Authors: Anna Banks
“Maybe you can talk to donkeys, too,” Dr. Milligan smiles.
Emma nods. “I can. Sometimes Galen can be a jackass.”
“That hurts my feelings, Emma,” Galen says, trying to look hurt. She throws him a saucy grin.
Dr. Milligan laughs and leads them back into the hallway.
The square windows punctuating the interior wall reveal three dolphins keeping pace with them. They shriek at Emma, eager to meet her acquaintance. Next to a sign that says dolphin show, Dr. Milligan points up a set of stairs. “Shall we?” The top level is an open deck. Galen’s seen the show before.
The wooden bleachers facing the tank aren’t quite far enough away that the front row won’t get wet. Which delights the nose-picking miniature humans, especially in the heat of summer.
Galen’s glad they came after closing.
Emma walks to the edge of the tank and peers down. She tickles the water with her fi ngers. Three gray heads poke up and shrill their enthusiasm. Giggling, Emma leans over, cupping her hand over her mouth. The animals draw closer, as if to hear a secret.
The heads disappear. When they emerge again, there’s a toy in each mouth. They bring their trea sures to Emma. A black ring the size of a hula hoop and two soccer balls. She hands the
balls to Galen, then accepts the ring from the smallest dolphin.
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“Throw the balls in the middle, Galen. Let’s see if they’re good at basketball.”
Chuckling, Galen complies. Emma holds the ring over the edge of the pool. The dolphins shriek in anticipation. “Shhh,” she tells them. They quiet down, hold still. “Try to put the ball through the hoop.”
Two of the heads disappear. The third one stays behind and squeals at Emma. She quiets him down again, just as one of the balls pops off the surface of the water and through the hoop she’s holding. Then the second one pops up, but this one misses the mark, grazing Emma’s hair instead. “I almost got a black eye out of the deal!” But she laughs and rewards the animals with a nose rub.
“It’s your turn,” she tells the smallest dolphin. Retrieving both soccer balls from the bleachers, she tosses them back in the center of the pool. “Go on,” she says, making a shooing motion with her hand. The animal stays put, it’s mouth slightly ajar as if smiling.
She turns to Dr. Milligan. “Looks like he doesn’t understand,” she says.
He snorts. “Oh, he understands, all right. He just doesn’t listen.”
This doesn’t seem to sit well with Emma. She splashes water at him. “Go on! What’s the matter? You too chicken- of- the- sea to play?”
Still, he stays, thrashing his head around like he’s arguing.
His squeals sound contrary even to Galen’s untrained ears. The 0—
poor creature doesn’t realize how close to foot tapping Emma is,
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but Galen recognizes that stiff stance of impatience. It’s the same one she directed at him when they fi rst met on this very beach.
The same one she directed at Toraf when she informed him that Rayna could live with her. The same one she directed at Rachel when she booked the honeymoon suite for the two of them.
Just as Galen decides to intervene, the tension leaves Emma’s shoulders. “Oh,” she says softly. She steps out of her fl ip- fl ops and hoists herself onto the cool blue edge of the concrete tank.
“Emma,” Galen warns, though unsure of what exactly he’s warning against. He and
Dr. Milligan exchange a look.
“I’m fi ne, Galen,” she says without looking back. She dangles her legs in the water, kicking in a slow, soothing rhythm. The two biggest dolphins come to her immediately, nudging her feet and creating choppy waves around her. But it’s the smallest dolphin who hoards her attention from across the tank by doing nothing at all. Hesitant, he inches toward her. When she reaches out to him, he submerges and shoots to the other side of the tank.
Turning back to Galen and Dr. Milligan, Emma says, “He doesn’t trust us. Humans, I mean.”
“Hmmm,” Dr. Milligan says. “What makes you say that?”
“His behavior.” Emma tilts her head. “See how he keeps his nose below the water? The other two poke their entire heads out. But he doesn’t, as if he’s thinking about jetting or something. And his eyes. They’re not as perky as the others. They look dull, out of focus. Not disinterest, not exactly.” She thumps
water toward him, fl icking droplets onto his nose. He doesn’t
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fl inch. “No, he’s defi nitely curious about me. He’s just . . . well, he’s sad, I think.”
“Do you know, I think you’re right,” Dr. Milligan says, his expression somewhere between admiration and disbelief. “I’m not sure if you remember, but he wasn’t here this summer when you visited. He was beached on shore over in Panama City a few weeks ago. He’s the only one not born in captivity. We named him Lucky. I guess he would disagree.”
Emma nods. “He doesn’t like it here. Why was he beached?” By now Lucky has eased himself to within reach of Emma. She extends a hand to him, not to pet him, but in invitation for him to touch her fi rst. After a few indecisive seconds, he nestles his nose into her palm.
“We don’t know. He wasn’t sick or injured, and he’s relatively young. How he got separated from his pod, we don’t know.”
“I think humans had something to do with him getting beached,” she says. Galen is surprised by the bitterness in her tone. “Will he ever get to go home?” Emma asks, not looking up. The way she caresses Lucky’s head reminds Galen of how his mother used to comb her fi ngers through Rayna’s hair trying to get her to sleep. The simple touch was a lullaby in itself.
It looks like Lucky thinks so, too.
“Usually not, my dear. But I’ll see what I can do,” Dr. Milligan says.
Emma gives him a rueful smile. “That would be good.” Galen stops short of shaking his head. If Dr. Milligan feels
as rewarded by her smile as Galen does, then Lucky will be free 0—
in no time.
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After a few more minutes, Dr. Milligan says, “My dear, I hate to draw you away, but perhaps we could make our way to the examination room.”
“Well, she’s defi nitely got the thick skin, doesn’t she?” Dr. Milligan says, inspecting the second needle he’s bent trying to penetrate her vein. “I guess I should break out the big guns.” He tosses the needle in the trash to dig around the top drawer of a stainless steel cabinet. “Ah, ha. This should be suffi cient.”
Emma’s eyes go round as sand dollars. Her legs press into the metal tabletop she’s sitting on. “That’s not a needle, that’s a straw!”
Galen stifl es the refl ex to take her hand in his. “He uses it on me, too. It doesn’t hurt, just pinches a little.” She turns huge violet eyes to him. “You let him take your blood? Why?”
He shrugs. “It’s kind of an exchange. I give him samples to study, and he keeps me informed of what his colleagues are up to.”
“What do you mean, ‘his colleagues’?”
Galen hoists himself on the counter across from her. “Dr.
Milligan happens to be a well- known marine biologist. He keeps track of news that could aff ect our kind. You know, new exploration devices, trea sure hunters, stuff like that.”
“To protect you? Or to make sure you get to the trea sure fi rst?”
Galen grins. “Both.”
“Has anyone else ever seen— OUCH!” She whips her scru-
tiny from Galen to her arm, where
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Dr. Milligan is drawing blood and smiling apologetically while doing it. Emma returns her glare to Galen. “Pinch, huh?”
“It was for the greater good, angelfi sh. The worst part is over.
You still want his help, right?” Galen’s reasonable tone wins him no love.
“Don’t you ‘angelfi sh’ me. I agreed to have these tests done, so I’m not going to punk out! OUCH!”
“Sorry, just one more tube,” Dr. Milligan whispers.
When Dr. Milligan fi nishes, he hands her a cotton ball to press against the hole already scabbing over. “Galen’s blood clots fast, too. You probably don’t even need to hold it.” He puts the half dozen tubes of blood into the shaking machine and fl ips the switch. Retrieving a small white box from a shelf, he says,
“Emma, do you mind if I take your blood pressure?” She shakes her head, but says, “Why do you have a human blood pressure machine in an animal hospital?” He chuckles. “Because my doctor says I need to keep an eye on mine.” Dr. Milligan taps Emma’s knee. “Okay, now uncross your legs so I can get a good reading.” She does, then holds out her arm. Dr. Milligan shakes his head. “No, my dear, I always get the best reading on your calf. I’ve found that the main artery of the fi n divides in two when Galen changes into human form, one in each leg.”
Again, Emma’s eyes go wide. “You said it doesn’t hurt to change, just like you said it wouldn’t hurt when he stabbed me
with that straw,” she says, glowering at Galen. “I’ll just bet it 0—
doesn’t hurt,” she grumbles. “Arteries splitting in half.”
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As Galen opens his mouth to answer, Dr. Milligan says,
“Huh. That’s strange.”
“What?” they ask in unison. Emma bites her lip. Galen crosses him arms. Neither of them like the sound of “Huh.” The blood pressure cuff releases, and Dr. Milligan stands up. “Your heartbeat isn’t quite as slow as Galen’s. And your blood pressure isn’t as low. Galen, why don’t you hop up on the table and let me check yours again?”
Without eff ort he plunks off the counter and onto the table.
As the doctor trades the small cuff for a larger one to accommodate his more muscular calf, Emma leans into Galen. “What does that mean?” she whispers.
He shrugs, trying not to enjoy her scent. “I don’t know.
As the cuff squeezes, Galen feels an occasional thud in his leg. The cuff hisses its release and Dr. Milligan stands again.
The look on his face is far from comforting.
“What is it?” Galen says, ready to shake the doctor into a coma for not sharing. “Is something wrong?” At Emma’s sharp intake of breath, Galen grabs her hand, unable stop himself.
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t say something is wrong, necessarily.
Emma’s heartbeat is defi nitely slower than any human’s. It’s just not as slow as yours.” Dr. Milligan stalks to a tall rectangular cabinet full of drawers. He pulls out a note pad and begins sifting through the pages. “Ah,” he says, more to himself than his guests. “It seems your heartbeat is faster since last time, my boy.
That or I can’t read my own scribble.” He fl ips the page. “No,
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I’m sure that’s right. Your pulse was consistently lower for the last ten readings. Interesting.”
“Which means?” Galen says through clenched teeth.
“Well, traditionally, Galen, every heart has a fi nite number of beats until it will one day stop beating. Animals with slower heart beats live longer. Say, sea turtles, for instance. While they have the same number of beats as any other heart, it takes them longer to reach that number. That’s why sea turtles can live to be well over a hundred years old. A human heart averages about two point fi ve billion heartbeats. At seventy- two beats per minute, that puts the normal human lifespan at eighty years. From the tests I’ve run on you and Rayna, the average Syrena heart only beats nineteen times per minute. So theoretically, it will take you about three hundred years to reach two point fi ve billion heart beats. But according to this last reading, Galen, you’re at twenty- three beats per minute right now. Something has your heart rate up, my boy.”
“Three hundred years is about right,” Galen says, ignoring Dr. Milligan’s meaningful glance at Emma. “In fact, some of the Archives are over three hundred and twenty years old.”
“So, how many beats per minute do I clock?” Emma says.
Then Galen understands. Emma’s heart beats faster than mine. . . .
She’ll die before I do. Every muscle in his body seems to team up against him and spasm. He can’t stop it from coming. Lurching off the table, he barely makes it to the sink before the vomit explodes everywhere. The drain can’t handle the volume, even