Fiction by Josh Rank
I remember it clearly—the tip of the pole diving toward the water, the vibration in the handle, the surprising strength through the line. I caught some pretty good-sized smallmouth bass in Firefly Lake by that point. Being ten years old, these sizes were probably inflated a little. But even if they were only large because I was small, they were still large to me. And whatever was on the end of my line was no different.
Dad raised me to enjoy the outdoors. As a ranger for the Department of Natural Resources, he took that as a point of pride. The police of the woods, he’d say, protecting the laws of nature. Looking back as an adult I see how ridiculous that sounds. But as a boy growing up in a single-parent household it made him seem like he could control the wind if he wanted to.
I pulled back on the rod and dared my line to break. It was a risky move. Increasing the tension at the beginning of a fight like this was just asking to lose the hook. Any jump from the bass would likely snap the line but I felt like I could tell what was happening on the end of the hook. I felt it. The bass had seen the juicy hunk of worm but hadn’t noticed the steel hook just inside it and now it didn’t know which way was up. I continued to pull back and reel up the slack in the line.
The lake was empty. A small tornado had torn through the year before and cleared out a section of the surrounding woods and a small piece of the town. The clearing ended in the lake, creating a bass-haven of fallen trees along the edge of the water.
But nobody fished along the fallen trees as I continued to reel. Nobody swam in the small, buoyed beach area maybe twenty yards to my right. It was a popular hangout in the afternoon, but I had the mornings mostly to myself.
I could see movement in the water. The bass had mostly given up. Reeling was easy. I watched as the vague form grew more defined. The strange shape came through first—more like a ball than a bass. The morning sunlight reflected off the scales as it neared the surface and at first I thought it had to be a trick of the water. The golden color had to be from the sun. But as I pulled it from the water I realized I was wrong. I let it dangle from the end of the line, slowly spinning in place and gasping for air through pulsating gills.
I had never seen a goldfish so big in my entire life. Up to that point or since.
Dad liked me to play catch and release—keep the lake stocked—but I always brought a five gallon bucket with me in case I got something worth mounting. And while I didn’t plan on putting a giant goldfish on the wall, I thought he should probably see this.
He sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee steaming in front of him and a piece of toast in his hand when I poked my head in the back door.
“Any bites?” he asked.
“Yeah. Come here.”
He took another bite of toast, set it on the plate, and followed me out back. He already had on his grey ranger shirt but it hadn’t been tucked into the olive green pants.
I led him to the orange bucket and nodded toward it. He took another step and looked over the rim.
“Did that come from the lake?”
He bent over to get a closer look.
“Do you know what that is?”
“Sure looks like a goldfish to me. A huge one.”
He nodded, still staring into the bucket. I had to be at least 12 inches from nose to tail.
“Yeah, that’s what it looks like to me, too.” He stood up straight and crossed his arms.
“Son of a bitch,” he said. I could stay out and miss dinner, get a bad grade in school, or outright disobey my father and he wouldn’t get mad. But somebody tossing a fast food wrapper on the side of the road or dumping something into the river would set him on a warpath.
“I know it shouldn’t be there, but what’s the big deal?” I asked and looked back into the bucket. “I think it’s kinda cool. Look how big it is.”
“Goldfish are supposed to be in a little bowl in your house, not Firefly Lake.” He glanced into the bucket and crossed his arms. “You see how big that thing is? They grow to the size of their container. Small bowl, small fish. Big lake, well you see.”
“The problem isn’t the size. They breed fast. Eat everything up. Starve out the local stock. Tear up the bottom and ruin the water. There’s probably thousands of these things in there.”
“Someone did this. Someone put their pet fish in there and killed the whole lake.”
I thought it was curious. Interesting. I didn’t think it was the end of the world. My Dad looked at me like the president had just been shot.
“We’re going to have to close the lake.”
“Close the lake?” It was the only lake within walking distance. I fished there every morning I could.
“We almost did it last summer when someone took a bath in there. Fish washed up for a week from the soap. It’s a small lake, but it’s important. Lots of local wildlife get their water there. Feed there. If the community can’t be trusted to protect it, well then we’ll have to.”
The police of the woods.
“Listen, I know this sucks. And it won’t be forever. But we’re going to have to spread the word. People just don’t realize how harmful it can be to introduce non-native wildlife to a natural body of water. These things can live up to 25 years. The whole lake will be dead.”
“But what if it was a mistake?”
“How could someone accidentally put a live goldfish into the lake?”
I opened my mouth but didn’t say anything.
He started tucking in his shirt.
“I gotta get moving,” he said. “Before anybody tosses a shark in there, too.”
I looked again at the giant goldfish, treading water. Dad was in and out of the house in a couple minutes, heading off to close the only lake in the area—my favorite place in the whole world.
Our town had one high school on the outskirts, three gas stations that all sold live bait, and a volunteer fire department. If you rode your bike real fast, you could probably get from one side to the other in fifteen minutes. Two main roads criss-crossed toward the north end of town. Main Street rain along the stream that fed into Firefly Lake, and College turned into the highway that took you toward the nearest city. The tornado had clipped the northeast corner of the city limits, but only took out a small pet store, damaged some residential roofs, and knocked over a traffic light. There wasn’t much ground to cover but Dad and the rest of the local Department of Natural Resources quickly spread the word about the goldfish.
Signs were printed out and hung up at the gas stations. Chains had been hung across the trails leading into the lake. He even told me they ran a radio ad warning against dumping fish into the lake and to tell people to stay away until they got the situation sorted out. Dad took it personally. He wanted to find out who put the goldfish there and he wasn’t going to open the lake back up until he felt it was safe to do so.
A goldfish fugitive lurked among us.
I leaned my bike up against the gas station wall and walked inside. Normally I’d be buying earthworms to take out the next morning. Today I was just getting a pop.
“Your dad really closed a whole lake?” asked Gerald behind the counter. He had been running the gas station for decades, almost exclusively. I’d see his son in there every once in a while, but that was rare.
“He wants to figure out who put the goldfish in there.”
Gerald set his hands on the counter and leaned forward.
“Gonna be damn near impossible to figure that out.”
“I know.” I reached into the small cooler to the left of the scratch offs, pulled out a plastic bottle and set it on the counter.
“So how big was it?” he asked as he rang up the pop.
I smiled and held out my hands about the size of my dad’s boot.
“Wow,” he said. “Who’da thought they could get so big?” Gerald smiled and shook his head. “You have any suspects?”
I shrugged. “I don’t see why someone would walk a pet fish all the way down to the lake. Maybe it just fell outta the sky.”
Gerald laughed and handed me back my change. “I’ve heard of flying fish, but I don’t think they can go that far.”
I looked over the top-loading cooler marked Live Bait! and sighed.
“What are you gonna do with your mornings until this gets all sorted out?”
The pop fizzed when I opened it and I took a drink.
“I have no idea, Gerald.”
I went outside, grabbed my bike with my free hand, and walked it through the parking lot. I held the bottle of pop by the cap. It swung as I walked down the sidewalk. I never fished in the afternoon but I still felt like I had nothing to do. An absence of something to anchor my day left the rest of it feeling pointless. It had only been two days since I brought home the giant goldfish. The thought of going much longer was just shy of unfathomable.
There was no way Dad was going to find the person that dumped a goldfish into Firefly Lake. It had to have been there for a while to grow that big. It was extremely unlikely that this person would be making repeat trips so it’s not like he was going to catch them in the act.
I stopped on the corner of Taft and Meadowview to take a drink of pop. The sun sat directly overhead and I could feel its weight on my shoulders through my t-shirt. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how a goldfish could make its way to a lake without someone bringing it there. The only thing I could imagine were fish raining from the sky.
My shirt stuck to my back. Too sweaty. I needed to create some wind. I stuck the plastic bottle of pop into the water bottle holder on the bike frame and pedaled around our small town.
It didn’t take long to reach the northside of town and I knew I couldn’t go much further when I started to see the empty spots that held trees before the tornado. I pulled into a parking lot full of cracks and faded white lines to take another drink and turn around. And as I unscrewed the cap I caught sight of the remains of Walton’s Pet Store, the lone structural casualty of the tornado. I smiled as I remembered walking out of there with a terrarium on my fifth birthday. A crested gecko clung to a piece of wood inside and I couldn’t wait to get him home to feed him some crickets. It was the only pet I had up to that point. Dad always said who needs a pet when you can walk into the woods?
And then a thought hit me. I stared at the pet store for a moment, then up to the clouds.
I crammed the pop back into the water bottle holder and pedaled home as fast as I could.
I was still at the computer when Dad came home that evening. He set his DNR hat on the hook next to the back door and sat on one of the kitchen chairs to unlace his boots.
“The electroshocker is the only thing I can think of,” he said, still looking at his laces.
I looked up from the computer. “What?”
“The goldfish. I’ve been on the phone all day trying to figure out how to get them all out of there. We don’t even know how many there are. Firefly is pretty small, so I figure I can shock the water like when we do growth evaluations then just scoop them out.”
I stood from the computer chair and walked into the kitchen.
“How long will the lake be closed?” I asked.
He tossed his shoes toward the mat in the corner, looked at me, and shrugged.
“I gotta figure out who put them there. There’s no point in going through all the work to clean the goldfish out if someone’s just going to put them back in there.”
I walked back into the living room and grabbed some papers I had printed out.
“What if nobody put them in there?” I said as I walked back into the kitchen.
“Goldfish don’t just magically appear.”
“Tampico, Mexico,” I read from one of the papers. “2017. Locals were left scratching their heads when a small rain shower brought more than just moisture. Small fish fell from the sky and nobody knew why.”
Dad laughed. “Where did you get that?”
“The internet.” I flipped to another page. “2009, clouds of tadpoles fell over multiple cities in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. 2016, areas of India experienced showers of small fish. 2010, a desert town in Australia—300 miles from the nearest river—experienced rain mixed with fish over the course of a couple days.”
Dad stood up but he didn’t say anything. He just crossed his arms.
“Waterspouts suck up water,” I told him. “Sometimes there are fish in that water. It sucks them into the clouds and they fall like rain.”
“Wait, are you serious?”
“We didn’t have any waterspouts last I checked.”
“No, but the tornado last year hit Walton’s Pet Store.”
He uncrossed his arms and walked to the sink. He paused for a moment and then started to wash his hands. I set the papers onto the kitchen table.
“But Firefly is at least a mile from the pet store.”
“Once they’re in the clouds, they can travel for miles.”
He leaned against the countertop and dried his hands with the towel hanging over the handle on the oven door.
“Raining fish, eh?”
I shrugged. “Makes more sense to me than someone walking a pet goldfish all the way down there.”
He crossed his arms again and nodded. He didn’t speak for a while. He just pushed a few buttons on the oven and grabbed a pizza from the freezer. It wasn’t until the timer for the pizza was halfway done when I finally asked:
“So maybe we could open the lake back up?”
He considered it for another moment. Then he smiled at me and shrugged.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and has had stories published in The Emerson Review, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. He is hiding in an undisclosed location somewhere outside Nashville, TN. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.
Photo by StockSnap