Adriane slowly opened her bedroom door, glancing down the hallway to make sure no one was awake. Once she was positive, she slipped through the small opening and closed the door. She hurried down the stairs and past the kitchen, wincing at her heavy footsteps, hoping no one would hear. As she reached the back door she slowed, looking for the key her mom kept on the counter. Once she spotted it, she picked it up and felt the sharp edge of the single key jab into her palm. Adriane turned toward the door and yanked it open, then walked into the night.
A sharp wind caught her off guard and snaked over her skin. She shivered, tucking her arms across her chest, wishing she had worn something other than the old green shorts and a threadbare T-shirt. The worry faded, though, as soon as she looked up.
Stars littered the sky like glitter on black tile, illuminating the moonless night. The glowing orb’s absence only added to the otherworldly experience the sky was performing for Adriane. Looking closely, she could see the small patches of sky covered by gray clouds, swirling like the Milky Way.
Glancing back down, Adriane remembered what she had come out here to do and began making her way across the yard. Once she was walking on the road, she quickened, smiling with anticipation. She was risking a lot; if someone was to see Adriane they would tell her parents, or at the least, order her to leave and go home.
Finally, she reached it. She walked out onto the boardwalk, listening to the patter of her feet on the old wood and the slap of waves on the metal below. The shore fell away as she made her way out to the front, sliding her hands off her chest.
The ocean below bubbled, inviting her in. She smiled, bending down to sit on the edge of the boardwalk. Sharp pricks of cold stabbed at her feet as she slid them into the waves. Kicking slightly, she watched the water froth and spin, dancing between her toes. The cold began to fade as her skin adjusted to the temperature, allowing her to slide more of her legs in, until the water was hitting her calves.
Leaning back on her elbows and then her back, she stared up at the sky once again, the boardwalk swaying beneath her. She closed her eyes and let her mind wander, the night scenery seeping into her skin, disguising her beneath the stars. She almost forgot where she was until an unpleasant nudge hit her foot.
Adriane’s eyes snapped open, glancing around. She was still on the boardwalk, but it seemed as if quite some time had passed by. There was a bright blue tint to the once black sky, and the stars had faded quite a bit. Just as she was about to stand, something nudged her foot again. Gasping, she pulled her legs out of the water, blinking to shield her eyes from the spray of water that was brought with them. Holding her legs against her chest, she peeked over the edge of the boardwalk.
Gray and leathery, a manatee sat just below the surface. Adriane had never seen a real manatee before. Chesapeake Bay wasn’t an uncommon place for them, though. Leaning in closer, she tried to get a better look.
The manatee was small for its kind, with heavily creased skin like an elephant. It had two flat plate-like flippers on either side of its gigantic body and one large flat flipper at its back. Its eyes were tiny and beady, staring past Adriane.
“Hey there,” she offered, trying to calm the creature. The manatee gazed up at her in response, gently pumping its fins.
Adriane raised her head, looking for a fisherman or someone who worked at the docks, but she saw no one. Wondering if she should report the elephant-like creature, she turned back to the water.
The manatee was still gazing at her intently, tilting its head as if in pain.
“What is it?” Adriane asked, placing both her hands on the edge of the boardwalk. She watched the manatee as it slowly tilted its head again, pleading with its eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Adriane’s voice faltered as she stared down at the enormous creature. Calmly, she put her hand in the water, just touching the surface. Almost instantly, the manatee nudged it, sliding its nose up against her palm.
That’s when she noticed it.
A huge net lay stretched across the manatee’s back. It was tangled up, strangled. Adriane looked back at its face, understanding the pain held in its eyes. It was suffering, and with this net around it, the manatee wouldn’t last long.
“Hold on, little guy, I’ll be right back,” Adriane spoke, hoping the manatee didn’t hear the fear and sadness that came with it.
The pounding of her tired, heavy heart matched that of her feet as she ran back up the beach, kicking up sand. Looking at the sky above her, she watched as blues and purples stained the sky like splashes of paint across a canvas; the sun was rising. Switching her eyes forward again, she urged her feet to move faster, hoping to reach her house before it was too late.
Adriane turned onto her yard and made her way to the door, practically smashing into the red-paint-coated panels on either side of it. She jammed the single key into the lock, then hurried up the stairs, yelling, “Mom! Dad! Hurry!”
She slipped twice on the stairs in her haste, groaning and getting back up each time. When she had finally made it to the hallway, her parents were already there, looking surprised, scared, and tired all at the same time.
“Manatee…” she bent down, putting her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. “It’s stuck… in a… net! We have to… come on!” Spinning around, Adriane headed to the stairs, only to be held back by her father’s hand on her shoulder.
“What? Is this a dream you had?” he asked impatiently, then yawned, rubbing his eyes.
“No! No, this is real! It’s going to be strangled!” Adriane moved towards the stairs, relieved that her mom and dad were following her. She was over her fear of being in trouble for going to the beach this late. She was almost positive her parents wouldn’t mind as well. Not after she showed them the manatee.
They all ran down the beach, Adriane’s mother and father gripping their loose pajamas tightly, trying to keep warm. When they finally reached the boardwalk, they were all out of breath.
“Here.” Adriane moved towards the edge, hoping a scene of devastation wouldn’t meet her eyes. To her relief, the manatee was there, its head resting up against the wood. At Adriane’s arrival, it looked up, pleading for freedom.
“Oh, honey!” Adriane’s mom sighed beside her. “We have to call someone…”
After that, things blurred for Adriane. A truck full of people came who lifted the manatee out of the water and onto a crane, which put it on a flatbed. A swarm of tourists stood to watch and even a small news team came up to film, flooding Adriane with questions. The only thing she seemed to be able to pronounce, though, was, “Is the manatee going to be OK?”
Adriane spent the days that followed thinking of the manatee, which specialists identified as a female. Chess, they had named her, after Chesapeake Bay. Even though Adriane had only known her for a few short seconds, she was sure the way Chess had looked at her meant something.
One morning, about a week after the rescue, Adriane got a phone call.
“Yes?” she squeaked.
“This is Valerie, from the Marine Care Center. I’m happy to inform you that Chess is fine now. Thankfully, you found her before she could wind her way too far into the net. The cuts she had were minor, if anything.”
A surge of joy hit Adriane, knocking the breath out of her for a second. When she found her voice again, she answered, “Great!”
“We would like to discuss her placement now. She obviously can’t go back to Chesapeake, so we were thinking of taking her down and releasing her in Florida. Since you were the one to find Chess, we are offering a full-paid trip to come down and release her with us.”
She wasn’t going to pass up that offer. “Perfect.”
* * *
The day of departure came sooner than Adriane expected it, and suddenly, they were flying over America. They landed in Daytona Beach, Florida, and stepped out into the overcrowded airport, dragging their luggage behind them. A taxi picked them up and drove them to their hotel, where they stayed for the night.
Adriane tossed and turned in her overstuffed bed for quite a while, too excited to fall asleep. Her nerves were on fire, jumping inside her head like tennis balls. She couldn’t wait to set Chess free.
In the morning, the atmosphere was a mix between nervous and excited, and for Adriane, a little bit sad. But the family carried on like normal, until twelve, when a Marine Care Center car picked them up. It took them to the beach, where a team of people were waiting. They brought Chess on a boat and slowly lowered her into the water.
Stepping out into the tide, Adriane looked at Chess, only a few feet away. She was halfway submerged, about to go under. Pushing through the water that felt as heavy as sand, Adriane made her way to Chess’s side.
“Do you remember me?” she asked, giving a hint of a smile. Chess gazed back, tilting her head. She remembered.
“OK, clear out, everyone!” an official yelled from behind them. The team of people surrounding Chess dispersed, leaving Adriane with her. Slowly, Chess edged under the waves. When the water was deep enough for her to swim, she dove down into the blue abyss.
Adriane turned, looking down at the water. Slowly and somberly, she started making her way back up to shore. She was stopped short, however, by a nudge on her hand. Looking down, Adriane found Chess staring back. Smiling, Adriane smoothed her hand over Chess’s nose, laughing as whiskers tickled her palm.
“Go on, girl,” she urged, sliding her hand off Chess. “You’re free.”
But Chess wouldn’t move.
Tilting her head, Adriane gave Chess a puzzled look. “What?”
The manatee tilted her head back, her eyes glistening. Suddenly, Adriane understood what Chess wanted. Adriane walked out until the water was at her shoulders, tugging her down, and then ducked under.
Adriane opened her eyes, blinking against the sudden sting, looking for Chess. Finally, she spotted her, a few feet away. The heavy water carried Chess to Adriane’s side, where she dipped down lower. Submerged in weightlessness, they swam, curling beneath the surface and over the sand. For a few short seconds Adriane experienced what she thought to be the most magical moment in her life.
Tucked beneath the waves and swimming among the fish, Adriane felt peace. She felt the world Chess lived in, and she understood, then, that Chess wanted to leave. This was her way of saying goodbye.
Chess passed by Adriane, gazing up at her. Gently, Adriane lifted her hand and placed it on the manatee’s head. Their eyes connected one last time, then Chess turned, pumping her enormous tail into the deep.
Adriane became aware of a dull ache in her chest, lingering in Chess’s absence. It wasn’t all because of Chess, though. Adriane was running out of air, and her lungs were bursting.
The second Adriane surfaced, she took in a long, fast breath. Refreshed, she looked out towards the horizon and smiled.
She’d never forget her.