It’s time for everyone’s recurring segment, Story Time Monday! Can’t believe I was able to keep my self imposed schedule, either, but here we are. Another round of Shelby the Orca today, because I’m not skilled enough to create multiple universes at the same time. Many people are asking how and why Shelby was created, and the simple answer is because I think orcas are awesome and I wanted to
rip off pay homage to my favorite childhood show/meme factory Spongebob Squarepants. That’s pretty much the entire backstory. They say big things have small beginnings, after all. Anyway, time to further the life of everyone’s my favorite aquatic mammal. A little shorter this time, because I kind of realized no one wants to read an actual book when they come here.
The summer after my eighth year of school, if one wanted to be bold, could be considered the most important summer in the last 50 years of orca culture. I’m not that arrogant, but some people have called it that.
It was my third summer working for my dad’s friend Johnny’s landscaping company. Once I started puberty, Dad said it was time for me to get a job, because that’s what orcas do when they get older and landscaping was good, honest work. I’m pretty sure he just wanted me out of the house, because Carlo didn’t have a job and I don’t think Russell knew what the word job even meant.
Even though I didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t the worst summer job. I got to be outside, the hours were good, and, most of the time, I could kind of just zone out. When I first started, I was given the most menial tasks imaginable, but now that it was my third summer, Johnny trusted me enough to leave me in charge of some of his clients’ lawn care. If Johnny didn’t need me for a big project, my day consisted of raking the sand, trimming and feeding the seaweed, tending to any coral (to be honest, if someone cares enough about the state of their lawn to hire a landscaper, they should have some coral. Not all orcas are particularly tasteful, I’m ashamed to admit), caring for pets (a good way to get some tips), and cater to any various concerns the client may have, then move on. I had a pretty consistent schedule, usually about three houses a day. I don’t know if I should be proud or embarrassed that the beginning of that summer was the best shape I would ever be in.
But I wouldn’t be telling you about this if it was just a regular day fixing lawns. Johnny had just taken on a huge job and needed all hands on deck- someone had purchased the land directly north of the school and wanted to convert it to a private amusement park. For the first, and only, time, I was excited to work for Johnny O’s Yards & Stuff.
Janice woke me up way earlier than I was planning.
“Hey Shelby!” she yelled, nudging me awake. “Hey Shelby! Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
I jolted awake in a panic, but when I looked at the clock, I saw that I had been duped.
“Seriously?” I asked, shoving her a little too hard. “You got up at 5 in the morning just to prank me?”
She only laughed hysterically. I was too wired to even consider going back to bed at that point, so I just kind of sat around until it was actually time to leave. Needless to say, it wasn’t the greatest start to the day. It only got worse.
Despite the fact that I arrived on-site thirty minutes before anyone else, the other guys decided to get on my case for not bringing donuts for everyone, despite the fact that I was eleven, had never once provided breakfast for them, and that at least one of them had a severe nut allergy that prevented him from eating anything from the only donut shop in between our house and the school. Have I mentioned that Dad’s friends could be a little much sometimes?
“Hey, leave the kid alone,” Johnny said, rolling it ten minutes late. “It’s not his fault he’s part of this generation. Kids these days have no sense of responsibility.” Johnny loved to talk about how terrible the youth was, especially when their parents weren’t around.
“Anyway, you know why we’re here, fellas,” he continued. “Some rich asshole paid a lot of money to turn this wasteland into his kid’s private play place. Not judging, but when I was young my idea of fun was getting a job and improving my community. My daddy’d slap the taste out of my mouth if I even said the words ‘amusement park.’ But, the check cleared, so here we are. We’ve got to get this place cleaned up for the construction guys.”
“Well, I think we all like to spoil our kids, now and then, Johnny.”
Out of nowhere, another orca appeared. He was pretty big, but lean, and his white spots streaked down his body. He had at least one spiral-shell tooth, a sure sign of money. His son, who had been hidden behind him, emerged and my jaw dropped. It was Preston, the richest, and most annoying, orca in school. I tried to sink into the sand before he noticed me.
“Who are you?” one of the workers asked, as if this could be anyone else other than the orca who was paying for all this.
“I’m the rich asshole who’s paying for all this,” he sneered. Rich orcas tend be pretty arrogant. “Now, don’t worry. I won’t stay here breathing down your neck. I’ve got much better things to do than hanging around manual labor all day. I just wanted to come here at the start to introduce my son Preston and myself so you guys know who you’re working for. And to let you know that if we’re not satisfied I’ll sue all your asses into the next century. So let’s get to work. Chop, chop!”
I don’t think Preston’s father realized we weren’t actually the ones building the park. I tried to hide behind one of the adults as we started moving supplies, but Preston somehow spotted me, anyway. As he sauntered over to me, I don’t think I’ve been a deeper shade of red.
“Shelby? Is that you?”
“Hey, Preston,” I said, avoiding eye contact.
“You’re building my park? Oh, my. How embarrassing for you.”
“My dad made me get a job,” I said, as if this would stop any harassment.
“I saw your father earlier,” he said. “He was delivering my mail. Meanwhile, my father has enough money to build me a private amusement park and book us a vacation to the Maldives. I can’t imagine how inferior you must feel.”
I should mention that I might be paraphrasing what Preston said a little. This all happened a long time ago, after all.
“Remember when you won the stupid Scavenger Hunt and everyone thought you were my rival? We haven’t even graduated school yet and you’re already working for me! What a twist!”
“Hey, kid, hurry up!” Johnny yelled, saving me from further abuse. I grabbed a rake in my mouth and swam away as fast as I could, leaving Preston’s condescending laughter behind.
It’s funny how life has a way of taking things full circle. I had mostly forgotten about the First Year Scavenger Hunt, my head filling up with countless other, more useless memories over the years. But when Preston mentioned it, I realized that this plot of land was the exact same area where we found the wooden orca. At first, the true significance of this was lost on me.
My job was to rake and even out the sand so that there was an even surface for the foundations and decorative coral to be put down. I considered myself lucky that the demolition crew wasn’t taking down the rock formations while we were there. I’m not great with explosives.
As with most tasks Johnny gave me, I kind of just zoned out as I ran my rake over the sand. I developed a pretty good rhythm, going back and forth across the length of the plot, evening out the land. As it was, quite possibly, the most boring thing I’ve ever done, I mostly kept my head down in case I uncovered something interesting. There were a few shells here and there, but nothing to write home about.
The crew had been spending most of the day disposing of the water-skimmer and the remnants of the pole, both of which were somehow still in the same place they were seven years ago, but in considerably worse shape. I had started at the opposite end of the plot, so I got there just as they were dragging the last piece away. Since there was so much debris, I had to rake a little more vigorously than usual. And something unexpected poked out of the sand- the shiny rectangle with the orca on it. The glossy material hadn’t deteriorated in the seven years since I had seen it last, and the blue and yellow writing, which, of course, I couldn’t read, was still pretty clear. Just like the last time, the rectangle fascinated me. I needed to know what this was.
I was wearing a satchel to carry any particularly big chunks of debris, so, once I made sure no one was watching, I quickly slid the rectangle in. Though I didn’t know what it was or who the orca was, I knew I didn’t need a bunch of landscapers’ help with it. This was potentially sensitive information.
The rest of the day went by at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t stop thinking about the rectangle. I was planning on asking Mom about it first, since she knew everything. And if she didn’t know, Carlo would. I hadn’t worked out what I’d do with the information yet, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
Even after raking the entire plot three times, Johnny still made me help install the eelgrass that lined the entire perimeter. I think I was there for almost twelve hours! Johnny’s lucky orcas don’t have any child labor laws. Not that he’d obey them even if we had them.
When I was finally able to leave, I scurried home as fast as possible. Since I had gotten home so late, my family had already eaten dinner, but Mom saved some for me. She went to the kitchen to reheat some, which was the perfect opportunity to bring up the rectangle.
“So, how was work?” she asked as I followed her. “Johnny didn’t push you too hard, did he? I told your father he’s a little crazy.”
“It was fine,” I lied.
“Don’t be afraid to tell us if it isn’t,” she said sweetly. “Dad and Johnny go way back, but that doesn’t mean he gets to push around my baby.”
“I won’t,” I said, as if telling Dad to make Johnny take it easy on me was a legitimate option. “Hey, Mom, do you know who this is?”
I showed her the rectangle.
“Where did you get this?” she asked, suddenly very serious.
“It was at the construction site,” I said.
“I want you to forget about this, okay?” She had never looked at me quite so intensely. “Nothing good can come of this.”
“I just want to know who it is,” I said, now more curious than ever.
“Shelby, please,” she said. “Just drop it.”
“Shelby, you’ll never believe this,” Dad said as he entered the kitchen, “but the Flounders were up twenty in the fourth and still managed to lose- is that Shamu?”
I thought Mom would kill him right then and there.
“Err, I mean, that’s definitely not Shamu, what was I thinking? That’s just a random orca that I’ve never seen before.”
“That’s right, Harris,” Mom said. “This is nobody. Certainly no one your son need concern himself with.”
Not wanting to deal with any more scolding, I agreed to drop it. I already got what I needed, anyway. This was Shamu, and Carlo was sure to have the details.
The next morning, I was greeted by a very pleasant surprise- Johnny had given me the day off since we had gotten so much done the day before. I had been strongly considering not going in, so this was welcome news.
After eating breakfast I hurried over to Carlo’s house, sneaking the rectangle out with me. Since we don’t really have any instant communication methods, most get-togethers had to be planned days in advance, lest you run the risk of showing up somewhere your presence is unexpected, or, worse yet, unwanted. The latter is typically called “pulling a Russell” in orca circles. Luckily, Carlo was home and his parents weren’t, so I didn’t run into any issue.
“I expect Russell to just show up like this,” Carlo said when I got there, “but not you. You should have had your dad send a message, my mom could have made food.”
“I won’t stay long. I just need to know what you know about Shamu.”
“Shamu? You haven’t heard of Shamu?”
“Well, I kind of have,” I said. “But now I have this.”
“This is definitely Shamu,” he said after looking at the rectangle. “I can’t read this, though, you know that.”
“But you know Shamu?”
“Why do you wanna know so bad?” he asked. “Your mom usually knows this stuff better than I do.”
“Yeah, but my mom won’t tell me,” I answered. “I showed her this and she freaked out and told me I needed to forget I ever saw it.”
“What do you actually know about Shamu?”
“Just that he’s the most famous orca ever,” I said, kind of making things up. “And that you’ve seen at least three specials on him.”
“First of all, Shamu was a she,” Carlo said, slipping into his lecturing voice. “Second, I’ve only seen two specials on her, so I’m far from an expert. Yes, she was a very famous dancer when she was alive, but she’s more famous for disappearing. And that literally everyone who’s tried to find her wound up disappearing, too. So maybe your mom has a point.”
“What do you mean she disappeared?”
“One day she just up and vanished. I think she was on her way to a performance or a public appearance or something and just never showed up. I think they looked for three months before calling off the search. Then every few years someone would say they found some new clues or something and that they could find her, only to turn up missing, themselves.”
“That’s pretty crazy,” I said, undeterred. “So who can read this?”
“Didn’t you hear what I just said?” Carlo asked. “You can’t look for Shamu, it’s a curse!”
“I’m not going to look for Shamu, I just want to know what this says.”
“Shelby, this is real, man,” Carlo pleaded. “There’s some seriously bad juju surrounding all of this. I’m sure you can get Russell to come along, but I’m out on this.”
“Listen, Carlo,” I said, “I just want to know what this says. You and my parents are the only ones who know I have it. I’m not about to go around telling everyone I know what happened to Shamu or anything. I’m not a hero, I’m just a kid. If I feel things getting a little too intense, I’ll bail, I promise. Now, do you know anyone who can read?”
“Try Old Bill,” he said, defeated. “I’d never talk to him myself, so I can’t be sure he exists, but, if he does, he could probably read it. He’s supposed to live in a cave somewhere in Shark Tooth Ridge. But don’t tell anyone I told you that. My mom would kill me if she found out I was giving out someone’s address without their consent.”
The same switch that turned on in my head during the Scavenger Hunt had been flipped. I decided right then and there that I would find out what happened to Shamu. I headed straight towards Shark Tooth Ridge, which was on the far end of town. I had to be back by nightfall, so I couldn’t waste time.
I had never heard of Old Bill. Seems like there were a lot of things surrounding this whole Shamu business I had never heard of, but I had to see it through. I’m not even sure what I originally hoped to gain from knowing what the rectangle said. The message wasn’t particularly long, so it’s not as if it was going to be a clear map to Shamu. I think it might have been a little teenage rebellious streak, but I’m telling you there was something about that picture of Shamu. I understood why so many orcas got caught up in the allure of finding Shamu.
I had been swimming for about an hour when I first noticed someone was following me. I was avoiding the busier streets, so the faint burst of a blowhole was easy to pick out. At first I ignored it, since, even though it was midday on a work day, it’s not a crime to be swimming around. But when I could tell the same swimmer had been behind me for a long time, I became suspicious.
My pursuer was quick. Every time I turned around (casually, of course. I had seen enough spy movies to know not to let them know you know they’re there), they had somehow ducked behind a rock or the rare passing traffic. I knew it was a mammal, so I was just hoping to find out what species.
I turned around twice in a row, pretending to be lost. My pursuer slipped, and I saw a black fin dart behind some coral. It was an orca. This did not ease my anxiety.
My heart was pounding in my chest. Who was following me and how did they know I was looking for Shamu? Was Carlo safe? Had they gotten to my family yet? I was hoping it was still early enough in the Shamu-quest to kind of laugh it off and agree to forget it ever happened if this orca and, I assumed, their organization, we amenable. If not, I don’t know. Apparently I’d wind up dead.
I was regretting taking side streets now. Everything was so quiet; I was so out in the open. What was I thinking? I had just had the two smartest orcas I knew tell me not to go after this and that bad things happen to anyone that does. Of course someone would find out I was now in the Shamu chasing game. Someone always finds out. They went and took another breath, as if to remind me they were there.
When was the last time I took a breath? I was feeling a little light headed. I needed to get some air to stave off a full-fledged panic attack. I breeched, took a big, deep breath, and sat on the surface for a second. Or it might have been an hour. I’m not really sure. But I decided that my parents didn’t raise me to run away from my problems. I was going to go back down there and challenge my pursuer. Maybe they’d take it easy on me. Either way, I’d stop worrying.
I swam back down, not seeing the orca anywhere. Was I imagining the whole thing? That’s what I told myself. I counted it as a win for inaction. I had a new pep in my step. Nothing could stop me from getting to Old Bill, now. Nothing, except the faint sound of a blow hole.
I froze. It was now or never. Turning around slowly, I mustered up all the courage I had ever had.
“I know you’ve been following me!” I said, not particularly loudly. “So come on out! I’m not scared of you.”
The last part wasn’t very convincing. I saw some sand stir behind a rock formation, and my pursuer came into view.
“How did you know I was following you?”
It was Janice.
“Janice are you kidding me?” I yelled. “You almost gave me a heart attack! What are you doing?”
“I’m following you, silly,” she said innocently.
“Because I was bored. And I knew you were up to something.”
Have I mentioned that Janice was a pain in the butt?
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I’m not up to anything.”
“Then why did Mom yell at you last night?”
“She didn’t yell-”
“And why did you only go to Carlo’s house for a few minutes?”
“I can’t visit my friends-”
“And why are you going to Shark Tooth Ridge?”
“Who’s going to Shark Tooth Ridge?”
“You,” Janice said. “At least, that’s where Carlo told you to go.”
“Wait, you heard that?”
“I did,” she said with a mischievous look in her eye. “I’m good at hiding. So, what are you looking for? You might as well just tell me.”
“Why should I?”
“Because I’ll tell Mom you hit me if you don’t.” She had already mastered the art of manipulation.
“But I didn’t, so I’ll just deny it,” I said naively.
“You know they’ll take my side,” she said. Correctly, of course. My parents always took her side. “Come onnnnnnnnnn, Shelby, just tell me! I swear I’ll leave you alone if you tell me!”
I took a moment to consider my options and decided, knowing Janice, it’d be a lot easier to just tell her. I handed her the rectangle.
“I’m going to Shark Tooth Ridge to find someone who can read this,” I said.
“Oh, wow!” she said. “This is Shamu!”
“Wait, how do you know that?” I asked. Surely she couldn’t know any more about Shamu than I did. She barely watched TV.
“Mom’s told me the story a million times. It’s one of my favorites!”
“Mom told you? She almost lost her mind when I asked her about it.”
“Well, you’re a boy,” she said with a giggle. “I didn’t think you’d care about a dancer so much.”
“Then you know she disappeared,” I said.
“I like to think she ran away with her true love,” Janice said with a dreamy sigh.
“Well, she probably didn’t,” I said. “And a bunch of other orcas tried looking for her and went missing, too.”
“Ooooh, really? That’s mysterious!”
“I’m gonna find her,” I said matter-of-factly.
“You are! Can I come?”
“Absolutely not! This might get dangerous and I can’t have my little sister getting involved.”
“But what if you need someone to tell you about Shamu?” she asked. Not an invalid point.
“Yeah, but this is the most dangerous quest in orca history,” I said, probably a little too importantly. “There’s no telling if I’ll make it out of this alive.”
“So you need someone to watch your back.”
“Just let me come to Shark Tooth Ridge with you. You wouldn’t make me go all the way home by myself, would you?”
“That’s not- I mean, no, but-”
“I’ll tell Mom you’re looking for Shamu even though you told her you wouldn’t,” Janice said. Orcas can’t cross our fins, but if we could, she would have in that moment.
“Alright, fine!” I said. “But you’d better not say anything to Mom or Dad! You’re coming with me because you begged to, not the other way around.”
“Yay! Let’s go then!”
Keeping up with Janice’s energy helped calm my nerves slightly, since I was focusing on her and not constantly looking over my shoulder. I had to keep telling myself there was no way the shadowy forces behind the string of disappearances could possibly know I was asking questions yet, but when you’ve seen the Six Rings of Power, you tend to believe a lot of things others are quick to dismiss.
Shark Tooth Ridge was a series of sharp, steep hills that acted as a barrier between Orca Town and the open water to the south. There were rumors that pretty much every kind of predator alive lived near Shark Tooth Ridge, so, when combined with the imposing terrain, most orcas gave the ridge a wide berth. There was at least one thousand feet in between the ridge and Orca Town.
It was the first time I had been this close to the ridge. The city planner’s office put the main shopping district closest to the ridge to give the impression to any visitors that Orca Town had a booming economy, so I had been to some of the shops by the gap, but my parents never let me go any farther. Looking at it up close for the first time, considering that Shark Tooth Ridge didn’t necessarily look like shark teeth, just teeth in general, and it was right in front of Orca Town, I wondered why they didn’t call it Orca Tooth Ridge. I guess Shark Tooth Ridge sounds better. It sounds more ominous, at least. Maybe it was a conspiracy by the town government to make everyone afraid to leave, or something. I made a mental note to ask Dad about it.
“Okay,” I told Janice, “Carlo says Old Bill lives in a cave around here.”
“What does Old Bill look like?”
“No idea,” I said. “I assume he’s an orca.”
“Have you ever been here?”
“No, Mom and Dad would never let me come this close.”
“So how do we find him?”
“That’s a great question,” I said. “Get lucky, I guess.”
I’ll kind of fast-forward here, since all we did was go from Tooth to Tooth, swimming around the base, then moving on when we didn’t see a cave. It wasn’t very exciting, and it was a good thing it was still fairly early in the day. There’s ten Teeth in total, and we had looked at seven of them before the cave presented itself to us.
“That might be it,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to startle Old Bill. Something told me anyone who lived out here shouldn’t be trifled with.
I slowly drifted down to the cave, which was at the base of the Tooth. I hesitantly poked my head into the opening, not knowing what to expect. No one was home, but it was clear someone lived there. Janice was bold enough to go inside, so I followed suit. There was an old TV, a microwave, and a big, heavy looking chest that I was really tempted to open-
“Can I help you?”
I gasped and turned around to see the second biggest orca I’ve ever seen taking up most of the entryway to the cave.
A cliffhanger! I’m sure everyone is going to be on pins and needles until the next installment, which will either come next week or three months from now when I finish it. The waiting is half the fun!