by Ronald Malfi
For the first fifty years of his life, Donald Broome enjoyed an existence of predictability and contentment that only a true practitioner of bachelorhood can know. An accountant by both nature and profession, Broome arrived at the firm at precisely 8:15 every weekday morning, ate lunch at his desk at noon—always a ham and lettuce sandwich on white bread, the crusts chopped off, paired with a crisp and well-polished McIntosh apple and a bottle of spring water—and departed for home just as the delicate hands of his modest wristwatch conspired to inform him that it was 4:59. In the evenings, he would watch Jeopardy! while he ate one of his pre-made dinners. If, on any given night, his muscles felt particularly tired or weary, he’d soak for thirty minutes in a hot bath of Epsom salt while reading a book. Bedtime was a regimented ten o’clock, unless there was a good movie on, which there usually wasn’t.
His weekends were equally as disciplined, consisting of the execution of domestic chores that he kept listed on an index card magnetized to the refrigerator in the kitchen of his small apartment. Depending on the weather, he would either go to the movie theater at the Prescott Mall (on rainy days) or hit golf balls at the local range (on pleasant days). He would have dinner at home, though on rare occasions he would treat himself to a meal at one of the few restaurants that catered to his admittedly uncultured palate—pasta with butter and salt or a steak with no seasoning. It would be a falsity to suggest that Broome did not partake of the occasional alcoholic beverage, but this was, in fairness, an infrequent indulgence, and rarely did he imbibe more than two at a sitting.
The likelihood that someone such as Donald Broome, given their staunch predilection for predictability, would ever happen to meet a person of the opposite gender (or perhaps of the same gender, if that happens to be that particular person’s inclination), fall in love, and ultimately marry, may strike you as an implausibility with which one could hardly be obliged to argue. Be that as it may, it was a fact that our accountant, Mr. Donald Broome, midway through the fifth decade of his life, managed to find a woman of similar temperament for whom he felt the stirrings of an unfamiliar though not unpleasant emotion that, after some close personal introspection and contemplation, was diagnosed to be the initial constipated palpitations of love.
The woman, a librarian, carried inside her purse a driver’s license that, prior to the marriage to our Mr. Broome, proclaimed her to be Ms. Mariclare Lourdes. She was a plain and simple woman who was midway through the fourth decade of her life. She was a divorcée, which she explained to Broome on the occasion of their first date. The date took place at one of the restaurants that catered to Broome’s particular brand of uninspired cuisine, and Mariclare Lourdes spoke of her ex-husband in a barely audible voice over a plate of piping hot buttered noodles. He was a brutish lout of a man, Broome readily deduced, despite Mariclare’s disinclination to utilize any turn of phrase that might implicate this ex-spouse of hers in such a manner. By the time Mariclare finished talking of her ex-husband, Broome felt yet another foreign emotion infiltrate his body and mind—one of mild contempt for the brutish lout.
The purpose for mentioning her ex-husband in such detail on their first date was not to relay a history of strife or any ongoing turmoil with the man—there was none, thankfully; the brutish lout had been out of the picture for several years now—but to inform Broome, in an exercise of full disclosure, that she had a son by this man. The boy, Jerry, was ten years old and lived with Mariclare full-time. This information did not perturb Broome in the slightest—having a child was a natural and often planned event, and it was something he could embrace, if it came to that—but it should be noted that the reason for his lack of perturbation was due primarily to the fact that Broome knew next to nothing about children.
One may be tempted to accuse Mariclare Lourdes of a particular underhandedness in the form of a bait-and-switch, so to speak, given the fact that she kept interactions between Jerry and our good Mr. Broome to a minimum until after the wedding. Prior to the unification of their two households, Broome, if pressed, would have described Jerry to be a somewhat unrefined and precocious child, and the possessor of negligible perspicacity, though Broome, somewhat guiltily, would supplement this assessment with the caveat that he knew very little about children and that his opinion should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. It wasn’t until after the marriage, and following the purchase of a quaint home in the suburbs in which the three of them took up residence, that Broome began to reassess his initial impression of the boy. Ten-year-old Jerry was not simply unrefined and precocious—he was aggressive, smelly, mean, and when prompted by something his narrow mind perceived to be humorous, usually at the expense of someone’s misfortune, was capable of liberating a garrulous, spite-filled laugh, the sound of which caused Broome’s back teeth to grind together.
Mariclare, it seemed, had become accustomed over the years to the recital of that old chestnut “boys will be boys.” Broome attempted to adopt a similar outlook, but found it increasingly difficult given his new stepson’s predilection for foul language, bullying behavior in the schoolyard, and facial expressions that seemed culled from a catalogue of Halloween masks. And those were the good days. When Jerry decided to “act out”—another turn of phrase introduced to Broome by his new wife—the boy was wholly intolerable: He would throw things, kick divots in the walls of the new house, and had once taken one of Broome’s golf clubs to the fender of Broome’s Toyota Camry. It did not take long for our good Mr. Broome to arrive at the conclusion that young Jerry was every bit the brutish lout Broome supposed the boy’s father to be.
Since Broome was a creature whose contentment thrived in an environment of controlled predictability, he attempted to bond with the boy in an effort to gain the boy’s favor and thus minimize his destructive nature, at least around the house and while in Broome’s presence. This was easier said than done, however, as young Jerry refused to accompany Broome to ballparks, movie theaters, playgrounds, or bowling alleys. On the infrequent occasions when Broome managed to persuade Jerry to escort him from the house, it was achieved by various forms of bribery—ice cream, toys, or new clothes. On the rare occasion when Jerry would accompany Broome somewhere without the promise of a treat, Broome would only learn later that the boy had purloined cash straight from Broome’s wallet. Broome pretended like he didn’t mind, and feigned enjoyment in strolling the Prescott Mall while the boy, several steps ahead of him, cartwheeled through crowds of shoppers or attempted backflips off the decorative marble planters in the food court.
Every trip to the mall concluded with the inevitable visit to the toy store. Jerry would whirlwind down every aisle, leaving a destructive path of broken toys in his wake, until he came upon whatever item it was that captured his fancy. That Broome would fork over his credit card to the cashier was not even a question—it had become a habit so reliable that Broome felt a Pavlovian compulsion to hand over his credit card to anyone he came into contact with whenever the boy stood at his side.
On one particular visit to the toy store, Jerry paused in his mad streak up and down the aisle to gather a small, colorful package from one of the shelves. The boy studied the item intently, a deep vertical crease forming between his eyebrows. Broome, who stood watching from a few feet away like someone afraid of getting bitten by a rabid dog, watched the boy turn the item over and over in his hands, a look of increasing bewilderment overtaking his features.
“Hey,” Jerry called to him, though not looking up from the item in his hands. “What is this?”
Broome approached, albeit with some trepidation, and peered down at the item in the boy’s hands. A smile broke across Broome’s face as he recognized the item that he himself had enjoyed from his own childhood.
“Those,” said Broome, “are Instant Swimmers.”
“What’s that mean?”
Bloome explained that they were tiny creatures. You took the container home, filled it with water, added the solution of special minerals, then emptied a packet of dehydrated eggs into the water. In a few days, the eggs hatched into Instant Swimmers.
The boy was studying the artwork on the package, which showed cartoon fish-people wearing tiny little crowns or baseball caps, dancing along the box while holding hands, playing baseball, and riding seahorses.
“They’re real?” Jerry said. “Like, really alive?”
“Sure are,” said Broome. He felt compelled to rest a fatherly hand on the boy’s shoulder, but when he did so, Jerry shrugged him off.
“I want this,” Jerry said, thrusting the box of Instant Swimmers toward Broome.
“Of course,” said Broome, who carried the box to the cashier, a young fellow who gazed at Broome with a look typically reserved for spectators at the execution of a particularly heinous criminal.
At home, Broome assisted Jerry with setting up the tiny plastic aquarium, adding the special solution, aerating the water, and emptying the contents of the packet labeled INSTANT SWIMMER EGGS in bold red font. They set the plastic aquarium on the windowsill over the kitchen sink, where, for perhaps thirty seconds, Jerry stared at the swirling granules in the water, a mixture of awe and incomprehension on his face, the combination of which, for some reason, made the boy look absolutely terrible.
“Where are they?” Jerry asked, agitated. “I can’t see them.”
“It’ll take a few days for the eggs to hatch,” Broome explained.
“A few days? That sucks.” Exasperated, the boy retreated from the windowsill and sauntered into the living room. A second later, the TV blared on.
Broome remained staring at the small plastic tank for several minutes, long after the granules and sediment settled to the bottom. He liked it there on the windowsill, with the midday sun shining through the slightly magnified plastic walls of the tank.
“You know how impatient he can be,” Mariclare said later that evening after Broome expressed his disappointment in Jerry’s disinterest in the Instant Swimmers. “Boys will be boys, after all.”
“I suppose,” he said, though he didn’t feel much better about it. He thought Mariclare was exhausted from dealing with the boy all afternoon, too, since it was summer and Jerry was home from school on vacation. “Perhaps he might find some valued interest at, say, a summer camp?”
“He won’t go,” Mariclare said. “I’ve already asked him. He wouldn’t go the year before, or the year before that, either.”
“Maybe it shouldn’t be his decision?” Broome suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe we should take him to a summer camp. Drop him off and pick him up once it’s done.”
“How?” Mariclare asked. “How would we?”
“We just take him.”
“Drive him and leave him there.”
“We’d never get him in the car.”
And Broome knew this was so. Nonetheless, a few days later he attempted to bribe Jerry into the car, but Jerry, perhaps having snatched a glimpse of Broome’s intention out of the ether, simply refused. Broome promised him sweets and toys and money and even a puppy upon the boy’s return from the camp—he wondered if a puppy might not keep the boy occupied and out of their hair—but Jerry would not compromise: He remained planted in front of the television set, where he watched terrible, violent cartoons and laughed his terrible, violent laugh.
Then, one morning, Broome noticed that the Instant Swimmers had hatched. Elation filled him. There were dozens of them swimming about in there. He called to Jerry, who came storming down the hall, his heavy footfalls like the pounding of approaching thunder. Wide-eyed, the boy leaned over the kitchen sink and brought his blunt, piggish nose within inches of the magnified plastic wall of the tiny aquarium. Broome smiled to himself, and at the eagerness the boy had shown…but then the smile fell from his face when Jerry, scowling, turned toward him.
“What are those?” the boy howled.
“What? That’s them. They’ve hatched.”
“Those? Those? They’re supposed to be tiny fish-people!”
“Those were just the artist’s renderings on the box, Jerry. That’s not what they really look—”
“These are just bugs! Stupid water bugs!”
“They’re not bugs, Jerry, they’re—”
“They’re supposed to be wearing hats and playing games and everything,” the boy went on. The final word came out in a near sob.
“You didn’t actually think—”
“They’re stupid! I hate them!” Jerry shouted, and reached out for the tiny aquarium on the windowsill. He would have snatched it from the sill and dumped in straight into the sink, no doubt, had Broome’s own hand not shot out and snatched the boy about the wrist.
Shocked, Jerry stared at him.
Broome, who had rarely ever touched the boy, and never once in a fit of anger or frustration, unclamped the boy’s wrist. Jerry recoiled from him, pulled his wrist close to his chest as if he’d been burned. Broome couldn’t deny that the fear in Jerry’s eyes gave him some satisfaction.
“Don’t,” Broome told him. Just that and nothing more.
Jerry only stared at him. Then he turned around and stamped his way out of the kitchen and down the hall. Seconds later, Broome heard Jerry’s bedroom door slam.
Broome leaned close to the aquarium and watched the Instant Swimmers dance and twirl and frolic behind the magnified wall of plastic. It brought a genuine smile to his face.
“Perhaps it’s time to locate the boy’s father,” Broome suggested several nights later, as he and Mariclare lay side-by-side in bed, books propped open but unread on their chests.
“Oh, Donald. The man wants nothing to do with Jerry. I’ve told you that hundreds of times.”
“Perhaps he should be required to do something with the boy. After all, Jerry’s his son. Isn’t there some legal recourse we could take?”
“I never got the courts involved,” Mariclare said. “It would be too late at this point. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to find the man.”
“It’s probably by design,” Broome said, somewhat under his breath.
“He’s just a boy,” Mariclare said, though there was a profound sadness in her voice. Earlier that week, Jerry had happily danced a jig in Mariclare’s flowerbeds, reducing the poor woman to tears.
“I was a boy once, too, you know,” said Broome. “My father would’ve clapped my ear if I’d done half the stuff…” But he trailed off. There was no use in it. “Anyway, goodnight,” he finished, setting his unread book on the nightstand and turning off the lamp.
As the summer progressed, Jerry’s behavior only worsened. Neighbors were constantly coming by to complain about him, and there were always holes in the walls to repair, flowers to replant, broken windows to replace. Once, Broome had to call a plumber after Jerry had flushed a half dozen of Broome’s neckties down the toilet.
The only solace Broome received was in the few minutes a day he spent peering into the aquarium at the Instant Swimmers. They bred quickly, dropping new eggs to the blanket of algae on the floor of the tank at least once a week, and after a month, there were perhaps three or four dozen swimming around in there—too many for Broome, a practiced accountant, to tally with any accuracy. He took great joy in watching them, and he was reminded quite often of his own childhood when he watched them. After a time, he even began to dream about them. They brought him a lot of pleasure.
Then one evening, Broome was horrified to find that they were all dead. He stared at their tiny blackened corpses curled into question marks and outlined in a film of fuzz at the bottom of the tank. He began to tremble as he stared at them, out of both a profound sadness and an anger that seemed to boil like molten lava straight up from the pit of his stomach. He hurried through the house and threw open the sliding door that opened onto the rear patio. Jerry was back there stomping on anthills. He shouted at Jerry, and the boy looked genuinely shocked. A part of Broome knew that Jerry had nothing to do with the deaths of the Instant Swimmers—he had lost all interest in them after they’d hatched—but Broome still blamed him for some reason.
He spent that night sulking in his armchair, and for the first time in his life, he drank more than three drinks of hard liquor—in fact, he had several glasses from an expensive bottle of scotch that had been given to him years ago at a Christmas party. Mariclare shared his sympathy but didn’t know how to make him feel better. Jerry only laughed when he saw the miserable shape he was in.
Sometime around midnight, he logged onto the computer and pulled up a website dedicated to the Instant Swimmers. His intention was to order a fresh supply of eggs and start the tiny civilization over again. There was a hotline number at the bottom of the Web page. The text that accompanied the number said that the Instant Swimmers were guaranteed to live for two years, and if they died prematurely, he could call the hotline number and get a free shipment of eggs sent by express mail. This made him feel a little better. Strange, though, that the hotline, much like an emergency line, was operated around the clock, so instead of waiting for morning, Broome dialed the number and waited through several rings until a live operator answered.
Broome explained to the operator that his Instant Swimmers had, for some reason, died prematurely, and he would like a replacement packet of dehydrated eggs. The operator took his information and promised to have a package sent to him as early as the morning. Very pleased, Broome thanked the operator, hung up, and went to bed still somewhat dizzy from all the scotch.
He slept late, and it was practically noon when he rose from bed, tied his bathrobe around his waist, and sauntered into the kitchen. A terrible hangover was making quick work of him, pounding against the walls of his skull. Mariclare had left a note for him on the kitchen counter that she had gone shopping, and that Jerry was playing in the backyard. Broome peered out a window and saw Jerry in the yard chucking rocks at squirrels.
As he was preparing some coffee, he noticed a sleek black sedan pull up outside the house. Two men in dark suits got out. They wore sunglasses and no expressions as they came up the walk and knocked on the front door. Broome answered, already suspecting these men were here because of something terrible Jerry had done. Indeed, they flashed badges at him and identified themselves as agents Sharpwilde and Cantorbrook.
“Are you gentlemen police?” Broome asked.
“We’re from the Kantal Corporation,” said Sharpwilde.
“Is that a federal agency?” Broome asked.
“No, sir,” said Cantorbrook. “It’s a toy company. Are you Mr. Donald Broome?”
“Did you recently call a hotline to report the untimely death of your Instant Swimmers?” asked Sharpwilde.
Broome blinked. “Are you kidding?” he said.
“No, sir,” said Cantorbrook. “Did you or did you not place that call, Mr. Broome?”
“I did. Yes.”
“Do you still have the product on hand?”
“The product? You mean the…the Swimmers?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.”
“They’re right over there,” he said, and pointed to the tiny plastic aquarium still seated on the windowsill.
Without a word, Sharpwilde marched over to the tank. He pulled on a pair of latex gloves and removed a small glass vial from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He removed, too, a very long pair of tweezers. He cleared his throat then lifted the plastic lid off the tank. Broome asked him what he was doing, but neither Sharpwilde nor Cantorbrook responded. Sharpwilde reached into the tank with the tweezers, his movements as calculated and precise as a surgeon’s, and extracted one of the tiny, blackened, fuzz-covered corpses.
“What in the world is this about?” Broome insisted.
“It’s for the necropsy,” said Cantorbrook as Sharpwilde placed the dead creature in the vial.
“What’s a necropsy?” asked Broome.
“An autopsy, sir,” said Cantorbrook. “One performed on something other than a human being, to be precise.”
Broome laughed. “An autopsy! Is this a joke?”
“It’s no joke, sir,” said Sharpwilde as he slipped the vial back into his jacket. He stripped off the latex gloves and tucked them away into the pocket of his pants. “The premature death of these creatures is quite serious, Mr. Broome.”
“Technically,” Cantorbrook interjected, “it’s a civil violation but it carries a criminal penalty.”
“A criminal penalty! You’re joking.” Broome began to laugh, albeit nervously. He was perspiring now, too.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Broome. You’re looking at a maximum of eight years in a federal prison.”
Broome felt himself blinking repeatedly and without any control. “For…for what? For these things dying?”
“It’s murder,” said Cantorbrook.
“Well, it’s wrongful death, anyway,” said Sharpwilde, glancing at his partner. “We won’t know for sure until the details of the necropsy report are released.”
“Either way,” said Cantorbrook, “you’ll have to come with us, Mr. Broome.” The agent reached inside his jacket and produced a pair of shiny handcuffs. Broome caught a glimpse of a pistol at his hip, too.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Broome said, backing up. He held up his hands. “I’m not going anywhere with you gentlemen.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice,” Cantorbrook said.
“Please, Mr. Broome,” Sharpwilde said, taking a step closer to him.
“I want to call my attorney,” Broome protested.
“You can do that down at the station,” Cantorbrook assured him. His handcuffs glittered like jewelry.
“You’re telling me,” said Broome, “that I’m under arrest because some pet water bugs I bought for my stepson died? I don’t believe this! I’m not going anywhere with you gentlemen.”
Both Sharpwilde and Cantorbrook had paused in their advance. They stood now like two statues in the middle of the kitchen. Broome saw them exchange a glance. To Broome, Sharpwilde said, “What was that, Mr. Broome?”
“What was what?” said Broome.
“What was that you just said?” Cantorbrook asked.
“About your stepson,” Sharpwilde added.
“What about my stepson?” Broome said. “I bought them for him, but he had no interest.”
“So the Instant Swimmers belong to your stepson?” Sharpwilde asked.
“I guess so,” Broome said. Then, because Cantorbrook had used the term earlier, added, “Technically.”
“Then I’m afraid we’re going to have to speak with the boy,” said Sharpwilde.
“Jerry? You want to…to speak with Jerry?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“He’s…he’s playing in the backyard.”
“We’re very sorry about this,” Sharpwilde said. He removed his own set of handcuffs.
“Very sorry,” Cantorbrook added, and he stepped around Broome and walked in step with his partner toward the back of the house. Broome heard the glass slider open as the two dark-suited agents stepped outside.
Broome wiped the sweat from his face with a dishtowel before going to the sliding door. He watched as the men approached Jerry, who was still chucking rocks at squirrels. He couldn’t hear what the men said to the boy, but he could tell that their tone was stern and authoritative based on the look that registered on Jerry’s face. The boy dropped his handful of rocks. He responded to one of Cantorbrook’s questions with his head turned downward, as if ashamed or even fearful to look the man in the eyes.
And then, in the blink of an eye, both agents were upon the boy, wrangling him like men struggling with a wild animal, spinning him around and yanking his pudgy arms behind his back. The boy cried out. Sharpwilde shouted at him to shut up. Cantorbrook clasped the silver cuffs over the boy’s wrists, then gave them a stern tug. Again, Jerry cried out. “Enough out of you, scum!” Sharpwilde demanded, and shoved the boy forward.
They marched Jerry into the house. The boy was sobbing, and when he looked up and saw Broome standing there, he began pleading with his stepfather to help him, save him, send these men away. Broome, of course, did nothing. He watched as the men led Jerry down the hall and to the front door.
“Again,” said Sharpwilde as he opened the front door, “we’re very sorry about this, Mr. Broome.”
“Very sorry,” said Cantorbrook, as he shoved Jerry out onto the stoop.
“You fellows are just doing your job,” said Broome.
“You may contact your attorney on behalf of the boy, if you like,” said Sharpwilde. Jerry was already being marched across the lawn by Cantorbrook, toward the dark sedan with the tinted windows.
“Of course. If I like,” said Broome. “You said this carries an eight year maximum sentence in federal prison?”
“Even for minors?”
“Adults or children, it makes no difference to us, Mr. Broome,” said Sharpwilde. “We’re not the police, remember?”
“Yes. Of course. Thank you.”
“Have a good day, Mr. Broome.”
Sharpwilde departed, leaving the front door open. Broome approached the door, but did not close it. He stood there in the doorway and watched as the two men shoved Jerry, who was screaming and crying uncontrollably now, into the back of the sedan. Then both men climbed into the vehicle, started the engine, and executed a three-point turn in the middle of the street.
Broome watched them go. He didn’t move from the doorway even after the roar of the sedan’s engine, coupled with Jerry’s muffled cries, faded to nothingness.
He looked down and saw a small brown package on the front porch. The label was addressed to him and he noticed, with great pleasure, that it had come from the Kantal Corporation. Just as the operator had promised, his replacement eggs had arrived.
© Ronald Malfi, 2020