portion of the artwork for Patricia Parkinson's story

Tiny Red Fish
Patricia Parkinson

The comic books are stacked all along the floorboards between the front and back seat. She props herself up against the side door with pillows and blankets and stuffed animals, and she stretches out and reads. She likes Betty and Veronica Digests the best, thinks Archie, Reggie, and Jughead, while funny, are boring and quite possibly retarded. Her mother says reading comics is a waste of her life. Her dad keeps buying them. Her goal is to make the stacks of books and the back seat even.

They drive from Vancouver to Saskatchewan, to her Grandpa and Grandma’s cabin on a saltwater lake. The lake is filled with tiny red fish, slivers of crimson, that get caught in the elastic of the girl’s bathing suit bottoms and the folds of her vulva. She doesn’t tell this to her dad. She doesn’t tell this to anyone. She is convinced she is the only one this happens to. She can never tell her mother. That would be, the girl knows, reason enough for her not to be allowed on summer holidays with her dad again.

“He doesn’t take care of you. Never has. Why he takes you on holidays is beyond me. He didn’t want you to begin with. Did I tell you that?”

The girl will nod. She will go to her room, lie on her bed and imagine she is small, imagine so hard with the power of her mind that she becomes small, she feels herself shrink to the middle of the bedspread, a fleck, dust. At night she will think of ways to bring her father back. An illness, and her family will be reunited at her bedside.

He does want me, the girl says, believing it as hard as she can.

The smoke blows into the back. It’s not unpleasant. He says little while he drives. The girl says little while she reads.

Just as Betty is about to get caught lying to Archie about Veronica, her dad coughs. This is a signal for the girl to pay attention. She stretches and looks out the window. Maybe they’re coming to a gas station or a store, maybe a town where they will decide not to stop.

There’s nothing new to see, only the flat prairie and wheat, billowing wheat, reaching for the sky, golden hair of the world. The girl likes this view, wants to drive forever on flat land with no turns or change in scenery. Her dad coughs again.

“It would be nice,” he says, bringing his arm in from the window, “if Louise could have come with us.”

This isn’t the first time Louise’s name has been mentioned. The girl wonders who this Louise person is. She’s glad she couldn’t come.

“You’d like her.”

“Uh huh.”

“She has kids,” he says.

Kids.

“Four kids. Can you imagine?”

Yes, the girl thinks, I can imagine four kids. Big deal.

“One boy, close to your age.”

A boy. This is new. She’s not sure about boys.

“Does he like comics?”

Her dad laughs. It cracks the air in the car. The wheat jumps and leans in towards them, listening.

“I’m sure he does. All kids like comics. He likes baseball. I know that for sure.”

He looks at the girl through the rear view mirror. She looks past his gaze to the reflection behind her through the back window—the wheat, waving.

She shrugs.

“I want you to meet them,” he says, looking away quickly, placing both hands on the wheel. “Louise wants us to come for dinner. Maybe when we get back. I told Louise how much you like spaghetti. She makes good spaghetti.”

The girl’s breathing becomes raspy; her throat, dry as the prairie.

The girl has learned that her father knows for sure about the boy and has eaten Louise’s spaghetti. Her hip shifts from the seat to the stacks of comics. She slips and slides on and off the seat, the pages of the comics crinkle and fold. She loses her place. The wheat gusts and tangles and turns away.

I want you to live with me, he said, the last time she saw him, before they went on vacation, but now, there is them, the boy and Louise and three others that are more than her. Her father looks in the mirror again.

“Sure,” she says, looking not at him, but at anything that doesn’t see who she is.

“That’s my girl,” he says, and smiles and lights another cigarette.

She lies on the seat and she thinks about the lake, what they will do when they get there. How Grandma will knit her a sweater and Grandpa will tell her about the war. Her dad will leave at night for places she doesn’t know, to meet people she’s never seen, leave her and meet them. In the day, she will swim out as far as she can and float on the saltwater.

She will look at the sky and imagine herself small. She will think of all the tiny red fish surrounding her, coming closer, darting away.



This story first appeared in Night Train.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 45 | Spring 2015