The Prize

by Jeanne Holtzman

Linda hur­ried home from the church bazaar car­ry­ing the gold­fish. Her brother was too busy stuff­ing his face with hot dogs and cot­ton candy to leave with her, and her best friend had to go on the Octo­pus five more times. Linda hadn't gone on the Octo­pus even once, but she felt tum­bled and whirled and spun upside down.

She wanted to run, but that might hurt the fish. She held the plas­tic bag out in front of her as steadily as she could, and every so often looked back over her shoul­der. No one was fol­low­ing her. She tripped over a crack in the side­walk, but kept her­self from falling. The fish still looked okay. A few strands of poop sank to the bot­tom of the bag, but the fins were wav­ing and the mouth was mov­ing. She'd won the fish by get­ting up on her tip­toes and lean­ing way over the rail­ing to toss the ring. Kids crowded for­ward, eager for their turns, and one nasty boy pushed right up against her. She smelled his crack­er­jacks and sweat and then felt some­thing hard thrust into her behind. She threw the ring and snapped upright. She didn't turn around. The ring cir­cled around the bot­tle. The carnie rang the bell and came over with her prize fish, and the boy was gone. She never saw him. She wouldn't know him. He might go to her school. He might live in her building.

She was almost home. The fish would need a name, but she didn't know how to tell if it was a boy or a girl. Did fish have penises? Just a few weeks before her mom had sat her down and in an unfa­mil­iar voice told her about penises and vagi­nas and sperm and eggs and babies. Sperm were tiny. But were they as tiny as germs? Could they swim through clothes? She'd seen A Sum­mer Place, and not long after a fully clothed San­dra Dee made out with Troy Don­ahue under a tree, she was hav­ing a baby. Linda hadn't got­ten her first period yet, so she was pretty sure she couldn't get preg­nant. But how long did sperm live?

Linda hoped her mom would be home when she got there, but was relieved when she found the apart­ment empty. Her mom would take one look at her and start ask­ing ques­tions. She locked the door behind her, placed the bag on the kitchen table and dragged a chair over to reach the high­est cup­board where she found an old gold­fish bowl. Later she would get col­ored gravel and a statue of an old ship. For now she rinsed out the bowl, filled it almost to the top with water, and added the gold­fish. She decided it was a boy. She named him Billy.

Billy looked smaller in the bowl. He swam over to the glass and went up and down, up and down. Linda hoped he had already eaten and wouldn't starve before she could buy him food.

She care­fully car­ried the bowl into the bath­room and put it on the van­ity where she could see it from the tub. She filled the bath­tub, took off all her clothes and got in. She won­dered if sperm swam right over to the side and were going up and down. She closed her eyes, lay back, and smelled crack­er­jacks and sweat. She felt the boy push­ing, push­ing him­self into her. Like he knew her some­how. Had found her. And she was afraid that, for a split sec­ond, she'd hes­i­tated. She hadn't pulled away. Had pushed back against him.

When Linda opened her eyes, she saw Billy ogling her from across the room with his unblink­ing black eyes.  He was just going to die anyway.

She stood and got out of the tub. She picked up the fish­bowl, held Billy over the toi­let and started to tip the bowl. Then she hes­i­tated. She crossed the room and poured Billy into the bath­tub. Linda got in, lay back, closed her eyes, and waited.