My family decided on going to Sea Universe the next day. But judging from my snoring sister and her friend, we weren’t going to get there until past noon.
“Girls, Khit will be here with Mom and Dad in half an hour,” I called for the eighty-first time. “Please get up.”
“Five more minutes,” Daisy muttered drowsily.
Sighing, I continued to pack a picnic lunch and water bottles into a cooler. There was a knock on the door.
“Can someone get that?” I called, trying to balance two slices of bread and a can of tuna in my hands. Eyeing the two bundles on the floor, I said, “Great, Khit and Mom and Dad are here early, and now we have to wait for you two.”
My little sister rolled over in her sleeping bag and gave a loud snore. Little use she was. Daisy stretched and yawned sleepily, trying to pick herself up from the ground. But then Liana raced out of the bedroom.
“I’ll get it,” she said. “And it’s not Khit.” She opened the door quickly, revealing Darryl.
Daisy’s eyes widened to wakefulness instantly. She shook Cathy awake. “A boy is here.”
My sister shot up like a catapult, eyeing the newcomer in alarm. I hid a smile as the two teenagers turned bright red in mortification to be caught in cloud-and-star-decorated PJs and bed head hair in front of a stranger of the opposite sex.
“I’m sorry,” Darryl said. “Did I interrupt the sleepover?” He turned his head sideways to mutter at Liana, “You should have told me. I would have come later.”
“Oh, the girls don’t mind.” Liana waved her hand as if swatting a fly. “Do you, girls? I’m sorry, I would have told you Darryl was coming, but I thought you’d be up by now.” She wrinkled her nose. “Cathy, dear, you have a bit of…” Liana pointed to the side of her own mouth, hinting at the trace of dried drool on my sister’s chin.”
That did it. Cathy sprinted into my bedroom, with Daisy close on her heels. The door shut with the sound of humiliation.
“You are evil,” I told Liana.
“And you are welcome,” she grinned back. “Thanks to Darryl and me, you can be at Sea Universe before nightfall.”
“I feel so used,” Darryl said, catching on. “So that’s your sister. She looks like you.”
“So I’ve been told.” I slid a newly put together tuna sandwich into a bag. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“I invited him,” Liana said, her tone becoming a little defensive. “Do you have a problem with that?”
I stopped what I was doing to stare at her curiously. “No, I was just wondering.”
“Oh.” Liana was all smiles again. Her odd mood swings were disturbing. “We’re hanging out.”
“I thought you had a paper to write.” I lifted a curious eyebrow. “At least that’s your excuse for not coming to Sea Universe with us.”
“I do. We’re doing homework together.” She frowned. “Goodness, Caren. I don’t need you policing my every move.”
I was about to reply to her snappish tone, but Darryl broke in to change the subject, probably afraid of getting in the middle of a fight. “Moving on…let’s start on that homework.”
“Sure, let me just bring my laptop over.” Liana cast me one last scowl before going into our room.
I just bit my tongue.
We watched two shows: one with the dolphins, and the other with the orca whales. Personally, I liked the dolphins better. Dolphins just seemed so friendly and playful, with their endless smiles. And they were so smart. The pod of dolphins played a game of catch with the trainer, bouncing the balls off their noses, and they outwitted their trainer, successfully keeping the balls away from him. It was a lot of fun to see them, and it made me think about how human-like these mammals really were.
After the shows, we went on a ride called the Seashore Sky Tour. This was a scenic ride through the air in gondolas that took passengers across part of Mission Bay. I shared a gondola with Khit, and we sat in amiable silence, watching the beautiful view of the calm waters below. The sun glinted off the surface of the ocean, casting bright rays that struck our car, forcing me to shade my eyes from the sheer brightness, not that I minded. I could see the sea for miles out, and the vastness of the horizons never ceased to catch my breath. All that water out there. It made one wonder about all the life that dwelled in the deep—both discovered and undiscovered. I was sure there were unidentified creatures living in the ocean that no marine biologist had ever seen. Maybe even some animal that had lived in the time of the dinosaurs. It was a fascinating thought. I could write a story about a marine biologist who discovered a new species with the intelligence of humans.
The gondola ride ended too soon, and then Daisy and Cathy wanted to ride Rapid Falls. But I refused to have anything to do with fast, wet rides. Getting wet in summer was one thing, but getting wet in autumn was another. The winds had already begun to change from slightly breezy to bone-chilling, and I did not want to catch a cold before midterms.
But Daisy and Cathy didn’t care, arguing that as long as it wasn’t the dead of winter, it wasn’t cold enough to get sick. They even managed to drag my parents with them. Khit stared longingly after them.
“Oh, just go,” I told him.
“Are you sure?”
“I can entertain myself for an hour. Just call me when you guys are done.”
He grinned broadly like an eager schoolboy and ran after my family, calling for them to wait up.
Ambling to a nearby bench, I sat down and pulled out the visitor’s guide to decide what to do with myself. Stone Cliff Reserve seemed like a good start. That was where guests could pet the dolphins and feed them fish.
I hiked my way over there and was surprised to find that it wasn’t crowded at all. It was probably because people were so busy waiting in line for all the rides. Kids and their over-stimulated senses. Nobody used their imagination anymore because they needed constant excitement.
A trainer stood by the pool with a bucket of fish. She called my name. Surprised, I turned to look at her, and recognition sparked.
“Caren! Take a fish, please.” She lifted the bucket and held it out like an usher with the Sunday offering basket.
The stench was…well, fishy. I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “I think I’ll pass. I’ll just pat the dolphins without feeding them.”
“But that’s not proper etiquette.” She shook her head admonishingly. “Feeding them a fish is your token for petting them.”
“Never mind that.” I took a step away from the pile of dead fish. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“You didn’t ask—hello, take a fish please.” She held out the bucket to a young boy and his mother. The mother flinched away, but the boy’s grin stretched wide.
“Awesome,” he said, fetching out a fish.
Rina kept an eye on them while continuing our discussion. “I just got hired three days ago.”
“But how is it possible that you work here, of all places? Don’t trainers need…well, training?”
“I know everything I need to know,” she answered cryptically. “Watch.”
She knelt close to the pool, holding out a hand. Instantly, all the dolphins crowded in close, like bees to their queen. She petted them, whispering sweet endearments into wherever their ears were located. Sometimes it sounded like she was actually speaking dolphin—those high-pitched squeaking noises. Rina motioned the little boy with the fish over and instructed him to hold out the fish. One of the dolphins came up to it, and the boy dropped the fish into the dolphin’s mouth. Then he petted the dolphin’s back.
“Impressive,” I said. “Wow, Rina, you never told me you had experience with marine life.”
“Of course. I have more experience than any human who works here.”
That subtle reference to humans, as though she were not human herself, sent a warning reminder to my brain. This girl was a potential danger because she might be a shi’an. Instinctively, I backed away from her.
Rina didn’t seem to notice though. She was too busy looking around, her brows curiously tilting upwards. It seemed she was searching for something. Meanwhile, I noticed that the dolphins were becoming slightly agitated. They were making whimpering noises and splashed around restlessly.
“Come away from the pool now,” Rina instructed the few guests who were still there. “The dolphins are grumpy and need a nap.”
No sooner than the words were out of her mouth when loud shouts and piercing screams sounded in the distance. Everyone turned to see what the commotion was. A crowd was quickly dispersing from the next exhibit over, which if I recalled from my map, was the sea lion cave. Tons of people ran in our direction, shouting for us to run too.
And then I saw what had everyone so spooked. There, coming our way, were three angry sea lions, waddling down the path, which was wet enough for them to slide their bodies forward. The sea lions were on a rampage, swiping out at anything or anyone in their way with those powerful claws on their flippers.
I stood there stunned. Never before had I seen an angry sea lion. Like dolphins, they always seemed playful and eager to entertain an audience. They were three feet away, and I still hadn’t moved, although everyone else had. My eyes met the leader’s raging ones, and at that moment, I knew they were coming for me. I saw an image of myself reflected in those black, wild orbs, while all other people became unfocused.
They ran at me, lashing out their claws in the process.
“Caren, what are you doing?” Rina took a hold of my hand and tugged, and my feet finally became uprooted from the spot. We started running.
We had only gone a few feet when Rina stopped. “You keep running,” she instructed. “I know what’s wrong with them.” Then she turned around, stepping right in the path of those mad sea lions.
Of course, I couldn’t go on without her. “Are you crazy?”
But Rina ignored me. She stared down those sea lions, even when they threatened to run through her to get to me. Right when they were three inches from her face, they stopped. For a moment, it seemed like they were communicating with Rina. The sea lions let out puppy-like whimpers, and the leader even flashed a questioning glare in my direction. Rina calmly shook her head and continued to stare the leader in the eyes.
Then the sea lions tilted their heads in a respectful manner and turned around to waddle back up the path. By now, the Sea Universe staff had been alerted of the situation and had arrived to the scene. The sea lions allowed the trainers to take them back to their exhibit.
“Are you two all right?” a young, fair-haired male trainer asked us.
“Yes, Pete, thank you for asking.” Rina smiled broadly at the young man. “Now we’d better go find out what happened.” She gestured to me. “Come on Caren.”
After a lot of talking to the head staff and safety patrol, the discovery was made that the fencing around the sea lion exhibit had been left open. The staff declared it negligence on their part and apologized profusely. They couldn’t explain what had riled up the sea lions until Rina interrupted to ask where the sea lion pups had been taken today.
The entire staff had looked at her for two seconds before it dawned on them. The pups had been taken from their mothers to get their shots, and the insecurity of not being able to see their babies must have gotten the sea lions more agitated than usual.
Everyone complimented Rina for her quick thinking and thanked God that no one had been hurt. The park gave everyone who’d been close to the sea lions free admission for life. Most likely they were just scared that one of us might try to sue the living daylights out of them. But after that incident, I wasn’t quite sure I ever wanted to come back or get close to another sea creature again.
When my family found me, I told them what had happened and how Rina had saved my life. But when I looked back to introduce Rina, she was gone. Khit got a suspicious look in his eyes, and when we walked back to the car, he pulled me behind to talk privately.
I spoke first. “I think Rina is a shi’an. I’m sure of it, actually. The way she talked to those sea lions—it went deeper than an animal whisperer. But she can’t be bad. She saved my life.”
“Or she wants you to think she did,” he said. “To get you to trust her. I wouldn’t put it past her if she was the one who let those sea lions loose.”
Now that I thought about it, those sea lions had seemed to target me, and when she’d “talked” to them, they’d turned around immediately. Newfound worry laced through my veins. I only wished I could know Rina’s motives.
“So what do we do?”
“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” he growled over-protectively. “I’m not letting you out of my sight again. No water ride or roller coaster is worth it.”