Chapter 4

The bus arrived at the school with the sign outside welcoming the students back for another year. A line of cars waited to unload students who couldn't be bothered with the crowded bus. They lined up behind others in the designated bus line at the front of the school. The children disembarked into the massive, middle-school sized hallways. Administrators and teachers manned the sparkling entry providing directions for students as to where to go.

At the school entrance, Wallace's father greeted the new class as the chairman of the school's board of directors. Gars overheard Wallace complaining about the cramped torture of the bus seats, pleading with his father to ride in the car.

"We'll see," Mr. Pinniped said. "Your brother has been riding without complaint for two years."

Wallace, the spoiled youngest of his family, rolled his eyes in disgust at the comparison.

Tristan and Gar stopped to talk with a secretary manning the sixth grade roster. Nearly new, the school was small compared to most. The academy was built to specialize in ocean studies. It accommodated two classes of each grade with sixth, seventh and eighth grades attending the school. It was state funded and tuition supported. Sort of like a semi-private school. Both Tristan and Gar were pleased to find themselves assigned to Mr. Lepley's homeroom and first period Science class in room 105.

The pair tentatively followed the hallway to their new classroom. Past the auditorium and the gymnasium. Past tall red lockers on one side and tanks of colorful fish on the other. Eels, rays, and bright colored fish lined the hall. Each tank extended from one classroom door to the next.

Chrystina stood next to a darkened tank containing some bright, neon colored fish swimming around anemones. The fish was huge – over a foot in diameter. One fish hovered at the edge of the tank, staring at Chrystina. His mouth opened and closed in that fishy sort of way.

"Hey, Chrystina," Tristan said. "What class are you in?"

"Mr. Lepley," she whispered without looking away from the tank. She pointed at the fish and said. "This fish is so unusual. I'd swear she's trying to talk to me."

"Maybe he is," Tristan said. "Do you understand what he's trying to say?"

Gar chuckled and added, "Maybe he's trying to talk to his reflection in the window."

"She is not a he," she said with a glare at Gar. "I can't hear any voice. That would be really weird."

"Maybe not," Tristan said. "You might need to be in the water with him. This summer … ."

Gar interrupted his friend before he could say anymore. Chrystina did not need to hear about his manatee fable. "Why don't we get to class before the bell rings?" As though his words had power, the bell rang almost as soon as he spoke. But it was the warning bell. They still had four minutes to get to homeroom.

They found room 105. It was colorfully decorated with maps of the oceans. Some had red, orange and yellow shading for temperature and another showing the ragged bottom of the ocean floor.

Metal stools were clustered around black lab tables in groups of three and four. This already looked better than those tiny wooden desks in elementary school. Gar jumped up on one of the seats and spread his arms around the slate. The coolness made his arm hairs stand up on end.

Students, most of whom he recognized from elementary school were scattered randomly throughout, chattering among themselves. Wallace Pinniped squatted on top of one counter while enjoying a joke with a few others. Other than Orson, his buddies must be in another class.

Chrystina joined a large, group of students led by the Thagus twins – Danica and Zorya looked just as he remembered. Animated Danica was tall and thin. Her long straight hair was highlighted in purple. She bragged about all of her new boyfriends over the summer. Dark haired Zorya's short hair was pulled back in high pigtails where were clipped to her main hair. She was practiced at the one word responses.

Tristan and Gar joined that group which suddenly felt an awful lot like elementary school. They were discussing camps and other activities they enjoyed over the summer.

Belinda Caretta was stuck on top of the roller coaster for three hours at the Pavilion. Her parents were furious, but she thought it was exciting – for the first hour. Exiled to Moonlight Beach outpost for the summer, Gar hadn't even heard of the incident. It must have been scary at the time, but she seemed to be savoring the attention of the group. Gar thought her new braces may make for a much more horrifying story.

The bell rang. "Everybody find a seat," Mr. Lepley said.

Mr. Lepley entered the classroom with roster in hand called for everybody to take a seat. He was as round as he was wide and a happy fellow. His orange shirt and brown tie convinced Gar that the teacher should not wear this outfit around Halloween with the risk of becoming carved. His eyeglasses were the big problem. Every time he leaned over to read his notes, they made a break for it – sliding down to the end of his nose. Ever vigilant against such an escape, Mr. Lepley pushed them back in place with one index finger pressed squarely on the bridge. It wasn't long before the class members began to imitate this unconscious rescue.

For this class, they were allowed to sit wherever they wished, but Mr. Lepley reserved the right to change the seats if they misbehaved. Gar was pleased with that arrangement. Every once in awhile a teacher placed them in alphabetical order. Gar wanted to avoid this at all cost as it would seat him next to Wallace Pinniped. Holding a pen and attendance book in hand, he called role for class. One after another they indicated here. They were to provide their preferred nickname. First called was Tamara Acropor."

"Here," she answered

"Should I call you Tammy?" She nodded. He continued, "Tristan Alvarez."

"Tristan is fine," he said.

Wallace added quietly, "We call him sea cow."

Through the alphabet Mr. Lepley continued to call the students names; all twenty of them. Occasionally Wallace added a less than amusing nickname. When hearing the name Beauregard Jackson, Wallace whispered the nickname "Bo-retard" before the student could mention "Bo" as his preferred moniker. Even Mr. Lepley chuckled at the joke.

When he reached Gar he called out "Edgar Pandion. I guess you want to be called 'Ed'." (Wallace suggested "Flounder")

"Please call me Gar."

"Gar," Mr, Lepley said. "Very good. I had your sister last year. She is a special student." Of course she is. "I expect you will do equally as well." Gar gave a weak smile as an answer. This was something that Gar will expect as part of his first day of school ritual for the next five years. Mr. Lepley made a small note in his attendance record. "Wallace Pinniped."

Even the teacher chuckled when Gar suggested "Pinhead", but Wallace just called out "Wallace".

When the roll was complete with Andrew Zibeth ("Andy", of course), Lepley continued through the first day of class ritual. He informed the students about the consequences of tardiness, the instructions for hall passes, and other class rules. Then he completed the final initiation rite to Middle High School: locker assignments. They each had to share a locker with a partner. Gar and Tristan selected each other.

The moment of truth. Gar struggled with the combination several times before it opened. After confirming their locker combination, they opened it wide. It was clean and empty.

"That was a little less exciting than I expected," Gar said.

"We should put something in there," Tristan said. "It looks abandoned."

Tristan held up a pen and placed it on the top shelf. "There it's done. Now we should give it a name." They thought for a second. "I got it the HMS Wonder. I'll make a sign for it tonight." The each ceremoniously tapped on it before they returned to the classroom with the rest of the students in time for the bell to signal the beginning of first period. Home room ended and Science began.

The teacher picked up his attendance book and called out "Tammy Acropor."

"Here," she responded. Everybody else in the class moaned at the repeat of the roll call. Mr. Lepley laughed and put down his role book. He asked Thunder and Belinda to hand out brand new Oceanography text books. "This school was established to help our coastal town become more acquainted with the Ocean. We will cover the sixth grade science topics such as chemistry and biology, but with an emphasis on how they affect the delicate ecosystems of the ocean."

There was an interruption at the back of the class. Everyone turned in unison when the door to the opened. An older lady wearing a gray suit and thick glasses balanced tentatively on four inch heels. "Good morning Principal Dumeril," Mr. Lepley said with a warm, welcoming smile. She looked like she was about six feet tall and about twelve feet of mean. "Children, let me introduce you to your principal, Agnes Dumeril."

"Good morning, Mr. Lepley. I would like to take the time to welcome all of the students to a new school year, but it is a busy morning." One brief appearance and Gar was afraid of her already. I think I'll avoid the principal's office at all cost. The principal continued, "First day of school and you already have a new student, I'd like you all to welcome Sousa Delmara."

Behind principal Dumeril, Gar spotted a thin girl with long, straight strawberry blond hair standing quietly. "Come on in Sousa, why don't you sit up here?" He pointed to an empty seat right in the front. Without any books, papers, or supplies the girl strode confidently into the room demanding everyone's attention. Her long, bulbous nose carried effortlessly high in the air. She sat in the chair gracefully without saying a word or looking at any of the other students. The classroom door echoed into the quiet room as the principal closed it behind her.

Tristan took a deep breath as she walked by his desk. "She still has that new kid smell," he said with a quiet whisper that shattered the silence. Chrystina giggled.

Everyone else studied this new, unknown quantity. Mr. Lepley broke the bewitching atmosphere by handing Sousa a textbook, "Okay, let's begin. Get your notebooks out and begin recording. The first subject is tides..." Mr. Lepley began to write with angled cursive lettering on the white board along with a steady drone of facts and figures.

Captivated by the presence of this new student, Gar ignored the lesson. She didn't take any notes and looked bored by the lesson. Why did she look so familiar?