SHANNON KENDRICKS BURST THROUGH the SeaQuarium fish house door, whipped her unruly hair behind her shoulders, and spun around toward the towering figure following close behind.
“‘No’ means ‘no.’ We’re quits. Leave it alone. Now go,” she said, her voice firm, louder than she intended. She slammed the door in his face. Stood and scowled for a moment, poised for the mother of all pitched battles if the man dared open the door.
Do it. Double dare you.
All remained quiet. The hapless fellow stood outside, still and scowling, a distorted mirror image of herself. Then an angry fist knocked along the fish house wall, tracing the path of his footsteps back toward the Admin Building.
Shannon smacked the last of the fish buckets onto the counter and, with great splashy fanfare, filled the sink with hot steaming water to grind through scrubbing of the last of the day’s feeding containers. She spared a moment to catch her hair in a loose ponytail.
On her path back to the fish house from the last otter feeding, she’d been waylaid by her would-be suitor. Nice guy, good looking, bright, one of the marine biologists over at the Aquarium. But in recent weeks he had started asking for “emotional closeness,” as he put it. Where did they hide all those guys who wanted nothing to do with emotional closeness? She wanted one of those. But she always ended up with the softies most women would kill for. There’s irony for you.
Emotional closeness? Shannon refused to go there. Ever. And this fellow didn’t want to hear the message. Steam arose from the hot water in the sink. She plunged her hands in. Well. Now he understood.
But she hadn’t handled it well. She sighed.
“You always want to let them down gently. You’re too nice about it,” her supervisor and best friend Becky Anderson said from her stool without looking up from her logbooks, always knowing her friend’s unspoken train of thought much too well, to Shannon’s ongoing discomfort. “Cold. That’s the way to clear them off. Act as cold as a frozen mackerel.”
Not just cold; keep clear of relationships altogether; that’s the ticket.
The grit of her encounter still scraped on her mood and, she suspected, her voice. Poor guy, not his fault she preferred going it alone. Tears clouded her vision. She didn’t to turn around when she spoke.
“Otters looked good,” she said, in a raspy effort at normal. “Nome chittered up a storm, took everything I offered, but didn’t eat much. Katmai ate enough for both of them. Shuyak waited her turn like a good girl. The usual.”
Shannon could feel Becky’s gaze on her back at the sink.
“Okay,” Becky said.
Neither spoke for a moment.
A volunteer breezed in, grabbed his backpack, and as he took off out the door, hollered behind him, “Walruses all present and accounted for. Cleanest underwater windows this side of the Windex Company. Been fantastic as usual, ladies. See you Monday after classes, Becky. Next weekend, Shannon. Ciao.”
Even Shannon had to laugh to herself. Oh, for the untroubled energy and irreverence of the very young.
Silence resettled on the fish house, broken by the periodic scratchings of Becky filling out the daily paperwork and Shannon scrubbing buckets.
“You want to talk about it?” Becky asked at last.
“No.” The angry edge to Shannon’s abrupt answer surprised even her. Becky raised her hands as if to deflect her words.
“Okay. Don’t bite my head off.”
“I’ll deal with it,” Shannon said.
Becky nodded at her and kept right on nodding. “When’re you gonna get it through that brilliant yet thick head of yours that (a) some things come along that one person just can’t deal with alone, (b) even if people could do some things for themselves, others would love to share the load and thus make the load lighter, and (c) even if people could do some things for themselves, if they try, they make a piss-poor job of it? Not to mention any names, Shannon.”
Shannon muttered to herself. She wasn't some people. She’d deal with it. She always did.
“If you say so,” Becky said, and returned to her paperwork.
The minutes stretched on without the usual banter between the two friends at the end of Shannon’s weekend volunteer duty. Was it Shannon’s imagination or had the second hand on the wall clock started ticking like Big Ben? She listened, poised for each next click, as if hoping that something, anything, would disrupt the rhythm of the clock’s beat.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Odin’s eye, as her Norse grandmother would say, and as Shannon always said in loving memory of the kind, patient old woman. Enough.
“What’s called for here,” Shannon said, “is some non-toxic glue to keep these scales on the fish.” She glanced over. Did Becky take the bait?
Her friend didn’t look up from her paperwork. “Mmm hmm,” she said.
Shannon made a face at Becky and returned her attention to her fingertips. She needed just one fingernail long and stiff enough to pry that last stubborn fish scale off her stainless steel bucket. A difficult task for a woman whose fingernails sported the tensile strength of wet tissue. Those damn scales stuck like a bad reputation on a fun-loving girl.
“Ah ha,” she said, spying an eighth-inch of nail, little finger, left hand. She applied it to the sticky translucent oval. “Victory is mine.” She dried the bucket and added it to the stacks on the rear shelves of the fish house.
“I will wash absolutely, positively, and unconditionally no more buckets today,” she said, trying one more time get a rise out of Beck, who looked up from her log sheet and said, “Okay, Ms. Kendricks, what if I absolutely, positively, and unconditionally will no longer permit volunteers to fraternize with any creature in the Ocean City SeaQuarium Marine Mammal Center unless said volunteers wash as many buckets as I say? That ban would include the sea otters, the seals, the sea lions, the orcas, and yes, my dear, the beluga whales.”
Shannon ran her fingers through her long dark ponytail, as if pausing to ponder Becky’s words. “Then I would say—hand me another bucket.”
“Thought so. Lucky for you everything’s clean. Go away.”
“I still need to wash this counter….” Shannon said without enthusiasm. She’d worked her patooti off today. She slumped against the counter searching for one last tiny spark of energy. No luck.
She sighed. And yet, even a hard day at the SeaQuarium rated higher than the one facing her tomorrow. Back to her “real” job. She must finish a difficult legal brief on one of her cases, conduct a deposition, attend a staff meeting with her petulant, petty, pasty-faced boss, who was, unfortunately, the head of the County Legal Department, and work her way through a mountain of legal paper sitting on her desk. She once loved days like that. Where had the joy gone?
Ah well. Who needed joy? People admired her, respected her. Some of the jokers she faced in court even feared her. Satisfaction enough.
Becky bent over her logs, her feet curled over the bars between stool legs, her head nodding to music she alone could hear. After a moment, she put down her paperwork and looked at her friend. “You sound tired. Why don’t you skip Juneau tonight and get on home to your big-eyed kitty and giant dog—what kind of dog is Indy again? Elephant dog?”
“Elephant dog? Elephant dog?” Shannon crumpled a wet paper towel sitting on the counter and aimed at Becky’s head. “Sofa-sized, max.”
Becky watched the wad fly off to her left. “You are one lousy shot, lady. That the best you’ve got?”
“I missed on purpose. Lucky thing I know you love my babies as much as I do, or—right between the eyes, kiddo,” Shannon said.
“You dream. So go home and feed your sofa.”
As Shannon opened her mouth to protest, Becky lifted her hands in defense. “Don’t say it. What was I thinking, suggesting you go home without your dose of SeaQuarium’s most stubborn, most intelligent, chubby white whale? You’re addicted, sweetheart, might as well face it. Go see the spithead.”
No need to ask twice. “All righty then,” Shannon said. “And thanks.” She picked up her backpack and headed for the door. As she left, she turned and caught a glimpse of Becky burying her face back in her paperwork, one hand waving in Shannon’s general direction, a leg jiggling to that unheard beat.
Shannon called a farewell, pushed the fish house door closed and made her way down the behind-the-scenes pathway.
Eager to see Juneau, the infamous spitting beluga, she struggled to pick up her pace.
Wouldn’t happen. She’d run out of pizazz. A squashed-flat penny on a train track. She surrendered to her exhaustion, and ambled past the equipment lining her route, taking comfort from its familiarity.
The whales’ enrichment toys—hoops as blue as the deepest ice, slick and squeaky balls, hose sections, buoys.
The stretcher designed for the belugas, with soft padded holes for short beluga fins, hanging on the generator room wall. For emergencies. Never needed during the ten years Shannon had volunteered. With any luck, it never would.
Heading downhill, she could see Juneau floating alone in the middle of the back whale pool, the rounded top of her head, her blow hole, her wide, white back, bobbing above the water. The other four belugas lingered out front in the big public pool; Juneau chose to remain in the private pool. A loner, Juneau, just like Shannon.
“Becky called you a spithead,” she said as she approached the rim of the aqua-colored tank. “Feel free to give her a whacking big spit bath next time she comes down. But you won’t spit at me, right, my bright yet moody friend? I’m your favorite volunteer, right? And you’re, no question, my favorite whale. Pals don’t spit at pals, right?”
Right. Odds, maybe 50/50.
And the worst part—the staff biologists had started it all by design, when they encouraged the belugas’ natural ability to press ice-cold mouthfuls of water through their lips in forceful streams, creating lovely upward spraying fountains. The belugas performed the behavior on cue, a good husbandry measure and crowd pleaser. However, Juneau would often spit without warning to send messages like “take a hike.” Shannon’s kind of girl. Except when the whale lobbed a torrent of salty water right at her face.
Shannon reached the rim of the tank, three feet high on her side, and twenty feet down on the whales’ side. Juneau swam to greet her, the whale’s snow-white, plump body gliding through the water. The beluga raised her head, with the broad, unmarked forehead, ebony button eyes set well back on each side, short soft curving nostrum, and the mouth that reached so far around each side she always appeared to smile. Beautiful as ever. Shannon grinned at the sight—she couldn’t help herself.
Shannon studied her for a moment. No sign of her pebble today. Shannon had no idea where the whale hid it. For safety reasons, the staff removed rocks of any size from the pool area whenever they spotted one, yet they’d never found this little round pebble the size of a pea that Juneau loved to bring to Shannon. Clever girl. Shannon should’ve taken it from her, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Often she would take the little stone off Juneau’s tongue and drop it for Juneau to dive and find. Perhaps she found the pebble hunt more of a challenge, preferring to search for this tiny dull-colored object rather than for those big bright rings and buoys the trainers sent her to retrieve. In any case, Juneau had elected not to play today. Today she wanted rubs along her back and fluke, and scratches under her small pectoral fins. She did love her back rubs.
Shannon reached out to give Juneau’s smooth white head a gentle stroke.
The whale floated closer to the pool’s edge.
Fingers met forehead.
At that instant, a bolt of lavender lightning flashed over the pool and surrounded them. A jolting pain, like the electric shock of grabbing a live wire rippled through Shannon. The crackle of a hundred firecrackers erupted. A strong scent, spicy and exotic, filled her nose. The taste of salt water bit her tongue. Her ears rang as if the lightning had touched off sirens.
What the—? Can’t move, can’t breathe.
A second piercing shock ripped through her, shaking her like hands on a jackhammer. She jerked as shimmering, lavender energy captured her and Juneau in a tight net. Flashes of lavender branded miniature strands of light on the inside of her eyelids and scalded her eyes. The pool began to slide up.
The pool remained stable; Shannon began a rapid collapse. No! She gripped the rough, rounded pool rim until she couldn’t feel her fingers. She fought the dizziness.
No good. Blackness circled inward from the edges of her vision, stealing the view of a hazy twilight sky. Her legs buckled.
Shit. She never fainted.
She dropped to the concrete like an anchor in shallow water.
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