My Sister’s Aquarium by Jennifer Todhunter

"Swim at your own risk" sign nailed to post

“Swim at your own risk” (image via Flickr user k. steudel)

My sister is showing off her aquarium again, walking around in the most deficient of bikinis. She twirls around so her long hair fans out and her water-filled insides get caught up in a tornado-like twister. The fish are swept in every direction when she stops; into her fingertips, down her calves, around her neck. Everywhere except her right arm, which was amputated last year.

“Freak,” I say under my breath.

My friend, Libby, looks at me sternly. “Show her a little sympathy. It can’t have been easy growing up full of fish.”

“You’d be surprised,” I say.

The lifeguard isn’t paying any attention to the body surfers, the sunbathers, or the people swimming out past the drop. He’s bent down and pointing to a rainbowfish that’s taken up home underneath Sarah’s perfectly developed left breast. She laughs when he tickles her tank.

“Ugh,” I say.

Libby looks at me over her sunglasses. “Why’d you bring her to the beach if you can’t stand the attention she gets?”

“Because her pH is still fucked and nobody can figure out how to fix it.”

“And?”

“And Mum thinks I should spend more time with her before she dies.”

“Oh,” Libby whispers. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Because it’s nobody’s business but Sarah’s.”

A reef shark snakes around Sarah’s pelvis, skirting back and forth, looking for food. It’s the same shark that caused her problems last winter when she dabbled in vegetarianism. Almost ate all her other fish, totally messing with her symbiosis. Mum finally forced Sarah to eat a plate of fresh oysters and an eight-ounce steak with her rice and beans and has dictated her diet and feeding times ever since.

Sarah’s ecosystem is complicated, Mum says to her friends when she declines another invite to a dinner party or a night at the theatre. I can’t leave her alone.

It’s why I offer to take Sarah to places like the beach. To give Mum a bit of a break.

I open the enormous cooler at the end of my towel and start to lay out Sarah’s lunch on a paper plate: a tin of tuna fish, a bit of seaweed salad, a kelp smoothie that’s supposed to help balance her pH, although there’s no indication it works.

“That’s not what we’re eating, is it?” Libby asks.

I wrinkle my nose. “Of course not.”

Sarah sinks into the sand next to us, her transparent frame sparkling in the sunlight. “Thanks, sis,” she says, gorging herself on the food. “I was starving.”

The food swirls around inside her system, the fish chomp on chunks as they drop into the water. A speckled butterflyfish scoops a piece of tuna right from the shark’s mouth and dives into the safety of Sarah’s sternum. Watching her feed still amazes me.

“Want to go swimming when I’m done?” she asks.

I shake my head. “Mum says you’re not meant to go swimming anymore. That it can mess with your water temperature.”

“But I like the way the waves make me feel. Everything goes quiet inside when I’m in the water.”

For the countless time, I wish I understood more about Sarah’s aquarium.

“Please?” she says. “Mum never lets me do anything anymore.”

We leave our stuff with Libby, walk through the sand toward the ocean. There’s a quiet hiss when Sarah wades in, like her glass is cooling.

“Are you sure about this?” I ask.

She nods. “You taught me how to swim when I was five, remember?”

“That was when you weren’t so sick,” I say, feeling nervous. “And still had both arms.”

I think back to when Mum first told me Sarah’s pH was fucked. To when they thought they could fix things by removing the arm with the piece of rancid driftwood lodged in its fingers.

She pretends to scowl. “You promised you wouldn’t worry about me anymore.”

All I do is worry, I want to say.

We wander out until the water laps at our knees. She reaches down and splashes me, shrieking with laughter when I spray her back. The first crack starts along her left shin. It quickly spreads to five inches long, a thin stream leaking out into the ocean.

“Shit, Sarah, we’ve got to get out of here!”

I grab her elbow where a school of yellow angelfish have congregated. She pulls away. Walks in further.

The second split runs up her back.

“What are you doing? You’re breaking!”

“I was broken a long time ago,” she says before diving under.

Jennifer Todhunter is a number nerd by day, word fiddler at night. She enjoys dark, salty chocolate and running top speed in the other direction. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.