You’ll Die as Fish
“May I help you?”
The woman, her phone stuck to her ear, was one of those business-types, with discreet, but expensive looking earrings, dark hair smoothed back into a ponytail, flawless designer suit. “Hold for a minute, please.” She turned to the server – a nondescript girl somewhere in the middle of her twenties.
“A chicken, a vegan and a beef, all in whole-wheat wrap. Quickly please, we’re in a hurry.” Megan turned back to the phone. “No, Johnny, I told you I won’t be able to hand in the report by Wednesday. I thought we’ve been through this. I need another three days.”
The same girl took her card at the cashier.
Megan dropped her phone in her bag. “Took you a while.”
Her glasses flashed as she looked up. “Sorry, I’m all alone and it’s the lunch rush.”
“I don’t think that’s my problem. You should talk to your supervisor.”
Megan fought her way through throngs of teenagers to the table where her colleagues sat. Her face crumpled after the first bite from her chicken burrito. “This is cold. Are yours cold too?”
Bill shrugged. “Not the best I’ve ever had, but this is Cheney’s, what do you expect?”
Marcia rolled her eyes. “Come on, just let it go.”
“Marcia, this is cold. I will not put up with this shit.” She elbowed her way back to the cashier. The girl was serving a bunch of teenagers.
“Hey, excuse me? This burrito is cold.”
The girl was wrapping a mixture of scraps of meat and wilted vegetables, doused with mayo that looked grey in the light of the overhead lamps.
“Hello? I’m talking to you! You deaf?”
“You’re holding up the line, lady…”
Megan spun to face the guy. “Mind your own business.”
“Bitch, what’s your problem?”
She glared at the man in disbelief. “Excuse me?”
“You’ll die as fish.”
Her head snapped back to the assistant. “What did you say?”
The bafflement on her face looked genuine. “I said, ‘gimme just a sec’?”
“Come on,” someone further down the line called out.
Megan didn’t budge. “That’s not what you said.”
Bill pulled her away from the cashier. “We’ll eat somewhere else.”
“Bill, I paid for that burrito!”
“You’re my guest for a burger at McDonald’s next door.”
He suppressed a sigh. “They have salads, too.”
It had been a long day. She had a lingering feeling of embarrassment over the scene at the eatery, but she brushed it off. You gotta stand up for yourself if you don’t want others to walk all over you. If that meant the whole clientele of Cheney’s would point and stare while she screamed at the employees, so be it. She mixed herself a gin tonic. A night of reading and listening to music – she more than deserved it.
You’ll die as fish. The glass stopped in her hand. What was that supposed to mean? Doesn’t matter, probably just misheard something.
The meeting next Friday drained her. Her report was top notch as always, yet Johnny still found minor mistakes to nitpick over. It was stifling hot in the office due to some problem with the ventilation system.
“I thought you’d drink all the water from the jugs on the table and then some,” Bill remarked.
“It was a sauna in there. You didn’t feel it?”
It was just a rhetorical question, of course. His damp red ringlets stuck to his temples and dark spots blossomed in his armpits. “They say the heat wave should be over in a couple days.”
Megan went into the restroom. She didn’t drink tap water as a rule, but she was still parched. She splashed her face, makeup be damned, then glanced at the mirror, rubbing the nape of her neck.
She opened the tap for one last draught, but her hands never reached the beam of water. She stared at her hand for what seemed like an eternity. She had to hold on to the sink as a wave of dizziness washed over her and the world darkened for a minute. The moisture dried on her goose-prickled skin. She glared at her wide-eyed reflection, taking in the air in small, frightened gasps. It’s not there. I just imagined it…
But it was. A small, round scale.
“She said ‘you’ll die as fish.’ A week later I find a scale on my finger. It was real, Charlie, I wasn’t imagining it. I didn’t eat fish that day. I don’t even like fish.”
Charlie chuckled and shook his head. It was their date night; Charlie whipped up a quick chicken meal, Megan provided the wine. He sipped from the glass, smacking his lips. Megan felt like slapping him. Good thing we aren’t serious. “It wasn’t so funny for me, you know.”
He tsked. “Let me take a look.”
She knelt by the sofa. Charlie drew the curtain of shiny hair away from the nape of her neck. She held her breath unawares.
“No scales here. Better?”
“Yeah.” Although she wasn’t so sure.
The air conditioning still hadn’t been fixed at work. The heat drove her crazy, which resulted in flare-ups with the cleaning lady, the gardener and various colleagues.
“Ready with the financial plan?” Her boss stuck his salt and pepper head in the door of her office.
“Johnny, you’ve asked three times just this week. You’ll be the first to know when I’m done, all right?” She could afford such a tone – Johnny was lost without her.
Megan blew out the air. She needed to cool down now. She went into the bathroom on the third floor. She avoided the one nearest her office since the event. Careful not to look into the mirror she drank herself full, wetted the nape of her neck and was about to dry her hands, when a silvery glint caught her eye. The air escaped her mouth with a hiss.
The scales covered the back and the side of her neck. She tried to scrape them off, but all she achieved was bloodying her neck. The sight of the scales opening slightly under the strain made her stomach turn.
Monday’s lunch break found her at Cheney’s, staring at the employee’s wall. The girl was not on it. Then again, would she recognize her if she was?
She went up to the cash register. Two guys were manning the till this time.
“The end of the line is by the door, lady,” a man grumbled.
Megan didn’t look at him. “Listen, there is a girl working here, about this tall,” she lifted her hand to her shoulder’s height, then her words died away. She couldn’t even give a proper description of her.
The cashier didn’t do a good job of hiding his annoyance. “Quite a couple of girls working here, ma’am.”
“Do you have a list of workers? You know, with photos?”
He scratched his net-covered head. “That’s confidential info, I’m afraid. Now if you don’t mind, we’re kinda busy here.”
Megan ignored the pointed remarks coming from the line. “We were here about two weeks ago. She made me a cold burrito. Was she fired?”
He shrugged. “No one fired or hired in the past month.”
She went on Facebook and LinkedIn and browsed everyone connected to Cheney’s in any way. There were quite a few possible candidates, but no matter how Megan racked her brain, she couldn’t tell for sure which one of the girls in glasses was the one. She considered messaging them, then discarded the idea. What would she write them? Hey, ‘scuse me was it you that cursed me when I was in Cheney’s on the 1st of May? They might think she was a stalker – wasn’t that a punishable offence lately?
She took off the mirrors in the anteroom and the living room and threw away her powder compact. She’d have to go on without makeup but that couldn’t be helped. She didn’t want to throw away the whole bathroom cabinet, so she just covered its mirrored doors.
“Charlie, do you see anything on my neck?” she asked later that night.
“Not this again! What’s up with the mirrors, by the way?”
He sighed. “Nothing, just like the last twenty times.”
He’s lying. Her stomach clenched.
“How can I help you today, Megan?” Dr. Richardson settled in the armchair with a cup of green tea.
Megan stirred her own tea. The leaf crumbs swirled, then settled in random patterns at the bottom of the cup. “I think something is happening to me. I don’t even know how to explain it without sounding crazy.”
“Megan, we are not here to judge or label. ‘Crazy’ is an outdated notion most therapists wouldn’t–”
“Yeah, yeah,” she waved impatiently. “I’m seeing things.”
Megan rubbed the nape of her neck, then caught her hand away when she realized what she was doing. But that gave her an idea. She drew her hair away from her neck. “Can you see anything here?”
Her heartbeat drummed in her ears in the silence that followed.
“What am I supposed to be seeing?”
Megan found it hard to swallow against the lump in her throat. She’s in on it. They all are. “Scales,” she said flatly.
“Scales? You see scales on your neck?”
Oh, don’t act like you don’t. I need to find another therapist.
Dr. Richardson’s velvety brown eyes searched her face. “When did you see them first?”
Megan didn’t feel like talking about this anymore. She wanted to call Dr. Richardson out on being a part of it. And then she’ll be convinced you are crazy. She wondered if she could get hospitalized by force. You’ll have to act along so as not to raise suspicion.
“About a month ago. We went to Cheney’s with the guys for burritos, and there was this girl… she said ‘you’ll die as fish’ or something like that, and the first scales appeared about a week later. I want to find her, but I don’t know how.”
“Why would you want to find her?”
“So that she’d…” she fell silent. Take her curse off me. You know how that sounds, right? This wasn’t her usual inner voice. It was an unpleasant, smirking voice she didn’t recognize. “To talk with her? Clarify this misunderstanding?”
Dr. Richardson jotted down something on her clipboard. “Is there a specific time or place when you see these scales?”
“Whenever I look into a mirror.” Or at a window, or any kind of reflective surface.
Dr. Richardson stole a glance at the clock when she thought Megan wasn’t watching. “Can you feel them when you touch your neck?”
The doctor kept scribbling for a while, then laid the clipboard aside. “Are you up for an experiment?” She pulled out a pocket mirror from her purse.
Megan crossed her arms. “I’d rather not.”
“The only way to snap out of this delusion is facing your fears, Megan. The first step is acknowledging the problem.”
She eyed the mirror as if it was a coiled-up snake. “You think I’m going crazy, right?”
“I’d rather not use that term…”
“Whatever. I’m not here to argue about semantics.”
Dr. Richardson hid the mirror in the shelter of her hands. “I can help you only if you are willing to let me help, Megan.”
“You think crazy pills can sedate me to the point where I can’t see the scales anymore? Cause let me tell you, at this point I’m willing to give it a try.”
Dr. Richardson looked at her with maddening patience. “You don’t have to do it now, Megan. Take your time.”
Megan held out her hand for the mirror. She hadn’t seen her reflection for weeks, keeping her eyes on the ground if she walked past windows or buildings with polished marble covers, snatching her glance away whenever she came across a puddle.
“That’s very brave, Megan.”
Oh, shut up, she wanted to scream.
Her reflection was fuzzy from the trembling of her hand. She stabilized it with her other hand.
“What do you see?”
The steady ticking of the clock was the only sound in the room. Muffled voices approached, then faded on the corridor outside. The room darkened when a cloud swam in front of the sun.
One of her eyebrows was gone and her hair was receding to give place to scales. They covered half of her face by now. Her left ear disappeared; in its place was a cut that opened and closed to the rhythm of her breath. Her nose began to flatten. The left side of her mouth lost that curve she’d always been so proud of, turning into a ragged, shapeless cut. Even her left eye was affected; instead of the light green, almost yellowish hue she was born with, it was a round, expressionless silver with no white around the iris.
Her voice was a hoarse croak. “This is not me. It cannot be. Why am I seeing this?”
“What are you seeing, Megan?”
She snapped the mirror shut. “Never mind. I’d like to go home now, if you don’t mind.”
Summer passed and the weather cooled down in the first weeks of October. She stayed in the cottage by the lake she inherited from her parents. She quit her job – she couldn’t handle going there everyday, all her colleagues acting like they didn’t see.
Charlie kept on calling for a while, then stopped. Megan didn’t mind.
Her skin felt itchy and crawly when dry, so she took long baths in the evenings. Always bubble baths, to hide the surface of the water. She held her breath and closed her eyes, locking out sound and sight, submerging in the comforting dark and silence.
She didn’t notice how time flew during these baths. One afternoon she got out of the tub and realized that three hours had passed.
She took off her clothes and walked to the end of the jetty, where she sat and swung her legs above the water, not minding the fin flapping in the mirror of the lake. She lowered herself into the chilly water and swam in the soothing, silky darkness. Here she could be herself at last.
She went deeper, not noticing or caring about her lungs screaming for air, or the black dots swarming at the edge of her vision. Who needs lungs, when you have gills? She opened her mouth and breathed in the dark water.
Come back next Wednesday for another story –and click HERE to explore even more stories by Susan Anwin.