The annual Saint Joseph Church carnival was winding down. It had been three and nine-tenths days of fun, but on Sunday evening, eleven-year-old Thomas Leary was running out of time. In between boarding a slew of nausea-inducing rides and devouring funnel cake the size of Frisbees, it was time to win something other than another stuffed animal.
Thomas wanted to win a goldfish, but not just any goldfish. There was one in particular that had eluded both Thomas and all the other rambunctious children for nearly four days. Centered amongst all the traditional looking goldfish was a peculiar-looking one. It was not only the largest, but also the only one that was silver. It had tinges of green and red on its belly and black streaked on its paper-thin fins.
All of the glass fish bowls appeared to be the same size; ten rows of ten, and all neatly lined up. They were stationed on a sheet of plywood, propped up a foot off the ground with the use of beat up plastic milk crates. Yet for some reason, no one had won the peculiar looking fish. Maybe the mouth of the fish bowl in question was narrower than all the others. Maybe all those children were just plain unlucky – or maybe they were lucky.
The carnie man working the goldfish booth stood just a notch over five-foot-six. He was slender, grubby, and had two missing front teeth. He sported a red Mack Truck baseball cap complete with bulldog logo. The rest of his visibly dirty blond hair sprouted out in all directions like oily hay. His blue jeans and olive-green colored t-shirt had an assortment of stains, mostly grease from maintaining the hodgepodge collection of carnival rides. Young Thomas approached the man, knowing it was now or never.
“You want that fish pretty badly, don’t ya kid,” smirked the carnie man, proudly flashing that open-gapped smile a la Leon Spinks. “You ain’t the only one wanting to win it; I’ve made a killin’ these last couple of days – see?” The man held up a wad of dollar bills stacked high like a New York deli sandwich. He pointed his unkempt face at the boy, with breath so bad it made Thomas’s eyes water.
The young boy stared at the fish; the visor of his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap tilted down to conceal his face. He wasn’t keen on making eye contact with the creepy man.
“You gonna give it one more try, son?” the man inquired, knowing the boy had been there a bunch of times before already. “I’m closing up shop in fifteen minutes so you better make it quick.”
Thomas studied the fish intently. He paused, and then reached into his back pocket for his navy blue wallet sporting images of sharks, a gift he bought himself from Sea World two years ago. He pulled it apart. The tearing sound of Velcro made the carnie man cringe.
“God I hate that sound!”
“Sorry sir,” said Thomas, thinking it was rather odd that a man working on noisy machinery and listening to blistering loud rock music all day and night would mind the slight tearing sound of Velcro.
“How much you got, son?” the man asked impatiently, watching the boy dig around for cash. “Come on kid, I got a line of people here.”
Thomas turned around but didn’t see anybody. He pushed the bill of his cap upward, “It looks like I’m it.”
“I guess so,” he answered quickly with a smirk. The man was itching to amscray.
“And if you want my last dollar, you shouldn’t be so pushy,” Thomas added. The man gave Thomas a glaring look, not appreciating his smart-aleck remark. He’d had his fill of bratty kids the last few days.
“Okay, okay, kid, sorry. It’s just that we’re ready to close and I could really use a cold beer.” And a shower, Thomas thought to himself. The boy pulled out a crisp, folded up dollar bill tightly hidden in a small crevice of his prized wallet.
“Alright, tell you what -- you get three throws for a buck, but since you’re my last customer, I’ll give you six.” The man thought he was being extremely generous, considering how much annoyance he had endured these last four days. He loathed kids.
At least the weather hadn’t been so bad, he thought, but tonight was looking like a different story. The man’s occupation, with its long hours, cramped living conditions, and constant traveling, was demanding, but the salary was better than decent for a man with a tenth-grade education. Best of all, payday was conveniently done ‘under the table.’
“I’ll only need three this time,” replied the determined boy, blocking out the ten dollars he’d already spent the past two-plus days. “I’m gonna win it this time.”
A rumble of thunder reverberated over the carnival grounds; a light drizzle of rain began falling. “Better hurry up, it’s do or die,” the carnie man remarked, eyeing the menacing charcoal gray skies. A sudden display of lightning etched out over the clouds like flowing lava.
Thomas blocked it all out, instead focusing on the disco-ball looking fish remaining stationary in its bowl. The boy licked his lips and stretched out his arm, trying to get as close as possible to the target. He clutched the yellow ping-pong ball in his right hand and tossed it underhand. It clanked off the back part of the bowl, rising high before falling off to the side and onto the ground.
“One down, two to go,” the man said, impatiently. Another bolt of lightning pierced the sky; thunder following. Thomas aimed again, this time overhand style. He took in a deep breath and squinted his eyes like he was facing a batter in the World Series. The second throw clinked off the front of the bowl, coming up way short. Thomas slumped his narrow shoulders. “Rats.”
“You choked on that one kid,” said the carnie man. “Stay focused, one more time; you can do it.” Thomas turned around thinking the carnie was starting to sound like his little league baseball coach.
“Thomas, where are you?” called out his mother, holding her seven-year-old daughter’s hand and an ice cream cone in the other, her purse sliding down her arm in annoyance. She was exhausted.
“Just one more chance mom; I’m gonna win that cool-looking fish.
“We’ve got to go now,” she exclaimed, struggling with her always-effervescent daughter, Fiona. “In fact I have to go now!”
You said I could have a pet, right?” asked Thomas, more determined than ever. The mother of two was worn out, having spent four straight days volunteering at the carnival, a big fundraiser for the church and Catholic school, where Mrs. Leary was also the art teacher.
“Thomas, I’ve spent thirty hours with you and your sister here, not to mention at your grade’s game booth. It’s time to go!” Mrs. Leary was certain her husband planned his business trip this weekend on purpose.
“Just one more throw, mom; I’ll get it this time!” replied her son.
“While we’re young, kid!” said the irked carnie, sneering, already packing up his gear. The man handed Thomas the last ball. The boy took off his baseball cap, handing it to his sister, who put it on, slightly tilted. He stretched out his arms, blew on his right hand and took aim.
“Alright fishy, this is it,” said Thomas, glaring at the target. The fish remained still, staring at the boy. It winked and offered up a subtle grin. The boy straightened up, taken aback. He paused for a moment. Did he really just see a fish smile? That would be weird he thought. He began to second-guess himself, wondering if he should even try to win the fish now.
The fish pressed its nose against the round bowl, observing the closely. “That’s so cute, mommy,” said Fiona, tugging on her coat sleeve. “The fishy is smiling at me!”
“Fish don’t smile, Fiona,” said her mom quickly, wanting to leave ASAP.
“Oh this one does ma’am; it’s quite special,” the carnie man said emphatically.
“Fish smiling? Please,” she huffed. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I said this one does,” he replied, as he brandished his bold, toothless gap.
“You need to win this fish, boy,” the carnie said, emphasizing the word, y-o-u.
Thomas tossed the ball just as a bolt of lightning nearly struck the church. The ping-pong ball hovered ever so briefly before descending. It bounced straight up from the back edge of the glass bowl. The ball came down, hitting the front end, flying up a few inches before dropping straight into the targeted bowl. A winner!
“I got it mommy, I won the fish!” screamed Thomas.
“Hurray for Thomas,” screeched Fiona. “Now we have a pet!”
“You mean I have a pet,” answered Thomas, proudly.
“Yippee to all of you,” said the carnie, prying open his blue and white cooler and popping open an ice cold bottle of Budweiser. “Salud kiddo, as they say in Spanish. And here you go little girl, a fish for you too.” The carnie man handed the girl a small goldfish in a bag and placed it inside a fishbowl.
“What do you say Fiona,” said Mom.
“Thank you, mister.”
“Just my way of saying thank you for all your money,” chimed the carnie man. “But seriously, it’s time to go folks so I can enjoy my adult beverage in peace.”
The carnie man handed a bag with the big goldfish to Thomas. The boy held it up. The fish stared directly at him. The carnie man scurried around, already collecting empty fishbowls and placing them in a big box.
“This goldfish looks like it has teeth,” said Thomas, surprised.
“What kid?” he asked, hearing only part of what the boy was asking. He dropped one of the glass bowls, breaking it then accidently knocked over his beer. “Oh, for the freaking poop! That was my last cold beer.” He picked it up and drank the rest, savoring every ounce before belching.
“We feel your pain,” said Mrs. Leary, eager to leave. “Thank you again for the extra goldfish.” Mom and daughter started walking away.
“No problemo,” said the carnie man, who suddenly reached out and latched on to the boy’s arm.
“Son, you let me know if that fish gives you a hard time, alrighty?” He looked at the boy straight in the eyes with a patented Cheshire cat grin before letting go.
Thomas stood like a statue, sensing a chill migrating up his spine. “Uh . . . okay.” He caught up to his family, glancing back only to see the carnie man polishing off another beer.
The rain was coming down harder as the family trekked through the empty parking. The winds were blowing harder and more lightning painted the blackened sky.
“Hurry up kids,” yelled mommy. She fumbled for her keys and pressed the button for the sliding door to open on their minivan. Everyone piled in. The fish kept looking at Thomas no matter how he turned the clear, water-filled bag.
Fiona was spinning her bag around and around. “Mommy, do fish get sea sick?” Mrs. Leary rested her head on the steering wheel and sighed.
It was nearing eleven at night; the kids had already changed into their pajamas and brushed their teeth.
“Bedtime guys,” said Mom, getting into bed herself and finding a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone planted on her pillow. Thomas had been bugging her mom for weeks to read it.
Thomas placed the fishbowl on his dresser, next to his bunk bed. An occasional lightning strike spotlighted the fish, now angled upward at the young boy. Thomas, resting on his side, looked down at the fish, observing it. He took out a mini flashlight he stashed under his pillow when he wanted to read late at night and shone it on the fish. It suddenly popped its head out of the water. Thomas had a weird feeling about his new pet.
It was near midnight; everyone was asleep. Thomas had left the flashlight on, still pointed at the fishbowl. The gentle beam began to fade. The fish fluttered its fins and moved to the center of the bowl. It blinked. The circular eyes turned completely black as tiny triangular teeth sprouted up on the upper and lower jaw. The fish sped around and around as the water level in the bowl began to rise, spilling over the edge. The fish swam faster and faster. More water gurgled from the glass bowl like an overflowing sink.
An hour later, the bedroom floor was covered in water, over a foot and filling up quickly. The bedroom door was shut tight, not a drop leaking out. The storm was going nowhere, rain coming down in sheets and lightning illuminating the night sky like lines on a map. More bellowing thunder followed. The bowl floated aimlessly like a lost ship.
It was nearing two in the morning; the water now covered the lower bunk bed completely. A gentle splash almost woke up Thomas, who turned to the other side of his bed facing the wall. A blue stuffed animal shark he’d won two days earlier fell into the water, barely causing a ripple. It rested on the surface momentarily when something pulled it under. An hour later, the water was halfway up the ladder leading to the second level bunk bed.
A crack of thunder made the boy lift his head, turning towards the window. Before sinking back into his down pillow, Thomas noticed the fishbowl almost at eye level, floating. “What the . . .?”
Thomas jumped to his knees on his bed, terrified. He searched for the flashlight now lodged somewhere under his blanket. He picked it up, shining the weak beam of light around his water-filled room. He heard movement coming from the front part of his bed facing the door. He picked up his pillow, brandishing it like a shield, and peered just over the top. To his right, Thomas noticed the stuffed animal shark half-submerged in the water, shredded in half. He continued to inch closer to the front of the bed, still unable to see anything.
Another gentle splash. The boy paused, reaching back instead and tossed a stuffed animal seal into the water, wondering what would happen next. Silence. The water abruptly kicked up and the stuffed animal’s head appeared in front of him. He shined the flashlight at the seal when a grotesque head followed. The stuffed animal was lodged in its mouth.
Thomas tried to scream, but was nearly paralyzed with fright. He gulped, unable to take his eyes off the hideous mouth. Whatever it was, Thomas wasn’t about to let it shred another of his stuffed animals. He lunged for the seal, snatching it right from the thing’s mouth before whacking it with the pillow, sending it back into the water.
Thomas jumped back to the other end of his bed, trying to make out where the thing was. He aimed the flashlight in every direction. There, at the other end of his bedroom, Thomas spotted a longish, spiky dorsal fin protruding from the water. The right pectoral fin, colored in tattered streaks of black, lifted from the water. It plopped a small object on top of the fish, unveiling a small grease-stained hat, the words Mack Truck standing out in bold black letters. The bulbous head poked out of the water; the evil fish grinning at the boy. The front two teeth were missing.
“You shoulda picked another fish boy!” the voice lashed out, laughing like a mad man. “It’s dinnertime baby!” Thomas recoiled in horror.
“I hate kids, boy, especially ones that where red baseball caps, haaaaaa.” The fish zeroed in towards the bunk bed. Thomas leaned against the wall pulling up a corner of the twin mattress for protection. The hideous fish looked like one part grouper, one part carnie. The fish was over five feet long, hued in silver with green and red markings, and blotched with grease stains. It barreled out of the water, smacking right into the mattress, gnashing its dirty gray teeth. Thomas pushed back as the snapping jaws lunged closer.
“Mom!” Thomas screamed out weakly, his eyes frantically searching his room for protection.
“You’re toast kid, and I like mine topped with humans!” Thomas noticed his baseball bat floating in the water. He pushed back the fish and reached for the thirty-inch Louisville slugger, grasping it in his wet hands.
“Alright Mr. Carnie fish, come and get me!” roared Thomas, one of the best hitters on his little league team. The fish pounced again, only to be met with the wielding bat.
“Oh for the freaking poop!” screamed the carnie fish. “You little punk; now you’re dead meat!”
Thomas noticed the water spilling over his mattress. Preparing for another attack, he glanced at the window and had an idea. If he could get rid of the water, the fish would be helpless, and would earn a much-deserved pounding. Thomas shifted to the window next to his bed. He pulled up the blind, and started smashing away, the top windows first then as the water receded, the lower ones. The water poured out like a crumbling dam.
The fish attacked again, this time having to jump up a bit to reach the boy. Thomas was ready, christening the ugly fish’s head with a powerful whack.
“You son of a rat; I’ll kill you!” yelled the carnie fish, now boiling mad. The ugly fish shook its aching head. Thomas broke more windows. The water gushed out profusely.
“What’s going on in there Thomas?” asked his mom, awakened by the sound of breaking glass, “I can’t open the door!”
“Everything’s under control mom,” said Thomas, raising his tween-age voice. He climbed down the ladder to pummel the carnie fish into submission. The water began to recede quickly, now only a couple of feet deep in his room.
“You snot-nosed rat,” the hideous fish bellowed, snapping its repulsive jaws at Thomas, determined to gobble up the boy. “The carnie fish always triumphs! The eleven-year-old rolled his eyes and smacked the fish again.
The rest of the water started retracting back into the glass fishbowl, swallowing it up. Soon, only the damp carpeting remained. The fish thrashed about helplessly.
Thomas raised the bat again but noticed the fish was shrinking, smaller and smaller. “What the heck?”
“This ain’t over kid,” screeched the carnie fish, flailing away with its fins on the blue carpeted floor.
The carnie’s voice rose higher and higher as if he’d inhaled helium. The crazed fish kept shrinking, now no bigger than a Snicker’s bar. Thomas scooped it up like a hot grounder with his Rawlings glove and dumped it back into the glass bowl. The angry fish emitted a string of curse words underwater as a slew of bubbles perched the surface.
“Are you alright? Thomas?” his mom cried out, pounding on the door. She finally stormed inside, able to push it open. She noticed her son standing in the middle of his room, holding the fish bowl in one hand and the baseball bat resting on the opposite shoulder.
Thomas exhaled. “I’m okay; everything’s fine.”
“What’s going on?” Mom asked, soon realizing she was standing barefoot on the soaked carpeting. “Ugh, what happened here?"
“It’s a kind of a weird story,” said Thomas. He walked out of his room and headed for the bathroom, whistling.
“Are you feeling okay?” asked Mom, calling down the hallway. “What are you doing with your fish?”
“I just need to use the bathroom real quick,” her son replied, grinning to himself. Thirty seconds later . . . flush. Thomas returned to his bedroom with the empty fish bowl.
“Where’s your fish?” Mom asked.
Thomas turned around. “Oh, he had to go too.” By the way, you may want to check on Fiona.”