Mark grumbled as he cast yet another line into the lake’s depths. Having lost count of his fishing attempts at maybe two hours ago, he’d begun to conclude this was just not his day. The fish weren’t biting, none of his friends could make it, the boat wouldn’t stop creaking, and his ears just pricked at the rumble of thunder in the distance. He turned his head back to witness the ominous black mass of clouds heading his way. He swore under his breath.
The young man was about to reel the line back when he caught the faint outline of the beach stretching out in the distance. It was the very same shore strip where Mark’s father had frequently taken his family for weekend trips to the beach, where his older sister would build sandcastles and his mother would prop up a beach chair and soak up the sun. His heart broke again with guilt at the memory of resting on his father’s shoulders as they watched the sunset.
“Someday, Dad, I’ll be a great fisherman like you.”
Mark spat into the water. It would never happen, just like everything else.
His mind was too entrenched in bitterness to recognize his gripped hands being pulled, and it wasn’t until they suddenly lurched over the boat that he snapped back to reality. Something had grabbed onto the line! He reeled his catch in furiously, anxious to claim his prize.
He sighed in disappointment when he recognized his catch wasn’t even over an inch long. What awaited him, though, was not a minnow, but a mysteriously dry lottery ticket that was active for this upcoming Saturday.
Mark only held the ticket for a short while before tossing it back in the lake, whipping out his rod and casting again, ignoring the further crackle of thunder. “Go fish,” he said.
A splash suddenly burst from beside the boat, and he turned to spot a graceful talking fish, who uttered only two words.
Mark woke up gasping for breath in bed, frantically scanning through the room in his discombobulated state. In his panic, he groped through the dark to find the lamp to get some light. After some frenzied, futile movements of his limbs, he regained enough composure to locate it and switch the lamp on.
The moment he saw the ticket on his nightstand, he screamed.
Frederick, his co-worker, pounded a door in frustration the next morning.
“Look, Mark, this has gone on long enough.”
Mark gazed silently at the floral pattern decorating the office walls. He wasn’t in the mood for another rant from the man who was supposed to be his best friend
“I was there with you that day. I saw your father get run over. I was there when he got buried. And I’ve watched you float around alone in that damn boat, God knows how many times since then. I don’t care how great your dad was at fishing, the point here is that you can’t fish, you can’t be your dad, and he’s not coming back.”
Mark pretended the hurt wasn’t evident on his face.
His friend sighed. “Look, Mark, I’m sorry. Just enough with the fishing and the creepy fish stories, okay? You’ve survived other crap before; I just want you to be you again. The guys miss you.”
Mark quickly grabbed his coat and said, “I’m gonna head out; it’s getting stuffy in here. Cover for me when the boss asks, okay?”
“Wait, Mark, I can’t do that-“
He was already gone.
Mark sat on the lakeshore, staring into the water as he absentmindedly drew shapes in the wet sand with a lone finger. He’d walked out with the full intention of playing hooky and setting out on his small boat to go fishing, but as soon as the desolate, empty state of the lake greeted him, he knew it was futile.
He stopped drawing to pick up a small stone. Studying it for a moment, he then skipped it across the lake’s surface. It hopped five times before sinking.
It was the number of times it took to ruin his life. When he was fifteen, his older sister ran off with her drug addict boyfriend and his family never heard from her again. He laughed it off with some alcohol and went out fishing with his dad.
When he was eighteen, his girlfriend of two years decided to sleep with some twenty-something jock and dumped him. He swore off romance forever and tried pot the next week to ease the pain, but found it made him nauseous. So he went out fishing with his dad again.
When he was twenty-one, his mother contracted a breast cancer that was discovered in a malignant deadly state, and she died in less than two weeks. He took a knife that night and traced it over his heart, but knew that his father’s had already been carved out from grief, and so he went fishing with his dad.
When he was twenty-four, someone burned down their log cabin in the woods while Mark and his father were out on a trip. The boat, still docked at the lake, was the only survivor of their family life. Mark didn’t feel like doing anything this time; he just wanted to fish.
Not even six months ago, his father was ran over during a hiking trip. He now went out fishing alone.
It was rotten luck, people said. It was rotten luck how he endured one tragedy after the other, and how the stone had skipped five times.
He was out fishing again; as usual, he was alone. He kept a languid posture, casting the line again and again without any success. The lake was utterly still and, barring his own presence, empty.
“You can’t hide from me forever, Mark.”
He froze and waited to wake up screaming in his bed. He didn’t.
“I know you can hear me, Mark. Turn around.”
No, no, that was not the voice of his father telling him to turn around.
“Mark, I can no longer watch you like this. Face me.”
Mark angrily whipped his head around and stared down the talking fish. “What do you want from me?!?” he screamed.
“That’s no way to speak to your fathe-“
“Shut up! Ever since my dad died all I ever keep doing—no, dreaming about—is just sitting out here in this godforsaken lake, fishing and finding nothing but a freaking talking fish who talks like my dad! What are you?!?”
“Are you really dreaming, Mark? Tell me the truth, now.”
Mark choked as his vision blurred, tears streaming down his face as he said, “Don’t make this any harder. I don’t even know anymore. I want to get off this lake more than anything, but it’s all I have left.”
The fish blinked and said, “Ah. So you can cry.”
“Of course I can! You should know; we’ve done it together, right in this very boat.”
The fish waded closer to the boat and said, “What do you really feel, Mark? Do you believe I am your father? Do you doubt me?”
Mark rubbed his eyes and sniffled. “I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. I don’t even know myself,” affirmed the fish. “If this were, for example, a dream, I could just be a projected consciousness of what you recognize as your father, albeit taking the form of a fish. Of course, I could be lying, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this isn’t a dream. But we’re not going to get anywhere talking about this, are we?”
Mark slinked back into his boat and said, “No, I suppose not. But what do you really want with me?”
The fish was silent for a moment before saying, “You’ve been rather down on your luck these past ten years, haven’t you? ‘Rotten luck,’ the neighbors call it? Well, why don’t you put your infamous trait to the ultimate test?”
Mark’s eyes widened as he said, “Wait, you don’t mean-“
The fish nodded. “Check your nightstand.”
Mark woke up in his bed and found the lottery ticket still sitting where he’d left it
Frederick was on his second smoke as Mark walked out of the 7-Eleven. He turned to his friend and asked, “So, how’d it go?”
Mark flashed his ticket. “It was just fifty cents.”
Frederick scoffed. “So, you’re fired, your family’s dead, you can’t fish, and now you get to live on fifty cents. What’re you gonna do now?”
Mark shrugged and said, “I dunno, leave luck to heaven? They’re taking good care of my dad. He’s a fish now, y’know.
Frederick stared at his friend for a good five seconds.
“…okay, yeah, you’re definitely not off the shrooms. Come on, I know a good clinic. We’re gonna get you fixed, buddy.”