The pastel balloons had been tied to the mailbox since early this morning. Most of the guests had arrived, and there was a big pile of gifts inside the house on the living room couch. The girls were outside behind the house in their bathing suits, and some were in the pool. The entire scene was as noisy as a house of exotic birds at the zoo.
Amanda Butler clung to her father’s arm tightly as they walked around the Davenports’ house to the backyard. The girls were beginning to take their places at the picnic table, with the birthday girl Jessica Davenport at the head. Keisha Mercado and Stephanie Saunders both held firm grips on and tussled over the last party favor, a pink plastic IPod Nano. Jessica had given them out in little bags that read, “Have a totally awesome Birthday!”
Amanda had deliberately left her bathing suit at home; she didn’t want any of these girls to see her in a bikini. She wore jeans and a t-shirt of a heavy metal rock band that her brother liked. The shirt was grey, blue and black, and it was too sizes too big. Her father carried Jessica’s birthday gift, a Disney sweatshirt that her mother had bought on one of her business trips to Orlando.
Amanda came to Jessica’s birthday party every year: it was a tradition initiated by her mom, who had gone to some law school with Jessica’s dad. This year, Amanda’s mom couldn’t come.
“Mom, hurry up! How do you expect us to eat without any silverware?” Jessica screamed to her mother in the kitchen.
Amanda dropped her father’s arm as soon as he went to help Mrs. Davenport in the kitchen and deliver Jessica’s gift. She stood still for a moment - the other girls hadn’t seen her yet. And she experienced a new feeling: she was curious about what the other girls were doing. Jessica’s blond hair looked so pretty, and Amanda admired her blue eyes and her pink Juicy Couture t-shirt. Keisha Mercado’s black skin looked elegant and her purple bikini was tasteful and sexy. The other girls reflected sunshine and radiant colors as they arrived at the picnic table for lunch.
Amanda looked at her chest. She saw the grey skeleton on her t-shirt and she saw her budding breasts underneath it. She wished she had brought her bathing suit. She also remembered how happy these girls seemed on Monday mornings in school when they wore new clothes or accessories purchased with each other or their mothers at the mall. Amanda’s family only went to the mall when they needed to go to the pet store or The Sports Authority.
“Here’s the diet coke, girls. I’ll be right back with the napkins. Oh, hi. Amanda! We’re so glad you could make it! Here, sit on the bench next to Lisa.” Mrs. Davenport ordered.
“How’s your mother doing, Amanda?” Mrs. Davenport asked. “Is she on another one of those business trips?” She looked longingly at Amanda’s father for an answer to this question.
“Yep,” Amanda’s dad said as he chomped loudly on a Dorito.
Amanda slid onto the bench at the far end of the long picnic table. A few of the other girls said hello to her or glanced at her and nodded. Jessica didn’t. She was talking and moving in her white armchair very at the head of the long picnic table, and she was watching Amanda’s father, seated on her right next to her mother, very closely. The crown on her birthday head sparkled in the sunlight.
“I’ll bet you miss having your wife around, don’t you, Will?” Mrs. Davenport asked. She was practically butting her face against hers, and her lips were pursed as if she were expecting to be kissed.
“Yeah, it’s tough on Amanda, too,” Will Butler responded, clueless of the busty, haughty Linda Davenport whose face so desperately wanted to be kissed, admired, or, at the very least, acknowledged.
“Amanda, you’re looking particularly ugly today,” Jessica loudly informed the table. Girls giggled and everyone stopped to look at the tomboy in the Metallica t-shirt who just stared down at her flat chest.
“Hey, be nice,” Linda Davenport told her daughter. Mr. Butler just looked at Jessica in agreement with her mother. He was not the confrontational type, which is why whenever he and Linda were in the same social settings, he went to great lengths to avoid her come-ons, which, as a result, only became more lewd, obvious, and embarrassing to her intelligent daughter. Jessica knew why Linda had worn such a low-cut blouse today, and she knew that her mother, despite being a little heftier than she was in her 30s, had the kind of curves that most men found attractive.
“Sorry, Amanda,” Jessica said sweetly and falsely. “What’s that band on your shirt? Is that Metallica?” she asked.
Amanda looked up, excited for an instant, and asked, “Yeah, do you know them?”
“Of course I know them. The question is why do you like them?”
The other girls all laughed again, and Will Butler said, “We all like Metallica, right, Amanda.” He even smiled down at his little girl, who said nothing.
“So it’s a lot of family fun at the Butler house every night, huh, Amanda? You all sit down and listen to old Metallica songs? Do you listen to them on tape or record?”
“Well, I have them all on record, but usually we prefer to listen to the CDs,” Will chimed in, enthused and excited by Jessica’s interests. He always thought his taste in music made him cool with the younger kids. “Do you like heavy metal, too?” He asked Jessica.
All the girls at the table giggled when he asked this, and his self-confidence soared. They probably all thought he was cute, too. Older guy who’s still in good shape and listens to cool music. These girls probably found that so cool.
“No, I like my music a little more dance-friendly, you know?” Jessica said. “But sometimes I’ll watch VH1 and see an old Metallica video to get an idea of what people used to listen to.” She stared down Amanda with those last words, and Amanda wished she could shrink off the picnic bench, disappear, and come back with tips on her nails, her hair done, and make-up on her face. The only reason she didn’t just run off and do what she wanted, she reasoned, was her dad. She felt bad for him with her mom always off at work.
It was almost impossible to forgive the fact that her dad could be this clueless to the torture she was going through, though. Not only did he encourage her to wear the shirts of his favorite band, one that he had seen live dozens of times, but he even acted like he was being cool and making her cool by describing the Butler family’s affinity for heavy metal. How a human being could be this stupid Amanda could not figure out.
Jessica’s mother ran back inside and immerged with the birthday cake in her hands, and all the girls began to sing and some took pictures of each other and the cake with their cell-phone cameras. The girls then began to pick at the pieces of cake, and they continued laughing loudly. Each small piece of ice cream cake was practically swallowed, not chewed, by these gaunt, bird-like, ravenous creatures. They were all so consumed with keeping the size of their bites down and they loved talking so much about Justin Bieber and any other celebrity their age that they simply didn’t notice that Amanda wasn’t there anymore. She had been gone maybe five or six minutes before her dad began to notice her absence, and he figured she had just had too much food and had gone to the bathroom or something, and he didn’t think to worry.
Amanda had decided that she wanted to see where Jessica slept. Even after all these trips to Jessica’s house, Amanda had never seen her bedroom. So she wandered alone through the sliding patio door, into the kitchen, to the stairs, up them, and down the hall to Jessica’s room. She saw the various posters of celebrities like Usher and Britney Spears - Amanda didn’t know that Jessica was really ashamed to still have that poster in her room from three years ago. She opened the drawers to Jessica’s large chest, and picked through the various designer t-shirts and skirts. Jessica and Amanda were almost the same height, and Amanda would have easily fit into Jessica’s clothing if she’d tried it on. She held up a shirt in front of a mirror and tried to imagine that she and Jessica could somehow switch lives. She would be willing to part with her body and especially her family; God would just need to organize a switch in brains between Jessica and Amanda so Amanda could be the other girl and no one would know. How much easier her life might be!
Amanda put down the clothes and sat on Jessica’s bed to relax. There was no way she could actually put on Jessica’s clothes, she thought. After all, she wasn’t crazy. Then she saw the fish.
His little orange body sparkled as the sunlight entered Jessica’s window, and Amanda was mesmerized by the contrast in color from that deep, rich orange color to the French blue of the pebbles at the bottom of his bowl. A little white sign that read “Larry’s Lounge” was posted into those deep blue pebbles. Amanda had seen many goldfish before, and she knew that they didn’t live long. So it surprised her to see this little fish swimming proudly in his little bowl and sparkling so brightly like an orange gem.
Amanda didn’t stare for too long. And she knew immediately what she had to do. She walked methodically down the carpeted stairs and back towards the kitchen, but, instead of going back outside, she turned left when she saw two little stairs heading down to a plain door. She opened the door and was greeted instantly with the darkness of a garage and the smell of a lawnmower. She fumbled trying to find a light, but when she did, she turned her attention to the table of tools. She searched with purpose, almost as if this garage were her own and she was a married family man in his mid-30s instead of a thirteen-year-old girl.
When she found the net, she grabbed it firmly and headed back upstairs. She turned the light off, closed the door behind her, and again moved purposely back up the stairs and into Jessica’s room. Before she dipped the rectangular net into Larry’s bowl, she felt in her shorts pocket for the plastic knife she had stolen from the party; it was still there. Then she reached her entire upper body over the little fishbowl. Larry swam at a faster rate as her head cast a shadow that he could see. She dipped the net into the bowl and began chasing the little fish. He was fast! It never seemed so hard for the clerks at Petland to catch these little guys! But she kept following him around the bowl. She tried a few times to pin his body against the glass so she could simply scoop him in, but he was too fast for her. She couldn’t catch him.
After a few minutes of this, Amanda thought about trying a different course of action. What about dumping the contents of Larry’s bowl into a toilet or sink? She thought she might have to in order to get him, but she wasn’t ready to give up. She choked up on the net as she did so often on a bat in her softball games, and she went under Larry’s body and scooped up. That did it. The water came streaming out of the net and back into Larry’s bowl; some of it dripped onto Jessica’s desk as Amanda moved the net away from the top of the bowl.
And Larry’s body was moving fast. Like every fish out of water, he jumped his whole body into the air, and his gills struggled with feverish panic. His mouth gasped for any water he could taste, and he seemed to be biting the air in hope of finding something to breathe.
Amanda held the net out away from her; there was virtually no water in it anymore, and Larry was beginning to slow. Amanda grabbed his slippery body with her right hand, and then she took out the plastic knife with her left. She smiled thinly as she began to work.
The girls and Jessica’s mother were shocked by how sharp that little knife was. They told the 911 operator on the phone that Amanda had attempted to slice open a live goldfish with a steak knife, and they were shocked to find out that it was only a simple party knife used to eat ice-cream cake with. For her part, Amanda has no memory of the events beyond that image of that white knife behind the head of the orange fish.
Larry was an unlucky fish. Amanda had grabbed him by the torso, and immediately set the plastic knife to the soft spot behind his head. Her grip was firm, and she was able to create a good cutting motion with that knife, almost like a sawyer uses when he cuts through a log. Larry’s neck broke and he died instantaneously, and Amanda collapsed. She had tried to sever Larry’s head from his body completely, but she was unable to get all the way through. Larry’s dead head remained attached to his body by only a few threads of skin, and this split carcass was exclaimed at by the Davenports and eventually collected into a plastic bag by the police.
Mrs. Davenport screamed when she saw Amanda on the floor. She squeezed her busty torso down the stairway quickly to the phone and couldn’t be bothered to answer any questions from the loud girls around her. She also was unable to provide the 911 operator with any real information. All she could state clearly was, “Please help.”
And when the truth emerged about Amanda killing Larry, it was Mrs. Davenport who was the loudest advocate for a psychiatrist. “Jessica was in a state of shock for hours because of your little devil child,” she told Amanda’s mother over the phone, “that it just ruined her whole birthday! Now maybe she needs to see some one to get over the pain of losing a close family pet.” Beads of sweat formed on the receiver as Linda yelled into it. “And you might want to contact your attorney, unless you’ll be representing yourself.” With that, Linda hung up, smug and assured that she had put the fear of the law into Mrs. Butler, that cold-hearted career woman. She knew she’d never go for Will again, either: he had yelled at Jessica to stop screaming, and that was not going to happen again. Linda knew her great figure would lure in some man to watch over her and her little angel Jesse.
“Why did you do it,” Dr. Shaw, Amanda’s therapist six months later, asked.
“I don’t know,” Amanda said, not looking at him. “Maybe I have a weird
association with fish. Like I just need to kill them for no good reason.” Dr. Shaw never interrupted a patient when she was in the middle of musing aloud, so he let Amanda work it out in her own head. “Although I never killed any other fish, or even tried to, so I don’t know.”
“Maybe it was a cry for help,” Shaw said. “Maybe killing that fish was the only
thing you could do.”
“Yeah, probably,” Amanda agreed.
“Does your father ever realize that?” Shaw asked. “That you need help?”
“No,” Amanda said. She glanced quickly at his face.
“What if he would?” Shaw asked as he stood up and over her. He put his hand to her cold cheek and held her face up to meet his. He held her dumb, innocent stare for a few seconds before he kissed her thin lips. Amanda reacted as she had to his two previous advances: she neither encouraged nor rejected them.
Then Shaw began to take off his pants. His dark office became an ocean once he kissed her. His face was surrounded by a blurriness of sharp waves, and his fish was slippery and salty to Amanda’s mouth.
Amanda put on the Top 40 radio station as she rode home with her dad, and she dreamed of the shirts and skirts she had seen in Jessica’s room. She held her hands and pictured them manicured and with shiny polish to match her outfit; she pictured hoop earrings and bracelets, and a tattoo of a yellow and black butterfly on her bare, shaven ankle. Will came into her room as she lay down to sleep, kissed her forehead and brushed her cheek as he did every night, just to tell her he loved her.
“Dad, I hope Jessica Davenport forgives me.”
“I know, honey. Me too. Now get some sleep.”