In the Tank, by Scott Nicolay

(Download the audio version of this story here: part onepart two – or click the play buttons below. Read by David Binks. Story illustration by Nick Gucker.)

In the Tank — illustration by Nick Gucker — click to enlarge

Roger was supposed to be job hunting when he found the pet store. At least that’s what he promised Amy he’d be doing, but really he’d done little more so far than drive aimlessly around the city, turning at random down unfamiliar streets until he was nearly lost. In a rundown part of the city he never visited before he noticed a low blue cinderblock building. The paint was faded and peeling, but the building still stood out from its drab surroundings, a vacant lot on one side and a boarded-up auto parts store on the other. The vacant lot side bore large hand painted letters in a balloonish style that had gone out a generation ago: “HOUSE of PETS” and “TROPICAL FISH”. Painted fish swam around the letters and half a dozen clumps of pale green kelp rose up the side of the wall as if growing from the dirt and refuse of the lot. Near the front of the store, other words, apparently more recent, had been added in black stencil:

CRYSTALS

INCENSE

TAROT

NEW AGE SUPPLIES

For no particular reason, Roger pulled up in front of the House of Pets. This was easy enough to do, as there were no cars parked anywhere near the store–in fact, there were very few cars at all on the street. The store appeared to be open, however, at least according to a cardboard sign hanging from a suction cup stuck to the glass halfway up the inside of the door.

A bell on the door rang as Roger entered, its sound startling between the stillness of the street outside and the silence of the store. He tried to shut the door as quietly as he could, but it stuck in the doorframe and he had to shove it closed, which made the bell jangle even more loudly than before. Roger turned to see a clerk staring at him from behind a high counter on his left. The man was bald except for a long fringe of lank, greasy hair beginning just above his ears and hanging down past his shoulders to pool on the counter. Looking at him, Roger thought of a seaweed-covered piling at low tide. With his pasty complexion and glassy, protuberant eyes, the clerk was almost comically ugly. As soon as Roger made eye contact with him, he turned his gaze back down to the book he’d apparently been reading, a yellowing paperback with frayed edges. “Let me know if I can help you with anything,” he croaked without looking back up.

A large aquarium was embedded in the front of the counter, running its entire length. It was packed with algae-furred chunks of stone and coral, but the only living creatures Roger could see were a few limp sea anemones. Above the counter hung a dense curtain of black leather cords bearing cheap-looking pendants and crystals, and this blocked the view of everything behind the counter except the top of the clerk’s head. Several blue veins stood out clearly on the pale, hairless dome. Roger thought he could see them pulsing beneath the thin layer of skin. As he stared, the clerk looked up again and said, “What?”

Roger mumbled a vague embarrassed monosyllable and looked away into the store. It was only dimly lit, and the aisles were narrow with shelves reaching almost to the ceiling. If Roger were a claustrophobe, he would have turned around and left the shop right then, but he actually had a fondness for dark, close spaces. They made him feel comfortable and secure. He wandered into the depths of the store as aimlessly as he’d driven the unfamiliar streets outside minutes before.

Directly ahead was an aisle jammed with bookshelves. From where he stood Roger could see the shelves held incense and tarot cards as well as books and less identifiable bric-a-brac. To his right he saw the beginning of another aisle that appeared to be lined with fish tanks. It occurred to Roger that he ought to get a new fish for his own tank at home, whose only current inhabitant was a large black snail. Amy’s son Terrence had asked him several times why he didn’t have any fish, and the idea struck him now that a new fish might actually bring him closer together with the boy–with whom he was having some trouble connecting–and through him, of course, with Amy. Perhaps, if he purchased a fish, Terrence could feed it. Roger might even be able to make regular feedings an argument for Amy to visit more frequently.

To reach the fish aisle, Roger had to squeeze past a bulky display shelf densely packed with aquarium decorations: hunks of coral dyed unnatural neon colors, fake plastic plants, bags of glass beads and marbles, ceramic and plastic tchotchkes of every kind. Many were familiar motifs: scuba divers with their feet trapped in tridacna shells, treasure chests with lids hinged to release intermittent bursts of bubbles, skeletal pirates brandishing cutlasses, miniature fairytale castles… But there were less conventional decorations as well: large hunks of rose quartz and amethyst, colored glass orbs, gleaming metallic spaceships, tentacled monsters, and odd glass fantasies that might have been intended to represent alien cities. Many were quite elaborate. All these items were crammed together in a licentious and unwholesome proximity. Roger wondered what kind of people might actually buy some of the more grotesque examples for their aquaria–not that this isolated and decrepit store seemed to be doing much business. He supposed the fish didn’t much mind, as long as the items had nooks and crannies, secret grottoes in which they could hide. Fish liked to do that. Roger’s tank at home was decorated with a scattering of plastic plants and an orange, arched ceramic bridge of vaguely Asian design, like the sort of thing one saw straddling koi ponds in postcards of China or Japan. Roger enjoyed the irony of a bridge immersed in an aquarium with fish swimming over as well as under it. His fish, before they all died, liked it because it was hollow, with a hole in the back into which they could swim and hide.

As Roger scanned the shelves for a bridge like his, he saw what appeared to be a very accurate replica human skull near the back of the second shelf. He thought it looked surprisingly lifelike, although to be sure, there was something a little off about its proportions. Then he chuckled to himself thinking that “lifelike” was probably not the best word to describe a skull. “Realistic” was more like it. He glanced over at the clerk to see if his laughter had drawn any attention, but as far as he could see, the bald man was still absorbed in his book. He could well imagine that fish would enjoy a skull as an aquarium decoration, with all its holes into which they could swim. Not for his tank though, that was for sure. Amy wouldn’t like it.

Roger edged past the shelf of decorations into a long, narrow aisle composed of floor-to-ceiling aquaria. These seemed better maintained than the rest of what he’d seen in the store so far, even though only about half held any fish. There was no overhead light here, but each tank had its own light, and their combined wavering blue glow, if not bright, was more than adequate for navigation. He scanned the tanks and saw the usual array of goldfish, guppies, angelfish, cichlids, gourami, barbs, bush tetras, and so on. There was even a large tank of piranha against the wall on his right. A small sign taped to the front of piranha tank requested customers not to tap the glass.

Further down the aisle were the saltwater tanks, and unlike the one fronting the counter, these held healthy anemones and live coral, banded shrimp and colorful reef fish. Roger’s tank was not saltwater, so he did not linger over these, although he did briefly entertain the thought of bringing Terrence to see them–if he could even find this store again. He quickly dismissed the idea as he imagined Terrence asking, “Why don’t you get some of these Roger?” He was not prepared for the investment of money and effort that a saltwater tank required. Especially not the effort…

As Roger reached the end of the aisle, he came upon an enormous tank on his left that reached from the floor to eye level. More of a vat really. It bore no labels or price tags, but it was covered by a heavy perforated sheet metal lid from which several thick black filter hoses protruded. Half a dozen cinderblocks held the cover in place. He peered into it trying to see what kind of fish or other creatures it contained. Although the tank was full, the water in it was completely opaque, as if with an algal bloom. The water was the color of pea soup, and it looked to have a similar consistency as well. As Roger examined the tank, he caught sight of some motion to his right at the far end of the tank. For the briefest of moments, he saw something press against the glass, a webbed foot like a frog’s, though much larger. But it was just a glimpse, and then whatever it was pulled away, leaving only an eddy in the murk, which quickly subsided as he peered at the spot.

Startled but intrigued, Roger walked around the back of the tank to the end of the book aisle and called to the clerk. “Excuse me–what’s in this big tank in the back, the one with all the algae?”

The clerk leaned over the counter and fixed him with a glassy stare. “Nothing. I just need to clean it. I’ve got to get it ready again.”

“But I saw something–something like a frog, a large one. I’m sure of it.”

“There’s nothing in that tank. No frogs, no nothing. Trust me.” He continued to stare at Roger. “Is there something else you’re looking for, something I can help you with?”

Roger was flustered. “Well, uh, I was thinking about getting a fish. Can you recommend something that might appeal to a young boy, about 9 years old?”

The clerk shuffled around the counter. “I have just the thing. We’ve got a sale today on Malaysian fire eels. Very interesting fish for a young boy. Follow me.”

A short while later, Roger was on his way home, a single Malaysian fire eel darting nervously around the water-filled plastic bag on the passenger seat. The fish was almost eight inches long, dark olive-green on top, with a bright red-orange belly. He was confident Terrence would find it interesting. Next to the plastic bag was a paper sack with the frozen wads of tubifex worms that the clerk had recommended for the fire eel’s food.

It took Roger almost half an hour to get back to a familiar street, and from there, another 45 minutes to reach his apartment. Once inside, he set the bag with the fire eel to float in his aquarium. Even without the reminder from the clerk at the store, he knew to acclimate the fish to the new water temperature before releasing it. He put the tubifex worms in the freezer. They had begun to thaw, and to smell. Not that the smell bothered him. In fact, he found it oddly pleasing.

While the fire eel was getting comfortable in its new home, Roger checked his phone for messages from Amy. Nothing. She knew that his cell was out of minutes–he had told her several times during their last conversation–so she should have called him at home. But no. He checked the phone to make sure there was a dial tone. There was. He sighed and replaced it in its cradle.

By then the time was almost 3:30. Roger felt tired and hungry, which was surprising considering how little energy he’d actually expended during his day. He knew there wasn’t much in the fridge, so he rummaged in the cabinet beside the stove until a 15 oz. can of Mexican sardines caught his eye. That seemed to be what he was craving. He set the can on the counter and removed the lid with a rotary can opener from the drawer below. Still standing, he ate the sardines straight from the can, first scooping up chunks with a fork, then grubbing the rest out with his fingers and finally licking the remaining tomato sauce and sardine fragments out with his tongue, careful to avoid the sharp upper edges of the can. He was surprised at his own hunger. When he was done, he wiped his hands and mouth with a paper towel, burped a fishy burp, and picked the phone back up to call Amy and see if he could convince her and Terrence to come over for dinner. He was eager for Terrence to see the fire eel.

Amy was reluctant, but eventually he was able to get her to commit to dinner. He had sweetened the deal with the prospect of home-cooked lasagna and the latest computer-animated film for Terrence, rented on his way home. He had deliberately chosen lasagna for an entrée: it was a heavy dish, and he hoped that a good helping of it would help convince Amy to stay the night at his apartment. If that happened, Terrence could sleep on the foldout couch as he had done before.

Before Roger started work on the lasagna, he opened the plastic bag and released the fire eel into the aquarium. It immediately swam down, wriggled into the hole in the back of the little bridge, and disappeared. Roger sighed and stuffed the empty plastic bag in the trash. He would have to find a way to coax the eel out for Terence later. Maybe some worms would do it.

Roger tried to time everything so that Amy would arrive while the lasagna was still in the oven. That way they could sit together on the couch and visit a while before dinner. He hoped to get in some handholding and flank-to-flank physical contact that might warm her up for after, but she was almost an hour late, and by then the lasagna was getting cold, so Roger simply hurried her and Terrence to the table, already set with plates and silverware, a large bowl of salad and a basket of garlic bread. He sawed out chunks of lukewarm lasagna for each of them, Amy inevitably protesting that her portion was too large. At first they ate with little conversation beyond Roger’s unsuccessful attempts to fish for compliments on his cooking. Then, after several minutes of silent chewing, Amy asked, “So how did the job hunt go today?”

“Well, I drove all over the city and followed a lot of leads,” Roger answered, feeling at least halfway truthful, “but you know how it is right now. No one’s hiring.”

Amy wrinkled her nose and tightened her lips as if she tasted something bitter. She set down her fork. “Roger, you’ve got to try harder. You can’t just lie around here forever. You need to do something.”

“I know, I know. But it’s not like it’s that urgent. I’ve still got almost two months of unemployment benefits left.”

“No, Roger,” said Amy, speaking slowly and spacing her words as if addressing someone whom she suspected did not understand English well. “That’s the whole point. You can’t just do nothing and wait for your unemployment to run out. That’s not how it works. You need to set some goals, think about your future, about where you want to be 20 years from now. How is Terence supposed to respect you if you carry on like this?”

Terence looked up at the mention of his name, his mouth hanging open to reveal a mass of half chewed lasagna.

“I know Amy, I know,” Roger replied softly. “It’s not like I’m not trying. I’m looking for jobs all the time. There’s just not a lot out there right now.”

“I’m not just talking about looking for jobs, Roger. I’m talking about thinking about a career, about your future. Ever since you got laid off, you’ve been like this, just lying around with no direction in life.”

When Roger met Amy, he had been assistant manager at an electronics store, one of the big box chains. She had always assumed it was his ambition to become a full manager and then somehow work his way up through the company hierarchy. He had never done anything to give her such an impression, but neither had he made any effort to contradict her vision of his future on any of the occasions when she was outlining it. He just went with the flow. That was all he ever did. Even the assistant manager position had come to him like that. The manager had promoted him after the previous assistant had suddenly quit, and he had just gone along with it.

“I promise I’ll get more focused, okay? But for now, let’s just finish our dinner. Please? And after dinner, I have a surprise for Terrence.”

Terrence raised his head again, but he did not look particularly excited. He did not look much of anything.

Amy stared at him. She wasn’t smiling, but some of the frustration had left her face. “Fine, Roger,” she said. “Fine. But we still need to talk about this.”

Roger nodded, knowing better than to say anything else, and looked down at his plate. As he picked at his food, he thought of the thing in the tank, whatever it might have been. That might be a decent life, living in an oversized pet shop aquarium, regular feedings and nothing to do but swim around the familiar surroundings. He half-envied the thing, whatever it was.

Dinner was over less than 10 minutes later. Roger was disappointed in how little lasagna Amy had eaten. Then again, Roger hadn’t had much appetite either and had hardly eaten any more than Amy. He supposed the sardines must have spoiled his appetite. At least Terrence had done pretty well for a boy his size. Roger hoped he would fall asleep on the couch during the movie. That would pretty much guarantee an overnight stay.

Roger rose, facing the boy. “Well, Terrence, are you ready for your surprise?”

Terrence looked back and said simply, “Okay.”

“Come over here then,” said Roger, leading them back into the living room. “It’s in the fish tank.”

Terrence looked at him quizzically, then turned to the aquarium. It was almost at his eye level, so he did not have to bend down far to peer into it. “I don’t see anything except that boring snail that eats poop,” he said.

“No, look behind the bridge,” said Roger, bending over and pointing. But it was no use. The Malaysian fire eel was not behind the little ceramic bridge. It was inside it.

Roger groaned and tapped the glass. “You’re not supposed to do that,” said Terrence. “It scares the fish.”

“I know,” said Roger. “But it’s okay this one time.” He tapped harder. Nothing happened. The fish did not even poke its head out to see what was happening. Roger put both hands against the top of the tank and shook it so the water sloshed inside and almost spilled over the top. Still no fire eel.

“Roger, what are you doing?” asked Amy.

In a sudden burst of frustration, Roger said, “Wait!” and stuck his right hand all the way down to the bottom of the tank. He grasped the bridge and lifted it out. As soon as it was free of the surface, water poured from the opening in the back. Roger let most of the water drain into the tank, then held it up to his face to look inside. He could just see the dark, slimy head of the fire eel. It lay motionless inside the bridge, a thin film of water clinging around it.

Roger thrust the bridge at the boy and said, “Here–look inside!”

Terrence stepped back. He finally had an expression on his face: fright. Amy moved up and put her hands on the boy’s narrow shoulders.

“Look!” insisted Roger. “It’s a Malaysian fire eel.”

Terrence turned to face his mother, “Mom, I don’t wanna look. I wanna go. Can we go?”

Amy looked down at her son and said, “Yes, honey. I think it’s time to go.” Then to Roger, though still looking only at her son: “Roger, we’re going to go now. Thanks for the lasagna. It was very tasty.”

Roger was alarmed. This was not the script. “Amy, stay,” he pleaded. “We’ve still got the movie to watch. Don’t you want to watch the movie, Terrence?” He looked at Terrence, whose eyes remained fixed on his mother. Neither would look at Roger. “I can make popcorn. It’ll be fun! You guys can stay over. Terrence can sleep on the rollout couch. Terrence, you like to sleep on the rollout couch, don’t you?”

Amy shook her head and began to guide her son toward the door. “I’m sorry Roger. We really need to be going. Thanks again for dinner. I’ll call you, okay?”

And then they were gone. Roger stared at the door as it closed. He realized he was still holding the little ceramic bridge with the fire eel inside, and he tossed it back into the aquarium. It settled with a jerky sawing motion before coming to rest on its side in the blue gravel at the bottom. There was no sign of the eel.

Roger looked at the hand he had plunged into the aquarium and with which he’d held the bridge. Water dripped from his entire forearm. He suddenly felt very tired, and his face felt hot and dry. Without thinking about what he was doing, he ran his hand across his face. It was wet and cool, and he found this soothing. A drop of aquarium water ran onto his upper lip, and without thinking, he licked it off. It had an unfamiliar tang that he actually found quite savory.

All at once, his stomach spasmed. He staggered toward the hallway bathroom, making it just in time. Up came lasagna, salad, garlic bread. Up came the sardines. Up came everything, and when there was nothing left to bring up, the dry heaves began, continuing a full five minutes.

When he could finally stand up again, Roger rinsed his face with water from the tap. He still felt hot, and his face felt dry, so the water helped some, but the flavor of the tap water he rinsed his mouth with did not have the same effect on him the drop of aquarium water had. He was weak and feverish. He knew that he must be coming down with something. He hoped it wasn’t food poisoning–if there was something wrong with the lasagna and Amy and Terrence got sick, he would really be in for it. But he didn’t think so. He was a careful cook, and all his ingredients had been fresh. He wondered instead if he might have picked up something in the humid stuffy air of the pet store.

Roger wanted to take a couple Tylenol, but he feared even that much would set his stomach off again, so he just kicked off his shoes and curled up fetal on his bed. He still wore his street clothes. He made no attempt to clean the kitchen or put away the remaining food.

Roger got up several times during the night for more dry heaves, but when he finally woke for the day, it was after 11:00 a.m. His fever seemed even worse, but at least the nausea was gone. Not surprisingly, he was ravenously hungry.

Roger pulled the top blanket off the bed and clutched it around himself like a robe. He shuffled into the kitchen and considered his options for nourishment. The wilted salad and crusted contracted lasagna on the table held no appeal. Neither did anything in the refrigerator, and he could not bear the cold air coming out of it. He opened the cabinets, hunting another can of sardines, but there were none.

He groaned, looking around the kitchen again, and his gaze passed through the door to the living room and fell on the aquarium. Remembering how the fire eel’s lack of cooperation had been the primary cause of last night’s debacle, Roger advanced on the tank. He tapped the glass. Nothing happened. He tipped the tank back and forth on its stand again. Nothing. With an angry cry, he reached into the tank and pulled the bridge out a second time. He shook it but that did no more good than it had the night before.

Angrily, he carried the bridge into the kitchen and slammed it on the counter. He began to mutter to himself: “Goddamn fish, goddamn fish, goddamn fish…” He opened a drawer and drew out a heavy chef’s knife. “Goddamn fish, I’ll show you,” he said, and brought the back of the knife down hard against the little ceramic bridge, which caved in at the point of impact and split in two, with smaller fragments skittering across the counter and onto the floor. At last, the fire eel was revealed, contorting in obvious agony between the two halves of the ruined bridge, bits of ceramic stuck to its slimy skin.

Roger pulled the two pieces apart to expose the fish. At the pet store, he had seen dozens of them in one tank, sinuous and almost graceful in their movements. Now this one writhed on his kitchen counter, injured and unable to breathe. Roger pressed his hands over its two ends and felt its struggles. This fish had taken his money, given him a false hope of intimacy with Amy, then betrayed him terribly. Grasping its head in one hand and its tail in the other, he lifted it up in front of him to look more closely at it–and then on a sudden impulse, he brought it to his mouth and bit it in the middle. Warm, salty blood squirted over his tongue and he tasted the flesh of the fish, which convulsed spasmodically.

It was the most delicious thing Roger had ever tasted. He bit down harder until he had completely severed the section in his mouth. The two remaining pieces of the eel fell still in his hands.

He chewed it, savoring its warmth, its flavor. The small bones crushed between his teeth. When he had chewed this middle piece to a paste and swallowed it, he followed with the tail end and finally the head. He had to bite down hard on the skull, but eventually it gave with a delightful crunch.

All too soon this savory morsel was gone. Roger had barely swallowed the last bit of it before the enormity of what he had just done settled on him. He had eaten his own pet. Raw. He slumped down against the counter until he was sitting on the floor, staring blankly ahead. What would Amy say when she found out? Well, Amy was not going to find out. He was going to go back to the House of Pets and get another fire eel. Amy and Terrence had never even seen the one he had just–had he really just eaten a tropical fish? Yes, he had. He could not escape it in his thoughts. And he also knew that he was going to buy more than one fire eel, and he was going to buy them to eat rather than to stock his aquarium. He could still taste the one he had just devoured. He licked his lips.

Roger groaned deeply and collapsed on his side on the linoleum, again briefly contemplating his burst of depravity. At least Amy hadn’t called to complain that she and Terrence had come down with food poisoning. Whatever was wrong with him hadn’t come from the dinner. Meanwhile, he could tell that his fever was getting worse. He really needed to go to a doctor, but he no longer had health insurance, and even if he went to the public health clinic, he might vomit again, and when they saw chunks of tropical fish in his spew, they might report him for animal cruelty.

The craving for more eels consumed him. He crawled back to the bedroom, found his shoes, and slipped them on. It was warm outside, but he dug a bulky sweater out of his dresser and pulled it over his head nonetheless. Yet even with the sweater, he shivered. What is happening to me? he wondered, but could not carry this line of reasoning further. All he could think about was his hunger. And then he remembered what was in the freezer…

Roger brushed crumbs of partially thawed tubifex worms off his sweater as he drove. He was afraid that he would not be able to find the House of Pets again–he had no clear memory of its location–but it seemed to draw him like a magnet, and he turned unerringly down street after street that brought him closer to his destination. Soon he was pulling up outside the store’s faded blue exterior. As he opened his car door, a violent fit of shuddering struck him. The hunger returned the moment the fit subsided. He staggered out of the car and into the pet shop.

Inside, all looked the same as the day before, except that the clerk with the stringy seaweed hair was not at the counter. Roger tried to call out “Hello?”, but he was short of breath and the word came out as a wheezy gasp. He thought he heard sounds from the back of the store, so he headed in that direction. He wanted to go down the fish aisle–where the fire eels were–but he was shaking so badly he was afraid he might knock over some aquarium decorations as he squeezed past the display at the corner, so he lurched down the aisle of books and incense instead.

When he reached the end of the aisle, he was surprised to find the huge murky tank he’d seen the day before was empty, completely drained, with only a thin film of water remaining in the bottom. The metal cover was off and lay on its edge against a shelf of dog toys at the rear of the store. There was no sign at all of the thing he thought he had seen inside. A thick red rubber hose ran from the bottom of the tank all the way to a door marked “Private” even further back in the store, beside a glass-fronted room holding only empty cages. Thick clamps held the hose to the tank where it hung over the edge.

Suddenly the hose belched and jerked as if alive. Roger took a shaky step backwards. The hose jerked again and Roger watched as it began spouting fresh water into the tank.

A few seconds later the clerk emerged from the Private door. Without a glance at Roger, he walked to the tank and checked the clamp holding the gushing hose. Then he retreated back into the door, still without acknowledging his customer.

When the clerk reemerged, he was holding a cylindrical plastic container about a foot high. He climbed a metal stair at the back of the tank and upended the contents of the tub into the water whirling around the tank. The stuff from the container looked like dirty salt.

At this point, Roger said, “Excuse me…”

Nothing.

He said it again. The clerk looked over.

“Hi,” said Roger. His voice was rasping and faint. “Remember me? I was here yesterday. I came back; I–I wanted to buy some more fire eels.”

The clerk looked him up and down, slowly, as if measuring his height, and said: “I’m busy now, but you can get them yourself. The net and the bags are hanging up in the aisle. Just let me know when you’re ready to check out.” With that, he returned to his work.

“Okay,” wheezed Roger, and he shambled around the big tank and the clerk, stepping over the hose on his way. The man ignored him. Everyone seemed to be ignoring him now–Amy, Terrence, even this bug-eyed ugly pet store clerk.

Roger made his way down the aquarium aisle until he arrived at the fire eel tank. There had to be 50 or 60 eels in there. His stomach convulsed with hunger just looking at them. How many this time? At least a dozen. He wondered if the clerk would notice if he reached in, grabbed one, and ate it right there. He looked back. The man was not facing his way, but was still in a position to observe him if he turned. Roger decided against it despite the craving the eels inspired.

He found the little green aquarium net where it hung from a peg next to a roll of plastic bags. Roger pulled a bag from the roll and lifted the lid of the fire eel tank. He dipped the net in the tank, but his hands were shaking so bad he couldn’t catch a single eel. Each time he tried, the fish escaped him easily, and on the fourth attempt, the net itself slipped from his trembling fingers. Eels darted out of its way as it settled to the bottom. Roger swore. It was then he noticed his hand. Unbelieving, he held it up in front of his face to examine it closely. It was a dull slate-gray all over and a transparent webbing seemed to be growing up between his fingers. His left hand was the same as his right. He tried to get a look at his face in the reflection off the tank, but the light was too dim and it was coming from the wrong direction. He was glad Amy could not see him this way.

Roger shuffled back toward the rear of the store. He was weak and shaky and his breathing was very shallow now. He felt hot all over and his skin was uncomfortably dry. The sides of his neck ached terribly. He knew that he was seriously ill. There was no longer any question. Amy would tell him to go see a doctor. Maybe the clerk had a couch or even a bathtub in the back room where Roger could lie down. Roger might even have to ask him to call 911.

When he reached the big tank, the clerk was not there. Roger did not have the wind to call him. He felt dizzy, and he reached out and gripped the edges of the tank with both gray hands to steady himself.

The water in the tank was several inches deep now. It looked fresh and so, so cool. Roger stared at the foaming eddy circling from the end of the hose and around the tank to its starting point. Then he climbed up on the little metal stair the clerk had used, threw first his right arm and then his right leg over the edge, and with one awful, rasping breath, he pulled himself over the side and dropped into the tank with a splash. He lay on his side in the swirling water. The current was cool and comforting. He thought briefly of Amy and whether she would miss him, and then he pressed his face and neck into the flow, gasping in an agonized mouthful of it as the gills in his neck tore open and began to work. Wherever the rising water touched him, wisps of pea green murk spread outward in the tank.

Scott Nicolay‘s writing has been described as “good” by several people, although this is somewhat of a paraphrase. Although his influences are manifold, he first encountered “The Dunwich Horror” over 40 years ago at the age of 7, and it remains his model for short fiction. When he is not disseminating a bleak gibbering madness, he works as a professional educator on the Navajo Nation, where he lives with his children. He has no spare time, but wishes he did so he could pursue his interests in caving, archaeology, political organizing, poetry, gardening, landscaping, and 43 Man Squamish. And of course, writing, which he accomplishes at a glacial pace. He is currently finishing the last 2-3 stories for what he hopes will be his first collection. His controversial “Dogme 2011″ manifesto of weird fiction may be read online here, although the current story predates that document slightly:  http://weirdfictionreview.com/2011/11/dogme-2011-for-weird-fiction-by-scott-nicolay/

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

If you enjoyed this story, let Scott know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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17 responses to “In the Tank, by Scott Nicolay

  1. A big thank you to everyone who has complimented my story here. I am very happy that LZE readers are enjoying it! And I am thrilled by the presentation: Editor Mike Davis really goes the extra mile, with a great illustration by Nick “The Hat” Gucker, and even a wonderful audio version by David Binks. What a treat it is to see & hear my work interpreted by other artists! All hail The Lovecraft eZine!!!

  2. Nick always does a great a job with his drawings. The story was good, and I enjoyed the inclusion of the economic tough times. You just feel sorry for the doleful SOB.

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