She stood over the tank, their jailer, and tisked. Genuine concern creased her face, and if he was honest with himself Cliff knew her alarm was valid. In the past 24 hours both he and Rudy started feeling a little more than just fishy… like something was wrong. For Cliff he felt out of breath, tired, and his thoughts came to him slowly.
He saw the cat staring at him from above, literally inches from his position and felt no alarm at its inquisitive eyes staring right at him. A moment later he came to his senses. A gasp of air choked him as flash of white-tipped paw plunged in to the tank to snatch at him and he descended down as fast as his body would allow him.
That was the first sign that something was wrong.
He felt a shower of fish pellets assault his backside but he did not stir. For some reason his appetite was lost to him, and he preferred to let the light current of the tank drag him in easy going circles along the bottommost pane.
“Come on little guy, perk up.” Their captor tapped at the glass trying to get Rudy’s attention, and even though she was glistening wet having just come out of the shower with a towel wrapped snuggly around her ample bust, Cliff saw his friend could only manage a half-hearted salute. Cliff admired the kid’s efforts but from where he was drifting it seemed like a lot of work for a weak smile.
Next there was an itching and a bitting in his neck. He knew he was in no position to overexert himself, and yet the itching was driving him mad! On instinct he spun in half circles trying to outrun the irritation but deep down he knew it came from within. Try as he might, he would not be rid of it by running alone.
When he felt something move and wiggle beneath the skin he tried to ignore it… surely there’d been some mistake. Perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him. He dismissed a bump here, a slither there, but when the wiggling became more constant he had to know the truth. He found Rudy in the corner humming to himself.
A song he could almost remember from his life before.
Cliff squeezed in beside Rudy until he could see both their reflections in the water. It still hurt to see a fish in the glass where there should have been a human face staring back at him. “What’s that?”
“What Mr. James?” Rudy’s voice came out faint and his eyes were unfocused, uncaring. Has he given up then?
Cliff coughed. “What’s that you’re humming”
Rudy gulped a big breath of air. They both knew they had no lungs and the old way of oxygenating wouldn’t work… still it felt good to try it all the same. “It’s something my mom taught me. Well she didn’t teach me, but she use to sing it, and I learned it Mr. James.”
The words were on the tip of Cliff’s tongue but just beyond his grasp all the same. “Can you sing it.”
“Sure.” Rudy’s eye fell on Cliff and he saw the fish, the man, was in pain.
Forget about your clouds and your troubles
Forget about the waves an’ rain
Wash away what’s down in a dark haze
because it, keeps you from seeing me
Let go the fear and the heart
That aches and aches and aches all day
Oh, let go, and let’s run away
Forget it all but don’t you dare
Forget about me
Cliff was lost in an old memory then. He was three years old, and his little sister was in the child-seat next to him. A song came on the radio, and it was Rudy’s song. There was a band playing, and a feeling of ease and laughter washed over him as his mom and dad took up the tune and started ad-libbing. Adding lines about forgetting work, and even a line about forgetting Cliff back at the hotel while they all went off without him to have fun. Three year old Cliff knew they would never leave him still he screamed and laughed until his stomach split.
Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap.
And then the sweet memory was cut short and once again Cliff was faced with the reality of his situation, and the threat of the blue eyed devil down in the deep red. If they died in the tank he knew, somehow he knew, they’d both be going to see that vile demon. He knew very little about the rules of this game he’d found himself in, but he knew he didn’t want to find out what the demon was capable of, and knew also that the demon very much wanted to meet him.
Cliff caught his friend’s eye. “Tell me, do you feel something moving? …beneath the skin?”
He saw panic in Rudy’s eyes, and they bulged out his head in fright. “I do Mr. James. That’s why I was humming. Because while that song was playing in my head I could pretend I felt fine, and that nothing was out of the ordinary. But you can feel it too can’t you?”
Cliff nodded. “It feels like there’s something in my neck. Can you take a look?”
Rudy swam in a wide arc and floated beside Cliff. “I don’t see anything”
“Hang on.” Cliff found an edge and pressed it into the spot on his neck where the itching was coming from. Instantly he felt squirming and for a second he thought he would choke but the wiggling died down, and he used the edge to peel back a flap on his neck. He’d seen that same slit on Rudy’s neck and guessed that what he was peeling back must have been a gill-covering. “There, do you see anything/”
“What…” Rudy gasped in horror. “What the hell am I seeing Mr. James! There’s a lot of them, to be sure. A Whole lot!”
“What!” Cliff let the covering close, and raced around to face his companion. “What did you see.”
“Worms, Mr. James, worms.” Despair turned his friend a deeper shade of blue. “Little black ones.”
They were both silent for a moment. Cliff had only just decided he hated fish when Rudy spoke up at a whisper, “We’re done for.”
Suddenly a hand was down in the tank swishing the water about violently. At first Cliff thought it was the cat, but cats didn’t have flakes of paint on their nails, nor skin for that matter. The jailer had gone mad and was trying to grab them. Perhaps the evil black cat had finally worked some satanic spell on the woman to make her do the cat’s biding.
Her cold fingers tried to trap Rudy, but he squeezed free. Cliff’s heart was racing as a second hand formed a cup with its fingers and forced Rudy back into the original. They trapped him in a wall of flesh. So that’s it, she’ll crush us!
Cliff could hear muffled screams from with in the clamped hands, and he knew he had to do something. He swam at the hands of their jailer as fast as he could and bit. He bit and bit but the woman’s skin was tough, and his bites were no deterrent.
“Ow,” screamed the jailer, “well I’ve never seen a fish so defensive of another fish before.” She whispered that’s interesting to herself, and whisked Rudy away across the living room, he could hear Rudy’s panicked screams the whole way. What was she doing to him?
He saw the cat take off after them. “Hey! Hey cat!” The little black cat stopped and tilted it’s head in contemplation. “Yeah that’s right! You can hear me, I know you can. You leave that fish alone, you hear?”
The black cat took a couple steps toward Rudy’s tank and stopped to lick its’ slender cat arms. “And what are you going to do about it, little fish. This is my domain.”