There's a goldfish in the bed. And a blue velvet pouch with a broken zipper, some marbles, a penny, a fake ruby ring, a couple loose bobby pins, wads of used tissues, an overdue library book, a #2 pencil, half of a pink eraser, a candy lipstick, a spiral notebook, crumbs of buttered toast, a spoon, a cough, a sneeze, a hiccup, and one sick little girl known as Needle.
The goldfish, Maxie, isn’t supposed to be in the bed, she’s supposed to be in her bowl, keeping company with her ceramic castle and her mermaid and her colored rocks — green, yellow, orange, turquoise.
The bed business was a big mistake. What you might call a fatal error. Somebody got careless. Let’s be honest, and also specific: it was Needle.
We could blame it on the fever. But it wasn’t necessarily the fever’s fault alone. There is the fact, not to be ignored, that Needle is absent-minded, self-absorbed, selfish, unaware, forgetful, indifferent, uncaring, neglectful, irritating, bossy, noisy and whiny. Even without the fever.
We might feel sympathy for Needle, but we don’t have to like her. In fact, we don’t like her. We hold her responsible for Maxie’s death, even if she considers herself blameless.
Well, of course she would.
Now what is to be done with the ceramic castle? What is to be done with the mermaid, poor thing?
The library book stinks. It smells of fish. Don’t hold that against Maxie. It was Needle, flinging things around the bed, willy nilly, who created that most unholy of combinations: goldfish flattened within the pages of Little Women.
Needle is hungry. Famished. Starving. It’s been fifteen minutes since her mother brought in the lime jello. Fifteen minutes since her mother said "I—am—not—your—servant." Fifteen minutes since her mother said, “I’ll be back in one hour with your sandwich, not a second sooner, do not call me again, Nadine Weinstock, I mean it.” Forty-five minutes to go.
Needle doesn’t think she can make it. She reaches for her cherry-burst candy lipstick. She smears it all over her mouth. It cheers her up. She licks her lips. And licks them some more. More. She sticks out her tongue and licks the lipstick that peeks up out of the gold cardboard tube. It is delicious. Like a cherry coke. Better, even, than a cherry coke.
Another lick, and then a nibble and then a bite. And another. More. Again. It's heavenly.
And then she throws up.
We could say that wasn’t her fault, either. She was sick. Hungry. Tired. Bored. Lonely. We can always find some excuse if we want to. But do we want to? Do we?
Her mother comes in even though the hour is not yet up. "Oh Nadine, Nadine, Nadine," she says.
She goes to get a cold washcloth and then she changes the sheets. That’s when dead Maxie is discovered. What a hullabaloo. Maxie down the toilet. Flush. Flush again, just to be safe.
Needle weeps. But not for Maxie. She weeps for herself and the cherry-burst candy lipstick, which she knows she'll never be allowed to have again. Probably not until she's old and in high school, whenever that will be.
Who knows about the future, anyway? Just ask Maxie. Maxie expected to live at least until tomorrow and look how wrong she was.