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OCTOBER 2005

> NON-REFUNDABLE | anna mcdougall

"Oh Mommy, look what Debbie brought!" My daughter Robyn squealed. Her eyes begged me to love the birthday gift.

I forced a smile but kept my eyes on the octagonal tank wrapped in two chubby hands. I turned to her pig-tailed pal. "Thank you Debbie, how...nice."

As the house filled, my daughter introduced each child to the Siamese Fighting Fish. The originality of the birthday gift plus the fact that it could move independently, made it very popular with the kids, but all I saw through the clear walls was another mouth to feed and one more place to clean; I would be adding to my list of domestic responsibilities. This was not my idea of a gift for a child. I had hoped guests would bring toys that my daughter could play with on her own. Shovels and pails for the sandbox would have been good, or sidewalk chalk.

In the first week, I worked to be optimistic. After all, there was a teaching opportunity for me to seize, life lessons for me to pass on - lessons I hadn't the time for at the moment. My daughter could discover rewards that come from caretaking. I explained to her that fish need to eat a tiny bit of flaked food twice a day. Since she was only five, I would clean the tank while she watched.

All through the summer and into autumn, Robyn bounced down the stairs every morning to the kitchen and went straight to the drawer where the jar of food was kept. Carefully, she measured out a bit of breakfast and sprinkled it onto the water surface. After a few weeks, she no longer waited for the fish to snap up the flakes before sitting down to her own meal.

At my daughter's insistence, I let her help me clean the enclosure a couple of times. With gritted teeth I stood back while my daughter fingered slimy rocks and sent fishy droplets onto the backsplash of the kitchen sink. It wasn't long before I changed the water without her, whenever I had a free moment.

Since my other two children were toddlers at the time, the pet lived on the kitchen counter out of reach from curious hands. As a result, I bumped into the ugly creature throughout the day. Each time, the black and blue fins rushed to the surface, huge bulging eyes glaring at me. It seemed to be excited but not in a friendly, puppy way. I was reminded of a greedy pigeon demanding more food whether or not it had received its daily quota. I began to resent this bullying and decided it was a selfish, hateful fish.

By December, the novelty of the gift had disappeared. Days went by before it occurred to my five year old to feed her pet, but I was steadfast; I refused to take over her responsibility. If a lesson wasn't learned from this experience, what was the point?

First, I appealed to her sensitivities:

"Sweetheart? Look at your poor fish. He looks hungry. Have you fed him today?"

Then I tried warning her with potential consequences:

"Robyn, if you don't feed that fish, it will starve."

Unable to motivate her, I gave up, hoping her interest may be renewed in time - or perhaps the fish would just die. I tossed food into the habitat from time to time but I rarely cleaned the tank. To justify this intermittent care, I told myself that I was helping the fish adapt to a looser schedule. After all, its master was a child; how much consistency could be expected? Did this creature receive proper care in the pet store before it came to live with us? How many feedings were missed while it sat on a truck during shipping?

The fish's movements slowed so much that some days I jiggled the tank to test for signs of life. I secretly hoped it was dying, sure that no one would notice. I suspected the beast knew how I felt and this made me very nervous. My behavior became haphazard: one week I fed it every time it looked at me, the next week I ignored it. I couldn't decide what to do, and it was beyond me why the fish was making me so crazy.

I began asking around about Siamese Fighting Fish. "How long did yours live?" I posed the question casually.

My neighbor related her experience. "Ours was great; the kids loved it! They were so sad when it died, but it was a great pet for more than three years."

God help me, I thought.

On Christmas morning, I sat with my children in a sea of gifts from our relatives: trucks, dolls, games, books, Play Doh, puzzles, and Lego. I wondered when my husband and I would find time to teach them how to play the games, put the doll houses together, and supervise the activities that were not age appropriate. The self-imposed pressure mounted for me to make everything useful and meaningful in their lives.

Must we keep every gift we receive? Are we obliged to put it to good use? How many times had I heard in Catholic school "You mustn't waste your talents. They are gifts from God." Should gifts from our friends and family be respected in the same way?

Should gifts sent to my children dictate the lessons of their childhoods? Our family's spare time will be designed by the indoor and outdoor toys we unwrap. All at once I am appreciative for the generosity and frustrated by the intrusion. I can't stand waste, but insolence is worse.

I left the excitement behind and began making lunch in the kitchen. When I spotted that fish next to the sink, I shook my head.

***

My theory was that the fish would die if I stopped feeding it for two weeks; instead the creature became more aggressive, flailing wildly in the mucky water. There were times it half panicked me. Intimidated, I began depositing flakes twice a day while I planned my next move.

After a month passed I moved the unwanted pet to the laundry room and tried to forget about it. I wanted to flush it - end the torture - but I couldn't.

No one in the house even noticed that I had moved the fish. Soon it would be dead - but how long could it survive? Lack of care didn't appear to harm the fish, much less kill it. So my internal debate waged: a torturous existence lengthened by minimum caretaking versus a life cut short by one flush of the toilet? I tried to convince myself that the merits of the ultimate choice would benefit the fish.

As justification for my preferred path, I told myself the fish would be better off entering fishy heaven right away than suffering along with my guilty conscience. Besides, it was probably destined to live only a matter of months more, a shorter lifespan than my occasionally watered plants.

For a few days I had second thoughts. I imagined the fish surviving in the toilet tank, haunting me for months. Then I decided that the shock of the noise or the temperature and chemical make up of the water would kill it immediately.

The decision made, I just needed to muster the courage. Or, recruit someone else ...

Without emotion, I spoke to my husband that night as I chopped vegetables. "I want you to flush that fish."

"Huh?" He started to laugh. "I don't like it either, but ... "

"I mean it. I want to get rid of it but I can't."

Still laughing, "Why not?"

"Please!"

"Ok, ok, ok. I'll do it." He picked up the mail from the counter and began sorting.

I couldn't have the guilt hang over me another second. The decision had finally been made and I needed it to be executed immediately before my conscience rose again. I grabbed his hand. "Come with me."

I pointed into the back hallway at the far corner of the laundry counter. Motionless in clouded water, the fish was a sight. Tim peered in. "I think it's dead," he said.

"Good," I replied. I knew it wasn't. It had fooled me before.

I went back to the kitchen. I put it completely out of my mind so much that I didn't even hear the flush. He came back in with a strange smile. "I'm going to hell, y'know, because of you."

My eyes stayed in the pot as I lied, "Don't be ridiculous. It's only a fish - it's like a plant". I hadn't realized he would feel so uncomfortable. I felt like the Eve to his Adam, drawing him down a sinful path.

The back door opened and Robyn came in with her friend. "Mommy, I want to show Simon my fish."

My husband and I exchanged glances, faces pink with shame.

I nudged a wilting pot of violets to block the naked space on the counter, masking our deed with oval leaves.

> BIOGRAPHY | about the author

Formerly a professional in sales and marketing, Anna now raises her children full time and writes fiction and creative non-fiction from Calgary in Canada. She is an active member of Zoetrope Virtual Studios learning in the supportive workshop setting. Anna's short prose pieces have been published online at Salome Magazine, Verbsap, Flashfiction.net, Toasted Cheese, Mad Hatter's Review, and Heavy Glow.