Too Many Fish

The idea, absurd as it might be, was a simple one.

            The fish tank in Chris’s bedroom was no ordinary fish tank. The tank itself, basking in the soft purple glow of a submersible LED bar, was nothing more than a generic eighty-dollar aquarium that could be purchased at any major pet store. The fish that dwelled inside of it were equally typical. Two plump goldfish flitted aimlessly among the plastic décor within the tinted water. One of the fish, Zel, had been living in the tank for a few months. The second fish, still unnamed, had ruined Chris’s life.

The thought still sounded ridiculous to Chris, but he could no longer ignore the truth. There was something happening inside the watery cube that he couldn’t fully explain. This was because whenever Chris placed an item inside the fish tank, a variation of that item would manifest outside of the tank as well. It was a phenomenon that he had witnessed several times, and the logic behind the events soon became secondary to the outcome.

The first occurrence was last month when Chris was hosting a small house party inside his college apartment. The night started like any other, with loud music and plenty of alcohol, but one of the house guests soon pulled Chris and a few others aside to offer them some Adderall as a party favor. Chris accepted, quickly crushing up the pills and scraping them into lines, and the group took turns snorting them off Chris’s bedroom dresser. When the last of it was consumed, Chris ran his hand over the top of the dresser to collect any remaining residue. He looked down at his hands momentarily before violently clapping them together over the fish tank and watching as a soft cloud of pharmaceutical snow settled along the water. His friends howled with laughter as Zel eagerly swam towards the debris. The next morning, however, Chris found a surprise waiting for him in his bathroom. Inside his hanging medicine cabinet, behind the wall mirror, was a sandwich bag that Chris had no recollection of. Inside the bag were two pale-orange pills.

This soon escalated into Chris dropping other things into the tank. Items such as a zombie action figure from the Resident Evil franchise and a dirty quarter from Chris’s car were added on separate occasions, and both yielded strange and somewhat similar results. The day after the zombie action figure was added to the tank, a new Resident Evil movie was announced to have gone into production. Furthermore, Chris received twenty dollars in his Venmo account from a stranger named Kayla within a week of tossing the quarter. The evidence had become overwhelming.

The fish had changed everything, though.

It was the natural next step to insert something living into the tank. The idea of summoning another being into existence through the watery portal in his room fascinated him to no end. This was why the fish was never given a name. Its identity was irrelevant. The fish was nothing more than a cog in a machine, but Chris had no idea what he had unleashed. If Chris had understood that this action would lead him to meet Ryan, this experiment would never have taken place.

Maybe Ryan would have never existed.

It had been two weeks since Ryan Collins began attending Allegheny College. He was a transfer from Toledo and had changed schools due to something vague. Family reasons. Something about a scholarship. The reasoning never mattered to Chris because Ryan had started classes on roughly the same day that the second goldfish was added to the tank. It was all such a perfect coincidence. However, this experiment was different from all the others.

Everything about Ryan became irritating to Chris. It didn’t happen all at once, but it slowly became obvious to Chris that something about Ryan wasn’t right. His personality seemed as if it were hastily constructed rather than formed organically. The way that Ryan spoke sounded slightly disjointed and rehearsed. There was nothing authentic about him, but none of his classmates were able to recognize this. They were all still blinded by the novelty of his newness. It only took Chris a few interactions to see through the façade. Speaking to Ryan was like talking to a bad actor, but in reality, it was worse. It was like talking to a mirror.

The physical similarities between the two were striking. Both Chris and Ryan had blonde shoulder-length hair, wore the same clothing from the same skateboard companies, and their blue and white Converse shoes were identical to one another. Chris might not have been so bothered by any of this if Ryan didn’t have his ears pierced in the same style as his or if they weren’t both the same height, but all these things made him insufferable.

Ryan wasn’t just similar to Chris; he was nearly a perfect copy.

Chris’s friends remained oblivious. Even Chris’s girlfriend, Gaby, didn’t make the connection right away. It wasn’t until last week, at a house party that Jeff threw, that the trouble really started. All night long, classmates and friends that Chris had known for years all began to call him by the wrong name. At one point, Jeff had asked Chris if he smoked weed, despite both having done so several times together in the past. Amber, one of Gaby’s close friends, became curious about Chris’s hometown, even though the two of them had graduated from the same high school. Tyler even began to ask Chris what the local music scene was like in Toledo. Of course, Ryan was at this party as well. He was likely getting mistaken for Chris, but it didn’t seem to bother him to the extent that it bothered Chris. Ryan was still trying to establish an identity while Chris was watching his slip away.

That would all be coming to an end.

So much had changed over the course of one month. Since then, Chris’s room had grown disorganized and cluttered. His refrigerator housed nothing but condiments and half-empty takeout food containers. He wasn’t even sleeping properly anymore because of the fish tank, but he soon realized that the answers to all his problems had been sitting in front of him this entire time. It was all so simple.

Chris stood in front of the aquarium in his room and watched the two fish as they swam in circles. Ryan had first entered Chris’s life whenever the second fish was added to the tank, so by this logic, he should also disappear once the fish had been removed. It all seemed reasonable enough. It was so reasonable, in fact, that Chris picked up a small plastic scoop net from the drawer next to the aquarium. He readied himself to capture the fish when suddenly his cell phone began to ring.

“Hey,” Chris answered, still staring down into the tank. “What’s going on?”

“Where were you today?” Gaby asked, concerned. “Everyone was looking for you.”

“Everyone was looking for me? Who’s everyone?”

“Amber. Jeff. You didn’t remember making plans with–”

An awkward silence hung in the air.

“Making plans about what?” Chris replied.

More silence.

“Oh. My. God,” Chris stammered.

“Chris, I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry? That’s it?”

“Chris, it was an accident. I meant to call Ryan and ask him why he bailed. It’s really not a big deal. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I want you to know who you’re talking to!”


“You’re right,” Chris lied. “It’s fine. Look, can I call you right back? I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

“You promise you aren’t mad?”

“Yeah, it’s cool. I’ll call you back,” Chris said, hanging up on Gaby before she could respond.

Chris turned his attention back to the fish tank while steadying the net in his hand. The two goldfish looked so much alike that it was tough to tell one apart from the other. Zel had a slightly bigger tail, though. This fact somehow made sense to Chris and assured him of his decision. The Ryan experiment would finally come to an end. All that was left to do was catch the fish and flush it down the toilet. It would be quick, simple, and over in less than thirty seconds.

Chris lowered the net into the water and scooped up the fish with the slightly smaller tail. It writhed helplessly in the netting as Chris moved it into the palm of his hand. He looked down upon the creature and viewed it as nothing more than a terrible mistake that would soon be corrected. A wry smile spread across his face as he sat the net down and began to walk away from the tank, but Chris suddenly felt his legs wobble beneath him. It wasn’t until he staggered into the hallway outside his bedroom that he felt them pop. His eyes widened as he toppled over and collapsed to the floor.

The fish leapt out of his hand and flopped in front of him.

A deep pain crept in and tightened around the base of Chris’s neck as he tried to stand back up, but his legs no longer worked. They were too weak and fatigued to support his own weight. A barrage of thoughts rattled sharply through his brain as the tightness spread from his neck down to his chest, but Chris found himself unable to concentrate on anything aside from the fact that he could no longer breathe. He gasped for air through gritted teeth.

The sound of his ringtone rang loudly from inside his bedroom, but there was no way for Chris to reach his phone. All he could do was lie on the carpet, stare at the fish in front of him, and watch as his skin slowly turned blue. The phone continued to ring as Chris mumbled an apology to Zel. He barely had enough strength to move his mouth, but he tried nonetheless. His fingers twitched, and his eyes began to close. It all happened much quicker than he expected.

There would be no more confusion between Ryan and Chris from this day forward. Not anymore.

Chris’s phone cut to voicemail. His vision cut to black.

image: “fish” by Mathias Appel is marked with CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit

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