"HOWDY, FOLKS, AND WELC'M T' THE FIDDY-NINTH BACKWATEEEEEER BOOOOOOOOOOOWL!
Six white beams broke through the dark sunset as searchlights focused their gaze on the announcer, an overweight man with dark, tan skin. A crowd (shirts of many colors, monster balls clipped to the belt) had gathered on the shallows of Lake Lurelin, where six pairs of mottled brown reed-poles speared the murky surface. Each pair was tied in order with a numbered shirt.
Robert Finsley crouched atop the fourth patch. Thirteen and short for his age, Robert was only just taller than the tawny weeds that sheltered the shadowy shapes of wild pokemon. A yellow fin cut a circle in algal film as it paced back and forth.
This was not the site of a pokemon battle.
This was not a Contest.
This was the scene of Mossdeep City’s 97th annual Magikarp Jump Festival. It was Robert’s first, but he was going to win.
“Calm yerself, Flopsy,” Robert told the fin. “You’re makin’ me nervous.”
Robert took a moment to reexamine his surroundings.
A half-ring of boats anchored themselves to the lake’s shallows. Three airboats bore twin searchlights, whose eyes flit between the announcer and six patches of trampled cottontails. Bob’s competing Magikarp Jump teams stood and swam in waiting.
A family of red-heads cheered atop a large metal pontoon. Their metal vessel dwarfed the cedarwood dinghy beside it. A banner rippled in the wind. It depicted the round face of Angie Lurelin, Robert’s once-friend and lifetime rival.
Flopsy swam figure-eights around Robert’s legs and gurgled that way he did when nervous, "glib-glub."
Robert’s shorts were soaked, his red-and-white checkered shirt rolled to the elbows. He wore a patched straw hat and a sunburnt face of grim determination. Underneath the hat, Robert’s lucky fishing lure snagged a tangle of brown hair.
There were no t-shirts in the crowd embracing his inevitable victory. Maybe once, there could have been. But that was before—
—The familiar bow rider stuck in the mud. Bony splinters of the hull. A splash of maroon across the stern. Was it rust? It had to be rust. Let it be—
No. Robert promised himself he wouldn’t think about it. Not today.
"I know you’re nervous," Robert told the pacing fin. "It's okay. We’ve got this. We’ll show them we don’t need no fancy pedigree to win."
Angie Lurelin’s family and their magikarp partners all traced their lineage back to the legendary King Karp, whose fame was known by every Magikarp Jumper in the world. As far as Robert could reckon, anyhow.
King Karp had been the one to set the Backwater Bowl's all-time record jump (30 years undefeated!) and simultaneously land the small-fry competition in hot water with Mossdeep City’s military branch for violation of airspace law. King Karp had been just short of becoming Hoenn's first fish to reach escape velocity after a jump of almost 17,000 meters high.
There was no room for weakness in the Backwater Bowl. Only magikarp.
Robert eyed Angie Lurelin and the massive 'karp that broke the surface of the water next to her. Miss Splish was an imported Goldenrod yellowfin; a caligo, her mustard-yellow body was offset by four ivory patches. Of course, Miss Splish's whiskers were also white. Her golden crown bobbed impatiently as she waited to be called.
She would not have to wait long. She was first in the small-fry bracket (and presumed to be first in place).
"KICKING US OFF— PLEASE WELCOME— COACH ANGIE LURELIN AND— MIIIIIIIIIIIISS SPLIIIIIIIIIIISH !"
The crowd went wild. The Lurelins were a popular name 'round Lurelin Lake, and everybody was eager to see if Miss Splish's coach, Angie Lurelin, could uphold her family's reputation.
Angie gave Bob an evil grin (everything she did was evil, after all) before patting the water beside Miss Splish.
"Two hops to warm up," she said. "Then let’s make some waves! I wanna see you high five the moon, you hear me?"
A gurgle in response. Miss Splish slapped the water.
Miss Splish's fins smacked the center of the first two ripples and shot off like a zangoose after a seviper.
Miss Splish soared and Robert Finley's heart sank.
Robert could tell how high a 'karp could jump by the splash it made. Miss Splish was gone in an instant. In her place, a tidal wave rose to drown him in a spray of cottontail dander, lily pads, and a family of very confused surskit. It was a pretty big jump.
Miss Splish was already just an orange star in the sky.
"Y'ALL READY FER SOME NUMBERS?" roared "Dock" Preston: announcer, rocket scientist and expert magikarp trajectory calculator. When Dock wasn't shooting rockets into outer space, he was preparing the next generation of Magikarp Jump coaches. Robert had been one of them.
As far as Robert was concerned, there was no finer fish enthusiast south of Lilycove.
A Mossdeep native, Dock had dark skin and stood about 5'8”. His large belly was almost as round as the machine that calculated each magikarp’s jump. Dock and his machine stood sheltered beneath a wooden patio deck that led into the log cabin door of Lurelin Lake’s boaters association.
"THAT FISH CAN FLY!" Dock shouted into the patio’s speaker system. "I THINK I KNOW WHAT MY NEXT ROCKET'S GONNA LOOK LIKE! SEVEN HUNDR’D N’ THIRTY-SIX METERS, IF YOU'D BELIEVE IT! AND HERE SHE COMES! BRACE FER IMPACT!"
Miss Splish dropped through the atmosphere like a tangerine in harvest. The height of the jump was crucial, but it was almost as crucial they stuck the landing. That was how a magikarp cultivated its winning reputation.
A shadow grew over Robert as Miss Splish fell closer. Robert couldn’t help but feel as though Miss Splish was about to leave an impression on him , and not in a good way.
Robert hadn't expected this. He and Angie had been at each other's throats since they were old enough to share a fishing rod, but he didn't think she was one to cheat— or that she'd do it by having her fish break all the bones in his body, for that matter.
Then again, she was a Lurelin.
"Get us outta here, Flop!”
Robert grabbed hold of the scales beneath Flopsy’s fins. His fish sank forward like a torpedo, and Robert was dragged deeper into the lake. Even underwater, Robert could hear the almighty SMACK of a rogue magikarp landing where they had just been. A wave passed overhead.
"IT'S A HIGH TIDE, FOLKS! BUT— AH, LOW SCORES WITH THE LANDING— THE JUDGES DIDN'T LIKE THAT. IT'S A FOUL FISH! A FISHY FOUL! MISS SPLISH RECEIVES A FIVE POINT PENALTY FOR EXCESSIVE ENDANGERMENT OF THE COMPETITION!!"
Robert and Flopsy had escaped the worst of it. And by the way Angie scolded Miss Splish, it looked as though it hadn't been planned sabotage. The intensity of the relief was almost as irritating. What did he care what Angie Lurelin did? Especially not after what her family did to—
No . He promised he wouldn’t think about it.
"That dive wasn't up to the Lurelin name, now, was it, Flopsy?" Robert said. He rubbed the three rough scales above Flopsy's left pectoral fin (his favorite) and tried not to think about what had just happened.
Next in line was Jake Curtis and a magikarp speckled pale and dark orange. She had ivory whiskers the length of her body— a Sandgem Whiskersash, by the looks of it. A lot of foreign fish out here today, Robert thought. I wonder if they come from legends too, like Miss Splish?
But a pedigree didn't win the Backwater Bowl. Even King Karp had just been a lucky catch from some no-name pool off the cape of Blackthorn. That was before the legendary Jump coach, Daisy McKinnon, made him into the champion Jumper he was.
Dock Preston announced Jake and his partner with all the usual fervor. "... AAAAAND THOSS KOOOOOOOOOOOOIII! THOSS KOI HAILS FROM GEMBANK RIVER, WHERE I'M TOLD 'KOI’ IS A BIG NAME! ARE YOU WATCHING, MISS LURELIN?"
Robert felt a scratchy nudge at his side. "I know," he said. "It's us they should be watching out for."
Not Angie Lurelin and that fancy Johtoni fish of hers.
Robert watched as Thoss slapped the water— thwop — but peaked just below the forest's skyline. He dropped down with a dismal " glog ..." before sinking out of sight.
Better luck next time , Robert thought. Unless we're competing, anyway. He sympathized with the fish, he did, but this was a competition he aimed to win.
"This is Lurelin turf, Ko!” Robert heard Angie's Aunt Ava shout. "Go Angie! Go Miss Splish! Woo !!"
"Not fer long," Robert said. "Flopsy, you're up soon. You got this. Remember, we're gonna try the Mossdeep Breach, then the Lilycove Spring, and Splash with the Cinnabar Slap. Give that slap everything you've got."
Robert leaned in further. “Listen, don’t think about Miss Splish, or the rest of the competition, or anything much, really. Just go through the motions. This is just another day of splashing in the lake. 'Fore a crowd's no different.”
“... WHAT A PERFORMANCE BY RIA GOLDENTAIL! A JUMP FOR THE AGES, THAT’S FOR SURE.”
The third contestant had already finished? Robert eyed the reeds in front of him, marking the space which Flopsy would be expected to jump out from. Between them, a bright-red number 4 marked their turn.
Drowning out the cheers for Ira Goldentail’s performance— and Dock Preston’s voice (was that why he hadn’t heard them?)— were the screams of the Lurelin clan, who still clamored their support for their youngest daughter, whose magikarp already jumped.
“We’re up!” Robert said. Flopsy rolled his eyes as if to say, “I already knew that.”
“FOURTH IN LINE, MOSSDEEP NATIVE, COACH BOB FINLEY AND THE FINAAAAAAAAL FLOOOOOOOOOP!”
“That’s your cue,” Bob told Flopsy. “You know the motions,” Bob said. “Just another day in the lake. Just try your best to ignore the—“
“— LU-RE-LIN! LU-RE-LIN! LU-RE-LIN—!”
“— Shouting!” Bob glared at the Lurelins’ boat. “You can do this!”
Flopsy dove underwater.
This was it. Their chance to prove that you didn’t need to be a Lurelin to win. Everyone’s eyes were on Flopsy, now... well, soon, anyway... he’d be using their hometown surface-breach... any time now... Any time...
C’mon, Flopsy. They’re staring at me now...
Robert wove a hand beneath the water. Angie Lurelin shouted, “Dock, he’s not coming back up!”
“Yes, he is!” Bob said. “You just can’t stand the thought of him beating you!”
“As if! Like we’d ever be scared of a fish who won’t even show his fins.”
“It’s your darned family!” Bob said. “They’re messing with his concentration.”
“My family has nothing to do with Flopsy’s stage fright! If you ask me, he’s just too scared that people might see him with a coach like you , Bob Finsley.”
“Don’t you call me that!”
“Well, why can’t I, Bob ?”
“Only m’ friends and family call me Bob,” Robert said. “You and that family of yours lost that right four years ago.”
“Oh, let. It. Go. We had nothin’ to do with that. It was an accident.”
“Like you had nothing to do with scaring Flopsy off?”
“Bob— Bobber— Robert Finsley, my family is not responsible for your Pa’s death!”
“Don’t you dare mention my Pa!”
Robert sprang forward, but a thick pair of arms caught him mid-lunge.
“WILL YOU TWO KNOCK IT OFF?” Dock roared in his ear.
“It’s her family—”
“—Acting like a darn fool— ”
“—My Pa, Dock. They—”
“—Accusing us of murder—”
“I. DON’T—.” There was a brief moment when the only thing Robert could feel was Dock’s stomach, rising and falling in great, ragged breaths. “I don’t care. I expected better of you, Angie Lurelin.”
“ A-ha !”
“And you !” Dock pushed Robert out of his arms. He caught the ground with his hands splayed out. Robert felt his hat jerk off his head, heard the shrr-ip! of his lucky fishing lure as it tore through his hair.
“Yer Pa would be ashamed o’ you,” Dock said. “ I’m ashamed of you. Both of you. You’ve made a mockery of the Backwater Bowl— no, the Magikarp Jump.”
“We’re sorry,” Robert heard Angie say. She nudged Robert’s elbow. “ Right ?”
“Sorry,” mumbled Robert through watery eyes. He wasn’t sure which was worse. The pain from when lure ripped through his hair (was that blood he felt, or just water?) or the shame. Looking down at his reflection, he realized he would rather be stuck on the business end of Dock’s fishing hook than be responsible for the disappointment that welled in his eyes.
“Sorry don’t cut it, Bob. Actin’ like a spring gyarados, n’ all that. You’re disqualified.”
“ What ?” Robert’s mouth and eyes were as wide as a magikarp’s.
“ Ha !”
“Oh, I don’t know what you’re laughing about, Young Missy.” Dock rounded on Angie. “Robert’s fish hadn’t even gone yet. You two’re disqualified, too.”
“ WHAT ?”
“ Serves you right!” Robert shouted.
“ ENOUGH !” Dock roared. “You two. Go. Just. Go. ‘Fore I ban you fer life.”
Robert’s thoughts were like worms writhing in the mud. The water felt wetter than before. The cold was colder. Somebody was telling him something, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. He could only hear his father, as clear as the day he snapped Jeffrey Walters’ third-favorite rod.
“Pride comes before the Fall, son.”
Funnily enough, he hadn’t said anything about what happened after the Splash.
“ Gliiiiiiiib!” rang the gurgly war cry of a fish-woman scorned. An orange torpedo slammed into Robert’s stomach.
Whoever said magikarp are weak have made a critical error in judgment. No pokemon is weak. Where battles are concerned, most magikarp are limited to one move— Splash. This made them a less-than-ideal choice in most trainer’s eyes.
But the Magikarp Jumpers were not most trainers.
Jumpers feared not the ‘mon who practiced 10,000 moves. They feared the ‘mon who practiced one move 10,000 times.
Miss Splish was capable of splashing over seven hundred meters high. That force, translated into the full-bodied slam she just gave Robert, turned Splash into a one-hit K.O.
Needless to say, it hurt.
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“Y’know,” came Dock’s voice (why was everything so blurry?) “I’ve seen plenty of flying fish in my time, but never a flying boy .”
“To answer yer question, you're in the hospital. You, er— Say, sport, what’s the last thing you can remember?”
“Where’s Flopsy?” Why do my bones feel like toothpaste? And why does the room look like a slurpuff just threw up all over it?
Robert was swaddled in a cocoon of pink blankets. A platoon of squat, pink nurse pokemon brandished needles and clipboards at him. Five creme-colored walls gave way to a short corridor, from which Nurse Joy’s voice could be heard. Hot-pink cushions covered the two long benches that ran parallel to a row of bedspreads, also draped in pink. Robert, still dressed in his tattered jeans and painted mud-brown, felt like a midnight solrock.
“Just a minute, please,” Dock told the assembled chansey. He sighed. “Flopsy has run away. I’m sorry, Robert. Madame Bluescale let me know a few days after, well... After what happened.”
“He’s gone ?”
“I’m sorry, Robert. Some things just aren’t meant to be. I know how close you two were.”
Gone. His best fish— his best friend— gone, without even saying goodbye. And (the thoughts were coming back now) no more Backwater Bowl.
No family, no fish, and now, no more Magikarp Jumping. Robert buried his head in the cottony head of a swirlix cushion.
“What do I do now?”
“I didn’t ban you from Jumping altogether,” Dock said.
“But the Backwater Bowl was all I ever knew. And Flopsy...”
“There are other fish in the sea, you know.” Dock chortled at his own pun. “This is a good thing, Robert.”
“Flopsy ‘nd I were disqualified, he ran away, and I can’t show my face no more ‘round the people I grew up with. How is this a good thing, Dock?”
Dock was quiet for a few moments. “I see this as an opportunity to get away from all those things, Bob. You’ve been livin’ in the past fer way too long. You need to let it go.”
“How can I, Dock? They killed my--”
“Now, you have no proof of that,” Dock said. “Young Miss Angie was right. You need to let it go. It’s done nothin’ but turn you right sour, it has. You n’ the young missie were so close, I c’n remember. Yer friends ‘re family, too, Bob. Yer Ma and Pa wouldn’t want you treatin’ them like this.”
“What if I got evidence?” Robert said. “If I could just prove-- ”
“Robert Finsley, yer not listenin’ to what I’m tellin’ you. You need to get away from all o’ this. Be a kid, fer tides’ sake.”
Robert stared at the ceiling. Despite his best efforts to ignore Dock (was the swirled pattern in the ceiling supposed to be a pokemon?), the thoughts sunk in anyway. Dock wanted him to leave. The man he thought of as a surrogate father didn’t want him anymore.
“Now, now,” Dock said, “‘nough of the waterworks. I’m not exilin’ you. I jus’ worry about you, Bob, I really do.”
“Magikarp Jumping was all I had left of him, Dock.”
“And yeh’ve turned into a darn good coach. Yer folks would be proud. I know you never got to see much o’ yer Ma, but yer jus’ like her. Yeh got her temper, tha’s fer sure. And yer Pa... He wouldn’t want you tied down like this. A man’s not meant to be anchored where it gives him pain.”
“But, I don’t have a magikarp. And who’s gonna be want to be coached by me now?”
“We can talk to Madame Bluescale when you’re ready,” Dock said. “My Karperlin isn’t the best, but I can sweet talk her for yeh. She’s always got one o’ her brood tha’s tired o’ dragging stuff ‘round the oil plant. Maybe this can be an opportunity for someone else, too.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. And if the idea of trainin’ a new ‘karp don’t light the fire inside you, this might.” Dock pulled a magazine from inside his blue waterproof jacket and passed it to Robert.
“The Fifty-Thousand Flop Cup?”
“That’s right,” Dock said.
“But,” Rober said, “this says it starts in Oldale Town. I don’t, I mean, I don’t have a whole lot of-- of--”
“I’ll take care of everything,” Dock said. “Jus’ promise me one thing.”
“What is it?” Robert had a feeling it was the one thing he couldn’t deliver.
“Give it up. I mean it, Bob. Fer good.”
“I... I’ll think about it,” Robert said. “I will. Promise.”
“See to it that you do,” Dock said. “In the meantime, I’ll be payin’ the Pokemart a visit. Madame Bluescale don’t accept no coins, so I gotta go exchange ‘em. She’ll want her water ‘mon currency. She’s right prickly ‘bout that sorta thing... I s’pose a few pearls’ll do the trick. You think on what I just said, now. I’ll hold you to it.”
Dock left through the corridor where Nurse Joy could still be heard talking to trainers about how to use a first-aid kit.
A chansey lifted Robert’s arm and gave a hypodermic needle a meaningful sort of wave. Robert sighed and let his arm go slack.
The jab of a needle slipping through his skin--
The EMT who checked his father’s vital signs.
The dim lights of the hospital growing dimmer--
The front of Lurelin Manor lit red-and-blue.
A woman (Nurse Joy?) was saying something--
Peter Lurelin beside his greasy lawyer.
A chansey slipping the woman her clipboard--
The police report went missing.
Robert’s eyes growing heavier and heavier--
The small boy left behind.