One time, me and the kids had a fish hotel.
It was my idea. My original idea. For some reason we’d acquired a 20-gallon fish tank. Of course, the kids wanted to get fish.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, you guys,” I said, as we were discussing what I was sure was going to be a bad idea at the dinner table one evening.
“I can barely keep all of you from floating belly up, and I’m pretty invested in you, but I’d probably forget about the fish, and they’d die.”
“But we’d help!” they all said in close to unison. They were pretty cute back then. Maybe six, eight, 10 and 14, they were. Aquila was keeping quiet, and kept giving me this look like “what’s your next move, old man?”
“Remember when we came home from being in Victoria that weekend, and all the baby mice died, one by one, right in front of us? Do you remember how upset you all were?” I was hoping they’d see the light, and realize how sad dead animals made them.
Anya lowered her eyes, glared at me, and said, “That’s because you POISONED their mother, Dad.” Jude and Ezra always took their cues from Anya back then, and so they lowered their eyes and glowered at me too.
Aquila grabbed his vine at that moment, and swung. “I’m out dad. This is not gonna end well for you,” and with that he was gone, leaving me with three pissed-off kids.
Suddenly, I had an idea! I had the perfect answer.
“Hey!” I exclaimed. “What about a fish hotel?”
They looked at each other, and then at me.
“What the hell is a fish hotel, Nick?” That was before Anya was allowed to swear, but after she was allowed to call me Nick instead of Dad (which apparently I’d stopped answering to on account of overuse), and I decided to let the former crime pass unmentioned.
I leaned forward conspiratorially, and beamed at the kids, as I told them of my sure-to-be-brilliant idea.
“So, instead of getting a bunch of boring old fish from the pet store, which are just sure to be boring and die, and cost me a lot of money, we can have a fish hotel, where we fill the aquarium up with salt water, and put sand and some seaweed in, then get fish and crabs and starfish, keep them for one day overnight, and then return them to the ocean the next day.” I beamed some more. I was a genius!
The kids looked sceptical.
“What will they eat?”
“We’ll get stuff for them to eat. The crabs will eat anything, and we’ll get fish food for the fishes. Come on, you guys, it’s gonna work! It’s better that we just borrow some fish, right? They’ll just visit for a day, rather than spending their whole lives in a tank. I mean, we live right on the water, so it’s easy.”
It was settled. I got the kids into bed, played them some guitar, and then once they were asleep I called my girlfriend, and told her of my brilliant plan.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. But it was too late, I was too determined, and she wasn’t persuasive enough to talk me out of it. Besides, her fish kept dying on her, so what did she know.
The next day, me and the kids set about bucketing water up to the fish tank, which we’d set up on the hearth in front of the fireplace. Then we found a bunch of cutey little crabs and fish, and starfish and seaweed to populate our fish hotel with. It was magical. I felt so good about not keeping animals in captivity, and there would be a rotating bevy of guests for us to enjoy watching in the aquarium. The kids spent ages watching our little ecosystem, and by the time I’d put them to bed that night, I think they’d named everyone in the tank, and told them they loved them, and that they’d see them in the morning.
I should have done some research.
It was one of those nights when Jude and Anya ended up in my bed, and in the morning I was awoken by what I thought was a particularly ripe fart perpetrated by one of them. I covered my nose. When I uncovered it a minute later, the smell was still there. And it no longer smelled like a fart. With sudden dawning horror, I very carefully crept out of bed, so as not to wake up the kids on either side of me. The closer I got to the living room, the worse the smell got. I slowly approached the fish tank.
And the smell was horrible.
It was a bloodbath. Every single fish and crab and starfish was dead. And stinking already! I felt like a mass murderer. Just then, I heard a little voice behind me.
“Hi Dad! Hi Blackie! Hi Floaty! Hi Bubbles! Hi Mandy! Hi Finny!” Jude exclaimed as he walked up beside me with a big drooly smile on his face, hooking a casual arm around my neck, and looking into the tank. His smile changed into a frown.
“What’s that smell, Dad?”
It was one of those moments you have as a parent, when you have to tell your kid that one of their pets has died. Except in this case, it was all my kids, and about 13 pets, and it was all my fault.
I thought about how to tell him.
“Well Jude, that smell is the smell that happens when something bad happens to fish.”
He looked at me, obviously confused. He crouched down, and peered into the bottom of the tank. “Are they still sleeping, Dad?”
God. Why couldn’t Anya have woken up first? She would’ve caught on right away.
Then, from my bed:
“What the HELL is that smell, Nick? All the fish are dead, aren’t they!”
Jude’s eyes got wide, and welled up.
“All of them!?”
“I think so, Jude …”
Ezra took it better than his brother. He sort of shrugged, and then wrinkled up his nose.
Turns out the water got too warm (or so some smarter person told me …), so we had a mass funeral for the fishes and the crabs, and the lone starfish (who I’m pretty sure was almost singly responsible for the smell).
The kids still like to remind me of the fish hotel massacre every once in a while, and I was hoping that they wouldn’t remember it yesterday when we went to see Finding Dory.
So far, so good …
Nicholas Heather is a single father of four, living in Nanaimo, B.C.