On those mornings when Mia Alexandra Flores got to go up in the small plane with her dad, she felt lucky and strong.
And a little scared.
And a little sad.
Of course, Mia loved being with her dad…alone…just them, not having to share him with anyone. Flying with him was one of her very favorite things. A grownup and important thing. What Mia loved most was helping her dad find the manatees. It made his work at the college a lot easier.
The scary part was that each time Mia actually found the manatees, she didn’t look down from the plane’s window, not even for the quickest peek. Instead, she closed her eyes, listened to her heart…and something very strange and mysterious would happen. And before she knew--
“Here we go, Mia,” Eduardo said, reaching across the cockpit and giving his daughter’s seatbelt a tug.
The plane’s motor whooped and droned, and the four-seater bounced down the runway. Then it climbed up and slowly up until it drifted above Florida’s west coast like a lazy pelican.
“There’s Sleepy Key,” Mia said, looking down at the long, skinny island. She spotted Sleepy Beach with its white sand, tall lifeguard towers and morning walkers. A few bikes, careful cars and joggers headed for the village. Farther south, the green cove where she and Clark had one of their most exciting adventures wrinkled in the breeze.
“Can you see our condo?” Eduardo asked.
“Over there,” Mia said. The big building was easy to find because of the waterfall out front and the boat basin out back.
“Would you check the kitchen for me?” Eduardo asked. “I think I left the milk out on the counter.”
“You’re not funny, Dad,” Mia said, sounding as old and mature and irritated as you can when you’re eight. “Your jokes are silly. Even Clark thinks so.”
“Clark? I thought he was my friend!”
They looked at each other and smiled. And then they were quiet.
Mia watched as the sun rose above the tops of coconut palms, turning the sky blue and the flowers pink and yellow and white. Roberts Bay was as beautiful as it could possibly be. It was a great day. A perfect day. And Mia didn’t want to spoil it.
So she tried not to look at her father.
But she couldn’t help it. She looked…and saw the day was nearly ruined.
She knew beautiful days always reminded Eduardo of her mother and even though he'd try his best to hide it-- Well, Mia already felt his sadness beginning to weigh down the tiny plane.
"Where do you want to look first?" Mia asked, hoping to distract him.
"The manatees could be anywhere," he said. "Now that the gulf's warmed up there's no reason for them to hang out around the hot springs or the power plant. Besides, after a long winter like this one, the vegetation's probably about gone--"
"Am I doing it again?"
Mia nodded. The problem with having a professor for a father was that answers to simple questions often turned into lectures. "Why don't we try up near Turtle Cove?" Mia suggested. "Manatees like it there."
Eduardo turned, stared into his daughter's dark brown eyes. “Like it there? How do you…” But he didn’t finish; he looked forward and got quiet.
Mia knew what that meant. It meant he was thinking about her mom, how both she and Mia could always find manatees, even when his computers couldn't. Her dad got totally frustrated trying to figure out how they did it. Mia couldn't explain it or control it. It just happened, finding manatees. Unexpected. On its own. It made her feel helpless.
"So you think they've swum all the way to Turtle Cove?" Eduardo finally asked. "This early in the season?" His voice sounded far off, as if he was talking to a memory.
"Uh, huh." Mia replied. She sensed he was upset, and that worried her.
Maybe if he had a friend, Mia thought, someone like Muzzles, maybe he wouldn't always feel so bad when a morning seemed as empty as a sky without a cloud.
"How about we share a soda?" Mia asked, trying to be cheerful, but not too cheerful. Mia wasn't sure she always knew what to do when it came to adults. She missed Mama too, but--
"No thanks," Eduardo said. "Too early for soda. You feel like peeling an orange?"
Mia twisted around in her seat, reached into her backpack, pulled out croissants, bagels, two bananas, paper towels, napkins, pie in a plastic bowl, and finally a giant orange. "Pearl always packs like there's ten of us," Mia said, carefully spreading a napkin across her lap like a very proper young lady. She stared at the orange, turned it in her hands...
Mia scrunched up her face. “ARRRGH!” she growled in her most pirate-like voice as she bit a chunk right out of the orange.
Eduardo glanced at Mia. “What--“
“They’re always so hard to get started,” Mia said, slipping a thumb under the orange’s thick skin. She handed her dad sections as they flew.
Though still pretty far from Turtle Cove, Mia watched as Eduardo banked the plane so he could check out the shallow, blue bays along the Intracoastal Waterway. If there were any manatees below, they'd look like short, fat exclamation points. All puffy and round, with a big circular paddle at the end of their tails.
"The average adult manatee--" he began.
"--can grow to thirteen feet," Mia responded, completing his sentence for at least the millionth time. She sighed. "And manatees can weigh two thousand pounds.” She sighed again. “Remember your promise, Dad. No more lectures."
Mia scowled at her father in a teasing sort of way. Then she grew thoughtful. When she spoke, she was quite serious. "Are you sure the transmitter won't hurt the manatee? What if it gets caught on something?"
"The belt breaks and the manatee swims away. Simple as that. And as long as the transmitter keeps on beeping, I'll be able to locate it, dive in, get it back. Then we'll do this again. Find ourselves another manatee."
"Does it have to be a female?"
Eduardo nodded. "That's why I got the grant. To see if there's any way to help mama manatees raise their calves more safely."
Eduardo kept on talking.
But Mia wasn't listening. She was dizzy. And shivering. And scared. It was happening again. She felt herself lifting up out of her seat. She closed her eyes. She seemed to be floating. Where would she find herself this time?
Mia opened her eyes.
Confused, looking up, she could see the surface of the ocean. There it was, up there, all crinkled and blue and freckled with reddish-brown patches of seaweed. But if the surface was up there…then she was under water!
Mia rubbed her hands up and down on her shorts. Dry. And when she pushed her hair over her face, it wasn't wet or matty or slick. Instead, her loose, dark curls seemed light and bouncy and out of control, just as they did when she ran to the bus stop in front of their condo. Mia didn’t understand why, if she was under water, she had no problem breathing and she wasn't cold. She seemed OK. Better than OK. She seemed just fine.
Except for one thing. She felt a little thin. No, that wasn't the word. Not thin. More like...like...a ghost, all see-through and wavy. Almost like the shafts of sunlight she could see reaching toward the ocean floor, forming a golden stairway. That's how she felt. Golden and magical. And she felt like she ought to walk down that stairway.
And so she did.
Mia hadn't hiked far along the gulf’s bottom when she noticed the tilted wreck of an old ship. Railings and balconies. Portholes and stone chimneys--
Stone chimneys? Mia thought. Ships don't have--
She walked closer.
Sand drifted across the wreck, piling up here and there, changing the way it looked. Coral twisted into thin, odd shapes. Mia saw windows, steep roofs, porches. Everything kept changing. The ship became a house. A big old house. Now it looked bigger than any house Mia had ever seen…half house…half castle. It seemed to be made entirely of sea life. Giant swirly shells were the roofs on the turrets. Seaweed shutters hung alongside the windows. Coral arches framed the front door. Huge octopuses folded over themselves and became the plush chairs on the wide front porch.
Suddenly, Mia noticed something overhead. It looked like…like…like the shadow of a rowboat. Except it glowed and flickered and seemed part of the old house. But as Mia stared she realized the shadow wasn't attached to anything at all. Instead, it hovered above the porch, curling and rolling in the slow current. Then all at once the shadow stretched out and flattened until it became a perfectly rectangular banner.
Mia was amazed.
Especially when she realized the banner's sparkling letters were made up of jellyfish, the kind with the long stringy tentacles that flashed and twinkled like strings of Christmas lights. What was even more amazing, was that Mia somehow knew the names of these jellyfish.
Phosphora, wide and thin and with ruffles on her edges, was the M in MANOR.
The cat-like face that was barely visible at the top of the O belonged to the elegant Pelagia. Winking like jewels, Pelagia’s eyes illuminated the sea-sky even as her powerful electric charge surged through the ring of her tentacles.
"Hello, jellies," Mia called out. "Hello, friends!"
The letters swirled, twisted, spelled out: HI MIA!
"Have you seen Muzzles?" Mia asked.
Another swirl and tumble as the jellies reshaped themselves. When they finished, a brightly pulsing arrow pointed down toward the grand porch.
Mia raced to the porch, looked up, down, over and under…
But as hard as she tried, Mia couldn't find Muzzles anywhere. She wasn't with the other manatees who reclined comfortably in elegant chaises, their tails moving up and down with the flow of conversation.
"Why don't you look over by Chef Louie?" a grandmother manatee asked Mia. “He made us a great sea-grass salad for lunch. I’m sure there’s more if you’re hungry.”
The grandmother watched Mia zig and dart her way to the other end of the porch. “Ah, yes,” the grandmother said, smiling as though Mia's enthusiasm reminded her of someone she knew a long time ago.
"Sorry, Mia," Chef Louie said, wiping his paddle-shaped hands on his apron. "I haven't seen Muzzles since…hmmm." Chef Louis paused, pulled on his droopy, whiskery manatee-chin as though he just might squeeze the answer out of it. "Hmmm,” he said. “I haven’t seen her…hmmm. Not since yesterday. But could I fix you a meal? Or two? Or three? You look awfully low on body fat."
"No, thank you," Mia said, worried. She really needed to warn Muzzles about Eduardo’s transmitter. Maybe the calves had seen her?
But the calves were no help. They made faces, or just giggled and seemed far more interested in playing hide and seek with the snook and parrotfish. In short, they acted exactly the way Mia's friends in the third grade would have...like children.
Mia pressed on. She slipped inside the lobby of Manatee Manor. “Wow!” Mia exclaimed, dazzled by the living, spinning chandelier. She stared in disbelief. Were those starfish? Could those bright lights be oysters flashing their pearls?
As Mia ran down the hall, each room led to a new and bigger and more surprising room. Mia wanted to stop and explore each one, but right now she was too busy. She had to find Muzzles. Yet no matter how fast Mia ran, she never seemed to get anywhere. Even the floor seemed to move.
Suddenly, Mia heard music, the kind grownups danced to. She turned, looked down another long hall. Far away at the end of this hall, Mia saw the most lavish ballroom she could possibly imagine. Mia raced toward the ballroom and its music. She ran and ran.
But she didn't get any closer. In fact, the music grew softer, broke up into millions of little sounds…until it became a faint, whirping drone.