"What the... ", he looked back at the source of the sound, only to find a broken aquarium on the floor. His first thought was - Thank god there were no fish in it.
The crash had sent nearly the whole pet shop into a shrieking frenzy. He sushhed all the poor, frightened animals assiduously. It took him a while.
But in the meantime his gaze fell back upon the broken pieces. Then on the jeans clad legs standing next to it, and his eyes traveled up, right upto the face of the culprit. It was a girl, around his age. Her face carried the look of someone deeply sorry for their mistake.
Her eyes met his almost as soon as he saw her.
"I'm...I'm so sooooo sorry. I...I..I... was just trying to look at the price tag..." She quickly bent down to pick up the shards with nervous, shaky fingers.
"No! No, don't. Please. You might cut yourself." He hurried upto her side. He didn't want an injured customer on top of a ruined aquarium this early in the morning. "I'll take care of it myself. Don't worry. Just, please, get back."
She obeyed like someone still in shock mutely does, quickly taking a few steps back in mute acquiescence, only to crack some more shards into glass-dust under her nervous feet. She winced at the sound. He did too.
He felt partly mad at her and partly sorry for her. He hoped she knew she'd have to pay for what was broken. "I hope you know, Miss, you have to pay for..."
"Yes, of course, I will. I'm truly sorry. "
"That's okay." He didn't look at her. Just muttered halfheartedly. He went up to the utility closet and came back with the broom to sweep away the mess. There were just way too many tiny pieces of glass everywhere on the floor, he noticed. He'd have to vacuum the place later to ensure the even tiniest pieces were all cleaned away. Besides being dangerous to humans, glass could be especially dangerous to animal paws.
He stowed away the broom in the closet and returned to find the girl still standing and staring absently at the floor. He was very, very conscious now of her every movement. Jeez, what a mess! He didn't know if he meant that for the girl or for the broken aquarium.
"Umm... what were you looking for anyway, Miss? Fish?"
"First, could you please tell me how much that cost?" she pointed to the broken shards lying in the dustbin now.
"That was...wait please." He checked the catalogue for the exact price, "... 5000."
Her eyes bulged out for a second. Obviously it was a shock to her. "5000?!"
"Yes..." He blinked, slowly, hoping that she wasn't the kind who would hum and haw over paying up for her mess. She didn't look the type. She looked sweet, and of course, contrite.
"Here...", she fished in her purse and took out 4 bills of different denominations. "Please take this... I'm..."
"Please don't say sorry again." He smiled at her. That seemed to ease her a bit. "So what was it that you wanted?" He asked her again.
"Ha!", she guffawed, "I'm not sure if I can afford anything now!" She avoided his eyes when she said next, "What are the cheapest pets you keep?"
He cocked an eyebrow. Was she those types? The kind who would just buy pets in a rush of misguided maternal instinct, only to abandon or mistreat them just days later when the novelty would wear off? He hoped she wasn't one of them. But since she was a customer he had to answer. "The cheapest I have is Guppy fish....There" He pointed to a tank full of tiny, tiny fish swimming industriously about for no particular reason except that they were fish and that they could swim. "You could get 25 of those for as less as a 100."
She didn't seem to like the idea. "But... they're so tiny!" She whispered.
"You asked for the cheapest!" He couldn't help being curt with her. First she broke an aquarium, now she was being a cheapskate. He couldn't help but ask her, "Just what do you want them for?"
He expected, oh, just for fun...
He got, "To save someone's life hopefully".
But as soon as she'd said it, she cupped her hands over her mouth in abject horror for having said it aloud. She hadn't meant to say it.
"I... I'm sorry, but what?"
"Please ignore that... the pet is not for me. It's supposed to be a gift for a child."
He nodded but children weren't really keen on fish as pets, he knew from experience. So his next obvious question was, 'How old is the child?"
"A child that young might not like fish for pets. They generally want something that can engage them... Like a dog or a cat. We even have NGO's who put up stray puppies for adoption..."
"No... umm... The child might not be able to handle a dog or cat. Besides there's the question of infection as well."
Oh god, she's one of those people! He thought and before he could contain his irritation, he lashed out, "Excuse me?!" He said that very, very harshly, he knew. But he hated the type of people who came in looking for pets even when they'd like to keep them a mile away from themselves. Why bother at all? The animal would be better off alone rather than with such hypocrites.
"Please don't misunderstand me! The child... he's not...normal. Uh! Well, here goes...." She looked down at her hands consciously, and then back up at him. "He's got cancer and he may not survive for long. The doctors have already done everything they could for him and they've given up. They've told his parents to try and make him as happy as they can in his last days. Having a pet was on his bucket list. But he can't have one that will put him at any risk of an infection. So fish seemed like a good choice, till I foolishly broke that aquarium!" She looked back remorsefully at the vacancy the broken aquarium had created on the shelf.
He hadn't realised when his eyes had misted, or when his lower jaw had dropped open. He schooled his face into a semblance of normalcy and cleared his throat. "Uhhh... that's a very noble thing you're doing for him. Are you his sister? Relative?"
"No, I'm a nurse. But I've watched him go through it all. I've nursed him sometimes. I thought this would be a good... parting gift." She said those words so painfully. The pain was a tangible thing on her face.
He studied her for several long seconds.
"You know what? For a child that age, colorful fish are the best. Let's see..." He busied himself in gathering all kinds of fish from several aquariums into a huge round fish bowl. "Ok... Clownfish, and Royal Angel... Fire fish and I'll give them in pairs. Wouldn't want them to feel lonely. " He winked playfully at her. "And oh... you'd want some fish food too." He handed her two packets of it. "Just ask the parents to change the water everyday if they're not getting an aquarium with an air pump soon enough. Or they could die. They need fresh oxygen too. And oh...", he handed her a small leaflet with instructions printed on it, "Ask them to go through this. It'll teach them how to keep fish."
"Oookay!" Finally, a normal smile from her. One that showed him that one of her canines was a little off in her upper jaw. But it only served to make her look more cute. "And how much is all this?"
"5000", he said plainly.
Poof! The smile was gone.
She looked a little worried. But she started reaching for her purse again, when he said to her, "But you've already paid me for it!"
She wrenched her head back up to looked at him in surprise. "Excuse me?!"
"You gave me the money earlier, right? You paid me for it." He smiled impishly at her baffled expression.
At last it dawned on her that he was doing her a favor. "Please no... I can't do that. I can't accept this. It's too much."
"You don't have to pay anything, seriously. Consider it a gift from my side... I mean from my establishment." He corrected himself. He wouldn't want her to think it was a personal favor.
"But you don't even know him!"
"We can remedy that. Tell me his address and I'll deliver the fish with some aquarium plants in it to him personally."
"No! No no no no no... I absolutely won't!" She held her hands up, palms facing forward, in a defensive stance.
"No please... I can't accept money for what you're doing."
And this went on for sometime till she finally exclaimed, "But it's supposed to be my gift. How will it be mine if I don't... ", she stopped mid way and started thinking about something. A few seconds later she smiled triumphantly up at him. "Okay, I'll buy an aquarium for them, and everything that goes in an aquarium!"
"No! Please. If you say no to this, I will not take the fish at all!" She looked like she meant it. They were even. He smiled. She smiled. And then they spent some 10 minutes looking for the perfect aquarium and accessories for it.
When she left, she was all smiles and gratitude, and he felt a lightness in his heart he had never experienced before... Also, hope, for the child. For him. For her.
Six months later, the child was no more. But they were married. The fish and the child's parents were all at the wedding.
Who knew good could come from something broken? Who knew it could all start with a crash?