Thursday, January 10, 2013

Prompt: Fish

Brian woke and bolted upright, fighting to breathe. He made himself lie back and stretch into savasana, relaxing into the calm shallow breaths that Toby had taught him. As soon as he stopped struggling, his lungs cooperated. He imagined Toby rubbing his chest and coaxing him in her low, soft voice. “You can do it, Brian. Accept and relax into it. You can do it. Breathe in through your nose, slowly. One, two, three. That’s it. Breathe out through your mouth. One, two three.”

Once his body relaxed and he could breathe again, he rolled onto his side.  He knew his mother would be counting down before coming into his room, so he spoke into the monitor, “I’m okay, Mom. Go back to sleep.”

He opened his eyes and whispered, “Hey there, Bonnie Blue. Thanks for keeping me company,” he said to the betta floating in the small tank on his bedside table. He looked down his nose to the large tank along the door wall. The lights were all on dim mode, and he could see everyone was resting, some motionless, some idly waving their fins. He liked to sleep with a little light in the room for nights like this when he woke. He wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep for awhile. His body may have calmed, but his brain was still on alert, and it took longer to reassure himself that he really was okay again. For now.

The fish helped. He loved to watch them. Bonnie Blue was his fifth betta. The first had been an orange half moon male with yellow and red streaks and a temper to match. Toby gave it to him for his sixth birthday. Brian named him Fireball and started searching the internet for information on bettas. He soon convinced his mother that the half-gallon tank was too small. “Look here, Mom. It says that for a betta, that would be like a human living in their car. Or, maybe, stuck in the house all the time?” He hadn’t meant to hurt her. When he saw her flinch, he spun around in his chair and hugged her around the hips. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it.”

She ruffled his hair and said, “No, Brian, you’re right. Let’s look online, and you can choose a new tank for him.” Soon, Brian knew all the best sources for food, equipment, decorations, and information. By Christmas, he wrote a careful list for Santa to setup his first saltwater aquarium. He spent Christmas Day setting up his new 30 gallon tank and searching his favorite sites for the best fish to populate it.

For his 8th birthday, Brian got a 75-gallon tank. And a surprise trip to the ER. After he was stabilized, the doctor told him no more blowing out candles. An expert at listening to conversations he wasn’t supposed to hear, Brian heard the doctor talk with his mother right outside his door. “Ms. Jackson, we need to keep Brian inside, like we talked about. And we’re going to have to consider how much exposure he can have to anyone outside the family. You might want to reconsider the special group home we discussed.”

Brian held his breath. His mother didn’t even hesitate. “No, Doctor. Thank you. We’ll do what we need to do in our own home.” Brian wished Toby’s college weren’t so far away. He imagined her sitting next to the hospital bed, rubbing his chest and patiently counting breaths for him over and over until he fell asleep.

Brian poured all of his energy and interest into his fish. He setup the saltwater tank and soon had a steady supply of materials and fish from his top two or three favorite websites. He spent hours researching on the internet, not only about the fish for his tank, but in the wild as well.

When he got a new computer tablet for his 9th birthday, he started a blog, Fish Tales. He researched and wrote about endangered species, invasive species, popular fishing industry and sport fishing species, and of course, the common household tank species. He learned geography, ecology, biology, economics, and politics.

Through the internet, he contacted researchers, breeders, sport fishers, and other fish enthusiasts. Soon he was part of a thriving virtual community, and with all of his time and effort devoted to his favorite topic, he was becoming well known within that community as an expert in his own right.

Brian’s lungs gave out shortly before his 14th birthday. After ten weeks on machines, his mother and sister held his hand while the doctors and nurses solemnly shut down the machines one by one. Toby rubbed his chest and it seemed to calm him through those last agonizing breaths. His mother told him over and over how much she loved him. And she promised to take care of all the fish in his tanks for as long as they lived. She didn’t cry until the doctor looked at his watch and nodded to the nurse. They left the room and quietly closed the door so she and Toby could say goodbye.

Despite her promise, it was Toby who fed and cared for the fish in the next few weeks. Finally, Toby had to return to grad school, and she had to brave Brian’s room on her own. She stood in the door and looked around, really looked, for the first time in a long time. Brian had kept every tank he ever received in use. The small gallon tank that had held Bonnie Blue was a nursery tank. The very first half-gallon tank was an introduction chamber that he used to acclimate new fish into the larger tanks before they were released into the general population. He had a couple of five- and ten-gallon tanks separated into semi-private betta chambers. The 30-gallon and 75-gallon were now freshwater tanks. His last project was the floor-to-ceiling cylinder saltwater tank that filled the corner by his window.

Through the soft hum of aquarium equipment, she heard a steady chiming. She cocked her head and followed it to the computer. Touching the mouse brought the screen to life. It was open to Fish Tales. Each chime was a comment. They scrolled down the screen in a steady flow. She could barely catch occasional words and phrases.

“You’ll be missed, Bud.”
“Good fishing on the open waters, Bri.”
 “Brian, thanks, your advice saved my tank!”
“I miss our late night chats, Brian. Love from Down Under”
 “So long, Brian, and thanks for all the fish!”
“Godspeed, mate”
“…so sad to hear that Brian is gone…”

Brian lived his entire life in this room, but he’d lived larger than she could have dreamed. He had friends around the world. They had loved him, and they would remember him, keep his memory and knowledge alive in their own tanks, with their own fish.

She sat down in front of the computer and read through the comments for a long time. Finally, she found the empty box to type. “Hello. This is Brian’s mother. I need your help. How do I take care of all these fish?”

Dogs in house:

January word count:


  1. Wow, thanks for the heartbreak, Margaret. ;_;

    1. Mission accomplished, then :/
      I know, the middle part wasn't easy.
      But please tell me you smiled at the Douglas Adams reference! And I'm rather fond of the ending.