I watched from the dunes as Swallow’s dad died in the surf. I had spent nearly every day that summer babysitting for car money, and the boy I watched on Thursdays loved to play in the sand. I often saw Swallow’s dad on the beach—weaving in and out of the waves in his embarrassingly technical spearfishing gear, throwing dead lionfish into his cooler. It was bounty season in Florida for lionfish: the invasive, predatory species that Swallow’s dad hunted for cheap rewards offered by environmental nonprofits. Or, had hunted, to be exact. When I saw him fall motionless and face down in the surf, I stumbled through the dense dunes to turn him over. He was pulseless, white, and swollen. I called 911—said, “There’s something wrong with my friend’s dad.” Then, I called Swallow.
She arrived in her new Subaru Forester before the ambulance. I motioned to her, but she didn’t wave back—or even speak. She knelt over her dad like a prayer for a single, quiet moment, then ran and grabbed a bucket from his gear on the beach and walked back into the water. Swallow seemed to look intently into the foam then scooped up a bucket of the sea as though she needed a memory from this moment. She didn’t even wait for the ambulance.
Swallow had drug store box-dyed blue hair and a pronounced underbite. She was named “Swallow” not for butterflies or beautiful birds but for a reflex, for an involuntary action that could have saved her grandmother from choking to death on steak gristle. Her mom always said that names carried power, so she named Swallow for safety and good fortune. I didn’t believe in blessings and curses like Swallow’s mom did, but regardless, Swallow had remarkable luck up to this point: carnival games, tests she didn’t study for, arguments—everything went her way. Like magic.
I was neither lucky or unlucky, named for a great aunt I never met, had split-end brown hair that I usually braided and subsisted mainly off microwave ramen. My father was a plain man who sold and serviced used dishwashers for a living. Swallow’s dad made an early retirement of leading illegal spearfishing lessons and slaughtering lionfish in bulk on the side. Throughout all his previous bounty seasons, he’d never been stung. Hunter’s luck, he called it. He won commemorative t-shirts, pole spears, koozies, cash, fillet knives, a small tv. This year, he aspired for the big catch: 100 dead lionfish for a YETI Tundra Haul Hard Cooler. The shiniest prize of the bounty.
Swallow’s mom always swore her husband’s luck would someday run out. And it did that day in June when a lionfish sting sent him into fatal anaphylactic shock. No funeral was arranged. Swallow’s mom said it would bring too much attention to his illegal spearfishing gig. Furthermore, he hadn’t specified how he wanted to be dealt with after death, so Swallow’s mom had him cremated and put in a jar that sat on a shelf in their kitchen above the stove as if she might someday brew some magic potion out of his remains.
I went to Swallow’s house almost every day for the rest of the summer after my babysitting jobs. I figured she might feel better if she had someone her age around to talk to. Swallow’s mom almost immediately had a new boyfriend, who then seemed to change every handful of days, but I never interacted much with them. Just waved as I walked up to Swallow’s room. I slept over often, too. At night, the moon rose up in the window at the foot of Swallow’s twin bed, bathing her freckled face in white light. One night—late—a few weeks after her dad’s death, as I counted the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on her ceiling, Swallow poked my shoulder. I turned over to face her.
“Do you like secrets?” She asked. That night, the moon was particularly bright, turning Swallow’s skin extra pale. She looked like Miracle Whip.
“I don’t have any secrets,” I replied, which was true enough. Until then, the most interesting things that had ever happened to me were watching Swallow’s dad die and a sophomore year trip to Disney World.
She smiled, “I do. And I’ll show you, as long as you promise not to tell anyone.”
“I don’t have anyone to tell.” The words jumbled in my mouth. Really, I could tell Swallow’s mom or my parents or any number of teachers or friends, but what I had spoken was somehow still true. Swallow knew that. I would do whatever she told me.
Swallow sat up and stretched, rolling out of bed and moving to the double folding doors of her large closet. She pushed the doors back and stepped aside for her big reveal. Inside her closet stood one of her dad’s old fish tanks—old, slightly molded, and leaking into a bucket she had placed beside it. Inside, there was a single lionfish.
“Don’t worry,” she leaned toward me and whispered, “Mom hasn’t been in my room in over two years, and she didn’t even notice when I hauled one of Dad’s old tanks up the stairs while she was watching TV.” She paused for a moment, gauging my reaction. “Anyway, this fish is the very one that killed Dad.”
I stared at the fish. It glistened—fins fanned in full display, swimming gently, aimlessly, in circles through the water. I could see my reflection in the water too, superimposed over the lionfish. In the small mirror of the tank glass, I rippled.
“When I got to the beach,” Swallow continued, “Dad was already dead. And this fish—it was just swimming around his ankles. Like it had no idea at all what it had done. So, I grabbed one of Dad’s buckets and caught it and stuck it in my car and left. And I’ve been taking care of it ever since.”
“Why would you do that?” I watched the lionfish flex its’ venomous spine. At this, Swallow blinked placidly, as if I might have known the answer.
“Do you know how weird they are?” She stopped looking at me, averting all of her attention down into the tank. “I knew Dad killed them for sport, but I never paid attention to why people wanted to get rid of them. They’re really cool looking, y’know. But I read some about them online, and it turns out they’re super bad.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah.” She sighed. In the saltwater reflection, our faces melted together into a midnight girl-soup. “Like, in only a few weeks they can eat eighty percent of the baby fish in an entire reef. Totally wipe out a population. Creepy stuff. But if I keep it, I can control what it eats. What it hurts.”
“That sounds good.” I nodded. I didn’t know what to say. Swallow smiled and pushed a bucket back under her bed.
“I knew you’d understand,” she sat down on the edge of the bed and looked out the window at something far away that I couldn’t see. That night we slept back-to-back, the lionfish beside us, probably still swimming in gliding little circles. I could hear the water lap gently against the tank, now. I swore I could.
When school began, Swallow took the lionfish with her each day in a tupperware at the bottom of her backpack. We were seniors, soon to graduate. During lunch, I held a jacket over her bag as she dropped bits of sandwich meat into its small, makeshift tank. I watched the fish intently as it ate the sinking scraps of turkey—one by one. “Have you named it yet?” I whispered.
“Of course not,” Swallow replied, “why would I name the thing that killed my dad?”
Two weeks later, sitting in her garage, she informed me the lionfish’s name was Quiet.
“Quiet?” I frowned.
“Well, it doesn’t make any noise, so I thought it was a fitting name.” Today, the fish was in a bucket beside us. Swallow’s mom was out running errands, so there was no need to hide it.
“It’s a fish,” I replied, “they’re not really known for being loud.”
Swallow laughed—nasally and strange and sweet. “I just think it has a quiet spirit; can’t you tell? I read online that lionfish aren’t really aggressive or anything. Like, yeah, it causes a lot of problems for the underwater ecosystem, but it probably just killed my dad in self-defense.”
At this, she stood up and went into the garage refrigerator, where her dad once kept his beer and extra ice cream. She took out a Corona Light and a blue Gatorade and extended both towards me. I pointed with some hesitation to the Gatorade. Swallow smiled, returning the Corona to the fridge and pulling out a second Gatorade for herself.
“You’re lucky,” she said, “that no one in your family has died in a freak accident.”
I didn’t know what to say. Swallow was the luckiest person I had ever met. She had successfully hidden a lionfish from her mom for months. She made good grades despite lacking any academic aspirations. She had a new car. Her mom let her do whatever she wanted with her hair. Her dad was dead but had died in a way that would always be remembered. The idea that she could ever consider me lucky was baffling.
After a few minutes, Swallow picked Quiet up in the same bucket she used on the beach that day. She cradled the fish in her lap like a child. She took her blue Gatorade and poured a small amount into the water.
“Just a little treat,” she mumbled, “for Quiet.”
By graduation, I thought Quiet would be dead. It wasn’t. Swallow had been diligent, after all: going down to the ocean and filling up old Dasani bottles with saltwater, cleaning the tank and constantly reading fishkeeping articles on her phone. And Quiet proved to have the same resilience that made lionfish a persistent problem in the south Florida ocean.
“I googled the average lifespan of a lionfish,” Swallow whispered in my ear as we sat through endless graduation speeches, “and they usually live about ten years. But, in captivity, some have lived up to thirty-five years! Apparently Quiet is small for a lionfish, so it’s probably still young. We could have thirty-five more years of Quiet, imagine that? Quiet could still be around in our forties or fifties.”
I imagined Swallow at her mom’s age, sitting in some magical apartment far away, with a large fish tank for Quiet. The speeches finally ended, and people around us began to clap. I gave Swallow two thumbs up for Quiet. Swallow gave me two thumbs up in return.
“Thirty-five more years,” she whispered.
“Thirty-five more years,” I confirmed.
At Swallow’s graduation party—the guest list of which consisted of me, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend at the time (Paul I think)—we excused ourselves to go for a drive and headed straight for the fish store. Seascapes Emporium was a kitschy place, with dark walls covered in clip art of fish with large, cartoon eyes. Because I was a babysitter, I usually got paid in cash, so I bought Swallow a nice tank decoration. Swallow had also read online that for a lionfish to thrive in captivity, they needed hiding places, even in a fish tank, so I bought one of those underwater miniature pirate ships that Quiet could swim around and through.
“Lily, Lily I’m so happy. Thank you so much—you don’t know how happy I am.” Back in the car, Swallow cradled the painted ceramic pirate ship in her lap. “I can’t wait to go to college and put Quiet into a better tank. It’s going to love the pirate ship; I just know it.”
“I’m happy you’re happy,” I said. We drove down the highway in my rusty, hand me down car, an old Ford Fiesta from CarMax. Truly, I was happy.
Suddenly, Swallow started to cry. I did too—I don’t know why. I wasn’t crying for her dad, like I assumed she was, and I had never been one of those people who cried just because other people were crying. Still, I couldn’t stop. Eventually, my vision blurred so badly from the tears that I had to pull over into a McDonald’s. I kept thinking about how the exact moment we were in couldn’t possibly be replicated: here, in a McDonald's parking lot in the angry heat of June, about a year after Swallow’s dad died, a tiny pirate ship listing in Swallow’s lap—twinkling in the afternoon sunlight from her unstoppable flow of tears. In only a few months, I would leave the state for college, and Swallow would stay in-state with her stoner roommate who didn’t mind helping hide a lionfish tank from their RA. I wished it could be me, hiding Quiet from the RA with Swallow, but times were changing mercilessly fast. We cried for a long while.
“Do you want a milkshake?” I asked Swallow when I finally managed to control my tears.
“Please,” Swallow sniffled. “That would be really nice.”
On the last night before I left for college, we sat in Swallow’s kitchen with Quiet in the bucket on the table between us. In only a few weeks, Swallow would leave for college, and Quiet would finally have an appropriately sized tank for a lionfish. For what felt like hours, we said nothing. Swallow spooned a bit of tuna into the water.
“It’s been a good year,” she said, finally breaking the silence. As often was the case when we spoke, I didn’t know what to say to her. I looked at Quiet. The fish’s slick, black eye peered absentmindedly around its temporary home. In its’ eye, I could see a very small reflection of my face looking down at it. I must have looked like a giant to Quiet. Still, it kept aimlessly circling the bucket. I understood, then, what Swallow meant about the fish having a gentle spirit. I loved the fish in the same, strange way that Swallow loved it. I loved the fish more than I loved most things in my life.
“Hey, would you grab Dad’s ashes for me please?” Swallow asked. I nodded without thinking, stood up, and scooped them off the shelf. She took the jar out of my hands and rolled it around in hers as if she had never felt a jar before. Then, she opened the lid and poured a puff of ash into Quiet’s water. I sat back down across from her.
“Can I tell you something, Swallow?”
“Anything.” Her eyes were fixed on the ashes, slowly drifting through Quiet’s water.
“To be honest,” I said, sheepishly, “I don’t really understand most of what you’ve done since your dad died. I don’t know why you’ve taken care of Quiet. Not that I don’t like what you’ve done or anything—I mean, you know I love Quiet. I just don’t understand.”
Swallow grinned, screwing the lid back on the jar and leaning forward to place it back in my hands again. Her hands were warm, and a little shaky.
“I don’t understand anything I have ever done,” she said, “not one thing.”
We fell into silence again. That night, the kitchen was quiet. That night, we were happy just keeping quiet.