The group trip to Baltimore Aquarium is my strongest memory of my father before he died. It also happens to be the most disturbing.
I was seven years old at the time. The event was organized by our local boy scout troop, and the group had rented out the entire place overnight. Most kids brought their fathers, some games, and the biggest, fluffiest sleeping bags they could find. My dad was in between chemo treatments at the time. For a while, he wasn’t going to be able to go, but he changed his mind at the last minute. I was thankful for that. Nobody likes to be the only kid without a dad.
Most of the day stayed pretty standard. My father and I checked out every single one of the exhibits. I must have stared at the small sharks for hours. I loved watching them dart back and forth across the water. The place had all kinds of fish and land creatures. There were lizards in the south wing, and a few undersized whales in the north. There were amphibians to the west and even a few small mammals to the east. We spent most of our daytime traveling between those spots and the cafeteria.
The coolest part was when the gates locked to the public at 8:00.
All of the kids ran back and forth to slide across the tile floors. I must have witnessed twenty different Risky Business impressions. We told ghost stories. We played board games. The chatted along amicably about sports, and politics, with flasks of whiskey hidden tastefully under their tee shirts. The boys stayed up until well past two in the morning. It was a really fun time.
And then everyone fell asleep.
That part sucked.
I have always had difficulty falling asleep in places other than my bed. I guess, I can just never get comfortable. The buzzing from my fan was absent. My favorite pillow, that always keeps a cold side, even in summer; was missing. Even the warm, reassuring feeling that my mom and brother were not right down the hall seemed to weigh on my wide awake mind. I stared at the fish drifting lazily through the tanks in front of us. I wondered whether they ever got used to sleeping there, too. I thought about homework, and girls, and video games. Anything but the concept of sleep.
I started training my ears to listen for sounds in the night. I thought it would be cool to hear a crocodile kicking around in the mud. Or two exotic toads trying to talk to each other. In the city, all of these noises were nonexistent, and so I thought it better to soak them up while I still could.
That was when I heard voices.
They were quiet at first. Clearly, they came from some other area in the aquarium. But voices tend to float in hallowed out buildings with massive ceilings. I lied awake in my sleeping bag and eventually traced the source to somewhere by the South wing.
I waited for somebody to wake up and hear it too. But my father snored happily. My friends were curled into their own bags like caterpillars. Out of the group of twenty people, nobody seemed to be bothered whatsoever
The voices started to get more frantic. One of them seemed to be arguing with the other. I heard ‘please’ quite a few times. I also heard ‘Stop it, Gerald’ quite a few others.
The mystery became too much for me. I had to check it out.
I made sure to keep my shoes behind to avoid the squeak they made on the floors. I stuffed my pillow into the sleeping bag to make it look like I had burrowed in there. Then I gave the group one last look, to make sure they were all asleep, before heading towards the door to the South wing.
I opened it and immediately discovered that the lights had been dimmed everywhere else. It became hard to see the path in front of me. I placed one foot after the other nervously and followed the sound of conversation. The one man sounded scared now. I thought I heard him crying.
At the end of the South wing, there was a door without any sort of sign dictating it’s purpose. It almost blended into the wall, actually. Like one of the ones you might see passing through the Lincoln tunnel. I would have missed it altogether, but a small concrete block kept it wedged open.
Somebody shouted. I knew the voices came from inside that room.
And so I inched my way through the opening and tried not to move the block in the process. I had to suck in my stomach. But I made it, and collapsed noiselessly on the other side to find my breath needed to be held once again.
I was in a giant auditorium.
That’s the best way to describe it. The room looked as if we were in a movie theater without any seats. A thirty foot high glass panel held back an enormous pool of water. Just like any other ocean exhibit. But I could not see anything inside.
“You know why you’re here, Gerald. You talked. Stop. Time to pay the piper, kid.“
I could tell at that point, the voices had to be somewhere near the surface of the pool. They would not be able to see me from that angle. Even still, I dipped behind an empty garbage receptacle and listened quietly. I worried that even my breath could echo.
There was a splash from somewhere above.
A man floated gracefully down into the pool of water in front of me. He had a white jacket around his arms. It held them together. A piece of rope tied his legs together. And all of this was weighted by a large concrete block. Just like the one that wedged the door.
The man sunk without much protest. He only seemed agitated after seeing me. I stood up, unsure of what to do, and we made eye contact. He tried to scream. He tried to fight against the cloth holding him together. Tiny little air bubbles appeared all around him as he fought desperately for any hope of life.
And then a shadow entered his peripheral.
I could not see the creature itself. It must have been waiting in an unseen part of the tank. But the shadow surrounding the man indicated a shape that dwarfed him by two or three times. Upon seeing the beast, any trace of hope quickly drained from his expression. He looked at me, one last time, and pitifully went limp.
The shadow moved quickly in response. I only saw a flash of scales. But they stretched as far my eyes could see. One bite from dinner plate sized teeth ripped poor Gerald in half. The creature swam back into the shadows with the top piece still in its mouth. The bottom piece continued to float to the floor.
I screamed because I had held in so much. The weekend had been one of my happiest memories up until that point. I never expected anything to go wrong. A little mystery, sure, but full blown murder? And by a shark, of all things? If it could be called that. I know I was seven years old. But that fish looked at least thirty feet long.
And so I screamed when someone turned off the dimmed lights overheard. I screamed when a pair of gruff arms wrapped themselves around my waist. I screamed as their owner carried me back through the door, out through the South wing, and in front of a very concerned group of parents and kids.
“What happened?” the troop leader asked drowsily. “Is Matthew okay? Are you okay? What the Hell, Rich?“
I looked up at the man carrying me and saw the familiar features of my father. He too looked shocked. The color had drained from his face. The adrenaline coursed so roughly through his veins that I could feel his heart beat through his chest.
The lights turned on.
A very official looking security guard approached us from the check in desk. He wore a brimmed cowboy hat and annoying spur boots. They clicked when he walked. You know… one of those guys. Even then, I thought the get up looked weird, and the eye rolls from a couple parents seemed to confirm my suspicions. I didn’t recognize his voice. I thought I would.
“You do know that part of our agreement included not wandering the property at night?“
The boy scout leader spun on me angrily in reply.
“Did you do that, Matt?“
I nodded, still dumbfounded.
“Unbelievable. We are so sorry, sir. He hasn’t caused you any damage, has he?“
The cowboy guard nodded gravely.
“Unfortunately. We are going to have to ask you to leave the property.“
The group moaned and groaned piteously as they granted me daggers from across the circle.
“Why does somebody always have to ruin it!” one said. “Come on, Matt, why did you do that?“
I tried to tell them that I heard something. I tried to tell them I saw something. But no one wanted to listen. My voice turned into a pitiful, nasally, whimper and all of the other boys called me a baby. The kids packed up their bags. Their fathers tried to figure out a way home. I looked back to my dad for some sort of response. But his face stayed white and scared.
The Cowboy guard addressed us specifically.
“You, sir, you were back there as well?“
My father nodded.
“We are going to let it go this time. But I want you to know that we could be calling the police down here to detain you for a B&E.“
My father nodded again. I started to protest but I could feel his grip tighten on my shoulder.
“Thank you, sir.“
We exited the aquarium at 4:00 in the morning, along with everyone else. I cried even more. But nobody listened. The cowboy guard watched us leave in the pouring right. He had his hand on a radio. I tried to train my ears to listen. Somebody’s voice cackled through the speaker every few minutes. Somebody who kept talking about Gerald.
I asked my father a lot about that encounter. I asked him what he saw. I told him what I saw. But he didn’t like to talk about it much. After the trip to the aquarium, his health really started to deteriorate. He passed away in the winter of that year. That trip became our last one together.
I still visit Baltimore Aquarium. They don’t recognize me there. This story happened years ago. So much of the place has changed. I never see the Cowboy guard anywhere. I never hear anybody talking about Gerald.
But I like to look at the sharks. I love to watch them dart back and forth across the water. I like to look at the amphibians, and reptiles, and all the other cool animals the exhibits have to offer. Sometimes, when nobody is looking, I like to listen by that painted over door. I have trained my ears well. All this time later, I am a perfect listener. And I can still hear voices. They sound scared.
I wonder if they’re still feeding that thing.