Reciprocity


Guiding his mom's old sedan over the Broughton River Bridge was a simple task, especially for a drunk.  Andy's head swam, a pickled brain
sloshing inside a sealed container.  His eyes closed, his hands drifted right, and the steering wheel moved with them.  He jolted with the
impact, almost tossed from his seat but for the safety belt cutting into his collarbone. One quick crunch and a spray of concrete, and the car
dropped through the air...

                                                                         
***

Four and a half years ago, Andy pedaled home from football practice with his best friend Jason Thomas.  They dropped their bikes on the
sidewalk outside Gibson's discount store on the way home, slipped inside the cool, air-conditioned building, and meandered the aisles.  At
thirteen, the boys felt too old for toys, but risked a quick trip through the aisle of bright action figures, cars, and other gadgets.  They ended
their visit with the fish tank.

Andy looked at Jason, lingering for a moment on his red, puffed cheeks.  "I'd like an aquarium, someday.  Maybe in my room."  He looked at the
taut veins in Jason's neck and felt embarrassment creep into his cheeks.  His eyes flashed back to the tank.  

"Watch this," Jason muttered as he thrust his meaty paw into the water, seized one of the golden things, and pulled it out.  Water streamed
from his fist, running in crooked lines down this thick forearm.  Jason slowly unpeeled his fingers, and the fish flopped from his hand and
wriggled on the floor, slipping just under the shelf and out of reach.   Andy dropped to the floor, groping for the fish.

"Can I help you?"

Andy sprang to his feet, his face blushing and burning.  "No... just dropped a quarter... it's okay."

"Yeah."  The clerk glanced at Jason.  "Sure."

While the clerk walked away, Jason held the damp arm behind his back.  He stifled a laugh with the other.  "Dude, you look ridiculous on all fours,
get up."

                                                                         ***

The sedan split the water's surface. The sound, surely thunderous from the bridge above, came as only a muted thud to Andy's ears. Cold
momentum pulled the steel into the depths, the car sinking through the awful murk.  Andy's glassy eyes darted around the cabin, drinking the
moment, finding small trickles of black water as they pushed through cracks around the doors and windows...

                                                                         ***

Six months ago, Andy and Jason bounced in that old sedan as they crossed the Broughton River Bridge and followed a rough dirt road to the
water.  Andy held tight to the steering wheel with his left hand as his right vibrated on the gear shift knob.  Jason balanced the half-full fish tank
on his lap, and when the car skidded and jumped on the gravel, brown water crested the aquarium wall and sprayed on his jeans.  Andy glanced
at Jason's wet thigh, and an awkward moment forced his gaze to his window and the clouds unrolling above them -- an early fall storm that
brought lightning and rain.

"Shit -- I'm getting fish crap all over my jeans-- "  Jason lifted the tank just off his lap, trying to keep the water from splashing him as it slopped
over the lip.

"We're almost there."  Andy reached to the dash and pulled on the headlights as the swollen storm cut off the sun.

"Oh fuck it." Jason rolled his eyes and sat the tank back on his damp leg.

"Why the hell didn't you just dump this stupid fish in the toilet anyway?"

Andy turned to look at Jason's face, not chubby anymore, but angular and firm -- a man's face growing on top of the boy's.   "I just figure I owe
this fish a fighting chance."

"Andy-man, you're nuts." Jason looked into the top of the tank.  "This guy is food for the big lunkers.  Should have flushed him, let him die
quickly."  He laughed.

"Shut up," Andy said as he squinted back to the road.

"Why'd your mom make you -- "

"No room in the new apartment.  Dad hates the fish, anyway."

After sliding to a park and taking the tank from Jason, Andy stood at the edge of the river.  The water's surface started to shake with
raindrops.  He held the tank and looked at the lone survivor -- the fish that weathered two years in his bedroom, sitting in that tank on a
dresser. He hesitated, remembering.

"Come on, damn it!" Jason shouted from the car.  "It's really starting to piss on us!"

"Good luck," Andy said as he tipped the tank toward the flowing water and watched the streak of gold slide out and into the river.  With an
electric flash, the fish vanished.  Andy thought about diving in and vanishing too.  They drove back to Springdale in the silence between thick
drops of rain, something heavy floating in the air between them.  Andy looked out the window, watching droplets explode in the dirt.

                                                                         ***

Andy's fingers scratched and pulled at the safety belt, trying to wrench it free while the small trickles of water burst into full sprays.  Gravity
held him fast against the belt, belly to the bottom of the river.  The front grill burrowed into the silt, and Andy vomited into the windshield. He
began to imagine dying...

                                                                         ***

During his sophomore year, a crushing tackle during the second week of practice snapped Andy's tibia.  His football career was over -- thankfully
over, but he couldn't tell his dad and Jason couldn't understand.   Andy never wanted to play.  He couldn't stand the closeness in the locker
room, afraid that someone would read secret thoughts on his face.  Most of all, he was terrified that one of the other boys would find out, crack
through his facade, and he would face the horrible jeers, mockery, his father's whiskey-tinged disappointment.

His mother bought the fish, set up the tank in Andy's room for something to occupy the hours of waiting for the slow knitting of his splintered
bone.  At first there were three of them.  "You can name them after the Three Stooges, honey," his mother said with a smile.

Being away from the field didn't make the feelings go away.  Jason would help with his books in the halls and stop to visit most evenings after
football practice.  "Great practice today.  I think we're going to be good.  Coach says I might get some playing time."

"Awesome, Jay.  Really."  Andy forced his gaze away from Jason's blue eyes; he stared across the room at an overturned laundry basket.  A few
moments passed in silence.

"Hey, you know that girl I told you about, Mandy?"

"Yeah, Mandy."  Andy felt hot; he wanted to throw open his bedroom windows.

"Well, what do you think?"

"She's nice."

"No, what would you give her... on a scale of one to ten."

Andy squirmed.  He closed his eyes.  "Five -- six -- I don't know... "

"Wow, I was hoping for at least a seven."  Jason plucked at his sweaty t-shirt.  "Damn.  I better take a shower.  Later, dude."  He paused in
Andy's doorway.  "Hey, Mandy has a couple friends, maybe we could double."

"Sure, whatever," Andy mumbled.  After Jason left, Andy turned to the small flecks of gold that couldn't swim away and hide from him.

                                                                         ***

Something grew in the cloudy water -- something gold and shimmery.  The windshield buckled a little while the shadows of catfish and carp
swirled in the darkness.  The gold thing swelled, skating through the darkness, burning, it seemed, with its own light.  Andy's eyes caught the
fins, the translucent fans of orange waving in the water.  A sense of calm bloomed inside his chest.  The enormous goldfish moved as if to
swallow Andy, the car –everything.  It loomed, blotting out the world, covering Andy with a dark shroud...

                                                                         ***

A few hours ago, the sky was thick and pervasive like spilt ink.  Andy, holding an aluminum can in his hand, stood just outside the crowd.  Music
poured from the house, and bodies moved and danced on the lawn in the cool, spring air.  It was Mandy's house -- Jason's girlfriend.  Her
parents were gone; she opened the invitation.  "Just a little party," she had told Jason.

Andy paced outside the noisy eye of the party, finished his six beer, and felt the buzz.  He always paced outside the crowd, always tried to
vanish, become invisible.  Springdale was so small, so uncompromising, so unsympathetic.  
Two more months, he thought, then done, gone.  
His father, armed with rough calloused fists and bleeding that oily car smell  -- gone.  The feeling of scratching at the iron doors of a cocoon,
suffocating in that small town -- gone.  Andy was ready to go.

"Dude," Jason thumped him across the back with one heavy hand.  "Some cute girls here -- Cat, y'know Mandy's older sister is back from
college.  You remember her.  She asked about you."

Andy stepped further away from the group.  "I... I'm not really interested."

"Dude -- she's hot.  Weren't you guys in art club or some shit together?"

Andy gulped the last of his warm beer and tossed the can behind him.  "Choir, dumbass." He crossed his arms.  "Look -- "

"She told me to come find you, now c'mon."  Jason leaned closer; Andy smelled his breath, saw a flicker in his eyes.  He wrapped one strong
hand around Andy's arm.

Andy felt stifled, hot and suffocating.  "I'm not interested all right... I'm just –"

"What?"  Jason dropped his grip and backed toward the party.  "What -- you don't like girls?"  He chuckled. "I've tried to set you up before.  I
try to get you a hook up with a hot college chick, and this is the shit you drop on me."  Jason's smile shifted into sour disgust.

Andy flushed -- feeling naked, flayed open under the purple sky.  He stepped back, suddenly afraid. "Jay... I didn't want you to... "

Jason turned away, becoming a black giant in the night.  His shoulders dropped and swelled again, growing bigger, menacing.  He snarled as he
spun.  "Fuck you, Andy." Jason's fist flashed to Andy's chin – a sharp crack, and Andy crumbled to the ground.  The shadow covered him.  "You
look stupid, crying on the ground on all fours.  Get up."

Andy brought his gaze to Jason's shadow, noticing the crowd growing behind him.  He spit blood, pushed to his knees, and slowly stood.  "Jay...
"

"Get away from me."  The shadow receded.

Andy wiped his face on one sleeve, fished the keys from his pocket, and stumbled to his car.  The sound of music, voices, and laughter faded to
a pinprick and vanished. He climbed into the car and brought it to life with an awkward growl.

                                                                         ***

After being swallowed, Andy chose between the darkness he knew and an impossible darkness.  He closed his eyes against the darkness inside
the maw of that fish.  He chest began to warm;  his heart beat grew tiny but fast, almost a constant hum.  He felt pulled from the mud; the
car dissolved—the biting pain of the seatbelt melted from his collarbone.  Andy flew through the water, borne inside a massive goldfish...

                                                                         ***

Andy opened his eyes on the river bank, looking into the dark water.  A billion stars lit the surface, dancing as the current pulled toward bigger
rivers and eventually the ocean.  Among the dots of silver, he saw one large smear of gold – an immense blur that turned and circled.

When the gold vanished, Andy felt his clothes, realized they were soaked and dredged with heavy river mud.  He pulled the shirt off first,
struggling to yank his arms free.  The April breeze still had a chill, but something inside Andy's chest still burned warm and lovely.  The warmth
spread to his fingers and toes.  Andy pushed off both shoes before shaking off his wet jeans.  He dropped to the mud and stripped both socks
and his underwear.

He stood for a moment, naked on the edge of the shifting water.  He glowed slightly in the black world, shimmered like a fresh coin.  His lungs
swelled with good night air, and Andy splashed into the river – no longer trapped and drowning, but free.
Aaron Polson
Aaron Polson is a high school English teacher who dreams in black and white while Rod Serling narrates.  When he
isn't arguing about the definition of irony with his students, he can be found chipping away at some twisted tale.  He
currently resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit.  His short fiction has appeared in  
Reflection's Edge, Necrotic Tissue, Soundings Review, and other publications.  You can visit him on the web at
www.aaronpolson.com.
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