She left four messages for him that day:
12:45pm. “Dad, where are you? You’re supposed to be home. Call me.”
1:02pm. “Daddy, pick up your pho-one.”
1:22pm. “C’mon, dude. Seriously. This is the last time I’m calling.”
1:57pm. “Dad? I’ve left like a million messages for you. What is up? This SUCKS.”
The EMTs put his phone in a gallon-sized plastic bag, along with his wallet and spare change. Twelve missed calls, it read, by the time his sister Deb arrived at the hospital to identify his body. The accident hadn’t left a mark on him.
When Aunt Deb came home from the hospital, she picked Karina up in her arms as though she were a small child. Karina’s slender, pre-pubescent body stayed rigid in her aunt’s embrace; she did not cry.
At midnight, Karina awoke with her face bathed in tears. She was confused, at first, about why she was crying. She walked halfway down the long hallway to the lighted bathroom. Her dad’s room—once her parents’ room, and now no one’s room—was at the other end of the hall. When she looked at the closed door, she remembered. She breathed in so sharply it hurt.
She began gasping for air like a beached fish, like the northern pike her dad had thrown up on the shore. She dropped to the bare wood floor, convulsing in silence, wishing she were dying, too.
The pike had been one of dozens, even hundreds, they’d caught this summer. Nothing remarkable about him; just a trash fish that folks around here believed in beaching. Certain times of the summer, the woods around the lake were so littered with northerns in various states of decay that the smell sometimes kept people off the beaches.
It had been Karina’s eleventh birthday, that day the outboard motor had died, and they’d had to find a way back to the other side of the lake.
The shallow, mucky water was warm enough to wade to shore, where the evidence of their prolific morning of fishing was in turn gasping, flopping and drying. One sacrifice had squirmed nearly ten feet—almost back to the lapping edge of the lake. His tail curled up into the June air and unfurled into the shallow, tepid water. His journey had left him covered with sand.
When Karina’s dad stepped ashore he picked up the pike by the tail and chucked him deeper into the woods.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked.
He looked at her and shook his head.
It isn’t fair, Karina thought, curling her upper lip.
She’d felt guilty about killing the fish, but she’d trusted her dad and hadn’t argued. Plus, they were often with one or more of his fishing buddies, who were already skeptical of her presence: First, she was a kid, and second, she was a girl. She’d had a lot of practice at being both useful and invisible, to compensate. She unhooked her own fish, tied her own knots, and handed out beers from the cooler. She didn’t even act squeamish when threading worms, minnows or leaches onto a hook, though she knew she was sending them to their deaths.
At that moment, standing on the gritty lip of the dirty little lake, peering out across the lake, surrounded by a dozen or more dead and dying northerns, her father looked different, almost unrecognizable. He looked like Marvin or Butch or Harry, one of the guys they fished with, or like Cliff, the unshaven guy at the Cottonwood Lake Bait Shop who sold them the Styrofoam container of worms, the Dr. Pepper and potato chips.
“Well, damnit,” he grunted, dialing his cell phone. She assumed he was calling Butch or Harry, both of whom had boats, to see if one of them could come retrieve them. But he wasn’t one to explain, and she’d learned not to ask. When he was like this, sometimes he lost track of what had pissed him off. It was best not to give him an object for his frustration.
She remembered the little digital camera in her dry bag, a birthday present from her mother, who she’d see in a week or so, when she left to stay with her for the summer. She tucked the camera into her pocket and picked her way up the shore into the cottonwoods.
The fish her dad had thrown was easy to find. He had hit a tree and fallen at its feet. He was still coated with sand, though not as much. Despite her practiced stoicism, she couldn’t bring herself to touch the fish.
He was still, and beautiful, Karina thought. He looked like a cement sculpture of a fish, scaly and gritty and brown. When the wind blew she noticed strange patterns migrating across his body, thrown by dappled sunlight. She took his picture.
The fish suddenly slapped his tail, startling Karina. She pulled away so quickly she hit herself in the face with her camera and fell backwards into a scratchy bush. How long had it been since he was pulled from the lake? she wondered. How long had he been suffocating in the open air?
He twitched again. She shot up as though she’d been bitten, and turned to return to her father. Halfway there she could hear his voice carried through the trees. “Nothing going on today,” he was telling their potential rescuer. “Fishin’s slow.”
Except for these “trash” fish, who didn't even merit a mention. They’d caught at least six apiece that morning, though nothing else was biting. She changed her mind and went back to the fish in the woods.
Again he wasn’t moving. She didn’t reach down to pick him up; somehow it felt different than unhooking a live fish or touching a dead “keeper” in the cooler. She rolled him over with her toe, pushing him towards the water. He didn’t respond. She rolled him again and again. He collected twigs and leaves to himself as he went, as though building a cocoon from forest floor litter. She wanted to stop to take his picture again; he looked like a mythical creature, a land-water hybrid that could grant wishes or exercise magic. But she knew she had already wasted too much time.
Once she reached the lip of the woods, she scooted the fish quickly down the sandy beach, trying not to draw her father’s attention. The fish finally rolled into the shallowest water, releasing a cloud of dirt and debris wherever the water touched him. The lake lapped him, a mother cat tonguing her nursling.
Karina willed the fish to breathe, to make a final gasp and in so doing discover that he could breathe again. She nudged him out into deeper water. She splashed him to wash him clean. He rolled under as though weighted, turning his pale yellow belly to the sun. She finally touched him and found that he was no longer slimy, as a fish should be, but instead smooth and plastic, like the underside of their crippled boat. She submerged him, holding him underwater; drowning him to resurrect him.
When she let go, he turned belly-up and floated back to the surface.
“What’re you doing, Karina?”
She’d forgotten about her father. She was caught red-handed, trying to save a fish that he’d deliberately sentenced to die. He looked from her to the fish and back again. He raised his eyebrows. “Huh,” was all he said, as he pulled their little Sea Nymph to shore.
The fish floated out farther. He wasn’t even trying to swim.
She followed her father to land. The pike were drying out all around them; not one fin flipped, not one gill bellowed. She looked closely.
“Butch’ll be here in a minnit,” her dad told her.
She stepped back into the water, and took a picture of him with a dozen dead fish at his feet.
After the funeral, she spent two days in bed. Her mother temporarily returned with her to the house they had all once shared, so Karina could pack her things, but she has a hard time doing so.
Her mother's new baby, Karina's half-sister, needed a lot of attention, so there was no one to force her to talk. It was as though the house were haunted by two spirits unaware of one another, but both mindful of the house’s only legitimate occupant—the man who had shoveled the now blown-over front sidewalk, whose shoes were in the front closet, whose leftover chili was going bad in the refrigerator.
On her last day in her father's house, Karina crawled into her father’s bed, and she dreamed of him.
She stands on a pile of rocks in the middle of a big river, facing upstream. The faster, boiling currents of the river rush by on the right. A slow, calm pocket of water swirls on the left.
Her father stands in the calm pocket, fishing. It's deep; he's in water up to his chest. As she watches him, she sees a huge, vibrant fish coming towards his lure. She searches frantically for her camera, panicked that she will miss the picture.
After a few flustered moments, she realizes she’s already holding the camera. She has the dreamers' frustration of moving too slow, too slow.
The fish is big and wriggly and barely caught. Her father holds it high, but just as she is about to snap the picture, the fish leaps into the air. The shutter closes in time to capture only the empty space the fish has left behind.