Then the Scales Started

Andrea Stoll

August 15, 2023

Internal Notes Summary, November 12, 2017:

Patient is a 28-year-old female worried about normal hormonal changes. Patient complained of abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and occasional “water issue”: the need to drink lots of water, otherwise panic attack is brought on. Patient also is concerned their body is becoming a goldfish.

We discussed headaches around menstrual cycle, average webbing around fingers and toes, and panic attacks.

Patient is advised to take Ibuprofen next time she has a headache.

Back when we were still looking for answers, Lily used to do morning stretches before the mirror in the main bedroom. She always started with her arms first, lifting them up high, then scrunching them into her sides, then up high again. She would rotate her torso and do wide circles with her hands. She would make motions that sometimes seemed like hula-hooping, or sometimes swimming. Then she’d press her whole body to the floor and lie there, in a ball, for a long time.

I used to lean against the headboard and watch her over the edge of my dog-eared book, always on the same page, always distracted by her. Her face was so focused, mouth set in a serious line, while she stretched. I thought she was making them up, but she was dedicated regardless, like there was nothing more important in the moment. I used to see the concern in her eyes as she watched herself move.

At night, in bed, the same questions: “What do you think will happen next? What do you think it will feel like?” And her favorite obsession: “How small do you think I will be—when it happens?”

How was I supposed to know? I mean, really, how was I supposed to know? I answered my “I don’t knows” over and over again. Except when she asked how small she would be. Then, I often said, “You will be perfect to me.”

I don’t know if she found my answers reassuring, or just the process itself. She asked every night, but always fell silent after a couple questions, then would turn over to her side and sleep. Or try to. Her breathing was too quiet and shallow for her to be sleeping right away, but I closed my eyes anyway, try to let my own dreams take me. 

In the beginning, we inspected every part of her. She had a notebook dedicated to chronicling every symptom, took photos of any visible change. It seemed that there were a million appointments in those first months. First the general doctors, then the specialists, the continuous referrals, the ER visits after particularly panicked days. I drove her to every one. I used to watch her face as she walked back to the car after appointments, looking at how pale her skin had become, almost translucent, the veins under her eyes clearer than ever. She was drained of energy, every part of her pale, except for her hair, which had become an even more brilliant red as the rest of her faded away. She walked slowly and would carefully bend herself getting back into the car as if the whole thing pained her. On the ride home, she always sat up straight without speaking. As I drove, she might twist her head to look at the window and watch the world pass by, utterly silent and intensely observing.

It was useless. Doctors wanted to talk about her hormones and periods, the normal changes of a woman’s body, how most symptoms she had were average for a woman of her age. Everything else she brought to the appointment was either ignored or led to a psych consult. No one understands, she told me, that the biggest difference was not the skin rupturing into scaly patches, not the different shape of her ear canal, not the bumps on her neck she thought might become gills. The biggest change was how she felt. She felt the change before anything else.

“I knew right away what was going to happen,” she said, “before I even saw it.”

Most people wouldn’t believe this, but most people didn’t know Lily. She was the most intuitive person I knew—and the smartest. When she’d first told me she thought something was changing, she just said: “I think something is happening to me.”

Then the scales started. I Googled every symptom, researched rare diseases, called nurse advice lines. Eventually, she said my research was useless. She told me her goldfish theory. The doctors said it’s impossible. The doctors said it isn’t natural. I said “are you going to need a fishbowl?”

She never doubted what would happen. Even I sometimes thought she could be wrong—couldn’t help myself. When she’d stand up from the couch too fast and press a hand to her forehead, wincing, I might say “are you sure, about the goldfish?” She’d just shake her head at me. My lack of faith was always so obvious next to her steadfast opinions.

“Maybe this is natural, to me, to my body,” she told me once while observing the scales on her hip in the bathroom mirror. “Maybe I wasn’t meant to be human.”

“Then you wouldn’t have known me,” I said to her.

She tilted her head and looked at me. Lily was always impossible to argue with. “Maybe it was meant to end like this,” she said.

Lily eventually quit the doctor appointments.

She still noticed changes, though. At the breakfast table, I would watch her eat her cereal, watch her lay her hand on the table and stare at the growing webbing between her fingers. She would show me the new developments, the scales around her elbows, the tops of her feet, the inside of her knees, then began to spread outwards. She stopped going out as much, and spent most of her time sitting quietly. She’d spend ages brushing out her hair. She watched her eyes, the pupils of them, in the mirror, ever-focused on their changing shape.

At one point we went to the pet store to learn about goldfish. As the pet store worker gave me pamphlets about fish care and lectured me on the proper water flow of tanks, I watched Lily press her hand against the glass and lower her face to look at the fish. She stayed there frozen for more than a couple minutes while I learned about goldfish memory and friendships. The worker asked if we wanted to buy a fish that day. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m expecting a fish soon anyway.”

As we left the store I saw the faintest traces of terror washed on Lily’s face. “They’re so small,” she said. “You could crush them in your fist.”

I felt her grab my hand as we walked. “No one is going to crush you,” I said with certainty. It was one of the rare moments when I saw her afraid.

The worst part was “the water problem,” the only symptom we couldn’t explain well. The first time it happened I heard a crash from the living room and came running in to find her lying on the carpet, body convulsing, her throat making a wheezing sound I’d never heard before. One of her hands had knocked over the coffee table book, and the other was reaching for me, fingers curling and unfurling uselessly. Her big eyes were bulging at me, watching me, watching me as I panicked. At first I thought she was having a seizure, but then her hand connected with my shirt, she dragged me closer, and she spoke.

“Water,” she said. “Water.”

I tried to get her to drink a glass, I remember. That didn’t work well, but the second the cup knocked against her jaw, and the water spilled over her. She gasped, gasped, as if it was what she needed all along. I poured cups and cups of water over her. It wasn’t enough. In the end, I put her in the bathtub so she could try sinking under the water. She calmed.

The doctors thought this part was particularly humorous. They didn’t care to understand the terror of watching her flail, of her suddenly being unable to breathe air. They said she was having panic attacks brought on by stress and that she found water a naturally more calming environment. And since she would always recover, emerge from the bathtub with her long, stringy hair sticking to her back, eyes round with huge pupils, and lungs working properly again, they said that made it a panic attack. Something that passes.

“You thought you couldn’t breathe,” the doctors said. “You thought you were going to die.”

But, as she said: “I didn’t think I was going to die, for God’s sake. I thought I was turning into a goldfish.”

The importance of the statement was often lost on people. Dying seemed worse to almost everyone we spoke to.

Nine months into the process—when she was significantly smaller, when she was still between woman and fish, and would lie in the tub half-breathing air and half-breathing water, sometimes wheezing when the wrong one went in the lung and the wrong one covered her gills—I saw the first patches on my back. I don’t know how long I’d been feeling ill, but it wasn’t until I saw the skin beginning to flake, and under the peeling parts, scales, that I knew.

I prepared, of course. I prepared my family. I called my sister and asked her for a favor, if she could take two goldfish as pets in the future. As Lily became smaller and more and more of her transformed, when only some human parts remained: an eye, some toes, her ears, I moved her to a tank. One with good water flow, and a nice fish castle. I set up a matching tank next to it. Goldfish can share tanks, but I didn’t think Lily would like to be stuck with me for so long. She was a person of routine, of preference, and she always preferred a more solitary life.

I spent more and more time sitting by the tank watching her. I watched her eyes shift and slowly become rounder, the pupils filling out more. I watched her, and she watched me back. Whenever I sat by the tank, she came out to the glass. Maybe she remembered me, or maybe she just was expecting food.

A couple times I lifted my hand to show her the growing webbing between my fingers. As if to say “look what’s happening to me, too.” Maybe we were both meant to end this way. She’d keep swimming and staring, swimming and staring.

Eventually, every human piece of her had gone. Ears disappeared, eyes that of a goldfish.

We don’t watch each other anymore, but sometimes when we glide past each other, through the double layers of glass I can see her eyes slide slowly over my scales, watching my fins flutter in the water. Even in her tank she stands out. The most brilliantly colored and shockingly red goldfish in the world.

About Andrea Stoll

Andrea Stoll is a senior at Western Washington University, where she studies geology and creative writing. She is interested in magical realism, dystopian worlds, and vampire stories. In her spare time, she can be found baking and snail watching.

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