“Come on, little guy,” said the tall half-Asian man to a tiny struggling thing in his hand. “You need to cooperate.”

The tiny thing was a puffer fish. It was puffing its little body up and down while the woman attempted to open its mouth with a plastic toothpick.

Both the man and his girlfriend, disheveled, in baggy home clothes, were hunched over the kitchen countertop. Powder-free latex gloves and an aquarium net were thrown at the “scene”, along with Eugenol, a cup with bloodworms at the bottom, and some eye droppers. They got most of the stuff at Walgreens downstairs.

They had wandered along the aisles a little lost like two kids. She frequently checked her phone for the list of things needed for the surgery. At home they filled a bowl with water from the fish tank and mixed two drops of medicine in it. He fished the puffer out and placed it in the bowl. She brought her cuticle clipper from the bathroom…

“Careful with the face,” exclaimed the guy. The sharp end of the toothpick dabbed into the translucent surface of the lip. “Chill,” she replied angrily, “How do you expect me to do it?“ “It’s his face!” he retorted. “He’ll grow a new one,” she snapped, feeling the knot getting formed in her stomach.

They followed the steps of the tutorial she had found on YouTube. “Puffer’s teeth grow its whole life,” spoke the zen man in the video. He held a puffer similar to theirs in his hand. “They are usually able to control the growth by maintaining a crunchy diet. This can present an issue in the aquarium.”

“Jesus,” gasped them both when she managed to hold the flimsy slippery upper lip in place. This exposed the two disproportionally huge buck teeth. They took up all of the space in the mouth. “Teeth can overgrow enough to cause starvation in the fish,” said the man in the video.

She had called a local pet hospital that morning. “Hello! Do you conduct fish surgeries?” She was a bit hesitant about her problem. “Sorry?” said the woman on the phone. “My puffer fish needs dental work. I was wondering if you do this.” “I believe, we don’t, sweetheart,” said the receptionist. “Let me ask our doctor.” “Sorry, honey, but we don’t,” she heard back. At this point she was pretty sure that the lady on the phone mistook her for a five-year-old. “We will need to do it ourselves tonight,” she texted her boyfriend. That was how they ended up in that place.

“You can use scissors, or any other sharp instrument, to cut the overgrowth,” said the man on video and cut into his puffer’s teeth. His voice remained perfectly calm as that of a BBC documentary narrator’s.

Feeling brave, she took the cuticle clipper away from her boyfriend… Her hand flinched at the last moment. A sliver of the lip now hung at the corner of the puffer’s mouth. After a couple of failed attempts, her hands were shaking. She felt dizzy and demanded to take a break. They let the fish back into the bowl. It was breathing very fast and hard.

“Ok, last try,” he said. “It can’t be out of the tank any longer.” “OK. Now.” This time she snapped a large piece of tooth. The fish opened its mouth wide and gasped for air. “Yay!!” At once it seemed like they could succeed. “Wait,” he stopped. “Why??” She was confused. “I don’t think he made it.” “What are you talking about??” “He stopped moving in my hand,” he sighed. “He was too weak from starving.” He dropped the fish into the bowl. It immediately turned upside down. They lowered their faces to it. Its belly was white and sunken. Its sides were stuck to the spine. The spine itself was weirdly crippled. A giant unhealthy bulge was sticking out near its tail.

“No, no, no,” she retorted. “It doesn’t look dead. I mean, he looks bad, but he looked like this for a month. It fainted,” she hesitated. “No,” he said. “It might have fainted,” she insisted. “Let’s put him in the fish tank. Maybe, it’ll wake up.” He shook his head, “His membranes are not moving”. “It’s probably in shock. We are so damn close! Of course, it will wake up!” Under her pressure, he slid the immobile fish back into the tank and carefully placed it in the coral. That’s where they left it for the night. All exposed, propped up in the coral at a weird angle, so it wouldn’t have been sucked into the air filter…

She woke up early to go to work. She didn’t turn on the lights and walked into the living room. In the dim morning light the glowing fish tank caught her attention. She walked up to it. The tiny body glistened in the dark grey coral right where they’d left it the night before. The other puffer was floundering around, chubbier than ever.

“And he was the lively one,” sighed her boyfriend when they had first noticed that the first fish looked ill.

On her way to work, she thought that it was kind of silly that even though it was only a fish, the loss seemed real. It felt empty in this world without the fish.

.  .  .

Marina works as a software engineer for a social marketing company in Los Angeles and writes about her adventures in tech, travel, pole dance, and whatevs on Medium. And now she apparently writes about animals too.