For show-and-tell I bring my pet rock, Earl, hidden in a shoebox. I wait my turn, clapping along halfheartedly every time Hector’s pug manages a trick. It does its final routine, shake/roll-over/play dead, and Mr. Mann calls on me. “You’re up.” The puppy-dog circus sits down and I take center stage.
“This is Earl.” I lift the box’s lid, gingerly raising him to eye level for everyone to see. “I’ve had him for five years. My mom got him at a yard sale.” Giggles flicker in the back of the room. “He and I go everywhere together. On walks, vacations—” I hold up a few printouts my mom put together, snapshots of Earl and me at the drive-in, an amusement park, blowing bubbles on our porch. “We play fetch, too. Only, Earl is kinda the ball.” I strap Earl into his harness, stroke his gentle face, and toss him into the air. Mr. Mann winces.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him, launching the stone upwards again and again, “ever since we broke the ceiling fan, I’m careful about how high I throw him.”
Mr. Mann rolls his seat away from our spectacle, eyes fixed on the airborne rock. “Any questions, class?”
Etta and Camille, best friends forever, whisper to each other and Etta raises her hand.
“Go ahead, Etta.”
“Is that the same rock your mom smashed through the church’s window?” She immediately buries her face into crossed forearms and crumbles beneath bouts of laughter.
Mateo shouts a question at me without raising his hand. “Does it also eat Hot Pockets every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?” Everyone cracks up—they still remember the monotony of my second-grade packed lunches.
“Sit.” Mr. Mann rises from his wheely chair and shoos me back to my desk. Hector leans over and whispers to me as I take my seat. “Really cool, wonder why no one wants to come to your house.”
I lose control of Earl’s leash and he lunges after Hector’s pug.
Earl knocks the dog hard on the head, and it yelps before falling, bleeding, to the tile floor. Hector begins to cry, and Mr. Mann yanks Earl from the floor while pulling me to the classroom door. “To the office!” I catch a final glimpse of Earl as I’m shoved into the hall and marched to the principal’s lair.
“I’m sorry, baby. They just don’t want dangerous pets like him living here.” Mom runs her fingers through my hair as I cry and stare at Earl’s empty tank. “He’ll be happier with the other rocks up in Bolt Gun Hills.”
“When can we go visit?” I whine into my forearms, all snotty and red and salty.
“Soon, baby, soon. When I get a weekend off.” She gets me ready for bed, unplugs the tank’s fluorescent light, and carries the enclosure away. It’s all dark except for the blinking streetlights outside my window.
I’m the only student in Los Suelos with in-school suspension, after-school detention, and a mom that assigns apology letters. Between sessions of schoolwork, I have to write an ‘I’m Sorry’ essay for Hector and his stupid pug. When Mom picks me up, she’s covered in the usual mix of mud and damp and dust. But she doesn’t ask me about my day and I don’t bother her about work.
We get back to our apartment, a two-bedroom in the back of a shop, and she points upstairs. “Go do your homework. I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.” I nod, hug her, and head up to my room.
Just inside my door, I hear a strange bubbling sound. I see a light in the corner.
“Hi, little buddy!”
A small fish swims in the aquatically renovated tank. I turn to run downstairs and thank Mom, but she’s already waiting at the bottom, leaning on the banister and grinning. “Do your homework.”
I finish half of my assignments before giving up to sit and watch my new friend, tentatively named Pearl. I tap on the glass to try and make her move. She doesn’t do much. I don’t have a leash for her, but a game of catch is worth a try.
Her sliminess grosses me out and I drop her a few times as she wriggles in my fingers. “Hold still, buddy.” Cupping Pearl in both hands, I toss her up to the ceiling. I forget the spinning fan, again. Unlike Earl, Pearl doesn’t snap the blades in half—but the blades snap Pearl.
She’s thrown against a wall, bounces off, and hits the floor with a pathetic thud. She doesn’t move when I pick her up. I poke her gills but they remain motionless, orange eyes staring out at nothing.
Mom calls out from downstairs. “Dinner!”
I drop the carcass back into the tank and dash downstairs, doing my best to dry my hands on my pants and avoid the stink of guilt.
“You giv’er a name?” Mom grins as she dishes spaghetti onto my plate.
“No.” I twirl the pasta onto my fork. “Thanks for dinner.”
“Well, whatcha think? That Cabrera kid helped me pick her out, just for you.”
I shrug, and Mom deflates.
“Don’t you like her? I thought— you’re a big kid, you should have a grown-up pet.”
I don’t say a word, pushing noodles between my teeth.
“I miss Earl,” I say, wiping my mouth. “I want my rock back.”
Mom nods, sighs, and grabs another beer.
“Pets, Pets, PETS!!! don’t take returns or give refunds. That fish is what you got.”
We finish the meal in silence.
Mom finds the dead fish the next morning and drains the tank before she goes to work, flushing Pearl down the toilet and into the San Joaquin River. After our silent ride home from detention I shuffle upstairs to start my science homework.
The tank is back, full of air and easter grass.
“Earl!” I run to the glass, heart racing and face beaming. I hold him in my palms and savor the sensation of dry, cold, solid stone. It looks a lot like him, could be a twin. But it’s not Earl. I can tell. Mom has replaced him with a counterfeit.
At dinner, Mom has three beers ready and doesn’t bother asking what I think about the fake. Half-way through the meatloaf, I decide to tell her anyway.
“Mom, I’m not dumb about rocks. That isn’t the real Earl.”
Mom says she’s too busy to drive me to and from school anymore.
The next morning, I hide the Earl-fraud in my pocket and skip class to visit the Hole on the outskirts of town. I stand at the edge and throw the rock down inside, no leash attached, and wait to hear it hit the bottom—
Featured image by Ian Kappos.