Uncle Fish’s tailfin trembled, from either cold or the strain of bearing his weight. I wasn’t sure. The moisture on his scales had turned to frost, but despite the brisk December air, all he wore was a shabby brown suit and a crushed fedora, like some ramble-down salesman from a bygone era. I barely suppressed a groan.
I heard my father’s footsteps, his mismatched red and green socks padding across the hardwood floor. I looked over my shoulder in time to see a forced smile replace his dismay. Behind him, my mother was in the living room, ferociously shoving the ankle-deep layer of shredded wrapping paper into a white garbage bag. From the thin, white line of her mouth, I saw that she’d also noticed our unexpected guest.
The pretense of food preparation allowed the family to have a conference in the kitchen. My mother’s expression was brittle, her arms crossed. “Fine. He can stay,” she relented, once my father pointed out that we all needed to be in the holiday spirit.
There was no time to set up the tank, so my mother prepared a large bowl of water. She also put out more holiday potpourri, for the smell. Uncle Fish folded himself into one of the dining room chairs, his tailfin dangling under the table, brushing against everyone’s legs. My brother, who had been tasked with keeping Uncle Fish watered, sat down beside him and picked up the ladle.
Dinner conversation was awkward. Mom asked Uncle Fish about work, and whether he was still with the same firm. Uncle Fish just sat there, opening and closing his mouth, staring off into space with his wide, filmy eyes. The rest of us did our best to keep the conversation going, sticking to aquatic topics as much as possible. But Uncle Fish stayed silent, barely even acknowledging the family. After half an hour, my mother stood up abruptly and hurried out of the room, muttering something about not having enough stuffing to go around as it was. It took my father ten minutes to get her to return. She forced a smile and poured a fresh pitcher of water into Uncle Fish’s bowl.
Later, after we’d settled into a restless silence, Uncle Fish’s gill flaps started opening and closing more quickly. I leaned forward and saw that the filaments inside were red and inflamed. My mother was too busy dissecting the remains of her sweet potatoes to answer the question in my eyes.
After a moment’s hesitation, I reached across my brother’s plate and dipped a finger in Uncle Fish’s water bowl. I took a taste and gasped, yanking the ladle out of my brother’s hand. Briny water splashed across the table, sending my parents’ chairs screeching backwards as they kicked away from the spray.
“Uncle Fish is freshwater!” I shouted.
We nearly knocked the table over in our rush to get Uncle Fish rinsed off in the bathtub. He has a low tolerance for salinity, so it was a close thing, and we ruined his suit. He left without a word. I’m not sure how much the whole thing bothered him. It was so hard to read Uncle Fish.
“We just weren’t ready for guests,” my mother sniffed, wiping her wet hands on a dishrag in lieu of completing the thought.
We all stood quietly in the foyer for a long time, shuffling our feet and staring at the closed door.
“Well,” my mother said, breaking the silence. “Who wants pie?”
Alex Gorman has had stories published in Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra and Stupefying Stories. He can be found online at http://nonsensicles.com/.