Dayle A. Dermatis eloped properly in Gretna Green, rode off on the back of a motorcycle, and hasn’t looked back since except to smile and sigh happily. Unsurprisingly, she writes romances that are sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, sometimes spooky, and sometimes funny, but will always make you smile and sigh happily. An unabashed romantic, she lives in a historic cottage in the verdant Pacific Northwest, and whenever she can, she travels the world for inspiration and loses herself in music. This is her third appearance in Heart’s Kiss.
THE BEST CATCH
by Dayle A. Dermatis
“But, doctor, do you think he’ll live?”
The doctor turned his attention from the patient and patted my hand.
“You’re being very brave,” he whispered with a reassuring smile. I noticed that his eyes were very blue, like the ocean at sunrise.
We both turned back, peering into the tank.
“He’s weak—listless—and his scales are flaking off,” the doctor pronounced. “I’ll prescribe some medication, and I’ll check back over the next few days.” He started sorting through the items in his satchel. I thought it was quaint that he had the traditional black bag.
“This fish must be pretty important to you,” he commented as he began writing out the prescription with firm, bold strokes.
“It’s not mine. It’s David’s—my boyfriend’s. I’m taking care of the fish while he’s away.” I stared around the impossibly neat apartment, decorated in cold shades of grey, with chrome and glass accents. Did I really seem the type to live here, I wondered.
“These are pretty expensive tropical fish,” he added, looking back into the tank. David’s pride and joy, a black South American Arowanna, floated sluggishly, barely making an attempt to flap his fins, or whatever fish do. “He must really trust you,” the vet went on, probably referring to David, not the fish. “How long have you known each other?”
I saw him shoot a glance at my left hand, but he was polite enough not to ask my mother’s favorite question: “Why aren’t you engaged yet, after all this time?”
The answer was…I don’t know. David had made allusions to the idea, but something held me back, and he hadn’t pressed. My mother pressed, because she considered David a “good catch.” But it wasn’t David, or the lack of engagement, that bothered me right now.
“Stupid fish,” I muttered.
I hadn’t meant for the vet to hear, but his eyebrows darted to a higher altitude.
“You don’t like them?”
I shrugged. “They’re so…unemotional.” I struggled to explain the feelings I’d never put into words before. “I like pets that are aware of your existence, and can make that obvious. Affectionate. I love cats, but they don’t mix well with fish,” I concluded wryly.
He nodded, a lock of brown hair slipping, unruly, onto his forehead. “I agree,” he said.
I wondered if he were agreeing to a preference for emotional pets or to the fact that cats and fish didn’t mix. I didn’t ask, though, because I also found myself comparing his shaggy, carefree hair to David’s businesslike buzz.
The vet snapped his bag closed and handed me the prescription. “Put one shake of this in when you feed them.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“I’ll bill your boyfriend when he gets back,” he said with a sudden bright grin. He handed me his business card. “Dr. Chris,” it read. I smiled at the personal touch.
The next day, I eased myself into David’s apartment to discover the rare black South American Arowanna had gone belly-up in the tank. One of the other fish nudged him, but apparently decided he wasn’t food…yet.
“Oh, no!” I moaned, leaning my forehead against the cool glass. A vision of David’s wrathful face flashed before my eyes. I reach for my purse, flipped through my wallet until I found Dr. Chris’ card.
“Jefferson Veterinary Clinic,” answered a perky female voice. Why did that bother me, I wondered, asking for Dr. Chris.
“He’s out on call right now—is this an emergency?”
I stared at the Arowanna carcass, bobbing gently in the current caused by the filter bubbles. “No,” I said morosely.
I left my name and home phone number with Ms. Perky, then scooped out the unfortunate fish. Holding one hand under the net so nothing dripped on David’s plush off-white carpet, I carried the Arowanna to the bathroom and gave him an undignified flush to fishy heaven. The other fish seemed to watch me suspiciously as I tapped in their food. Murderer, their bulging eyes seemed to accuse. But how could it be murder when the poor fish didn’t even have a name?
“I almost didn’t get your message,” Dr. Chris said after I lunged for the phone and nearly shrieked a greeting. “Marlene, my receptionist, went into labor an hour ago and it was mayhem here for a while until her husband showed up to drive her to the hospital. How’s the fish?”
“The fish is dead,” I said, “and so is my relationship, unless I can find another one. Any suggestions?”
“I’m done for the day. Why don’t I pick you up and we’ll make the rounds?”
Glad for the moral support, I agreed, wondering what David would think if he learned I’d been fish-shopping with another man. Did that constitute betrayal? Probably, given that the other man had sea-blue eyes and a rakish cowlick, and wasn’t involved with his perky receptionist.
I gave him my home address and Chris—he told me I could drop the “Dr.” since this wasn’t an official visit—picked me up half an hour later. The good news was that he knew every pet store in the county. The bad news was that most of the stores had no clue where to find a rare black South American Arowanna, Finally, we found ourselves in the Hillsport Shopping Coliseum’s Pet-O-Rama, where, ironically, David had bought the first fish.
“We don’t have one in stock,” murmured the sales clerk thoughtfully, “but we can certainly order one for you. It may take some time; we don’t get many requests for them because they’re so expensive.”
“Exactly how much is this going to cost?” I asked, trying to sound confident, like it didn’t really matter.
The clerk quoted a figure higher than my weekly salary. The tanks behind the clerk’s head swam alarmingly before my eyes. “Thank you,” I squeaked, and escaped.
Chris found me in the Food Court with my head between my knees.
“Are you okay?” he asked solicitously, laying gentle fingers on my wrist and eyeing his watch. The professional contact caused an entirely unprofessional reaction in me.
“I thought you were a vet, not a people doctor,” I managed.
“Your pulse is racing,” he said, a frown creasing beneath that unruly lock of hair.
You bet it is, I thought.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I killed his stupid fish,” I moaned.
I was waiting in David’s apartment when he arrived home Sunday night.
“Welcome back,” I said, feigning brightness, raising my face for a kiss.
His lips brushed the air in the vicinity of my cheek. Like his fish, David wasn’t big on demonstrations of affection. He handed me his suitcase and went straight to the tank.
“Where’s the Arowanna?” he asked finally. For some reason, at that moment I realized why he’d never named the fish. They weren’t pets; they were investments.
“I’m afraid it died. I’m sorry,” I said.
His face wasn’t as wrathful as I feared, but I still didn’t like the quiet way he said, “Dead?”
“Dr. Chris said it was a common disease that black Arowannas get a lot, and there wasn’t any way to avoid it. The fish had most likely contracted it before you bought it. I mean, it wasn’t like anyone did anything wrong.” I realized I was babbling. I expected him to ask who Dr. Chris was and why I was on such a cozy basis with him.
“Do you have any idea how much that fish cost me?” David said.
The fish. Not me. He was still asking about the fish. He hadn’t even asked how I was, and he’d been gone over a week.
Why had it taken me this long to see? I pressed his apartment key into his palm, told him I would pay for the fish if he wished, and said goodbye.
Despite everything, when the phone rang the next morning, I grabbed it thinking it was David calling to apologize—or to find out if I’d sent an obituary for the fish to the local paper. I couldn’t quite identify the feeling that washed over me when I heard Chris’ voice instead.
“How did your boyfriend take the news?”
“Oh, swimmingly,” I said ironically. “He’s no longer my boyfriend.”
Pause. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not.” I felt a rush of freedom as I said it. “It was my choice. I guess we mixed about as well as…as oil and water.”
“Or fish and cats.”
“Something like that.” I smiled, flattered that Chris had remembered our earlier conversation.
I thanked him for his help when I went fish-hunting, and he asked if there was anything else I needed.
“Just to be alone for a while, I guess.” But as I hung up, I wasn’t sure if that was true.
I had trouble concentrating at work the next day, and came home that evening feeling unsettled. When the doorbell sounded, I didn’t even think it might be David. I didn’t know who it could be. I had hopes….
Chris. My heart did some sort of water ballet maneuver as he nervously ran his hand through his hair, making his cowlick stick up endearingly.
“I realize this is rather presumptuous, but I thought maybe you didn’t really want to be alone.” Before I could protest and invite him in, he held out a basket. A tiny butterscotch kitten mewled at me, eyes big and green and innocent.
“I’ve got all the supplies for him down in the car,” Chris went on. “I figured he could keep you company. But if you don’t want him, I can take him back…”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, he’s perfect. Thank you.” I looked down at the kitten. He was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen. I looked back up at Chris. Okay, the second sweetest. “Won’t you come in?” I said.
“I was hoping you’d ask,” he admitted. “Um, would it be inappropriate to ask if you wanted to go to dinner at a really great seafood restaurant?”
It’s a good thing he was still holding the basket, because I would have dropped it while I was laughing so hard.
The best catch, I’d learned, had nothing to do with fish.
Copyright © 1996 by Dayle A. Dermatis.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.