Prologue: The Freeing of the Lobsters
If I was good at the grocery store, I got a Yoo-hoo. If I was really good, I got to see the lobsters.
Today, I was really good.
My mother left me at the lobster tank in the middle of the main aisle while she went to get Dad’s pork chops from the deli counter. Lobsters fascinated me. Everything from their name to their claws to their magnificent red had me hooked.
My hair was that red, the kind of red that looks okay on everything but people, because a person’s hair is not supposed to be red. Orange, yes. Auburn, sure.
But not lobster red.
I took my pigtails, pressed them against the glass, and stared the nearest lobster straight in the eye.
Dad said my hair was lobster red. My mother said it was Communist red. I didn’t know what a Communist was, but it didn’t sound good. Even pressing my hair flat against the glass, I couldn’t tell if my dad was right. Part of me didn’t want either of them to be right.
“Let me out,” said the lobster.
He always said that. I rubbed my hair against the glass like the tank was a genie’s lamp and the action would stir up some magic. Maybe, somehow, I could get those lobsters out. They looked so sad, all huddled on top of one another, antennae twitching, claws rubber-banded together.
“Are you buying one?”
I saw Blue Eyes’s reflection in the glass of the lobster tank before he spoke. Big blue eyes. Blueberry blue. No, that was too dark. Ocean blue. Too green. Blue like all the blue crayons I had, all melted into one.
The straw I’d jammed down the neck of my Yoo-hoo bottle dangled from my lips.
“Are you buying one?” he said again. I shook my head. He pushed his glasses up his nose, back into place on his golden-freckled cheeks. The dirty collar of his shirt slipped down to reveal a freckled shoulder. The stench of fish and pond scum clung to him.
“Did you know fossils of the clawed lobster date back to the Cretaceous?” he asked. I shook my head—I would have to ask Dad what a “Cretaceous” was—and took a long, slurping drink of Yoo-hoo.
He was staring at me and not the lobster. “Animalia Arthropoda Malacostraca Decapoda Nephropidae,” he said.
He tripped up a little on the last word, but it didn’t matter since I hadn’t understood anything that had come out of his mouth.
“I like scientific classification,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
He pushed his glasses up again. “Plantae Sapindales Rutaceae Citrus.”
“I don’t know what that means, either.”
“You smell like lemons.”
I felt a flurry of delirious joy because he’d said, “You smell like lemons” instead of “Your hair is red.”
I knew my hair was red. Everyone could see my hair was red. I did not, however, know that I smelled like fruit.
“You smell like fish,” I told him.
He wilted, his freckled cheeks burning. “I know.”
I looked around for my mother. She was still standing in line at the deli counter and didn’t seem to have any plans to collect me soon. I grabbed his hand. He jumped and stared at the connection like something both magical and dangerous had happened.
“Do you wanna be friends?” I asked. He looked up and reset his glasses once again.
“Yoo-hoo?” I offered the drink.
“What’s a Yoo-hoo?”
I pushed the drink a little closer to his face, in case he hadn’t seen it. He took the bottle and inspected the straw.
“Mom said I shouldn’t drink after someone else. It’s unsanitary.”
“But it’s chocolate,” I replied.
He looked uncertainly at the Yoo-hoo bottle before taking a wimpy sort of sip and shoving the bottle back my way. He didn’t move for a second, didn’t speak, but, eventually, he leaned over for another drink.
As it turned out, Blue Eyes knew a lot more than the scientific classifications of plants and animals. He knew everything. He knew the prices of everything in the store. He knew how much it would cost to buy all the lobsters in the lobster tank ($101.68, sales tax not included). He knew the names of presidents and what order they served in. He knew the Roman emperors, which impressed me even more. He knew that the circumference of the Earth was forty thousand kilometers, and that only the male cardinal was bright red.
But he really knew words.
Blue Eyes had a word for everything.
Words like dactylion and brontide and petrichor. Words whose meanings slipped from my grasp like water.
I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I didn’t mind. He was the first friend I’d ever had. The first real friend.
Also, I really liked holding his hand.
“Why do you smell like fish?” I asked him. We walked slowly as we talked, making long circles in the main aisle.
“I was in a pond,” he said.
“I got thrown in.”
He shrugged and reached down to scratch at his legs, which were covered in Band-Aids.
“Why are you hurt?” I asked.
“Animalia Annelida Hirudinea.”
The words left his mouth like a curse. His cheeks flared red as he scratched more fervently. His eyes had gone all watery. We stopped at the tank.
One of the store employees came out from behind the seafood counter and, ignoring us, opened a hatch on top of the lobster tank. With one gloved hand, he reached in and pulled out Mr. Lobster. He closed the hatch and carried the lobster off.
And I got an idea.
“Come here.” I pulled Blue Eyes to the back of the tank. He wiped his eyes. I stared at him until he stared back. “Will you help me get the lobsters out?”
He sniffed. Then he nodded.
I set my Yoo-hoo bottle on the floor and held my arms up. “Can you lift me?”
He wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me. My head shot above the top of the lobster tank, my shoulders level with the hatch. I was a chubby kid and Blue Eyes probably should’ve snapped in half, but he only wobbled a bit, grunting.
“Just hold still,” I told him.
The hatch had a handle near the edge. I grabbed it and pulled it open, shivering at the chilly blast of air that whooshed out.
“What are you doing?” Blue Eyes asked, his voice muffled by his strain and my shirt.
“Be quiet!” I said, looking around. No one had noticed us yet.
The lobsters were piled up just below the hatch. I plunged my hand in. Shock raced up my spine from the cold. My fingers closed around the nearest lobster.