Chapter OneThe day I found the dead manatee began badly. I was walking past my mother's bedroom when I overheard her talking on the phone.
"No, Mac. I don't want you to come back. Not now. Not ever," she said.
Mac is my father.
I left the house and got into my skiff and ran a couple of miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, hoping the speed and the salty breeze would blow the words right out of my head. But now, hours later, they continued to cut into the corners of my mind, hard and sharp.
So I decided to call it quits and was heading back upriver when I saw the manatee. It was rocking back and forth like a big, round baby in the gentle waves that lapped the saw grass growing at the edge of a small island.
I guess a tourist might have thought the creature was scratching itself or having a snooze. But I've lived all my eleven years on the river, and I've spent a lot of time watching manatees. Something was wrong with this one.
I cut the engine and glided up to the grass to get a better look. Right away, I could tell it was dead. There wasn't any rotten smell yet, or any swelling, and no gulls or crabs or crows were picking at the flesh, so I knew it hadn't been dead for long.
Looking at that body with all the life gone from it gave me an achy feeling in my chest. Manatees-when they're alive, anyway-are irresistible, the same way puppies and kittens and baby chicks are. They wallow around in the water, too trusting or too lazy to move out of the way of danger. They're so dopey-acting and so homely they're cute.
I read someplace that when the old sailors told of seeing mermaids, they were actually looking at manatees. Which really cracked me up. I mean, a manatee looks kind of like a gigantic dark brown Idaho potato. Or a balloon that got blown up wrong. How those guys imagined that a roly-poly animal with tiny little eyes and a whiskery face was a beautiful woman with a tail-well, if you ask me, they must have been out at sea for a long, long time.
I checked the creature's back for propeller scars. Most manatees have slashes across their backs because they don't know enough to swim away from boats. Lots of boaters either don't know that or don't care, so collisions between boats and manatees are pretty common. Not on our river, because it's a manatee refuge, but when the creatures go out into open water, they're almost like sitting ducks.
Yep, I could see that this manatee had had at least one run-in with a propeller, but the scars were old and healed over. I wondered if it might have simply died of old age. I guessed it happened that way sometimes. Was this one old? I didn't know how to tell.
I noticed some streaks of an odd, reddish color swirling in the water. And then I saw a round hole in the back of the creature's head. The red stuff was seeping from it, mixing quickly with the brackish river water. It took a while before I got it: I was looking at blood coming from a bullet hole.
But that didn't make any sense! Manatees are a protected species. Nobody can hunt them. You can get a stiff fine just for bothering or chasing them. There are bigger fines, even jail sentences, for actually harming or killing one-although I'd never heard of anybody doing that. There was no reason to. The idea of somebody feeling threatened by a manatee and shooting it out of self-defense was so ridiculous it was almost funny. What kind of person would fire a gun at such a harmless animal?
The question made my heart pound unpleasantly, first with anger and then with fear. I looked at the manatee's wound, still bleeding. Whoever had done this might be lurking nearby, watching. He wouldn't want to be discovered, that was for sure. And he had a gun.
Suddenly, I had the feeling that I was being watched. I looked around quickly. To the west the river ran into the gulf, where I'd come from. To the east it headed back inland, toward Chassacoochie Springs, the town where I lived. On both sides of the river were acres and acres of saw grass, mangrove trees, scrubby cedars, and palmettos. There were about a million places for a person to hide, and all I saw were some mullet jumping and an egret preening on the opposite bank.
I took a deep breath to slow the beating of my heart and tried to decide what to do. I knew there was an 800 number to call if you found a dead manatee, or one that was injured, orphaned, or wearing a tag. I'd seen the posters hanging at the marina and in stores hundreds of times, but I'd never memorized the number and, anyway, I didn't have a cell phone.
The radio in my boat wasn't working, either. It needed a new antenna, and I hadn't saved enough yet to get one, although I was getting close. I'd broken the rules that morning, going out in the open ocean without a working radio, and if Mom knew she'd ground me for the rest of my life. If it was up to her, I wouldn't be out alone in the boat in the first place, but Mom realized she couldn't stop me. I'd passed the boating safety course, and had my photo ID card to prove it. Besides, I was Mac's son.
See, Mac-my dad-is a fishing guide. He grew up right in Chassacoochie Springs, and began handling boats when he was six years old. He tried to raise me the same way, and it drove Mom crazy. She was always fussing and calling Mac irresponsible, and he was always telling her to relax, what did she want to do, wrap me in plastic for safekeeping?
That was one of the things they used to argue about, until Mom told Mac to move out three weeks ago. He went down the road a little way to live in a trailer.
"Just for a while," Mom told me, until they "figured things out."
When I asked Mac why he was leaving his own house, why he was leaving me, he said he didn't want me to have to listen to any more fighting.
"Then why don't you guys stop?" I said, but he only looked sad, gave me a hug, put a garbage bag with a bunch of his clothes in it in the back of his pickup, and drove off.
Now Mom had decided she didn't want him to come back, and I heard her say it. She hadn't asked me what I wanted. So right then I didn't much care what she would have to say about my being out in the gulf with a busted radio.
Besides, I was looking at a manatee that had to be at least twelve hundred pounds of dead weight. I knew from experience that if I got out of the boat, my feet would sink knee-deep into the wet, oozing mud. If I were lucky, and someone came along and pulled me out, both my sneakers would be sucked under, never to be seen again. But even if I could get out of the skiff, I wasn't strong enough to lift the manatee. And if I were able, by some miracle, to get it into the boat, it'd probably sink my skiff. I was going to have to leave it and go tell somebody.
I wasn't worried about finding it again: I knew the river the way I knew my own bedroom. I checked the tide; it was going down. Good-the body wouldn't wash away with high water, and a light wind was pushing it right up against the island.
All of a sudden, I couldn't wait to get away from there. Being alone with that dead body was starting to give me the creeps.
But when I came back less than an hour later with a deputy from the sheriff's department, the manatee was gone.