Joe Myers killed himself, at least that’s what the police say. His best friend, Steve, believes otherwise but he hasn’t told anyone that, and he never will. When Joe died, he left behind his mother and one lonely fish. Steve took it upon himself to check on the fish but didn’t think about it until days after the funeral. When he remembered the poor thing through the fog of his grief, he scrambled over to Joe’s house. His little sister, Maggie, tagged along. Steve knocked on the front door, and hoped Miss Myers wouldn’t open it yelling, like she always did.
She didn’t. However, her greeting was still indecent. She stood in the door frame in a robe that was too short, old slippers, and her hair in a stringy bun. She was clutching a coffee cup. Steve noticed her knuckles had fading bruises, though he said nothing. Joe always told him to say nothing. Steve shouldn’t have listened, but he was only thirteen and didn’t know better.
“His fish,” is all Steve said.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I forgot ‘bout that fish! Come on in!”
Steve and Maggie did their best to ignore the cluttered floor of pizza boxes, ramen noodle wrappers, bras, and whiskey bottles, as they headed towards the stairs. It wasn’t new to Steve to see the house a mess. It always was. Messy was just the way Miss Myers lived.
Before the siblings headed upstairs, she offered them coffee.
“It’s Irish,” she said. They didn’t know what that meant, but they hastily declined.
“I think I fed him the other day. Can’t remember. Must be hungry, that thing.” She spoke to their backs as they climbed the stairs. Steve nodded but didn’t turn around.
The door to the bedroom was already open, and every light and lamp was on as if Joe was still alive and just in the bathroom. From his visits Steve knew Miss Myers tended to forget to turn off lights, among other things, like feeding her son. She must have been visiting the room at some point, but however long ago her visit upstairs was, Steve didn’t know. At least Joe’s room was clean.
Steve sulked inside, his mood dampening further despite the bright space.
“Bubba,” Maggie said tugging on his sleeve. “Can we hurry? I gotta be home soon to watch CatDog.”
Steve scoffed. “If that’s the case why didn’t ya stay home?”
“I wanted to come with ya,” she said.
He sighed. “Fine. We’ll hurry. The sooner we leave, the better.”
Steve and Maggie walked to Joe’s bedside table and peered inside the square tank sitting there.
“Bubba? I don’t see no fish.”
All they could see through the cloudy water was a barrel house, black rocks with piles of food embedded between the crevices, and a green plastic plant growing tufts of mold. The fish was nowhere to be seen.
“Cover yer nose,” Steve said as he moved to lift the black lid from the tank. The lid had a few holes, one for where a light should have been, and a hole for the cord of the filter that was not plugged into the wall. Each hole had a white web collecting food.
“Ew!” Maggie said, covering her nose a second too late.
“Told ya, Mags.” Steve said putting the lid into the bedside trash bin. “There’s the fish.”
Floating on top of the stagnant water was a skinny red and orange betta fish.
“Why his fins ripped?” Maggie asked.
“Joe once said that’s what happens when a fish gets sick. The thing was probs underfed too.”
“Underfed? But there’s food everywhere!”
“His mother’s doing. She don’t know how to take care of no fish. The thing probably died a week ago. She probably didn’t notice with the lid on.”
“That’s sad,” Maggie said. “Whatcha gonna do with it?”
“Dump the water, flush the fish, toss the tank.”
“Well, hurry, we gotta be home in six minutes!”
“What? It’s a five-minute walk!”
“Yeah, so hurry, bubba. I don’t wanna miss CatDog.”
Steve sighed and picked up the tank. The bathroom across the hall was just as messy as the rest of the house. Open soap bottles were spilling out on their sides, tissues and clothes were all over the floor, and the toilet wasn’t even flushed.
“Gross.” Steve shuddered. He did his best to plug his nose into his shoulder, but the smell was overwhelming. He couldn’t stay any longer. Steve poured the tank down the sink, stopping once the fish flew down the drain. He set the tank on the counter and quickly left the bathroom to retrieve his sister from Joe’s room.
“C’mon, we’re leaving,” he said tugging on her hand.
“Heck, yeah, we gonna make it,” Maggie said.
They clambered downstairs across the piles of clothes and trash. In the living room, Miss Myers was lying across the couch watching a drama, a hot cup of coffee in her hand. Probably Irish.
“How’s the fish?”
“It’s dead.” Steve deadpanned.
“You killed it?” she sat up, sloshing her steaming drink across her lap. “Son of a bitch.”
“No,” Steve said pulling his sister through the front door. “You did.”
“What? Listen here, mister! You come back here. I ain’t do no such thing.”
Steve paid her no mind as him and Maggie walked down the driveway and started their short journey home. Joe’s mother trailed, cussing, but she stopped at the edge of her yard. They didn’t turn around as she continued to curse, not even when they stopped hearing her voice to check if she was still there. At some point Steve and Maggie’s walk turned into a run when Maggie urged Steve to move faster. Her show was starting soon and now she wanted to make popcorn before it began. Steve wondered if they’d have a minute to spare.
Cierra Krause is a senior Creative Writing student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.