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Oh oh oh okay so I'll tell it like this: Once upon a time there was this kid who wanted, of all things, a fish. This kid — let's just call him Charlie, no relation — had been finding it tough to bring all his stuff home at the end of the school day, despite his parents trying everything, evvverything, to make it easy for him to remember. Finally his mother — we'll call her Cher — look, who's telling this story, you or me? — hit on something that motivated Charlie. If he could remember to bring home his backpack, school folder, notebook, and coat every school day for three weeks running, she would get him a fish.

Here I am abridging many lectures about responsibility and being dependable and Who's going to feed the fish and clean his tank and see that he gets neutered and make sure he gets plenty of exercise by taking him out in the yard to play Frisbee? because this is the Internet and there are only so many pixels to go around. Assume they took place in plenty.

Anyway, Charlie applied himself to this goal with a diligence that surprised JulI mean Cher — hey, no, wait, can I change that? Because I've always sort of wished my parents had named me Boutros Boutros-Ghali and that is the God's honest truth. Anyway, this mother was surprised and impressed by Charlie's commitment, so duly followed through on her promise. The fifth day of the third week found the two of them at the pet store, selecting an inky-blue half-moon betta to be Charlie's forever fish.  "I think he likes me," Charlie said. And although His Excellency the Secretary General privately thought that the fish was at best indifferent, it was sloshed into a bag, purchased, and duly taken home.


Not him, but close enough

After an afternoon of intense deliberation, Charlie christened his new pal Shredder.

And so the fish did thrive, with daily feedings and weekly water changes, and many a bubble nest did he build in his obvious contentment. (It's kind of the fish equivalent of painting the nursery, only finished off with milt instead of Etsy wall clings.)

And then came Charlie's spring break, and the trip we'd planned to Washington. Charlie and I called — whoops, you got me, the majestic pop icon cum illustrious diplomat was actually me all the time — our nice next-door neighbor and asked if she'd care for the fish in our absence. She agreed, but asked, in some trepidation, "What if it dies while it's here?"

I reassured her cheerfully, having seen Shredder merrily dipping and bubbling just that very morni...Huh, wait, when was the last time I really looked at him?  Paul and Charlie fed him nightly, and Charlie and I changed his water weekly, and I usually glanced at him absently as I made the bed in the morning, but... As soon as we hung up, I caaaasually went down the hall to check on the fish just to make sure he was fit to travel the 30 long yards up the driveway.

Shredder was lying on his side on the bottom of his tank, looking what you would call bloated but alive-ish. He could swim to the top of his tank, but would sink again almost immediately.  A quick perusal of the available literature — a Google search of "betta sinking oh my hell why is this happening NOW" — revealed two likely causes. The more desirable scenario was a swim bladder problem, for which the preferred treatment is to relieve your fish's constipation. (Now Googling "constipated betta I can't believe I'm Googling 'constipated betta'.")

The more troubling possibility was dropsy, in which a fish's organ's fail, causing full-body swelling. A meticulous differential diagnosis — Google "betta swollen scales standing out looks like a tiny blue pinecone that's a good sign right" — revealed that that was the most likely case for poor bottom-dwelling Shredder, who was, by this time, not looking quite so alive-ish.  And dropsy is nearly always fatal.

Also not him, but close enough

This came to a head the day before leaving, so a few dilemmas unfolded.  Do we call Charlie's attention to the fish, whose hours are obviously numbered?  Do we say goodbye and euthanize him a scant eight hours before vacation, to let the neighbor off the hook?  Do we take him over to the neighbor's house, knowing he's going to die?  (No. I like my neighbor far too much to make her take the fall.)  Or do we act like everything's normal, wait for a brief break in the weekend's busy schedule, sneak off to the pet store, buy a replacement fish that looks only somewhat like the original because, shit, they're out of half-moons, creep up to Charlie's room while he's briefly distracted, scoop up the sick fish in a yogurt container, nonchalantly take my "yogurt" outside on the deck to "enjoy" despite the 45º drizzle, fling the poor doomed bastard out into the woods with a whispered plea for forgiveness, and hurriedly decant the unsuspecting Shredder II into the now-vacant tank and act like nothing's happened?

Charlie has yet to notice. Nearly a month has passed. I wonder what would happen if I'd replaced Shredder with a blobfish.

I don't know, I wouldn't have minded the opportunity to talk with Charlie about the natural order of things, the sad fact that we generally outlive our pets, the certainty that Shredder Classic had gone to a better place. (Okay, maybe not that; I can't really say that a nest of bracken is actually better, if you're a fish, than a clean, roomy tank filled with sparkly rocks, a hammock, and, you know, water.) The timing was simply ruinous: the fish was going to die while we were gone and there was just no good way to handle it.

Still, I feel bad about killing the fish, bad enough — and cowardly enough — that I have no plans to tell him, although the Internet being what it is, I suppose I can count on a future employer to bring it up in a job interview. It turns out I'm mom enough to do what had to be done, just not so awesomely extreme as to own up after the fact.