Fish in Aquariums

 

“They’re getting closer.” Tabitha was standing on the end table to peer through the vertical blinds, a slice of late sunlight across her eyes, tension in her posture.

Her cousin Jim lay in the bed, eyes closed, his injured arm pulled close, wrapped in some old shirts Tabitha had found in the last house. The pain made him sweat, even though it was cool inside. “That’s great news,” he mumbled. “Maybe they can bring us something to eat.”

Tabitha looked down at him, eyebrow raised. “Something to eat?”

“Yeah.” Jim coughed a little. “Does it look like they’ve got a cooler? Something wrapped in foil?” He sniffled. “Kebabs? Cupcakes?” He shifted. “Waffles and syrup?”

Tabitha sighed and hopped down from the table. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “No,” she said, sounding tired. “I didn’t see any of that.”

What she had seen had been teeth. Lots and lots of teeth. Teeth bigger than she was.

“We can’t keep running.” Jim shifted, causing a twinge to run from his wound up to his shoulder and into his ear, somehow. “They’ll find us.”

“Jimmy…”

“They will,” he said, opening his eyes. “It’s just a matter of time. They can smell us.” He swallowed. “They can smell us, and I can’t run right now. I just can’t.”

Tabitha stood there for a moment, arms hanging at her sides, looking at the ground, one hand absently fidgeting with her belt loop. Then, she hopped back up on the end table and looked through the blinds again.

After a moment, she said, “I’m guessing… they’ll probably be here in about an hour. You know, with how slow they move.” Tails slithering, breath like a burning corpse.

She let the blinds snap back together. “We have time, Jimbo. We have time to get away.”

“I can’t, Tabby, I told you.” He swallowed again. “Lying still is the only way I can keep myself from throwing up.”

“So you’ll run and puke,” Tabitha said sharply. “Jim, for fuck’s sake. You’d rather lay here and die horribly in an hour than run and puke?”

“Don’t yell at me,” he whispered.

“Don’t say stupid things and I won’t,” she snapped. “Your arm is broken. It hurts, I know. I’ve broken my arm before. You’re in shock. I get it. But we have to go.”

“I’m tired,” Jim said. “I’m tired of all of it. I just want to sleep.” He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded like it might break. “Everyone else is gone, anyway.”

Tabitha tried to ignore the implication of what he was saying. “I’m going to look through the place for stuff we can use,” she said. “Then we’re leaving, James. You hear me? Your legs are fine. We’re fucking leaving.” With that, she stomped out of the small bedroom. After some silence, he could hear her rummaging through things, through drawers and cupboards. He heard her footsteps on the stairs and then on the floor above him, heavy and urgent.

Jim closed his eyes again, his arm throbbing. It was broken and bleeding. It needed more than some old shirts.

He thought back to before, before his arm was broken, before he and Tabitha had set out on foot, before he had seen his brother torn in half, before the world had gone to hell. He’d been whole, then, and hadn’t even known it. He’d never thought about running water and peanut butter sandwiches and air conditioning and hairbrushes.

He had taken so much for granted.

A lump formed in his throat; he forced it back down. Tabitha probably would lose her mind if he started crying.

He looked up when Tabitha returned to the room, carrying a half-open backpack that was bulging with things. She set it on the floor with a thump.
“I found some stuff,” she said. “Some granola bars, some orange juice. I found some clothes.” She paused. “There’s an aquarium up there,” she said, almost to herself. “All the fish are floating.”

Jim didn’t know what to say to that, so he remained silent. Running water and peanut butter sandwiches. Air conditioning and hairbrushes. Fish in aquariums.

She reached into the bag and pulled out a white box and what looked like a wooden stick, which she carried to his bedside.

“I found this old ruler… we can splint you. And a first aid kit, which is great.” Without waiting for him to respond, she began unwrapping the old shirts from his arm.

“Tab…”

“Just… hold still.” She opened a package of something that looked like a premoistened towel one might get at a chicken wing restaurant. Chicken wings.

It was an alcohol wipe, Jim discovered, as a pain unlike any he’d ever felt shot through his body as she cleaned his wound. Lights danced at the edges of his vision as Tabitha re-wrapped his arm in a bandage with the ruler holding his bone straight, each twist of fabric around his arm agonizing.

“There,” she said. “There.” Then, she saw his face, and her own looked stricken. “Jimmy, don’t.”

But he had to. He cried. He cried in pain, he cried for Tabitha, he cried for his brother, he cried for peanut butter sandwiches and chicken wings and the dead fish. He couldn’t handle keeping it in anymore.

“I’m sorry.” Tabitha smoothed his hair back from his forehead, her own voice choked with tears. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry.” She wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. “But… we… we have to go. We have to go now.”

She gave him some old aspirin from the first aid kit, letting him wash it down with a swig of the whiskey they’d found the day before. They passed the bottle back and forth a few times, letting it scorch their throats.

Then, Tabitha gathered up the first aid kit and stuffed it into the backpack. She surveyed the room, avoiding the window. She hoisted the backpack onto her shoulder and helped Jim out of the bed. They trudged, Tabitha sniffling, Jim sobbing, out the front door, into the twilight.