I could feel the thump of the bass before we even got to the doorstep. The door swung open. Mike was wearing a pink Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, even though the sun was starting to set and the party seemed to be contained inside. “Janie! Gabe! Woah, dude, I haven’t seen you in forever. Come on in.”
The air was thick with the smell of sweat and warm beer. Several girls from school clutched their red plastic cups as they sat on the couch, nodding along to the music. In the dining room, a crowd had formed around a game of beer pong. One of the players raised his fists and let out a whoop while his opponents tilted their heads back to chug their beers. Liquid spilled out from the corners of their mouths, dripped onto the carpet below.
“Watch the spills!” Mike bellowed as we pushed our way into the kitchen. Stephanie and another girl stood at the counter, pecking at a bowl of tortilla chips. She had dyed the ends of her hair purple since I’d seen her last week. She caught my eye and waved, then gave Gabe a quick smile before turning back to her conversation. Gabe didn’t seem to notice. “Keg’s over there,” Mike said, handing each of us a plastic cup. An older boy with a farmer’s tan was pumping a lever on top of the keg. He waved me over. White foam surged towards the top of my cup and I quickly brought it to my mouth to keep it from overflowing. Gabe set his empty cup down and retrieved an aluminum water bottle from the front pocket of his hoodie.
“Yo, Gabe, what you got there? Something good?” Mike hovered behind him, peering over his shoulder. Gabe twisted off the cap and poured the contents into his cup. “What the hell, dude? Is that a fish?”
“His name’s Floyd. I’m watching him for Bryan.”
Mike raised his brows and tapped his cup to mine. “Cheers.”
Click. Click. Click. Click. Earlier that afternoon, Gabe had been flipping through a box of CDs while I lied on his futon, losing a staring contest with a poster of Jim Morrison tacked on the wall.
“Be right back, gotta feed Floyd.”
Gabe disappeared through the Jack and Jill bathroom that connected his room to Bryan’s room. I trailed after, eager for anything that might disrupt the monotony of the afternoon. A white loft bed frame, dotted with glow-in-the-dark stars, stood against the wall opposite the bathroom door. The space below the mattress had been converted into a reading nook, complete with a short bookshelf and a pile of oversized pillows. To the right, a glass aquarium was perched on top of a wooden dresser.
Gabe stood in front of the tank and sprinkled a pinch of fish flakes over the top. A lone goldfish rushed to the surface. “Floyd, you’re getting huge!”
From the way Gabe doted on him, you would have thought Floyd was a puppy or at least a hamster or something. And as far as I could tell, he hadn’t grown more than an inch since Bryan won him at a carnival last summer.
It had been one of those hot, sweltering days, when sitting outside was like being in a sauna. The short walk to the parking lot of the elementary school, where the carnival was hosted, had left our clothes damp with sweat, clinging to our bodies.
“Look what I’ve got!”
I almost didn’t recognize Bryan, who had gotten his face painted like a tiger since the last time he’d checked in. He held up a plastic bag filled with water. A tiny orange fish hovered near the bottom, unmoving. “I won him playing that bucket game! I made every single one!”
Gabe and I were sitting on the curb in an area shaded by a tree, trying to keep cool. I leaned in closer to the bag in Bryan’s hand, feigning interest to counter Gabe’s obvious indifference. “That’s real cool, Bry.” I held out a paper plate of deep fried Oreos, a tradition I had kept up from when we’d come here with our parents when we were kids. “Want one?”
“Thanks, Janie! I named him Pink Floyd. After that band Gabe likes,” he said, shoving the entire piece into his mouth. He licked the powder sugar off his lips. “Well, just Floyd, I guess, because he’s not pink.”
“Nice,” Gabe said, fanning himself with a wad of napkins. “You ready to go home, Bry? It’s hot as hell.”
“Wait, I wanna go on the Tilt-a-Whirl again. Can you hold onto him?” Bryan handed the bag to Gabe and rushed off.
“Poor kid,” Gabe said, holding the bag up at eye level. “I give this thing three days, max.” I knew he was thinking about the time he won his own goldfish, when we were Bryan’s age. That one didn’t even make it through the day.
Bryan must have done something right, because when school started two weeks later, Floyd was alive and well and had graduated from a mason jar to an actual 5-gallon tank.
Gabe’s face hovered so close over the water that the tips of his jet-black hair, so like my own that we were often mistaken for siblings, skimmed the surface. He tucked the wet strands behind his ear. “Did you know that goldfish have teeth in the backs of their throat? It helps them chew.”
“Weird.” I raked my fingers through the ends of my hair, examining them for split ends. I didn’t care much for fish. “You going to Mike’s tonight?” Mike’s mom and her new husband were away on a honeymoon cruise, so naturally the last party of the summer would be at his house. Plus, his older brother had just turned twenty-one and would be able to supply the alcohol. “Stephanie will be there.”
Gabe had had a crush on Stephanie since junior year when she got her eyebrow pierced and started wearing her dad’s old band t-shirts. She and I were rooming together in the dorms this year. I was hoping the chance to see Stephanie one last time before we left for college would entice him to leave the house.
“I’ll think about it.” He gave the glass an affectionate tap with his finger before sauntering back to his room.
“Come on,” I said, following him. “My parents are driving me down to campus this Sunday. When’s the next time we’ll all get to hang?”
He was back to the CDs. He flipped open a case and examined the disc for scratches.
“Did you know that goldfish can live to be thirty years old?”
I rolled my eyes. “Gabe, come on, it’ll be fun. And sounds like you’ll have plenty of time left with Floyd. One night won’t hurt.”
He inserted the disc into the CD player. “Whatever, Janie.”
Sometime between my second and third beer I lost track of Gabe. Stephanie was gushing about the mini fridge her dad had surprised her with (“It’s so sweet it looks just like a Marshall amp!”) when we heard a scream. We peeked out into the dining room and there was Gabe on his hands and knees, underneath the beer pong table, frantically feeling around the carpet. “I’m sorry man, I’ll get you another drink,” Mike said, picking Gabe’s cup off the floor.
Gabe scooped something with his hands. He leapt to his feet and bolted out of the room. I found him on his knees, slumped over the toilet bowl, shoulders heaving. For a second I thought he might be puking, then realized he was crying. The last time I’d seen him cry was when we were in the fifth grade, when his dad moved out. Gabe and Bryan, who was just a toddler then, would stay over while their mom was at work. Never once did Gabe talk about his dad. Just like how he never talked about his brother.
It happened on the Friday of spring break when Gabe was home watching Bryan while his mom worked her usual overnight shift. Apparently, Bryan had been complaining about a headache and sore neck. Gabe, thinking it was the beginning of a cold or possibly the flu, tucked him into bed and said he’d feel better after some rest. When Bryan vomited in the middle of the night, he thought it might be a stomach bug, nothing their go-to treatment of Pepto Bismol and saltines couldn’t fix. It was only when his mom found him in bed the next morning, unresponsive and caked in his own vomit, that Gabe called for an ambulance.
Gabe reached into the toilet bowl and frantically paddled the water. “Come on, wake up,” he choked out between sobs. Floyd’s body stirred with the motion of the water, and though he was never the most energetic of creatures there was no mistaking this passive, detached movement.
“Hey. You okay?” I asked.
He lifted his head and turned to face me, eyes wild with desperation, hair stuck to his damp cheeks. “Janie, call for help. There’s something wrong with Floyd. Come on, Floyd, come on come on come on...”
I knelt down beside him and grasped his wrist, gently guiding it out of the toilet bowl.
“What the hell?” He twisted his arm in an attempt to free himself from my grip but I held on. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head in defiance, appalled by my lack of urgency during this apparent crisis. With another jerk he managed to break away. Water spilled between his fingers as he lifted Floyd towards his face. He sucked in a breath and held it, as if the tiny lifeless body cradled in his hand would have to start breathing to compensate for his stillness.
“Gabe, he’s dead. I’m so sorry.”
It wasn’t until I wrapped my arms around his shoulders that he exhaled, allowing his body to go limp. He pressed the slimy carcass to his cheek as streams of tears and toilet water dripped off his chin, oblivious to the people who had crowded around the bathroom door.
At last, Gabe dipped his hand back into the water. His fingers trembled as he fanned them out, releasing Floyd from his grasp. The tiny body drifted to the bottom, and Gabe withdrew his hand and lowered the toilet lid.
Dhaea Kang is a singer-songwriter and emerging fiction writer from Chicago, Illinois. This is her first publication.