Gunther whistled as he strolled into his local fish store, his white plastic bucket swinging past his knees. He loved this place---Fish Dreams, they called it. So much better than any of the big chain pet stores.
With a hop in his step, he walked straight up to the young man behind the counter. He seemed barely older than a boy---to guess he was twenty-one seemed generous. The golden hair he had tied into a bun made him seem a little bit sissy to Gunther, but to each their own. The rest of him was all angles: high cheeks, square jaw, broad shoulders. Overall, not a bad specimen of youthful manhood.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the boy said with a cheery smile. “How can I help you today?”
“Hey there,” Gunther said in his usual, friendly known-you-all-my-life manner. “What’s your name, boy?” He raised his sunglasses to get a better look at the lad.
“Josh, sir,” said the boy.
“Josh,” Gunther repeated. “You new here?”
Josh smiled. “Very,” he said. “Just hours into my first day.”
“Well!” Gunther held out his hand and gave Josh’s a firm shake. “Welcome to your new workplace, Josh. We’re going to get to know each other real well. I’m what you might call a ‘frequent flier.’”
“Oh yeah?” Josh maintained his pleasantness, but it was clear to Gunther that he was running out of things to say.
“Absolutely,” Gunther answered. “In fact, you’re just about to learn what my ‘usual’ is.” He plunked the bucket onto the counter. “I’d like you to fill her up as much as you can with your cheapest feeders.”
“Oh,” Josh said, his eyes lighting up. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to upgrade to the better ones? They’re only fifty cents more and---”
Gunther’s laugh cut the boy off. “Look at you,” he said. “Doing what they taught you, trying to upsell me.” He laughed again as he watched Josh’s face redden. “It’s a good try,” Gunther continued, “but I’ve been doing this a long time and I know exactly what my girl likes to eat.”
“Of course,” Josh said.
Together, they made their way through the store toward the racking system at the back, chatting away as they went.
“What kind of fish do you have?” Josh asked.
“Oh, she’s hard to describe,” Gunther said. “I guess you could say she’s a hybrid. Made her myself.”
“Cool. Do you have any pictures?”
“Nope,” said Gunther. He rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a twenty-year-old flip phone. “I’m a little behind when it comes to fancy technology, but occasionally, I put videos of her on the internets. You might even have seen a few depending on which hobby forums you frequent.”
“Cool,” Josh repeated. “What’s her name?”
“Well, hell, son,” Gunther said with a laugh. “To tell you the truth, I don’t much believe in giving them names. It’s not like they’re a dog you take for a walk or a person you can talk to. You know what I mean?”
“Oh, sure,” Josh said.
At last, they reached their destination. Before them stood tank upon tank, filled nearly to bursting with shimmering schools of the doomed.
“These ones?” Josh asked, pointing to the bottommost tank. Compared to the golds and silvers in the other tanks, the fish in this one were a weak, sickly gray. Some darted around frantically while others seemed to struggle to the top, nearly making it before sinking back down again. The tank’s bare bottom was littered with no fewer than ten dead fish.
“Those are the ones,” Gunther confirmed. “Fill ‘er up, would you? And don’t skip the dead ones. She seems to like those the best.”
Josh shrugged and did as Gunther asked, filling his bucket with as much as it would hold. The young man even offered to lug it back to the front counter for him, a courtesy Gunther eagerly accepted.
The trek back was hard on the boy, but Gunther seemed to find the whole situation very amusing. Occasionally, he slapped Josh on the back and gave trite words of encouragement. These came in between sharp, raspy peels of laughter.
At last, the fish were all paid for and Gunther was about to leave the store.
“Sir,” Josh said suddenly.
“Yes?” Gunther said, turning back to face him.
“I don’t know if this is appropriate,” the boy said, “but I’m really into hybrids. Could I give you my email address so maybe you can… show her to me?”
Gunther was silent for a moment, but let a smile creep across his lips. “I don’t see why not,” he said at last. Josh hurriedly wrote his email address on the back of Gunther’s receipt.
“You know,” Gunther said, “I’ve been thinking it’s getting time to see if she’ll breed for me. I’ve been sort of half-assed searching for the right mate.”
“Oh, really?” Josh’s eyes lit up. “Well, once I see her, maybe I could give you some recommendations.”
Gunther nodded. “Oh, no doubt. I’ll see you again real soon about that. Don’t you worry.”
Gunther hopped in his truck and drove straight home. His girl was hungry and he had what she needed. Once there, he picked up the bucket with a strength it seemed a man his age ought not to have, and hefted it into his house through a side entrance. Down the set of stone steps he went, the air swirling around him getting colder and wetter with every step. Finally, he reached the bottom and called into the cavernous basement room, “Daddy’s home!”
Immediately inside the room was a video camera, flanked by a pair of standing lights. Gunther knew the setup was old fashioned, but none of his faithful followers seemed to mind. It was the content they cared about, and he was more than happy to provide.
Beyond the camera was a massive fish tank. He’d had it custom built, capable of holding two thousand gallons, but there was no water inside. Piss, shit, and tears, perhaps, but he never let them pile up. He had to keep things clean for the viewers.
Gunther flipped a switch and the lights snapped to life. The fish tank’s sole inhabitant stirred as if she were startled. Gunther smiled. He loved the way her flesh jiggled when she moved suddenly.
She was a human female, probably around thirty, though Gunther had forgotten exactly when he bred her. She was fat, pink, and red all over with scraggles of what would be blonde hair. She’d inherited that from the woman he used to make her. Her face, or at least what he could see of it through the folds of fat, was all him.
She made her usual gurgling whine as she dragged herself toward the front of the tank. Her legs trailed uselessly behind her, never having been used. Reaching the front, she wailed at Gunther, and gnashed her rotten, broken teeth. Such displays were her only form of communication. Gunther was grateful. It meant all conversations went exactly his way.
“Hey there, baby,” Gunther said. “I’ll bet you’re real hungry.”
She whined more vehemently and jiggled all over, as if “hungry” was a word she recognized.
Gunther laughed. “All right, all right. Hold your horses.”
He pulled over a stool and stood on it. As soon as he opened the tank’s lid, the woman reached a meaty hand up to try and grab him. He quickly slapped it down, eliciting more whines and groans.
“Down! Down, you greedy bitch!” Gunther snapped. The woman complied. Stupid as she was, Gunther knew she was fully aware of what disobedience would get her.
He hoisted the bucket of feeder fish up to the edge of the tank and tipped it in. A slurry of fish and water splashed all over the woman. At first, she squinted and shielded her eyes, but soon began to grab at the little morsels she’d been given. By the handful, she shoved living and dead fish into her mouth and mashed them about with what teeth she had left. She fell quiet as she ate. Only the sounds of squishing and slurping filled the room.
Gunther smiled. “That’s right,” he said. “Eat up. You’ll need your strength. Daddy went out and found you something special today. You know what he found you? Huh? A mate! That’s right! We’re going to try and get you to make a whole mess of little babies.”
He laughed as he closed the lid and climbed down.
“About time, too,” he said to himself. “The community’s been begging for ages. I’m going to make me a fortune!”