Gregory never expected his goldfish to come back from the dead.
It had been a perfectly normal Wednesday, except that when Gregory went to feed his fish that morning, he was belly up, bobbing near the top of his tank, and obviously not hungry.
The fish was named Bubba, and Gregory had acquired him in the way that most children become the owner of a goldfish: by winning a game at the school fair. Unlike all those other, weaker goldfish, Bubba lived to the age of 3, much to Gregory’s delight and his parents’ chagrin.
Gregory’s mother had wanted him to flush Bubba. That’s what you do with fish, she told him, in a not-so-gentle, not-very-patient voice. But Gregory insisted on a proper burial and funeral, just like they’d done for his grandfather a year earlier. After all, he hadn’t known his grandfather very well, whereas Bubba was a cherished family member who did not smell like cigarettes or offer Gregory wads of chewed gum.
His mother could not argue on this point, especially since Grandpa was not her father. That would be Poppy, who performed excellent card tricks and gave Gregory unopened candy, and occasionally, twenty-dollar bills.
Fine, his mother said, but there was no time for a burial now; the school bus would be here soon. Gregory dutifully scooped the fish out of the tank and placed him in a Tupperware container, which he then put in the fridge with a ‘do not eat’ label. It would be unfortunate if someone were to get hungry and cook Bubba while he was at school.
When Gregory got home that afternoon, he went straight to the fridge as usual, but instead of getting a snack, he took out Bubba. He carried the container to his room and gently placed it on the ground while he rummaged in his closet. Pushing aside shoes, a lacrosse stick, old school papers, and his trumpet, he found what he was looking for: a small shoebox. Carefully, he opened the container and transferred Bubba into the box. He wanted to give Bubba something, a companion for the grave, but couldn’t think of anything a fish would want, so he closed the box and put it aside. He turned back to the closet and looked thoughtfully at the clothes hanging there.
A few minutes later, Gregory emerged into the kitchen carrying the shoebox and wearing a dress shirt with a tie knotted haphazardly around his neck. His mother looked up from her laptop and suppressed a smile as Gregory asked for a marker. She pointed to a cup on the table and grimaced when Gregory dropped his fish casket on the table. He selected two markers, red and blue, and wrote ‘Bubba’ on the box in large block letters that almost concealed the Adidas logo. When he had finished, he announced, “I need everyone in the backyard in five minutes!”
Fifteen minutes later, Gregory’s shirt was stained with mud, and he had managed to dig a two-inch hole in the ground with an especially pointy stick. He noticed his parents and older sister exchanging looks that he interpreted as encouraging. Finally, his sister went inside, slammed the door, and came back out with a small shovel in hand. She pushed Gregory aside with an impatient “Move!” and quickly dug a hole large enough for the box.
The whole family stood around for another half hour as Gregory modeled Bubba’s funeral on Grandpa’s and one that he’d seen on a cartoon once. He made them each recount their favorite Bubba memory. He was surprised that for all of them, it was the day Gregory brought Bubba home. Personally, Gregory’s favorite was the time that he put Bubba in the bathtub while he cleaned his tank. He expected at least one family member to choose that memory. Perhaps his sister, who had tried to take a shower that day only to discover Bubba swimming happily in the tub. After they shared their memories, Gregory asked his father to sing a song. All in all, it was a lovely service, the kind that can really put a soul to eternal rest.
Because of that, Gregory was understandably astonished a few days later, when Bubba came back to life. It was a sunny Saturday morning, and Gregory had planned to ride his bike and practice the piano, but he suddenly forgot those plans, distracted by the undead fish at his bedroom window.
Ignoring the obvious logistical questions, such as, how can a fish climb to a second story window? and how can a fish come back to life?, Gregory opened his window and welcomed Bubba into his room. He was relieved to see that Bubba appeared well, without so much as a wrinkled fin.
“Hello Bubba,” Gregory said, as he used to do every morning when Bubba was alive.
Unlike all those mornings, however, this time Bubba replied, in a surprisingly deep voice, “Hello, Gregory.” Gregory was, typically, hard to surprise, and he was staying calm about the resurrected fish in his room, but this put the situation over the edge. To his credit, Gregory did not scream, but he did stare at Bubba with a gaping mouth for a much longer time than is considered polite. Bubba continued, “You must be wondering why I’m here.” Gregory managed a nod, and Bubba said, “I need your help.”
Bubba did not remember dying, or being in the refrigerator, or being in the box. He heard the words spoken at his funeral, but muffled, as if spoken from a distance. His first clear memory since his last moments alive in the tank was opening his eyes in a dimly lit space.
Bubba realized that he was in a tunnel with openings to his left and right and in front of him. Behind him was a hard surface, rough and plastered with mud. Although there was no water, Bubba was able to breathe, and walk on his fins. He might have been astounded if he weren’t so terrified.
He had to make a choice. After a few moments, he decided to go forward, and hoped for the best. Bubba traveled for what felt like a long time, and gradually grew accustomed to walking on his fins instead of swimming. Just when he was starting to think that he should turn back, he noticed a shadowy form that was growing more solid as he approached. The shape wasn’t large, but it was bigger than Bubba. Bubba decided to continue walking; he was lost, and no one could fault him for that.
The shadow suddenly moved to a standing position, and Bubba saw the unmistakable shape of a cat. For a fish, it can’t get much worse than that, but it was too late for Bubba to turn back now. He mustered all his courage and said, “Hello?”
He was close enough now to see a pair of eyes that were bright and yellow, but not unfriendly. The cat opened its mouth, revealing sharp teeth, and Bubba flinched, but the cat just said, “You must be a new arrival.”
Lamely, Bubba said, “Huh?”
The cat peered at him. “A new arrival. I’ve been waiting for you. It took you a while to get here.”
“I’m not used to walking—”
Lifting a white paw, the cat said, “Never mind that now. Come on, we don’t have much time.”
Bubba followed the cat, whose name was Smokey, he soon learned. They didn’t talk much at first, as Bubba was focused on keeping up with Smokey, a lifelong walker accustomed to the dim tunnels they traveled through. Finally, he asked, “Why were you waiting for me?”
Smokey looked over his shoulder at Bubba and stopped walking. Suddenly, a clawed paw came towards Bubba, and he was scooped onto Smokey’s back. “This will be much faster. I don’t want the Impropers to find us,” Smokey said.
“The what?” Bubba said, still confused.
“Impropers,” Smokey hissed, and abruptly turned into another branch of the tunnel as a group of shadows passed through the spot they had just occupied, laughing loudly, and not in a friendly way. Still whispering, Smokey said, “We must hurry, before anyone sees us.”
At this point in his story, Bubba noticed that Gregory was sniffling and had tears running down his cheeks. He asked, “Why are you crying?”
In a shaky voice, Gregory said, “It’s my fault that this happened! I thought I gave you a proper burial, but I didn’t!”
“No!” Bubba exclaimed. “That’s not it at all. You did everything right.”
“Then what do you need my help for?”
“Well, you see, not everyone is like you. Not all pets get the kind of proper burial that you gave me. Can I finish my story? You’ll understand everything soon.”
Gregory wiped his cheek and gestured for Bubba to continue.
Once the danger had passed, Smokey explained as much as he could. They were going to see the Queen, who ruled over this underground world. Everyone who lived here was a pet who had died.
“Whether you’re a Proper or an Improper all depends on the kind of send-off you get,” Smokey said. “You could have the best owner, and the best life, and still end up Improper.”
Bubba detected a hint of sadness in Smokey’s voice. “But you and I, we’re both Proper?”
“You are,” Smokey said. Bubba wished he could remember the funeral more of the Gregory had given him. It must have been especially good. He pushed this thought aside as he realized what Smokey was saying. If Smokey was Improper, he was dangerous. Bubba needed to escape, but before he could formulate a plan, Smokey said, “I know what you’re thinking. But I left the Impropers a long time ago. That’s why I need you. The Propers will let me live among them, but only if I can find the new arrival who will bring peace. I wait for them to get here, and I bring them to the Queen, in hopes that one of them will be our hero. But…” Bubba nearly lost his grip as Smokey shook his head sadly. “Let’s just say no one has succeeded yet. Maybe you can change that.”
They continued in silence for a while after that, until the tunnel began to narrow and suddenly ended. Before Bubba could panic about the dead end, Smokey lifted a paw and drew two sets of parallel lines with his claws on the wall in front of them. With a slow rumble, a hole opened in the wall. Smokey sat down and let Bubba slide gently down his back. “You have to go alone from here,” he said. “I can’t go any further. Good luck, Bubba.” With that, Smokey turned and headed back the way they came, leaving Bubba alone with no choice but to hoist himself up and crawl through the hole. Once on the other side, Bubba watched as the hole shrank and closed behind him. He turned around and took in his surroundings with a sense of awe.
Everything glistened in silver, blue and emerald green, like the pebbles that had once lined his tank. Bubba almost expected to find himself in water, cool and refreshing. At the center of the room hung a golden birdcage, empty, with the door ajar. Suddenly, yellow feathers passed him in a blur, and flew into the cage. The door slammed shut, and the cage dropped lower to the floor, so that Bubba could see the small parakeet now perched inside.
“Hello. Did Smokey bring you?” the parakeet asked, in a high, lilting voice that Bubba immediately found soothing.
With as much confidence as he could muster, Bubba said, just as Smokey had instructed him, “Yes. I’m Bubba, goldfish of Gregory. Are you the Queen?”
The parakeet responded with laughter that echoed in the expansive room. “Oh, you’re an interesting one. This may actually work. Although I was hoping you would be less…aquatic.”
Bubba ignored her insult and said, as bravely as he could, “What do I need to do?”
“Right to the point. I like that. Bubba, I need you to go back above ground. You see, for years, the Impropers have waged war against us, hoping to rule this realm with brute force and unkindness. We have held them off, but recently it has become more difficult. Their ranks have grown, and we cannot hide forever. Some, like your friend Smokey, have defected to our side, but they are often caught and tortured. Smokey has been lucky so far, but I cannot trust him completely until the threat is gone. Do you understand?”
“A bit.” Bubba did not understand.
The Queen flapped her wings impatiently. “It will have to do. We are wasting time. You must leave now, or you won’t be able to go above ground. I will send you with an escort. Go to Gregory and give him this. With any luck, he will know what to do.” With another flap of her right wing, she conjured a piece of paper that floated down to Bubba. He moved closer to read it, but it was in a language he did not understand. On its own, the paper rolled into a tight cylinder. A red and black snake slithered out from a shadowy corner and picked up the paper with its tail, then stuck its tongue out, which Bubba understood as an indication that he should climb onto its back.
“Goodbye, Bubba,” the Queen called out. “Carlita will keep you safe. Stay with her and return as quickly as you can. And Bubba?”
“We are counting on you.”
Before Bubba could reply, Carlita took off, taking them through hole that had opened in the ground.
“So a snake brought you here?” Gregory asked, incredulously.
Bubba was slightly annoyed that this was Gregory’s takeaway, but he said calmly, “Yes. She’s waiting outside. How did you think I climbed up to your window?”
“I—” Gregory started, then shook his head. “You mentioned a letter. Where is it?”
“Oh, of course, the letter! I think it got stuck in the window.”
Gregory hopped up from where he sat on his bed and crossed to the window. Sure enough, a small piece of paper was caught in the screen, fluttering in the breeze. Gregory plucked it free, unrolled the paper, and began to read. Bubba waited, feeling vaguely nervous.
Finally, Gregory exhaled the breath he had been holding and said, “I know what we have to do.” Moving with determination now, he picked up Bubba and popped him into his pocket. After all the fin-walking, cat-riding, and snake-slithering, Bubba was grateful to sit in a warm sweatshirt pocket. Gregory talked half to himself and half to Bubba while he wandered around his room, taking seemingly random objects out from the closet, under his bed, and dresser drawers.
“One of the Improper leaders is a dog named Duke. He used to belong to my neighbor Percy, but when Duke got hit by a car, Percy made his dad bury him. No ceremony or anything. But if I can get Percy to give Duke a proper funeral, Duke will move to the side of the Propers, and he can help them win the war.”
“But Gregory,” Bubba said, “You’re not friends with Percy! Not even close! I remember you came home crying one day because he stole your lunch—”
“I know, Bubba. Percy is not my friend. But he will be. I’ll figure this out. I promise. Now I need you to go back with Carlita and tell the Queen I’m going to help.” Bubba wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t protest as Gregory took him back to the window and called for Carlita, who immediately appeared. As Bubba climbed onto her back, Gregory said in a strong unwavering voice, “I will make sure your death was not in vain, Bubba.” Neither of them knew it then, but this was the last time Bubba and Gregory would see one another. Bubba had to hope that the boy would keep his word.
Turning back from the window, Gregory surveyed the collection of items he had gathered on his bed. From them, he selected a football jersey, a lacrosse stick, and a handheld video game. He slipped the jersey over his head and carried the stick and game in each hand. There would be no time for bike riding and piano playing today. He had work to do.