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Fiction Excerpt: “Pets”

By Adam J. Thaxton

Illustrated by Bernie Mireault
from Black Gate 9, copyright © 2005 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.

Mickey had a walking fish. I was there when he found it.

I was eleven that summer in the house in Charnra. I remember because I had my dad put marks on the wall each year to measure my height, and it was the eleventh mark that opened that year.

We were down at the paddy, the clouds in the sky offering sparse cover from the sun. Reika was complaining again, because she’d just worn her new dress and had to hold it up to cross the paddy without getting it wet. My mother knew beforehand what we did during the day, so mine was the old, messy one with the algae stains sprinkled across the bottom.

On the other side of the paddy was a marsh, a forest with some old growth trees that the river ran through. We were never supposed to go into the forest itself, because there were hoppers in there, or so we thought. We’d seen footprints on the bank one week and told Garen’s father. He went and got Mr. Cohdroy, who lives down at the end of our block in the metal paneled house, and he said they were hopper footprints. They were only little ones, about maybe three or four feet tall, but they were still dangerous to us kids, so our parents forbade us to go into the forest again.

We figured that they couldn’t run fast in the water, or at least Mickey said so, so we could go into the forest if we stayed in the river. I said that we would make lots of noise and they might find us, but Garen said there probably weren’t any in the woods at all and that it was just some kid playing a joke, or maybe Mr. Cohdroy put them there to scare us. I knew they were there. Reika saw them once, but no one would believe her.

On that day, we were walking across the paddy when Reika started shouting about something on her leg. We had to slog back because she was slow going across the field, and Mickey left his bucket and net behind in the water. When we got there, she was still shouting about it, and Garen put his hands down into the mud to feel around, and he started screaming when he brought this hands up. He’d found a really big leech crawling around in the mud, and we all screamed and ran across the water to the grassy bank until we were sure that it was only one, and Mickey said we should go back into the water, but Garen and Reika and me were already breathing hard and felt like lying down.

Mickey grumbled a bit and then I started laughing. Everybody picked up on it real quick. We all agreed it was just a big dumb leech. It wasn’t like it was an Avatar monster or anything. We sat around the tree for a little while before Mickey got up and started back to go get his net. I watched him walk back and fumble with the bucket in the water, and then he suddenly dropped, putting his hands on something, screaming for help.

We all jumped up, ready to charge in, except for Reika, who shrank back to the tree and looked worried. Me and Garen didn’t take long getting there, and Mickey started yelling at Garen to get the bucket. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he found a big fish, maybe a mudfish. A mudfish! They were big, and you could eat them here since there weren’t any big cities nearby. Slow moving and easy to catch, if you could find one. I tried to see it, but the muck from the bottom of the paddy had already obscured the water, so I couldn’t see anything.

I put my hands down to feel around, trying to find the head, since I knew mudfish could bite. Mickey knelt down further, folding his arms around it, and then fell backward with a sickening pop. I saw the fish only for a moment, but I knew it wasn’t a mudfish. It had feet or something similar. It rolled free of Mickey’s grip and tried to jump away, but I lunged for it, falling into the mud. I felt my hands close around the slimy body, and I brought it up.

It struggled in my hands as I took it to the side and drug it back and forth in the water, washing off the mud. It was like a fish, but it was blinking, and its fins pressed into my hands like the paws of a lizard. Garen and Mickey were shouting at me to put it in the bucket, so I turned it headfirst and it slid into the plastic fish bucket with ease. It landed on its belly and, instead of flopping around like a normal fish, it gripped the sides with its fins and tried to climb out.

The skin on it was green and scaled, like a fish. About two feet long or so, its was also covered in slime. Reika thought it was kind of cute in a strange sort of way, and Mickey decided to keep it. We talked about what we should put it in, and he said that his pool was drained for the summer, so we could put it in there. They made me carry the bucket, since I was the strongest and could carry it in one hand. I was always the strongest.

To get to Mickey’s house, we had to go past my yard and go half a mile down the road into town. Before that, though, we had to go past Mr. Cohdroy’s house. He lived in his house with a stahlmech, and he even had a car. He and the stahlmech would sometimes go places together, and he even treated her like a real person. When he was out alone, he would go into the forest with his sword. He was always carrying that sword. Sometimes he would dance around with it on one of the hills late in the evening. He was always weird, leaving home at odd hours, picking up strange packages at the post office, and mumbling to himself. Mother said it was because he was in the war, but Mickey thought he was a Wastelander spy.

Once we got into town, we had to sneak back around the buildings to get to the other side. The houses were up on two-foot hills to keep the water from the floods from reaching them, and most had fences, but the hills and fences were covered in green moss, so you couldn’t tell where they actually ended. The main road that ran through town had a bus stop at the end of it that people who worked in the city would use. We were using the back road around the one side of town facing the forest, near the wall.

Across the low field behind town was another cluster of houses that included Mickey’s. No one was really home except for my mom and dad, and my older brother. We practically charged down the hill, screaming and laughing that we made it. We were almost out of breath when we got to the back of Mickey’s house.

Mickey’s parents had a grown-up pool, so there weren’t any stairs. You had to use the ladder on the side instead. There wasn’t any water in it at the time because his parents didn’t have the money to keep the water clean. We didn’t need the water to be clean for the walking fish, so it was okay.

Garen went and got the hose while me and Mickey climbed down into it. Reika was insistent that we were going to get in trouble for doing this. We mostly ignored her, even though I was a little unsure myself. I think we all were. It took about ten minutes to fill the small section of the pool to put the walking fish in.

It slipped easily from the bucket into the water. It swam around for a few minutes. Reika laughed and said he liked it, and we all agreed that he must. We stood staring at him for a few minutes until we heard a scuffing at the far end of the pool. We all looked up, and froze. Mr. Cohdroy was crouching at the edge of the pool, smoking. His stahlmech was standing there, too, staring with those unblinking eyes.

“They eat worms,” he said, “nightcrawlers and such. You might want to get some mud from the field, too.” Then he turned around and walked away.

The stahlmech stood there for a moment, her head tilted slightly to the side, until he called for her to follow him, and she left.

We climbed out of the pool and then ran to the other side of the house, peeking around it to see if he had gone or was hiding somewhere. It was then that Reika started shouting, and we couldn’t quite understand what she was saying until we got back and found Mickey’s dad standing there, looking at the fish in the bottom of the pool.

He looked over at us, and then yelled for Mickey to come over to him. He told the rest of us to go home, and we started to protest, but then he threatened to call our parents, so we left, but in a sullen mood.

Reika and Garen lived in a house inside the town, behind the walls. The town itself had some low walls to keep out big things like deathwalkers and smaller animals like hoppers. My house was on the other side of town, outside the walls, and so was Mickey’s. Mom said because we were blessed by the goddess we could live outside town without fear, though I think it was because we were blessed with shotguns and mom was blessed by being a war veteran. Mickey’s mom was a witch in the church, too, so they lived outside town as well. Besides, walls didn’t protect against Avatar monsters.

I always wondered why Mr. Cohdroy lived outside town, but I never put much thought into it. I guess he was good enough with his sword that he could defend himself.

We passed by Reika and Garen’s. Their parents were inside, watching their new television, I suppose. They got it a week ago, and everyone in the tiny village would come over and watch it some nights, filling up the porch with laughter and the smell of alcohol and baked rice.

They had a shield lizard, too, and he was a lot of fun to play with. His name was Moto, and I remember listening to him calling at night before going to bed. He carried across the town and some of the low hills. Sometimes wild shield lizards would call back, and I’d fall asleep listening to their chorus.

It was about two o’clock when I passed by Mr. Cohdroy’s house. He was dragging a large washbin out of his toolshed. I stopped and watched him from the roadside as he tried to upend it over his car and lash it down with bungee cords. It was a few minutes before he got the finally got the first cord down. It snapped back, audibly slapping him in the face. I giggled a bit, then caught myself and ran off before he could notice.

I ran most of the way home, huffing and out of breath when I got there. I ran up the steps, holding my arms straight out, and into the living room. My dress was still pretty wet at that point, anyway. As I rounded the sliding doors that led into the living room, my brother appeared from the side, surprised to see me moving so quick, and he swooped low to grab me with one arm by the waist, slinging me over his shoulder.

“Whoa,” he said, “where’re you goin’ so fast?”

“Mickey and me found a walking fish, and his dad’s yelling at him!” I shouted.

“No, he’s not,” was the reply, “he just called me. Your friend is confined to ‘is room for today, but Judas’s got a washtub they’re gonna put it in.”

“Judas?”

“Mister Cohdroy.”

By this time he was wandering into the kitchen, holding me over his shoulder with one hand while drinking from a soda can with the other. He set me on the counter and motioned with his hand while taking a dry dress off the rack. I lifted it over my head, then a thought hit me.

“Aww,” I said, “now everyone’s got a pet but me!”


The complete version of “Pets” appears in Black Gate 9.
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