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The Shark Waves Back

By Christopher Jones

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For an aquarium, there sure was a lot of concrete and metal everywhere, Norman thought. Maybe if they spent more money on fish and less on infrastructure, they’d be more financially viable. The archway above the entrance loomed over the trickle of incoming guests, a rusting frown that said, “Whitefall Aquarium” in off-white against flaking sea-blue. His wheelchair thumped over the pitted asphalt of the parking lot, rubber wheels jouncing, clacking his teeth together.

“Sorry, Norman,” his mother said. “It smooths out once we’re inside.” She patted his shoulder. Norman wanted to tell her it was okay, but in the din of the parking lot she would never hear him clearly enough, so he said nothing.

She was wrong, though. The concrete ramp up the sloping bridgeway that led from the parking lot to the big tanks was rutted as well, cracking concrete flaking off underfoot--or underwheel, in his case. To the right of the entrance gaily-colored fish darted back and forth in a large tank. Norman jerked his arm up. His hand flailed. He kept it up, twice, three times, his muscles spasming and throwing his hand around like a normal person would wave a handkerchief.

“Are you waving, Norman?” his mother said. “He likes to wave to the fish,” she explained to the two teenagers tagging along a couple of paces back. Norman couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there--Charlotte and Mackenzie, his babysitters, his minders, his support staff. Mom wanted to get to know them, and have them get to know him, before they took over the duties of watching him six or seven hours a day.

Norman paid them no attention. He would not have even if he could have craned his neck over the wheelchair’s high padded seat to see them back there, giggling to each other. But he couldn’t. A line of drool rolled down a cheek. He slapped at it with his waving hand, not that it would do any good, but his mother would see, and wipe it off.

“Oh, Norman, let me get that,” she said, reaching down with a cloth.

A wide, brown enclosure with fake rock and real water sat under the bridge, poking out where Norman could see it. He waited until Mom cleared herself from in front of him, then he waved at the seals. They vaulted themselves off the slick rocks and into the water. They did not notice the small teen boy in the wheelchair, whose arms didn’t work right.

“The seals are happy to see you,” Mom said, though Norman knew they weren’t, because they didn’t. “It’s not feeding time for a while. Shall we come back?”

Norman said yes. He knew it sounded like a moan, a low-pitched howl shoved out of his constricted throat through his twisted mouth. But Mom knew what it meant, which was as good as speaking.

“Did you understand him?” Mom said to one of the girls. Or both of them. They trotted into view on Norman’s left.

“No, ma’am,” one of them said.

That was ‘yes’,” Mom said, brightly. “He wants us to come back for feeding time.”

“Oh,” said Mackenzotte--it didn’t matter which--obviously daunted.

Mom pushed off again, the two rookie minders trailing in her wake. “Understanding him isn’t too much of a problem. He’s very smart. He can talk, too, though it takes some work to figure out what he’s saying. You’ll get used to it.”

Norman waved at the tank of electric eels as they entered the small fish building. It was cooler in here, and dark, most of the light coming from within the fish tanks themselves. Most of them were smallish, no bigger than the window of a house, blue-white light illuminating their interiors, with fish of every kind and description living their hopeless little lives behind panes of glass. Lining the bottoms of their cages was rock of a color no rock in nature ever had. Artificial, the whole of it. Did they know?

Do you feel trapped? Norman thought. Do you look out onto this huge other world, with beings walking and talking and moving as they choose, in and out, and think--why can’t my life be like that? Why am I stuck inside this tiny shell, and no one understands what I want, not really?

Norman waved to the betta fish and the clownfish and the tiny squid and the ram chiclid and the green swordtail. They bobbed and rocked and dove, sporting themselves as well as they could inside their two-foot-by-three-foot-by-two-foot enclosures.

“He really likes to wave, doesn’t he?” the brunette teen said, stepping forward into Norman’s view, which blocked the freshwater angelfish. Norman waved anyway.

Mom said, “He certainly does. We don’t pass a tank but he waves to the fish in it.”

“Why does he do that?”

“Ask him,” Mom said. Norman couldn’t see her, up behind him, but her voice had a smile in it. She likes this one, Norman thought.

The teenager got right down in front of him, taking up most of his view. Norman’s head was twisted up and to his right, so he could really only see her with one eye, but she was tall and willowy, like a young tree, and her eyes were green. She swallowed, and kept looking away from his face, but she said, “Norman, why do you wave to the fish?”

She didn’t really want an answer, did she? She was just buttering up Mom so she could get this job.

“It’s an involuntary reaction,” Norman said. “The palsy makes my muscles contract, so my arm shoots out like this. It’s stimulated by the bright colors of the fish. Really, I have no control over it.”

What came out of Norman’s mouth was a long series of moans, rising and falling in pitch. Once or twice Norman found his saliva pooling at the back of his throat, and had to swallow it to keep going, making a pause of a second or two in his speech. He wound down and stopped. But he kept his eye on this girl.

“Did you understand that?” Mom said.

She flushed a little. She had enough feeling to be able to blush. That was interesting. Which one of these was this one again?

“No, Mrs. Catiline, I’m sorry,” the girl said.

“Mackenzie, how about you?” Mom said. She had to turn her head to say it. Norman could hear the sound change.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” Mackenzie said. That made this one, the brunette one, Charlotte. Like in the E.B. White classic. Charlotte was a spider, but not the kind that tickled Norman’s skin when it walked across him. The kind that talked, and wrote literature, one word at a time.

Mom said, “That was one of his longer speeches. He must really have wanted to tell you the answer to your question.”

Charlotte unbent to talk to Mom. “What did he say?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Mom said, sounding just a shade embarrassed herself. “Something about the fish and their colors, and how his arm moves. Like I told you, he’s very smart. He knows a lot of things.”

Norman shivered. The room was too cool for him. His body didn’t generate heat through movement, the way everyone else’s did, and he got chilled easily. Mom, ever-watchful for signs like this, said, “Norman, are you cold?”

Norman said yes.

Charlotte bent down and said, right to Norman, “That was yes, wasn’t it? Do you want a blanket?”

Norman was too startled to answer, but he tried to twist his body back so he could see her with both eyes. It took four or five seconds. In the meantime Mom unzipped the pack on the rear of the chair and took out a blanket. She handed it to Charlotte, who tucked it in around Norman’s legs.

Mom pushed the wheelchair up a long, curving ramp covered in threadbare carpet, toward the doors to the outside. The last tank on the right, just before the doors, was a little larger than the others, maybe five feet long. Norman waved to the fish inside, especially the Blue Tang he always thought of as Dori. Dori didn’t have any problem talking. But she couldn’t remember things. Kind of the opposite of my problem, Norman thought. We would make a great team.

They passed into the bright noon sunshine. The pitted walkway stood about twenty feet in the air, and led to a wide, sloping area with concrete benches set in a semicircle facing a huge tank, the biggest in the aquarium. The benches were empty today, looking a little sad and forlorn. A sign at the entrance ramp said, “Exhibit Closed”, along with a lot of other fine print Norman couldn’t read. Mom went over and looked closely at it.

“The dolphins aren’t performing anymore,” she said. “That’s a shame. Norman loves the dolphin exhibit.”

Norman’s heart sped up a little. No more dolphins? That might be because of the animal activists, or maybe the decaying aquarium couldn’t afford to keep them anymore. What if the other large-fish exhibits were closed, too? The anxiety made Norman’s body twist away from his chair, his back bowing out and shoving his head back against the headrest. He tried to stop it, but the more effort he put into controlling his body, the less control he had. His left arm shot out, rigid, and his right shoved uselessly against the black padding of the chair.

“Mrs. Catiline?” Mackenzie said, from off to the left, out of Norman’s sight. “Something’s wrong with Norman.”

Mom looked back and worry crossed her face. “Oh, Norman. It’s the dolphins. He’s disappointed.” She rushed over and took gentle hold of his arm, helping turn him back so his body was sitting square in the chair again.

Charlotte crouched next to her. “Does this happen a lot?”

“Not often. He’s very good at controlling himself. But sometimes the body gets into this feedback loop and he goes rigid. We just need to help him be calm.”

If you want me to be calm, Norman thought, get me to the large fish. If they’re still there. They have to be there.

Charlotte reached out and stroked the side of Norman’s face. “It’s okay, Norman. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Norman’s face tingled, and wild shocks traveled up and down his spine. She was touching him! Well, of course she was touching him, she’d have to do that all the time as his minder, but this...she was touching him. Actually him. His face. Not to clean something up, but like a person touches another person. Like a girl touches a boy.

He went almost limp. His arm came down with a whack and his body unclenched, settling back into the chair. For a moment, his face relaxed and he could look at the two of them, Charlotte and Mom, looking concernedly at him, judging what was wrong and what needed to be done. Mackenzie’s round face was a few feet behind them, a look of horror underneath a pasted-on smile that looked like an animal had died.

“Well,” Mom said. “That was certainly a quick one.” She gave Charlotte an appraising look.

“I like Charlotte,” Norman said.

Charlotte smiled, but glanced at Mom. Mom said, “He’s feeling better now.” She patted his arm. Norman said it again, as clearly as he could. “That’s good, Norman,” she said.

“I think he said he likes the aquarium,” Charlotte said.

“He certainly does,” Mom said. “Especially this next exhibit.”

They wheeled him into a large elevator and pushed the button for the ground floor. The ancient machine groaned and creaked as the floor moved downward, but its gears did their job and the door opened onto a tiered amphitheater. Each tier was wide enough for the wheelchair, and fronted with steel railings, painted white, so the viewers could lean against them while they took in the show.

And what a show it was. The large fish exhibit showed no sign of the decrepitude of the rest of the aquarium. The paint gleamed. The carpet was new along the tiers. And at the front, about fifty feet wide, was a gently curving set of glass panels, twenty feet tall, and behind them, in the rich blue of the aquarium’s salt-water tank, swam the large fish.

Swaying fronds of kelp, like hula dancers in the current, provided cover for the smaller residents of the exhibit. Colorful and various, they darted in and out, seahorses, spot, bluefish. Behind them, dark shapes cruised. A manta ray chose that particular moment to swim by, fins undulating. Norman waved. Norman waved at the sawfish. He waved to the stingrays, embedded in the sand at the bottom of the tank. He waved at the grouper, in pairs, diving and rising. His arm shook as if he were trying to detach his hand.

Mom took him right down onto the floor of the amphitheater, a few feet from the glass, where he could see the animals up close.

“I’m going to get us some drinks,” Mom said. “Will you two watch Norman for a minute?”

They said they would, and the moment Mom was out of sight, Mackenzie pulled out her cell phone and started texting. “Good thing this job pays well,” she said.

“You ever had a job working with special-needs kids?” Charlotte said, her eyes on the blue expanse in front of her.

“Never. And I wouldn’t now, except I need the money. Gives me the creeps.”

Charlotte glanced down at Norman. “Hey,” she said, “he’s right here. He’s a person, you know.”

Mackenzie looked up from her phone for just a second, and for the first time that day let her eyes actually rest on Norman. “Not like us, he isn’t. His mom says he’s really intelligent, but did you hear her talk to him? She knows there’s nobody in there.” She went back to her phone.

Norman was stung. Mom loved him, yes. No doubt of it. But Mackenzie was right. Mom read the surface of the water, but she didn’t know all that lurked beneath. Still, it was a mean thing to say, and Norman thought a demonstration was in order.

Norman waved some more. A little harder. A dark shape detached itself from the deep blue behind the glass and glided forward, circling to the left, clockwise around the circular tank.

“I think his mother is right. I think Norman is very intelligent. He knows a lot more than you’re giving him credit for,” Charlotte said.

You can’t know that after part of an afternoon, Norman thought. But I’m glad you’re making an effort. This next part won’t go so bad for you. And I’ll enjoy it when you come over.

“Here he comes,” Norman said.

Charlotte looked down, saw that Norman was waving, and tracked his eyes. Her face changed, her mouth forming an “O”. “Yes, he is, isn’t he?” she said.

“Who are you talking to?” Mackenzie said, tapping her phone, her back to the glass.

“Norman. He’s calling his friend.”

Norman’s wave was so energetic it could have doubled as a fan on a hot day.

“He doesn’t have friends. He’s a vegetable.”

“Nope. Animal. Very definitely animal.” Involuntarily, Charlotte stepped back a half pace from the glass.

Mackenzie desultorily turned one eye toward the aquarium. She shrieked and dropped her phone, jerking backward and stumbling over the footrests on Norman’s chair. She tumbled to the ground in a heap, scuttling backward on her hands like an overturned crab.

Filling more than half the length of the glass was a huge shark, a monster right from a horror-film nightmare. It’s mouth was right about where Mackenzie’s head would have been.

“Hello, my friend,” Norman said.

The whale shark’s lidless eye turned on Norman, and his fins waggled.

“You look well. Thank you for coming to see me,” Norman said.

The shark cruised a tight circle, impossibly tight for such a massive creature, and came back to Norman.

“No, I don’t like her, either.” The shark’s fins rippled. It swam off, but turned and charged straight at the glass.

Mackenzie gave a little yelp and sought the safety of the first tier.

Charlotte said, “She doesn’t understand you, does she?” Her eyes were round but her mouth turned up a little at the corners. She spoke in the direction of the shark, but Norman knew better.

“No.”

“There’s much more to you than people see, isn’t there?”

“Yes.”

“You’re locked in a space too small for you. You’re meant for more, and you can’t get out, or even tell people all there is that you know.”

The shark cruised by again.

“Are you sure that thing’s safe?” Mackenzie said, from twenty feet back.

Norman said, “It’s a whale shark. It’s not dangerous. It doesn’t eat annoying teenage girls.”

Charlotte glanced back. “Whale sharks don’t eat people. They aren’t dangerous. They’re just misunderstood.”

As long as they were there, which was quite a while, the whale shark never left the glass for more than a moment. It had lots of company--other sharks glided by regularly, and each whipped his fins in greeting.

"He certainly loves this exhibit,” Mom said, returning with four tall slushy lemonades. “It’s funny. I tell other people about the large fish exhibit, and they tell me it’s boring. The really big fish never come to the glass when they’re there. But they always come for us. I don’t know what it is.”

Finally, Norman’s arm was tired. He laid it in his lap. “Time to go home,” he said.

“Time to go,” Charlotte said. “Norman, can I push you?”

“Yes,” Norman said.

They made their way past the incoming crowd, up the carpeted ramp to the elevator. Mom and Mackenzie went through the open door onto the metal floor, their footsteps ringing. Charlotte paused at the doorway, and shifted the chair for Norman to have one more look.

He waved. The shark cruised by once more, and flicking his tail, was gone.

“The shark waves back,” Charlotte said, very softly.

Norman made a barking noise, like a seal.

Mom cocked her head to the side. “What’s funny, Norman?” She looked at Charlotte. “He almost never laughs. What did you say to him?”

“It wasn’t me,” Charlotte said, rolling the chair forward. The doors slid closed behind her. “It was his friends in the water.” She bent and tucked his blanket around him, pulling it up across his chest, but leaving his left arm free.

“Is that good?” she said, checking his eyes.

“Yes,” Norman said. It wasn’t so hard to understand.

“I left your arm free,” Charlotte said, her smile crooked, the way one friend smiles at another, when they know something no one else does. “So you can wave.”

Other entries by Christopher Jones

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About Christopher Jones

Christopher JH Jones (alias Mr. C and Cj Lehi), after decades without success, quit writing in 2013. After trying repeatedly to grow up—without discernible success—he repented, and has gone on to publish several books in multiple genres. He is known for his business book, From Poop Into Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles; for his true-crime historical thriller series Trinity Flynn; and for Twelve Upon a Time, his collection of original fairy tales. A prolific writer of short fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections and been featured in six anthologies.

His latest labor of love is founding Drabatic Press. We’re all still waiting to see how that turns out.

Cj resides in Lehi, UT, with his wife Jeanette, their eight children, three children-in-law, one murderous cat, and a stray hummingbird. He loves Twitter, (@cjhjones), Instagram (@iamchrisjones) and visitors to his website (iamchrisjones.com).

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