If anyone were to meet Gaius on the street that day, they would find a wreck of a man. The normally neat hair pointing to all sorts of directions were courtesy of his frantic fingers that kept running through them every other minute. The ring under his eyes was of a night badly slept, if slept at all. He seemed like a madman under closer inspection, his clothes all over the place, his shirt stained with coffee. His driving was twice as reckless as it usually was, and he thanked the heavens for his wife not being there. She would have torn him apart for sure. Then again, if she had been there he would never have been in such a mess in the first place. For Lana was the house commander-in-chief; the one who took care of things when all seemed to fail; the one to appease the unappeasable. Most importantly, Lana was the referee between Gaius and their very clever 6 year-old son Michael when they had a disagreement. Apart from educational purposes, his wife almost always sided with Michael because Gaius was known for putting his foot in his mouth when it came to promises.
He could already picture Lana’s threatening countenance and her harsh judgement as she listened to his excuses while deciding what his penalty should be. His son would be on the accusing bench and his eyes would hurt the most because they would be neither angry nor disappointed but resigned. After all, Gaius had failed the only task given to him that weekend: to take care of Michael’s pet fish.
How could he have known, though, that a cartoon scene would have come to life in front of his very eyes? That his neighbour’s cat would somehow find its way into his living room and then into the aquarium and voilà! Gone was the fish.
On the bright side, his son was still away, which meant he could still get away with it.
As he stopped in every pet shop in town, he prayed for all the gods he could remember to find a suitable replacement for the fish. He even forgot he was a die-hard atheist because he could really use all the help he could get.
Finally, he came across a pet shop called “Petit”, a tiny little place hidden in a one-way street. It was his last resort. Exhausted, guilt-ridden and starving, he was at the brink of a mental breakdown. However, he could not be accused of having lost hope. And it was there that he found redemption. There he found a solid red betta splendens he thought was very similar to the one that had been eaten. Barely containing his cry of relief, he fell to his knees in front of the shelf which held a number of other bettas, each inside their own confined space ballet-dancing at their own rhythm.
The question was whether his son would notice the exchange or not.
‘Of course he will not notice a thing!’ guaranteed the salesman, a sturdy man in his forties who exuded confidence and knowledge. ‘Children hardly do. Adults certainly never do unless they are professionals in the area. I’ve lost count of how many parents have come through those doors over the years, looking just like you did, all desperate to find a replacement for their kids’ dead fish, guinea pig, bird… Fear not, mate. You are not the first. You won’t be the last…’
Gaius could have held the man for the relief he was now feeling. Suddenly he was not the worst parent in the world. There were others like him, a group of tormented parents who drove madly around the city looking for a way to be less disgraceful in the eyes of their little ones. The salesman self-assurance made Gaius believe in miracles.
Home was quiet when he returned. Any traces of the crime committed in his living room were wiped out carefully. The seven litre aquarium even got a new trinket, a SpongeBob little house where the fish could hide and play around. The sudden inspiration had come to him just a little before leaving the shop. By buying a new ornament, he was showing Michael just how thoughtful he had been during the weekend. It was a struck of genius.
By the time his wife arrived with Michael, Gaius was a completely different man. The hot shower had done him wonders. He opened his arms to welcome Michael, but the child passed by him and headed straight for the aquarium. Gaius began to sweat.
‘Oh, look, sweetie, a new house for Charlie!’ exclaimed Lana happily, but immediately glaring at Gaius and whispering threateningly, ‘This looks fishy. What did you do?’
‘What d’you mean?’ he retorted just as quietly, perhaps too defensively.
All of Gaius’ confidence began to go down the drain. The sweat poured down like rain, making his clothes feel sticky. Would his son notice? Would he ask too many questions? Was the ornament too much? Was it that that had given him away? It must have been. Lana had taken one look at it and had instantly frowned. Michael was a clever little boy. Of course he would have figured it out. Look at the way he was staring at the aquarium, inspecting it carefully, watching the fish go up and down and flare. Gaius was an idiot, a stupid, bloody id-
‘I like it. Charlie seems to like it too. Thank you, dad,’ Michael said with a beautiful smile.
Gaius felt like the world had been lifted off his shoulders, like there was an invisible Superman cape on his back. He opened his arms widely to embrace Michael and that was a big mistake. There was a loud crash, then a splash, then a fish flapping on the wet floor.
I am happy to say, though, that this time the fish lived.