It’s Saturday morning, and hurricane clouds unravel in the fish tank next to my kitchen sink. Briny musk grows on the tank’s glass walls as I wait for the phone in my pocket to ring.
I never asked for a fish. Their bulging eyes wonder how they got stuck in such a plastic place, and our two cats circle the tank like sharks, rubbing their arched spines along the glass and leaving tufts of hair on my white kitchen counter. But this fish was a gift. My volleyball girls thought it would be the perfect present for their 27-year-old coach. So here we are in our gated community: Fishy, my two cats, my fiance Jason, my silent phone, and me.
I stare at the cloudy water, trying to block out my sister Stephanie’s message from this morning. She has been calling me for three days, but I’ve been ignoring my cell phone, as I always do. I hate the phone. I finally listened to her voicemail a few minutes ago, and her voice, normally as gentle as palms, felt like knuckles grinding into my chest.
“If you’d pick up your phone, you’d know that Mom’s cancer is back. It’s in her lungs and her brain, and she’s probably going to die.”
Since Stephanie is a doctor, I know that if she says Mom is going to die, then Mom is going to die. She always tells me the facts of my mom’s breast cancer without drama.
Usually, Stephanie’s medical facts are comforting. When I was a little girl and my Barbie’s arm had broken off, Stephanie wrapped it neatly to Barbie’s rock-like boobs with a sling made of Kleenex and Scotch tape. When my Cabbage Patch doll had crooked invisible teeth, Stephanie straightened a paperclip to make her a retainer. And when Mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago, Stephanie explained to me that she had a 99% chance of living a normal, cancer-free life.
But lately, Mom’s thick voice has thinned over the phone, interrupted by wispy coughing. Less than a month ago, she collapsed from a headache and nausea, landing herself in an isolated hospital room where everything crinkled like plastic when she rolled over, tubes and wires tugging at her body, silver circles tracking her heartbeat where her left breast used to be. Apparently, she falls into the unlucky 1%.
When I tried calling Stephanie back a few minutes ago, she didn’t pick up. I dialed Mom and Dad, too, but all I got was their voicemail, Mom’s voice still rooted in a time where she was away from the phone for a golf tournament or a dinner party. I didn’t know how to leave a message.
I turn my attention now to Fishy, who stares with his big, depressed eyes at a plastic tree. It’s time to clean the tank.
The tank sloshes as I lug it to the sink. According to Wikihow.com, you’re supposed to leave half the dirty water in the tank each time you clean it. This way, the fish doesn’t feel quite so uprooted, I suppose. I slowly tip the tank while Fishy swims to the bottom, letting the top half of the murky water trickle down the kitchen drain.
A gold flash streams out of the tank and down the black drain. There’s an almost weightless thud and a frantic flapping against the still blades of the disposal.
“Shit!” I have just poured Fishy down the sink. “Jason! Shit! Help!”
Jason runs in, sliding to a halt with socked feet on the linoleum floor. He surveys the scene: an almost empty fishtank with pebbles scattered up its dewey sides, a miniature plastic tree uprooted like a tiny hurricane has ripped right through there, me grasping the cold edges of the kitchen sink and trying to peer down the drain. “What happened?” he asks.
“I was trying to clean the fish tank, and you’re supposed to leave some of the dirty water in there to help them acclimate–” I pointed to half-empty tank, “–and he just went down the drain. He didn’t even hit the sink first, I swear, he just went straight down–”
Jason rushes to the sink. Putting our heads together, we try to see through the rubbery black triangles guarding the drain. I can see a shimmer of Fishy’s golden scales.
Jason tries to shove his hand down the drain and tells me not to panic. When his hand doesn’t fit, I try mine.
“Too big,” Jason says. “There’s gotta be another way.” He opens the junk drawer and sifts through cards, batteries, rubber bands, leftover keys. He pulls out a skinny flashlight and shines a dull circle of light into the drain.
“Hold this and try to keep it steady on the drain,” he tells me, like a doctor handing a scalpel to his nurse. Whenever my dad, a heart surgeon, tried to command my mom to add bread to tonight’s dinner or to use more garlic, she’d reply, “I’m not your scrub nurse, Jerry.” Then she’d add some bread or garlic to the meal with a little smile.
Jason opens up the kitchen drawer next, the one where we keep the long spoons and the rubber spatulas. Breathing heavily, he pulls out a silver serving spoon. “We’ll just slip this right under and scoop him.”
I hold the flashlight steady while the spoon clangs against the outer rim of the disposal. “Too big.” He drops the spoon on the counter and shuffles his hand through the drawer until he pulls out the turkey baster.
“If we can just squeeze his tail in here, we can kind of airlift him out, you know?” He gently inserts the baster while I strain to see the scene I’m spotlighting with the flashlight.
“You’re squishing his tail, Jason. Be careful!” I splash some water down the sink to encourage Fishy to hold on.
Jason, keeping his eyes on the drain, asks, “Would you rather have a dead fish or a fish with no tail?”
I pause. “Neither.”
Jason drops the turkey baster next to the spoon, opening the kitchen drawer that holds the things we never use. He pulls out a black wooden box with a Chinese symbol on it, opening it to reveal two silver chopsticks. Perching the chopsticks between his fingers, he looks like he’s about to eat his orange chicken at the Hunan Lion. Instead, he slides them into the drain.
“I got him!” He slowly draws the chopsticks from the sink. But then his wrist jerks as the chopsticks chime together. “Dammit!” He rests his hand next to mine on the side of the sink. “I almost had him.”
The scene repeats three more times. The chopsticks soon join the spoon and turkey baster and the dark cell phone on the sidelines with me.
I whisper down the drain, “Hold on, Fishy, okay?”
“Hey!” Jason suddenly runs outside to the grill. When he returns, he has a long pair of tongs in his hand.
“Come on, little guy, quit moving,” he murmurs as he maneuvers in the darkness of the drain. With a gasp, he pulls out the tongs, and Fishy is hanging upside down like an overcooked noodle.
We admire him silently for a moment.
I flip on the faucet and stick the hurricane-torn tank under it. Jason releases Fishy, who falls into the fresh water with a soft plunk. He swims to the bottom and stays there, panting and glass-eyed.
I drop in a few flakes to reward him for his bravery, but he stays put. His fins move in shredded, skinny strips, and his scales are dull. The pale flakes clump together at the top.
“Give him some time.” Jason rubs the back of my arm. He traces his fingers along the white counter as he ambles out of the kitchen, looking back a few times not at Fishy, but at me.
I say, “We’ll need to watch him carefully for signs of brain damage.”
Jason, halfway up the stairs, chuckles. “And what exactly would we do if we thought he had brain damage?”
Nothing, I realize. There would be nothing we could do. I couldn’t make him a sling out of Kleenex, or a paper clip retainer. All I could do was watch.
Leaving Fishy to his fate, I take my phone and nestle into the cold leather of our couch, waiting for it to warm against my bare legs. Waiting for someone to call me back. Waiting to hear how far my mom’s cancer has spread, with the terrible lightness of knowing that there is nothing to be done about it.
I remember Stephanie’s fingers carefully fixing my broken dolls, and the thickness of mom’s voice when she could laugh without coughing, the click-clack of her footsteps when she could still wear high heels, the warmth of her left breast when she hugged me goodbye.
Kristin Leclaire is an English teacher in Littleton, Colorado. She recently won the Denver Stories on Stage flash fiction contest, and her nonfiction appeared in Literary Mama last May. One of her essays made the Masters Review shortlist last June and was selected as a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Prize for nonfiction. Two of her essays will appear in print anthologies next fall, and her writing has been featured at readings sponsored by Lighthouse Writers and Making the Mountain in Denver.