I used to be concerned about my oldest son, Paul. Oh, sure, he was happy, healthy, active, all that normal shit. I was mostly worried about his… interests.
You see, the men in my family---we’re all tough, rugged, brawny sorts of folks. Real men’s men. Alphas. And you can see that in a kid from a very early age. Like take my youngest son, Danny. The kid could barely even crawl and he was picking up his toys and smashing them together, laughing at the chaos like a little drunk at a peep show. I had no doubts whatsoever about him.
Paul, on the other hand… he was… different. Where Danny was the type to rip out clumps of grass by the roots and chow down on the dirt, Paul would pick flowers. Hell, he’d arrange them, too. Make them all perfect and presentable. Then he’d hand them to his mom and say, “For you!” all sweet like.
It pissed me off.
“Stop it, Earl,” my wife said to me. “He’s expressing himself.”
Expressing himself. Sure. Yeah. I’ll be over here, double-fisting the shame away, trying not to imagine what my brothers would say when I told them my son was bringing home his “friend,” Felix, for Thanksgiving. Damn it! Why did my swimmers have to break the alpha streak?
Even with all of that, I still felt a tiny bit of hope when Paul reached his third birthday. It’s a tradition in my family that every kid gets his first pet at three, and Paul was finally old enough.
“What kind of animal you want, buddy?” I asked him, hoping he’d saying something like a pitbull. Something with teeth that could do some damage.
He tilted his head and got real quiet. I could tell he was thinking.
Come on, I said to myself. Give me something I can work with!
“I know, Daddy,” he finally said. “I want a fishy!”
A fishy. A god damn fucking fishy.
My wife must have known I was speechless, because she piped up. “That’s a great idea, honey! Your daddy will take you and Danny to the pet store tomorrow and you can pick out your very own fishy!”
The next day, there I was, standing in a tiny pet store with one toddler strapped to my chest and another running from tank to tank and chattering to himself. A father’s dream, I thought. Real fucking manly.
“You sure you don’t want a snake or something?” I called out. Snakes were like fish, right? Big, long, land fish with teeth that killed things?
“Nope,” Paul said from further up the aisle. “Daddy, look!”
I caught up to him and found him staring at a display shelf filled with little cups. Each one had one of those fish with the long, flowing tail like a scarf.
“They’re so pretty!” Paul shouted.
Great. Of course my kid would pick out the faggiest fish in the whole shop.
I was just about to call him away when a lanky fellow with long hair and glasses stepped out from behind the display. I could see he had a name tag and a store vest. He smiled at Paul and squatted down to his level. “Hey there, little dude,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“I would like one pet fishy, please!” said Paul. I could feel the life being sucked out of me.
“Well, okay then,” said the man. “Do you know what these are?”
“Pretty fishies?” Paul asked.
The man chuckled. “They sure are, but they have a special name. We call them bettas.”
Paul tried the word on for size. “Bettas?”
“Yep,” said the man, “and they’re real easy to take care of. Really good choice if it’s your first pet fish.”
Paul leaped into the air. “It is! It is!” He waved his arms as he shouted. More flamboyant shit we’d have to nip in the butt.
“That’s great,” said the man. “You should have no trouble. Just don’t put two of them together.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Yeah, why?” I piped up. I didn’t expect a fish to come with a warning, so I really wanted to know.
I think I started the man because he looked up and blinked in my direction. “Well,” he said, “if you put two of them together… two males that is… they’ll fight.”
“Fight?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” said the man. “The males don’t like it when there’s another male in their territory. They can be real vicious.”
“Territory…,” Paul repeated.
The man nodded. “You see, they actually have these little teeth---”
“Hold up,” I said. “They bite each other?”
“Yeah, dude,” said the man. “They, uh….” He looked down at Paul, and then back at me. With one hand cupped around his mouth, he whispered to me. “They can tear each other up.”
I looked at these fish, swirling around and around in their little plastic cups. Then I looked at Paul, standing on the tips of his toes to try and get a closer look.
“We’ll take two!”
We didn’t bother with a fish tank---I knew we wouldn’t need one. When we got home, my wife was still out. I thanked God, and then ran out to the garage to get the biggest bucket I could find. Once it was filled with water, I plopped it down in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“Ready to see something cool, buddy?” I asked Paul.
“Yeah!” he said, and he followed me over to the bucket.
The two fish sat on the counter, each in its own little cup. I picked one up and pulled the lid off. “In he goes!” I said, and with a plop the fish was in the water. “Ready for number two?”
“Yeah!” Paul shouted. “Are they gonna fight?”
I smiled. At least he was interested. “We’ll see!”
Soon, both fish were in the bucket, circling each other like boxers in the ring. Then, one went in for an attack and nipped the other one good, right in the back fins. Before that moment, I never would have thought a fish could be angry. I was wrong. The other wasted no time, but rammed the one that bit him. On and on they went, chomping at each other, tearing off fins and chunks of side flesh. Little red clouds filled the water. All the while, Paul was glued to the action. My heart leaped. There was hope for my boy!
At the end of it all, two mangled fish carcasses floated belly up on the surface of the red-tinged water.
“What’d you think, buddy?” I asked.
Paul looked up at him. His eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree, his smile wider than the Mississippi. “That was awesome!” he said. “Again!”
I laughed louder and longer than I had since the boy was born. “There aren’t anymore fish, buddy,” I said. “But maybe next week we can go back to the pet store and get a couple more.”
“Okay!” Paul smiled. “Can I pick them next time?”
“Sure!” I said.
My wife came home shortly thereafter and we all sat down to dinner. I had gotten Paul to promise that he wouldn’t tell his mom a thing about what we’d done, and he was real good about it. Every once in a while, he’d peak over and give me a shit-eating smile, and I always gave it right back to him, glad to have my boy at long last.
After that, we had a great night, and soon it was time to turn in. I put the boys to bed in their room and then crawled in next to my wife, who was already snoring. It didn’t take long at all for me to doze off.
It was the sound of a screaming child that woke me up. I looked at the clock. “Two-thirty AM. What the fuck?”
“You take care of it,” my wife mumbled. “It’s your turn.” She rolled over. Of course it was my turn. Leave it to her to keep score.
So, I pulled myself up out of bed and shuffled over to the kids’ room. “What’s going on?” I asked as I opened the door and flicked the light on.
What I saw had me instantly awake. Danny was sat up in his bed, howling and covered in… something. Shit? No.
Blood. It seemed to be gushing from a wound in his little leg.
The same blood was smeared across Paul’s face.
“What… what the hell?” I shouted.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” Paul said. “Danny was in my territory!”
I was stunned, barely able to think over the blood and the screaming. But one thing seemed clear: maybe there was some alpha in my son after all.
Written by Jdeschene