He felt like a Mr. Potatohead with all his parts pulled out. Gouged and strewn about his little blue plastic sneakers. He couldn’t figure out which way was up, drowning in the sudden onslaught of confusion. He could breathe- but only just so, and only if he kept his eyes closed as though he could only keep track of one sense at a time. He felt as though every nerve in his body was reacting at once, each organ rallying for secession, threatening to tear him apart. As far as Alex was concerned, whoever determined the common reaction to horrific incidents was numbness, was decidedly an idiot.
Images of fish, their bellies slit in a smooth, bloody arc, flooded his mind suddenly. Their cold staring eyes pressing into his eyelids, challenging them to rise.
Hot sweat prickled under his arms as the hairs rose on the back of his neck. He clenched his fists tightly, willing his lungs to re-fill with air so that his thoughts would stop ricocheting off the lump of dread that had formed in the one place where gray matters.
What seemed like hours later, his lungs unclenched, pocket-by-pocket, until his lips could feel his breath again. His eyes blinked open and he looked down at weak, shaking fists with knuckles that resembled snow-capped mountains.
Now that his breathing had returned his nostrils were filled with the smell of fish- raw and salty with a hint of the metallic scent of blood. He closed his eyes again briefly, and shook his head, hoping the misplaced assault on his nasal passage would waft away. As soon as his vision darkened the fish came back.
“Alex, don’t touch that.”
His father’s voice was distant, the warning uttered half-heartedly, but the six-year-old retracted the hand that was poised over a small basket of mackerel in ice even though he was overwhelmed by the excitement of his very first visit to the fish market. It was normally a trip his father made solo, but because his mother had a last minute hair appointment to dash off to, Alex and his older brother Alfie has been carted along with their disgruntled father.
From the moment the boys stepped into the market their senses had been on the attack. It was loud, smelled awful and strange sights seemed to loom from every corner. Their father kept a firm hold on each of their shoulders, only letting go now and then to prod a fish or answer his cell phone. Alex stayed close to his side while Alfie chose to bound ahead every so often before scurrying back when their father’s voice boomed after him.
Alfie was two years older and, as it seemed to Alex, that much braver as well. He was often in trouble but had more stories to share on the playground than any other kid in school as a result. Alex was very much in his shadow there was no denying it, both because of his more diminutive stature and his lack of any semblance of a spine.
Alfie had called him that once. The boys had been throwing a rubber ball around the house and inevitably wound up breaking one of their mother’s Rose vases. Alfie had insisted they keep it quiet- deny it to the death, no matter the punishment. Alex had agreed, but promptly dissolved into tears and truths when their father had been called in to mediate. He’d fallen some in Alfie’s eyes that night and knew he’d spend the better part of their childhood trying to make up for it.
Forcing the memory from his thoughts, Alex chose instead to refocus on his surroundings. He gazed over at the displays of lined up fish corpses with their mouths hanging slightly open, as though in surprise. ‘I was caught?’ A particularly upset looking fish seemed to ask, incredulously.
Alex pursed his lips as he stared down at it. He tried to picture it swimming in the ocean, flexing its fins and relishing in its freedom, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t see past its questioning eyes. It was as though it had been lying there a long time waiting for someone to come by and answer its queries. Alex paused. Could the dead be curious?
“Dad? Can fish think?” The question was out of his mouth before he could stop it.
“What? No. They have virtually no attention span.”
Alex must have looked confused because he continued. “They’re dumb.” He brought his thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart. “Tiny brains.”
“Like yours,” Alfie whispered hotly in his ear, low enough so that their father couldn’t hear.
Choosing to ignore his brother, Alex turned his attention back to the fish he’d been looking at and was alarmed to find it slickly resting in his father’s palms.
“What’re you doing?” Alex demanded, his voice rising in pitch and concern.
“Checking its gills.”
His father paused his prodding and regarded his youngest. “Red. The redder the gills the fresher the fish.” He pried Alex’s fish’s gills open and held it out for his sons to take a peek.
“Looks red to me,” Alfie said, sounding bored.
Alex pondered this new fact with interest, thinking the reddest gills should be a crayon colour. He decided next that ‘Fresh Gills Red’ would be the sheen of his first car.
“So, you dare me?”
Alex was snapped out of his thoughts by the excited voice of his brother. Alfie was holding something in his fingertips smiling his gap-toothed smile at the man behind the counter as their father looked on, amused.
Alex soon realized the thing his brother was holding was actually a fish eye. The eye Alex had been looking into earlier to be exact, as the fish his father held now had another gaping hole to match the questioning mouth. Before he could utter a sound, Alfie tossed the eye into his mouth and bit down hard. There was a squishy ‘pop’ sound and a viscous liquid splattered on the front of Alex’s shirt, one of Alfie’s old baseball jerseys that Alex had coveted for months.
Alfie, their father and the fish salesman burst out laughing at once and Alfie made a show of chewing up the eye, swallowing it and then sticking his tongue out. Alex fought the urge to punch him under the chin hard so it was completely severed.
Their father seemed to lighten up after Alfie’s little show and let the boys wander through the stalls as he picked out fish. Alfie led the way as usual and they zipped around the aisles peeking at the various creatures of the sea. Alex soon forgot about his shirt when they stopped in front of a large metal door that was propped open with a chunk of grimy wood. Alfie wandered up to it and peeked inside, his eyes lighting up.
“Sharks!” He whispered in awe.
Alex felt a shiver go up his spine as he approached the door feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
“Real ones?” He asked, mimicking his brother’s tone.
“See for yourself.”
Alfie moved from the doorway, pushed it open a little wider and moved back for his brother to look. Alex took a deep breath before stepping into the doorway. He could feel cold air and guessed the room was some sort of freezer. He peered inside and was disappointed to find that Alfie had been exaggerating. Hanging from large hooks in the center of the room were large fish, no, enormous fish, but they certainly were not sharks.
“These aren’t sh-“
Before the accusation was out of his mouth Alex felt pressure on his shoulder blades and found himself falling hard on his knees on icy floor. Before he could turn around, he heard the door close with a thump and a sickening 'click' sound filled his ears. Alex sprung to his feet and whirled towards the closed door.
“Alfie!” He yelled banging his fists against it.
He heard his brother’s strangled laughter through the door and felt the anger bubble up inside him. He shouted his name again noticing his breath form a cloud in the cold air. He closed his eyes, trying to calm himself down. He yelled his brother’s name again, hot tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
Alex clenched his fists and turned around trying to find another mode of escape. The room was darkened without the light from the market and the hanging fish cast long shadows against the walls. The longer Alex stood there looking, the more furious he grew, fueled now by fear.
“This isn’t funny!”
Something inside Alex snapped. He spun on the hanging fish, arms flailing so his fists connected with their cold, hardened bodies. He lost control of the sounds that left his mouth, dissolving into a loud keening borne of white-hot frustration. As he struck them, Alex wondered if he was hurting the fish. He could feel the sting of their scales cutting his skin but he couldn’t seem to still his fists.
Eventually, he door was pried open and he saw the stern form of his father in the light through the doorway. He quickly wiped at his tear-stained cheeks knowing it would satisfy Alfie to no end. His heart rose some, thinking of the reprimand his brother would soon face once his father heard about what he had done. Alex strode towards them with all the confidence he could muster, eager and ready.
When he looked up at his father ready to spill his guts, his tongue curled back nearly choking him when he saw his father’s expression. Confusion coloured Alex’s features immediately. The man did not look angered. Not concerned, nor upset. Instead his features were hardened, his lips thin, his eyes dull. Alex knew that look.
Disappointment shadowed the caves of his father’s lower eyelids, as cavernous as the gaping hole where the fish’s eye once rested. Immediately, Alex’s small balled fists released along with the hopeful breath in his chest.
His father’s voice was curt, abrasive. “Come on.”
“Come on, Alex.” He muttered aloud, looking down at the mess. His mess. He was always making messes. Acting before thinking, behaving before conceiving.
The body at his feet was still, completely unmoving from head to toe.
“Fuck.” He repeated. He couldn’t quite remember the events leading up to this moment. The exact seconds that blurred together to create a situation he felt wholly and completely removed from. He did remember the anger- the heat behind his eyelids and the pain in the knuckles of his right hand when it first connected to smooth skin and bone.
He closed his eyes again and inhaled deeply. His always was a different kind of anger. Anger that snaps like fish bones, leaving only fish gill red.