The Fish Bone, by Lucie Winborne
The Fish Bone, by Lucie Winborne
He had never expected to miss Christmas this year.
It was all Uncle Henry’s fault – Uncle Henry and his fishing. If only Dad hadn’t given him that fishing rod Christmas before last! If only they hadn’t recently had an unseasonably warm spell, even for Florida, so that Uncle Henry could use it! No one else had fish for supper the day before Christmas. No one but the Hancocks. He loved Uncle Henry but he hated fish. Wouldn’t Uncle Henry be sorry tomorrow morning!
Could he help it if he’d swallowed a bone? It was a wonder more people didn’t. Perhaps they did, and no one had told him. His mother and father ate with a relish, unaware of his plight. His sister Tess didn’t like fish any more than he did, but ate with minimal complaint and mincing little bites, her mouth pursed up in a way that made her look even funnier than usual.
Now if it had been Tess that had told him about fish bones, he would have thought twice before he came out here. But the story had come from her girlfriend Ruthanne, who was four years older and knew a lot more. A fish bone, she told them solemnly, would kill you. Since your gut couldn’t digest it, it threw it back into your bloodstream, where it went straight to your heart. Her own grandfather had died from a fish bone. Remembering her vivid description of the event, Bud shuddered.
And now it had happened to him! In one moment all was lost – Christmas, his family, everything!
Her grandfather, Ruthanne told them, had died a martyr. Neither Bud nor Tess had the faintest idea what a martyr was, but judging by Ruthanne’s manner it must be a fine, brave thing to be. And now that he, Henry Jefferson “Bud” Hancock III, was going to go in the same way, he made up his mind that he, too, would go bravely.
He excused himself from the table and without a word to anyone put on his jacket and went out to the orange grove. If he was going to die, he wanted to die under the open stars. Secretly he hoped he could hold out long enough to get a glimpse of Santa Claus before he went.
There was one consolation to dying young. He wouldn’t be subjected to his Aunt Minnie’s fruitcake this year. But still….He pondered the stars that were just beginning to break through overhead, the same stars that would guide Santa through the night. Would Santa give one sad look down at him before he climbed back into his sleigh to finish his rounds? Perhaps he should have lain closer to the house.
He pictured the fish bone twisting and turning on its inexorable way to his gut. How long would it take? He was only a boy; the bone wouldn’t have far to go. For a moment he had a wild urge to jump up and run inside, where at least he would die surrounded by family. But no…he couldn’t do that to his mother. She should have this last happy Christmas, at least. In the back of his mind he knew that she would undoubtedly discover him missing well before the next morning, but his pleasure in his own unselfishness outweighed the thought. He pictured them all peering into his coffin – his mother, dabbing her eyes with her best handkerchief, his father, straight and stern and manly, Tess, with her gaping fish eyes behind her thick glasses…
Tess! Why, they would give all his presents to Tess!
The thought made him sit bolt upright. They couldn’t! But of course they could. Never mind that they were boy presents. They would anyway. His sister, he knew with grim certainty, would make sure of it. If he had only known ahead of time that he was going to die, he would have left a note for his parents telling them to give everything to his best friend, Willy. Should he try to sneak into the house and leave one now? Probably not. What if the fish bone hit him when he was halfway up the stairs?
Really, between fish and fruitcakes and sisters and school, not to mention fathers that gave uncles fishing rods for Christmas and fish bones that you couldn’t help swallowing, life was terribly unfair. If Christmas came more than once a year it might not be so bad, but he wasn’t sure now that it was all worth it. Perhaps dying wasn’t such an awful thing. What irked him most, though, was the thought of Tess and those presents.
* * *
He woke to the sound of a voice calling him. It must be an angel. The angel Gabriel was coming to welcome him, just as his mother had said he would!
But there was something odd about it all. Why was Heaven dark? And he was cold, too. Not to mention stiff, from the hard ground. There wasn’t supposed to be cold hard ground in Heaven. Or orange trees. Did heaven look like Florida? He could hardly tell the difference. Perhaps heaven had the same familiar, earthly surroundings as people were used to, so they wouldn’t feel too lost when they got there. If so, he hoped there were no schools.
“Bud!” the voice called him again. “Bud Hancock! Will you answer me!”
That didn’t sound like an angel. That sounded like Tess! Had Tess swallowed a fish bone, too? Poor Uncle Henry!
A heaven with Tess in it! A cold, dark heaven that looked just like the place he’d left. This wasn’t quite what he’d imagined. Of course, he had always vaguely expected to see his sister in heaven, but such a time had seemed comfortably far off in the future.
“BUD!” His sister’s voice roared.
Tears of self-pity welled in his eyes. Oh, it wasn’t fair! He didn’t want to be in heaven. He wanted to be home with his mother and father and Uncle Henry and Aunt Minnie, to snuggle down under his bedcovers to wait for the morning that would never come, to whisper secrets with Tess in the dark (it was the only time of year they could really stand each other), to argue with her one more time over whether reindeer actually flew, to smell the turkey his mother had baked. He wanted to pick giblets out of the gravy when no one was looking, to open brightly- wrapped gifts and to gaze at the grinning papier-mâché Santa on the mantel, that his father put out every year, long enough and hard enough till it winked at him. And here he was! If he could only be back on earth right now, he told himself, he’d forgive Uncle Henry for his fish. He’d forgive Aunt Minnie for her fruitcake. He’d even eat her fruitcake – if he could just be alive.
“Bud Hancock, you bonehead! What are you doing out here?” His sister was standing above him, arms akimbo. “If you want to sleep outside, why don’t you do it in the summertime?”
He got up and faced her. “I swallowed a fish bone!” he wailed. He didn’t even bother to ask why she was there.
He recited his tale of woe. Tess listened with her mouth open. Then she began to laugh.
“Bud Hancock, you’re no more dead than I am! Don’t you know better than to believe anything that stupid Ruthanne tells you? Her grandfather died of a fit, not fish. Come on, they want you inside.”
“You believed it!” he pointed out, but she wasn’t listening. She had taken his hand and was pulling him towards the house.
“Fish bone!” she was muttering to herself. “Wait’ll the folks hear this one!”
It was on the tip of his tongue to retort, but he wasn’t really mad. There was a fire in the fireplace and laughter in the house, pies in the oven and presents under the tree, and he, Bud Hancock, would live to enjoy them all. Later, of course, he would get even with his sister – not to mention Ruthanne – but for now he was too glad to be alive.
* * *
The first thing he saw when his sister pushed him inside was his Aunt Minnie’s fruitcake. With a sinking sense of destiny he remembered his own end of the bargain still to be upheld. There sat the fruitcake in all its glory, big as life and twice as gaudy, replete with those horrible red and green things that he always tried to swallow whole so he wouldn’t taste them, and that nearly choked him on the way down.
“Aunt Minnie asked us to call you, Bud,” his mother was saying. “We were thinking of cutting the fruitcake early.” His aunt beamed and polished her glasses. Across the table his uncle grinned at him wickedly. Bud, mustering a polite if doomed smile, caught sight of the papier-mâché Santa across the room. He would have sworn that it winked