Hard to Swallow

By Daniel Waters, 2020 Write Now Finalist

Etheldra walked purposefully but unhurriedly up Washington Street. The University's Main Library was a pleasant, if architecturally unimaginative structure, she thought.  The red brick, right angles and imposing plate glass windows spoke of solid Midwestern values, devoid of the East Coast hubris she was accused of possessing by her jealous peers in the surgical residency. If someone swore it was a Lutheran Church, she mused, you would believe it. She scuttled up the two gently graded tiers of cement steps. She would have gone with marble or inlaid stone. Libraries were cathedrals, she believed, their contents sacred. She was not a user—she was a supplicant and so reflexively bowed her head as she approached the unadorned front entrance.

She glided through the detectors and nodded to the woman at the desk. "Miss," she called. Etheldra paused. "I just need a quick peek at what you've got under your coat."

Etheldra revealed it. She had rehearsed her answer. She waited for her cue.

"Oh, I'm really not sure we can let you bring that in here," the woman said. Her outfit was stylish but conservative, topped with a pageboy haircut. Etheldra knew that behind the desk stocking feet were nudging a pair of sensible shoes.

Etheldra nodded to the sign. "It says no food or beverages," she recited. "So unless I plan to drink the water or swallow the occupant I think it should be alright, don't you?"

The woman was clearly perplexed. "Ohhhhkay," she said, tapping what Etheldra noticed was a freshly sharpened No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil. "Is it, maybe, your emotional support animal?"

"Well, strictly speaking, it's not an animal but he does provide me with considerable emotional support. More than anyone else around here does, that's for certain. So yes, let's go with that."

Timothy, Etheldra noticed, had stopped swimming and was performing the piscine equivalent of treading water. His pectoral fins fluttered and his tail twitched almost imperceptibly, placing him in a direct line with the woman behind the desk. He appeared to be staring at her. Not exactly a mean feat, Etheldra considered, when your eyes were on either side of your head.

The woman—an engraved plastic sign indicated her name was Julia—hesitated. "I don't suppose you have one of those forms. You know, the one the veterinarian fills out. Like they do for dogs and cats?"

Etheldra smiled. "No, I'm afraid I don't," she replied. "But I guarantee you he will not bark, bite anyone or urinate on the floor. And goldfish, I believe, do not require shots."

Timothy remained almost motionless. Etheldra called this his "hummingbird strategy."

"I've just never...I mean, it's so unusual. You have to admit—"

"There's a first time for everything," Etheldra quipped. "And I'm just going to be at one of the study carrels.  He'll never be out of my sight."

"Um, yeah, then I guess it's OK," Julia said. "Maybe keep him away from the stacks and the library computers. The water—you understand."

"I have my own laptop and I don't plan on using any actual books. It's a digital world now, right?"

Julia exhaled, shrugged and bid them enter.

Etheldra gripped the bowl tightly and headed for one of the far tables. The library's interior was sleek, functional and brightly lit by overhead fluorescents. What Etheldra longed for were polished oaken tables studded with green-shaded desk lamps that delimited her sphere of concentration with an arc of ochre incandescence. She wanted to feel the air buzzing with the energy of billions of nimble neurons at work. She knew it was not to be.

Ignoring the bubble-eyed stares of barely sentient undergraduates she selected a suitable workspace, set Timothy on the small shelf above and slung her coat on the back of the chair. Once seated, she opened her laptop and waited for it to pixilate itself into life.

"So, I guess we're not going to talk about what just happened?" Timothy asked.

"I'm sorry. Did something just happen?" Etheldra replied.

"Really. That's all I provide?  Emotional support?  Seriously?  Fine. I don't know why you even bothered to bring me, then."

"I just needed to give her a reason she'd accept. What does it matter?"

Timothy turned his tail toward her. "I guess it doesn't matter."

"Hey, come on," Etheldra said. "We're out of the apartment, we're around people—that doesn't happen very often. Especially with my call schedule."

"Yes," Timothy said. "Isn't it always about your schedule? You're the important doctor and I'm not. Like that's anything new. Like I don't know that."

"I didn't come here to argue," Etheldra said. "People are staring at us."

"Let them stare, then. Glass houses and all that."

"Timothy," Etheldra said gently, "What do you want?"

"Well, you could ask me about my day. That would be a start."

"Very well, then. Tell me about your day." Etheldra leaned closer to the bowl.

"The flakes were very good this morning. I wanted to tell you that before I forgot. I like the new brand." Etheldra nodded.  "Anyway, not all that much in the way of excitement. Chilled in the castle a good part of the day. Tried to see if I could knock over one of the plastic plants—no luck there. Oh, and I had a really long conversation with the Deep Sea Diver. You know, if you can get past the interminable bubbling, he's really pretty interesting. What a life that guy's had."

Etheldra brought the bowl down and sat it directly in front of her. She peered in through its wide aperture. Timothy's body bent with the refraction. "What do you really want," she whispered. Her exhaled breath rippled the surface of the water.

"We could cuddle."

"Here?" Etheldra asked with feigned embarrassment.

"Sure," Timothy replied. "Why not here?"

><(((◦>

"Has anyone ever drowned in a library before?" Julia asked the EMT.

"I'm not sure," he replied. "But I still can't figure out how she got her head in there."


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