MaxBarry.com
legionnaires' disease-free since 1990

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 03
Jun
2014

Fish Dreams

Writing

A short story.

Her mother drops her at five and tells me what she likes to eat now. There are times I look at this woman and feel an echo of affection. But not today. She won’t eat peas any more, apparently. I am to encourage her to eat peas.

And she’s had nightmares, says her mother. Two.

Nightmares?

Bad dreams. It’s common at this age.

Dreams about what?

Fish, she says. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

I say, How would I make a big deal out of it?

We talk it out, old wrongs flipping and snapping below the surface, and she turns and walks to the car. Then, at last, I have the girl to myself.


There is a puzzle in her overnight bag that she wants to show me. We solve and scramble it four times. Then she says she wants to go to the beach.

Maybe next visit, I say. We can’t go to the beach now.

Why not?

Because it’s late.

Can we go to the beach tomorrow?

Tomorrow I have to drive you back to your mother’s.

Oh, she says.

Next time, maybe you can stay longer. Then we’ll go to the beach. Today, we can do puzzles. And read books. Maybe do some drawing.

She’s disappointed. I don’t blame her. This apartment, it is no beach.


I tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead and she sits up and says, Do you look after me when I’m asleep?

Yes. I look after you all the time.

She frowns. I’m not getting it. I mean, do you look after me in my dreams?

I even look after you in your dreams.

This satisfies her. She snuggles down, throws an arm over Elephant, her faithful companion.

Good night, Daddy.

Good night, bunny.


I wash the dishes, looking out the window at the alley below. The apartment is eight floors up. If you fell, you’d die. Tonight, three men are down there, exchanging a brown-bagged bottle. One shoves the other. The bottle smashes. Profanities are exchanged. I hope she’s asleep, can’t hear this.


I go to bed reluctantly. It’s different with her here. Sleeping feels like a waste. But I need to be rested for the morning.

I rarely dream any more, but this night I do: I dream we’re on a train. She’s sitting opposite, legs tucked beneath her, wearing her favorite top, one with a cat. I look outside and realize we’re going to the beach.

When the train stops, we walk to the shore and build sandcastles. I suggest we stomp them, but she doesn’t want them ruined. We walk along the water and inspect washed-up jellyfish. Her arms and legs are thin as sticks, and I remember how fragile she is, how she needs protection.

A shark comes. Not a real shark, a toy, inflatable, big and floppy, full of plastic teeth. But still a fish, I think, the stuff of nightmares, and I try to pull her away. The shark snaps and wobbles across the sand and begins to gulp her down, until all I can see of her is her feet.


I knock my elbow on my bedside table. I’m cold and wet. She’s standing beside the bed and I sit up, disoriented. Hey, bunny. Hey.

You were shouting.

Was I?

Really loud.

I’m sorry. I had a bad dream.

I have bad dreams sometimes.

I know.

I didn’t have one tonight, though.

Maybe I took it.

She smiles, a big one that lights up her face. Thank you, Daddy.

Can you sleep in here tonight? I ask her. Do you think?

She climbs in without answering. I feel the bed shift with her tiny weight. She snuggles up beside me, this girl who’s keeping me safe.

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Mapuche (#1184)

Location: Darwin, Australia
Quote: "Inconceivable!"
Posted: 1210 days ago

It does work both ways. Nice short story.

Greg Karber (#1568)

Location: gregkarber.com
Posted: 1210 days ago

This is a really great story, though I can't say I wasn't expecting a twist where the whole experience was an advertisement.

Michael Lederman (#4778)

Location: United States
Quote: "I read therefore I am"
Posted: 1210 days ago

Both the sweetest and saddest story you've written yet. I'd love to see it fleshed out into a novel as this work should be shared. There are a lot of dads in this world who will identify with your words immediately. They need to know they're not alone.

Prue Meehan (#3306)

Location: Australia
Quote: ""I intend to live forever. So far, so good." Steven Wright"
Posted: 1210 days ago

I love this. Would love to read more about this little family.

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 1210 days ago

Possible sequel to "How I met my daughter"?

Brittany O. (#1688)

Location: Montana
Quote: "people are kind of overrated "
Posted: 1209 days ago

Seriously teared up at my desk while reading at work. Too close to home, maybe.

MatrixM (#6620)

Location: Wollongong
Posted: 1209 days ago

D'awwww, that was so sweet. Eyes got a little watery.
Nice touch with the lack of quotation marks. I like how you eschew grammar yet make it work :P

Chelsea (#5402)

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Posted: 1190 days ago

I thought the same thing as Roger. this could be the sequel to "How I met my daughter." (That is the first and only short story to ever make me cry. damn, you Barry! *shakes fist*)

I smiled at how sweet this was. You're too good at this! *searches around for next novel* *feels like a junky running dry* proverbally, anyway. never done the drugs. :P

Ike (#6641)

Location: Canada
Quote: "I like NationStates, Max love me pl0x"
Posted: 1176 days ago

Max is a secret Fishmonger.

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