Marcie read aloud from the storybook, her brother tucked against her on one side, her sister on the other. They’d pulled Ben’s blankets around them on the bed, more for security than warmth. It was their nest of safety, somewhere they could hide and pretend the rest of the house was as calm and tranquil as this.
But the tranquillity was an illusion. Marcie held them close and read to them in a bright, loud voice to drown out the shouting and comfort their fears. Something crashed; a thud, a smash of breakage. She feigned bravery while her heart raced and her insides tightened in miserable knots. They were little; she was the oldest. Four years between each of them, with ten-year-old Ben in the middle. When their parents tore into each other, it was Marcie the younger ones turned to for reassurance. Their little haven became a welcome distraction from the terrifying anger that shook the foundations of their world.
Ben and Emily had her to turn to. Marcie used to wonder who she had. Then the bettas came back.
It started with Fernando. She was walking home from school one day, dragging her feet against the burden of dread that had grown heavier since her parents’ fight that morning. Marcie hated those days, when the prospect of home churned her stomach. She didn’t want to face what would be waiting at the dinner table.
A gentle flicker of movement brushed her cheek. She caught a glimpse of colour from the corner of her eye and stopped short with a gasp. Level with her face, regarding her with his sideways expression, was a little fish. Two inches long, with liquid purple fins trailing behind him and his body the colour of a summer strawberry, it was her Fernando. Swimming in the air beside her.
He had died three months before.
He followed her home, dancing around her head or settling on her shoulder as he’d once rested on plants. He didn’t look like a ghost fish. He was as bright and opaque as she’d known him in life, and when she reached out a tentative hand, she felt the familiar pecks of his tiny mouth against her finger. She watched the sharp beads of his eyes as he watched her in turn, and her heart beat faster at his surreal beauty. By the time she got home, she’d forgotten her dread.
From then on, if she was feeling morose, he would dance before her or rest on her shoulder. His simple companionship was enough to cheer her when a door slammed or a stony silence reigned or Ben asked her, yet again, if Mum and Dad were getting divorced.
Her current fish, Topaz, was a sparkling aquamarine crowntail. Whenever she approached his tank, Fernando was there as well. He took instant offence, flaring fins and gill flaps at his blue-green cousin in a classic display of territorial aggression. Bettas couldn’t abide each other, but Topaz took no notice. Like everyone except Marcie, he didn’t know Fernando was there.
Marlin appeared shortly after another row. As Marcie arrived home from school one day, Fernando began flaring at some unseen foe. His entire body quivered, his gills open like a mane and his fins to full expansion. He paraded angrily before her as she let herself in.
“ – not YOU. No, you’re NEVER wrong!” Dad’s yell greeted her.
“So says Mr Bloody Perfect. You are unbelievable, you know that?!”
Not again. Marcie fought the urge to turn back through the door and leave. If she’d been an only child, she wouldn’t have thought twice. But how long had Ben and Emily been listening to this screaming match?
She slammed the front door, announcing her unhappy return, and ran upstairs to find them in Ben’s room, upset and frightened. Emily flung her arms around Marcie.
“Yeah. It’s okay, Em.”
Fernando settled on her shoulder. For the first time, his tiny comfort couldn’t overcome Marcie’s anxiety. She fought tears as her little sister clung to her. Emily and Ben needed her to be the strong one.
A new fish swam into view and her breath caught in her chest. His silver-blue body was framed in a halo of golden fins and he gleamed with pearlescence. He swam up to her face, sending her cross-eyed in wonder. Marlin… the betta before Fernando, and the most gregarious of them all. Her sorrow dampened as though his appearance had doused it in water. She smiled.
“What?” Ben asked in a sullen voice. He saw nothing to smile about while their parents cursed and threw things below.
“Nothing. Come on, who wants a story?” She chose The Paper Bag Princess – Emily’s favourite – and beckoned them into a safe den of blankets.
Things were quiet for a while after Marlin showed up. It was the tense silence of two adults refusing to acknowledge one another, but at least it brought a sort of peace. Dad was sleeping on the sofa bed, but Marcie thought maybe that was a good thing. Perhaps time apart would remind them they still loved each other really.
Ritz debuted during science class one afternoon, appearing from nowhere and circling Marcie cautiously. Her very first fish, his bright blue colour was offset by red ventral fins and his dark head with its blue-smudged nose. Fernando and Marlin swam lazily about him. Marcie had to assume they didn’t see each other. No self-respecting betta would tolerate another in such close proximity.
She tried to concentrate on her lesson despite the distraction. It was ten minutes before final bell when they started flaring.
Something was wrong. Around Marcie, fellow pupils copied diagrams from the board. The classroom was calm. The corridor outside was calm. Several minutes passed, and school remained studious and peaceful.
Marcie’s tension only grew. The bettas continued flaring silently, shaking their manes and strutting their enlarged fins. Fernando had only ever flared for a reason, be it Topaz or her parents’ rows. Had Ritz appeared for this spectacle?
When the bell rang, Ritz was flaring at her, as if to push her into action. She shouldered her bag, bade her friends a distracted goodbye, and began her walk home. The fish remained agitated but ceased trying to get her attention, which only worried her more. Something was wrong at home.
Mum was already there. She greeted Marcie by shoving a piece of paper into her hand.
“Do you know anything about this?” she asked.
The three fish were flaring again – Fernando at Mum, Ritz and Marlin at the slip of paper. Marcie looked at it. Her heart was thumping.
I’m leaving and I’m not coming back, the pencil-written note read in Ben’s scruffy writing. Don’t bother looking for me. I can take care of myself. –Ben
“It was taped to his bedroom door,” Mum said. “I phoned the school. They said he didn’t show up today.” Her voice wavered. “Did you know about this, Marcie? Did you?!”
“No! No, Mum, of course I didn’t. You think I’d have let him run away?”
“I don’t know. You two tell each other everything, don’t you?”
Marcie was hurt by the accusation in her mother’s tone, but knew it stemmed from guilt. If she and Dad hadn’t been making life so miserable, Ben would have no reason to run away. Marcie almost said this aloud, but bit her tongue. It wouldn’t help. Marlin looked at her from the corner of his eye, as if warning her to keep her mouth shut.
“I’ve phoned your dad. He’s leaving work early.” She’d also phoned Ben’s friends’ mums and none of them had seen him. They’d promised to call if he turned up, but Marcie knew him better than that. If he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.
“I’ve got to pick Emily up from ballet. Stay here, and phone me the moment he comes in. I won’t be long.” She gave Marcie a fierce hug and kissed the top of her head. Then she grabbed her keys and left.
Marcie looked around the deserted kitchen, feeling stranded and swamped. Sometimes she felt like she was the only one keeping things together. Like everyone else was at breaking point and she had to stay strong on their behalf. Tears threatened to well up and she knew if she let them, she would cry herself to exhaustion.
The fish were all looking at her, flicking their tails and nipping at the air as if mouthing silent words of comfort. Red-purple, silver-gold, and brightest blue, the light sparkled on their scales and she smiled despite everything. When the orange betta swam into view, she wasn’t even surprised. She’d been expecting him.
“Enri!” She offered him the tip of her finger and he peered at it, swimming around her knuckle to examine it in detail. Enri had been Ben’s favourite betta. He used to come and sit in Marcie’s room and talk to the red-orange fish.
“Where’s Ben?” she said to him, not really expecting an answer. But all four fish perked up. Enri began to swim towards the back door. Ritz and Fernando turned in the same direction. Only Marlin kept looking at her, almost as though asking if she really wanted to know.
Could they show her where Ben was? It was a daft notion, but surely no crazier than having four ghost fish swimming about her head. Maybe they could actually help. She knew she was supposed to stay put, but found she didn’t care. Finding Ben was more important than waiting for him. She knew he wouldn’t come home, anyway. Not until he’d stayed away long enough to make a point.
When she got outside, the bettas milled about aimlessly. She tried asking them to find Ben, but they just looked at her and fluttered their fins. Disappointed, she berated herself for expecting anything more. They were fish, after all. Not trained sniffer dogs.
She turned to go back indoors and then stopped. She’d been facing the woods behind the house. She abruptly realised where to find Ben.
Five minutes later, she’d bypassed the tangled undergrowth and found the secret path they’d always used. Marcie hadn’t been here in a while, but the cave fort couldn’t have changed much. She and Ben had discovered it years ago and had sworn to keep it a secret. Mum and Dad would have hated them exploring a cave on their own, even though it wasn’t much more than an overhanging rock face.
She found it again easily, despite its camouflage of rhododendrons and birch saplings. She pushed through the bushes. Four bettas swam with her between the branches. And there was the entrance to the old fort. The darkness beyond the lip of rock had never seemed threatening, and felt as welcoming now as it ever had. Secrecy. Safety. An adventurous place to call their own.
“Ben?” she called softly.
For a moment, there was silence. Then his face peeped out from the shadows. He hunched over to look out from beneath the rock and sighed visibly.
“You found me.”
“Well, yeah. This is our place, remember? You can’t have expected me to forget about it.”
“Did you tell anyone?”
“No. No one even knows I came looking for you.”
He relaxed at that. “I’m not coming back. You can’t tell them where I am.”
She could, of course. But she wouldn’t. Not yet, anyway.
“I won’t. I just wanted to see if you were here, and if you’re okay.”
He stepped back to invite her inside. She ducked under the rock face and breathed in the damp, musty air and the memories of a hundred childhood adventures. Ben had come prepared. His sleeping bag was laid out against the back wall of the cave, and he’d cleared a patch of leaves and detritus all around it. He had Dad’s battery-powered lamp, two pillows, a stack of comics, and three books. He’d also raided the kitchen cupboards and pilfered a box of Cheerios, three packets of crisps, four Penguin bars and a banana. He’d filled a two-litre bottle with water and Marcie could see spare clothes poking out of his rucksack.
She sat next to him on the sleeping bag. Enri swam up to Ben’s face in greeting.
“You’re planning on staying a while, then,” Marcie said.
“I like it here. It’s quiet. I’ve got everything I need. And I don’t have to listen to any more of their yelling.”
“Mum’s really worried, you know.”
“Maybe she and Dad will stop hating each other, then.”
Marcie sighed. “They don’t hate each other.”
“Yeah, they do. They’ve said it enough times when they’re fighting.”
“You told Emily the same thing last week when she wrecked your Lego space ship. But you don’t really hate her.”
Ben was silent for a moment. “That’s not the same. They’re parents. They aren’t supposed to say stuff like that.”
No, they aren’t, Marcie thought.
“So you’re going to stay here till they’re friends again?”
He didn’t answer that. “I just want everything to go back to normal. I want our family back to normal. I’m sick of all this crap.”
“So am I, Ben. But we have to stick together. You, me, and Em.”
“I’m not coming home.” He folded his arms to prove it.
“Okay. I won’t tell on you. But you can’t stay out here forever.”
She got up to leave. “Mum and Emily will be home any minute. And Dad’s coming back early because they’re worried about you. If you’re still here tomorrow, I’ll come and see you. But, Ben?”
“If you get scared or cold tonight, please come back.”
He picked up a comic book and stuck his nose in it.
Marcie was halfway back to the house when she realised one of the fish was missing. She turned in a circle, trying to see if he was hiding behind her head, but Enri wasn’t there. She glanced back towards the cave. He must have stayed with Ben. She smiled and carried on home with a lighter step, glad to know her brother wasn’t alone.
Mum was angry with her for leaving.
“I couldn’t just stay put – I had to try and find him!” she protested.
“I want to know where you are at all times!”
The anxiety in her mother’s voice told Marcie it was fear of her disappearing too that had Mum so worked up. “I’m sorry. I’m worried too.”
Dad walked in the front door, tension taut as a tightrope across his face. “Is he home yet?”
“No,” Mum said in a clenched voice. She was about to cry. Marcie was so tired of seeing her cry. For a moment, she was furious with Ben. She might have revealed him then. But Dad crossed the hallway and drew Mum into a firm hug.
“We’ll find him. I’m sure he’s fine. We’ll find him,” he said in a rough whisper.
They clung to each other, mutual love for their son overcoming the barriers they’d built in recent months. Marcie put her arm around Emily, who had inched closer to her big sister. They watched their parents caring for each other for the first time in forever, and Marcie’s anger at Ben dissipated. Could his ten-year-old’s protest remind their parents what they were supposed to feel for each other?
It seemed to. That evening, Mum and Dad cooperated and communicated as they hadn’t in weeks. They phoned everyone they could think of, alerted the police, and took turns to drive around looking for Ben. They were fraught and upset, but for once it wasn’t at each other. Despite their frantic anxiety, Marcie couldn’t help feeling glad at the change in their attitude towards one another.
Of course, Emily was frightened too. While Mum made phone calls and Dad scoured the neighbourhood, Marcie sat upstairs with Emily and read her stories. Emily insisted they sit on Ben’s bed, as always. Marcie longed to tell her that their brother was safe and hiding, but she didn’t dare. Emmy couldn’t keep secrets to save her life.
The bettas swam around them calmly, occasionally resting on Marcie’s shoulder or the bunched top of her knees. Marcie wished Emily could see them. She’d be mesmerised and it would take her mind off Ben’s disappearance.
Emily slept in Marcie’s room that night, while Fernando, Ritz and Marlin flared impotently at Topaz. Ben didn’t come home, but Marcie knew he wouldn’t until he was ready.
Something tickled her nose. She brushed it away, still half asleep. An insistent jab jolted her from her doze and she attempted to focus, cross-eyed, on whatever was moving about in front of her face.
Enri. The dawn light shone diffuse orange through his expanded fins.
Marcie blinked herself awake and sat up on one elbow. Enri was flaring back and forth across her vision, a terracotta blur of urgency. The other bettas seemed restless too, but Enri’s alarm was palpable.
“Ben,” Marcie gasped, throwing aside her covers. She got up, pulled on shoes and threw a jumper over her pyjamas, trying all the while not to awaken Emily who remained soundly asleep on the floor.
Should she wake her parents? And tell them… what? That one of her dead fish was trying to alert her to some danger to Ben, who she had known all along was hiding in the woods?
She could imagine how well that conversation would go down at 5.30 am. She ran for the back door instead. But Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of tea steaming beside him.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” he asked, startling her.
Marcie’s heart sank as she turned back to him. “Um… morning, Dad. I just wanted some fresh air.”
“It’s a little early for a walk, isn’t it?”
“I was only going in the garden.” She indicated her pyjama bottoms. Enri began his agitated pacing again as she stood still.
“I’ll join you, then.” He stood up, tea in hand.
Marcie was caught, unable to confess the truth yet rooted to the spot by it. She could see Dad hadn’t slept. He was still wearing his clothes from the day before. His eyes were bloodshot and his face looked drawn and grey.
Enri was flaring to twice his size, so close she could barely make out his features. The other three fish were picking up the tension now, parading their own displays around her. She had to go. Something was wrong. But just maybe she couldn’t handle it on her own. Maybe her dad deserved a break. As she looked into his harrowed face, Ben’s behaviour suddenly seemed selfish and unfair. She’d said she wouldn’t tell, but that was before. Before Enri’s panic.
She looked at the floor. “I know where Ben is, and I think he’s in trouble.”
“What?” Dad almost dropped his mug.
“I’ll show you. Just… don’t be angry. Please.”
He was beside the door already, pulling a jacket on. “Show me. Right now.”
They hurried across the lawn and into the woods. Marcie found the familiar path and led her dad along in silence. She hated to reveal their hideout. She hated to get herself and Ben in trouble. But her bettas had never been wrong. Her stomach twisted at thoughts of what might have befallen her brother.
They reached the cave and Marcie led the way through the concealing undergrowth.
“He’s in here,” she said as she ducked beneath the overhang.
But he wasn’t. His sleeping bag lay ruffled amidst crisp packets and comics, but Ben was absent. Dad relaxed at the evidence of Ben’s whereabouts, but Marcie’s anxiety only grew.
“Ben!” she called, running back into the woods. Enri was dancing about like a carnival performer, with Fernando, Ritz and Marlin his colourful troupe.
“Ben!” she cried again. Dad left the cave and lent his voice to hers; it carried much farther.
And then there was another voice, just over the ridge ahead.
“Here! I’m down here!”
Dad was ahead of Marcie, leaping tree trunks, heedless of scratching branches. He stumbled over the brow of the ridge and she got there in time to see him sliding down in a cascade of leaf mould, directly to where Ben lay huddled against a boulder. Ben reached arms up to his father, tears already falling, a frightened boy relieved to see his dad.
“I fell in the dark. I think I broke my ankle.”
“It’s all right. I’ve got you, mate. You’re all right.”
Dad picked up his son and hugged him tightly before carrying him back up the slope. He walked right past Marcie and didn’t say a word to her until they got home. Marcie followed, feeling the weight of his disappointment and watching the little orange fish who hovered about her father and brother all the way back.
Ben’s ankle turned out to be badly sprained, which he insisted on reminding everyone was worse than a break. He was grounded for two weeks, with no television or computer games for a month. Marcie bore the full brunt of her parents’ anger; they were too grateful that Ben was safe to be truly angry with him. But she should have known better, they kept telling her. She should have been looking out for her younger brother. She should have been the responsible one. She knew their anger was justified, but the accusations hurt. She did look out for Ben and Emily. All the time. Especially when Mum and Dad were too busy waging their stupid war against each other. She tried to keep it to herself, like always, but the day after Ben’s return, their disappointment still tangible, she came right out and said it. Just like that.
The conversation stopped in its tracks. Mum and Dad looked at each other, their clenched expressions speaking volumes.
“What are you talking about, Marcie?” Mum asked in a choked voice.
“Stop pretending you don’t know!” Marcie felt frustrated tears stinging her eyes. “You think it doesn’t affect us? You’re wrong! Why do you think Ben ran away in the first place?”
Marlin settled on her shoulder in moral support while Enri paced and Ritz and Fernando flared on her behalf. Her parents seemed at a loss for words, so she saved them the effort and left the room. She went to feed Topaz; her tears splashed into his tank. She’d better do a water change in case the salt upset him.
Later that evening, Mum and Dad called them all into the lounge and announced they were separating. Ben and Emily cried and had lots of anxious questions. “Maybe not forever,” Dad said as he hugged them, but Marcie knew better. She returned to her room and watched her four bright spirit fish displaying instinctive aggression to the oblivious Topaz. It was all posturing. They couldn’t get at him or each other. But placed together, they would fight to the death.
Some beings were better off apart.