Read A 52-Hertz Whale Online

Authors: Bill Sommer

A 52-Hertz Whale (3 page)

If you could, please open the two boxes. I am really hoping that it is that piece of sonar equipment. The situation isn't looking good for our whale friend, and it keeps me up at night (along with the incessant chiming of the grandfather clock in my parents' apartment that insists on ringing every single hour despite my best attempts to disable it).

Best,

Peter

P.S. Was there any return address on that seashell box? And are we sure it was meant for me? I wasn't expecting anything and, frankly, I'm kind of puzzled.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 13, 2012 at 9:57 PM
RE: Cease and Desist?

Dear Darren:

Thanks for the advice about Sam.

Yesterday, I got this phone message. It sounded like Sam, but voices in the background made it hard to hear. He said something like: “Hey buddy, what's up? Just wanted to see . . . hang out tomorrow after school. Meet me . . . seventh period at my locker. I've got . . . show you. Later, man.”

I listened to the message a couple times to make sure I heard right. Because the last time Sam called me was the end of eighth grade when he wanted help feeding his tarantula, Sparky, who ended up passing away over the summer. On the fifth listen, I realized Sam wanted to hang out with me again. And I started daydreaming, thinking how we might head to Sam's house after school and search his backyard for spiders, just like old times, peeling back layers of tree bark until one of us discovered a wolf spider. Then I imagined us up in Sam's room looking up the scientific names of the specimens we caught. I even started to convince myself that Sam would want to quit the soccer team.

Spoiler alert: None of that happened.

Today, I went to Sam's locker after seventh period like the message said. But Sam wasn't alone. He was with the entire soccer team. Long story short, the whole thing was a hoax. Coxson made Sam destroy my whale diorama, an extra credit project for Biology class. There was pornographic graffiti on some of my lobtailing shots and the habitat itself was pretty smashed up. My one and only picture of Salt was gone. Someone slapped Sam on the back and welcomed him to the team. That someone was Craig Smith, who up until last year was a habitual nose-picker. Now, he's a starting forward. Anyway, I guess this whole diorama disaster was a kind of initiation process. Team building. More like brainwashing if you ask me.

Sincerely,

James Turner

P.S. Salt's location remains 170 miles east of Cape Cod. Not good. Not good at all.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 13, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Subject: James Turner

Dear Sara:

Oh my god. It was the saddest thing today.

Don't tell anyone (even Becky) but you know my neighbor James Turner, right? From Bio and Italian???? My nonna tutors him in Italian and she says he's the only person she knows who can make biscotti as good as hers.

Anyway, after seventh period today, I'm at my locker and James is unpacking his backpack and Sam Pick comes over with some of the soccer guys like Coxson and Craig Smith. The name on Sam's soccer jersey reads “Li'l Prick” instead of “Li'l Pick”. Someone added the makeshift r with black tape.

Coxson shoves Sam forward and goes, “Tell him what's up, Prick.”

And Sam says, “I got something for you, James.”

James is studying the floor and his mouth is moving like he's counting the tiles. Coxson claps his hands near James's face, trying to get his attention.

Once James looks up, Sam presents him with his totally destroyed diorama from Bio. Hearts are drawn around photos of whales with red lipstick. And this is gross, but some of the whales have privates drawn in. Coxson is laughing like the annoying hyena he is. (BTW, does that kid even have a first name? What is it?)

And then, James belts out this sad song that sounds as if it was composed by the last whale on earth. I felt so bad for him, Sara. The guys were all hysterical. But James didn't stop. He kept singing and singing. He sang until his voice overpowered the team's laughter. He sang until his voice was all anyone standing in the science wing could hear.

Love,

Sophia

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 13, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Subject: RE: James Turner

Soph—

Srry short. JA flare again. No skool 4 me 2morrow. Fingers kill. Only gud news—dr lokz like J Timberlake.
@Coxson: Who does that?

TTYL,

Sara

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 14, 2012 at 8:02 AM
Subject: RE: James Turner

Hey Sara,

So sorry to hear you're not feeling well again. At least you get to be examined by Hot Doc. We're in the library and I'm supposed to be researching women's suffrage for history, but I have to vent.

Last night, my Mom went on her first date (blind!) since Dad died. The guy (Albert Stevens) is a total loser. I watched him walk up to the house from my bedroom window. He claims to be a dentist but his teeth are the color of Coke when the ice melts. Seriously? And he's never been married. I mean, there's got to be something wrong with you if you're forty-something and still single, right?

He took Mom to that place in downtown Philly, Bob's Seafood, that serves oyster crackers instead of bread sticks and smells like day-old fish. Apparently, Mom says he never married because his mother got diagnosed with Parkinson's when he was twenty-eight and she's needed a lot of care over the years. Oh, and the teeth? Some medicine he took as a child stripped off the enamel. Pathetic. Albert Stevens is just one big sob story. Like some Hallmark original movie. And Mom's fallen for the whole pitiful act hook, line, and sinker—the same way she does when she sees those SPCA commercials with the sad-eyed, homeless dogs and Sarah McLachlan in the background.

The only person more disgusted with Mom than me is Nonna. She thinks James Turner is “strano” but that his smile reminds her of my Nonno. That also means he's “bello.”
Hai capito
? Gotta run . . . Mrs. Wilson is eyeing me.

Love,

Sophia

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 14, 2012 at 10:01 AM
Subject: Packages?

Any sonar in those boxes? Probably too late for Salt, but they could use it on the boat in case this problem with the juveniles persists.

Best,

Peter

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 14, 2012 at 11:38 AM
Subject: RE: Packages?

Dear Peter:

Sorry, I had to clean out the staff fridge because it smelled like ass. Took the whole morning then had to go cover for the front desk for Jan, she must have Ebola or something. Jesus. So let's see. Forwarded a call to you. Some kid named James Turner worried about the whale Salt beaching and he wants you to email. About the boxes. Inside were more shells, no note or nothing this time. And no return address. I asked around about the shells. Lauren Sheridan liked the olive, guess she collects them. Went on and on about how shells are really part of the animal for protection, how their diet determines the color, blah, blah, blah. But no one here was expecting a delivery of that kind.

—Stanley P. Duckett

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 14, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Subject: Re: James Turner

Soph-

Ur Mom + Albert = meh. James=
bello
? I c that if u c past
strano
.

Cya,

Sara

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 20, 2012 at 4:17 PM
Subject: Sad News

Dear Darren,

For the past week, I'd been waiting to get a new longitude and latitude on Salt from the Greater New England Whale Conservatory. When I wasn't at school, I was chained to my email, hoping that the GNEWC scientist (we'll call him Professor Equivocator) would email me as he promised. I finally left a follow-up call for him. The voicemail message said he was out of the office. Probably on vacation.

While Professor Equivocator was sipping from a cocktail with a little umbrella in it and smearing another coat of sunscreen on his nose, the worst happened. Two days ago, Salt was found beached near Hyannis Port at approximately 3:47 p.m. EST. And how did I learn of Salt's passing, you might wonder?

By watching the six o'clock news with my parents. The television reporter didn't reveal the whale's name, but from the close-ups of his fluke, I immediately recognized the asymmetrical pattern of white spots unique to my friend's tail. The news clips showed a bunch of scientists buzzing around Salt like hungry flies, and I couldn't help but wonder whether Professor Equivocator was among them sporting a tan and vying to take home the bloated carcass for his latest study on echolocation. In one shot, Salt's small eye was still open. A couple of people took pictures with their iPhones. It was awful how Salt was being treated like some kind of freak show. (New vocabulary, more on that later.)

Of course, there was no mention of a cause of death on the news report. Because another juvenile humpback had beached in a similar spot several days before, there's always the assumption that the two were traveling in a pod and that one was sick and the other accompanied the first into the shallows where they'd be safe from predators. Personally, I think that's just a story people tell themselves to feel better—like Salt wasn't alone when he died.

A second theory has not yet been borne out by research, but I think it is the more likely cause of Salt's death. Sometimes navy sonar impairs marine mammals' echolocation, which causes problems in the animals' communications, feeding, and breeding. Whales can surface too fast trying to get away from the sonar's noise and get decompression sickness.

I couldn't make out Salt's ears to see if they were bleeding, which would have been a telltale sign. But I wouldn't doubt that some sort of human interference reset his internal clock, leading to his demise.

Anyway, regarding the use of “freak show” earlier, one thing that has become obvious to me lately is that Sam and I don't really speak the same language anymore. When Sam talks to Charlie Coxson or any of his teammates, it's like they are communicating in code. So I decided to devote an afternoon to studying the Urban Dictionary. I only got through the letter F, but immediately things started to click.

I realized I've practiced academic bulimia before tests and that my attempt at blocking a soccer ball in phys ed yesterday could only be categorized as an epic fail. So when Sam asked me which experiment we wanted to start with in Bio today, I replied, “DFW.” (Which, in case you don't know, means “down for whatever.”) He punched me in the arm (a little too hard) and smiled.

Speaking of the Urban Dictionary, I better go study. But I'm curious. What ended up happening with that relationship of yours?

Sincerely,

James Turner

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 21, 2012 at 1:28 PM
Subject: My condolences

Hey there Jamesicle,

You wanna just give me a ring and talk about all this? A voice convo might be easier.

D'air'N

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 21, 2012 at 3:30 PM
Subject: RE: My condolences

Hi Darren,

Thanks for the phone offer, but I'd rather stick to email. I once called a neighbor in my Italian class, Sophia Lucca, to ask about our homework. But when she answered, I forgot why I called in the first place and ended up telling her that a plant on her porch blew over. In the ensuing silence, there was this wind that was blowing in the phone receiver. Loud. I asked if she heard it. She said no. That was pretty much it. So yeah, the phone's not really my thing.

Sincerely,

James Turner

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: September 22, 2012 at 3:23 PM
Subject: RE: My condolences

Jiggity James,

I'm really sorry to hear about your buddy Salt. Do you have anyone close by you can talk to about this sort of thing? Bro or sis? Your folks? A counselor at school? Hard to tell over email how bummed you are about this, but if you're really hurting, it can help to talk to someone about it. No need to do the macho thing and hold it all inside. After my breakup—okay, dumping—I might have set some sort of record for words spoken per hour of therapy. Unfortunately, I ran out of money after four sessions, and we hadn't even made it past the time when I was six and ran into my parents' bedroom because I thought I heard my mom yelling at a burglar. That, uh, didn't turn out to be the case.

I digress, but all that to say that I'm still not quite ready to discuss the breakup. I'm not sure it'd be helpful to either of us at this time. For now I'll say this: Her name was Corinne, and I loved her.

That's crazy about the Navy subs screwing with Salt's ears. Not cool. That's the government for you. God, I sound like an old man. Feel like one too, lately.

D

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Cc: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
Date: September 22, 2012 at 4:59 PM
Subject: Golf ___________, Glee ________, ____________ sandwich

What goes in those blanks?

If you guessed “Donkey,” you're an idiot and probably a member of Lawrence's sales team, ha! Just j.k.'ing, Law. You da Man. Fo' real.

The correct answer was “Club!”

Oh yeah! This Wednesday, we're hittin' da club, One Term Life Insurance Corp style. Hide your kids, hide your wife! (Or in Randy's case, just don't tell them!)

Anyway, I know this is supposed to be our little thing to celebrate hitting our numbers last quarter, but I was wondering if it'd be okay if I invited my roommate out with us. He's working his way through a tough breakup. And by “working through,” I mean never leaving our apartment except to work, and surviving on ramen noodles and Ken Burns's
Roosevelts
documentary. He's a good dude, just needs a little kick in the ass to get himself back into society. And I believe that if there's any office in all of One Term Life Insurance Corp that can do it, it's ours.

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