty town, but the dorm had a generator, and even used it on really special occasions.
“It works all the time,” mom said, a reverent hush in her voice. “And so does the elevator. The building’s communal garden is right above us on the roof, and let me show you this.” She stubbed her cigarette out in a green glass dish, still with a half inch of tobacco left, and pulled me by the wrist down the hall. The room we entered was full of books; books from floor to ceiling, so high that the room came with a wooden ladder that slid on a track. The room even smelled of books, dry and papery and just a little musty.
“So?” I said. “Like I care about books.”
Mom looked up at me then with her eyes clear and seeing. “Yeah,” she said. “Of course you don’t.”
So mom was pretty happy for a while. We had all the food we wanted from the meat and fruit trees and the other communal plants on the roof, and mom was really happy with the new neighbors. Sure, she still didn’t have a job, and I was still slinging for T-Rex, but the other folks in the building didn’t know that, and they treated us like we were just like them — business people and bio-designers and lawyers and doctors. Educated. Owners of things. Mom went to all their parties and drank wine and flirted with professional men. She dated some, but always decided that the man wasn’t good enough. “Oh well,” she’d say, tossing a string of pearls over her shoulder. “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
It was an expression, I knew, but it threw me off every time. I thought of one fish. I thought of a lake.
I didn’t have to go noodling anymore, so I didn’t. T-Rex and Koan went a few more times, but I guess it got old when they couldn’t make me feel like a loser for not catching anything. I was glad when they stopped, because the thought of T-Rex snagging my fish with his spikes made me sick. I thought he might kill the fish, even if he was offered wishes. But on the other hand, I thought he might wish for something seriously messed up.
I kept checking the Docs’ storefront, but the prices for plug-in mods stayed high: a high-school education plug was almost twenty grand, or another 3,461 sold CyBeans. And after that I’d still have to think about upgrades, synapse boosting, and of course tuition. And then maybe I still wouldn’t be good enough to be a bio-engineer. It depressed me when I thought about it, so I mostly didn’t.
Sometimes I thought about asking the goldfish for some money, but I always decided not to. When I really thought about getting mods my stomach twisted up like the time I drank lakewater.
Meanwhile, while mom was out on dates I read books. Our library had a lot of things that I’d need for the GED, and it also had an Internet link. Sometimes I’d download vids on my phone to show T-Rex and Koan, though I never found anything quite as classic as the one of the dog getting eaten.
I thought living at the top of a monolith I’d finally see some flying tigers, but I never did. I did see lots of flying housecats, though. They’d come up to our windows and I could get them to chase my fingers. They’d hang on the mesh of our deck with their claws, mewling. I wanted to get a better look at them, so one time I brought one inside, a tabby, mottled wings flapping in my face. It scratched me and I let it go, and then I spent the rest of the day chasing the fucker around the apartment to get it out again. Mom was mad. Lots of the glass and ceramic what-nots the apartment had come with broke that day.
So things were good, but still I wasn’t surprised when mom told me to go back to the fish. “Ask him to give me a man,” she said. She stood at the window looking out, I presumed, on the dark city beyond.
“I dunno if the fish can do that,” I said.
“Of course he can.” From way up where we were we could hardly see any light, save a few fires on the lakeshore and the occasional light in a monolith window. And of course the moon and stars.
“Well then, I don’t know if it’s right.”
She didn’t turn from the window, though I wasn’t sure she could see anything in it but the reflection of us and our electric light. I could see her face reflected there, a look in her eyes that she used to have when she’d tell me about her and my dad back before I was born and everything went wrong. It was an expression as dark as the night outside. For a second I actually thought she might cry. But then her face hardened. “What the fuck do you know anyway?” she said quietly.
I thought about that question for a while. One thing I sure as shit didn’t know was how to answer it.
“Ask him for a man,” she repeated.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “No more fish in the sea?”
The goldfish was waiting for me when I got to the cribs. “Yo,” he said, “what’s happenin’?”
I sat in the shade of one of the huge round towers, taking off my boots and socks and rolling up my trouser legs. It was still morning, but already hot and muggy. “I dunno. Not much I guess. How are you?”
The goldfish wiggled in the water. “Can’t complain.” As I waded in he lifted a pectoral fin to me like he wanted a high five. I hesitated. “Don’t leave me hanging,” the fish said.
I touched his fin with my hand, and he swam in a little circle. He looked like he really enjoyed being a fish. I picked up a flat stone and gestured to the fish. “Go long.”
We skipped stones to each other in silence for a while. Finally the fish swam back over to me. “Why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“What I want?” I looked up at the sky, the towers of the cribs. “Mom wants you to give her a man.”
“Oh,” said the fish, and his mouth reflected the O perfectly. Fish always kinda look surprised, but right then he really did.
“Tell me you can’t do it,” I said.
“I can do it.”
“Oh.” I sat down in the water, suddenly unconcerned with getting my clothes wet.
“This makes you sad,” he said, swimming close to my lap. I loved the way his tailfin moved, like flames in the water.
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
“You really want me to do it?”
I thought for a while. The fish waited. “Yeah, I guess I do. Mom seems sad, you know?”
“Think this’ll fix it?”
“What the fuck do I know?” I said. It was so quiet, I’m not sure the fish heard it. When I looked down, though, I saw that my hand rested on his flank, just in front of his dorsal fin.
“Okay then,” he said, his mouth barely out of the water. “No worries, kid. Go on home and he’ll be there.”
I took a long walk home, wandering around Northwestern’s Chicago campus for a long-ass time. It didn’t look like much, especially since it was summer and classes were out. I sat on a bench in a plaza and looked up at the tall buildings — they were just like the monoliths, actually, but covered in ivy instead of the climbing supervines that strangled the low-end monoliths and the garden plants that hung from the posh ones. I stayed for hours.
I got back to the apartment as mom was getting ready to leave. A man sat in the front room. He was tall and thin, but not in a starved way, and he wore glasses with wire rims. He stood when I came in, and offered me his hand.
“This is Lloyd,” mom said from another room. I could envision her putting on jewelry or make-up or something in her enormous closet-room. I still thought it was weird that this was something she did now, but I’d gotten used to it. She’d dated a lot of fish.
As they left, she smiled and whispered in my ear, “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
“Me too,” I said. But it wasn’t true.
Of course they hit it off, and before long he’d moved into the apartment and they were talking about getting married. I was wicked pissed about it at first, but it turned out that Lloyd was, if nothing else, a totally smart dude. He caught me reading a bio-chem text one night, and I was all embarrassed, but he acted like it was totally normal. Turns out he was a bio-researcher and professor at UIC-UC, a real egghead, and he was as obsessed with plug-in mods as I was. He studied the plug-ins, and people with them, even though he could get fired from the college for it. He’d lean over my books in our library, helping me study for the GED test or just teaching me about things I always wanted to understand but never thought I could. Like he explained not only the mechanics of how the cats were able to fly, but how the retro-gene worked on their DNA and how the changes were passed along to their kittens. I just listened, most of it going over my head faster than a flying cheetah. I knew once I had my plug-ins everything he said would make sense. But the thing that got me was that he didn’t have any mods at all. Not even a plug-in.
Actually, he really hated the plug-ins, and I think he even hated the people who had ‘em. He said they were dangerous, and that only people who were selfish and lazy and — I had to look this one up — callow would use such a thing. I thought it was easy for him to say; he was smart without ‘em.
He also hated drugs, especially the new ones like the ones I sold. One time, he went off on this lecture about drugs while I was on drugs, and it looked to me like his head was getting bigger and bigger as he talked, and I thought about him just floating up until he hit the ceiling, and it was the funniest thing ever at the time. So, you know, I never introduced him to my friends. But then I wasn’t seeing much of them anyway. I hadn’t even told ’em about our new digs.
Mom smiled a lot, for a while. Over time, though, I could see that faraway look creeping into her expressions, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she came to me again.
When she did, I knew right away what she wanted. On the dining room table sat a glass box maybe three feet long by two wide by two tall. I’d only seen one once, at one of the posh monolith parties. It was an aquarium.
It was winter, and every time I lost my footing on an icy street I hoped I’d drop the tank and it would break and I’d be off the hook. I didn’t though. And it was just as well; I knew she wouldn’t let it rest at that anyway.
The lake was frozen in the shallows, so I walked out past the cribs, sliding the aquarium along the bumpy ice. It had been stormy when the water froze.
When I’d gotten as far as I dared, I called for the goldfish.
It took a really long time before he appeared, popping his head out of a hole in the ice off to my right. I wore a scarf and a hat, but no gloves, and my fingers were freezing. “Hey kid,” he said. “Come to shoot the current?”
I smiled and walked over to where he’d surfaced. I knelt down to give him a high-five. The cold water on my hand made it feel even colder; for a moment I was worried my hand would freeze to his delicate fin like a tongue to a lamppost. “How’s it going, fish-dude?”
“Okay,” he said, then he saw the aquarium behind me on the ice. When he spoke again his voice was lower. “What does your mom want now?”
I glanced back at the tank too, and knew that the fun part of this meeting was over. “She wants you.”
The fish ducked under the water quickly, then came back up. “What do you mean, ‘she wants me’?”
It would have been easy to walk away then, to shrug it all off and go back to the penthouse. But I realized then that I didn’t want to go home alone. So I lied. “She’s so grateful for everything you’ve done for us that she wants you to live with us. You know, so you don’t freeze out here.”
“Is that all?” he asked. A cold wind gusted, shaking me as I crouched on the ice. The fish looked at me first with his left eye, then with his right, just like he’d done when we met.
“I’d like you to come too,” I said. I could hear my voice shake, but I wasn’t sure it was from the cold. “You’re my best friend.” It was true.
The goldfish disappeared under the ice, then surfaced in a different hole, nearer to the tank. When he returned he asked, “And that’s all you two want from me? Your motives — and your mother’s — are pure?”
There was probably a part of my mom that felt the way I’d said. She was grateful, and sometimes even said so, praising the fish as the miracle that he was. But her motive for wanting him was about as pure as the snow on downtown streets.
It took me a while, but eventually I said, “Yes.”
The fish looked at me for a long time, evaluating. “I thought you cared about me,” he said. He dove down again, and when I saw him again he was much farther out into the lake.
I stood and shouted, “Come back! I do care!” I moved forward a few steps on the ice, terrified that I would fall through.
“No worries,” the fish said bitterly. “Go back to your home. It’ll be as you deserve.” He jumped out of the water and made a gesture with his tail in the air that I was pretty sure I understood.
“Please!” I yelled.
The fish jumped again, and there was a shadow across the air, and a flash of orange that had nothing to do with shiny scales.
It wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t funny.
The flying tiger was a mass of orange and black fur, twitching and hungry and shockingly physical, wings cutting through the air powerfully yet almost silently. It pounced while the fish was still in the air, but instead of catching him cleanly and hoisting him into the air like the dog, the goldfish was knocked across the ice, skipping like a stone. I could see him flopping and thrashing, looking for a hole to get back underwater. I took two quick steps forward before I felt the ice cracking and stopped myself.
The tiger’s paws barely touched the ice before it leapt, swatting the goldfish across the ice again, closer to shore and to me. Pale fish blood splattered and froze.
The goldfish was screaming, but if the tiger thought anything of it, I couldn’t tell. Between the shrieks of terror were words, entreaties. “Please!” he yelled, “Let me go; I’ll give you anything you want!”
But you can’t reason with a tiger. The cat batted the goldfish around until the screams died down and I thought with relief that the fish had finally died. Then the tiger started to eat its prey, and the goldfish made a noise of such anguish that I will never stop hearing it. The wail echoed off the surface of the lake as if reluctant to leave. And then it was truly quiet, save the muted crunching of fish bones. When it was done the tiger looked at me, pink tongue licking its face, and it was only then that I felt the freezing tears on my own face, and remembered to be afraid.
As I started to run the tiger flew up into the air, and it was so fast that I knew it would catch me no matter what I did. So I turned around to see.
I watched the tiger alight as gently as a feather on the top of the nearer water crib, fold its wings down onto its back, and disappear inside the ancient tower.
I don’t know why I carried the aquarium away from the lake with me. In fact, I didn’t even really know I’d done it until I found myself on the street in front of the monolith we lived in, staring stupidly up at the towering building.
I hadn’t expected the penthouse to be there when I got off the elevator. I thought I’d find somebody else’s home, or an empty ruin. It was all I deserved.
I have the aquarium to this day; it’s one of many similar tanks in my corner of the lab. But that one remains empty. I’ve learned much about the variations of DNA, in the phylum Chordata and elsewhere in the animal kingdom, much more than I ever thought my unplugged brain and its unboosted synapses could comprehend. I’ve tested the boundaries of a fish’s brain and a fish’s power. I’ve made goldfish that walked on land, goldfish that warbled like canaries, goldfish with knowing looks in their dark eyes.
But I have yet to make a goldfish who will understand my apology.
This story was written during my second week at the Clarion West Writers Workshop. It is a retelling of one of my favorite folk tales, “The Magic Fish,” with some very major differences. In the original fable both the fisherman and his greedy wife are punished for asking too much, a rather straightforward morality tale. I was planning to follow that storyline in my version, until I became stuck writing the ending. After sitting up most of the night fretting about my impending deadline, I decided to write a totally unfair ending, in which the one truly innocent character is punished. Interestingly, my protagonist learned a deeper lesson from his Pyrrhic victory than he ever could have from a just outcome. The setting of this piece was inspired by my long-standing fascination with apocalypses large and small, my time at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and my desire for flying tigers. Somebody needs to get cracking on those.