Nothing changes in the big tank, so I do another lap in my little tank. It could be my ten-thousandth. I’ve only been here two days and I’m already going out of my fucking mind.
I miss you, Veronique.
Something flashes on the front of the big tank, like they’ve arranged electric eels in a pattern and trained them to flick on at once. Veronique said it was garish. Now it reminds me of her.
At the sharp sound, I glide to a stop. My face nearly touches the glass. The big tank opens and a guy walks in. He’s different from everyone else in the room. Dark as a black molly on top, matching bottom, with a crayfish-red strip hanging from his neck. New subspecies? Maybe that’s why he’s alone. The rest of the people are already seated in small schools around the wooden stumps they call “tables.”
The lady comes over and smiles at the guy. “Welcome to Saigon Kitchen.” Her voice is a soothing current of warm water.
He smiles back. I’ve seen this. It’s a little like the way Veronique and I ogled each other, just yesterday. Before they took her.
So I made a mistake. ONE FUCKING AWFUL MISTAKE. Famished after a brisk swim, I spotted the grasshopper dangling in the water. YOLO, I thought, forgetting that bugs either float on top or sink to the lake bed. Got my mouth around that perfect morsel and…
Agony! Something unseen ripped through the roof of my mouth, jerking me through the water. Trying not to black out, I fought, but the thing tugged me inexorably upward. Exhausted, I was hauled out of the water and dropped into a tiny grotto on top of a boat. By nightfall, I found myself in this tank with the fake kelp.
And Veronique. Despite the pain, the shock of being abducted, I couldn’t believe my luck. Those golden scales of hers, the feathery gills. The way she sashayed from head to tail.
We gently blew cool water into each other’s mouths to sooth our pain. Together, we were healing. We even talked about laying eggs in the kelp thicket.
The lady walks the new guy to the small table in front of my tank. He stops to study me with those hideous human eyes, so prominent on the front of his face. How do people see anything coming from the side, let alone from behind? I dart behind the kelp. Finally he sits and turns toward the lady. She hands him a sheet. I come out to watch.
Like the rest of them, he looks over the sheet. Seems really interested. It’s got some black marks on it, but I can’t see from here and don’t really get it. To me, the eels on the front of the big tank are a lot more eye catching.
Good. He’s looking at the inside, not the back. The woman who stole Veronique—my Veronique—looked at the back. The guy in black mouths something to himself. It looks like he’s saying ‘foe.’ Maybe humans have predators too? I hope so.
He waves to the lady and she comes over. I have to admit, she’s not bad as people go. The long black gills above her eyes are gorgeous. If only her arms were fins and her legs a tail.
If only I’d ignored that grasshopper.
He folds the sheet and sets it down on the table.
“You decide?” That voice again. I always listen for it—helps to pass the time since I lost Veronique.
“Ye . . . No, wait.” Oh shit! He notices the back of the sheet. “What’s this ‘Carpe Diem’?”
She smiles sweetly. “Oh, is special fish. Not for you, I think.”
Yes, I love you! Give him that ‘foe’ thing. I’m hiding under the fake coral reef now, though I can see through an arch.
“But I love fish. Why don’t you think it’s for me?”
She looks around the big tank. The smile is gone from her face. Then she leans a little closer to the guy. “It’s for people who like adventure. Could be good, could be bad. You like adventure?”
He looks at her face for a long while, then goes over her body, especially the legs that should be a tail. Even across species, I recognize the look. The way I used to check out Veronique. I see this lump move up and down in his throat. Did he already eat something when I was hiding?
“Yeah, I’m a risk taker,” he answers. One of his eyes closes and opens quickly. Must be a speck of sand. “YOLO,” he adds with a laugh.
The lady’s smile returns. “Okay, you got it.” I still like her voice, but it’s not that soothing now. Deeper, like a largemouth bass.
She walks over to a cave at the rear of the big tank where a man in white stands with something in his hand. Something shiny, sharp and scary. They exchange a few words. She glances at the guy at the table. The man in white looks my way.
He steps out of his cave. He’s coming toward me, just he like he came for Veronique! He’s standing by my tank.
Get the hell away from me!
I dive under the coral reef. I see a hand reach from behind. He grabs for my tail and I swim like my life depends on it. I turn around and see one of his fat fingers caught on the reef. I lunge forward and sink my teeth into it. The hand disappears from the water.
“Shit!” the guy yells and I look up to see him sucking his finger. His face is truly frightening—an alligator sniffing blood. This time the hand goes back in the water and pushes me away from the reef. I head for the kelp forest, but just as I’m about to make it, I’m caught.
I’m lifted out of the water. I can’t breathe. Help me, Veronique!
I think I’m dead. The guy in white throws me into a shell as shiny as the spike in his hand. He adds some kind of seaweed, white sand and some funky water from a bottle. I feel a little better after he pours from the bottle. More relaxed, no pain.
Until I notice it’s getting warmer. Not just warm, but hot. Every scale screams pain. I black out, welcoming death, ready to join Veronique.
I come to, finding myself on a bed of seaweed in a pure white shell with barely enough liquid to cover one gill. The cute lady takes me over to the table, setting me in front of the man in black. “Not too late to change mind,” she says.
He shakes his head. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Besides, it looks fabulous.” Of course you dumb shit, I’ve always looked fabulous! Best looking in my school.
“Care to join me?” he asks the lady, putting out a hand. I can just hear him.
She looks around the room, then leans closer to the guy. “Maybe later.” I never saw her join the other people. I don’t know why she’d hang out with him. Her face turns red, probably some kind of defensive or mating reaction.
He picks up a couple of sharp shiny things, one in each hand. I’ve seen them before, in the hands of the woman who dismembered Veronique.
With what’s left of my strength, I bury my head in the seaweed. I must be dead—but I have thoughts and sensations. A nightmare?
I tremble while I wait to be gored. When nothing happens, I lift my head in time to see the shiny things clatter on the table. The guy’s hands are a few inches in the air. His mouth is open and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. On the whole, a more attractive look than before.
The lady comes over. “Something wrong?”
“The . . . the . . . fish. It m . . . m . . . moved!”
“Oh, yes. Is special dish. Chef has way to keep super fresh. You like?”
The guy looks at her, then at me, his mouth still open. He’s waiting for me to do something. I figure he’s less likely to eat me if I bond with him, so I try to match his expression. I open my mouth and make my eyes bulge a little more than normal. It takes all my concentration, but it’s a universal sign of friendship.
The creep rebuffs me in the rudest possible way. First a roar from his mouth that sends rough vibrations up and down my body. Next he jumps to his feet (almost knocking over the lady) and runs out the front of the big tank. A few steps out the door, a huge creature, shiny like the things the guy dropped on the table, strikes him with enough force to send him flying out of view.
The lady gasps and covers her mouth with a hand. She looks at me, moving her head from side to side. “Bad choice.” Her shoulders go up and down.
I move my pectoral fins up and down. I too know about choice and consequences, love and loss.
Everything in the big tank becomes murky, as if a strong current has scattered sand everywhere. I can’t feel anything. I see a shape where the lady was, unsure whether she has legs or a tail.
Veronique, is that you?
Jeremy Gluck holds a B.A. in Literature from U.C. Berkeley and a more practical Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford. After a career on the Dark (Financial) Side, he has returned to his first love. He lives in Northern California and enjoys a variety of fish.