Whale Watch by Gabrielle Griffis

Theo didn’t want to be baptized. First, the baptistry was gross. Second, the pastor made her feel creepy. Third, she didn’t believe in Jesus.

Her parents sent her to boarding school after her Sunday school teacher found her making out with Gina in the church library. Theo regretted the loss of their love notes, which included a lot of suggestive stick drawings.

From there, it was a downward spiral. First, the school was boring. Second, everyone was noticeably miserable. Third, she set her agenda on fire in the school bathroom. Citing her potentially violent tendencies, they revoked her dissection privileges, which was fine by her, because she wasn’t interested in cutting up dead squids anyway.

Her earth science teacher tried to get her excited about whales, by inviting her on a whale watch.

Theo’s parents wanted her to become some kind of missionary evangelist, spreading the gospel to less-fortunate nations. Theo read about colonialism that included pictures of forced labor and threw up in her hand. She didn’t want to be a missionary. She was prone to vomiting and didn’t know why.

On the day of the whale watch Theo listened to a CD Gina gave her. On the bus, she drew a picture of herself as a monster. In the drawing, she had thick tusks, big eyes, a lot of teeth, and drool. She figured it’s what her parents thought she looked like.

She got sunburnt on the boat.

One layer of sunscreen wasn’t enough for a couple hours on the open ocean. One of Theo’s classmates with hair down to her butt stood at the front of the bow. Her hair whipped into Theo’s face when she tried to get a better look at a humpback breaching in the distance. Theo tried to enjoy the experience, but it was hard with an odd chick’s ponytail in her mouth.

The whale spewed hot air and mucus from its blowhole. Her teacher said whales were like humans because their respiratory system’s had a larynx, pharynx, trachea, and lungs.

A pod of mottled dolphins swam beneath the surface.

That night, Theo lay alone in her dorm room. The bed rocked like a boat. Theo enjoyed the sensation. It was the most pleasant thing she’d felt in a while. It made her think magic was possible.

Spring air blew through her window screen. She could hear peepers and insects being electrocuted by floodlights.

Theo kept thinking about that baptistry. She wondered how they cleaned it. The grimy white tiles and dust. It was weirdly large, like a mini-swimming pool behind the choir. People probably contracted meningitis from giving themselves to the Lord.

At church, Theo mouthed the words to a hymn. Her voice seemed to have choked at some point, but she didn’t know where or when. On some level, she didn’t really care.

On Friday, her earth science teacher asked her to stay after class.

“I have a surprise for you”, he said, lifting the cover off a dead squid. Theo frowned.

“I thought you’d like to dissect your own,” he offered.

“Yeah, I really don’t,” Theo replied, repressing the urge to vomit. “Where do you even get these?” She asked.

“Mostly the wild,” he shrugged.

“Well that’s awful,” Theo replied. She was afraid of the wild. She was afraid of blood, and needles, and feelings. Her emotions hid in church libraries, folded notes, and dark corners.

She felt obligated, and sat at the lab table, donning an apron and latex gloves. A fishy pickled odor emanated from the body. The squid’s tentacles and suckers looked incredibly sad lying limp on the metal tray.

Her hands shook as she pressed the knife into the squid’s soft gelatinous body. She apologized to the squid for its life being wasted on her education.

The squid jiggled beneath the knife as she moved its sallow pink skin aside. Theo held her breath as she cut. She referred to the dissection diagram. Siphon. Ink sac. Ctenidium. The lab room was very quiet.

“How do you feel?” Her science teacher asked, smiling as she looked up from the dissection tray.

He looked genuinely eager to know. She felt genuinely eager to leave. She felt anxious, but she always felt anxious. Sad. Lost. Empty.

Now she was filled with this. This squid-guts experience, and the bizarre part was it was sanctioned as perfectly normal.

“Great,” Theo said, flashing a fake smile.

She went to the school library and checked out an art book. She drew herself as a pagan wearing a floral crown. She thought about the baptistry, how steam rises off wet fields in the morning. She missed Gina. It started raining outside. Fat silver raindrops burst on the rooftop. She put her headphones on to drown out the hymns in her head. She preferred not to be filled with the holy spirit. The only thing her parents focused on was God, so she didn’t know how to focus. Her feelings were pink ephemeral clouds. They dissipated and died. She was outer space. Cold.

 

Gabrielle Griffis is a mutli-media artist, writer, and musician. She studied creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has also worked for the Juniper Writing Institute. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from XRAY Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, decomP, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. She works as a librarian on Cape Cod. You can visit her website at www.gabriellegriffis.com.

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