Fish Out of Water (2017 Short Fiction Contest Runner Up)

Joan Leotta’s short story, “Fish Out of Water,” is the runner up in Lawyerist’s fourth annual short-fiction contest.

“Odd, that girl is sooo odd.” Then silence. Uncomfortable silence. That reaction characterized my childhood. The speaker was often my mother or another relative although sometimes a teacher or stranger made the remark—as if I were not able to hear it, but certainly loud enough for all around to hear and nod in agreement. Usually this unflattering observation followed an incident where I had stared at and then exclaimed over the lovely or unlovely aura surrounding someone.

Eventually my family simply ignored my oddities and me. Cousins, aunts, uncles, even my own parents avoided sitting too close to me at picnics and parties.

“She’s creepy,” I once heard a younger cousin say. “Stares at us like a fish.”

Thanks to the intervention of the one person in the family who did not seem to mind my staring or comments, Shelia, no one actually bothered me or even teased me very much at those gatherings or at the school we both attended. Sheila, a “cool girl,” also kept me from being physically as well as emotionally shoved aside on the school playground. She retained her role of protector through middle and high school, although by my teen years, I knew enough to stop staring and sharing my aura observations.

I kept to myself the breathtaking sights of colored auras, good or bad, dancing in front of me. I knew now, that others did see me as a cold fish, an oddity. Only instead of looking out at them from the fishbowl, I was constantly staring in at the others happily swimming about in the fishbowl of daily, ordinary life. Staring in, but never a part of it. Shelia was the only one I told about the powerful colors I experienced. Our bond was cemented by a use of nicknames when we were alone. I called her “Lee”, short for “Lee Lee”, my baby name for her. She called me “Angel,” instead of Angelina, because she said she was sure someday I would learn to fly above all of the negative influences and people around me. I was sure she only said that because she felt an obligation to be kind to her “little” cousin. Even with her kind ministrations, at school, among family, no matter where I was, I felt like an outsider, always looking in, never a part of the “party.”

However, her faith in me proved true. My senior year high school art teacher, Miss Wilson, changed my life. She talked about sketch journals one day. After that class, armed with a pack of colored pencils, I began to record aura sightings on a regular basis. Miss Wilson praised my skill and encouraged me to pursue my “artistic vision.” This was an especially vulnerable time for me, since Sheila was off at college on the West Coast. I spoke to her weekly but now the role of daily care fell to Miss Wilson.

The praise and faith of Miss Wilson nurtured both my skill and my confidence. Slowly, I became able to share what I saw, both the strong and often lovely vibrations and even the awful ones in the guise of art. I began to rely on my art to survive socially as well. After I won a few contests, other art students invited me to sit with them. I had found a community of “creatives” who accepted me. Sheila told me she was not surprised.

The following year, at my own college, I declared as an art major. I honed my drawing skills as well as painting the colors I saw in and around people and, increasing also around things.

Practicing my skill under the warming glow of artistic praise and economic encouragement (my work began to sell well even then) made me seem “interesting” though still “odd” to my mother and the rest of the family. Although sitting with me at clan gatherings was still not much in demand, my boisterous relations often stopped by my table to say how glad they were that I was channeling my strange fascination with colors into something useful. Sometimes they even sat with me a bit and chatted for a few minutes. But success was no guarantee of family affection. In fact, I heard one aunt call me “a snob” at my own college graduation party. I still did not really fit in.

Sheila rarely returned to the East Coast, even on summer breaks. She stayed in California for graduate school and began a career there. I started my art career in Raleigh, North Carolina, far from the hip New York scene, but close to the supportive college professors who worked to help me expand my talent. Shelia and I remained close through frequent contact with email and Skype.

About a year after I left college, Shelia’s emails and Skypes suddenly became less about what she was doing and more about a certain guy named Sebastian. “He is so handsome,” was her constant refrain.

When I asked what “Seb” did for a living, she quickly corrected me about his name. “Sebastian does not like nicknames. He is a lawyer for a major financial investment firm.”

She then told me she would stop calling me “Angel” and commanded me to stop calling her “Lee.”

“Childish,” she declared. Before I could argue for at least keeping mine, she prattled on about Sebastian. I only caught part of it. “Sebastian likes to keep things very orderly and clean. Blah, blah. Sebastian is particular about what he eats. Blah blah. Sebastian loves to swim.”


Just a few weeks later, she called to announce her engagement. “When we marry, we will buy a house with a pool. I’ll learn to swim. You should too. We’re getting married out here—only my mother and father coming. Civil ceremony. That’s what Sebastian wants. Mother’s giving a party for us the following week in Raleigh. You’ll meet him then.”

Sebastian had a day in court that kept him from arriving in North Carolina until the morning of the party. I saw him for the first time as he stepped into the ballroom at the local Sheraton. What I saw frightened me. His aura was dark, a blackness that flickered like black sequins in the glow of the ballroom’s mirrors and chandeliers.

My gasp of horror was drowned out by the music announcing the bride’s entrance. No objections were called for, there was no ceremony. They were already married. It was only a moment of music for the first dance. Could I, should I tell her what I saw? Maybe tell her mother? My mother? Who among them would believe me, the family oddball? Somehow, I felt even Sheila, never again to be “Lee” would not really want to hear what I had to say, so I tried to look cheerful and hope that perhaps that day my senses were put off kilter by the music and bright lights.

Five years passed. I became a respected artist. My cousin’s contact with me dwindled to monthly emails about Sebastian and his success. Always talk about Sebastian. Sheila rarely said anything about herself. She rarely returned to visit. I missed her, especially at our annual family reunion picnics. She did return for Grandma’s funeral, but zipped in and back in a pair of 24-hour apart red-eye flights.

Despite being friendly toward me for the few minutes I saw her at the funeral, she was not really warm. I decided to think she was just tired. However, Shelia never resumed our Skype relationship and never invited me out to California to visit. Actually, she never invited any of the family to see her in California. I think her Mother went once a year. Eventually, our only communication was a Christmas card exchange.

As a successful artist, people congregated around me at parties, openings. I knew they didn’t want to know the real me, just learn about me. Once conversation about the complexity and impact of my work, weather, and/or their family news ended, we had nothing more to say. I had no personal news to impart. I lived alone without a pet, without a roommate, alone in my small, cluttered loft surrounded by swirling colors and piles of blank and finished canvases.

My signature remained the only clue to my continuing feeling of being different, feeling isolated from everyone else. I signed all my paintings signed with a small fish lying out of the water, outside of a fish bowl, looking in at the other fish happily ignoring her.


So, that is the way things stood until this past spring, my mother called to me that she was arranging the annual family picnic in the local park we had frequented when I was a child.

“Everyone will bring a favorite childhood dessert. I will provide everything else, hot dogs, burgers, sides, and lemonade,” she explained.

“Mom, I’m not sure I want to go.”

“Yes you do, and it might be good for you to act normal.”

I ignored her jab. “Why? No one ever talks to me at family picnics, Mom.”

“Nonsense. That’s all in your imagination. Everyone cares about you, I’m sure. Anyway, Sheila is coming and you haven’t seen her since Grandma died two years ago.”

Sheila! Mom was right, I did want to go to the picnic.

I decided to form a plan to keep busy in case Sheila could not (or would not) spend much time talking to me. The park was lovely and might be fodder for a new series of miniature paintings/collages I had been thinking about. I planned on gluing real pressed flowers in bouquets of two or three onto canvases as part of the work created using the colors I saw in the auras of people I knew. Mostly people who loved those same flowers.

“Love it!” was my agent’s reaction to my idea. “And your relatives—there should be a lot of interesting auras to inspire you at this picnic.”

I agreed. I made Mexican wedding cakes, the cookie that was my favorite, and Sheila’s when we were young. We had always eaten those nutty buttery cookies by the handful, covering ourselves in powdered sugar at each family event.

When I got to the picnic, Shelia was putting down her offering. Sheila and I hugged at the dessert table. She had brought brownies. “These are Sebastian’s favorites, ” she gushed.

Before I could talk to Sheila, Sebastian came up to the table. A blast of black wavy lines emanated from him. I stepped back.

When he grabbed Sheila’s arm, her usual pink aura went blue, like a hydrangea planted in different soil—but instantly. Blue? Not a bad color normally, but odd for Sheila.

Sebastian smiled lovingly at Sheila and spoke. “Before we eat, dear, I would like to talk to you. Alone, okay.” Sebastian’s last two words, however, were more of a low growling command than an invitation to romance. I seemed to be the only person who noticed how his presence sucked the air out from underneath the picnic shelter. Some of my other cousins were standing around. “Sebastian, thanks for the good advice on that traffic ticket,” my oldest cousin commented.

I shook my head. I’d never take advice from a person with such an awful aura. Sebastian and Sheila walked off to the left, toward the woods. As I watched them walk off, I wondered if I was mistaken about him. Was I projecting negativity onto him because he had moved Shelia away from me to the West Coast? I took a deep breath and inspired by Sebastian’s legal profession, mumbled to myself, “innocent until proven guilty.”

As I had feared, with Shelia off somewhere else, the others avoided me. So, I excused myself and ambled down the hiking trail to the right of our reserved picnic shelter, with my small notebook , ready to press any flowers I might collect.

My search for tiny blooms soon took me off the main trail. About an hour later, I realized I was lost. I stopped and listened a moment. I could no longer hear the happy laughter of the family picnic, but I could hear water. I knew the park’s stream led back to our family’s picnic spot. I headed toward the cheery gurgle in the distance. Just as I was about to push through to the stream from behind some tall rhododendron, I heard loud angry voices. Sheila. and Sebastian were walking toward the stream and arguing. I stayed hidden behind the bushes, embarrassed to be listening in on their private moment.

“Money, it’s always about money with you!” I heard Sheila tell Sebastian. “I won’t let you con my family into your scheme.”

“It is perfectly legal.”

“Legal, maybe, sketchy for sure!”

Sebastian’s reply was to push Sheila. Hard. She fell into the stream and hit her head on a rock. I saw red life flowing from her head. She tried to stand up. I opened my mouth to call out, to scream, but no sound came. I tried to walk but my legs were frozen. I watched as Sebastian stepped into the stream, to help her, I thought.

Instead, as I watched in horror, he pushed her down. Face down into the water. His black aura swirled about her blue one. Colors, so many colors. I fainted.

When I regained consciousness, Sebastian was gone. I made my way toward Sheila’s limp form. I bent down in the ankle deep cold water and soon realized I was completely alone. She had no aura. Sheila’s spirit was gone. I began to scream. I splashed through the water toward the picnic grounds. In a few moments, our calm family event became a disaster zone with police swarming about like ants.

The first thing I could recall clearly was sitting at the end of the EMS truck being treated for shock. I looked around and saw my mother huddled with some other relatives by the picnic shelter. Noises of voices and cars all blended into a whirr. I shook my head until I could pull individual sounds out of the cacophony. Sebastian, standing a few feet away from me, was talking to one of the policemen.

“Sheila and I went for a walk. We were hoping to find her cousin, the artist, Angelina.”

Me? They were looking for me? Didn’t they start out first? Bits and pieces of memories and sounds began to swirl about in my head. I watched Sebastian’s black aura begin to pulse.

He continued. “I wanted to go back. Shelia’s aunt and mother were due to start serving lunch. Sheila said she wanted a few more minutes to look for Angelina. I made a bet with her. It all seems so silly now. I bet her that her cousin had gone back to eat lunch and would be there when I went returned. Sheila said she still wanted to hunt but promised she would search no more than ten minutes more.”

Sebastian covered his face with his hands as if to stifle a sob. “If only I had stayed with her! It must have been in those minutes when she was alone that she slipped on the rocks in the stream, hit her head and well, face down in the stream, she drowned.”

Sebastian began to sob openly. “If only I had stayed with her. And poor Angelina, to discover Sheila than way.”

I wanted to scream out that I had seen him push her head down and hold her face in the water until she had drowned. I started to mumble something, but stopped. Had I really seen him hold her down until she could no longer breathe? With all of those strange auras about, my senses were on overload. I was feeling dizzy. Was that a bad dream? Could he really have done that to Sheila?

In any case, I was sure it would be apparent to all that the bereaved husband and legal expert, Sebastian was more credible than the family oddball. Especially since I was showing signs of hysteria and shock. So I kept silent. The longer the hours stretched out, the less sure I was of what I had seen in the woods.

A few days later, Sebastian called me from California. “You are mentioned in Sheila’s will,” he said. “She also left directions that I was to fly you out here for the reading. ”

When I hesitated, Sebastian added, “Sheila always wanted you to come out and visit.”

If that was so, why hadn’t Sheila invited me to visit while she was alive, I wondered? But if Sheila wanted me to be at the reading of her will in California, I would go.

“I’ll make a reservation for Sacramento as soon as we hang up,” I told Sebastian.

Driving me to the airport two days later, my mother sniffed, “I certainly don’t understand why you were the only one of us Sheila mentioned in her will. By the way, if she left you Grandma’s bracelet you should give it to one of your other, married cousins. After all, you don’t have anyone to leave it to.”

I nodded. The bracelet was not important to me.

Sebastian picked me up at the airport. Looking at him was difficult for me. His presence made me feel queasy and his dense, dark aura made it difficult for me to breathe in the confined space of the car. As we drove off, he said, “I cancelled your hotel reservation. It will be easier to stay at the house. The reading is tomorrow at two in my office in Sacramento. I’ve arranged for everything.”

I nodded. Sebastian’s presence was taking up all the air again. I was upset. I did not want to be alone with him. I pushed down my feelings and said nothing, comforting myself with the thought that perhaps I had been mistaken. After all, Sheila had loved this man.

When we got to the house, I told him I was tired and needed to rest. I did not even go down for dinner. The next morning, before he got up, I slipped out of the house to wander around the grounds. I wanted to acquaint myself with the house Sheila had loved. She always described it in her Christmas letters, noting every improvement or redecoration effort she had made during the previous year. Slowly, I explored all of it, including patio, pool and three -car garage, trying to get a sense of my dear cousin, to feel her in this place. But it all seemed cold and empty.

At around ten in the morning Sebastian found me still wandering about and after learning I had not eaten yet, suggested, “Why don’t we eat brunch out on the patio by the pool? The appointment is not until two in the afternoon.”

I was glad not to have to be inside the closed space of the kitchen to eat with Sebastian. However, on my walk around the pool, I had noticed wasps gathering by the flowerpots that lined the pool on each side. “Won’t the wasps bother us?” I asked him.

“No, they stay in the flowerpots for the most part. The worst thing they do is occasionally fall into the pool. Then I have to scoop them out. Perhaps you would even like to take a swim before we have brunch?”

“I don’t swim,” I mumbled. We were standing by the edge of the pool. I turned and looked down into the clear blue water. It was the same shade of blue Sheila’s aura had become when Sebastian grabbed her.

Sebastian took a step toward me. I was suddenly sure of what I had seen at the picnic and knew it to be true. I blurted out, “I saw you push Sheila’s face into the water. I will find a way to prove it!”

Sebastian laughed. I marveled at the clouds of black emanating from him as he laughed. “I thought you might have seen something. That’s why I invited you out here. That plus Shelia left you quite a bit of money. She stashed away quite a bit over these past few years without my knowing it. That money that should be mine. Glad you confirmed you still can’t swim, so say good bye.”

Sebastian reached out to push me into the pool. I jumped aside with greater athleticism than I knew I possessed, pivoted away from the edge, and then shoved him into the pool.

He toppled into the water, striking his head on the lip of the pool as he fell. He was unconscious and in the deep end. He began to float away from the side. I sat down on the side of the pool and leaned out to reach for him.


I pulled back my arm. I remembered the blue around my cousin, her blue aura—water. He murdered my cousin. I was sure of it. I knew no one would ever believe me. Even if they did, where was my proof. The logic of it all was on his side. I felt that if we went to court, he would win.

I went back into the house, changed into dry clothes, picked up a book and sat down on the couch to read. An hour later I dialed 911. I pulled my wet clothes back on, dampening them a bit from the sink. The EMS crew arrived quickly, along with the police.

I calmly related the details I had dreamt up about Sebastian’s accident—how he went outside to set up for our brunch while I was reading and how he must have fallen into the pool.

“I lost track of time while I was reading my book. I think I fell asleep. Jet lag.” I told the policeman. “When I realized that it was past brunch time, even past lunchtime I hurried into the kitchen to look for him. Not finding him there, I went outside and he was by the pool. I guess he fell in. I sat on the edge of the pool to try to reach for him, but all I could do was reach—I can’t swim. I called you right away.” I felt bad about lying, but not that bad. I tried to visualize my lie on Lady Justice’s scales, weighing it against Sebastian’s crime.

The policeman frowned. “He would have had to be leaning over pretty far to fall in. Why would he do that, I wonder?”

I thought quickly. “Maybe wasps in the water? From the flowerpots? Sebastian was a clean freak. I saw wasps outside by the pool and in the pots when he showed me the grounds yesterday.” (Sigh, another lie.)

The other officer bent down to look into the pool. “Yep, there are wasps in here.”

The first man closed his notebook and stood up. “All done here. You ok?” He looked at me.

“Yes, I’ll be fine,” I told him.

I asked if I could stay at a hotel instead of at the house and if someone could call the office for me to delay the reading of the will. The policeman told me that would be fine and that they would be glad to drive me to where ever I wanted to go. One of the EMTs gave me a blanket. “You have to keep warm after a shock. You may find yourself crying a lot later.” He handed me a card with the name of a local counselor in case I needed someone to talk to later.

The helpful EMT and his partner picked up the stretcher holding Sebastian’s body. I suppressed a smile. As I looked at Sebastian’s cloth-covered form, I felt nothing.

I thought, I am a cold fish. Then another thought came. I might be a cold fish and maybe that’s not so good, but that day I was very happy about my status as a fish out of water.

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