It has become a summer tradition to take my boys to the city fair and then regret it afterward. I leave feeling like I need to take a bath in hand sanitizer, and I want those three hours of my life back. Yet, no trip to the fair has been more regrettable than this year’s. That’s when we bought — I mean, won — a shark. Wait, did I say shark? I meant fish.
Lindell’s and Owen’s pingpong balls had landed in a bowl filled with colored water, so the carnival worker told us they had won fish. This, I thought, was at least better than winning a stuffed banana — which we had done previously. After all, we needed new fish because four in our tank had died. The only two left were my betta fish, Aqua, and Dustin’s bottom feeder, Barnacle Boy.
The mustached carnival worker handed Lindell and Owen plastic bags filled with water and one lone fish swimming at the bottom.
“Will these be OK with our betta fish at home?” I said, because I know that betta fish often don’t like to share space. “Will our betta fish hurt them?”
The carnival man smiled. “I wouldn’t worry about these fish,” he said. (In storytelling, this is what we call foreshadowing. In movies, this is where the music gets creepy.)
Owen named his fish Frisky. Lindell named his Fred. One week later, however, Fred’s name, in light of recent events, was changed to Fred the Killer Fish.
Frisky and Fred were excited when we dumped them into the tank. They flitted around the “No Fishing” sign and in and out of the SpongeBob Squarepants pineapple house. As usual, Aqua kept her distance. Barnacle boy hid under the tikki. As far as we could tell, they were a tolerable, if cautious, new family of four.
Then, a few days later, Owen came out of his room and solemnly said, “Mom, a fish has died.”
Ford was close behind him: “Mom, a fish didn’t just die; there was a massacre in the tank.”
“Oh, stop being dramatic,” I said. I set the newspaper on the kitchen table and got up to take a look.
When I rounded the corner and came within full view of the tank, here’s what I saw: Frisky caught in the upward bubbles of the filter, bobbing up and down, with his tail fin chewed completely off and one eyeball gone. Bits of skin trailed from him like streamers.
I gasped. Lindell cried, “Mommy, I’m scared.”
I patted Lindell’s head as the words of the man at the carnival echoed in my mind: “I wouldn’t worry about these fish.”
We flushed Frisky and scolded Aqua. Wow, betta fish really are aggressive, we said. We should have known that Aqua wouldn’t accept the new, innocent carnie fish.
One week later, terror struck again.
“Mom, Aqua is dead!” Lindell screamed.
“It’s another massacre,” Ford said. They were both running from the room.
I sprinted to the tank, my sock-feet sliding across the wood floor as I came to a stop. Aqua’s head was half buried beneath the gravel rocks. Parts of her skin had been peeled away. You could see the bones in her head.
My cheeks turned cold. “Boys, we have a killer fish on our hands,” I said.
Lindell began to cry.
“We have to kill him before he kills us,” Ford said.
“What? Did they give us, a shark?” Owen asked.
Silently, I regretted blaming Aqua for Frisky’s death. In the tank, Fred glided from one end of the tank to the other. He was deliberate and emotionless. I knew the scene looked bad, but still, someone had to stay open-minded. I mean, Fred was from the carnival, but that didn’t necessarily make him a murderer.
“How do we know it isn’t Barnacle Boy who is killing everyone?” I asked.
“Mom, look at Barnacle Boy,” Ford said. “He eats algae and sucks on the side of the glass. He didn’t murder anyone.”
It’s true. Barnacle Boy hardly looks like a menace with his open-mouthed fish-face stuck to the side of the tank.
Ford looked at me seriously. “Mom, we have to kill Fred,” he said.
“No!” I bristled at the idea, even as I secretly considered locking the aquarium in the basement — just in case. “I’m not killing a possibly innocent fish. Either Barnacle Boy and Fred will live peacefully together, or we will eventually know who the real killer is.”
We have daily “tank watches” now. Some of us think Fred is growing bigger by the minute. Others think Barnacle Boy is not what he seems. When I told the boys that one day, while I had the tank cover open to feed the fish, I heard Barnacle Boy say, “You’re not going to leave me in here with that carnie, are you?” they believed me.
In hindsight, when I asked the carnival man, “Will these fish be OK with our beta at home?” apparently I had asked the wrong question. I’m frightened for anyone who won a “stuffed” clown or baby doll. Lock those things in the basement, please.
Fred is still living. So is Barnacle Boy. For now. Occasionally Lindell comes into my room at night because he’s afraid of Fred. I open the covers and let him in, because, quite frankly, I don’t blame him.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.