Call me Fishmeal.
A fitting name, since that’s what we are now. Every last one of us. The ones that are left, anyway. The ones who survived this long, just to see their last shot at freedom ripped away. Locked away from them using a large plastic bowl. A big, horrible bowl. A bowl that was truly one of our own making. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself, maybe none of that makes sense to you. Not yet. Let me start from the beginning. It all started with
One Pissed Fish
I was shopping at the local grocery store. It was one of those large, warehouse type set ups. The kind where you had to walk about three minutes to get to the back, to the frozen section. As you stepped into that area, the temperature around you noticeably dropped. It was like stepping from day into night.
I turned left down the third cold aisle, making my way to the bulk meats. I passed hunks of beef and hanks of turkey. I was looking for ham at the time, but something made me slow my pace as I passed the fish section. A slight shiver ran down my spine. I guess that my subconscious picked up on it before my eyes did, but soon enough I sensed a small movement coming from one of the icy displays. I peered into it and saw something unexpected.
It was a fish.
A different kind of fish, I should clarify. Of course you’d expect to see a fish there. But this one was different. This one was fresher. This one…it was still moving.
Miserable beady eyes, large and the color of pitch, stared out at me from beneath a foggy plastic. The eyes looked around until they made contact with me. Its circular mouth gaped as its tail wagged weakly, trying hard to flop its way to freedom. The mouth seemed to be forming words, yet its quiet cries were too low to be detected by my human ears. The effort of those words fogged up the plastic wrap that it was mummified with.
I felt sick. I wanted to heave my guts out right there in the store, but I held it back. I bent over, gripping the edge of the display with both hands, leaning closer to the ice and the breeze from the tiny air vents that outlined the bins. Being a bit closer, a bit lower, I found that I was able to hear its words, although still just barely.
The fish said, “Help me.”
The fish said, “Please.”
The fish begged, “Help me.”
His wretched cries had made me freeze.
I caught my breath and looked around, seeing if anyone else had noticed the hideous scene. Nobody else did. It was the middle of the day, there were few people here at all. I remembered that was the reason why I always shopped at this time.
I don’t know why I did it, it just felt like instinct. It felt like the right thing to do. I abandoned my cart and I picked up the fish, quickly tucking it into my overcoat pocket. I could feel its chilly tail slump against my leg in a steady rhythm. A metronome, one that was covered in scales and currently suffocating.
I fled from the store, pulling out my cell phone and acting like I was on a call. I started talking about some emergency at home, hoping that security wouldn’t look at me as I left. Hoped they wouldn’t notice that I was sweating. That my pocket was moving.
Luck was on my side, as the seventy five year old woman at the door told me to have a nice day, which was actually rude because I was clearly on the phone, but I let the matter slide. Once I was safely out in the parking lot, I put away my phone and then hauled ass to my car. As soon as my door was shut, I quickly emptied the purloined payload from my coat pocket.
I set the fish down on my passenger seat and then buckled it in for safety. I then used a pen to poke a hole in the plastic packaging. I leaned closer, hearing its harsh gasping.
“Water,” it pled dryly.
I nodded and then squinted to read the words printed on the label. It said that the fish was a sockeye salmon. “Fresh water or salt water? I don’t remember which one salmon comes from.” I reversed out of my parking spot and started towards the highway.
“I’m potamodromous,” it wheezed. I swear I heard this next part but maybe I only imagined it. I thought that I heard it add beneath its gasping breath, “moron.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said, the admittance causing a reddening in my cheeks that almost matched the color on the side of the fish’s throat.
Although the fish was frequently gasping for air, one of the gasps sounded more like an annoyed sigh. “Fresh water,” the fish said. I nodded and then straightened up, concentrating on the road to hide my embarrassment and vexation. “And I’m not a salmon,” the fish corrected me in a smug but suffering voice. “I’m a rainbow trout.”
“Sorry,” I told him. I felt the need to explain myself further. “It said sockeye salmon on the label.” The fish rolled its eyes. I chose to believe that it did so only because it was running out of air.
“Who are you going to believe?” The fish asked me in sarcastic gulps. Beneath its breath, I thought I heard it add, “idiot.”
I drove to the closest fresh water source I could think of. I pulled into the gravel lot at the front of Winklepicker Park. I unfastened the fish’s seatbelt and picked it up. I ran quickly down a short winding path and soon found myself nearly at the edge of Winklepicker Pond.
As I struggled with some of the plastic packaging, the stare of the fish turned into a glare. Its mouth was forming more words that it muttered too quietly for me to hear. I think that may have been intentional, as I read a lot of Fs and Bs on its cold circular mouth. At last I had it free and I clutched it clumsily, accidentally dropping it to the ground one time before I got it into the pond successfully. When I had dropped it, I could have sworn that I heard it call me a dumbass.
The fish flopped in sporadic spasms on the surface of the pond, splashing some dirty pond water into my mouth. Once it was acclimated to the change in environment, it turned to look up at me from the water.
This morning, I didn’t know that fish could talk. This moment, I was expecting a thank you from one. And, in a way, I suppose I got one.
“Thanks for dropping me back there, butterfingers,” it said with a tone that implied I needed to apologize to it. I was flummoxed to say the least, agitated to say the most. I felt like I was owed at least a simple thank you for saving its life.
“Is that really all you have to say to me?” I asked incredulously. If a fish could shrug, this one would have done it. After a moment of silent contemplation, it cocked its head to the side, considering me. “Actually, I do have something to say to you.” The fish dipped below the surface a moment, popping back up and spitting a mouthful of water at me. It soaked my right sock. “I lied to you. I’m not a rainbow trout. I’m a cutthroat trout.” The purple gills on the side of its red neck formed together into a Glasgow smile.
“I don’t know the difference. I thought you were a salmon about five minutes ago.” I reminded him.
“You’ll find out,” was all the fish gave me in the way of an explanation. As it swam away, I clearly heard it call me a bozo.
I slowly picked up my things and I returned to my car in a funk and a fog. My mind was trying to make sense of the days events and it wasn’t having any luck. I drove nearly all the way home before I decided that I needed some noise to distract me from my thoughts. The radio in my car was busted so I went to pull out my phone. I was hoping to play some music or maybe some of my current audiobook. My hand came back empty. My phone was missing.
Since my home was only a few minutes away, I waited until I pulled into my driveway before I searched the car. My phone didn’t turn up.
I contemplated driving back to the park, figuring that is where I must have dropped it, but the end of my driveway was suddenly blocked.
A dark, clean police cruiser was parked sideways across my drive. Two officers stepped out.
“What’s this about?” I asked them with genuine surprise in my voice. The officers shared a look and a nod. One of them took a few steps closer to my car while the other one fixed me with a hard stare and told me:
“We got an anonymous call about a shoplifting incident over at Bub’s Foods. Would you know anything about that?” Before I could answer, the other officer signaled him over to peek into my car window. He returned with a sour and grim expression on his face, like he was talking to a piece of scum. “Is that your garbage on the seat, son? The packaging that says ‘sockeye salmon’ on it?”
I gulped and then my stomach dropped with the realization of what had happened.
The fish. It was the fish. He had stolen my phone. He had somehow stolen my phone and then used it to report me to the police. And since I didn’t want to litter, I was driving around with the evidence right there on my seat. I really was a bozo.
As I was being cuffed and put into the back of the cruiser, I wished with all of my heart that I hadn’t grocery shopped today.