They say goldfish have pitifully short memories, that by the time they’ve circled the fish tank they’ve forgotten the trip. Each bubble, each food pellet, each warming ray of ultraviolet light is the only one. As the goldfish pauses to gaze out the glass in a busy nephrologist’s waiting room, each patient’s silent pain is the only pain it knows.
Straining stick-thin arms, a man rolled his wife’s wheelchair past the fish tank and into the room. “Where do you want to sit, dear?”
“I don’t care,” the woman barked.
The chair’s upturned footrest caught the corner of a couch. “Where?”
When she shook her head, the oxygen tube flopped onto her shoulder and entwined with her course gray hair. “I’m already sitting in a damned chair, Ed. Just stop somewhere.”
He raised his voice. “I didn’t ask about your hair, hon.”
“I said chair!”
“All right, pipe down. I just want you to hear the nurse when she calls.”
“I can hear fine!”
Sighing, he slid sideways over the armrest and onto the couch. “This is a good place to sit.”
The woman wheeled the chair forward, then back, and lined it up at his side. She gave him a cutting glare he didn’t react to. Short, frustrated breaths choked her until she coughed.
After a moment, he turned and studied her face. “You thirsty?”
He touched her oxygen line gently with nicotine-stained fingers and winked. “You’re dry from all that air, cutie. I’ll get you some water.”
Her frown smoothed, but another cough seized her. “It’s… all the way … across … the room, Ed.”
Ed struggled to his feet. “I’ve got it.” He swung one leg toward the water cooler at the desk, shifted and made the other follow. Several patients outpaced him on their way to sign in and fill out forms, but he continued on, nodding to those who passed.
Ed filled a leaky cone cup with cool water and shuffled back to her side. Coughs wracked her body now, and his hand shook as he tilted the cone for her to drink. “Take it slow, Sarah.”
Choking on the first sip, Sarah pulled the oxygen line from around her neck and plucked it back over her head. It hung, tangled in her hair. “What the–?”
“Sorry, ole girl.” Ed patted her back until her gasping eased and tears filled her eyes. “Relax and breathe.”
“I need a smoke,” she said.
He scoffed. “Water will have to do.”
When she smiled, he sank back into the worn-out couch. Glancing around the waiting room, he caught the fish tank against the near wall opposite them. “Look there!” He pointed, and Sarah’s gaze followed.
From above the glass, the looming bright light illuminated colorful fish. Four yellow-striped fish dove and buried themselves in shells and fake greenery as though playing hide and seek. A big blue fish lurched toward the surface. The black one chased bubbles. Others schooled and shifted in a game of chase.
“That goldfish is looking right at us!” Sarah raised a trembling hand toward the black-eyed fish.
“Think he can see us?” Ed asked.
“Oh, yes.” Sarah wheeled her chair another inch or two closer to the glass. She leaned forward and made faces, cooing at the fish as though it were a child. “He’s watching over us, just like our little Maisy.” She turned to Ed, face hopeful. “She loved her goldfish so. Wonder what ever happened to that fish.”
He swallowed hard. “We flushed it. Long before we lost her.”
Sarah’s wrinkled brow smoothed as she leaned back. “Think we’ll see our baby soon?”
“Soon,” Ed promised. “Put your oxygen back on.”
“Not yet.” Watching the goldfish swim the length of the tank with its gaze still on her, Sarah chuckled. “I hope Maisy will be glad to see us.”
“That girl won’t take her eyes off you.” Ed patted her shoulder. His anxious gaze wandered to the door that opened and closed to admit the other patients, one after another. “Well, she’s waited awhile.”
“So have we.” Sarah laid her withered hand on Ed’s and closed her eyes.
“I mean that lady. She’s waited long as we have.” Ed closed his eyes too. “Doc must have been at the hospital most of the day.”
“I’m in no hurry,” Sarah said. Quiet at Ed’s side, her breath labored for several long moments. “Ed? Is that Maisy I see?” she whispered.
“I’m sure it is,” Ed said. “Give her my love.”
Sarah didn’t reply. Her breathing slowed and faded.
At 4:58 pm, the young nurse flung back the door and glanced at her watch. “Mrs. Anderson? Sorry we had trouble working you in. Problems with the dialysis?” The nurse gasped. “Mr. Anderson?”
Ed opened his eyes. “I think she’s fine now,” he murmured.
In the tank, the untroubled goldfish puffed out a bubble and rose, swimming for the light.
Donna Johnson works for the University of Arkansas Physics Department and enjoys frozen coffee, spring gardening and gathering end-of-life stories from hospice staff and volunteers. Her work has or will appear in Poesia, Bleeding Quill, Flash Me Mag, Sage of Consciousness, FlashShot, Flashquake, Foliate Oak, Long Story Short, The Deepening, Skive, THEMA, The Sidewalk’s End, Night to Dawn, Bewildering Stories, The Harrow, Outcry, Shine, Illumen and The Sword Review.