As Arla Alagona, the right hand woman of Unstoppable Imports (a fish importing company), and her boss find themselves in deep water, someone in their office finds themselves swimming with the fishes. The second installment of the multipart series!
Arla woke up on her couch Saturday morning, grey light filling the room, the sound of water moving behind her head. Blinking a few times she blindly felt for her glasses on the coffee table. Even without them she could usually see the contrast between the faded green of the coffee table and her pink rims. Lowering her arm, she felt around the area rug. A lot of hair deeply woven into the material but no glasses. Pulling back her arm, Arla covered her face with her hands. Gently rubbing her face up and down she tried to remember anything from last night.
Ben. Ben had taken her home last night. They had smoked a cigarette out back on their patio area. She remembered telling him all about the class. How to use the pasta machine and her dough ball somehow rolled out into a phallic shape. “It’s decided then,” he said guiding her in through the back door, “you’ll have to get me a pasta maker for my birthday.” His husky laugh making Arla smile. She remembered scampering inside and around the corner toward the first floor half bath. Stripping off her coat as she made her way. Standing in front of the mirror, Arla jammed her coat into the sink. Where her other clothes were left were a mystery for later. Arla felt her face flush and she recalled swaying out of the bathroom in only her heels and an apron. Pushing her hands harder into her face she laughed at herself.
Ben had scooped her up, his hand grabbing her butt as he carried her over to the couch. His large hands slipped the apron off from around her neck. In its place sliding pulling his sweatshirt over her head. He kissed her as he tucked her into the couch. She remembered wanting him to stay, asking him why he couldn’t. He had said something about meeting up with someone, not a client, but something to do with numbers. “Besides,” he had added, “tomorrow is club. And since you’re in no position to go, I will have to represent both of us.”
Club! Arla reached around for her phone, which would have been easier if she had found her glasses. Jamming her hand between the couch cushions she felt around. Some stowaway popcorn kernels, two pens, and her cell phone! Making a mental note to vacuum under the couch and give the area rug a once over, she held her phone an inch away from her face. Eight am, on a Saturday. At least she had slept in a little. She still had plenty of time to get up, get ready, and get her ass to club if she wanted to.
Putting her phone on top of her stomach, Arla tried to playback the rest of the night. Ben had left, but before doing so he had put something on the television for her to watch. She had watched it, she was sure, until she began nodding off. Reaching up Arla felt behind the lip of the cushion. Her fingers touched the cold plastic of her glasses. Retrieving them Arla slid them on her face and unlocked her phone. Arla ignored the slew of unread texts from Elise and Cassandra, and opened Ben’s thread. “I’m home safe, Rockstar. Get some sleep – text me when you wake up. Good night”
Arla laughed once more to herself and typed back, “Hopefully you’re still blinded by love and not completely turned off by last night’s striptease. Thank you for picking me up/tucking me in. Text me when you’re up.”
Thinking of getting up, Arla lifted her shoulders off the couch. The room continued to pitch forward. Arla eased herself back into the throw pillows. Slowly, she rolled onto her side – her knees settled in toward her chest. Her glasses pushed slightly into her temple and sent a pulsating throb through her brain. With her eyes closed Arla adjusted the pillows beneath her. It wasn’t ideal, but at least now she could see the small cauldron shaped bucket Ben had left out for her. Next to it was the clicker. Leaning forward as gently as she could Arla grabbed it and restarted her show. Angela Lansbury jogged across the screen, fading into a look of surprise as she solved yet another mysterious muder. Arla smiled realizing that Ben had started her back at season one. Arla took off her glasses and put them down on the coffee table along with the clicker. Maybe a few minutes of listening to the television would settle the swell of nauseousness she had felt before.
The sounds of Freddie Mercury jolted Arla awake. For a moment Arla panicked. Feeling the vibrations under her rib she realized her phone was ringing. Digging underneath herself, Arla pulled out her phone and swiped to answer the call.
“Hello,” she said groggily.
“Hi,” Ben replied. “You still sleeping?”
“You want me to call you back?”
“No. I’m awake. Kind of,” Arla said, putting the phone on speaker and laying it down next to her.
“Well, I’m on my way to club. I came downstairs to check on you. You looked so peaceful I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Mmmm… wait, you’re on the way to club?”
“Yes, it’s eleven fifteen already,” Ben said.
“Shit,” Arla mumbled, “I must have had a great night.”
“Oh, you definitely did,” Ben laughed. “I have my very own cooking segment featuring Rockstar and Rebel.”
“Stop it,” Arla gasped.
“It’s a masterpiece really,” Ben continued. “I’m thinking of sending it off to one of those food channels you’re obsessed with.”
“You’re probably better off putting it on a forum for drunk girls,” Arla said.
“Seriously though, how’re you feeling?”
“I don’t know yet, I only opened my eyes when you called. I’m definitely not making it to club today.”
“If you see John ask him to call me please,” Arla requested.
“For that lugnut, Tony?”
“Actually for the client we’re pairing with, but yeah. How’d you know that?”
“I heard all about it last night,” Ben said flatly.
“Sounds like you were lucky to only get a cooking video from me,” Arla said with a smile.
“It was a joke. Because I don’t remember talking to you about work at all, but I must have.”
“Oh,” Ben said, “yeah.”
“Anyway,” Arla said sensing Ben wasn’t amused with her joke, “did you actually call him a lugnut?”
“You might be too hungover, but you’re still too much of a lady for me to call him what I was thinking,” anger seeped out between Ben’s light hearted words.
“Well, you’re definitely right about the hungover part,” Arla said.
“When you can get up, check the fridge,” Ben said. “I think the hangover fairy might have stopped by last night.”
Arla laughed. Usually she was the hangover fairy, leaving a whole range of snacks, comfort foods, and sports drinks in the fridge for them if they were planning a night out.
“I will let you know when I do,” Arla said. “Thank you, Ben.”
“Text me when you get there.”
“And I’ll call you when I leave.”
“Perfect. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Ben said before disconnecting the call.
Arla stretched out onto the couch. She didn’t feel dreadful and was curious to see what breakfast snacks were in the fridge. Untangling herself from the layers of blankets, Arla took her time sitting up before slowly standing up. Swiping her glasses from the table as she found her center; a little wobbly, but the room wasn’t moving. Arla walked toward the half stairs that led to the kitchen. Shivers ran up her legs as her bare feet left the carpet and hit the bamboo floor of the stairs. Taking one step at a time, Arla opened the slatted wooden door she had insisted upon adding when they bought the house. One of their contracting friends protesting doing the work until Arla said she would do it herself. It was one of her favorite memories from childhood – having a door like that leading to the basement.
Stopping as she entered the kitchen, Arla looked at the side of her fridge. There, an 8 x 10 photo of she and Ben centered the metallic side. It was from the third party they had been to together. This time though they hadn’t just run into each other. Ben had brought up the party to her.
It was kind of blurry. At least she was. Arla hated posing for pictures when it wasn’t a group shot. Anna, the friend who had introduced them, had suggested it. Ben had thrown his arm around Arla and pulled her back into him. Her roots, baby pink back then, barely clearing his chest. Almost five years ago. Arla felt her checks pushing into her eyes. She could only imagine the big goofy smile she had plastered across her face. Letting out a soft chuckle to herself, Arla felt her stomach perform a somersault. Exhaling, she walked around to the front of the fridge.
Waiting on the kitchen table were two medium coffees from the coffee shop near Ben’s old apartment. Getting closer, Arla read the label. One cappuccino and one latte. When in doubt, she laughed to herself. In a brown paper bag next to it was a muffin, a bagel, and a cookie. Peaking in the fridge, Arla saw two sports drinks, a banana, an orange, and some cheese sticks wrapped in cured meats. Arla closed the fridge door and gathered up both coffees and the bag of bakery goodies. Shuffling her way back to the stairs, she turned and smiled once more at the picture of the fridge. Ben was a good guy. Plopping down the stairs one at a time, Arla made it without spilling a drop of coffee. Standing next to the L-shaped couch Arla debated taking the other side so she could switch between watching the tank and watching television. She opted for Ben’s spot, where he had tucked her in the night before. Snuggling into her seat – her provisions spread out on the coffee table pulled up against the couch – Arla sipped at her coffee and resumed watching her show.
Ben was coasting down the highway replaying his conversation with Arla back in his head. She had joked that he was lucky to only get a cooking video from her. He shifted in his seat. Arla had been drunk, but not that full on blackout. He hated allowing her to believe she was. Ben reached over and turned his sports podcast up. The broken up skin on his knuckles cracked as he twisted the volume knob. Flashes of last night blurted through Ben’s thoughts.
Shutting his podcast off, Ben put on the radio. Focusing on the whine of guitars and the rush of drums, Ben tried to settle his thoughts. As president he would have to call the meeting to order, introduce this month’s speaker. One of their own members and a prestigious doctor in the fishkeeping hobby, whose talk was on fish not suitable for any aquarist. Given that he and Arla both had some of these fish at various points in their keeping careers he found it ironic that he should be doing the introduction. He would also need to remind everyone to renew their membership, pay their dues, and to be selective about fish they brought to the auction.
Next month Arla’s axolotls would be big enough to bring to auction. It would be the third time she brought something in for auction. Currently, they were tied at two, although Ben had more breeder points. It was all in good fun. Arla liked to talk big competition, but when it came to breeding the safety of her fish was always first. For most keepers that was the case, but Arla loved animals more than most of the people she called friends and family. She would apologize to the infestations of cone snails as Ben cleaned them out of her tanks. Ben loved animals, but cone snails were the weeds of the aquatic world. Every life mattered to Arla, even sleazebag creeps like Tony.
Ben put on his directional and got into the middle lane. The exit would be approaching, and it was a pain in the ass to miss. The GPS said he’d be there in another five minutes. Reaching over, Ben dug out a pack of cigarettes from his glove compartment. They had quit three years ago. Both he and Arla had. On drunken nights out they shared a pack. That was Arla’s thing. For Ben it was driving. Once in a while if he had to drive to the city for work, or once a month on the forty-five minute drive to club, Ben would have a smoke. On days like today, when that little shit Tony wouldn’t worm his way out of Ben’s brain, he might even indulge in two.
Six minutes later Ben parked his car in the community center’s parking lot. Usually the club met in the smaller space reserved for town elections. For their twice a year fundraiser auction they were able to use the gymnasium, after the senior citizens’ workout class. As the first lady of the fish club Arla baked the employees a smorgasbord of sweets. They were still three months away from the Spring event allowing plenty of time for Arla to start the two day baking spree. Ben flicked his cigarette out of his window. Rolling it up, he killed the engine. If Arla suspected that Ben had done anything other than seeing her off to bed last night she would have asked him. Especially if she thought it had anything to do with Stan or Tony.
Ben dug his keys and wallet from the center console. Jamming his personal effects in his pocket, he got out of the car. His shoulders tensed, Arla would never suspect him of anything. She would only be interested because she loved him. Ben sighed, his shoulders dropping, he would have to tell her. Other than the impact it could have on her job, he couldn’t keep anything from her. Ben turned and began walking toward the building.
“Hey, Ben,” a voice shouted.
Ben looked around. Across the lot a man was jogging toward him.
“Hey John,” Ben said recognizing the figure.
“How are you?”
“Alright, man. How’re you?”
“Good,” John said. Reaching out, he grabbed Ben’s hand and pulled him in quickly for a half hug.
“Arla reach out to you already,” Ben said pulling away.
“No,” John answered, “am I in trouble?”
“Not yet,” Ben chuckled.
“Your girl is a firecracker,” John said, “quick put me out of my misery.”
“You still smoking,” Ben said looking toward the square shape in John’s fleece?
“I am,” John answered, pulling out his pack.
Ben nodded toward a bench, “perfect.”
The two walked the rest of the way to the bench discussing which fish they were breeding – or trying to and what fish they were hoping to see at today’s monthly auction. Sitting down on the bench, John got out the blue and white pack of cigarettes. Taking two out, he extended one to Ben.
“Thanks man,” Ben said.
“Anytime. So what’s on your, er, Arla’s mind?”
“Arowanas,” Ben began, “at least the rescued ones.”
John raised his eyebrows as he lit his cigarette. Extending the lighter to Ben, who accepted.
“That’s one way to get my attention,” John laughed. A plume of smoke escaped from his nose.
“She wants you to call her,” Ben continued. “One of their clients is looking for one. Not a rescue and not the legal kind.”
John let out a low grunt. His eyes trailed down his European nose boring into the concrete.
“Arla is afraid that because of the people he knows, he might be able to get his hands on one. Worse yet, she knows the guy’s contact.”
“An honorable gent then?”
“Depends on who you ask,” Ben said flatly. “Anyway, Arla was thinking if you happen to have a rescue or could potentially find one that needed to be rehomed…”
“She could interject herself and come up with a sensible solution,” John finished. “Does she know how reckless that is?”
“We haven’t actually discussed it yet. But knowing Arla and enough about the situation,” Ben let his voice trail off.
“You’re not wrong. Arla wouldn’t let a blessed thing happen to the scale of any fish if she could prevent it,” John said. Sitting for a moment he pulled on his cigarette. “I guess the real question is what’s your endgame?”
Ben flicked his ashes off to the side, and looked back at his friend.
“That’s what I’ve been asking myself the whole drive here.” Ben took a drag of the cigarette before tossing it aside. “I want to keep Arla out of the whole mess. But since that seems as likely as the Zodiac being identified. If you can help her, by all means, but if you can keep her removed, well…”
John nodded. Rubbing the cherry from his cigarette, he took a small baggie from his pocket and deposited the filter inside. “I’ll call her later. Can’t promise anything. You know her better than most of us,” John laughed a little, “but I’ll do whatever I can to save a life. Hopefully it’s just a fish’s.” John threw his hands up in the air and let out a raspy laugh.
Ben forced a chuckle. It wasn’t John’s fault he didn’t know the whole story.
Arla had made it through a quarter of her bagel, most of the cappucino, and one episode when her phone pinged three times in succession. Picking it up, two were from John and one was from Ben. Arla unlocked her phone and opened her messages. She still had texts from Elise and Cassandra she hadn’t read. Until just now she had forgotten about them. She opened the one from Ben first, “Made it to club. Talked to John. Call you when I leave! Enjoy yourself, and don’t rewatch the entire series today.” Arla smiled and wrote back, “I’ll try not to… Have fun. Say hi to everyone for me. And thank you again!!!”
John’s texts were short and to the point. The read, “talked to Ben” followed by, “Call you later.” She sent the thumbs up emoji and returned to her other texts. Arla opened her conversation with Cassandra first. There were so many words. A wave of nausea ran through Arla’s stomach. Arla tapped the picture of Cass that headed their messages and clicked the small phone icon. It would definitely be easier to talk then text. As the phone rang Arla paused her show.
“Hi,” Cassandra squealed into the phone.
“Hi,” Arla said.
“Fun at your cooking class?”
“So much fun, I’m not actually sure I remember much,” Arla answered.
“Did you get to bring home the recipes?”
“We did, I think I grabbed them. I definitely grabbed my apron, which I don’t think I was supposed to take.”
“Oh boy,” Cassandra laughed.
“Don’t worry, there’s supposedly a video of my friend and I demonstrating what we learned. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll update you accordingly.”
“I can’t wait!”
“How’re you? How’d things go yesterday after I left?”
Cassandra exhaled through the phone. Arla settled back into the couch, resting her eyes as she prepared to listen.
“Well, Tony is a douchebag,” Cassandra opened. “He might actually be a skin covered bag stuffed with douche.”
Arla stifled a laugh. As she envisioned Cass widening her eyes and throwing her arms out.
“Sounds like it went really well,” Arla said.
“I waited another five minutes or so after you left to go back to the warehouse. He was still there and alone according to the security camera so I figured it would be a good time. Most of my stuff was packed up so I could just come back and grab it and go.” Cassandra explained. “I shouted into the warehouse and asked if he had a minute.”
Arla opened her eyes and reached forward for the rest of her cappuccino.
“I tucked my shoulders back and walked over to meet him near his truck. He asked what was up, and I told him. We’re understaffed, and I’m doing my best to cover things. I come in early, I stay late, and I’ve cancelled most of the days I had already requested. I would like to schedule a time for a review and to discuss a raise.”
“I’m so proud of you, Cass! That sounded perfect,” Arla butt in. Snuggling back into the couch she waited for the rest of the story.
“Thank you, too bad he didn’t think so,” Cass continued. “He said no. Actually he said that I was already maxed out for my position since it doesn’t bring business in. I didn’t react, but I did ask him if that was the case, could I work from home one day a week to offset the amount of time I was spending at work.”
“Wait, he told you’re maxed out? What does that even mean?”
“Probably the same thing that his laughter meant. That I should start looking for another job.”
“He laughed at you?”
“Mhmm, for asking if I could work for home. No one works from home at this company. No one except for Peter when he’s too hungover to be here. Or Roger whenever he feels like it. Joe doesn’t work from home unless it’s snowing, but he does get to take three consecutive weeks off. For fun! As his vacation.”
“Holy shit,” Arla said quietly. “What did you do?”
“What else could I do? I stormed out of there as casually as I could, grabbed my stuff, and booked it out the door. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I’m not even sure if there was anyone still there. I was seething. I could have killed him.”
“I’m so sorry, Cass. You deserve better than that. Anyone deserves to be treated better than that, but especially you. You do everything that man demands, plus your job, and the work of at least two other people.”
Arla laid her head on the back of her couch, her phone, on speaker, resting in her lap. Tension strained through her hands. Unlocking her fingers, she flexed them. Stretching them out to ease the tightness. She was happy to be hung over. Had she been sober, she was sure the anger she felt would have overpowered her compassionate tone.
“You’re telling me,” Cassandra scoffed into the phone. “Mike had gone to pick up Dylan from the airport. Then they were heading over to Dylan’s since he lives across the street from that bar.”
“Dylan is the older one, right.”
“Dylan is the middle one. Mike is the youngest. And Matt is the oldest. Wait, that’s not right. Mike is the oldest, Dylan is the youngest and Matt is the – honestly, Arla I don’t think I could tell you the order of my sisters properly.”
“What did you do last night, Cass?”
“I was still seeing red when I got home. So I had a few beers.”
“But doesn’t beer make you -”
“It does. So I switched to wine. I only had two thirds of a bottle left. When that was gone, I made one or two Jack and Cokes.”
“Oh no,” Arla said shuddering.
“Oh, yes. I threw most of it up this morning. Which might have been for the best. We’re supposed to go for a nature stroll with them and some of their friends from high school. It’s like the stoners reunion. Then everyone is coming back to our house for dinner.”
“At least you know everyone will be hungry,” Arla teased.
“I already threw the ingredients for mac and cheese in the slow cooker. Mike said something about making it a Southern night – I just hope he doesn’t mean SoCo.”
“He for sure does,” Arla laughed, “sounds like you might end up couched tomorrow.”
“Hopefully not too bad. I’m sure there will be hell to pay on Monday, so I’d like to actually enjoy some rest tomorrow. What’re you up to today?”
“Well, I was supposed to be at fish club, but after class last night -”
“You were lucky to have gotten out of bed at all?”
“Close, I never actually made it to bed. I woke up on my couch and have been here ever since,” Arla explained.
“Next time they offer that class, I want to go,” Cassandra laughed.
“It’ll be a blast. Elise’s ex-girlfriend worked with the Chef over there for years. She can probably get us tickets. You’ve met my friend Elise before, haven’t you?”
“Once, last year, at your birthday party.”
“The two of you will hit it off. I might not make it out of the instruction kitchen, but I’ll be in good hands.”
“You definitely will! Enjoy your couch day. I have to start dragging mine to get ready.”
“Thank you,” Arla said. “Have fun on your nature stroll. Remember to be one with nature.”
“Will do. See you Monday!”
“Bye,” Arla said disconnecting the line.
Their texting thread filled her phone screen. One text caught Arla’s eye, “He’s dead. That little prick is dead.” Arla pulled on her blanket, freeing it from her legs, and tucked it up under her chin. Pulling it closely to her, the goosebumps that had covered Arla’s body began to settle down. She knew Cassandra was a very capable person, at work, in dramatics, but not in murdering someone. Still, the chill throughout her spine lingered.
Arla let out a nervous chuckle. Tony was probably home spending time with his son Billy, taking him to practice or a game. Definitely not dead and not because of Cassandra. It was more likely that Tony’s wife, Tatiana, was silently wishing her husband ill while cooking his favorite Italian meal. Arla relaxed a vision of Tony’s wife done up to the nines pranced around the kitchen doing her best not to chip a manicured nail as she gingerly minced garlic.
Reaching for the clicker, Arla heard the passion of Freddie Mercury once more sail through the air. It was for work. A sighed escaped from Arla as she picked up her phone. It should be a quick one, she thought to herself.
Ten minutes later, she was off the phone. Typing a quick text to Stan, she let him know they were now confirmed to be on track for at least sixty percent of their imports. He sent back the “okay” emoji. A sense of relief and exhaustion swept over Arla. Snuggling into her couch, she laid down for one last nap.
Ben clapped as Theo politely offered a small bow and exited to the side of the room. Making his own way to the front, Ben felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It would have to wait.
“Great talk! Let’s everyone give Theo another round of applause! It’s probably good Arla wasn’t here today -” A small wave of laughter rumbled through the room. “We were all young once, but it’s because of hobbyist like Theo that we can continue to educate and protect a multitude of fish. We’re going to take a break for lunch. Give everyone some time to check out the lots. We will begin the auction at 1:45,” Ben wrapped up his announcement and walked over to a cluster of his friends standing off to the side.
“Good job,” Marty joked, patting Ben on the back.
“I’m pretty sure between you and Arla you could have filled his slideshow,” Brian chirped.
“Almost,” Ben said laughing, “even Arla for all her passion, has her limits.”
“Any exception to her rules were allotted to dating you,” John said, clapping Ben on the back as he approached the group.
“Well, dating someone so perfect must defy a lot more than just rules,” Ben quipped in return.
“Whatever man,” they all laughed.
“We’re gonna go get some food,” Brian said, “you coming?”
“I’m gonna go call Arla. Tell her you’re all picking on me,” Ben said. “I’ll meet you guys in line.”
Ben watched as his friends joined the back of the food line. From the smell of it, there was a whole buffet of Thanksgiving foods. The Pizellas really went above and beyond for their food donations. Ben made a mental note that the board should do something nice for them at the holiday party. Stepping out into the cool air, Ben thought about switching to a thicker fleece. It wasn’t quite winter, but it was certainly coming.
Pulling out his phone from his pocket, his heart sank a little in his chest. Ben took a deep breath in and thought about his next move. He knew the shoe was inevitably going to drop. He hadn’t thought it was going to be this quickly. Ben started walking toward his car. His mind flashing back to the night before. The dark building. His hands reached for his keys. The silence of the hallways. He leaned forward into his car, his hands blindly finding his cigarettes. He would have to call Arla. As he tucked a cigarette into his mouth his phone vibrated once more.
The message was clear. He had until Tuesday.
Exhaling a sigh of relief, Ben brought his lighter to his face. Ben called Arla as he watched the smoke puffing from the tip.
“You leaving already,” she answered the phone.
“No,” Ben said between drags, “just finished the talk. Everyone’s getting lunch.”
“And you’re having a cigarette break?”
Ben looked at his right hand. He hadn’t given it a second thought.
“The guys came out, so -”
“I don’t really care. Mostly teasing you,” Arla said. “Besides I’m on second nap already, today is just a one off day for both of us.”
Ben felt his face relax into a smile, “might be an off day for me, but you’ve gone off the rails.”
“Oh shush,” Arla said, “I can’t figure out how a bottle or two of wine knocked me so far on my butt.”
“Because you didn’t have a bottle of wine or two. You had a bottle of wine by yourself, finished at least one with Elise, and if the pictures can be entered as evidence, at least two shots of tequila.”
Arla made a noise akin to a sick dog.
“Mhmm,” Arla said, “now that you mention it, some of that sounds more familiar.”
“Well, don’t get yourself sick,” Ben said.
“I won’t. Don’t forget to grab me a plate. Mrs. P made her Thanksgiving feast, right?”
“Sure smelled like it.”
“Well, do it to it,” Arla laughed. “I’ll talk to you on your way home?”
“Yup,” Ben said, “enjoy your rest.”
“Will do. Bye babe,” Arla said as Ben hung up the phone.
Arla finished two more episodes of her show before forcing herself to shut off the television. Unfurling herself from the sofa, she stood, wrapping up the rest of her bagel and sticking it under her arm. She gathered her empty coffee cups jamming them into the brown paper bag that once held a muffin and made her way upstairs. It was already 3:15 she noted as she deposited her garbage into the bin under the sink. The sound of the second hand ticking closer as she stood straight.
Ben would probably be leaving club within the hour. Arla dropped her bagel onto the table, and walked over toward the window that opened up to their backyard. Taking a few deep breaths, Arla massaged the back of her shoulder and neck. It was most likely that he would be bringing fish home.
If she put some pep in her step she could be showered and have the fish fed by the time Ben strolled in with newbies. Turning on her heel, Arla went to the fridge. Lifting her bagel from the table she replaced one of the sports drinks Ben had gotten for her with it. Walking the rest of the way upstairs, Arla sipped at the blue liquid and made her way to their master suite.
The house had been marketed as a three bedroom, one and a half bath, with a garage and an unfinished basement. Arla recognized it as a sugar maple split – like the one her grandmother owned – from its shape. Each of the spare bedrooms had been converted to an office space. Arla’s was filled with shelves of books, aquascape tanks, and an old antique desk. Not to mention her four year old Betta Fish, Bert. Ben’s room was filled with collector’s art pieces, comic books from when he was a kid and newly acquired key issues. Despite working from home at least two days a week, and more than Arla ever dreamed of doing, he had a smaller desk. Plain, simple – something nondescript from a wholesaler.
Their master bedroom was a perfect blend of each of them. One stunning piece of art was the centerpiece of the left wall. The inks and pencils standing bold against the light blue wall, but still complementing the grey and white tones of the room. The sled bed frame was oversized, but welcoming and matched the rest of the room’s furniture. Hanging down above both the footboard and the headboard were two planters with a picture perfect among of ivy growing over the rims.
Arla smiled. Even though it had been one night, she had missed sleeping in this room. The room she and Ben had made together. Arla’s phone vibrated from the low battery notification. She would usually put on her favorite radio station while she showered, but she hadn’t charged her phone since the night before. Her head cocked as she walked to her side of the bed. Her eyes followed her phone charger up from the floor, to the corner of her pillow. Every morning when Arla unplugged her phone she tucked it under the pillow so she didn’t have to dig around for it the next night. Unless Ben had really been shooting for the Good Scout Award, it would have appeared that he hadn’t slept this bed last night either. Arla threw her phone on the charger, and removed Ben’s sweatshirt tossing it on his pillows. She watched as the charger fell from her pillow. Nodding to herself, Arla reached down to grab a pair of old jeans and a tank top from her bottom drawer. Closing the bottom drawer with her foot, Arla opened the top drawer for her a pair of panties and a cloth bra.
After stacking her clothes neatly in the bathroom, Arla turned on the water to let it warm up. Crossing the hallway, she pushed the door to Ben’s office all the way open. A laugh escaped as Arla saw the ruffled blanket and deformed decorative pillow on her boyfriend’s loveseat. Hurrying across the hall, Arla returned to the bathroom and hopped in the shower. She might even have time to figure out dinner at this rate.
Ben walked through the backdoor welcomed to an orchestra appealing for emotion. Placing a few bags of fish down in the hallway mat, Ben headed toward the stairs. He wasn’t too surprised to see an empty couch. The smell of barbeque crept down the stairs. In three steps Ben reached the door. Opening it slowly he peered forward. There was Arla in her apron from last night bopping around the kitchen, conducting an invisible orchestra with her tongs and meat brush.
“Scuse me,” Ben said, “is it too late to take me seat at the show?”
Arla turned around dropping her brush onto the counter top, her tong-clag hand stretched across her chest. “You were supposed to call me!”
“I did,” Ben said, entering the room. “It went straight to voicemail. I figured you were taking a nap.”
“Hmm,” Arla said, “that’s odd.”
Ben walked over behind her as she looked on the counter, wrapping his arms around her.
“Hello to you too,” he whispered in her ear.
“Hi,” she said leaning against him. “Extra hello to you,” she said as Ben’s arm slid further down her apron.
“Don’t get too excited,” he laughed. “Your phone Chef Rockstar.”
Arla laughed reaching for her phone from Ben as he paused her music.
“How did you know?”
“I’m a magician,” he answered, still laughing. “I have fish to float and want to feed them -”
“Already done,” Arla interrupted! “After they’ve had some time to acclimate to the water, you can release them. I feed them before I started whipping up something for us.” Arla turned back toward the stovetop checking on her barbeque sauce.
“You really are the best,” Ben said.
“Get settled, and when you’re done you can come help and tell me all about club.”
“I will,” Ben answered as he turned to head back down the stairs. “Don’t forget to check your phone. You probably put the do not disturb on or something.”
Arla looked at her phone, still in her other hand. Putting down the tongs she unlocked her phone. She scoffed as the little sliver of moon was lit up on her phone. 14 messages and missed calls total. A text and a call were from Ben, there were a few group messages, but the majority had been from Stan. Apparently there was a crisis afoot.
Taking the barbeque sauce off the heat, Arla killed the burner. She skimmed through Stan’s texts to see if it was an actual emergency or if it could wait until Monday. At first Stan wanted to know if she had confirmed their biggest imports. His tone changed over the next few messages. She could see Stan becoming more frantic as he typed. It was his last two texts that launched Arla into calling him right away. “That bastard is cutting us out. Radio silence since our meeting yesterday. We’re tanked. When I see that little weasel I’m going to strangle the life from him.” Followed 28 minutes later by, “Call me, Arla. As soon as you can – Stan”
Quickly walking over to the door, she cracked it and shouted down to Ben. A few seconds passed with no answer. Returning to the oven once more Arla made sure everything looked good before running downstairs.
This time she heard a response. “I’m here,” he shouted from the bathroom.
“Okay, real quick, have you spoken to Stan recently? He seems to be in full crisis mode.”
The muffled sound of the fan stopped.
“What,” Ben said.
“Sorry, just – have you heard from Stan lately?”
“Arla, I’m trying to -”
“You’re right. Sorry. I’m going to call Stan back. Come up when you’re ready,” Arla called over her shoulder as she headed back upstairs. Stan answered as her hand closed around the knob.
“IT’S ABOUT TIME,” Stan shouted into the phone. “HOW DO I KNOW YOU’RE NOT CONSPIRING AGAINST ME.”
Arla pulled the phone away from her ear as she continued through the kitchen and up the stairs.
“IT’S BEEN HOURS. I HAVEN’T HEARD FROM TONY. I HAVEN’T HEARD FROM YOU. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO THINK?!”
Digging her notebook out of her backpack, Arla curled into her office chair hurriedly flipping through the pages. Her eyes trailed down the page until she found where she left off the day before. She began jotting down snippets of whatever Stan was screaming, “against me,” “radio silent,” “betrayed.”
Finally Stan took a wet and ragged breath in.
“Stan, what are you talking about?”
Moments of Stan’s harsh breathing filled the silence. Arla visualized Stan fingering the bridge of his nose, resisting the urge to pull out his beloved locks.
“Are you pulling your hair out,” Arla blurted out.
“Am I pulling my hair out” Stan sounded stunned. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MI-”
“No,” Arla said sharply, “I was checking to see if you were. Now Stan, I would take a nice deep breath and politely explain to me what is going on.” The butt of Arla’s pen pushed into the corner of her notebook.
Bert swam out from his cave and toward Arla. His bright blue tail fanning out behind him. His nose bumped the glass wall as Stan exhaled deeply in Arla’s ear. Bert turned in a circle and swam to the top. Arla opened her desk drawer, the phone tucked under her left ear, as she reached for the container of fish food.
“Tony flipped us. I told him that I was going to meet with a guy who might be able to help,” Stan said. The strain wore on his voice. He took a sharp breath in, and continued, “He never answered.”
“Never answered,” Arla asked. Her eyes followed Bert bobbing around his tank, chasing after his food. Her hand sketched a pattern of waves in her notebook.
“I texted him,” Stan mumbled quickly.
“Ahh,” Arla said, “so you don’t know that we’re getting cut, just that Tony is an inconsiderate person.”
“Hold your voice of reason there Princess. There’s more,” Stan said. The sound changed. Suddenly there was more of an echo. “Last night, at 10:23 he texted me back that the deal was already done. And it’s been radio silence since.”
“So what are we going to do,” Arla shouted?!
“Stan, this isn’t a joke. A real fish, a severely endangered and precious fish -”
“Who said I was kidding, Arla. Besides, it’s over.”
Arla folded in half. Her head resting on her notebook. Her glasses pushed up and tangled in her hair. She could feel her stomach as it dropped down to her knees.
“It’s all over,” Stan said again quietly. A moment of fuzzy silence passed. Arla’s phone beeped three times signalling the call had been disconnected by Stan.
Ben’s voice travelled the hall. Arla remained curled into her chair. Her arm damp from her tears.
“Arla,” Ben’s voice called out again.
Ben thought he heard something like a grunt coming from down the hall. Following his ear the sound of whimpering came into focus. The door was mostly open. Arla was slumped over her desk. Her long colorful hair cascading down her back and over her shoulders. Her head, buried in her arms. With every sharp inhale, her head bobbed up and down.
Walking into the room slowly, “Arla,” he whispered.
“He’s done it,” she sniffled into her arm.
Ben wasn’t entirely sure who had done what, but based on what Arla had said when he had been in the bathroom he guessed it had something to do with Stan and the Arowana.
“Stan,” he suggested lightly.
Arla sat up and turned to face him. Her cheeks matched the color of her hair. She pulled her glasses from her hair separating the knots with her fingers, nodded and leaned into Ben as he came around the chair to her side.
“I told him not to,” he said, petting the back of her head. He could feel the dampness from her tears through his shirt.
“What,” she said, still burrowed against him.
“Stan,” Ben said, “ I told him not to do this.”
Arla pulled back. Her eyes wide. Confusion splattered across her face.
“When,” she said breathlessly.
“Last night. After I tucked you in,” Ben stated. “I was trying to do the right thing. He called me about this opportunity. He knew how you felt. I thought if I went to talk to him under the guise that maybe I’d be on his side -”
“You went to see him?”
Suddenly a flash of Ben leaning over her, a smile spread across his face, telling her something about a finance meeting.
“I wasn’t going to help him,” Ben said defensively. The sadness in Arla’s eyes was giving way to the hardness of her anger. “I just wanted to talk to him. From the financial standpoint about how none of this made any sense.”
Arla couldn’t move. She sat there, her shoulders pulled up by her ears, waiting for some type of reprieve. Her glasses clenched tightly in her fist.
“Stan said that he understood. He said that he wasn’t going to,” Ben continued. “I saw Tony on my way out, but still I didn’t think that he would change his mind so quickly.”
Arla’s legs dropped to the floor. Her stomach falling further with it.
“Yes,” Ben said quietly. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that -”
“About what?” The edge in Arla’s words cut deeply. Her hands flew to her face, jamming her glasses deep into the bridge of her nose. Ben’s face came clearly into focus. Worry lines rached across his forehead and jaw. His eyebrows furrowed.
Ben pulled his shoulders back and braced himself. “All of it. I was supposed to meet Stan for a drink, but he was tied up at the office” he began. “I went there instead. After talking to Stan, I couldn’t help it. Tony and I ran into each other in the hallway. He was heading back toward the warehouse. I asked him how the business was going, specifically the Worldly Waters project.”
Bert splashed around in his bowl. The movement caught Ben’s eye. Arla’s stayed locked on Ben. Clearing his throat he continued, “He laughed a little and said, ‘swimmingly.’ He said that he had a real fish on the line, ‘too big a bait for Stan, and his investors,’” Ben mocked Tony’s bravado. “I lost it. I grabbed him by the shirt and pinned him to the wall.”
A small gasp escaped Arla. She exhaled slowly, gathering up her hair as Ben pressed on.
“I told him to fuck off with his brilliant idea. That poaching in forgein waters had deadly consequences or something. He just laughed again. I drew back and decked him. When I heard the crack of his head against the wall I realized what I was doing. I let go. Tony dropped to the floor and I left.”
Arla’s eyes travelled to Ben’s knuckles. Raw and red.
“Looks like you didn’t stop there,” Arla said quietly.
Ben’s face flushed. “I drove home in complete silence. No thoughts, no radio. It wasn’t until I parked behind you that I realized exactly how much shit I stepped in. When I got out of the car I just punched the first thing I saw -”
Ben looked toward the ground.
“You punched the maple tree?”
“How would you even know that,” Ben began.
“Is that even relevant?” Arla stood up from her chair and walked to the front of the house. On her tippie toes, she looked out the window. Next to their driveway was a beautifully large maple. It was part of the reason she had loved this house before they had even taken the tour. Even from the second floor she could see the missing chunk of bark.
Exhaling sharply, Arla turned around to face Ben who was still looking at the chair she had been occupying.
“Let me see your hand,” she said flatly.
Other than the redness and light scabbing, nothing seemed to be wrong.
“Well, a lot of good your anger did. Stan called to tell me that the deal was done,” Arla explained. “I’m going to make some phone calls to see if maybe, John or someone, can find out anything about whatever deal Tony made.”
Ben lifted his head. He knew Arla was disappointed in him. She hated violence, but even knowing Ben’s past had still fell in love with him. The violence was behind him, he had told her. Left in his past with the rest of his thirties he joked. He had turned forty six months into their relationship, but by then he was already madly in love.
“Shit,” Arla spat, walking closer to the door. “I thought I took everything off.”
Arla ran past Ben and down the stairs. Ben right on her tail. Billows of smoke were clouding the window. Arla grabbed a dish towel from the oven and removed the burnt pot from the stovetop. As she plunked it into the sink, Ben switched off the burners.
“So much for barbeque,” she said.
“Sunday Funday isn’t until tomorrow.”
Ignoring the icy glare from Arla, he continued, “make a list of whatever you need. I’ll run out to the store now. Tomorrow we’ll start again.”
The muscles in Arla’s face relaxed. “Besides,” he continued, “I’m going to be out picking up your favorite curry from the Thai place so it’s really the least I can do.”
Arla let out a small laugh and walked over to her boyfriend. “Good,” she said, wrapping her arms around his midsection, “it’ll give me plenty of time to figure out if I’m more upset with you, or Stan, or Tony while playing Nancy Drew and preparing for seeing Tony on Monday.”
“I love you, Rocky,” Ben said, kissing the top of Arla’s head. “I’m so sorry that I let that happen, but I’m not completely sorry it happened. The guy is a douche -”
“Ben. Not helping,” Arla said, pulling back her head. “Not incorrect, but not helping. I love you too,” she said as she broke their embrace. “Now go get me dinner and groceries!”
Ben jumped as his butt received a whack. Laughing he threw his hands up and headed toward the door, “yes, coach!” Ben opened the wooden door and headed down the stairs to grab a sweatshirt and keys, “text me your list!”
“Already on it,” Arla said as she closed the wooden door.
Continuing reading in: Arla and the Fish (3)
Note from the author:
Interested in what a fish club is? To learn more about the North Jersey Aquarium Society, NJAS, check out their Facebook page! If you’re not from North Jersey, there are plenty of fish clubs across the country – a quick internet search should help you to find the one(s) closest to you!