Chapter 4

The explosion of bubbles seized Aveny’s heart and sent a violent shot of adrenaline coursing through her veins. She jerked backward, her flippers pin-wheeling through the water, and reversed course; down and away from the unknown intruder.

Only a millisecond before, she’d been sailing through the sound, enjoying the feel of the water rushing past, dancing along her flesh. Then, whatever it was shattered the surface of the water and plunged into the sea directly in front of her. They’d nearly collided. Aveny’s heart raced. Her form shook as her mind replayed the two other times she hadn’t been so lucky, still evidenced by the long jagged scars running along her arm and down her side.

Whatever it was, was already long gone, its trail of bubbles evaporating in an instant. Aveny couldn’t stop shaking.

She remembered a few years back, right after she and her family moved to Centralia, when she drove to Spokane to help a friend move. She was driving down Interstate 5, having just finished a mediocre chocolate milkshake, the syrupy remnants of which still floated in the to-go cup in her car’s cup holder, when two deer cantered onto the road in front of her. Aveny jammed her foot onto the brake, processed the ditch to her left, the deer straight ahead, the other deer in the right hand lane, and the guardrail blocked ravine to her right. In that fractured moment, she heard her deceased grandfather’s voice, echoing from all the backwoods road trips of her Montana childhood. “Don’t swerve. You’ll flip the car. You just have to go through it.”

She held the steering wheel steady and nailed the deer head on. It died instantly, along with her vehicle’s ability to move. The police officer said she was lucky – she’d been going 70 when she spotted it, likely 50 when they collided. It was amazing she wasn’t hurt. After the initial shock, she arranged the tow, contacted the insurance, got repairs, and spent a few days with her friend, who’d kindly driven the hour and a half late at night to pick her up. Once the car was fixed, she didn’t really think about it again.

Six months later, she was driving her grandmother home from the airport, when she said, “Oh look, there’s a deer.” Aveny lost her mind. She flinched, swerved the car and broke out in a cold sweat. She could almost feel her pupils dilate in panic.

Sure enough, there was a deer – about 100 yards away, calmly grazing on wildflowers in a majestic meadow.

Aveny felt the same way now – triggered, alarmed and irrationally angry at whatever it was that caused it. She was in the middle of the sound – no trace of boats or land from which to leap and no other disturbance as far as she could see. What was it? Some kind of diving bird? She thought of how it rocketed away beneath the surface. No bird could do that. No human either.

The army base was near … could it be some kind of military test launched in forbidden waters? She leaned forward and propelled herself after the strange anomaly. A warning sounded in her gut – causing her to hesitate and withdraw, but only for a moment. The call of her own curiosity was too strong to resist. 

At first, she was cautious, carefully trailing the dissipating stream of bubbles at a respectful and hopefully undetectable distance. But she couldn’t see anything and whatever it was wasn’t slowing down. So she accelerated her speed, unleashing all previous restraints. She found herself grinning with glee at the wild thrill of sensation. But even this wasn’t enough.

Aveny knew from much experience that she was faster than any seal or sea lion in the sound at top speed. But this thing, whatever it was, outpaced her easily. For a moment, she thought she might lose it entirely into the dark expanse of the widening Sound, but she pressed forward, harder and faster than ever before. Her heart leapt with wild abandon as she felt herself gaining speed – far beyond anything she’d ever achieved before. It was like flying – only better.

She dipped, swerved and pushed harder. Faster and faster she went. The water was whipping past her now, scorching hot streaks along the sides of her face and body. She was on fire – the most delightful inferno. And then, Aveny remembered herself and the fire turned to fear. She slowed, catching her own wake and tumbling in the process. When she stabilized and her vision leveled, whatever it was, was gone.

What was that?

She hung there, suspended in the salty viscosity of the sea as she pondered this strange encounter. Then, she became aware of something else, something much larger than whatever it was she’d followed. It took only a minute to register the trademark black and white form. Aveny’s heart leapt with joyful recognition and delight, only to sink immediately into deep-seated fear.

Killer Whale.

Her favorite animal, the subject of multiple grade school reports, was now cruising straight at her. They weren’t harmful to humans – she’d parroted that fact how many times as a child? But she wasn’t exactly human at the moment. Quite to the contrary. She probably looked like dinner.

Thoughts ricocheted through her mind. “Never run from a bear,” she remembered the park ranger saying. “Just lay down and cover your neck with your hands.”

Well, this wasn’t a bear and she couldn’t exactly lay down. Also, she didn’t have hands. She couldn’t think of a much less applicable situation. She thought of trying to transform, but it already had her in its sights and she was so deep, she’d probably drown, even if it didn’t take a bite out of her.

Maybe there was a crevasse she could hide in.

This was her last coherent thought as the whale’s form expanded in proximity. Aveny shot downward like a crashing biplane, straight to the ocean floor. But where was it? She was farther out than she’d ever been before and could see nothing but inky blackness below. She could feel the whale’s turbulence closing in behind her.

She split through a massive school of fish. Their tiny bodies pelting her face like a swarm of mayflies over a California highway. And then she became aware of a stillness behind her – a change in the flow of the sea – and she knew, she was nearly within its gaping maw.

When the impact hit, it both stunned and confused her. The blunt force trauma came from the side, not behind, and rather than bisecting or consuming her, it sent her cartwheeling through the dense expanse of water until she lost all concept of speed and direction. When she finally slowed, she felt a heavy form roll over her. She turned to see the whale, a kaleidoscope of rotating black and white, spiraling off into the distance. And then she was moving again, flying as never before, so fast her underwater eyelids were very nearly forced open. She struggled to keep the liquid around her from forcing itself through her nostrils and into her lungs, murdering her almost as surly as the killer whale would have.

A jettison of current surrounded her speeding body. It conducted a chorus of bubbles, shoving her through the water with jet launch force. The thing – whatever it was – had her in its grasp. But she could neither register what it was, nor what it may want with her. And just as suddenly, she was back where she began – dizzy, bruised and nauseous – and whatever it was, was gone.

The only thing she noted through her dizzy delirium was a dark, hazy shadow reflecting across the ocean floor. As she made her way unsteadily back to shore and the safety of her human life, she became aware of a scent she’d never detected before. Or, perhaps, a cacophony of scents – all new, all strange, and all completely foreign to this well-known place. And then they too were gone, melted into the sound like a droplet of water dispersing into the sea.

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