I was too young to remember my mother’s death.
Dad seldom talked about it, even as I grew older, but he never ceased to remind me how much my brown hair looked like hers, or that she had loved animals, same as me. Such details were more precious than gold.
In the evenings, after dinner, he retreated to the sanctuary of his study; the black notebook he always carried pinched under one arm. I never saw the contents of that notebook, and always wondered what was inside it.
One day, Dad took me with him to work.
He showed me the lawn behind the library before bustling off, and I lay stomach down on the footbridge straddling the lily pond, watching the sun flashing on the backs of the goldfish as they darted back and forth beneath the water’s surface. I wondered if my mother had ever sat in the same place.
When we drove home that afternoon, Dad was quiet — deep in thought.
“I need your help with something, Catherine,” he said finally. Overhead, a sheet of grey clouds rolled across the sky. I perked up.
“You saw the fish today, didn’t you?” he asked.
He sighed. “I think I may have found a way to get her back.”
I didn’t have to ask who he meant.
When we arrived home, he led me into his study — a dark, musty chamber with loaded bookshelves that climbed to the ceiling. Coffee-stained papers, huge spiral bound notebooks, and molding volumes spilled over the sides of the oak desk in the center of the room.
I sat in the chair facing the desk, while he sat behind it, yanking the chain of a green banker’s lamp mounted at the corner before dropping into his seat. The gold lighting of the lamp spilled across the jumble of papers strewn across his workspace.
“It’s the fish,” he said, leaning forward so the light struck his nose and slid down either side. “They’re the key.”
He explained how he’d seen it only weeks after she had died; the goldfish in the lily pond popping in and out of existence, traveling through gateways he could not see.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” he said. “And even after all this,” he motioned to the chaos in front of him, “I still don’t know where they go. But I think if we can harness their power, we might be able to find a way to get to her… maybe even bring her back.”
He leaned back in his seat, tapping his notebook with one finger. “That’s what I’ve been working on in here. Recording progress. That’s what I need your help with.”
A ten-year-old girl cannot be blamed for believing her Dad when he talks of traveling through goldfish portals to retrieve her dead mother.
We started work that night, though I wondered what he actually needed my help with. Even he struggled to explain the mathematical concepts and theories he had been working at. I worked hard to grasp concepts more than twice as old as I was. From then on our evenings were spent sketching equations and mulling physical possibilities in the coziness of the study.
I stopped going to school, and he started taking me to work with him, and we spent his lunch breaks on the grass by the lily pond, tearing off chunks of our ham and cheese sandwiches and tossing them out into the water.
“We’re close,” he said as we watched the fish devour the crumbs. “I can feel it.”
At night, long past my bedtime, I snuck downstairs to catch glimpses of him in the study, barricaded behind a fortress of tomes, muttering to himself and poring over the pages of his black notebook, where he recorded our progress after each day.
I had to admit, I was curious how close we actually were.
So when Dad left the house to go on a walk one evening, I swung my feet out of bed and pattered downstairs to the study. The notebook was sitting on the desk, splayed open beneath the light of the lamp.
But what I saw inside brought tears to my eyes.
There were no equations, no mathematical proofs, not a single sentence describing our work over the past weeks.
There was only a sketch of my mother, sitting on the bank of the lily pond. This sketch, with slight variations, had been copied onto almost every page.
Death demands maturity. At ten years of age, I should not have been the one to be faced with the truth that there were no portals, and there was no way to bring my mother back. She was dead. The only hope of seeing her again was afterlife. Dad needed to understand this.
So I found a canister of rat poison underneath the kitchen sink and soaked my ham and cheese sandwich in it. I thought that by killing the fish, it would make him understand.
On the bank that afternoon, we sat together like we always did, and I prepared to hurl those lethal chunks to the fish.
And then Dad spoke.
“Soon,” he said, a gleam in his eye. “We’ll see her again soon.”
I closed my eyes, fighting back tears, and slowly pocketed the sandwich.
Hope is real magic, brought about by a childlike faith. But sometimes, we aren’t ready for the blinding flash of truth which lies beneath the surface.
So we sit here on the banks of the lily pond, watching the sun reflect off the backs of the goldfish, and the ripples echoing out and back, out and back across the water’s surface. We sit and wait.
Just us two.
JT Gill is a 22-year-old who lives in Northern Virginia and writes in worlds of his own. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nanoism, 365tomorrows, Cease, Cows, Daily Science Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, where he won the 2015 Flash Fool contest. You can follow him on Twitter @jt3_gill.