“So, why no fish?”

“They’re too noisy,” Hugo quipped. He always had a smart answer that was no answer. “Have you seen enough? I’m getting hungry.”

“Just a minute. I want to know all about your…” 

(What exactly would you call this, anyway?)

“…career path.” 

She meandered through the aisles of custom-made tanks, some sitting on shelves, some deep enough to reach the floor. Her gaze lingered well into the dusty forgotten corners of the unimposing little shop called HUGO’S CUSTOM AQUARIA.

“They’re just aquariums. I promise you, this is as exciting as it gets,” Hugo said, looking at his phone.

“That’s a BIG one!” She exclaimed. The giant tank hidden in the furthest corner of the shop had to be at least 15 feet tall. It almost touched the ceiling.

“Oh yeah, that’s been there for a while.” Hugo was getting hungry.

“Who would buy such a big fish tank? How big are these fish?” She mused as she reached to touch the dusty glass. 

“You never know” Hugo shrugged. He had been so oddly distant lately. She wanted to know why.

She peered through the dirty glass. Like the other aquariums, it was empty too. No water. No fish. Just Hugo’s secrets and conversational skills.

“This tank reminds me of the one they used to have in those old magic shows,” she said, disregarding Hugo’s lack of audience participation. “Did you ever go? They had one near the pier one summer when I was a kid. This woman who they called The Amazing Wanda (or maybe it was The Amazing Wendy) got put into handcuffs and then they locked her in the tank and she held her breath underwater until she could free herself.”

It was one of her fondest memories from when her parents were still alive.

“My parents let me stay up until sunrise that night. We walked around the town eating ice-cream and going into every shop, every bar. I was excited because they never brought me into bars because I was only 10 or 11 but they were the only places left open so late, we watched everything close. The whole town was asleep except for us. We counted 13 stray cats.”

“Speaking of closing, we’d better hurry if we’re going to make dinner,” said Hugo, looking up from his phone. 

A disappointing response. Should she be disappointed? Were they boyfriend and girlfriend now? She wasn’t sure. Should she say anything? Was that the thing to do?

“I think The Amazing Wendy Theatre has been replaced by a Beach Blanket Hut now,” she said instead.

They locked up HUGO’S CUSTOM AQUARIA and walked out into the early evening.

“How long did she hold her breath?” Hugo asked without warning.

“I’m not sure.” 

She thought about it, but couldn’t remember. She remembered the big timer numbers rolling and rolling. Maybe it was 10 minutes? “I don’t remember. I just remember what happened afterward.”

They walked past the pier to get to the dinner place. There was indeed a Beach Blanket Hut in the place of the old Amazing Wendy Theatre.

As they small-talked their way through the night, she started to feel like she didn’t now anything about Hugo. Why didn’t he ever talk about himself? About his stupid fish-less aquariums (or was it aquaria?) or why he chose to live in this weird ghost town for tourists?

He was making her incredibly sad and anxious, and she had no idea why. So what if she barely knew him? He was supposed to be a lighthearted fling, anyway. 

But as they walked past the Beach Blanket Hut again after dinner, she was suddenly gripped by a distinct feeling like someone wasn’t being completely honest with her. 

Was it Hugo and his showroom of lifeless aquaria?

Or the fact that she couldn’t remember the Amazing Wendy emerging from the tank or taking a bow or being met with thunderous applause that night.

She remembered the Amazing Wendy’s seemingly lifeless body floating in the tank. 

She remembered screaming and shouting from behind the stage. 

She remembered large men rushing the tank wielding axes.

She remembered her parents telling her it was all part of the show as they were being rushed out of the magic theatre with the rest of the panicked and confused crowd. 

She remembered her parents not answering her questions and buying her ice-cream and candy instead, counting cats and not wanting to return to their beach house rental for the night.

A crow called out into the night and she knew it was time to say goodnight to Hugo.

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Image by Martin Str from Pixabay