Authors: Jonah Hewitt
Book One of the Dead Things Series
Text copyright © 2011 by Jonah Hewitt
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Travis Lee Clark
All rights reserved.
No part of this book or its illustrations may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever
without written permission from the author or illustrator except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and critical reviews.
This book is dedicated to my eldest daughter,
Who inspired me to begin it,
And to my wife,
Who encouraged me to finish it.
Book One of the Dead Things Series
Fred the Unkillable
Maggie Miller tore down the hallway. There were angry voices and pouty voices and upset voices, but she knew her six-year-old daughter, Lucy, well enough to recognize a “horrified” voice when she heard it.
She came into her little girl’s room expecting to see a monstrous spider or something far,
worse. That was why it was such a surprise when she stopped at the doorway and all she saw was her daughter sitting on her bed holding a fishbowl in her lap, crying. Maggie looked at the fishbowl. The beautiful, purple and red tropical fish inside it was belly up.
“Oh, honey…” Maggie said coming into the room.
“Fred’s not moving,” Lucy whimpered.
Maggie sat down on the bed beside her daughter, put her arms around her shoulders and gave them a little squeeze. Then she laid her head on top of her daughter’s. Maggie stroked her little girl’s sandy hair while she sobbed, but she didn’t say anything. Sometimes these things just needed to be cried out. After a long while, it was Lucy who started speaking.
“It’s not fair,” Lucy suddenly said, angry, “I didn’t over feed him or let him get too hot or too cold or anything! I did everything right!”
Maggie just sighed through her nose. This was going to be a hard one.
“Honey…” Maggie paused, “Honey, fish don’t live forever.”
Lucy began sobbing again. Maggie stroked her arm. Maggie hated this part of being a parent. She loved her daughter very much, but it was so hard being the grown-up, having to be tough all the time. So she just held her daughter and tried to punctuate the tears with the best parental advice she could muster. She never knew if this did any good or not. She wasn’t even certain if she believed it herself. So much of what people said about death was so trite as to be meaningless, but she just felt as if she had to say
, so she soldiered on.
She started with, “Fred lived a good, long life for a fish, and it was just his time.”
The sobbing petered out to some light whimpering. Maggie rubbed her girl’s back and decided to go on, “The best we can do is to remember the good times.”
A few more snuffles. Lucy was nearly cried out now. Just a few more minutes and it would be over.
“Bad things happen. We just have to be strong and move on.”
After a few minutes more, Lucy had almost stopped crying completely and was just sniffing back tears and a runny nose now. Maggie hugged her daughter again, gave her an extra squeeze and then leaned back and looked into her daughter’s eyes. They were big and green and moist, but they weren’t tearing anymore. She was almost there. She decided to say one last thing to try to comfort her, “Sometimes these things happen and they just don’t make any sense and we just have to accept that.”
Lucy looked back at her mom with wide eyes and spoke, “Like dad?”
Maggie took in a breath but it never came back out. Her eyes darted nervously around the room at first and then between the fishbowl and her daughter’s equally glassy eyes. She remembered now the circumstances of when and why they had bought the fish. Her husband was dead. Her daughter was sad. She wanted a pet, but Maggie had insisted on a simple pet, a
pet. Something she wouldn’t have to worry about Lucy ever
. It was in the months, no…
after her husband had taken his…after her husband had passed away. How long ago was it? A little over two years now? Two years and three months, but how many days? She didn’t know exactly. Not without counting it up in her head. How could she not know?! She had thought about his death every minute of every hour of every day the first year, but this year, the next year, it had gotten easier. Had she thought of him today? Yesterday?
She didn’t know when she had thought about him last. It was a week at least. She felt guilty, ashamed, alone and hurt, and it all suddenly dawned on her. Here she was parroting back all the trite things her friends and coworkers at the library had said to her back then. No wonder her daughter was so upset. It wasn’t just the fish, it was her dad dying all over again, and here she was telling her it didn’t matter, suck it up, move on, grow up, get over it.
Maggie’s heart was suddenly in her throat. Her face went stiff and hot. She tried to turn away but couldn’t. A sob erupted from her mouth. It was more of a gulp of air really. She tried to hold the next one back but couldn’t. She slapped her hands over her mouth, but it didn’t matter. The sobs just kept coming. Soon the crying was racking her whole body with great heaving sobs.
“Mommy!” Lucy buried her head into her mother’s chest and threw her arms around her mom to try to comfort her, but with both arms around her mother’s middle, she didn’t have a hand free to hold onto the fishbowl. It slipped off her lap.
“L-Lucy!” Maggie yelled through sobs.
The fishbowl crashed to the hard oak floor, shattering into dozens of sharp pieces, sending glass and water and colorful gravel everywhere.
“Mom!” Lucy cried.
“It’s ok, honey, it’s ok,” Maggie reassured her daughter, “We’ll just clean it up.” Maggie was instantly glad the fishbowl had shattered. Somehow the shock of the breaking glass had brought her back around. There was something to do now, something to clean up and something to distract both of them. Maggie pulled herself together and the two of them got down on their knees and started picking up the pieces.
Not a minute into the cleanup, Lucy yelled out.
Maggie looked up. Her daughter was looking at her finger while a single trail of scarlet dripped from the fingertip. “Just great,” Maggie thought. Lucy had cut her finger on the glass. Already Lucy’s lip was trembling and in a moment the whole thing would start up again. Maggie couldn’t be certain she wasn’t about to start up again herself. Just when the waterworks were about to get going, Lucy looked down to the ground, stunned. The lip stopped trembling.
Maggie looked down. Fred was twitching. A few seconds on, and the fish was practically flopping around in a small puddle of water caught in one of the larger fragments of the fishbowl. A drop of Lucy’s blood was slowly dissipating in the tiny puddle too. In an instant, her daughter went from despair to elation.
“MOM!! FRED’S ALIVE!!”
But Maggie went from distress to near abject horror. She went rigid.
“Don’t touch it, Lucy.”
Lucy just looked at her in disbelief. “But, MOM, we have to save him!”
“DON’T TOUCH IT!!” Maggie screamed.
Lucy looked back at her mom, scared. Why was she so angry?
“But, mom…” Lucy went on.
“Um…ok, honey, hold still. Don’t move! I don’t want you to get cut again.” Maggie had to shake herself to bring herself back to the moment. What to do?!
“HOLD ON, LUCY!! I’ll be right back!!”
Maggie got up and ran to the kitchen. She found a large Mason jar, filled it with water and ran back to the room. She paused, looking disbelieving at the flopping fish.
“Mom!” Lucy implored.
“Right,” Maggie set about her task. She scooped up the fish and plopped it into the Mason jar. Fred swam around the smaller confines of the jar contentedly. Lucy began jumping up and down holding out both hands for her chance to hold her fish once again. Maggie reluctantly handed over the Mason jar.
Lucy was beside herself with relief.
“I can’t believe it!! FRED’S OK!!” She gazed into the Mason jar with wonder. Maggie stared too. Lucy hugged her mother around her middle, but Maggie Miller didn’t hug her daughter back. Instead she just stood there, hand on mouth, staring at the fish. After a while, Maggie gingerly pried the jar and miraculous fish from her daughter’s hands.
“What?” Lucy protested.
“Honey, Fred’s ok, and I still need to clean up all this glass. Ok? Now just go out into the kitchen and bring me the dustpan, broom and some rags. Ok?”
“Honey, please don’t argue.”
Lucy reluctantly went. After she came back with the cleaning supplies, Maggie sent her to the front room to wait. Lucy didn’t want to go, but Maggie insisted because Lucy didn’t have shoes on, and there was still a lot of glass. Lucy didn’t want to be parted from the resurrected pet so soon, but she was so happy to have Fred back, she didn’t complain too much.
Maggie swept up the gravel and glass and mopped up all the water, but she never took her eyes off of Fred swimming in the jar on Lucy’s dresser. When she was all done, Maggie went over to the fish, narrowed her eyes at it and tapped on the glass once or twice. It looked just like a normal fish.
Maggie leaned back and put her hands in her back pockets.
“Well, at least we’ll save on fish food,” she muttered to herself before leaving and shutting the bedroom door, “Thank goodness you weren’t a kitten!”
From that point on, Lucy and the fish were inseparable. In the years to come, the fish survived many more accidental hardships, including a couple more dropped fish bowls, being accidentally placed under a heat lamp and even an unexpected freeze when left outside. It didn’t help that Lucy insisted on taking the fish everywhere: show and tell, vacation, camp. It had survived so many mishaps that Lucy began calling it “Fred, the Unkillable.” When she got older, however, and she learned that fish simply don’t live for that long, she began to suspect that her mother was secretly replacing her original fish with identical fish all along. On a couple of occasions, she even found bags from the pet store lying around the house with receipts for new fish in them. Lucy hid the incriminating evidence when she found it and tried not to let on that she knew. Lucy never said anything about it to her mom even when she turned thirteen. She just figured it made her mom happy to keep up the pretense. It must have been a way for her mother to hold on to the innocence of her childhood just a little while longer.
But those receipts were for fish Maggie Miller secretly gave away to neighbors, coworkers and the children of friends. Maggie gave away enough fish over the years people began to think she had an odd fascination for them, but Maggie Miller didn’t care for fish
. She only needed the bags and the receipts. She left them around the house for her daughter to find every time Fred “miraculously” survived another calamity. The truth was, Fred really
“Fred the Unkillable,” and Maggie was prepared to do anything to keep her daughter from finding out the truth. She just wished her daughter wasn’t so accident-prone. Those fish were expensive.