Words By Alexandra O'Neil, Art By Daniel Reneau
On Monday, Jeff brings a water-filled vase into the office. A white lily sprouts from the top and an indigo betta circles serenely within. As he sets the vase on his desk, he explains to anyone who will listen that the betta eats the roots and the lily absorbs the “crap” from the water. It is low-maintenance and Zen. I consider getting a betta vase of my own.
I spend my lunch break Googling and am left disquieted. Bettas don’t eat plant matter, and they need more room than a tiny vase. I take a detour to pass within view of Jeff’s desk on my way to the bathroom. Perhaps the fish is not serene, but sluggish.
I watch the vase over the following week and a half. The water takes on a brownish tinge. A greasy film forms along the surface. Debris—decomposing vegetable matter and fish waste—settles into the spaces between the gravel. The betta’s fins grow ragged and he takes to lying on the substrate. When he does swim, it’s lopsided. Several times I consider saying something to Jeff, but he and I used to have a thing and I don’t want him to think I am using the fish as a pathetic excuse to get his attention, which he will. You don’t need to make up a reason to talk to me, Bev. So I prepare. Jeff goes out of town, and I strike. Strategically, I work late, until the office is empty. I take the vase. It sloshes a little on the ice-slicked drive, spilling shit-water on my car’s carpet. I’m a nervous wreck the whole way, twisting my hair around my finger, afraid he’ll topple and die on my car floor. He survives the drive with only some mild battering.
I already have a running five-gallon tank sitting on my kitchen counter, complete with sand, live plants, a heater, a filter, a hood light, and some driftwood. I don’t keep track of how much these things cost. There are worse things I could turn my obsessive attention on—like how after two months I still have a small patch of red pinpricks on the inside of my upper arm from when Jeff grabbed me during a drunken argument and burst the capillaries under my skin. I pour as much of the vase’s filthy water into the sink as I can without losing the fish down the drain, and then gently plop him into the new tank. I decide to name the fish Sushi and laugh to myself alone in my apartment.
I text Jeff and tell him that the betta died and was fouling the water, and that I “took care of it.” He is appreciative, and says, “We should hang out soon.” I don’t respond.
Jeff intercepts me on my way to my desk five days later. Despite his smile, I have a brief moment of panic. Maybe he’s figured it out, maybe he knows Sushi is alive and well, stowed away in my apartment. He will confront me, and I’ll fold under pressure like I always do and have to confess to being a fish thief.
But Jeff doesn’t mention Sushi, and his gray eyes don’t hold that shark-like flatness that they get with just the right mixture of booze and ill temper. I feel silly for even checking. He says, “Have any plans for Christmas?”
Keeping my fingers laced tightly together in front of me, I say, “I’m sure my family will start talking about getting together soon. Nothing solid yet.”
“Most of your family lives down south, right? Georgia and Florida?”
Of course he remembers. “Yeah.”
“Some warm weather might be nice.”
“A beach does sound great right about now.” The lie comes easily.
“It’s too bad we never got the chance to go down to Florida together.”
I clear my throat. “What about you, any Christmas plans?”
“I’ll visit my brother.”
“And he’s in…”
“New York.” Jeff doesn’t seem the least bit bothered that I don’t remember where his family lives.
I force my smile a few degrees wider and begin to angle my body away from Jeff. “Well, that sounds like fun. I’m glad for you.” He blinks once at my abrupt exit as I step around him.
I am several paces down the hall when he calls after me, “Will you be at the Christmas party?”
I turn. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but there might be a slight twist to his smile. I had not been planning on attending the Christmas party, didn’t want to be in the same room as Jeff and alcohol. And he knows it.
Before I respond, I take one full, measured breath. “Yeah, I think I’ll go.”
He blinks again, “Cool,” and walks away in the direction of his desk. I wonder if my recent petnapping has emboldened me.
The days tick by on my desk calendar. Sushi regains the ability to swim in a straight line and grows perky and active on a diet of frozen bloodworms that I keep in my freezer. My parents begin badgering me to stay with my aunt in Orlando for Christmas. I am hesitant. Florida means bathing suits, comments about the new softness around my stomach and thighs. I tell them I have to dogsit for my neighbor. Another lie that comes surprisingly easily.
The company Christmas party takes place on a Friday, in the conference room. The long table is covered with plates of cookies and brownies, pies, cakes, simple hors d’oeuvres. And, since it’s after office hours, alcohol. The supervisors keep an eye on us as we graze, making sure no one gets shitfaced. I can’t stop looking at Jeff. He knocks back a sweaty Corona before most have even made themselves a plate. I lean against the wall, near the door, and pick at my cheese cubes and crackers. Several women position themselves nearby and chatter about Netflix shows and gym routines. I chime in to ask for cardio suggestions and they subtly expand their circle to make room for me. If I do end up visiting my family, I can say I’m starting a new exercise regimen. And if I’m in a conversation, Jeff will be less likely to try to come over and talk. He finishes another beer in the time it takes me to drink my half-cup of Coke. The soda doesn’t help my dry mouth, and I dump my paper plate in the trash. Jeff cracks open his third bottle, laughing loudly at some joke. He catches me looking, and winks. There’s no overt malice in it, just an acknowledgement that I’m staring, but I swallow and quickly look away. I twist a strand of hair around my finger, tight enough to hurt. I try to tune into my little circle’s discussion about juice cleanses, but Jeff lets out another booming laugh and I can’t stay there any longer. I slip out the door without saying goodbye to anyone.
On the way home, I buy Sushi four ghost shrimp from the pet shop, hoping they will entertain him. After living in a cramped vase with nothing but a knot of plant roots and some glass marbles, he must be lonely. Some companionship might do him good. The shrimp are tiny and transparent, their little stomachs green with the algae they grazed from the pet store’s plants and gravel. Sushi comes to investigate when I pour them into his water. He attacks without hesitation or mercy, ripping off legs and antennae and chomping at their armored bodies with audible clicks. Flabbergasted by his brutal violence, I am too slow to grab the net. The shrimp are dead before they can take cover, before they can even orient themselves inside the tank. After I scoop up the shredded torsos and floating legs, he parades around the tank with his fins fanned wide, congratulating himself on his savagery. I reach for my hair, but stop myself before I yank on it.
I call to make an appointment for a simple trim and somewhere between dialing the salon’s number and actually making the appointment, it turns into a cut and a color. I have six inches chopped off, so that my hair falls right at my collarbone, and I cover the brunette with a charcoal shade as dark as Sushi’s scowling face.
I walk into work on Monday braced for more attention than I would like. Everyone I see mentions my hair. Some gush over it, some clearly don’t like it but are being polite, which I don’t mind. Two older women ask if I’m going through something.
That afternoon, Jeff pokes his head into my cubicle with such suddenness that I believe he intended to startle me. “I heard you changed your hair.”
I pat my crown. “You heard right.”
His brows pull down as he studies my head. “Why black?”
I shrug. “Felt like it.”
“I liked it better when it was longer.”
“Well, Jeff, it’s not your hair.” I grin immediately after saying it, to soften the edge, surprised by how quick I am to snap back at him.
He blinks twice, then laughs. “Touché.”
Around seven that night, Jeff texts me: “I hope I didn’t piss you off earlier.” I reply with, “You’re fine.” He tries to call, and I let the phone ring. When he calls again, I’ll tell him “I’m busy.”
I text my parents and let them know that I’ll be coming to Orlando.
I am not yet convinced that Sushi is a strictly solitary creature. Perhaps he just doesn’t like things with legs. After waiting a few days to make sure he has completely calmed down, I go to the pet store on my way home from the office and ask the young employee loitering in the aquarium section about betta fish tankmates. He sells me three guppies. Females, because the males’ large tails might provoke Sushi. Three, because they live in schools.
The girls dart around in a frenzy during the drive; I can hear the tiny thumps of their bodies striking their plastic bag. During a red light, I hold the bag up and examine them. At first glance, they almost look like bettas. But they’re smaller, more slender. They’re like large minnows, with round dumb eyes and small pursed mouths. One is a speckled silver-gray, one dirty green, and one yellowish gold. They all have short little tails that flutter like pom-poms as they swim. The car behind me honks, and I put the bag back in the passenger seat.
I acclimate the guppies to Sushi’s tank water slowly, over a period of an hour, cutting the knot off the bag and pinning it to the edge of the tank with a safety clip. Sushi circles the bag, beady eyes darting about. He glances between me and his new tankmates distrustfully. Now that I can see Sushi and the guppies together, it is clear that he dwarfs them. The guppies pay him no mind, might be too stupid to notice he’s not a guppy himself. He pecks the bag a few times, then wanders off to lounge on his driftwood log. A hopeful sign.
I pour the guppies into the tank and watch them as I eat a bowl of cereal for dinner, standing at the counter. The trio remains tightly huddled while they explore their new home. Sushi attempts to chase them a few times, but his harassment is short-lived and he becomes content to follow and observe at a distance. Satisfied, I go to bed.
I check on the aquarium first thing in the morning. The dirty green guppy is lying in a corner of the tank, tail torn off. The grey guppy has wedged herself in the stems of the Java fern. Pinkish white wounds mar her spine. Her tail is in tatters. She gasps, sucking down water so quickly that her body bobs with the effort. I can’t find the golden guppy.
Sushi circles his tank, moving in quick little darts. He’s fired up, breathing hard and fins spread. He hasn’t noticed the grey guppy hiding in the plant. I feel foolish for not recognizing his spot-and-stalk the night before.
I decide to remove the corpse first. It takes several attempts for me to scoop it up in the net, and my movement disturbs the grey guppy, who worms from her hiding place and slides along the sand on her belly, seeking the shelter of the driftwood. Sushi is on her in an instant, and latches onto her chin. They writhe around in a knot while I swear and hurriedly flick the dead fish into the trash. I dip the net back into the water and swish it around violently near the locked pair. The now-jawless guppy breaks free and swims for the surface in a crooked zigzag while Sushi remains below, choking down a chunk of her flesh. I catch the guppy in the net. At this point, she’s mangled beyond saving. A quick chop with a kitchen knife and then she, too, goes in the trash.
I squint down at Sushi. His belly is full and swollen from feasting on fresh guppy all night. He pays me no mind, and resumes searching the tank.
I sigh. I’m already running late and don’t have time to look for the remaining guppy. If she’s smart, she’s hiding somewhere. I start sprinkling some fish flakes into the water every evening, for her to snap up whenever his back is turned.
I develop the distinct impression that Jeff is avoiding me. It is a gradual realization, over a period of several days. He doesn’t come by my desk, doesn’t call after me in the hall, doesn’t meet my eyes when we cross paths by the water cooler or in the cube farm. It’s kind of nice to have him fade into the background. Just another face walking out of the parking garage, gathering around the surprise box of donuts in the break room, heading for the elevator at the end of the day. I’m not quite sure why Jeff doesn’t want to be around me anymore, but I think I could get used to this.
Four days after the guppy disaster, on a mess of a Thursday, it storms and the power at my complex goes out. I arrive home to see the temperature in the tank is already in the low 70s. When Sushi’s water falls to 62F, I scoop him up in a net and put him in a Tervis tumbler with some of his tank water. I sit and read a book by candlelight, tumbler tucked between my side and the armrest of my couch. I keep him snuggled in my body heat until the power returns four hours later. Upon being returned to the tank, Sushi flares at me, gill covers protruding and bulldog mouth frowning. He darts back and forth across the front of the glass to ensure I am suitably intimidated before retreating to sleep behind his Java fern.
I notice a fuzzy sort of cloud at the base of the driftwood, on the back side of the tank, and realize I have completely forgotten about the missing guppy. I reach in and shift the wood a bit. Her remains float out from where they were wedged between the wood and the sand. She has frozen stiff as a board, her eyes and most of her stomach are missing, and her body is carpeted in some white sort of mold or bacteria. Gagging, I scoop her out with the net and flush her down the toilet, then give the tank a thorough cleaning.
Sushi must have been eating the fish flakes every night. “You are a little brat,” I tell him, once the countertop is marbled with little puddles of water and I am no longer worried about the tank being a petri dish. He, unsurprisingly, gives no response.
After dodging me for another day, Jeff bangs on my apartment door late Friday night. I stare at him through the peephole. His face is flushed, and he’s wiping at his eyes. I’ve never known him to show up unannounced. I open the door and Jeff slips inside without a greeting, reeking of alcohol and cigarettes. I am in a sports bra and a pair of loose shorts, about to get a bowl of birthday cake ice cream and watch six episodes of The X-Files. I immediately regret giving in to my curiosity.
He surveys my kitchen with a sniff, eyes skipping right over the tank on the countertop, stopping to linger on my bare torso. “What’re you doin’?”
I cross my arms low, under my breasts. “Getting ready to go to bed. I was in the middle of getting dressed.”
“Hmm.” He sucks his teeth. “I feel like you’ve been distant with me. Lately. I gave you some space, like I thought you wanted, and it was like you didn’t even notice I was gone.”
“I’m just trying to…protect my emotions. Take care of myself.”
“You hardly talk to me. It’s like you can’t stand the sight of me.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to—”
Sighing, he rubs the residual shine from his eyes and drags his hands down his face. He addresses the floor instead of me. “Are you punishing me, Beverly?”
“No. Not at all.” I unconsciously go for my hair, reaching too short and brushing my collarbone. I settle for gnawing on my knuckle instead. Dimly, I wish I had a shirt to cover my stomach.
“Because every time I see you at work, I remember what we used to be—”
“Jeff, please don’t talk like that.”
He rubs the back of his neck and faces the fridge.
“You should probably go home.”
“I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to be at home, alone.”
As Jeff continues to examine the fridge, my eyes wander over to the aquarium. Sushi is flaring ferociously at Jeff. Well, likely not at Jeff, likely at his own reflection in the glass. But that doesn’t matter. I take in Sushi’s fluttering sapphire fins and protruding gill covers for a beat longer, then I step over to Jeff and place a hand on his arm.
“Come on, Jeff. It’s time for you to go home.”
He turns and steps closer to me, so I can feel his hot breath. The stink of alcohol tickles my nose. “See, this is what I’m talking about. What happened to the Beverly I used to know?” His fingertips skate up the outside of my arm. “I miss us, Beverly.” He slips an arm around my waist and presses his lips to my neck. His teeth graze my skin. Lightly, accidentally, but I think of the silver-gray guppy, Sushi tearing off her jaw.
I can still see the tank over Jeff’s shoulder. Sushi zigzags back and forth against the glass, snapping at nothing. His eyes glint in the kitchen light, little black beads. If Jeff and I shrank down to Sushi’s size and jumped into his tank, he’d gobble us down in an instant, without any hesitation. His bite, proportionally stronger than a great white’s, would cleave us in two.
I clear my throat and make an attempt to politely extricate myself. Jeff pulls at my shorts. I push harder. He shoves me up against the kitchen counter, from affectionate to angry in an instant. His eyes are flat and blank as old, cloudy dimes under his furrowed brows, coins laid on the lids of a corpse before the coffin is shut and the dirt shoveled. I inhale to raise my voice and he claps a hand over my nose and mouth so tight it hurts. He gives me another shove and the countertop digs into my lower back. My skull knocks against the aquarium. I hear sloshing, feel wetness on my hair. Driving home on the icy road, Sushi’s vase on the floor of the car, shit-water spilling onto the carpet.
Jeff pauses, face slack with stupid surprise as he looks over me. “Is that my fish?”
I slide my hand along the countertop, reaching for the mac-and-cheese-encrusted fork I know I left there, and jam it into Jeff’s throat with all of my terror-fueled strength. He flinches as dark blood runs, gushes down to his collar, slowly bringing a hand up to protect his throat, and I stab him again in nearly the same spot. He backs away from me with an awful groaning sound, both hands on his neck now, stumbling. His skull cracks loudly on the fridge as he falls, leaving a dent in the door. He doesn’t move.
I’m shaking, my bowels are burning, and I have to step over Jeff’s body to puke into the sink. I rinse the vomit, then, stupidly, the fork. I have to call the police. Retrieving my phone from the couch, I stand vigil over Jeff’s body as I dial. Blood is leaking from his mangled neck. Thank God the kitchen is linoleum. I bend close. He doesn’t appear to be breathing. What a goddam mess.
As I give the operator my address and explain what happened with a lot of stuttering and sniffling, I look at Sushi so I won’t look at Jeff. He is at the front of his tank, regarding Jeff’s prone form from over the top of his downturned mouth. Sushi’s beady eyes flick up to me, and he begins to circle the tank, fins spread in display.