Miri Attwater and the Ocean's Secret
Chapter 1
The Middle of the Ocean


Miri grew up not knowing she was different. You might wonder how that could possibly happen. The fact is, she didn’t look all that different. She was a bit on the small side, to be sure, but that was all most people noticed.

A few people noticed that she was a little clumsy. Like the time she did a pirouette in the cafeteria. One little bobble traveled all the way down the lunch line like dominoes, complete with flying trays at the end. Or like the time she flew through the kitchen and knocked a pitcher of orange juice off the counter. The floor was sticky for a month. Or the time she managed to fall up the stairs. Actually, that happened more than once. But things like that weren’t Miri’s fault. She was just naturally clumsy. Anyone who looked carefully would have noticed that her feet, while not big for her age, were rather big for her size.

To tell Miri’s story properly, we need to go back to the beginning. And to go back to the beginning, we need to go back to the middle. The middle of the ocean.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the middle of the ocean, everything is blue. The water is a deep, ripply blue. The sky is a smooth, luminescent blue. Under all this blueness, the ocean hides its secrets. In the middle of the ocean, it is quiet.

But on this, the last day before the summer solstice, into the quiet came the hum of a motor, and into the blue came a white boat. Foam peeled away from the prow like scissors cutting through fabric. A woman with red hair streaming out behind her stood at the railing. The woman’s name was Stella Attwater, and Miri would come to know her as her mom. Stella held herself with a regal bearing, but like an octopus blending in among the corals on a reef, she was hiding a secret.

The hum of the motor dropped in pitch. The boat slowed, came to a stop, and rocked gently on the waves. Stella stayed where she was, her hands resting lightly on the railing, looking out across the water. A man with dark wavy hair and a spring in his step bounded out on deck and crossed over to her.

“There it is,” he said as he put his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder, “home sweet home.”

“Not quite,” she answered and remained rigid at the rail. “But almost.”

She sighed and relaxed against him.

“Oh, Rick, I wish I could be sure we’re doing right thing. I’m so terribly happy about it, but that’s selfish of me.”

Rick straightened up and grinned down at her. “No more selfish than me wanting you for myself, and see how well that turned out?” He gave her a squeeze.

Stella smiled back up at him. “I can’t argue with that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That night, a full moon peeked over the edge of the ocean and lit a watery zigzag path from the moon to the boat. Stella again stood alone on the deck. And waited.

A soft breeze played with the ends of her hair. Gentle waves slapped a rhythm on the hull. The steadily rising moon broke away from the silver path that anchored it to the ocean and floated free in the sky. And still she waited.

There was a gentle splash and a head broke the surface of the water. Stella bounced up and down on her toes and waved her arms. “Pssss, Nerina! Over here!”

Nerina’s head disappeared. Stella continued to hop excitedly on the deck as if she wanted to dive into the water, but something was holding her back.

Nerina surfaced again next to the boat. A few shimmering drops clung to the top of her head and her wavy hair flared out softly on the surface of the dark water. She smiled up at Stella. “You came!”

“Of course I came.”

“I was afraid you would change your mind,” said Nerina. Her smile disappeared as her eyes searched the deck. “Or he would.”

“Never!” said Stella. “After all that’s happened. That you still trust me…” Her voice choked to a halt.

“Oh, Stella, don’t be so dramatic,” said Nerina. “Have you made any more progress on that treaty-thing? What do you call it? An ocean reserve?”

Stella blinked rapidly to clear her eyes. “You know politics. Things move about as fast as jellyfish. We’re hoping new data from this trip will help.”

“So you’re staying around?” said Nerina sharply. Her voice escalated in alarm. “And diving?”

“Just for a few days.”

“Is he diving?”

Stella sighed. “Of course,” she said. “And Rick has name, you know. Really, it wouldn’t hurt you – ”

Nerina cut her off. “Well, be sure you move out to the perimeter before you dive. They’ve been adding patrols.”

“Are the sightings increasing?”

“Practically every day. ”

“And Father still thinks you can stay hidden?” said Stella incredulously. “Didn’t you tell him – ”

One of Nerina’s hands flew up out of the water with a splash to stop her. “Ever since you left, if I so much as mention leggers he flares up like a lion fish. He blames you for the increase in sightings you know.”

“That’s not fair!” said Stella as she stomped her foot. “My leaving has nothing to do with it. For Neptune’s sake, Rick and I are working on the ocean reserve to restrict diving. But even that won’t keep leggers completely away. With scuba getting so popular, nothing can. You’ve got to make him see that.”

“You think I haven’t tried? For some reason the more sightings there are, the more he buries himself in the sand like a skate, the more convinced he is that we have to stay hidden. The ironic thing is,” Nerina’s grin returned, “I imagine that you’re hidden the best of all of us up there in plain sight. She will definitely be safer with you.”

“She? It’s a girl?”

In answer, Nerina lifted a large bubble out of the water with both hands. Water cascaded off it, and the moonlight illuminated the silhouette of a baby sleeping inside.

“She’s beautiful!” said Stella as she leaned out over the rail. Her arms reached out to take the bubble. “What’s her name?”

“Marina Lorelei Oceanus Poseidon.”

“That name’s bigger than you are, little guppy,” Stella cooed to the baby. The baby stirred, turned over, and snuggled down on her tummy. “I think we’ll call you Miri.”

“Oh, for tuna’s sake,” said Nerina in disgust.

Stella looked up. “What?”

“Nothing, nothing,” said Nerina. “I’ve got to get back. The patrols will be coming around again before long.” She held up a delicate gold chain with a dangling pearl. “Here’s her necklace.”

Stella reached down to take it and held on to Nerina’s hand for a moment. “Dive safely.”

“I will,” answered Nerina. “Walk safely. Or whatever it is you do now.” She ducked down into the water. And with a flip of tail fins, she was gone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Later that night, when the moon was high above the ocean, it shone down through the window of the boat and onto the baby sleeping inside the bubble. The baby squirmed and stretched. She opened her eyes and looked wide-eyed up at the moon. Then she reached out, with a single finger, to touch the moon. And the bubble popped.

Shockingly Different

Miri’s parents didn’t mean to keep it a secret. It’s just that when she started talking, she was as chittery as a dolphin. Stella could just see her telling the person behind them in a checkout line all about where she came from. And so they put off telling her. After all, the easiest secret to keep is one you don’t know.

Oh, she knew she was adopted all right. That wasn’t such a big deal. Ben Walters, who she’d known practically all her life, was adopted. And this year in her fifth grade class, everyone knew that Wendy Harris was adopted from China. That was obvious because with her straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes, she didn’t look a thing like her parents. Miri, on the other hand, looked a lot like her mom.

They both had the same ripply red hair. Only her mom’s was long and luxurious while Miri wore hers shorter and parted to the side. She held it back with a clip when her mom reminded her. She knew the reason they looked alike because her birth mother was her mom’s sister. She always wondered – if her mom was actually her aunt, did that make Miri her own cousin? Because she wished she had a cousin, or better yet, a sister. And she wondered why her birth mother gave her away and why they never saw her anymore. She asked her mom about it a couple of times, but she always got a far away look and only gave vague answers. She hated to see her mom so sad, so eventually she quit asking.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was first day of summer vacation and Miri should have been perfectly happy. But she wasn’t. This summer everybody – and no she was not exaggerating, everybody – Ben, Wendy, Kelsey, Hannah, John Henry, and even her best friend, Catherine, were all going away to summer camp. Everybody but her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she was going to have to spend the entire summer on her dad’s research boat, in the middle of the ocean. Miri couldn’t think of anything more boring, or lonely.

So even though it involved swimming, she was excited when Wendy called to invite her to spend the day at the new water park. She didn’t like swimming. She didn’t know why, but whenever she swam in deep water she got a cold feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was because she wasn’t a very good swimmer. Or maybe it was because her mind would start thinking up all sorts of crazy things, like a shark swimming up from below. But that could only really happen in the ocean, and this swimming would be in a pool. Besides, Catherine was going, and while it wasn’t camp, it was better than nothing.

At first Miri was afraid her parents weren’t going to let her go to the water park either. But after a few phone calls, all the moms decided to make a day of it. Thank goodness it looked like the moms were going to spend most of their time reading by the pool.

Like with most things that bothered her, Miri was trying to put camp out of her mind and enjoy her day at the park. But it was hard, especially since Wendy kept bringing it up.

Miri was doing the limbo under a line of fountain arches in the splash pool when Wendy swished her long black ponytail and said, “Just wait till we get to camp. It is so cool. There’s this enormous lake and we go canoeing, and sailing, and wind surfing. We even swim in the lake.”

Miri cleared the last water arch, straightened up, and a bucket of water from the top of a tower dumped ice-cold water on her head. She shuddered, but only partially from the water. Swimming in a lake was something she wasn’t sorry to miss out on. There were things swimming in a lake with you. She wiped the water out of her eyes and saw Wendy staring at her, her black eyebrows raised in amazement.

“Wow! That whole bucket of water just dumped on you and your hair’s already dry,” she said. “How’d you do that?”

Catherine laughed. “Miri sheds water like a duck,” she said.

In fact, it wasn’t only Miri’s hair. Aside from her wet suit and a few drops of water here and there, she was dry all over.

Miri would have been happy to stay in the splash pool all day where the water was a nice, safe depth, never deeper than her knees. But Wendy and Catherine wanted to go down the water slides. While they chatted and giggled waiting in line, Miri practiced leg lifts and tried not to think about the deep water at the bottom of the slide. She concentrated on keeping her leg up straight on the bar and trying to touch her nose to her knee. She could almost do it. As she stretched she stared at the pearl on her necklace hanging down in a perfect V.

The first time down the slide, the same feeling of dread that she got in deep water grew with every drop. But the tube bobbed safely on the surface of the pool at the end. After that it was easier. By the fourth time, she was back to her old self, doing pirouettes as she waited in line. Until one of the lifeguards saw her. He blew his whistle so loud that she lost her balance.

That made Wendy laugh, so Miri made a game out of twirling every time the lifeguard turned his back. Pretty soon the girls were giggling so hard that she had trouble keeping her balance. Then she twirled in a puddle and slipped. She grabbed Wendy’s arm and a blue spark jumped between them. They both landed on the concrete, but that wasn’t what bothered Wendy.

“Ow! You shocked me!” she said.

Catherine was still giggling. “Oh, she’s always shocking me. It’s just static electricity.”

They went down the slide so many times that Catherine and Wendy’s fingers turned all wrinkly. Miri’s fingers didn’t wrinkle, but she didn’t point that out.

At lunch Wendy laid the packet of dressing that came with her garden salad to the side and said, “At camp, we eat in a huge cafeteria and there are tons, I mean tons and tons, of choices. Burgers and pizza and tacos and chicken and a salad bar and a baked potato bar and lots of different desserts –” she paused with a fork full of lettuce halfway to her mouth, “but the food is awful!”

Catherine giggled over her slice of pizza. Miri tried to laugh politely as she finished salting her burger. Then Wendy reached over and stole a bunch of her fries. Miri scowled, but Wendy didn’t even notice. “Catherine, wanna be bunkmates?” she asked and popped a fry in her mouth.

She gagged. She tried to wipe off her tongue with a napkin. “What-” was all she managed to wheeze out before she started coughing. She grabbed her diet soda and took long sucks on the straw. Her eyes were watering.

“Geez, what’d you do? Dump the whole salt shaker on those?” she said when she could talk again.

Catherine laughed and tossed her hair out of her eyes. “I learned not to steal her fries ages ago.”

Miri squirted out a big puddle of ketchup and, after salting it liberally, dunked her next fry. It served Wendy right. If she wanted fries she should have gotten her own.

After lunch the girls went to the aquarium. A blast of refrigerated air blew out as they flung open the door and stepped into a dimly lit room. The only light came from a cylindrical tank in the center of it, where a school of bright yellow fish swam around and around. They were flat, with pointy noses and beady black eyes. Miri stopped to read the sign below the tank. They were Yellow Tangs, part the surgeonfish family. Surgeonfish were named for the white spines at the base of their tail that were as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.

Peepers! There was another reason for not swimming with fish besides them being slimy. She looked up to point that out to Catherine and Wendy, but they were already in the next room. She hurried after them.

The first tank was full of white fleshy anemone fingers with bright magenta tips. They swayed slightly with the motion of the water as little white and orange clownfish darted in and out.

“Hey, Miri, look!” Wendy called from across the room. “An electric eel, just like you!”

Miri ignored being compared to something as gross as an eel and moved on to the next exhibit. She took a quick look at the gently pulsing jellyfish with their ruffling skirts of tentacles. She paused at another tank, long enough to find the seahorses sleeping among the plastic seaweed, their delicately curled tails anchoring them to the green blades. In still another tank, red striped shrimp as clear as glass skittered across a gravelly bottom. When they paused, they gracefully waved long antennae.

Wendy stopped in front of the octopus exhibit. “What a rip off,” she said loudly. “It’s empty,” and she was off again.

Miri caught up to her at the touch tank and stood behind her and Catherine. That was as close as she wanted to be. Why would anyone want to touch those slimy things? She was about to leave when Wendy turned around and shoved a starfish in her face.

“How come you haven’t touched anything yet? It’s a touch tank, not a look tank,” she said. “Go on, touch the starfish.”

Miri pulled back. “Really, I’m fine with just looking.”

“Your dad’s a marine biologist and you won’t even touch a starfish?”

Catherine giggled. “Miri’s adopted, silly.” She reached into the water and touched a pencil sea urchin with thick, blunt spines. The spines closed gently around her finger. “She doesn’t have to be exactly like her dad.”

“Well, I’m adopted and my dad’s a vet and I positively love cats and dogs,” said Wendy as she turned back to the touch tank. “Last week, a litter of the cutest kittens came in and there was this calico one with a black patch over one eye and she absolutely adored me.”

Miri stuck her tongue out at the back of Wendy’s head as she went on and on about the kittens. A starfish wasn’t the same thing as a kitten. She found it easy enough to like cats. She even had a cat, Mr. Whickers. He was orange and white striped, and while he could be very stand-offish with most people, he was very fond of Miri and her mom.

After a quick dip in the wave pool, Wendy wanted to go to the shark building. Like the fish building, the shark building was cold and dark, only colder because now their suits were wet. And darker. While the other fish tanks were bright and colorful, the shark tank was dimly lit and almost empty. Here and there, sharks were only slowly patrolling shadows. Miri shivered, and a last remaining icy droplet fell from her curls onto her shoulders.

She would have been fine looking at the tank from across the room, but she was pushed along in front of Wendy and Catherine. In the center of the tank, a tube was lit up and some of the sharks were circling it tightly. Every so often, someone in a brightly colored swimsuit slid through the tube in a silent rush and swirl of sparkling water. Miri shuddered again. She did not understand why Wendy and Catherine wanted to go on that slide through the middle of the sharks.

Off to one side, a yellow-shirted guide was telling a group about how sharks, even when they couldn’t see their prey, could sense the electric signals they gave off. That didn’t help at all.

Miri fingered the smooth pearl on her necklace and watched a big shark circling around the edge of the tank. Silently and smoothly, it glided through the water. The end of its sharp tail swept back and forth, back and forth, pushing its stiff body forward.

Miri was hypnotized by the swishing tail. The shark reached the window and started swimming down the length of the tank. Swish… swish… swish…. swish. As the shark got closer, she started to feel that sense of dread that she got when she swam in deep water. It started out small, a cold spot in the very pit of her stomach. The guide was saying something about shark eyes now, how they reflected light like cat eyes so they could see better in the dark. Swish… swish… swish. The shark came closer, and closer. Maybe it was something about how its eye reflected the light, but it had a coldness to it that seemed to bore right through her. Swish… swish. The cold began to spread down her legs and into her feet. It spread down her arms, and the tips of her fingers started to tingle.


Miri punched the tank. Her fist hit the window with a loud crackle.

With a jerk of its tail, the shark torpedoed away.

The guide shouted and was beside her in an instant.

“Hey! No hitting the tank!” He looked at the window, glanced uncertainly toward the shark that had shot off, then back at her. “If you do that again I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

The shark stayed in the shadows at the far side of the tank, still keeping an eye on her. The guide kept looking at the shark, at her, and back at the window closely like he was looking for a crack. She hoped he wouldn’t ask why she had tried to hit the shark. She didn’t know why. And she didn’t know what had made that loud crackling noise.

Finally he gave her a hard look and said, “Well, don’t let it happen again,” and walked off. But he kept glancing over his shoulder.

“What’d you do that for?” hissed Wendy. “You’re going to get us thrown out.”

Catherine grabbed Miri’s hand. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it. Come on. We want to go down the slide anyway, not stand here and look at it all day.”

As they headed for the door, Miri couldn’t help turning for one last look. As a shark swam by, a little boy reached up and hit the window as hard as he could. His mom grabbed his arm and started scolding him. But Miri noticed that the shark glided past as if nothing had happened. The boy must have noticed too. As she went out the door, he turned and watched her leave.