At the top of Gracie’s wish list was pet fish, so she was excited when Mom carried the fishbowl from the master bedroom—where it had been hiding since the previous day—to the dining room and carefully placed it on the table.
Many kids circled the table, their eyes fixed on the colorful fish darting about. Neon tetras, guppies, zebra danio. Possibly too crowded in the bowl, similar to the house during Gracie’s sixth birthday party.
But not crowded to Gracie, who loved having her friends and most of her five cousins there.
The lone annoyance was Sammy, her brother of four years older, who made fun of the decorations from the Underwater Adventures Party Pak (he even made fun of the intentional misspelling), which were festooned around the house. Paper plates bright with tropical fish. Green streamers taped to the ceiling, mimicking seaweed and turning the room into an underwater den.
The fishbowl entertained the kids for several minutes, until Gracie and Sammy’s father opened the back door and announced the treasure hunt was ready. Kids burst from the house and spread over the back yard, hunting for seahorses and octopi and starfish. Little plastic treasures the kids would bring home.
Sammy was allowed to find three toys, then Dad told him to let the other kids have a chance, so Sammy jeered at the guests: “You’ll never find all of them! Not in a million zillion years!”
(Turned out, Sammy was correct. Dad found an octopus two months later, while mowing the grass. After washing dirt off the creature, Dad waited for that night to tuck it under Gracie’s pillow as she slept.)
After the party, the fishbowl rested on a side table in the living room. Each day, returning home from school, Gracie slid a chair from the dining room to the side table and ate a snack while watching the fish. She spoke to the fish, asking them how their day was, what games they played.
Her parents thought her fascination would end in a few days, but it didn’t.
“She’ll be the next Jacques Cousteau,” Mom said.
“In Oklahoma?” Dad said. “Don’t think so.”
“Don’t put limitations on her. She can do anything she puts her mind to.”
Dad was about to say the world held many limitations, most of which were out of people’s control. But he didn’t feel like being a downer and he worried Gracie could overhear them. He said, “I’m sure she can.”
Mom and Dad didn’t know Gracie wasn’t looking only at the fish, but the castle on the bowl’s floor, surrounded by blue gravel. The castle was chosen by the parents as a nod to Gracie’s years of enchantment with princesses.
“People live in the castle, you know,” Gracie said when she was called for dinner.
“You mean a king and queen?” Mom asked.
“Just regular people,” Gracie said as she sat at the dining room table. “I guess they already lived in the castle when you got it at the pet store.”
Joining the family for dinner, Sammy let out a laugh of contempt. “People can’t live underwater. If you said they were tiny mermaids, that would make some sense.”
“They’re not mermaids,” Gracie said. “They’re like us, except smaller.”
“Let her use her imagination,” Dad said to his son, remembering the times Gracie played with her dolls and making up stories involving them.
“It’s not in my imagination,” Gracie said. “They’re real. As real as anybody.”
Mom looked worried as she held a forkful of pot roast above her plate. “How many people live in there?”
“I’ve seen three, but there’s probably more,” Gracie said. “I think there’s a bunch of rooms I can’t see. Rooms without windows.”
“Are the people nice?” Mom envisioned tiny men and women climbing out of the fishbowl and wrecking her house. Maybe they had tiny hammers to smash the furniture. Maybe tiny knives to cut the sofa. And cut her family while they slept. Mom shivered.
“They’ve been nice to me and the fish,” Gracie said. “They wave to me, and I’m getting better about reading their lips. They say they like the fish food I put in.”
“As long as they’re happy and stay in the castle,” Mom said.
Once the kids were tucked in bed, Mom leaned close to the fishbowl and peered into the castle’s windows. The hollow castle was filled with water, and it seemed ridiculous that people lived in there.
A shadow might’ve passed within a window. It could’ve been the table lamp blinking. Or a moth had flitted on the lightbulb. Or it couldn’t have been tiny people.
Just in case, Mom kept a watchful eye on the castle from then on. While she didn’t notice any more shadows, a voice in her head said maybe the castle people were being extra careful to not be seen. And while calling herself nuts, she wondered if her daughter was right.
copyright © 2021 Dave Williams