The James Sanderson Learning Center’s first-year class filed off the bus at Sea Park Aquarium. Daniel, Arthur, and Laurie jostled their way through the line of kids getting off the bus, eager for some fresh air. All of the kids were glad to stretch their legs after the bus ride and excited for a day at the aquarium.
Daniel noticed that Sally Mitchell seemed especially excited. Sally was the prettiest girl in the class. She had waist-length blond hair so light in places that it had almost a greenish tinge. Having studied the matter carefully, Daniel decided that her eyes were blue, rather than grey or green, under a fringe of dark eyelashes. Maybe because she didn’t make friends easily, or maybe because she preferred it that way, Sally kept to herself. She was friendly to everyone in a quiet way but kept her classmates at arm’s length. Sally had only one obvious passion, and that was for water. She loved the lake, where she swam every day no matter what the weather, and kept a small aquarium in her room.
When they got off the buses at Sea Park, the teachers divided the kids into groups. Sally, Daniel, Laurie, and Arthur were all assigned to Mr. Seenit’s group. Mr. Seenit was an eccentric science teacher who claimed to be building a time travel machine. Even as they toured Sea Park, Mr. Seenit talked incessantly about his machine to anyone who would listen, oblivious to the kids in his group. After they had visited several exhibits, Daniel noticed that Sally was no longer with Mr. Seenit’s group.
At mid-day, the first-year class met for lunch in the food court, where Little Boy Jeremy handed out bagged lunches. As they were eating their sandwiches, Arthur noticed a park employee putting up a new poster for the afternoon show. Arthur choked. “Look!” he said, “It’s Sally.” And it was. The poster showed Sally riding on the back of a whale and announced her appearance as an animal trainer in the whale show that afternoon. “Since when is Sally a whale trainer?” asked Laurie, who found Sally less fascinating than Arthur and Daniel did. “She is going to be in so much trouble,” Laurie added under her breath with a hint of satisfaction in her voice.
After lunch, Mr. Seenit led his group to the Sea Park theater to see a film on marine ecosystems. On their way, they passed the concrete stadium where the animal shows were held. Daniel saw a metal gate leading into the stadium standing ajar. He glanced at Mr. Seenit, who had trapped a boy in their class in a one-sided conversation about time travel. Daniel whispered to Arthur and Laurie, “Let’s go!” Before Laurie could object, Daniel grabbed her arm and led the way past the metal gate.
Inside the stadium, the sound of splashing water led Daniel and his friends to the practice pool. The dark, cold-looking water was churning, but no one was in sight. “Hello?” Arthur called. Suddenly the water parted, and a whale surfaced with its mouth open and its head lifted, like the shark in the movie “Jaws.” Laurie stifled a scream. Riding the top of the whale’s back like a surfer on a surfboard was Sally. The three friends gasped and fell back from the edge of the pool. Sally calmly jumped down next to them. Water ran in streams off of her wet suit. “What are you doing?” Daniel asked. The whale made a strange, high-pitched whistle and dove under the water. “The manager here knew my mom. His whale trainer is sick today, so I offered to fill in for her. I’m getting paid $200!” she said proudly.
“What do you know about training whales?” Laurie asked. Sally shrugged. She was always reluctant to talk about her family and her background. “I grew up around the water,” she said vaguely. “I grew up near a forest, and I don’t train bears,” Laurie muttered. But Sally was watching the whale. “I’d better go,” she said. “I’ve gotten rusty since I went away to school.” She dove into the icy water and was gone.
Later that afternoon, the class gathered in the stadium for the show. Other students and teachers had seen the posters of Sally, but rumors were swirling that it was a prank. A certain group of girls was claiming that it was a stunt by Sally to become more popular. Sally, however, was nowhere to be seen.
The emcee, wearing a shiny wet suit and an equally shiny hairstyle, came out and began warming up the audience with jokes and performing seals. Daniel and Arthur sat in the front, hoping to be splashed with salt water. Just as the crowd began to grow restless, the emcee introduced the main attraction. “Let’s give a special Sea Park welcome to our guest trainer this afternoon, Sally Mitchell! Sally’s performing today with our killer whales, Blacktail and Spot.”
Sure enough, Sally strode into the arena in her wetsuit and waved to the crowd. Mr. Seenit was speechless for a moment. Then he stood up and yelled, “Sally Mitchell, get back here right now!” Sally either didn’t hear or ignored him. She proceeded to lead the whales through a flawless performance and ended the show by riding on a whale’s back surfboard-style, the way Daniel and his friends had seen her practicing.
As the kids were filing back onto the bus, Sally joined them, rubbing a towel through her hair. She looked flushed and happy. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the ocean,” she said to Daniel as they boarded the bus. The other kids peppered her with questions about how she learned to train whales and how she came to perform in the show, but Sally had lots of practice at deflecting their questions and managed to tell them almost nothing.
The next week, the headline of the school newspaper read, “Sally Mitchell Flips for Whale Show,” with a photograph of Sally riding on a whale’s back. The article reported that the school was abuzz with speculation about Sally’s background and how she learned to work with whales but that Sally declined all questions on those subjects. As the article said, the whole school was asking: “Who is Sally Mitchell? And where did she come from?”
Later that week, Kyle and the Boneybrox brothers sat in the office of the school newspaper with the article about Sally’s show lying on the table in front of them. Kyle and the Boneybrox brothers had recently joined the school newspaper after Kyle saw a TV show about how newspaper reporters manipulated public opinion. Kyle had decided to take control of the school newspaper. Having joined the newspaper staff, he was now plotting to oust the student editor-in-chief.
Kyle looked closely at the photograph of Sally. “How could she have learned to train whales?” Kyle asked aloud, half to himself. “I once heard her say her mom was a mermaid!” said Mitch Boneybrox. “No, she didn’t! She said her mom liked mermaids,” answered his brother, Pete. “Did not,” said Mitch. “Did, too,” said Pete, taking a swing at Mitch’s head.
“Shut up, you two,” said Kyle. “This could be my chance. Everyone in the school wants to know the story of Sally’s background and how she learned to train whales. If I can get that story, I know Mrs. Collins will make me editor-in-chief.” Kyle continued to study the article and the photograph. “Let’s ask her,” suggested Pete Boneybrox. “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” said Kyle sarcastically. “I’m sure she’ll tell us if we just ask her nicely. How about if we say, “pretty please”? I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that she hasn’t breathed a word to anyone about training whales the whole time she’s been here.” “Fool!” said Mitch and took a swing at Pete’s head. Kyle mused, “She must be hiding something, maybe something about her mother. There has to be a way to use that to get her to talk . . .”
The next day, Sally was sitting alone in the library studying biology when Kyle and the Boneybrox brothers sat down at her table. Kyle sat across from her, and one of the Boneybrox brothers sat on each side. Kyle leaned over the table towards Sally. Instinctively, she drew back. “Hey, Sally, what’s up?” said Kyle with an unfriendly smile. Sally said nothing. “So, Sally, I’m on the school newspaper now, did you know that? Yeah,” he continued without waiting for an answer, “Soon, I’ll be running the show.” The Boneybrox brothers nodded. “I wanted to let you know that I’m writing a story about your mother. And you, of course,” Kyle added. Alarm showed in Sally’s eyes, and she grew slightly pale, but still she said nothing. Kyle noticed her reaction and leaned further over the table. “That’s right, Sally. I found out all about your mom.” He continued in a confidential voice, “Look, I like you, Sally. I think you’re OK. I don’t want to embarrass you or anything, it’s just my job as a journalist to report the truth.”
Sally’s eyes narrowed. “There’s nothing embarrassing to report about my mother,” she said.
Kyle shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, “Maybe not. But if the whole school believes there is an embarrassing story, what difference does it make? Newspapers have the power to blur the line between truth and fiction,” he said, remembering a line from the TV show he had seen. “So, I wanted to offer you a chance to work on the story with me as, you know, like a co-writer. That way, you’ll get to have some say in how the story comes out to, you know, make sure it comes out in the best possible light. Minimize any embarrassing facts. Would actually be a great thing for you here at school. Might be a way to move up to the next level, you know, socially.” Sally’s eyes were cold, but her expression was unchanged. “So, what do you say? Shall we partner up on this? It’s what I call a win-win situation.”
Sally thought for a moment and then said, “I have to think about it.” She picked up her books, shoved them in her backpack, and practically ran out of the library. Kyle slapped hands with the Boneybrox brothers as she left.
The next day, Sally approached Kyle in the hallway. Without any preamble, she said, “OK, I’ll do it. I’ll tell you my story, but I get the final say over what gets printed. Deal?” Kyle smiled magnanimously. “Deal,” he said.
A week later, Little Boy Jeremy rode his bike around the campus, delivering the latest edition of the school newspaper. The headline blared, “Sally Mitchell: Abuse Victim to Whale Trainer.” The by-line was by Kyle Panesco. The article reported that Sally had run away from home at a young age to escape her cruel and unloving parents. She got away by joining a circus as it passed through her hometown. There, she learned to care for and train animals. She became close friends with an older woman named Emily, who was an animal trainer. Sally called her Auntie Em, like the character from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The book she read to her as a child. When Auntie Em retired from the circus, Sally went with her. Auntie Em became a trainer at an aquarium in Florida, where she taught Sally to train whales. After leaving home, Sally never heard from or saw her parents again. When Auntie Em died, Sally’s new guardian sent her to the James Sanderson Learning Center to continue her education.
The article was a sensation. For the rest of the day, no one talked of anything else. Sally was nowhere to be seen, but Kyle was the center of attention. Everyone wanted to know how he had persuaded Sally to share her story. In answering those questions, Kyle was deliberately mysterious. Privately, Kyle boasted to the Boneybrox brothers that he had cleverly persuaded Sally not to list herself as a co-author so that Kyle could claim the credit for himself.
At lunch that day, Daniel saw Sally eating alone in a spot overlooking the lake. He took his lunch and joined her. She nodded in welcome but seemed more remote than usual.
They ate in silence. When Daniel finished his lunch, he gathered up his courage and said, “I saw Kyle’s article, and I’m sorry you had such a difficult time with your parents. But I give you a lot a credit for making the best of a bad situation. I know it’s probably embarrassing to have your story in the school newspaper, but I think you should be proud of yourself.”
Sally turned to Daniel and said, “Thanks for saying that. I appreciate it. But there’s nothing to be sorry about –the whole story’s a lie.” Daniel was speechless for a moment. Sally continued, “I would never say something so horrible about my own mother, even if it were true. Which it’s not. My mom is amazing.”
“I’m confused,” said Daniel. “None of the things in the article really happened?”
Sally shook her head. “None of it,” she said.
“Why did you tell that to Kyle, then?” asked Daniel.
Sally smiled sadly at him and hesitated. She looked across the lake and said, “My mom is a marine biologist. A really good one. She loves the ocean and marine animals. When I was younger, my mom and I lived on a sailboat and traveled around studying marine life. She home-schooled me. Sometimes, when we needed money, my mom would take a job as a trainer at an aquarium. She trained seals, walruses, whales — everything. There was nothing she couldn’t train. She taught me to do it, too.”
“About a few years ago, we were on our boat in the Caribbean when a terrible storm came up. We headed into the nearest port for safety, but there wasn’t time. My mom put on my life jacket and made me go below deck. She was going to get her own life jacket when a huge wave came and turned the boat over on its side. I bumped my head, and I can’t remember anything after that. When I woke up, the worst of the storm was over, but my mom was gone. Just gone,” said Sally, looking at Daniel with pain in her eyes. “Her lifejacket was missing, and so was one of the life rafts. I know in my heart she’s OK. She somehow made it through the storm and is going to make her way back to me. She’s out there somewhere,” said Sally, looking wistful. “In the meantime,” she said with a half-hearted smile, “here I am.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and, to Daniel’s amazement, she leaned her face against his shoulder. Daniel sat still, afraid to move a muscle, then awkwardly patted her back.
The following week, a long letter to the editor appeared in the school newspaper. It was from Sally. In it, she said that the story about her supposed background was a lie that she told in response to Kyle’s threat to make up embarrassing facts about Sally’s family unless she “cooperated” with his article. Sally recounted the real story of her background and her mother’s disappearance, referring to local newspaper articles, official documents, and letters from Sally’s relatives to establish the truth of her account.
The day the newspaper came out, Daniel, Arthur, and Laurie caught a glimpse of Kyle and Mrs. Collins through the window of the newspaper office. Mrs. Collins was holding a copy of the paper and shaking it angrily. As the three friends passed by, she ripped the paper in two. A short notice appeared in the next edition of the paper retracting Kyle’s story. Kyle’s name no longer appeared on the masthead as a member of the newspaper staff.
One afternoon later that month, Daniel, Arthur, and Laurie were standing with Sally outside the library, comparing notes on the science test. Daniel thought that Sally seemed more relaxed and friendly since her letter appeared in the newspaper. Little Boy Jeremy pulled up on his bicycle, delivering the mail. He looked through his stack of mail and handed Laurie a letter from her parents. Then he handed Sally a lumpy yellow envelope. “For you,” he said, blushing.
Sally took the envelope and peered carefully at the handwriting on the front. Excitedly, she tore open the top and tipped the contents into her hand. Out fell a small figure of a mermaid, made of something that looked like rock or coral. Tied around the mermaid with coarse string was a note that said, “Be strong.”