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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                Fish’s friends called him “Fish” because his last name was Bleuggel, which sounded like “bluegill,” which was one of the more common fish found in the many lakes in the Multioak area. Once the nickname was firmly established, people began to notice other fishlike qualities in Fish. For example, he was a good swimmer. Not the best, but still, a good swimmer. Or at least good enough to prevent his nickname from seeming ironic when people saw him in the water. Some people also noted that Fish had a “cold” demeanor. He thought this one was unfair, that no one would have said this about him if he weren’t already called Fish. Like they were stretching to find fishy traits. He took his lip ring out and let the hole grow closed so people would stop comparing it to a fish hook. He had been a mouth breather when he was little, but now he paid careful attention to breathing through his nose so he wouldn’t look like a fish gasping in a fisherman’s brutal grasp, on the floor of a boat, on a dirty bank.

               It was Fish’s senior year of high school and Halloween was two days away. His closest friends, Stefan and Burke, were already 18 years old. Fish would be stuck at 17 until the bare branches of the local trees budded anew. That was how Fish’s dad had put it to him when he was 6 and wanted to know how long he’d have to wait for his next birthday. “See those trees?” Fish’s dad had asked him, pointing out the living room window. “See how bare they are? You’ll turn 7 when the branches of those trees bud anew.” That was how Fish’s dad talked when he was trying to amuse himself. Fish remembered walking to the window, feeling the coldness leaking through the glass, seeing how lifeless the branches on the trees in the front yard looked. It had seemed, then, like turning 7 would take forever. And now he was 17. Those branches had budded anew 11 times since the day Fish’s dad had permanently associated their budding with Fish’s aging.

               At the end of the gym farthest from where Mr. Irthing monitored the lunchtime open basketball from within a camp chair he’d brought from home, Fish, Stefan, and Burke sat on the floor with their backs against the wall and their shoeless feet outstretched. No one was allowed to wear shoes in the gym during lunchtime open basketball for fear of floor scuffs. Some of the students playing basketball slipped and slid around the floor as they attempted backdoor cuts and hesitation dribble moves. Others, opting for superior traction, went barefoot.

               “I’d like to do something bad for Halloween,” said Stefan. “We’re old enough to cause some real trouble.” As casually as he said it, this was an important occasion. Clean cut, well dressed, and good-looking, Stefan had nevertheless projected a strong potential for badness since he was young. His parents, his teachers, everyone who knew him had waited in suspense for the day that his badness would hatch. And now that day had come.

               “I’m down,” said Burke. “You know I’m down.” Up until this very moment, Burke had always been the worst member of this trio, the kid with the most fights, expulsions, and run-ins with the cops to his name. But it had always been understood, though never stated, that he would cede his ringleader status to Stefan at the appropriate time.

               Fish felt the transfer of power occur, from Burke to Stefan, and he sensed, inside his marrow that was inside his bones that were inside his body, a distinct murkening of the atmosphere surrounding himself and his best friends. He worried it would interfere with his ability to have a good time. Fish’s behavior, which had worsened steadily since childhood, was due entirely to the fact that authority figures kept trying to keep him from doing things he wanted to do. His rebellion, thus, was practical. How else was he to do the things he wanted to do? Being bad held no special appeal for him. Outside forces had decided the things that did appeal to him were bad. But the framing of Stefan’s suggestion – that he wanted to do something bad for Halloween – made it sound like whatever it was would only be appealing if one found badness inherently appealing. “I was gonna go to Bailey’s party,” said Fish. Bailey’s dad was in a coma and her mom spent all her days off from work by his bed at the hospital, and Halloween happened to be one of Bailey’s mom’s days off, so the party would not be subject to parental interference.

               “Not a party, no,” said Stefan, asserting his authority. “That’s not what I had in mind. That’s not bad enough. That’s not really bad at all.”

               “What if we get really wasted?” asked Fish. “And then trash Bailey’s house?”

               “Shh,” said Burke, scowling at Fish. His long hair, brown like animal fur, was pulled back into the kind of loose ponytail where the hair still covers the top halves of the ears. “Let’s hear Stefan’s idea.”

               Stefan rubbed the back of his index finger against his upper lip, scraping the stubble there. “There’s a peninsula on the north side of Cobb Lake,” he said. “One narrow road that goes through a strip of woods and leads to six lake homes. All of them usually empty this time of year, except there’s someone in one of them right now. This guy who’s in the midst of a divorce is living there with his mistress. Well, I guess she’s just his girlfriend now since it all came out and that’s why he’s getting the divorce. But his wife’s in their main house in another state, so he’s here in the lake house.”

               Fish didn’t ask Stefan how he knew all this. He didn’t care. Instead he said, “OK, so there’s a guy and his girlfriend in a lake house. What about it?”

               “There’s no one else around,” said Stefan. He grinned. “We can torment them. We should.”

               “Should?” said Fish. “Because he cheated on his wife?” He didn’t like the idea of tormenting someone for moralistic reasons. He found matters of punishment and consequence distasteful. He himself was a notorious cheater. He’d cheated on Bailey, in fact, and he didn’t like the idea of someone feeling justified in tormenting him because of it. Bailey herself seemed to have gotten over it. She’d invited him to her Halloween party, hadn’t she? So what right did someone else have to step in and torment him on her behalf?

               “No,” said Stefan. He was emphatic. “We’re not going to torment these people because they’re adulterers. We’re going to torment them because they’re alone in that house and there’s no one else around. We can keep them trapped there if we’re smart.”

               “I like this,” said Burke, nodding and retying his ponytail. “I like the sound of this a lot.”

               “Won’t they just call the cops?” asked Fish.

               “If we’re smart, they won’t be able to,” said Stefan. “We’ll plan for that. We’ll…steal their cell phones and cut the land line.”

               “What about internet?” asked Fish. “Won’t they just use that?”

               “We’ll plan for everything!” Stefan’s tone was getting snappy.

               “We’re not going to do this without a plan,” said Burke, resting a steadying hand on Fish’s arm even though he did not need steadying.

               “I’ve just been looking forward to this party,” said Fish. “With the whole dad-in-a-coma thing Bailey’s been…well, I just think this party is going to be, like, anything can happen. Anything goes.”

               “There are so many parties,” said Stefan. “What we’re going to do on that peninsula is much rarer.”

               “Are we going to hurt them?” asked Burke. Fish could see that he hoped the answer would be “yes.” He could see that Burke had been waiting for years for Stefan to lead him over this line.

               “Yes,” said Stefan. “We’ll hurt them.”

               “Will we...” Burke’s voice dipped to a hoarse whisper. “Will we kill them?”

               Stefan laughed as if embarrassed. His cheeks reddened, too. Fish thought it was a strange reaction. “I didn’t want to say so,” said Stefan. “I don’t know why I didn’t, but I didn’t. But yes, I think we’re going to kill them.”

               “Wow,” said Burke. “This is crazy. Can you believe this is happening, Fish?”

               “Settle down,” said Fish. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

               “But it’s going to,” said Burke. “Isn’t it, Stefan?”

               “Yes,” said Stefan. “I think it is. I think so.”

               “It going to be freezing cold out there,” said Fish. “I’m bringing a flask.”

               “No!” said Stefan. “No alcohol. We have to stay sharp. We always have to be three steps ahead or they’ll get away before we’re through with them. That’s the worst thing that can happen. If they get away – if they get away unscathed – no, no, I’d rather not do it at all.”

               “Then we probably shouldn’t risk it,” said Fish.

               Burke, in a swift motion, rose to his knees and swiveled to fully face Fish, cocking back his fist, the knuckles of which were still raw from punching the wall of his basement bedroom in a fit of meaningless rage. “If you don’t stop naysaying, Fish, I’m going to break your face.”

               Fish had actually won probably close to forty percent of the fights he’d had with Burke, but he didn’t feel like accepting those odds over such a stupid dispute. “Sorry,” he said. “I just don’t think it sounds that cool or fun.”

               “Then help make it cool and fun,” said Stefan, and he gazed at Fish with eyes alight with hellfire.


               Halloween night was cold. The moon could have looked impressive had its spooky splendor not been obscured by a sheet of black clouds. Or it could have looked unimpressive. Impossible to know because of the clouds. Fish, in dark hoodie, dark jeans, and dark hiking boots, stood in the dark woods next to the narrow gravel road leading out to the peninsula on the north shore of Cobb Lake. A hundred yards down the road, the peninsula widened and the trees thinned where developers had chopped them down to make room for six lake homes, only one of which was currently occupied. That home, the fourth one counting clockwise from the point where the road exited the woods, was where Stefan and Burke were now. They were doing…something. Fish wasn’t sure what stage the plan was currently at. Were they still cutting off the victims’ lines of communication? Or had they moved on to mean-spirited pranks? Full-on physical and psychological torment? Or was one of the victims already dead? Both of them? Was Fish freezing in the woods for nothing?

Stefan had told Fish that he would be kept in the loop via regular text messages, but Fish had yet to receive a single one of these promised messages, and was therefore, he surmised, out of the loop. He had a crowbar, a knife, and instructions not to let the man or woman who were living in the targeted lake home flee the peninsula. Stefan had told him that, until Fish heard otherwise, the weapons should be used for threatening and, if need be, non-lethal injuries, whatever it took to turn the victims back toward the house where Stefan and Burke could further orchestrate their torment by, like, sneaking in and out of the house to turn on televisions that were turned off and vice versa, throwing rocks through windows, banging on walls, ramping up the terror until the time came to end it.

               Stefan had also promised Fish that he would not miss out on all of the fun. That at a certain point, when Stefan was confident the couple was contained in the house, when they were unable to flee, he would summon Fish to join in the torment, that he would be free to offer terrifying and twisted ideas of his own, whatever bad things he had ever wanted to do to people would be on the table. Fish had told Stefan he didn’t have any specific ideas of bad things he wanted to do to people, but Stefan had been confident some would occur to him. “Think of some while you’re watching the road,” Stefan had said. “But don’t get so wrapped up in the ideas that you don’t concentrate on the road.”

               Well, Fish wasn’t thinking of ideas for ways to torment people or concentrating on the road. He was absorbed with irritable contemplation of his own boredom. He had known this plan would suck from the moment Stefan had first brought it up. That it would suck for himself in particular. Maybe if he’d done a better job of feigning enthusiasm for the plan he would have been given a more active role, but he didn’t want a more active role either. What he wanted was to go to Bailey’s party where the kind of bad behavior he favored would be in plentiful supply. When it came down to it, what was the material difference between Fish’s parents telling him he couldn’t go to a party because doing so would be bad and Stefan telling him he couldn’t go to a party because doing so wouldn’t be bad enough? Fish was just obeying a different authority figure, and at least if he obeyed his parents he’d be warm in his own room and playing video games. Whereas obeying Stefan had led to cold and boredom and maybe even prison, eventually, if something went way wrong. Fish was a little embarrassed by this thought, it was not the kind of thought that fit with his image of himself, but it was always in situations like this one when these kinds of thoughts popped up: moments without distractions, moments without diverting stimuli. That’s why he had to fall asleep watching tedious videos on his phone. So he wouldn’t lie there in the dark and think about the potential for his choices to lead to negative outcomes. Or for negative outcomes to come along with no connection to his choices, like Bailey’s dad, who just slipped into a coma for no reason while he was mowing his lawn, and then Bailey’s mom found him slumped over the steering wheel with the lawnmower driving its nose into the corner of the backyard fence going nowhere, its tires spinning in futility, digging four divots in the grass.

               Fish leaned his crowbar against a nearby tree and sent a message to the group text he shared with Stefan and Burke. How’s it going? You guys need any help? Stefan had told Fish not to text frivolously because looking at his phone screen would spoil Fish’s night vision, which would be crucial to maintain in case one or both of the victims tried to make their way off of the peninsula through the trees instead of sticking to the road. But Fish was sick of waiting. He had assumed he’d at least be hearing some screams by now, some commotion to indicate that torment was starting to take place. After a few minutes with no response from his friends, Fish was about to slip his phone back into his jeans pocket when a text arrived from a different source. Are you coming to my party? It was Bailey, reaching out, initiating contact. Fish was intrigued. When Bailey had invited him to her party, she had seemed casual about it, as if she didn’t care one way or another if he came, and Fish had assumed that the invitation was mostly to prove to him and others and herself that she was over Fish, that her dramatic reaction to the revelation that he was cheating on her belonged now to the distant past. But here she was texting him directly to see if he was coming to the party. She wanted him there. Maybe she wanted to get back together with him? Maybe she realized the good times they’d had together weren’t worth throwing away just because Fish didn’t adhere to society’s rules about dating, or any of society’s rules that got in the way of what he wanted to do?

               Fish looked through the woods in the general direction of the house where Stefan and Burke were hard at work ensuring the absolute misery of two strangers’ last nights on Earth. He saw nothing but trees. He pulled the knife out of his hoodie’s centralized pocket and tossed it into some bushes. He left the crowbar where he’d set it against the tree. Then he texted Bailey back. On my way.


               The Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store had a small selection of Halloween accessories available on a rack next to the front counter. Fish selected an eyepatch with a skull and crossbones printed on it. He considered shoplifting it, but the scowling cashier lady with hair so white and stringy that it looked like white string was keeping a close eye on him. And the eyepatch only cost a dollar, so he paid and left. He wasn’t sure if Bailey’s Halloween party was one of those costume-required parties, but he figured if it was, the eyepatch would be sufficient to get him through the door without too much hassle.

               Fish parked his car a block away from Bailey’s house and headed through her neighborhood on foot. He’d learned that if the cops busted a party, it was better to be parked far away from the site to make a clean getaway easier to accomplish. He fingered the eyepatch inside his hoodie pocket as he passed a group of five middle-school kids dressed as five signs of the zodiac. There was a crab, a bull, and whatever those others ones were, all toting plastic shopping bags bulging with candies. Fish did not greet the trick-or-treaters. He hunched his shoulders, surprised that the air here felt as cold or colder as it had at his post in the woods.

As he turned onto Bailey’s street, Fish noted how few cars were parked along the curb. Unless more people had gotten wise to his strategy of parking at a distance from the location, the party wasn’t as well-attended as he’d anticipated. Was that why Bailey had texted him? Because not many people had shown up and the party was in danger of failing? Or had the party always been intended as a small, intimate gathering, making the invitation and tonight’s confirmation text more significant than he’d thought? Fish hoped it was the latter. At the front door, Fish knocked and waited. From inside, he heard the sound of something slow and strummy playing on the stereo, something drab and moody, terrible music for the occasion. Maybe that’s why Bailey had texted him. Not because her Halloween party needed numbers, but because it needed a spark that she knew Fish would provide.

The front door opened and there was Bailey. She wore a short, witchy dress, a witch hat with a crooked point, and a shoulder-length yellow wig, which didn’t seem to Fish like a good color for witch hair, but what did he care? “Hey, Fish,” said Bailey. Her smile surprised Fish with its eagerness.

               “Sorry it took me a minute,” said Fish.

               “It’s fine,” said Bailey. “We’re going ‘til morning. My mom has tomorrow off too, so she won’t be back from the hospital until tomorrow night.”

               “Ah, cool,” said Fish. “That’s cool. Can I come in?” He chuckled. “Do I need a costume? I’ve got an eyepatch in my pocket I can put on if, like, that’s the rule.”

               “Of course you can come in,” said Bailey, but she hesitated another few seconds before finally stepping back out of the doorway. Then she turned on the point of her witch-boot heel and walked down the hall. Fish followed, noting the disarray of the living room as they passed through it on their way to the kitchen. Bailey’s dad’s coma seemed to have rearranged the family’s priorities in a way that did not favor housekeeping. Fish took note of the stereo from which emanated the awful music. That would be his first stop when Bailey swallowed her pride enough to formally request that he save her party.

The kitchen was a mess, too, but a good portion of that mess appeared to have been generated in the last couple hours. Greasy pizza boxes covered the kitchen table and empty beer bottles and red plastic cups were scattered across the counters, the stove, the top of the microwave, and in the sink. Four teenagers, two guys and two girls, looked at Fish without greeting him. He didn’t recognize them, although they displayed most of the outward signs of his kind of people. Their costumes, for example, were not high-effort: devil horns, cheap fangs, red contact lenses, fake scars, face-paint whiskers. More importantly, they all had cups or bottles in their hands.

               “Is this everyone?” asked Fish.

               “No,” said Bailey. “There’s some people outside. And in the basement.”

               “Oh,” said Fish. It felt like the partygoers were waiting for him to do something they weren’t sure he was capable of doing. Maybe he shouldn’t wait for Bailey’s formal request to save the party. Maybe it would be better if he sprang into action unbidden. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the living room and said, “Can I change the music? To something that at least sounds like a party?”

               “This is my boyfriend’s band,” said Bailey. “You don’t like it?”

               “Not for a party,” said Fish. He wasn’t trying to make her mad, but come on. He wasn’t thrilled to hear about this boyfriend either, but it had to mean something that she’d gone out of her way to make sure Fish would attend. Maybe she wasn’t above a little cheating herself. Which Fish believed was true of everyone, but maybe she’d finally realized that about herself and knew Fish would be accommodating. He, of all people, wouldn’t make her feel guilty about it. Maybe he’d hold it over her head a little, in a kind of teasing way, like, oh, you freaked out when I did this to you, but now it’s OK for you to do it to someone else? But he would be laughing, showing how little it bothered him.

               “If you don’t like the music, ask him if you can change it,” said Bailey.

               “Ask who?” asked Fish.

               “My boyfriend,” said Bailey. “This is him.” She stepped to a guy leaning back against the sink and forced her arm around his waist in a way that made him grimace. He was the one with the red devil horns affixed to his head and the red contact lenses. There was an eyeliner goatee on his chin.

               “What’s up?” said Bailey’s boyfriend. He tilted his red plastic cup in Fish’s direction.

               “Oh, hey,” said Fish. “I’m, uh, Fish. That’s what everyone calls me.”

               “Bailey’s ex,” said her boyfriend.

               “Yeah,” said Fish. “From a while ago. Who are you?”

               “Her current boyfriend,” said Bailey’s current boyfriend.

               “No,” said Fish. “I mean your name.”

               “What eats fish?” asked the boyfriend.

               Fish scoffed through his nose and looked around at the other kids in the kitchen to see if anyone else was noticing how stupid this guy was being, but he couldn’t read their allegiances from their expressions. “You’re telling me your name is something that eats fish?” asked Fish. “You want me to guess?”

               “A fish should know its predators,” said the boyfriend. He took a sip – maybe a fake sip – from his cup.

               “Well, people eat fish,” said Fish. “Is your name ‘People?’” He knew it wasn’t very witty, but it didn’t really matter. It felt like this was headed for a fight, and that was fine, Fish was suddenly in the mood for a fight. This was the kind of violent behavior he could get behind. Not just tormenting two strangers. Delivering a beatdown to someone who deserved it? Now that he liked.

               “Nope,” said the boyfriend. “My name’s not ‘People.’ Guess again, Fishy.”

               “Maybe that guess was too broad,” said Fish. “Maybe you’re the kind of person who specifically eats fish. Maybe your name is Pe…Pess…uh…Pestinarian.” Fish inwardly cursed himself for stumbling on the word.

               A grin broke out across the boyfriend’s face. “What? My name is what? ‘Pestinarian?’ Is that like a veterinarian who only works on, what, termites? And…and, like, wasps?”

               Fish tried to match his mocking tone. “You seriously don’t know what it is? It’s like a vegetarian, but they can eat fish too. But I take it that’s not your name if you don’t even know what it means.”

               A girl standing by the fridge said, “He meant ‘pescatarian.’” She was the one with the cat whiskers painted on her cheeks.

               “Oh yeah,” said Fish, feeling a blush bloom on his face that was even worse than the mispronunciation. "Well, whatever it’s called, not like I care, I eat meat, I eat whatever.”

               “Like worms,” said the boyfriend.

               “No,” said Fish. “I don’t eat worms.” Against his better judgment he again looked around at the assembled faces, and their allegiances were no longer mysterious. “Can I at least have something to drink? If we can’t change the music, I’m gonna need to be wasted soon.”

               To Fish’s surprise, Bailey’s boyfriend shifted himself away from the sink, breaking Bailey’s possessive grasp, and said, “If you want to be wasted soon, you’re gonna need the strong stuff. We’ve got it out back in the shed. Not enough room in the fridge.”

               “Oh, yeah,” said Fish. “That’s what I need. Something strong. Is there vodka?” He decided to accept this truce for now, but the confrontation was not canceled, only delayed. He should have said that yes, he did eat worms…worms like the boyfriend! Then it would have been like he was calling the boyfriend a worm and saying he was going to eat him. Too late now, though.

               “Yeah, there’s vodka,” said the boyfriend. “Come on.” He opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the patio, motioning with his cup for Fish to follow.

               Fish followed the boyfriend outside, leaving the patio door open behind him, trying to be a little careless, a little rude to reestablish some of his dignity. The boyfriend was already halfway across the frosty yard to the shed leaving a trail of dissipating breath clouds illuminated by the motion-detecting light mounted on the back corner of the house. Fish saw no one else in the back yard despite Bailey’s claim that there were more partygoers outside. Maybe they were in the shed hogging the vodka.

               Bailey’s boyfriend turned around at the shed doors and waited for Fish, who made a production of not hurrying, although the boyfriend didn’t give him the satisfaction of visible irritation. When Fish arrived at the shed, he said, “What are we waiting for?”

               The boyfriend smiled and opened half of the shed’s double doors. “After you,” he said.

               Fish took it as a dare, like the boyfriend thought he’d be scared to step inside a dark shed. “I’ll go wherever the vodka is,” said Fish.

               “There’s a string hanging down in the middle to turn on the light,” said the boyfriend.

               “Pshh,” said Fish. “I can find the vodka by smell.”

               The shed door slammed behind him. Before Fish could turn and throw himself against it, he heard the clank of a heavy bar sliding through the doors’ external handles. He knew he wouldn’t be able to smash the doors open if they were barred from the outside. Fish suppressed the surge of indignant rage at having been tricked and trapped. That’s what they wanted: a big freakout. Like Bailey’s when she found out Fish had cheated on her. That had to be what this was. A revenge plot. The new boyfriend enlisted to punish the old boyfriend. An attempt at justice. Fish hated it when people, especially people he used to think were cool, people he had personally identified with, tried to enact justice, especially against him. Why were people always trying to correct things? Trying to set things right? It was so pathetic.

               “Fish?” It was Bailey’s voice.

               He considered not responding, but worried that would seem like pouting. “What?” said Fish.

               “How is it in there?” asked Bailey. “Are you warm enough?”

               “I’m enjoying the vodka,” said Fish. “I’d rather be where the vodka is than where any of you losers are.”

               “There’s no vodka in there,” said Bailey. “That was a lie to trick you into going into the shed.”

               Fish gritted his teeth in frustration. How had he not realized the vodka was a total fabrication? He decided to try something. “Well, I guess the joke’s on you, ‘cause I found some vodka in here anyway.”

               “No you didn’t,” said Bailey. It was the tone Fish recognized as that of Bailey not believing his lies.

               “Open the door and I’ll prove it to you,” said Fish. His eyes were adjusting to the darkness in the shed. There was enough light coming in through the cracks around the doors for him to make out the silhouettes of rakes, bags of potting soil, a workbench.

               “You didn’t answer my question,” said Bailey. “Are you warm enough in there?”

               “Sure, I’m fine,” said Fish, even though he wasn’t. He figured it couldn’t be more than 35 degrees in the shed, and his core temperature hadn’t yet had a chance to recover from that hour in the woods. He should have worn a real coat instead of the hoodie – or even with the hoodie – but he didn’t have any coats that were dark enough in color for nighttime camouflage so Stefan had told him to stick with the hoodie, insisting that the adrenaline from tormenting the victims would be more than enough to keep his blood pumping.  

“We’ll have to fix that,” said Bailey. “Turn on the hose, NARO.” Fish heard footsteps headed back toward the house.

The mention of the hose was ominous, but Fish was more confused by who or what Bailey was addressing. “‘NARO?’” He said. “What’s NARO?”

“That’s my boyfriend,” said Bailey. “N-A-R-O. It stands for North American River Otter. That’s what I named him because North American River Otters…eat fish!” She shrieked the last two words in a way that made it clear that whatever wounds Fish had left on her during their time together were still raw.

               “Huh,” said Fish. “I thought for sure his name was gonna be ‘Bear.’”

               And that’s when he heard a gurgling overhead, a sputter, and then the whir of an upside down sprinkler affixed to the shed ceiling filling the cramped space with jets of frigid water. Within seconds, Fish was drenched, his clothes sodden and heavy. He pulled his hood up over his head and squatted in the back corner of the shed facing the wall with his shoulders hunched, but it didn’t do much good. The water soaked through the hood and he could feel the icy rivulets running down his neck and face, his chest and stomach, down his back and into his underwear.

               Outside the shed, Bailey laughed. “How about now, Fish? Are you nice and warm now?”

               Was she trying to kill him? Because he could die this way. He could easily die of hypothermia, doused in water and left in a shed in temperatures just above freezing. This thought spurred him to action. What was he going to do? Huddle in the corner and wait for Bailey to have mercy? Beg her forgiveness? No. The shed ceiling was maybe seven feet high. Standing and turning toward the middle of the shed, using one arm to shield his face, Fish groped overhead for the sprinkler. When his fingers touched the whirling metal sprinkler head, he grabbed it and gave a vicious yank, but it didn’t give way. With his palm deflecting most of the spray, Fish used both hands this time, the brackets holding the sprinkler in place squeaking and straining.

               “Fish, what are you doing?” asked Bailey. “What’s going on in there?”

               The sprinkler came loose, and the brackets and the screws that had anchored them to the exposed beams of the roof clattered to the floor. Fish pulled on the sprinkler, lengths of hose feeding into the shed through a hole high in the back wall. NARO’s engineering, if it had indeed been his, was functional, Fish supposed, but not sturdy. When there was enough slack, Fish put a kink in the hose and unscrewed the sprinkler with trembling, clumsy fingers.

               “What are you doing, Fish?” Bailey still hadn’t realized what he was up to, but she could surely hear that the sprinkler had stopped running. “Are you going to apologize to me now? Or…or are you going to spend all night in there? Are you gonna freeze solid instead?”

She sensed her control slipping away, Fish could tell. He pulled the hose into the shed hand over hand until it was taught. Then he coiled the hose around his right forearm and took firm hold of it within both of his fists. He gave the hose a test tug, his feet slipping on the wet floor. Realizing he needed better purchase, he sat down and braced his feet against the back wall of the shed, then hauled back again with any might he could muster, maintaining a strong, steady pull.

               “He’s pulling the hose!” NARO’s voice sounded far away.

               “What?” Fish heard Bailey move around the side of the shed so she could see what NARO was yelling about.

               “He’s pulling it!” shouted NARO.

               “Pull back!” cried Bailey. “Don’t let him-”

               Her commands were interrupted by a loud pop. At the same moment, all the tension went out of the hose in Fish’s hands and he was propelled backward from his seated position, striking his head on the floor. Dazed, he remained prone as he listened to the dismayed voices of the people outside the shed.

               “The whole spigot came out of the wall!”

               “It’s flooding the yard!”

               “Turn it off!”

               “I don’t know how!”

               Behind him, Fish heard the clank of the bar sliding out of the door handles. Then one of the doors creaked open and light spilled across his body where he lay gasping in a puddle of water amidst loops of green garden hose.

               “Just go, Fish.” It was Bailey. Her shadow on the back wall of the shed looked defeated. Her witch hat was gone.

               Fish sat up and addressed the shadow. “I really thought you wanted me to save this party.”

               “Why would anyone want you to save a party?” asked Bailey. “You’re not fun, you’re not exciting. You’re a fish.”

               “People only call me that because my last name sounds like ‘bluegill,’” said Fish.

               “Then how come no one calls anyone else in your family ‘Fish?’” asked Bailey.

               Fish turned to look at her, but with the light at her back, Bailey looked exactly like her shadow. “I don’t know,” said Fish. It was yet another troubling thought.


               Even if Fish hadn’t remembered which house was the target house, it wouldn’t have been hard to identify. It was the only one with lights on inside. The second story was dark, but there was light in every first-story window. He watched the house from behind a neighbor’s tree for a while, but he didn’t see any movement through the windows nor any dark figures skulking around the property. Stefan had insisted that they all drive separately in case…in case something, Fish had tuned out a lot of the plan, but he assumed the decision followed similar logic to his own policy of parking far away from parties. The point was that Fish had found both Stefan and Burke’s cars parked where they’d left them in the neighborhood off the mainland end of the peninsula two or three hours before, or however long it had been now. Fish had tried the group text and then texting both of his friends individually multiple times since leaving the party, but he’d gotten no response. So either they were so wrapped up in tormenting and killing the victims that they’d completely forgotten about him or they’d both lost their phones or something had gone way wrong. Worried, Fish had driven his car onto the peninsula until the point where the trees began to thin, and then parked it off the road facing the mainland in case a speedy escape was called for.

               As Fish leaned around the tree for a better look, he saw that a window farther down the side of the target house was broken, ragged edges of glass surrounding a gaping hole. So Stefan and Burke had made it to that stage of the plan, at least, which meant, if they had followed the steps as Stefan had presented them – or as Fish remembered Stefan presenting them – then the victims’ lines of communication had been cut. Security alarm disabled, cell phones stolen, land line severed, internet interrupted, all that. Of course, part of cutting off their lines of communication had involved preventing the victims from physically leaving the peninsula via the access road, which had been Fish’s responsibility, which he had not performed. But maybe it hadn’t been required. Maybe the victims hadn’t tried that, or maybe Stefan and Burke had been able to foil their attempt before they made it as far as where Fish was supposed to be stationed.

               Still damp despite blasting his car heater the whole way back to the peninsula, Fish walked warily across the grass toward the target house, his hands in his hoodie pocket, fidgeting with the cheap costume eyepatch. At the base of the steps leading up to the large porch, Fish saw that the front door was ajar. There were scuff marks below the knob as if the door had been kicked, but neither the door frame nor the knob mechanism appeared to be damaged. Fish crept up the porch steps and pushed the door open, stepping inside the house, resisting the urge to call a tentative “hello?” He wished he’d held onto the crowbar or the knife or both.

               In the living room, Fish found the broken window. Glass fragments lay scattered around a fist-sized rock on the carpet. He found a flight of stairs leading to the second story, but after considering them for a moment, he passed them by. In the kitchen, he found signs of a violent struggle. The microwave on the counter was askew. Another appliance Fish didn’t recognize lay demolished on the floor. The door of a lower cabinet set into the kitchen island was splintered. And there were blood droplets leading across the tile to a door which would have looked like an unassuming section of wall with a framed painting of an impressionistic corn field hanging on it had it not been, like the front door before it, not entirely closed. Pulling open the door, Fish was confronted with a blood-spattered flight of gray-carpeted steps leading down – way down – to another door. This door was closed securely and a sign on the wall above it flashed the words “IN USE” in severe, red letters.

               Planless, Fish descended the steps, counting them as he went. He discovered, upon reaching the bottom, that there were 40 of them. This was a deep basement. Fish paused to consider the door now in front of him. It looked soundproof, but he pressed his ear to it anyway, hearing nothing but the bump of his own pulse. The door also had a handle, shiny steel and freshly bloodstained. It didn’t seem possible that the door would be unlocked, but what was there to do except find out? Fish handled the handle and the door swung open on hinges so well-oiled that they didn’t even whisper, although it wouldn’t have mattered if they did. The screaming would have drowned them out.

               Fish was now confronted with a white-walled room with a black tile floor and the backs of two people, a man and a woman in matching peach-colored sweatsuits. The man, gray-haired and not fit, stood a head taller than the woman who, from the back, looked to be at least twenty years younger than her counterpart. A small pistol dangled from the man’s right hand. Just beyond these two people was a squat wooden dresser on wheels. Atop the dresser was a heap of gory hand towels. Beyond the dresser were Stefan and Burke, in awful condition. They were stripped to their briefs – Stefan had told Burke and Fish to wear briefs for added flexibility, but Fish had ignored this directive – and they were strapped to what Fish would have described as dentist chairs. Their chairs were positioned perpendicular to the door so that they faced each other, though their blindfolds prevented any sight of the other’s agony. Unless the fabric of the blindfolds was thinner than it looked. The bare chests, arms, and legs of Fish’s friends were covered in varieties of wounds. Cuts, burns, scrapes, gouges. The faces too, horrendous. Burke’s blindfold was especially blood-soaked. Oh, they were a mess. And they, it turned out, were the collective source of the screaming, although it looked like they were between torments at the moment.

               Fish then wondered if the torment was reaching its conclusion, actually. If the victims, who were now the perpetrators, had decided to end it just as Stefan had planned to end their torment had his plan worked a little – OK, a lot – better. As if to confirm Fish’s suspicion, he saw the man tighten his grip on the pistol.

               “Hey,” said Fish. “Don’t do that.”

               From there, everything happened very fast. The man and the woman both cried out and spun to face Fish, the man accidentally shot himself in the knee and dropped the gun, the man bent to clutch his knee at the same moment that the woman stooped to retrieve the gun, and they cracked their heads together, reeling in opposite directions until they collided with opposite walls, slumping to the floor in two similar-but-different postures of pained shock.

               Fish retrieved the gun from where it had fallen. He pointed it at no one, instead slipping it into his hoodie pocket to keep the eyepatch company. As he set about freeing his friends from their restraints, the woman said, “Do what you want. Do whatever you want. But they earned this. They deserved this.”

               This was the one moment when Fish was tempted to try some torment of his own. “Do not talk to me about what anyone deserves!” he shouted, surprised at his own passion. “Ever!”

               “But she’s right,” said Burke, his voice pitifully small. “We deserved it. We were planning to do the same to them. They were just better at it than-”

               “Do you want me to leave you here?” asked Fish.

               “No,” said Burke, whimpering.

               “Then shut up,” said Fish.


               Later, in his bedroom, with everyone else in the house asleep, Fish wrapped his broken friends in quilts from the hall closet and fed them wholesome snacks. He made them swallow eight ibuprofens each, washing them down with decaffeinated coffee, hot enough to warm their bones without scalding their tongues. He affixed his costume eyepatch over Burke’s wounded eye. He connected his phone to the TV so he could show them tedious internet videos. Such as a pedantic bore pointing out the errors in an acclaimed TV series, many of which were not errors. Such as a compilation of people performing magic tricks which were actually simple camera and editing tricks. Such as all the cut-scenes from a mediocre video game stitched together into what the creator wrongly referred to as a “feature film.” Eventually, Fish’s friends fell asleep, and in sleep, they looked like normal – albeit badly battered – teenage boys. Fish’s friends. His little friends. His little termite and his little wasp.

Discussion Questions

  • Who are the people you’ve met where just the way they say the word “consequences” makes you want to claw your own scalp off?

  • Between Stefan and Burke, which one do you think is the termite and which one do you think is the wasp?

  • If your significant-other were going to give you a nickname, but the options were limited to things that eat fish, what would you choose?

  • What would be the best method for getting you trapped in a shed?

  • If you were guarding the door at a costume party where costumes were required, would you let someone in whose entire costume consisted of a one-dollar pirate eyepatch with a skull and crossbones printed on it?

  • Are your party-saving abilities such that a hateful ex would reach out to you in desperation to save his or her foundering party?

  • Do you think that a shared enthusiasm for administering torment to deserving teens is a good foundation for a long-lasting extra-marital affair?

  • What would you estimate is your own potential for future badness?

  • Would you prefer to play basketball in a gymnasium in your socks or in your bare feet? If your answer is “in socks” because your feet are revolting, you don’t have to give that as your reason. You can keep that to yourself.

  • If you knew someone whose last name sounded like a species of fish, would you call that person “Fish” even if they didn’t have any particularly fish-like qualities? Or do you think that everyone has fish-like qualities if you look hard enough?

  • Did the incessant whirring of the fan inside my laptop add to the spooky atmosphere of this year’s Special Bedtime Stories Halloween Special? Did it remind you of a chill wind? The voice of a frail ghost? The long, long final exhalation of a heart-staked vampire?