Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story
Death and Goldfish
by Jaya Wen
I think it was all guilt. It couldn't have been love. I can't
ever remember him showing any affection toward me, or my mother,
or even Elizabeth, who wasn't my mother's daughter but was my half-sister.
Elizabeth came to us when she was three. Father hadn't been home
much for those three years. Father told me that he found Elizabeth
at the orphanage. Mother told me he was a g**d*** liar and that "b****" was
your f****** half-sister. So I grew up with my biological mother
and half-sister that was the child of infidelity. I don't know
why my mother even took Elizabeth in. Maybe Father threatened her.
Father was guilty. I'm sure of it now, because of all the misery
he put me and my Mother through. He probably thought giving us
wads of his money would make
him less of the vile, disgusting animal that he was. And yet he didn't seem
to hesitate when he flew off to Hawaii with his latest fiancée,
a blonde showgirl who wasn't Elizabeth's mother, and obviously
My mother opened each packet carefully, tugging on the cotton yarn, which was
always tied in an impeccable bow, until it came loose. Then, she would unwrap
the brown paper and remove the contents, usually, a thousand dollars, all in
neat twenties. We would go to the bank that day, dressed in our worst to fool
The money went far for us, and we lived in a decent condo that we shared with
a young, dog-loving couple. We lived in a good neighborhood, and my mother made
me go to school every weekday. Elizabeth didn't have to. She stayed at home,
because she was always sick.
I think those long days without me were the worst for my mother. When I came
home, she would be on the couch, curled up in a ball with nothing but her nightgown
on. I would rush to her side, and then make her tea. She always liked tea, especially
with lots of sugar. Then we would sit, she rocking back and forth, and me doing
homework, or listening to the radio, or looking out the window in the winter
and watching the snowflakes fall down, down, down.
"Elizabeth is in the study." Eventually she would tell
me something like this, give me a key, and I would rush upstairs
and unlock the study
door to find a pale girl shivering in a corner.
"Lizzie," I would say, "are you hungry?"
She would tremble and nod.
"Lizzie, did Mother hit you again?"
Again, the nod.
I would go downstairs and bring up some cereal, and she would sit and eat.
The day before it happened, Mother didn't make dinner, and I opened a can of
Spaghetti-O's. Elizabeth and I shared two cans. Mother didn't eat.
When I came home on the worst day of my life, Mother was curled up on the couch.
I made her tea, but she laughed.
"Janie, stop it. Elizabeth isn't there."
I didn't understand. Was she at the library, or at the park? "Is
it safe to let her wander alone?"
"She isn't wandering."
I didn't want to think about what that meant.
We didn't have dinner again that night. We just ate ice cream from the freezer.
Mother never used to let me do that. Tonight, though, she didn't care.
After the ice cream, Mother acted strange. She began packing things into her
travel suitcase, things like underwear and pants and shirts. Then she made me
wear five layers of shirts and a skiing parka. We hustled out the door, locked
it behind us, and buried the key in the dying petunias in front of our house.
I heard the neighbors' dogs barking as we left.
Mother used one hand to pull the suitcase and kept one hand locked on my arm.
I never realized how strong she was.
"Where are we going?"
Mother kept up the quick pace, and the question was left hanging, joining the
restless ghosts of unanswered problems.
We stopped under a quiet highway bridge. There weren't many cars. The occasional
Ford sedan whizzed by, driven by a father working overtime, dying to get home
and eat dinner with his wife and kids. Did Father ever eat dinner with us? Maybe,
but so long ago I can't remember.
Mother put the bag along the concrete wall, which was covered in explosive adolescent
graffiti. She unrolled the sleeping bag, which had been tied awkwardly to the
suitcase, and wedged it underneath a low overhang.
"That's your bed. The concrete isn't bad. Get used to it."
I crept into the warm, dry darkness of the sleeping bad and lay,
wide awake, unable to sleep for the rough asphalt below me. Where
was Father now? Sipping
martinis on a sandy beach?
Mother lay down beside me, not needing any cushion because of
her cocoon of clothing. She used the suitcase as a pillow. I
knew she wasn't sleeping, because her breathing
was too soft, softer than the sound I used to hear when I was
a little girl, when I would press my head against Mama's back
at night when the closet-monsters
We spent the night under that asphalt-concrete-steel shelter,
basking in the neon flood of jaundice-yellow streetlights, watching
the Fords bringing the tired
It wasn't a Ford that brought my father home. And he wasn't tired. He was angry.
The police found Elizabeth a few weeks later, because the dog-loving
couple were worried about their neighbors who hadn't come out for
two weeks. The police squad got a warrant to enter, and when they
did, they found the body of a young girl locked up in the upstairs
study. All the evidence convicted Mrs. Elane Brown, formerly Wentworth,
who had disappeared two weeks ago with her daughter, Janie. They
called the next of kin, Mr. Wentworth, who had been vacationing
in Hawaii. He came home immediately.
They made me and my mother get in the back. Mother was very quiet. I was scared.
Was I in trouble? I remembered all the things I had done wrong. Was it the
time I killed my goldfish by accident? Was that murder? I remembered the limp
bodies, spiraling in the toilet as we disposed of them.
I'm an orphan now. They killed Mother. Murdered her. I cried for a month.
They said she deserved to die. They said she killed
During that month, Father tried to make me eat. I didn't want
to eat. I wanted to shrivel away, and hide from the pale ghost
of Elizabeth, huddled in a corner,
hugging her knees, rocking back and forth. She was always there.
Now Father is gone too. There is a man behind me, the police chief. He is
squeezing my shoulder, and we both stand in silence as the windy fall air
hair and scarves and the white lilies on my father's grave.
Stroke. You stroke a cat. You stroke your hair. You don't die of something
smooth and soft. But Father did. He shuddered and moaned and then- gone.
He just fell.
The ambulances came. They were a blur, just like the Ford sedans, just like the police. They carried my father to the hospital, but it was too late. He died of tissue damage before we got there.
I think the chief is going to adopt me. It's ironic, that now
it's me, not Lizzy, getting adopted. The chief's wife died a long
time ago, but he'll be a much better parent than any of my real
His house is small, and he has a dog. Her name is Moss. Moss' fur is soft and smooth. Soft and smooth. Like whole milk poured into Earl Grey tea. Like my mother's breathing, warm against my cheeks.
Sometimes I think that I'm living in the wrong condo. That I
am trapped, somehow, in the condo with the dogs and the happy couple.
I've cheated fate. I don't belong here; I belong with the deserting
father and the mentally unstable mother, with the police and the
During the day, I am happy, but when night falls, sleep doesn't come, only visions of pale girls shivering in dark corner, and the dead bodies of my parents, my sister, and my fish, swirling away, into the darkness.
Registration now open
Sign up for the 33rd annual Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run and Walk. This family-friendly event which benefits local nonprofits serving kids and families will take place on Friday, Oct. 6 at the Palo Alto Baylands.