Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia.

He was most recently accepted for publication at Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, JAKE magazine, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planet, Short-Story.me, White-Enso, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary.

He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, and his pet rabbit, Achilles. 


by Robert Pettus


“Get your fish; get your fish and crustaceans! I got ‘em for a heck of a price! Local fish sold by a local man!”

Mr. Bradshaw, the limping salesman, gripped his twisted cane tightly with both hands, leaning on it as its rubber base dug into the chalky gravel of the local fairgrounds. Prickly, curly stray hairs stretched from the shiny surface of his bald head as if competing with one another for sunlight. He loved the life of a traveling salesman, but he had a lot on his mind.

“Fish!” he repeated, “Catfish, bluegill, crappie, sunfish! Crawdads! Got an aquarium? Then I have minnows! I even have a baby grass carp! All local fish! Perfect for your home aquarium!”

The old man frowned. He wasn’t gathering quite the crowd he had hoped for. A cacophony continued around him. Bells dinged, swinging ships swung, ferris wheels spun, and the merry-go-round played that annoying, though classic song over and over as bears, tigers, and unicorns rotated, smiling endlessly. The air was thick with the smell of frying funnel cakes and sizzling sausages.

It was night in the small town of Abry, and the traveling carnival of which Mr. Bradshaw was a part had so far been a huge success. Every part of it other than his fish sales, that is. Mr. Bradshaw had painstakingly collected these fish from the numerous ponds, lakes, and rivers in the American South and Midwest, and it upset him when no one wanted to purchase his product.

“I have local fish!” he continued, “Perfect for your aquarium! I’ve even got a snapping turtle! I’ve got frogs! Put ‘em in your aquarium, or fry ‘em up for dinner—doesn’t matter to me!”

“What’s this one?” came a voice from the other side of Mr. Bradshaw’s sales booth. It was a teenaged kid, who stood glaring into one of the fish tanks, peering curiously.

“That one isn’t for sale,” said Mr. Bradshaw, “It’s too valuable. It’s for display only.”

“What is it?” said the kid.

“What’s your name?” said Mr. Bradshaw.

“Nate,” said the kid.

“Well, Nate, that’s a Mammoth Cave Shiner. It lives in total blackness for the entirety of its life; that’s why it’s transparent; that’s why it ain’t got no eyes.”

“It isn’t totally black outside right now,” said Nate, “There are lights flashing everywhere, so it obviously doesn’t live its entire life in total blackness.”

“This is not its natural environment,” said Mr. Bradshaw, “This particular fish has an unusual life in comparison to its peers. Most of them aren’t fortunate enough to leave the cave.”

“I want to buy it,” said Nate.

“I already told you; it’s not for sale.”

“I’m rich. My parents own the porta-potty business.”

“APT? Abry Portable Toilets?”

“That’s the one. I’ll give you two grand for this little fish.”

“Two grand?” said Mr. Bradshaw, dumbfounded.

“You heard me.”

That was a deal Mr. Bradshaw couldn’t refuse. He knew he shouldn’t sell the fish, but he also knew he had bills to pay. Plus, the traveling carnival was souring on the idea of including a fish-salesman in its list of attractions. Mr. Bradshaw wasn’t creating much excitement within the carnival atmosphere. This sale would instantly change that perception, though.

“What the hell,” said Mr. Bradshaw, “You’ve got yourself a deal. How are you going to pay? Cash? Card? I can’t accept a check.”

“No one uses checks anymore,” said Nate, “I’ll use my card.”

Mr. Bradshaw then recollected proudly his decision to buy the credit-card machine the previous year. He was an old man; he had worked exclusively with cash for years. That used to be the culture at traveling carnivals—cash only. But he began noticing other vendors—those who accepted credit cards—making significantly more money than him. He bought the machine because of that, and it was about to pay off, literally.

There was still the ethical dilemma, though. Mr. Bradshaw knew that he had no business selling this fish.

“I’ll have to get some more paper,” he said to the kid, “Receipt printer is out.”

“I don’t need a receipt,” said the kid.

I do. Plus, you might want it later, when your parents find out you spent two grand on a fish. Not that there are any returns—all sales are final—just figured they might want to see proof of purchase.”

Mr. Bradshaw walked to the back of his booth. Gravel crunched under his feet, momentarily creating in the arch of his feet a sharp pain. That was okay, though—Mr. Bradshaw didn’t mind that. He always wore his moccasins to work, and he always would. They were the most comfortable shoes, even with the sharp pains from the rocks.

A wave of anxiety came over him as he stood silently slouching at the back of his booth. He leaned onto his twisted cane, struggling to keep his composure. He told himself he would never sell that fish. He would never release it; he would never sell it—it would serve only to attract customers to his booth.

Nearly passing out, Mr. Bradshaw blinked several times, stumbling backward before catching himself. He remembered when he had found the first specimen so many years ago. He remembered sneaking—through that sinkhole the park rangers hadn’t yet found; his personal entrance—into Mammoth Cave. He remembered descending to the river Styx, shining his bright light into that stagnant water, and greedily scooping up one of the fish; those mysterious, ancient creatures of the cavern. So misunderstood; so intoxicating.

“You okay, old man?” said Nate from the other side of the booth.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Mr. Bradshaw, pulling the handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiping the collected sweat from his brow. “I’ve got the receipt paper.”

Mr. Bradshaw opened the machine and loaded the paper, subsequently gesturing for Nate’s credit card. Upon taking his card—a Capital One Venture X, spoiled kid—Mr. Bradshaw noticed that invisible fish staring at him eyelessly from the tank. Mr. Bradshaw winced, prickly panic again crawling up his spine.

“You know what,” he said, “I don’t think I can do it, after all. I’m sure your parents don’t want you doing this. The price isn’t right. It just doesn’t feel like a good thing to do.”

“What are you talking about, old man?” said Nate, “You’re a salesman, right? You have this fish for sale, right? I made you a very generous offer, right? So you will sell me the stupid fish!”

The kid then stamped his feet in childish frustration. His face was red with anger. Steam looked to be coming from his ears, though it was merely his breath visible in the evening autumn chill.

This kid was such a rotten little dick. Mr. Bradshaw again changed his mind, glaring maliciously over to the floating fish, who at that point darted under a rock, attempting to hide from the inevitable net. “Have it your way, kid,” said Mr. Bradshaw, grabbing his small green net and waddling over to the cloudy tank.

“What’s taking you so long?” said the kid, “Aren’t you supposed to be a professional?”

“Ain’t easy to catch an invisible fish,” said Mr. Bradshaw. “Especially not at night when it’s doubly disappeared.”

“Well hurry it up. I want to ride the Ferris wheel again before this junk-heap of a carnival closes down.”

Sniffing, Mr. Bradshaw continued sifting the net across the gravel of the bottom of the tank like a seine. Finally entrapping the fish against the glass of the wall, he dragged the net up out of the tank, grabbing its bottom and dumping the fish into the water-filled plastic baggie. He tied it off with a rubber band.

“There you go,” said Mr. Bradshaw, handing the jiggling baggie to Nate. “Nice doing business with you.”

“Whatever, old man,” said Nate, walking off, kicking up dust from the gravel in his excited stride.

The money he had made didn’t abate Mr. Bradshaw’s sense of dread. He knew Nate’s inevitable fate. He had experienced it only once—years ago, after he had caught the first specimen. Flashing disappearances. Bones at the bottom of the cave, upon the bank of that black river.

He should never have gone back for another specimen. He needed to attract business, though—he was a failing salesman. A failing carny salesman. He made the choice, but he swore never to sell the fish. He had broken that promise. He needed the money, but the consequences of his actions were inevitable.

Unless… maybe they weren’t? Perhaps the first specimen had been the only magical fish; the only one! It could be that the fish he had sold that little brat Nate had been nothing other than an odd looking, invisible, eyeless cave fish. Mr. Bradshaw convinced himself of the truth of this, feeling instantly better. The curtain of anxiety compressing him like an MRI was lifted.


The Ferris wheel creaked and shook as it raised Nate circularly, in counterclockwise fashion, higher into the night. These old things were so unreliable, that’s why Nate loved them. It felt like the thing could come crashing down at any moment, its nuts and bolts discharging with a clatter into the parking lot. That wouldn’t happen though, Nate hoped.

Nate was the only passenger on the ride. It was getting late; most of the other carnival goers had already left. When his capsule reached its apex, he stared up into the night at the crescent moon, blade-like, as if written by an Arabic cosmic deity. Nate lifted the baggie containing the fish to examine it in the moonlight. The fish turned to him. Nate could somehow feel it boring into his soul.

He closed his eyes after seeing—and feeling—the flash. When he opened them, he saw nothing. Total blackness. Nate raised his hand in front of his face; he couldn’t see it at all. He whimpered, then began crying, then screamed out. His voice bounced off the walls, echoing into the nothingness.

Nate felt an aggressive tug at his leg—something forceful. It wasn’t a hand; it was more like a nipping, uncoordinated collection of slimy mouths. He fought, but he couldn’t get away—they were too innumerable, somehow too strong. They dragged him into the river; into his new home—his black aquarium.

As he gasped for breath, water filled Nate’s lungs. It was clean water.


Mr. Bradshaw saw a flash of light from atop the Ferris wheel. “No!” he thought, surprised—grim. How had he convinced himself of the fish’s safety? How did he not know better? What could he do? He could do nothing—there wasn’t enough time—but he knew where he would find the boy’s bones.

He could at least recover them, for the family.

The next day, Mr. Bradshaw traveled into the cave, approaching the river with his bright light. He had extra batteries in his pocket—he had made sure of that. He even had a torch and a pack of matches, in case he needed it. The fish hated the light—it made them too fearful to attack.

As expected, he saw a collection of bones which had been regurgitated from the river out onto the stony bank of cave. Placing them gently into his backpack, Mr. Bradshaw noticed in the shine of his idly sitting flashlight a school of fish darting around in the river. He tried to turn away, but he couldn’t help it—it was an addiction! After finishing placing the boy’s bones in his pack, Mr. Bradshaw walked to the bank of the river.

Gently placing his small green net into the river, he waved it back and forth like a sein. Upon removing it from the water, he noticed he had collected two specimens. Two of them! How lucky! He placed them into a plastic baggie and nestled them gently in his backpack.

He knew the fish could not curse him directly, because he was more cursed by greed and a fear of losing his job at the carnival than anything else. 

These new fish would be only for show; he promised himself that.