Just a Goldfish

“Young lady, this part of the aquarium isn’t open to the public.”

“But I need to speak with a marine biologist.”

“If you don’t leave now, I’ll have security escort you out.”

“But…”

“What’s going on, Danny?” A woman in a white lab coat walked over, sipping a coffee with whipped cream.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Tanner, this girl just snuck in here.”

“Doctor?” Stephanie turned to her, “Are you a marine biologist?”

“That’s right.”

Stephanie unzipped an insulated lunchbox and pulled out a frozen fish in a plastic baggie. “My fish died last Saturday. He was fine Saturday morning, but by afternoon, he was dead. Can you help me solve his murder?”

Dr. Tanner’s eyebrows rose, then she smiled indulgently. “Call me Elizabeth.”

“I’m Stephanie.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Stephanie. Unfortunately, most goldfish don’t live very long.”

“But what’s his cause of death? It has to have been either Mom, Dad, or Brandon.”

“What makes you think one of them killed your fish?”

“He was perfectly healthy, and I’ve had him for over a year.” Stephanie pulled a jar from her lunchbox. “I brought a water sample from his bowl to test its pH.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You’d make a good scientist.”

“Here’s Zebediah.” She handed him over. “You should do an autopsy.”

Elizabeth paused, looking at the frozen fish, then Stephanie. “Alright. Let’s take a look at your fish. And Danny,” turning to her assistant, “let Reception know Stephanie’s here so her parents don’t worry.”

They went over to a table. Stephanie looked around the lab. Tanks lined one wall—she identified eels, cuttlefish, and herring—and computers the other.

“How would you like to see your fish under a microscope?” Elizabeth positioned Zebediah under the lens.

Stephanie examined him. “His scales seem fine. No parasites. Can you tell what happened?”

Elizabeth sat on a stool and looked straight at Stephanie. “What do you think happened?”

“I think somebody killed him. I made sure never to overfeed him, because fish can die that way. And it was halfway through the month. I always clean his bowl at the beginning of every month, so it wasn’t a problem with new water like it might’ve been if I’d just cleaned the bowl, or if it was too dirty.”

“That’s very well reasoned. Have you thought about studying science?”

“Yes. I’m going to be a paleontologist. But who killed my fish? The whole family was home. Anyone could have done it.”

“What does your reason tell you?”

“Dad hates Zebediah. When we went on vacation we had to have someone take him and he said he wished we didn’t have him. And Mom says he’s a nuisance, even though he doesn’t smell or get on the furniture, and I take care of him. And Brandon comes into my room even though he’s not supposed to. He’s always messing with me. He might have done it just to be mean.”

“You think someone would kill your fish just to be mean?”

She looked down, hesitating. “I don’t know.”

“Tell me about…Zebediah, right?”

“I saved him. At sixth grade science camp. The teacher gave us goldfish, and we had to put them in a beaker over a bunsen burner and heat it and record the water temperature when they started having problems, then add ice and do the same thing. It was cruel. I wouldn’t do it. The teacher didn’t understand. He said it was okay because we weren’t killing them, but it’s not okay. It hurt them. So I took mine home.”

“That was very compassionate of you.”

“He said goldfish only have a three second memory, but that’s not true, I looked it up.” Stephanie’s brow wrinkled. “And it wouldn’t matter even if it was true. He wanted us to measure what temperature makes them hurt. That means you’re hurting them. That means they feel something.”

“Some people would say it doesn’t matter, it’s just a goldfish,” Elizabeth suggested.

“It’s not just a goldfish,” Stephanie snapped. “It feels. It hurts.”

“Sometimes,” Elizabeth smiled gently, “when we try to do something good, it hurts someone. We don’t mean to. We may not even notice we’re hurting them, but it still hurts. Like your teacher trying to show you how temperature affects living things. He probably wasn’t intending to hurt the fish.”

Stephanie frowned. “That doesn’t make it okay.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “Stephanie, do you feel like people don’t notice when you’re hurting?”

Stephanie nodded at the floor.

“You know, we take good care of the fish here at the aquarium, but some of them still get sick, even die.”

“Really? Why?”

“Just living in captivity can stress them out, and long-term stress makes living things sick. Even when they look fine on the outside.”

“Oh.” She paused. “Maybe it was just an accident.”

The door opened and her parents and younger brother rushed in.

“I’m so sorry about this!” Mom gushed. “We were watching the sharks and I only turned around for a second and…”

“Stephanie was just telling me about her goldfish’s recent passing.” Elizabeth cut in.

Mom looked at the fish under the microscope and the lunchbox on the table. “You brought that here? In your lunchbox!?

“Ew!” Brandon squealed.

“You’re still on about that fish?” Dad sighed. “I’m sorry, Doctor, she gets so fixated on things!”

“Actually, I’m glad she came. It seems a murder has been perpetrated.” Elizabeth winked at Stephanie. “This fish didn’t die of natural causes. Would any of you know something about that?”

Silence.

After a very uncomfortable minute, Brandon whined, “But, what if he died fat and happy?”

Brandon?

He groaned.

“Okay, okay, I killed your fish. I’m sorry.”

You killed him?”

“I just wanted you to play with me again. We used to do things together. Now you just stare at that stupid fish.”

Stephanie stiffened, then started backing away.

“Honey…” Mom started.

“No. How could you? He was my only friend.” She turned and ran out of the lab.

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