Thursday, February 25, 2010

Friday Flash Fiction: Always a Bridesmaid, Part V

After giving Tiffany a whole section two weeks ago, I felt it was time to return to Toby's part of the adventure. Those of you familiar with obscure (e.g., non-Protestant) apocryphal Bible literature may be starting to get an inkling as to what story this is VERY loosely based on. It's been a long, strange week, so I let my own weirdness run wild here. To read the first four parts, check out the More Fiction section on my web site. For more great short fiction, search the #fridayflash hashtag on twitter.

V. Catfishy

Toby followed Raphe's low-slung black Camaro for what felt like miles. The rain had softened to mist and then fog, and he couldn't even see the headlights on the other side of the highway. If there were any. His headlights worked, and that was all that mattered. So did Raphe's taillights, two glowing red orbs about twenty feet ahead.

He felt himself going up an incline and saw that they were on the exit. How had he not noticed? Had he been so entranced with the dance of headlight and taillight that he had gone into a fog of his own? He followed the Camaro to a glowing spot in the fog, which ended up being Gabriel's Truck Stop, brightly lit but empty.

"Are they open?" Toby asked after pulling into a parking spot by the front window.

"He is." Raphael stretched, and water beaded off his black leather jacket. In spite of having been out in the cold and rain like Toby, the waves in his short hair hadn't moved.

"He?" Toby followed Raphe to the door, which swung inward with a tinkle of the jingle bells on a string tied to the handle. The place didn't look open – set up like a diner, the room they had entered was lit by the bright light coming from the kithcen.

"Gabriel. He runs this place. Keeps it word of mouth only. That's why you didn't see any advertising on the highway."

"Yep, you never know what's running around out there." Gabriel, a big guy with curly light brown hair and a dimple in his chin, appeared from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel. He flipped a switch, and Toby had to squint against the sudden light.

"Gabe, this is Toby. Found him just after the last exit with a dead battery." Raphe inclined his head.

Gabriel's eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "Did you, now?" He shook Toby's hand. "Rough night to have car trouble. Or was that truck trouble?"

"Truck," said Toby. "My dad's."

"Where ya headed?" Gabriel motioned for them to take stools at the counter and pushed laminated menus at them. "Special's bearded catfish. Just swam in today."

"Going to Georgia. My cousin's getting married. Mom's sending cookies."

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. "Couldn't you have mailed them?"

Toby felt the back of his neck grow hot. "Yeah. So tell me about the catfish."

Gabe grinned. "I guarantee they're like nothin' you've ever seen. Big, meaty, but with extra whiskers. Some say it helps them be extra perceptive, but it didn't help these guys. I've got 'em in a tank in the back. Wanna see?"

"Sure." If it would keep them off the subject of why he was escorting cookies across the country instead of mailing them, Toby would look at Gabriel's Aunt Edna's knee warts. He followed Gabriel into the spotless kitchen to the back, where a large fish tank stood against the back wall. Only one fish swam in it.

"Where are the rest of them?"

Gabriel shrugged. "Specials run out. This one seemed to be smarter than the rest. I'll leave you for a minute, get started on Raphe's usual, and let you think about it."

Toby bent over and looked through the thick glass at the fish that swam around inside. Sure enough, in addition to its feelers, it had whiskers running along the bottom of its chin and a little way down its ventral side, almost like a thick beard and chest hair.

"A fish with chest hair," Toby muttered to himself. He hoped Gabriel made strong coffee – he'd need it.

"More manly than you'll ever be," a voice said. Toby looked around.

"Who was that?"

"Yeah, yeah, you heard me." Toby looked at the tank, where the voice seemed to be coming from. The fish hovered in the water. Toby bent again so he was eye level with it.

"Okay, Raphe," he said. "Joke time is over."

The fish rolled over and gave Toby a "stupid human" look.

"It's a joke, right?" Toby's voice cracked, but he didn't care. This evening had now reached its pinnacle of weirdness, and he was ready to go. He straightened up and turned away from the tank.

"Aw, man, you're not gonna eat me, are you?" It was the voice again, behind him.

Toby turned back around. "I am not talking to a fish."

The catfish's mouth seemed to move more frequently than its gills, and for a second, Toby was dizzy. "Looks to me like you are, buddy."

Okay, it was the fish. Why was that so hard to believe?

"Because it's a freaking talking fish!" Toby balled his hands into fists. "Do not lose control, do not lose control."

"You okay back there?" asked Gabriel. He peered around a set of wire shelves that held large cans of tomatoes, bags of flour, and huge bottles of olive oil.

"I… I think so." The room spun for a moment, and he stumbled. He reached out to grab for support, and his fingers met the cool, slick surface of the tank. He jerked away and tumbled on to the floor.

"Looks to me like you need somethin' to eat." Gabriel helped him up. "Give me two shakes, and I'll get that fish fried up for you."

"No!" Toby caught his breath. "No, that's okay, I'd rather have a burger."

"Suit yourself." Gabriel helped Toby out to the stool, where Raphe and a cup of coffee waited for him. His head didn't stop spinning until he'd finished his burger and fries.

"You look tired," Gabriel said. "Maybe you should stay the night. I've got rooms in the back for the truckers."

Toby nodded. He'd been talking to a fish, after all. "I think I'd better do that." Gabriel gave him a key and room number. Toby didn't see the look that the other two men exchanged after he walked out to his truck to get the duffel bag with his change of clothes.


Kil Conor said...

Strange we both had a sort of fish. Camaros are bitchin. Great flash.

Sulci Collective said...

See, this is exactly why I don't eat fish! I was once on a boat when the rest of the men went fishing. I couldn't even look. A talking fish would send me off the deep end! Nice touch.

Marc Nash

Marisa Birns said...

Ooh. Enjoyed the weirdness of Toby's experience, and the humor.

A talking fish with whiskers and chest hair! Heh.

You have me intrigued to read more.

mazzz in Leeds said...

Curiouser and curiouser!
I do like the talking fish, I'm glad Toby went for the burger :-)

Linda said...

Bearded catfish, oh my. Ever seen that fake fish mounted to a board that sings, "Don't worry, be happy" when you press a little red button? THAT fish used to freak me out.

And it's Friday night, which means it must be fish for dinner. Super installment.

What's so special about them cookies? Peace, Lidna

Eric J. Krause said...

So if you see a fish with chest hair, don't eat it. Good lesson. ;-)
I enjoyed reading this installment.