Julie Hansen pulled into the parking lot of Wet ‘n Woolly Pets. There were actually more wet than woolly pets with a sprinkling of birds and reptiles for variety. Julie studied the aquariums while she waited to speak with Linda Case, the manager of the wet section of the store. She noted with satisfaction that there were no angelfish. In fact the stock was pretty sparse. They had a lot of room.
After her customers left, Linda greeted Julie. “Have you got any more angels for me?”
“Do I ever! Gold marble, gold blushing, zebra, silvers, and my first leopards are ready.”
“Great. I’ve been waiting for those. Did they turn out as well as their parents?”
“I think so. Your customers are going to love them. How many do you need? A hundred? Twenty of each?”
“I wish,” Linda said with a scowl.
“But you have a lot of room. Did you just place a large order?”
“No. We’re supposed to stock lightly until the store is sold. I’ll only be able to take ten of each. No. Make that twenty leopards. Those are different.”
“The store is being sold?”
“The Martins are retiring, and they want to move to Arizona. I wish I could buy it.” Linda looked up at Julie and grinned. “You could. It sounds like you already have a store and a half at your house with the guinea pigs, hamsters, and angels.”
“Yeah. Right in the middle of tax season. I have some hamsters ready also, and Bertie looks like she’s going to have a few pigs any day now.” They walked toward the small pets.
Linda looked around. “Guess you can bring in the hamsters. Sue’s not here, but I think she needs them.”
“Okay. I’ve got to run then. I have to be back to the office by six.” And she’d probably be there until midnight.
Julie rushed outside right into someone. The box he carried slipped and ripped, spilling plastic bags of fish onto the concrete. “Oh, no,” Julie cried. She kneeled down to help retrieve the bags and study the fish inside. Blue with long flowing fins — betta splendens. “How ya doin’ baby?” she asked softly. “Sorry for the shake up.”
The small betta stared at her and wiggled his body in a greeting.
She smiled. “You’re fine. How about your friend?” She picked up a second bag. “You’re okay, too.”
The man set down the torn box and lifted the two other victims. “This one is not.” He held up a bag with a Betta that floated at a forty-five degree angle, unmoving except for his gills.
“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Let me pay for him.”
“It’s not the money,” he snapped. His blue eyes seemed to snap also.
“I… I’m sorry. Look, he’s still alive. Maybe he’ll recover. Let me try.”
“You?” He shook his head, gathering the fish together. His short, light-brown hair was longer in front, hanging into his eyes. He swiped at it impatiently and then lifted the box.
“Yes. Please, let me try. How much?”
He ignored her.
He shook his head and reached for the door. “Five bucks.”
“Five! They don’t even sell them here for more than three fifty.”
He brushed past her into the store.
“But….” She should just leave. The jerk. Then she regretted her temper. Linda didn’t have time for that fish. Of course, neither did she, but it was her fault. The next few hours might be critical. Julie took a five dollar bill from her purse and went back inside. The man was at the counter with Linda. Julie held out the five to him.
He looked up from his fish in surprise. “You’re back?”
“I want the blue betta.”
Linda laughed. “Ken breeds all we need, Julie. If you’re looking to expand, why don’t you try some Cory cats?”
“I have a few,” Julie said evenly, still holding out the five. “They haven’t spawned yet.”
“They’re schooling fish. You should have more than two,” Ken said.
“I have eight. Where is the betta?” she asked more impatiently than she wished she sounded. She needed to get home, bag those fish, and box the hamsters to bring back.
“In what? A five gallon?”
He was looking for a fight, and if she had more time Julie would have been tempted to prove to him that she knew what she was doing. He finally lifted the bag and handed it to her, taking her money.
Julie grabbed the bag and went to her car, not taking time to look at the betta until she was seated inside.
He was looking a little better, but he was still quiet on the bottom of the bag with his fins clamped close to his body. “Hang on there. I have a nice little hospital tank set up for you.” Part of his problem was that he was cold. Julie set him on the seat beside her, turning the car heater on full blast.
As she drove home, she thought about the breeder — Ken. She knew she’d seen him before, but couldn’t remember where. Had she done his taxes, or had she just seen him at the pet store before? She’d never been good with faces, and he probably just looked similar to someone else.
Uncle Cal’s brown pickup was parked in front of the house. He was her father’s oldest brother, and he resembled her father in looks, but not in attitude. His visits always made her miss her father more. She guessed he had just stopped to say “hi” to her grandmother on his way home.
Julie slipped into the side door and went down to the small basement where most of her fish were. There was little room to walk between the Rubbermaid containers with heaters and small filters, set up quickly to accommodate so many unexpected young. All her mated pairs had spawned during the holidays, and she had decided to raise as many as possible.
Julie made it to the hospital tank. It had twenty marble babies in it. She floated the betta’s bag in the water. Then she bagged ten of the gold marble angels and moved the rest, adding a little salt to the hospital tank as a general tonic. The salt would be dissolved by the time the betta would be acclimated to the water temperature. “There you go, Baby Blue. I’ll be back in a few to let you out.”
Julie went to her large bags and began filling them with water for the fish to be sold. She readied the silvers, zebras, and gold blushings. The leopards were upstairs. She took her bags, net, and other equipment up the steps. She almost entered the kitchen when her uncle’s voice reached her.
“But Mom, this is ridiculous. There’s fish everywhere. It’s crazy. And then what about those rodents. You’re just going to have to put your foot down. It’s your house.”
Her grandmother’s voice was small, and Julie had to strain to hear her response. She expected that she would stick up for her. She always did. “It has gotten out of hand,” she said.
“Out of hand? I could barely get to the furnace to relight the pilot without falling all over the things. What are we going to do for the family reunion this year? It was bad enough last year, and now she’s even got fish on the pool table. She has to get them all out before the reunion.”
“Maybe not all,” Grandmother said.
“And where will you draw the line, Mom? If you can’t tell her, I will. Why hasn’t Katie said anything?” Cal asked, referring to Julie’s mother.
“They’ve both been busy. You know how it is at tax season.”
“You’re not taking care of this zoo?”
“No. Julie takes care of her pets.”
“But if she’s spending all the time on them, she certainly doesn’t have time to help you, and I thought that was the whole reason that Katie and Julie are still living here.”
“Cal, please,” Grandmother pleaded.
“They’re not helping you, are they? They’re not even here to fix dinner for you.”
“It’s tax season. Besides, I like to cook.”
“Mom, you are not their maid. I’m going to have a talk with Katie. These fish have to go before June.”
Grandmother’s voice was resigned. “Let her keep the one tank in the living room.”
“There’s five in there.”
Grandmother was silent.
When Uncle Cal spoke again, he was quieter. “I’ll talk to Katie, but I should get home now, or I’ll miss dinner.”
Julie went back downstairs. She wasn’t sure how long it’d been since she began floating Baby Blue, but she released him into the tank. He looked around enough to know he was alone and then rested against a plant. She was pretty sure he’d make it. She sat on the floor to watch him, as she thought about her situation.
Her mother had already complained about the fish – and hamsters and guinea pigs. “Oh, Lord, what should I do? You know I love these little creatures you’ve created. There’s so much beauty. Just look at little Baby Blue. All iridescent and shiny. Maybe I have gone overboard, but all that’s left are black and white forms and monitors to stare at. I wish I didn’t have to go back to work at all. Just two more weeks, Lord. Help me get through the next two weeks. I can’t think about anything until after the fifteenth.”
Julie forced herself off the floor and up the steps. She grabbed the equipment she had left by the kitchen door and then went through to the dining room. Her uncle was gone, and her grandmother sat at the dining room table eating alone.
“Oh, Julie. I didn’t realize you’d be home for dinner.” She stood. “Let me get you something.”
“Don’t worry about me, Grandma. Please, finish your own meal. I don’t have time to eat anyway.”
She didn’t sit down. “It’s no trouble, really. I worry about you so much, you know.”
“Please don’t. I’ll get something on my way back to the office. I’ve just stopped home to take some of these babies to the pet store. I’ll be able to take all these.” She waved a hand to the container on the floor. There were twenty-five leopard angels in it, but it would be easier to give the other five to Linda than to move them right now. She bagged the fish, dumping the rest of the water and taking the container downstairs to wash later.
Grabbing a box, she went upstairs to the hamsters, also in the dining room. She put all the young ones in the box, and then moved the cage with the parents into her room. Julie moved all the fish and hamsters to the car. On her last trip she said, “Don’t worry, Grandma. I have to work late tonight.”
“Make sure you eat.”
“Make sure your mother eats.”
“Sure, Grandma,” Julie reassured her, although she knew she didn’t have to worry about that. Her mother would eat with Thomas, the new accountant she’d hired in January. She had been eating with him a lot. Julie thought he was a little young for her, but then maybe she was reading too much into the dinners. They always invited her along, although many times she had to refuse, either because dinner was the only time she had to care for her pets, or because someone needed to stay at the office. But her mother had been a widow for two and a half years. She couldn’t expect her to remain alone forever. Although Julie just couldn’t imagine Thomas replacing her father. No one could.
Julie arrived at “Wet ‘n Woolly” and took her fish and hamsters inside. Linda set the bags in the tanks she had prepared. As she worked, Julie studied the new bettas in separate barracks in the front of several tanks.
“How’s your betta?” Linda asked. “Ken told me what happened. He didn’t realize you were a breeder. I set him straight. Now he just thinks you’re a klutz.”
“Little Baby Blue seemed to be doing fine when I left. If he’s going to die, he’ll probably do it before I get home tonight.”
“I told Ken you’d save him. He didn’t seem to believe me. Is accounting really worth it?”
Julie turned from the tank, surprised at the direction Linda had taken. “It pays well. Better than raising fish.” She turned back to study the bettas. Ken certainly had raised some nice ones. He’d probably been rude only because he cared for his small charges. “I wish I could stick with fish instead, though,” she admitted.
Julie almost jumped at the excitement in Linda’s voice.
“Buy this store. You know all the paperwork, and me and Sue have been practically running the floor for the last few years.” Linda took her arm, dragging Julie toward the back. “If you buy it, you wouldn’t fire me, would you? You’d keep the store as it is, and look….” Linda took Julie through a curtained off doorway into a large room lined with empty aquariums. “Look at all this room. You can breed all kinds of stuff back here.”
Julie laughed. “Linda, what makes you think I have money for something like this.”
Linda sobered. “You don’t? I thought CPA’s…. Doesn’t your mom own the firm?”
Her mother and father had together, and now it was all her mother’s. And it would be hers someday, her mother said. “Yeah, but that’s her money, not mine.” Julie looked at all the equipment sitting idle. “I’ve got a little money, but….” Julie shook her head. “I’ll talk to Mom.”
There had never been any doubt that Julie would follow her mother and father into the family business even before her father had died. As the only child there was no one else. But oh how Julie longed to fill those tanks. She’d even be able to try a salt tank — maybe even a reef. She went back into the sales fish room. She noticed a new tank of light blue dwarf gouramis. “Were these here earlier?”
“Ken brought them. He raises them and mbunas along with the bettas.” Mbuna’s — another small, aggressive fish. She wondered if he raised the gold ones with the black and white horizontal strips or the black ones with the light blue vertical strips. Maybe he raised both.
“I guess his house must look like mine.”
Linda laughed. “You need this place.”
“I know.” Julie looked around one more time. “I need to look at their books, and I have to know what they’re asking before I can make any decision.” Or even approach her mother about it.
“This is so great. I’ll call the Martins and see when they can make an appointment.”
“Appointment. Oh no.” Julie glanced at her watch. “I’m late.” She quickly pulled out her card. “Here. They can call me. I’ll be in the office by nine tomorrow.” She didn’t wait for a reply, rushing to her car.
She was over ten minutes later getting back to the office than she’d promised. Several clients sat in the waiting room. “Oh, Julie,” Bethany, the secretary, said quietly. “I’m so glad you’re back. Your mom and Thomas left early for dinner, and the Snyders have been waiting almost half an hour.”
Julie hid her frustration. “No one else is here?”
“No. It’s Mike’s early day; Darlene’s husband….”
“Later,” Julie said under her breath as the Snyder’s approached. Putting on a smile she apologized and led them back to her office. Julie placated the Snyder’s by showing them their tax return. They would get back over $500 more than they expected. She was glad they hadn’t had to pay in.
Afterward Julie thought about the situation. She’d have to make sure she scheduled other people aside from her mother and Thomas for the evening during the next two weeks. Her mother apparently hadn’t thought through the consequences if she went to dinner with the only other accountant working. Julie made a note to talk to her mother about getting Bethany more training. If Bethany took the tax class next year, she would be able to explain and work with the more common tax returns. She had been with them several years, and they had always been able to count on her.
Julie saw her last client at eight-thirty and then concentrated on the paperwork. A half hour later her mother came into her office. “Julie, we have to talk about this.”
Julie looked away from the computer monitor. “About what?”
“Your uncle called me in the middle of an appointment and chewed my ear off about your pets. But he’s right. I’ve told you this before. You have to get rid of all those fish and hamsters.”
Julie sighed. “And take them where?”
“The pet shop or something.”
“Mom, I just took sixty-five fish and all the baby hamsters from the dining room in today. Uncle Cal should mind his own business.” Julie turned back to her computer.
“You can’t do both, Julie.”
“It’s only two more weeks.”
“You must give up this little hobby and concentrate on your career and your family.”
Julie turned back to her. “Family?”
“Well, you want to get married, don’t you?”
“Married? I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“That’s exactly my point. You have no time for life. Get rid of those pets, and then you’ll have time to date. Besides a husband isn’t going to let you have fish all over the house, and how are you going to take care of them when you have a baby?”
“Mom! Please. I think you’re getting this a little mixed up. Isn’t dating first?”
“Yes. Make time for it.”
“How? I’ll be here until well after midnight.”
“Every day you could be having dinner with Thomas, and every day you refuse because of the pets.”
“Well, the fish are a bit more comfortable than being a third wheel at your date.”
Her mother’s eyes widened, and then she broke out into a bright laugh. “Oh, Julie, you didn’t really think… Oh, you did!” She laughed again. “Thomas is interested in you.”
“Me? I barely know him.”
“That’s what I mean. He’s very nice. And just think if you got along. You and he could someday run this office just like your father and I did. Wouldn’t that be so perfect?”
Julie was stunned. “Ah… I… well….”
Her mother laughed again, and Julie thought she seemed younger than she had in a long time. “Please, Sweetheart. Give him a chance. He already goes to our church, so you wouldn’t even have the problem that your father and I did. You could be so happy together.”
“But I have to get this work done.”
“Promise to save your lunch tomorrow, and I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Sure. I guess.”
After her mother left, Julie had a hard time concentrating on the work she had. Her thoughts kept drifting back to the conversation, and then to Thomas. He was nice, but she wasn’t used to thinking about him in that way. For some reason the image of a man impatiently brushing blondish-brown hair from blue eyes kept intruding. But Thomas had dark hair – short, dark hair and dark eyes.
Then her thoughts went back to her fish. They were a lot of work, but it was work she loved. And her mother still seemed to have her heart set on Julie staying at the accounting office. Was there some way she could make her mother happy and do what she really wanted to do?
Go to Chapter 2
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.