Melly Connors never let anyone tell her what to do. She resisted it from her mother, from her father, from her teachers, from her friends. She had a mind of her own, and a will as strong as steel. Usually, this served her well. She wasn’t a particularly disobedient child, but she only did things when she made up her mind, when she was good and ready.
“Brush your teeth, Melly,” her mother would instruct at night. And Melly would…eventually.
In the summer of 1991, the children ran around in front yards and backyards, screeching after ice cream trucks, caring for skinned knees with a slap of a Band-Aid, playing freeze tag and red rover, getting sunburns, and mosquito bites that their mothers would slather with pink Calamine lotion. They stayed out well until dark and slept until at least nine every morning. They got dirty, and laughed a lot, and got in probably a little too much trouble.
Melly’s neighborhood gang was a group of four—two boys, and two girls. Besides Melly, who was eleven, there was twelve-year-old Tanner, (whom she had a monster crush on very much despite her own will), Chantel who was a year younger than Melly, though she was nearly as tall as Tanner then Rusty, Tanner’s nine-year-old brother who was just a smaller, more freckly version of him.
Melly wasn’t as big as Tanner, but she was just as tough. The older boy liked to tease her in a sisterly sort of way; he gloated when he beat her in tag, or raced faster on his bike, or had more money for ice cream. Melly didn’t mind that all so much. What she hated was being told what to do. What she hated even more than that, however, was being told she couldn’t do something. Being told she was afraid to do it. She wouldn’t let even someone she had a super, secret crush on boss her. No way.
On a hot August morning, Melly wandered out of the house and two doors down to round the corner into Tanner’s backyard. He was peering at a bowl in the middle of the grass, hands on his skinny knees, red hair falling over his eyes. Each of their yards was fair territory for any of the others, and they came and went as they pleased. Whosever house they were at, their parent would make them all a lunch, or snack at some point.
“What are you lookin’ at?” Melly asked as she got closer.
Rusty ran out the back porch. “Fish!” he hollered as he flew down the steps. “Goldfish Wish!”
“Huh?” She tried to get a better look at the fishbowl.
“Shh,” Tanner said, holding one white finger up to his fleshy, pink lips. “Both you. You’ll scare it. We’ll wait for Chantel. Then we’ll see.”
“See what?” She craned around to get a glimpse. It looked like a regular old fish from where she stood.
Melly sighed. Chantel came through the gate and sauntered over, hair in braids, a wide smile on her narrow face. “Hey, guys.”
“Hey. Alright,” Tanner said, always the boss, always the leader, waving her in with an authoritative voice. “Let’s huddle up. I got something cool to tell you all.”
Melly put her hands on her hips, hooking her fingers through the loops of her denim shorts. “I thought you said we had to be quiet.”
“You do. I don’t.” Tanner grinned impishly, and Melly made a face.
“What’s going on?” Chantel yawned, popping a huge piece of Bubbleicious. The bright, fruity scent of watermelon wafted over to Melly’s nose.
“Guys, listen.” Tanner sighed, importantly. “This is a big deal.”
“What is?” Melly said, impatience heavy in her tone. “Spit it out already!”
“Goldfish wish,” Rusty whispered slowly, smiling.
“Goldfish wish.” Tanner nodded. “Big deal. One of us gets to do it.”
“What?” Both girls said.
“A fish?” Chantel fake spat, careful not to lose her gum. “Are you nuts, Tanner?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’d be lucky if you got picked.”
“Oh, stop.” Melly turned away, flipping her long blonde ponytail over her shoulder.
His urgent tone stopped her when he said, “I’m serious. Whoever swallows the goldfish gets a wish to come true. Not just any wish. A big wish.”
“Goldfish wish,” Rusty whispered again.
“For Pete’s Sake, Rusty!” Melly growled. “Is that all you can say today?”
“It’s true.” Tanner looked carefully at both girls. “Ancient magic, here. My grandpa told me all about it. He did it. His wish came true.”
“Whad’he wish for?” Chantel asked, raising one brow against her smooth, brown forehead.
“I don’t remember. But it came true.”
“Come on.” Melly jerked her head to Chantel. “They are nuts. Let’s go listen to tapes. I’m not swallowing an old fish. Besides, it’ll kill it.”
“Wait!” Tanner cried, his cheeks splotchy. “I’m being serious. It’s magic.”
Chantel raised that one brow even higher and snapped her gum. Nobody could snap gum like her, Melly thought with admiration.
Tanner continued, “If you don’t put your foot in, it’s only me and Rusty. 50/50 shot then. We’d be lucky to get it, like I said, but it feels weird not letting you in. And it won’t hurt the fish. It’s magic. Really. Isn’t there anything you want?”
Melly scowled. She wanted to stay there. But she and her family were moving that fall when her father started his new job. Tanner knew she wanted to stay. He knew she’d wish for that.
“I’d like something,” Chantel chimed in, snapping her gum once more with a resounding pop. “I want to go to DisneyWorld. My parents said it’s too much money.”
“Well then, you in?” Tanner tugged her by the hand.
Chantel hesitated for a beat. Then she nodded at him and put her jelly-sandaled foot back into the middle of the huddle, next to Rusty’s dirty Van sneaker. Through it all the younger boy just grinned like the Cheshire cat.
“Just us three, then.” Tanner turned his back to Melly. “One out of three odds not bad. Melly’s out. She’s too scared.”
“I’m not scared.” Melly’s face was hot. “It’s just gross…”
“You’re scared to swallow the fish.” He shrugged, barely turning to glance at her. “That’s okay. You can’t do it so you can watch us. Chantel, bubblegum us in.”
“Bubblegum, bubblegum, in a dish—” Chantel began.
“I am not afraid,” Melly interupted icily, jabbing her elbow into Tanner, and nudging his own foot out of position. She took his spot at the helm of the huddle and set her foot in the middle purposefully. Her neon sandal stood out brightly against the green grass.
Rusty giggled and Tanner gave her a wink. Melly looked toward the fishbowl and concentrated on her wish.
Let us stay here. Don’t make us move. Let us stay here. Don’t make us move. Stay. Stay. Stay. Stay.
Chantel started over with the four feet in place. “And you are not it!” She prodded her foot triumphantly onto the top of Tanner’s shoe.
“Aw, man! No way! Out first.” He groaned and flopped back onto the grass. “That stinks!”
Chantel was out next and she sighed glumly. “I guess no Disneyworld.”
“Keep going,” Melly said, and Chantel counted them down. It was between Melly and Rusty. She eyed him, staring at his freckles from across the two-person huddle. It took her a moment to catch up with Chantel’s voice, on account of losing track of numbering the freckles across Rusty’s upturned nose, but her friend shrieked her name.
“You won!” Chantel’s eyes were wide. “Melly, you’re it. You won. You get the wish.”
“I won?” She looked down at the bowl and gulped. She wanted to win a wish, sure. She didn’t want to actually win the act of gulping down a goldfish. It sounded so…slimy. Plus, wouldn’t it hurt the goldfish, despite what Tanner had said? Was it really magic? What if this was all a prank?
“Don’t wait too long,” Tanner warned. “The sooner you do it, the stronger the wish.”
“The goldfish,” she began weakly.
“I said it won’t hurt it.” He clapped her on the back. “He won’t feel a thing. Swallow it down. You’ll get your wish. My grandpa swore it works.”
“You’ll get to stay, Melly,” Chantel whispered, “Right?”
Melly nodded to her friend then she reached into the bowl, grasped the slippery goldfish by the fin, and before she could hesitate, before she could chicken out—because she’d rather die—she picked up the goldfish, shut her eyes tight, and plugged her nose with the other hand to block out the taste. Then she opened her mouth and swallowed it.
It was as though the goldfish was still swimming around in her belly. She waited for her parents to tell her they could stay in Indiana, that the new job wasn’t happening, but it never happened. Maybe the wish is just taking its sweet, old time, she thought, eying the calendar.
She’d thought for sure the morning she’d swallowed the goldfish that her mother would break the good news to her. Then maybe the next day. Then the next. It was nearly autumn; school would start soon. And they were almost all packed-up to leave. Except Melly, that is.
“Start packing your closet up,” her mother said, dustrags in hand.
Melly sighed, crossing her arms over her stomach, worried she might vomit. But if she threw up the goldfish she might cancel the wish. She realized the fish would have come out in the toilet by now, but so far, she hadn’t seen anything, and anyway she swore it was flipping around in her belly. Silently, of course. When the kids asked if there was any news yet she just smiled though the quesy feeling in her middle remained.
“Soon. It’ll be soon.” And they believed her. The goldfish had to be alive, it was still working on the wish. Besides, it was magic. She didn’t dare argue with it. That was one thing she’d listen to.
Melly kicked and screamed and cried, and refused to pack anything until her mother threatened to throw out all of her tapes if she didn’t get off her tush and move it. It hadn’t mattered how much she’d throw a tantrum. They were moving. That goldfish wish was bunk. She wanted to punch Tanner in the face, but he was teary-eyed when she said good-bye.
“Gang’s bustin’ up.” He shuffled his feet, not meeting her eyes.
“Sorry,” she said. But it wasn’t her fault the goldfish was a lazy jerk.
Melly leaned in and gave him a little hug, and he gave her a pat on the back. Chantel cried, and Rusty did, too.
“I’ll write you guys,” Melly promised, as she hugged them both. “Maybe my mom will let me call you. Don’t forget me.”
She didn’t cry until they were driving away. And then her tears came, unstoppable.
When the side of her stomach began to hurt a few months later, once they were well and settled in the next house, Melly clutched at it fearfully.
“Ow,” she said. “Mom!”
Was it the goldfish hurting her? Could the wish have been delayed? She’d made new friends at her school…but they were no Rusty, Chantel, or Tanner. Her mother came running and slowed when she saw her daughter. They went straight to the hospital, where Melly had only just missed rupturing her appendix.
Before the doctors put her out, Melly wanted to ask them to look for the goldfish, to take it out, along with her defective appendix, but she was too nervous, with all the bright lights shining on her, and all the masked faces looking down at her. She shivered in the chill of the OR, and then she was out.
When she saw the doctor, she spoke up in a groggy whisper, “Did you see my goldfish?”
“Goldfish?” He furrowed his brow, peering around as if looking for a fishbowl somewhere in the hospital room.
She shook her head, feeling foggy. “In my stomach. The one I swallowed.”
“You swallowed a goldfish?”
“A few months ago.”
He looked at her carefully, with a funny smile. “Why did you swallow a fish?”
“Because my friend said it would give me a wish,” she explained, slowly. Magic. Now she wanted to believe it was all stupid. But still…
The doctor nodded. “I see. Well, whatever bits of goldfish were in there are now gone.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes I feel like he’s still in there, swimming around.”
“I’m sure. No goldfish could survive in a person’s stomach acid for that long. The goldfish was expelled long ago, and you didn’t notice. Some of it was absorbed by your body, but it won’t have any lasting effects. You can go ahead and stop worrying.”
She was gripping the scratchy blanket and forced her hands to relax. “I’m not worried. I just…I still feel him swimming.”
“It’s all in your head, dear,” the doctor said, “Try to forget it now.” He patted her hand and Melly’s eyelids grew heavy.
And for once, she didn’t argue. She went ahead and forgot.
“Ow, ow, ow.” Melly’s belly was stretched, globe-round, and aching as she hobbled into the maternity ward more than a decade after her last hospital stay.
“You need a wheelchair, Ma’am.” A nurse was fussing around her like a gnat.
“No, I don’t.” Melly waved her hand. She refused the chair, and when the pains of birthing became too intense, so that her legs shook with the effort of contractions, and her husband Alex told her she should get the epidural, she refused that as well.
“I can do it.” She gritted her teeth and lifted her chin. She regretted the decision right around eight centimeters, but by then it was too late, and she didn’t have long to mourn the medicated birth she’d stubbornly refused to have because her baby was born very soon after. She pushed him out, slick-wet thing, and the doctor set him on her chest. He cried for only a moment before opening his eyes wide and staring right at her. She gaped back, so exhausted she wondered if she was seeing things, and so in awe at the miracle of his birth, she didn’t really care.
Because it was as clear as day. Her baby had delicate webbing between each finger, and gills on the side of his neck.
She had absorbed part of the goldfish, and it had, in turn, absorbed part of her. She recognized him at once, as though he’d been there with her, swimming in her belly, for the last fifteen years, instead of only nine months. His hair was red-gold, wispy, his eyes the deepest blue-black.
“Hello,” Melly whispered, as she breastfed for the first time, caressing him all over, careful not to touch his lace-like gills too much. She let him wrap his tiny fingers around her own, and she stared at the thin webbing between each of his tiny, perfect fingers.
Alex was deep in conversation with the doctor on the other side of the room, ‘surgery’ and ‘straightforward’ and ‘anomaly’ talk coming from the two men.
Melly looked back to her son. The only thing she wished at that moment was that he could smile at her, though of course, he was too young for that. But then he pulled off her breast suddenly, opened his big eyes a bit wider, and gave her an unmistakable, gummy smile.
When the doctor approached them about getting the infant to pediatric NICU for a surgery to cut the webbing and remove the gills, Melly clung to her baby possessively.
“No. You can’t.” She hated to have him taken away, even for just a couple hours.
The doctor reassured her, it would be okay. He’d be fine. “The scars will be minimal, and he’ll only be under anesthesia for a short time.”
Melly wished she knew if her baby would even want to have those things removed, and in her head, in an instant, she heard his answer: no.
He wanted to stay as he was.
When she shook her head, the doctor tried to change her mind.
“Babe..” Alex started, looking at her uncertainly. His hesitation was enough.
She looked back up to the doctor with a fiery gaze, and said one word, firmly, “No.”
They were taking their son home as he was. He was special. When he cried and Melly wished she knew why, she’d find the answer in her mind: he was wet, he was hungry, he had gas. Every time she guessed right. It was like…magic.
When she held the baby, and he snuggled in against her, she wished for time to last forever so she could stay in that moment of bliss, and it almost seemed to slow down for her some.
Maybe I’ll try to find the old gang, just to tell them… she mused. The wish didn’t come true, exactly. But maybe the last part: stay, stay, stay. Part of the magic had stayed with her.
She was a lucky woman, blessed. Rooted with a home, a husband she loved (who almost never tried to boss her), a funny old dog named Sam, a good job, and now…him. She had everything she would have wished for now.
“Goldfish wish.” She smiled to herself as she nestled in more comfortably in the rocker. Then Melly closed her eyes, brought her son against her closer, inhaling his new-baby scent, and rocked him like they were in the waves of a gentle ocean.
Amanda Linsmeier is the author of Like Waves: Poetry, Beach Glass & Other Broken Things, and Ditch Flowers. Her work has been featured in Feminine Collective, Literary Mama, Portage Magazine, Mothers Always Write, and more. Besides writing poetry, she loves fantasy, and sometimes pretends her Hogwarts letter is still coming. When she’s not writing, she works part-time at her library.