Jack felt a tug on the line. The first one. He’d been bounding from bow to stern, starboard to aft, and back again for an hour, keen on fishing with Grandpa. And now it had happened. The line zipped across the rolling bay, reel spinning at maximum whirl. “A big one,” Grandpa said, grinning. Jack giggled and clapped, leaping from foot to foot. He made enough commotion to incur Mama’s tight grip on his life vest. Grandpa beamed as he helped Jack’s small hands get into a proper reeling position. Jack fought, pulled, reeled for two long minutes, then whined, sat, and handed the reel off to Grandpa. Mama shrugged, unsurprised, and handed Jack a cheese cracker. “Don’t you want to reel him in, Jack?” she asked. “No, Grandpa can do it,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
In the old fisherman’s strong hands, the beast had no chance of escape. Jack’s enthusiasm returned when the fish’s face broke the surface. Leaning over the side of the boat, he began talking to the fish. “What’s your name, fishy? I’m Jack. Do you want to come to our boat?”
At this, his Mama’s brow furrowed, and she bit her lip. Grandpa thought nothing of it, laughed his jolly laugh, and swung the grouper aboard. Jack tried to pet the flopping fish, but then he saw the red stream drip from the gaping mouth. “What’s wrong, Grandpa? Is she hurt?” “Huh?” Grandpa looked to his daughter, unsure of what to say. Mama pulled Jack onto her lap, feeling his breathing quicken. “This is part of fishing, Jack,” she said. Jack’s bottom lip plumped and quivered. “We’re going to eat him, Jack,” Grandpa said finally, his smile drooping at his grandson’s disappointment. It may have been the first time in his life that a frown followed a great catch.
Blood and saltwater slurry seesawed on the floor of the boat in time with the waves, inching towards Jack’s toes with every roll. He stomped it away. “No!” he screamed, jumping from Mama’s lap. “Put her back! Put her back, Grandpa! Now! She can’t breathe.” Tears streamed down his plump pink cheeks, and his arms flailed, but his eyes stayed fixed on the gasping fish. “Please put her back. She has to get back to her babies. She’s hurt. Get her in the water! Grandpa, please!” Grandpa gripped the writhing animal and worked the hook from its lip, trying but failing to come up with something fitting to say to Jack.
Mama picked Jack up and carried him to the bow of the boat, looking back and mouthing to her dad, “Move the fish to the well.” She turned Jack to face the water, rubbed his back, and whispered consoling words into his little ear. The plop of the fish landing in the boat well pulled her attention, and she looked up to catch her father staring down at his dinner, discreetly wiping his own tears.