“Are fish supposed to look like this?”
My two roommates appeared by my side, our faces almost touching as we peered into the tank, so close our breath fogged the plastic. The three of us peered into the one-gallon tank on my dresser, full of neon pink rocks, a fake plant, a gray plastic castle, and a purple-maroon Betta, our beloved Wanda, the mascot of Claflin Hall, room 107, who was not doing well.
“She looks… swollen,” Anna said.
“Kind of puffy,” said Leigh.
“Why are her scales sticking out like that?”
Wanda floated in her tank, barely bothering to swish her fins, ignoring the flakes of food I sprinkled on the surface above her enlarged head. Her scales – normally a bright, shiny metallic purple – were muted and protruding, no longer lying flat against her skin.
Leigh, on the premed track, turned to her computer. After a few minutes of research, she had the diagnosis:
“Dropsy. It’s definitely dropsy.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s when the fish can’t expel water any more and keeps absorbing it. That’s why she looks bloated: she’s full of water – even her organs. Listen: ‘When your fish resembles a pine cone, it’s too late for anything to be done.’”
We glanced back at my dresser. Wanda looked like a spikey, purple pinecone.
“Umm,” I said, a sick feeling swelling inside of me. “How does a fish get dropsy?” While all three of us treated Wanda as our communal pet, she was technically my fish and my responsibility. If Wanda was sick, I knew I had screwed up somehow.
“It’s when some sort of virus or infection gets under their scales and into their system. The website says it usually happens from using tap water instead of treated or bottled water.”
Everyone went quiet. Leigh looked at me, narrowing her eyes.
“Did you use tap water, E.B.?”
I thought of the night a week ago, feeling cheap and lazy, too tired to go down to the basement to grab some Poland Springs from the vending machine, sleepy from a couple beers with classmates, deciding that the town of Wellesley’s tap water must be good enough for a fish.
No one said anything. Leigh shook her head.
“So, what do we do now? Do we just wait for her to die?”
Leigh sighed. “I guess.”
A long week passed. There had been tension in our freshman triple from the beginning: three extreme personalities, with wildly different interests and living habits. Anna was a former ballerina who had been home-schooled until she arrived on campus, new to sharing her space. Leigh was goofy, high-energy Los Angeles native who enjoyed hip-hop, John Lennon, Korean pop, and biology. I spent most of my first year out of the room drinking with friends from Russian class or reading Tolstoy novels on my bed, listening to David Bowie through headphones. Things became uncomfortable as Leigh and I became close, bonding over the fact that we liked to stay up late, and Anna, who preferred to go to sleep early, became the odd one out. But we had Wanda in common. When an uneasy silence enveloped Claflin 107, one could always make a pleasant comment about the fish. Despite our differences, it was a droopy, boring Betta that brought us together. Even the regular visitors to our room – my best friend from home, Leigh’s boyfriend, Anna’s mother – enjoyed checking on the fish. But with Wanda slowly, desperately trying to die, the tension escalated.
After seven days, I said: “Guys, I can’t take it anymore.”
I woke up every morning, hoping to find the fish floating on the surface, but every time Wanda persisted in living, bobbing in the water, even more swollen and globular than the night before.
“Every minute we wait is cruel, and a week is already too much.”
Leigh and Anna grimly agreed, though what was really swelling in my own insides was guilt. Every time I saw that fish – still alive, somehow – I thought of my own laziness, lack of responsibility, and the fact that I probably shouldn’t have children. I needed Wanda gone.
So, Leigh began her next phase of research: the most humane methods of fish euthanasia. We ruled out beheading with a sharp knife or stomping with a shoe, along with flushing, which was described as “the coward’s method” of killing a fish – waiting for water treatment plants to finish it off after many hours in plumbing, still alive and desperate.
“How about this?” Leigh said. “You put a couple drops of clove oil in the water to sedate the fish. Then, you put it in some kind of grain alcohol, because there is no oxygen. The fish immediately suffocates but doesn’t feel anything because it’s knocked out from the clove oil.”
“Ok, great,” I said. “Does anyone have any clove oil?”
“I could get some tomorrow…” Leigh offered.
“No, this has to happen tonight.”
The guilt would kill me if we waited another day.
“I’ll send out a dorm-wide email.”
We gave it an hour. I received many sympathetic messages in response to our plight, some suggesting alternative types of murder. Each ping of a new email broke the thick silence in our room with a glimmer of hope, but no one had any clove oil. It was time to proceed, but we would have to skip step one. Wanda would not be getting the easy way out.
I trudged up to the fourth floor, to the miniature double where two sophomore friends lived.
“Do you guys still have that giant jug of Poland Springs vodka?”
“Oh, god yes, gross. It’s under my bed. No way I am drinking that stuff. What the hell do you want it for?”
Leigh, Anna, the two sophomores, and I crowded into the dorm kitchen, joined by another friend who had walked from her dorm across campus for moral support. The six of us pushed into the tight room that reeked of molding microwavable mac and cheese and stale beer.
“Let’s get this over with,” someone said.
We stared at the two cups on the sticky counter by the sink: one full of water and a sickly Betta, one full of the most foul, gasoline-tasting liquid in the history of liquor.
“Ok,” I said. “I guess I have to do it, don’t I?”
Everyone else was quiet. I threw back a shot of the Poland Springs in solidarity – gagging as I picked up the Betta-filled cup, slipping her into the burning, clear alcohol. Suddenly all lethargy gone, Wanda flipped, frantically fighting; her will to live was back with violence. The small body spun with ferocious strength, breaking the surface of the vodka with sharp splashes.
“Oh!” cried Anna. “Oh, this is why we needed the clove oil!”
The fish snapped like a flag in a hurricane. She twisted from side to side, sometimes on her back, her gills cutting the surface and miniature mouth opening and closing in a perfect circle. One final shiver, and finally, Wanda was still.
The six of us went out into the dorm courtyard, a mild October night, and buried the limp, bloated Betta in a hole dug in the mulch with a spoon pilfered from the dining hall. We chose a spot under a tree that we could see from our first-floor room. We buried Wanda with the contents of her tank: the fake plant, some pink stones, and the plastic castle. Leigh told Wanda how much we would miss her. We had a moment of silence. I poured out some vodka on the ground.
“Well, that’s that,” I said.
I brushed the mulch off my hands, and we went inside.
The next morning, I woke up to see my roommates staring out the window in horror.
A family of squirrels was digging in the soil under the tree. Unnatural pink rocks were scattered in the dirt, the gray castle was off to the side, and one of the squirrels was chewing on an inedible plant. The small grave we had carefully created the night before had been excavated and emptied. The three of us stared. No one spoke.
“Well,” I said, breaking the somber silence. “There’s a squirrel out there now that’s either very sick or very drunk.”
Leigh and Anna sighed, and I shrugged and turned away from the window to check my email. There was one new message from the third-floor RA.
“Hey, E.B.! My grandmother is super into Chinese medicine so I actually have a ton of clove oil. Come on upstairs if you still need it! I hope I’m not too late!”
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Fiction Advocate, and the anthology The Places We've Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35 among others. See her website at www.ebbartels.com, tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.