“Are you familiar with the little boy that cried wolf?” I asked him as I walked downstairs to calm the echoing cries of the unprovoked.
“You told me before,” answered my 5-year-old son. “You won’t help me when I’m really hurt.”
“That,” I quickly replied, “is not the point of the story. I will always help you, but if you continue to cry over nothing I may not respond appropriately when you actually need me. I’ll think you’re crying about something you shouldn’t cry about, like right now. What’s the problem?”
“I can’t open Gold Leader’s tank.” He pointed at Gold Leader, who was swimming happily in the plastic tank that was the only home he had ever known. Gold Leader, the goldfish, not his Star Wars namesake, was a prize awarded us at the county fair. My son won him in what appeared to be a rigged test of skill and wit. Now the fish lived on a kitchen counter in our box-filled house, just one more thing that needed to be unpacked and placed accordingly. To my son he was nothing short of glorious. Even his older brother found Gold Leader to be quite impressive. I managed to conceal my enthusiasm.
“Why do you want to take the lid off his tank?” I asked. The lid was also plastic and filled with holes that allowed air to pass, and, this is just a theory, to protect those in the tank from those outside of it.
“The man at the fair said to change his water every day,” answered the responsible pet owner. “I need the lid open so I can put him in another bowl of water and clean the tank.”
I noted the aforementioned other bowl of water already prepared, and couldn’t help but be impressed. He was taking his job seriously, and having fun while doing it.
“Which man?” I asked.
“I don’t know his name, but I remember what his head looked like.”
“His head? What am I, a sketch artist?”
“His head was a circle,” said the boy.
“Great,” I replied. “That narrows it down.”
I helped him open the lid on Gold Leader’s tank, then watched as my son reached in and grabbed the fish like a gentle bear over shores of still water. He released it in the other bowl, cleaned the tank and then reversed the transition. It went off without a hitch.
“I thought the man at the fair said to mix clean water in with the dirty,” said the older boy as he entered the kitchen for a better look at the action.
“Which man?” I asked.
“The guy that ran the game. The one with the round head.”
“Oh,” I replied, wondering how I missed such a perfectly shaped noggin. “I’m sure Gold Leader will be fine. Your brother did a great job.”
The boys went outside to play and I went back upstairs to my office. It wasn’t twenty minutes before I heard my youngest crying in the yard. I glanced out the window and deemed his need legit.
He had fallen and cut his lip. He had blood on his cheeks and chin. I carried him into the house and placed him on the counter, wet a clean towel and got down to the business of accidents, injuries, and tender loving care. His voice softened, his tears dried, and his gaze drifted around the kitchen before falling to the fish tank by his side. The fish tank where Gold Leader now floated dead.
The older brother hugged the younger and tried to comfort him despite his own obvious sadness. The moment was tender and lingered upon the cusp of forever. Then they parted ways. The older walked outside and sat on a sun-kissed rock to stare across the world and ponder it. The younger laid in his bed and mumbled words of loss, missing, and the best pet ever.
He continued, on and off, for the better part of the afternoon. The echoes carried through the house, up the stairs and into my office, where they settled heavily on my shoulders. They were not the blaring words of a boy crying wolf, but rather the hushed whispers, ripe with pain, of a boy crying fish. The difference was sharp and angry. It was the sound of sudden loneliness.
I checked on him often, and I was there every time he needed me.