Right before I caved and called Dad, his work called. They never do that. The woman’s voice was warm but strange, shaky at the end of sentences. “Mr. Cabrera? One of your father’s coworkers found him entangled with a dead cow on the kill floor. He was shooting it with his bolt gun repeatedly. We had a hard time getting him to stop.”

All I could think to say was, “Oh.”

“You’re his emergency contact.”


“. . . This is an emergency.”

I looked around my car. All the seats were full, mostly of clothes, but also some vinyl, a couple books, and my roommate’s bong secured with a seatbelt. Through my front window I looked up at an apartment that I never wanted to go back to. There was nothing in there I would miss. 

“I don’t live in Los Suelos anymore,” I tell her. “I’ll be there in about four hours.” 

The worst part about Dad is how he always thinks he’s okay. I pick him up from work because no one wants him to drive, but I can’t stop him from putting his hands out like he’s steering. His arms stay stuck out, hovering over the glove compartment the entire car ride. I tell him about working in Monterey and leave out the bad stuff, but he just hums to himself, like he’s driving home alone. 

I get him home and feed him. He taught me that’s what you should always do with people. Nothing good happens when you’re hungry, and worse things happen when others are hungry. Maybe I should take him to the doctor, but I don’t think they’ll tell us much other than to let him rest and give him fluids, and I don’t think either of us wants to pay to hear someone say that.

We watch old DVDs we’ve already seen, in the living room that’s only ever had a TV and a couch. I used to draw pictures of whales and sharks here. Always loved them. Still don’t know why. We get through half of a nature documentary about endangered animals before switching to an action movie with a lot of CGI. Dad grabs two beers from the fridge at some point and we watch longer. He gets another beer but doesn’t bring me a second. I put on the sequel. The CGI is even worse but the plot is better. 

I go into the kitchen and grab myself a beer but don’t go back into the living room. Dad seems okay now. I walk down the hall and into my old room, which he hasn’t changed, and I sit in a bed whose sheets probably haven’t been washed in years. The whole room smells stale and dries out my nose. As I crack open the beer, I can’t help but be mad at Dad. He made it too easy to come back home, and it already feels like a trick.  

I remember that one of the Clove triplets at Pets, Pets, PETS!!! likes fish in particular, and I hope to use that to land a job. Maybe it’s because the store is open 24 hours, but they’re more eager than I expect; they barely even interview me. Shit, all that time struggling elsewhere, and a job practically falls in my lap when I end up back here. I should have settled for minimum wage sooner. 

The work entails more phone calls than I expect. A lot of questions about lost pets, usually last seen running toward the Bolt Gun Hills. Almost as many calls about owners finding their pets but now they’re acting strange. Darkness, I quickly learn to say; your animal wants to be in darkness. We sell crates for that.  

The best part is the employee discount, but isn’t that always the case? I spent most of my first paycheck getting enough supplies to set up a new aquarium at Dad’s: 100-gallon tank, filters, pumps, some starter fish. 

Yesterday, I found him washing the walls in the hallway with a bucket and sponge but no suds. He was on his hands and knees, going up and down the wall with the sponge in big strokes, the wet scratching sound echoing down the hall. “New guy won’t cut it,” he said. “Can’t even clean up blood and guts right. There’s still so much blood on the walls. Couldn’t handle the kill floor and can’t handle cleanup duty.”

He isn’t getting better, and it’s almost been a month. It’s tempting to take him somewhere, but I know he’d prefer to ride it out, just like most people here. That’s our style. Wait and see. Ignore it until it goes away.

I head home with a new fish. I make soup while the fish acclimates to the tank water. Dad walks by the tank and looks at the fish, still in its plastic bag, waiting to be released. He taps the glass a few times like he wants to pop the bag, then walks away. 

The quick movement of his fingers reminds me of when he tried to get me to play baseball. He’d throw the balls right down the middle of the plate, at first. I’d think I was getting good at hitting the ball, then he’d throw one at my face. The last time he did it the ball grazed my cheek and left a bruise. 

“That’s what pitchers do. To throw you off balance. You okay?” 

I release the fish into the tank, watch it explore its new home for the first time. It swims faster, then slower, but its expression never changes. I have some soup while I watch the tank. Life idling in water. It seems nice. 

I finish the soup and head toward my bedroom. I peek through Dad’s open door, his television sending flickering blue light through the crack. He’s asleep, and I tiptoe in. I don’t nudge him awake. I don’t tell him about the soup I made. Slowly, quietly, I take his work uniforms out of his drawer and walk out of the room with them, hugging the pile against my chest. I go outside with his clothes. I think about heading toward the trash bin, but I put them in the trunk of my car instead. 

I go to bed thinking I don’t know why I did that other than I wanted to. 

When I wake up, Dad is already searching for his work uniforms. He asks where they are, and I tell him I don’t know, that he’s the one that’s home all day while I’m working. 

“I’m working with animals, Dad,” I say, and I remember the first time he told me how a bolt gun works. “Kind of like you.” 

He doesn’t reply.  He stops searching for his uniforms, parks himself at the kitchen table and broods. He can’t sit quietly, though, because he keeps coughing. He mutters about wanting to go back to work. 

“They don’t want you coming back to work yet,” I lie. I haven’t spoken to anyone at Schaefer’s since his incident. Then I add, “Not until you’re better,” to make it sound more legitimate. 

“It’s just a little cough now,” he says, while continuously coughing. “My temp is fine.” Whether or not that’s the case, he still looks like shit.

I remind him about what happened at the slaughterhouse, but he doesn’t remember it the way it happened. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He’s convinced the cow he kept shooting was still alive. 

“Get some rest,”  I tell him, not wanting to argue. No matter what, it’ll end with him saying, How would YOU know? Were YOU there?   

My shift doesn’t start for another hour, but I leave early so his health and the whereabouts of his uniforms don’t become even more of a thing. 

“I’ll be back later. There’s soup in the fridge,” I say, then leave. 

It starts off slow at the petstore and I spend some time skimming through a rare animal care and feeding guide. I read about local species I’ve never seen but hope to one day. It’s funny how you can live somewhere almost your entire life and still not see all of it. Work finally picks up. Some people bring in cages and take them to the back, not saying a word. A few people come in and share strange stories about their pets. Each one sounds like a pain in the ass to deal with, but they always sound excited and happy to tell me about it. All the while, the animals inside the store caw and bark and meow. The longer I help people, the more the animal noises change. The caws become little screams. The meows become nails scratching glass. The barks become the hum of a cement mixer, which softens the blow of the caws and meows. But the fish, god bless them, don’t make a sound. I stay in the aquatics section as much as I can and try to drink more water than I usually do. 

On my way home, I daydream about lying in bed and getting drunk. I’ll make sure Dad has some of the soup I made and spend the rest of the evening alone. It’ll be a good way to end a not-great day. 

When I get inside, I immediately head to the kitchen to grab a beer. I catch something sitting in the sink and stop to look closer. A big clump of vomit sits there, stinking as it crusts over. The vomit leaks red. A deep, blood red. 

I find Dad asleep in the living room, mouth agape. His pants are wet at the crotch and down one of the legs. I can smell the reek of his dehydrated urine before I get close enough to wake him up. He’s warm and damp.

“You’re covered in piss,” I say after shaking him awake. 

“I spilled some beer,” he mumbles. 

“There’s vomit in the kitchen sink. Looks like it has blood in it.”

“The beans were bad.”

I haven’t gone grocery shopping this week. The only food in the house was the soup. How did he not see it?

“We don’t have any beans,” I say. 

“I know. They went bad,” he mumbles again.

It’s going to take a while to clean him up and make sure he’s alright.

“Goddammit, Dad.”

I release some shifts to make sure he doesn’t need to be driven to the hospital in Merced. I feed him more and more. More soup. Sandwiches. Ice cream. Anything. I fill him with calories that can help him fight off the sickness he has. He eats anything I bring him without question. Seeing him shovel it all down, hearing his gulping, seeing the crumbs and drips accumulate on his stubbled neck—it’s hard to bear, and I avoid looking at him, let alone touching him, but I think all the food is helping. He seems more content to just be home, daydreaming. 

He doesn’t need to go to the hospital.

He wouldn’t want to go, anyway. 

After another big meal, he gets up and walks around. Another good sign. I watch him from a distance. He stops and stares at my aquarium. His shoulders droop and relax. I let him enjoy himself in front of the tank while I grab a beer for myself—the last one from the current batch—and lie down in bed. It’s not even the middle of the day yet, and I don’t usually nap, but everything’s catching up to me. Been tired more and more. Maybe I’ll eat a lot of food too and see if it helps. 

I dream about the last tank I had. The one I kept in Monterey. Just a 50-gallon, but damn was it beautiful. All those clownfish, and the forest of anemones I built up. Loved that tank—the one my roommate tampered with after I did that thing, that thing I never should have done. I don’t blame him for not being able to forgive me, but I didn’t expect him to go straight for my heart.  

God, it was terrible coming home to all those fish floating at the top.

I wake up, the memory of my dead fish still fresh, superimposed over my blank bedroom walls. 

I really loved them. 

I get up and look for Dad in his room, but he’s not there, then I check the living room. Nothing. And he’s not in the kitchen either. 

Then I reach my new tank. I watch all the life inside it. Everything in there–the clownfish and damselfish and the green water chromis and yellow watchman goby–all of them are alive because of me. I watch them going back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the tank to the other. 

Like a small town. 

Maybe their eyes will tell me if they’re happy here, but all their eyes are solid black beads. 

Just nothingness in there. 

I move without thinking. I grab a hammer from the tool bench in the garage and come straight back to the tank. I smash a hole in the center of the tank then run my hands along the perimeter of the hole, pulling at the glass and helping the water gush out faster, widening the hole until there’s no chance anything will survive. I leave before the water can finish pouring out, before the fish finish dying, and while part of me feels like this is all a dream a larger part of me keeps thinking I don’t know why I did that other than I wanted to.

The sun is warm on my face and on the new cuts up and down my arms. It’s time to leave, like Dad and the fish. In no time I’m at the edge of town, at Paloma’s house. I never took the time to get to know her well, but I’ve always thought her garden was so beautiful. I look for her but don’t see her, so I enter her garden. The fence is broken anyway.  

Flowers surround me. They’re wonderful. In their natural habitat. Unthinking and free. I walk in further, reaching a well I never knew was there. 

I look down into the well. At first, it’s pitch black, but then I make out a faint figure in a red sweater. My stomach drops and then my body goes numb. 

Dad’s down there. 

It hits me hard. He’s gone. I know it. I think about screaming for help, or calling to him to see if he’s okay, but those things should have been done a long time ago. 

“Dad,” I say. “I think something’s wrong with me.” 

The wind picks up. The flowers and plants dance, mocking me. My hands and arms hurt so much. My knuckles are torn and raw. Glass shimmers in the wounds. I can’t think of a single part of me that I like and it’s a terrible feeling and I fall toward the only person that’s ever been a constant throughout my life. I hear the rushing of waves but it’s me that comes crashing down. I expect everything to turn black, for all feeling to stop, but it doesn’t.

It’s worse than that. 

I hit the bottom hard and feel everything. 

Bones break, but I’m alive. I’m on top of him. He’s still, gone. I have no choice but to embrace him with my broken limbs. Shock helps with the pain. I stare ahead and my eyes start to adapt. The well doesn’t end here. There’s a small tunnel, leading somewhere underground. Maybe, just maybe, I can crawl to whatever that place is. 

But, for now, I hug Dad as my eyes continue to adjust to this newfound darkness. 

It’s been so long since we’ve been this close.

His sickness brought us together.

Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.

Photo of author

Barton Aikman

Barton Aikman is a graduate of the 2019 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His work has appeared in numerous venues including Apex Magazine, Augur, and Southwest Review. He earned his MFA at California Institute of the Arts and continues to live and write in Los Angeles.