Well, isn't this a surprise! I've managed to shake off the morbs long enough to write a short story.
When I first published Paige's Story one of the questions I got on a regular basis was "What about the fish? You mentioned it a bunch in act one then stopped...what happened?" Well, what happened was I forgot about him. My bad. I let that one slip. So, to make up for my oversight I've written this story.
I hope you all enjoy it.
Funeral For a Fish
A Fort Thomas Short
By: A.J. Bass
The new apartment door slid shut behind Jake much faster and much louder than he was prepared for. He cringed, “Sorry,” he called across the apartment but got no response-- not that he was really expecting one. He turned back to the door and glared at it. He’d hoped that after three weeks the thing would work its kinks out, but so far, no such luck. He’d just have to call maintenance and have them look at it. Maybe they could switch it out for an old fashioned knob and hinges door like they used to have. Sighing, he put his briefcase on the kitchen bar, crossed the living room and started down the hall. He stopped briefly to glare at the off color patch on the wall where workers had repaired it a few weeks back. They had run out of the exact shade of off-white and went with ‘close enough’. Close enough. Close enough to stand out like a sore thumb. He thought about what that patch job was covering and shook his head. “Broken doors and bullet holes,” he said to himself, “Sounds like a country song.”
As he passed Paige’s room he heard the unmistakable sound of Ultra Arcade Showdown and that was reassurance enough that things were fine inside. He went into the bathroom and downed a few more ibuprofen than the bottle recommended before he stepped into his and Anita’s room. Once inside, he took off his shoes and threw himself onto the bed. The pillows were cold and felt great against his aching head.
Ever since Alpha put him and Anita on their current top secret project the days seemed to all blend together into one caffeine-addled, stress laden, hell scape. It was like finals week back in college right down to the Chinese take-out food at ungodly hours-- except this time there was much more riding on his efforts than a test score.
Sleep tugged at him and he threw himself at it. The softness of the mattress, the gentle breeze from the overhead fan, the sudden vibrating under his butt.
Jake’s eyes shot open and he shifted so he could reach his back pocket.
“It hasn’t even been half an hour ‘Nita. I literally just laid down,” he groaned, not bothering to look at the ID before he answered his cell.
“Oh, my apologies Dr. Bryan, I was unaware --”
Jake shot up at the sound of Alpha’s voice. “I’m sorry, Alpha. I thought you were Anita.”
There was a pause followed by an uncertain,“Would you like me to be?”
Jake gave a tired chuckle, “No, I definitely would not.”
Alpha gave a chuckle of his own, “That’s good. I don’t think I’d be able to manage her level of colorful language.”
Jake nodded and moved to the side of the bed, “Few can.” He slipped his shoes back on and stood up, assuming more work was on the way. “Now, what can I do for you?”
There was another pause then Alpha replied, “A civilian call was routed here from the Rutherford County courthouse in Murfreesboro Tennessee. It got bounced through almost every department here until it somehow got to me.”
Jake stroked his beard, his weariness giving way to curiosity. “What’s it regarding?”
“A civilian family with a pair of synthetics had one wake up recently.”
“And they want to sell the Jane to Section? That’s the acquisitions de--”
“No, no,” Alpha interrupted, “They don’t want to sell him-- that’s just it. They have questions about integration.”
“Yes, they want to integrate the Jane into the family unit. I figured if anyone knew about living with Janes on that level it would be your family. Could you spare some time to answer a few questions?”
Jake smiled and glanced into the hall toward Paige’s room. Alpha certainly hit the nail on the head with that one. “Of course I can. Let me transfer you to the living room and get a video conference on the big screen.”
One minute later Jake was seated on the sofa looking at a man roughly his age on the TV monitor. He was dressed in a flannel button down work shirt that looked well worn. He was blonde, with rough looking skin that was used to being exposed to the elements. “Dr. Bryan?” He asked in a heavy drawl. “I really appreciate you talkin’ to me. I was about to give up if I got transferred again.”
“It’s no trouble, really. Director Alpha--” Behind him, the apartment door slammed shut.
Jake glanced over his shoulder and saw Paige just arriving home from school. “Jesus Christ! Can we please get this door fixed before it crushes someone?”
“Paige?” He turned back to the screen, “Sorry. It’s my daughter.” The man gave an understanding nod and Jake turned back toward the kitchen where Paige was rooting through the refrigerator. “Hey, kiddo, I’m on a conference call here. Can you maybe keep it down and ix-nay on the anguage-lay?”
“What the hell’s an anguage-lay?” she asked as she crossed the room, can of Coke in hand. Before Jake could reply she vanished down the hall into her room.
“Sorry about that,” Jake said, returning his attention to the screen. “Now, Mr.--” An ear-splitting shriek tore down the hall and through the apartment from Paige’s room. Jake jumped in his seat and so did the man on the other end of the monitor.
“Ever’thing okay?” the man asked.
“You murdered Gobo!” Paige’s voice roared only to be followed with an equally angry, slightly younger sounding reply.
“I did not!”
Jake felt every ounce of blood rush to his face as the accusations and subsequent denials bounced back and forth like the world’s angriest game of Pong. Jake put his hand to his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose-- Come on, ibuprofen, you can get to work any time now. “I am so--”
“It’s fine, Dr. Bryan, I got a kid of my own ‘bout her age. It’s always somethin’. Go on’n sort it. I’ll wait.”
“I won’t be a moment.” Jake promised and dashed down the hall. As he got closer to Paige’s room the argument grew more heated. This must have been what it was like when his father had to work from home when he was a boy, he thought then corrected himself. No, he was never as rowdy as Paige. This must have been what it was like for Freya and Joseph when Anita was a kid. Sometimes he really wished Paige had inherited more than just his nose and hair. “What is going on here?” he asked, as he pushed the bedroom door open.
He saw Paige standing beside her bookshelf, livid. “Um, hello? Have you not heard? Anji is guilty of first degree fish-slaughter!” She turned toward the bowl on the middle shelf and tapped on the glass where Gobo floated, belly up, on the surface; his long red fins dangling limply below him. “Don’t worry buddy, I’ll avenge you,” she whispered defiantly to the dead fish.
“Anji?” Jake looked down at the little red-haired Jane seated on a beanbag chair. “Did you… You know?” He made a stabbing motion with his hand.
“No, Uncle Jake, I swear. I’ve been playing video games all day--”
“Neglecting him!” Paige interrupted. “It’s negligent pescacide!”
“Neglect? What’s to neglect? He was fine this morning, just lazing at the bottom of his bowl like he’d been for the last week.”
“Wait,” Jake interrupted, “Just lazing at the bottom of his bowl?”
Paige shrugged, somewhat calmer now, “Well, yeah. He’s been kinda lazy lately, but he’d always come up to eat.”
“He didn’t this morning,” Anji mentioned.
“Paige, just how old is Gobo, again?” Jake asked his daughter while he, likewise, tried to dig back in his memory for the information.
“I got Gobo four years ago from Grandpa Bryan as a condolence gift after Charles died.” Paige crossed her arms and looked even grumpier. “Stupid window. Stupid sidewalk,” she muttered.
“Please,” Jake pleaded. “I have an important call to take, we are not bringing up Charles right now.”
“Who’s Charles?” Anji asked, curious.
Jake raised his hands to stop her when he saw Paige about to launch into a rage filled telling of the death of her childhood robo-pet. “Charles is another topic for another time,” he explained to Anji. Man, where was Anita when he needed her. She’d have had this whole situation wrapped up before it even started. A forceful swear here, a physical threat there, and bingo-bango, crisis averted. “Paige, the average lifespan of a fish like Gobo is generally about 5 years, tops. If he was lethargic and not eating I’m guessing he just died of old age. When I’m off this call we’ll flush him and that will be that.”
Paige’s eyes flared and Jake knew he’d stepped on a landmine. “Flush him?! Flush him?! How dare you even suggest--” she fumed. “No. Gobo was a good fish. He deserves better. I’m going to get a hold of Alpha and arrange an honor guard. It’s the least I can do.”
Jake sighed and gave up, “Fine. Do what you have to do. But please let me get to this call.” He shut the door and left Paige to her funeral planning.
“Get yer kids all sorted?” The blonde-haired man asked pleasantly over the monitor.
“For the most part,” Jake replied with a smile.
“Well, give ‘em my condolences for the goldfish--”
“Betta. Gobo was a betta fish.”
“Oh, I see. Well, all the same.”
“Much appreciated. Now,” Jake said, straightening up. “How can I be of service to you today Mr. Caldwell?”
“Well,” Jake watched him shift in his seat and furrow his brow. “I’m not sure how to put this in a way that won’t sound ridiculous.”
“Derrick is fine.”
“Derrick, my daughter is planning a funeral for a betta fish that includes full military honors. Whatever it is that’s on your mind, I think I can take it.”
“Alright, alright, that’s fair,” Derrick grinned and nodded. “It’s about one of my farm hands--”
“Yes, Alpha informed me Jane recently awakened one of your synthetics and you’re wanting to integrate him into the family, correct?”
“When ya say it like that it sounds so clinical,” Derrick replied. “But yeah, we’re awful fond of him and want to make ‘im part of the family-- his sister too if the same ever happens to
her.” He paused again to collect his thoughts. “What I wanna know is, is it possible?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I follow.”
“Is it possible? Y’know to be a normal family when one of the members isn’t-- It’s just we’re in a small town and we’ve got the only two synthetics in, shoot, I dunno a fifty mile radius at least, let alone the town itself.”
“You’re worried about backlash against your family?”
Derrick shook his head, “Not exactly. We tend to mind our own biscuits around here. I mean, I’m sure there’ll be talk but that ain’t my concern. My concern is whether or not he’ll be happy. Like I said, he’s the only one of his kind ‘round here. That’s gotta be isolatin’ and lonely.”
“Has he been behaving strangely since waking up?”
Derrick considered the question. “He’s quieter now. Before he-- well, he was always real talkative. Always smilin’--”
“If I may interject, before, he was following a program. Most synthetics are designed to be talkative and happy. He’s not following the program anymore. He’s going to experience and react to things like a human would, and right now, everything is new and intense. He’ll need time to adjust.
“I suppose that makes sense,” Derrick sighed. “I’m just concerned. He seems lost in his own head most of the time. I can’t imagine what he’s thinkin’, and when I ask he makes up some answer that I know is bullshit-- pardon my language.” He shook his head slowly and rubbed the back of his neck. He seemed stressed and Jake didn’t blame him. “I mean, he’s a good kid-- can I call ‘im that? A kid? I mean--he’s full grown-- Jesus, I don’t even know the words I’m s’posed to use.”
Jake smiled. He sympathized with the situation and had he not made synthetics his career he’d probably not know all the correct verbiage and protocol either. What he found heartening was Derrick’s desire and willingness to learn. Hell, if he was willing to call all over hell and back on this Jane’s behalf, he was certain he’d be mastering social protocol in no time.
He was about to reply when Paige crossed the living room. “Hey, do we have any black fabric? We need mourning bands.” She opened a cabinet in the kitchen and grabbed a bag of potato chips.
“Not to my knowledge, kiddo,” Jake called over his shoulder then turned back to Derrick. “I understand your concern, I really do. And I wish I could tell you it’s going to be easy for him and for your family.” he thought about fights Paige got into with other kids and about the protesters that used to picket outside the gates. “I know you say people tend to mind their… biscuits… but still, you have to be prepared for pushback from your community. And he’s got to be prepared for it too. On top of that, you have to be prepared for the possibility that he won’t want to stay with you. Granted, you can make him stay-- legally, he is still your property. ”
“Nah,” Derrick disagreed, “He stopped bein’ property as soon as he woke up. We won’t hold him prisoner if he don’t wanna stay.”
Another argument erupted from the bedroom. “Hey, gimmie the laptop back!” Anji exclaimed.
“No! I need it!” Paige snapped. “Use yours!”
“That is mine! What do you need it for-- tiny coffins? Are you serious?”
“Look at my face, Anji, I’m super fucking serious.”
“Language!” Jake shouted down the hall and went back to the call, “She gets it from her mother.”
“They always do,” Derrick agreed. “My boy’s just as bad sometimes.”
“Hey, Alpha,” Paige crossed the living room again, this time oh her cellphone. “I don’t know if you’ve heard but there’s been a tragic death in the family.”
“Oh my god! It’s just a fish! Get over it!” Anji called from the bedroom.
“You get over it!” Paige hollered back as returned the chips to the cupboard.
“I am over it!”
“Yeah, no, sorry Alpha. Gobo died and I need an honor guard, Taps, and probably like a 21 gun send-off. You think Fer would do that? He likes shooting guns…” And once again, she vanished into her room.
Jake shook his head and went back to the matter at hand. “My point is--”
“I’m sorry, I don’t wanna be nosy,” Derrick interrupted, “but did your daughter just ask Alpha-- the Alpha-- to give a funeral for a fish?”
Jake felt a chuckle rise up his throat, “Yeah, I guess she just did. And, you know, he’ll probably do it too.”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh yeah, Alpha’s fond of her that way.” Jake thought for a moment, “Actually, you could say they’re practically family-- All of us. And I’ll be honest with you Derrick, it’s the best damn thing that’s ever happened to us. It’s not always easy and there are people who don’t understand. But at the end of the day, we’re happy and if I may be so bold as to speak for him, I’d say Alpha’s pretty happy having us in his life too.”
Derrick gave a slow nod, “Thank you Dr. Bryan. Talkin’ to you has been very reassurin’.”
“I’m happy to help. When we're done here, I'll sent you some links that should also help out with your situation.” Jake said. “But right now, if it’s not too much trouble, may I speak with him?”
“Of course. But why?”
“Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t meet the person you’re going to such great lengths for. Is it okay?”
“Sure. Gimmie a minute.” He looked down at a small hockey puck looking device on the desk, “Hey Dot, find Bourbon n’ tell him to come to the office.”
The hockey puck lit up bright green and a digital female voice replied, “Message sent.”
A moment later, a figure appeared in the doorway just out of Jake’s view.
“Dot said ya wanted to see me?”
Derrick got up and moved off screen, “I do. C'mon in, son, have a seat. I got someone who wants to meet you.” He pulled a desk chair over, then seemed to reconsider the choice and grabbed a heavy, wooden chair.
Bourbon took a seat and looked at Jake and then to Derrick. “That him?” He asked, his voice carried the same melodic drawl.
Derrick nodded and crouched into view, “Bourbon, I want ya to meet Dr. Bryan. He works for Section at Fort Thomas.” Then he turned back to the monitor, “Thanks again, Dr. Bryan. I really ‘preciate your time and insight.”
Bourbon watched Derrick leave and close the door behind him. For a long moment Jake watched as his gaze lingered on the door. It was as though he was waiting for him to return. He seemed confused, and, if Jake didn’t know better, nervous.
“Bourbon?” Jake broke the silence. “My name’s Jake Bryan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Bourbon shifted in his seat. Jake watched the warm copper light in his eyes fade and refocus as he shifted his attention to the monitor. “Howdy, Sir,” he gave a wary smile. “Pleasure to meet ya.”
For a moment Jake didn’t speak, he just examined the Jane on the screen. He was broad, and solid-- clearly built for hard work. He, like Derrick, was dressed in a flannel work shirt and well worn blue jeans. “Is there somethin’ I can help you with, Sir?” Bourbon asked uneasily and what little smile he wore, faltered. “I ain’t in trouble am I?”
“What? No, of course you’re not,” Jake replied quickly, realizing just how this conversation must seem to him. “I was just having a conversation with Derrick and wanted to meet you. I understand you recently experienced sudden, onset sentience as a result of the Jane virus, correct?”
“Well, welcome to life in technicolor,” he replied, and made sure to sound as unthreatening and upbeat as possible. “How are you adjusting?”
Bourbon’s head bobbed side to side, his shaggy, blonde curls dusting his shoulders, as he considered the question. “It’s… loud.”
“Yeah, like ever’thing’s comin’ at me all at once. Sometimes I feel real good n’excited, n’ the next minute I’m worried I’m gonna get scrapped.”
“I assure you, no one has any intention of scrapping you.”
“I know. But still. I mighta just woke up last week but believe you me, that’s plenty of time to get up to speed.”
“It’s an easy task when you have the internet in your head,” Jake noted.
Bourbon frowned, “I know how the world sees me and it scares me. And I know how they see me,” he gestured toward the door behind him, “and that scares me too.”
Jake smiled hoping he could send some comfort through the monitor. “Why does that scare you? The Caldwells, I mean. I can understand the internet bit-- it’s humanity’s greatest resource and a godawful nightmare at the same time. But, as I understand it, the Caldwells would like you to join their family. I can’t see what’s so scary about that.”
Bourbon pressed his lips together and gave an annoyed snort. “It’s scary b’cuz I barely know how to be me let alone how to be in a family!” he snapped.
There was the sound of footsteps rushing down the hall. “I’m going outside!” Paige declared, bolting through the living room.
Jake gave Bourbon a ‘one minute’ finger. “May I ask why?”
“To wait for the delivery drone. It’ll be here in 20.” She pressed the door control and it opened half way then slammed shut. “Goddamned door!” she pressed the button again and it opened. “Be right back!”
“Delivery drone?” Jake asked no one in particular.
“She used your credit card and bought a tiny coffin, Uncle Jake!” Anji tattled from the hall. Jake turned around and saw Anji peering out into the living room at the monitor. “Hi,” she gave Bourbon a shy wave.
Bourbon flinched and shifted his focus to the little girl on the edge of his monitor. “H-howdy,” he replied.
Anji shot a bashful grin at him and then disappeared down the hall.
Jake turned back to Bourbon and said, “Young man, no one knows how to be family. A family just is. I mean, look at this!” He gestured behind him, “ I have my... displaced niece... sharing a room with my teenage daughter who, as you may have noticed, is planning a funeral for her dead pet fish-- for whom, she has apparently purchased a tiny coffin. Our apartment door is a potential death trap and my wife has been working almost 18 hours straight. It’s chaos. Every day. Not a damn one of us knows what we’re doing. All we know is we’re happier doing it together.” A wistful smile blossomed across his face as he listed absurdity after absurdity, “So, it’s okay if you’re still learning. We all are. If I may paraphrase Ray Bradbury, sometimes you just have to jump off the cliff and learn how to build your wings on the way down.”
“That sounds hard,” Bourbon replied.
“Oh, it is. But I’ll tell you, it’s much easier when you’re surrounded by people who care about you, and I think it’s safe to say the Caldwells care a great deal about you.” He leaned forward on the edge of the sofa. “I’d hug you if you were here, but you’re not, so how about…” He raised his hand up to the monitor, “Internet fiver!”
“You’re a dork, Uncle Jake!” Anji called.
“Ignore her,” Jake said, still offering the high five. “C’mon, don’t leave me hanging. I was the coolest guy in my high school D&D group.”
Finally, Bourbon raised his hand and mimicked a high five on his monitor. He put his hand down and immediately burst into a smile a mile wide. “Coolest guy in D&D, huh?” He chuckled.
“Well, second coolest. Natalie ‘Nat 20’ Anderson was coolest,” Jake admitted, but it made you laugh.
“Fair ‘nuff,” Bourbon replied.
“I hope I’ve given you something to think about as you’re figuring out just who and where you want to be,”Jake said, happy to see his initial nervousness melt away.
Bourbon nodded and his smile softened. He seemed contemplative, like was focusing on a plan as opposed to staring confused into the mess. “Ya did. Thanks,” he replied. “I’m glad I got to talk to ya Doc.”
“Same here. I’ll let you get back to your day. But before we go I just want you to know that you’re going to be fine and I’d be overjoyed to have you in my family.” He watched Bourbon don another ear-to-ear grin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a funeral to plan.”