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Chapter 19: The Fish Museum

Day Staff

Publication: The Day

Published August 09. 2009 4:00AM

The "fish museum." If I had known what that visit would lead to, I never would have taken her there.

We parked our bikes and walked to the main entrance. Next to the door was a pond surrounded by a high iron fence. Basking in the sun on a concrete island was a sea lion the size of a Volkswagen. Every now and then he would open one eye and bellow at the tourists.

Minerva hung on the fence and stared.

"C'mon," I said. "Let's go inside."

Inside, it was as dark as a cave, the walls lit by the eerie glow of fish tanks. A great hush seemed to swallow up everybody's voices. There were fish that looked like long spotted snakes, fish that hopped like frogs, fish that shimmered like pieces of a rainbow.

Minerva didn't say a word. She moved slowly from tank to tank and lingered at each one.

I found myself watching her as she watched the fish. She was pretty, I thought, even without her hair. I felt strange and kind of proud to be with her. I guess, I thought, this is my first "date." The thought made me feel weird and old.

Only once did Minerva make a sound, and that was when we looked into the huge shark tank in the middle of the building. The sharks cruised around in endless mechanical circles, with dead smiles on the ragged holes that were their mouths. Minerva gave a low gasp and shivered.

I jumped. On the other side of the tank - squinting at us through the sharks and the seaweed - was a blurry version of Eddy MacWeeny's face. The minute I saw it, the face disappeared.

"Wait here!" I whispered, and I pushed through the crowd to the other side of the tank. But no Eddy.

Was I losing my mind?

Minerva didn't seem to notice. She didn't say a word as we walked to the larger tanks to watch the dolphins and whales. Her eyes were bigger than ever.

The dolphins arced through the water, racing around the walls of their tank. A white beluga whale lolled and drifted, butting his bulbous face against the glass. He seemed to grin at us.

"This place is incredible," Minerva whispered, speaking for the first time.

"You like it?"

"Are you kidding? I thought there'd be stuffed fish hanging on the walls. I never thought it would be like this."

A voice boomed over a loud speaker: "There will be a marine mammal training session in the marine theatre in five minutes. Follow the signs to the marine theatre."

"What's that?" Minerva asked.

"That's where they have the dolphins jump through hoops and stuff. It's pretty cool."

I led the way to the auditorium. Instead of a stage, the seats faced a big green pool. Two dolphins rocketed through the water and shot into the air whenever the trainer blew her whistle. They spun and somersaulted and danced across the top of the water on their tails. Their squeaky voices were like children's shrieks of laughter.

A sea lion slid out on a platform. He balanced balls on his nose, barked, and clapped his flippers.

Minerva laughed and clapped along with the audience. I'd never seen her look so happy.

Me, on the other hand, I just couldn't concentrate. I kept searching the crowd for Eddy.

I saw no sign of him in the audience. Still, as we followed the crowd out of the auditorium, I began to get mad.

So what? I thought. Let him spy on us. The jerk.

Chapter 20:

Seal Island

"C'mon," I said. "We haven't gone out to Seal Island yet."

"Seal Island?"

"Yeah. It's my favorite part."

We walked to an outdoor walkway with a pond on either side. In the pond to our right, enormous goldfish floated up and kissed the surface. The pond to our left was crowded with ducks.

"I can see why this is your favorite part," she said, grinning at me.

"Look," I said. "There's a green-winged teal, and there's a merganser." I leaned on the steel fence. "There. There's the best one: the wood duck." Suddenly I remembered myself. "I guess I must be boring you, huh?"

"Not at all," Minerva said. "Actually, I find it interesting there are so many kinds. But why do they have such ridiculous names?"

"I don't know. They're no more ridiculous than Wimberly, I guess." I grinned, daring to tease her.

But Minerva only turned and looked across the pond. "Hey, look at that one."

"Where?"

"Isn't that a red-snoodled Frimhaus?"

We held on to the fence and laughed.

"And over there," I said. "A green-beaned Snowdenstoke."

We laughed so hard, we had to hold onto the fence to keep from falling down.

Finally, we leaned against the rails and sighed. I looked into her moony eyes and - suddenly shy - quickly looked away. What was happening to me? She made my stomach do somersaults like one of those crazy dolphins.

"C'mon," I said. "Let's check out the seals."

We followed the walkway to a smaller pond. Across the pond on concrete rocks, a group of harbor seals slept in the sun. Others swam back and forth in the tiny pond.

The harbor seals had round, blimpy bodies and blotchy brown coats. Huge black eyes looked up from sad, puppy faces. They always made me smile the way they bulleted through the water like fat torpedoes.

"I love to watch them swim up and down," I said, but when I turned to look at her, she was frowning.

"Let me show you the others," I said.

I led her to another pond where fur seals, slim and chocolate brown, barked and chased each other.

Still, Minerva was silent.

"C'mon," I said. "There's one more pond."

We walked down to the final pond, where there were sea lions and an elephant seal sunning on the rocks. Minerva glanced at them and turned away.

"Let's go back to the harbor seals," she said.

I followed her back to the smallest pond. She hooked her arms over the fence and stared, her forehead furrowed, and her lower lip poking out.

"Do you think it's fair?" She spoke so abuptly, she made me jump.

"What?"

"To keep them like this?" There were gathering clouds in her gray eyes.

"What do you mean 'fair?' They don't seem to mind."

"No? Just look at their faces."

I looked. The seals looked sad. But they always looked sad.

"That's just how they look," I said.

"How do you know?" Her eyes flashed. "Have you ever seen one that was free?"

"No, I guess not."

"Just look at them swim back and forth," she said. "They're like prisoners pacing the floor of their cell."

"You didn't seem to mind the other animals." I knew it was a lame thing to say.

"They were happy!" She was almost shouting. "Or too stupid to know they were prisoners!"

I looked around uneasily. People were staring.

"OK," I said. "OK, just don't yell, OK?"

"W.," she spoke in a fierce whisper. "I'm telling you I know how they feel. I can feel it here." She put a hand over her heart. "All my life I've been shuffled around all over the place, whether I wanted to go or not, like a prisoner. And I've been stuck in schools where strangers would stare at me like I was some kind of a freak. Do you know how that feels?"

"No."

"I know how they feel, W." She stared at the seals.

"Hey," I said at last. "Let's go, OK?"

"Yeah."

As we started back down the walkway, she gripped my arm.

"Listen," she rasped. "We're gonna get them out!"

"What?"

She stared into my face with wild and piercing eyes.

"You and me," she said. "We're gonna bust them out of here."

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