School of Environmental Studies (Zoo School)
Apple Valley, Minnesota
February 14th, 2033
I closed my locker, ignoring the streamers and decorations my friends had put on the outside for my eighteenth birthday. I was now eighteen, and I was no longer able to use my youth to escape destiny.
I had barely turned around before Amy had her arm around me. “Ready to go? We’ve to a lot to do before the party.”
Amy Miller was three months older than me, and the second of three children from Beta Susan. Her older sister, Siena, had met her mate at the Scratch ’n Sniff two years ago and was now living with her Beta Heir mate in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Her brother Luke was a sophomore at Eastview High School, not that far south of the Minnesota Zoo property, where our school sat on ten acres of land. We met after her family came to the Miesville Pack with most of the defunct Welch Pack. We had been best friends and swim buddies ever since. “It’s no big deal, Amy. Besides, we have to hit the pool first.”
Amy and I had spent as much time in the water as possible as we grew up, most of it in the pool at Alpha Leo’s home. Our parents had suffered through early morning swim practices, day-long swim meets, school teams, and state tournaments. We both swam for Eastview since the Zoo School only had four hundred students, all juniors and seniors. We’d both wanted to attend since I was in middle school, and I’d pretty much forced our parents to move into the district so I’d have a better chance to enroll in the program. It was open to enrollment to people outside the Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan school district if there was room, and we couldn’t take that chance.
Amy’s Mom sold their house in the country and bought a big townhouse in Apple Valley shortly after the merger. My mother and stepfather, Liv and Brent, had lived with my Uncle Leo and Aunt Adrienne until I was twelve. I had two younger brothers now, Mark and Chance, who were twelve and ten. When our family outgrew the apartment above the garage at Leo’s place, I’d begged them to move into the right district. We’d moved to a suburban home in Apple Valley, about a twenty-minute drive northwest. We still spent a lot of time in Miesville on weekends, spending time with our Pack friends and running in the woods in our wolf forms. If we go more than a few weeks without shifting, our wolves start acting up.
We reached Amy’s Honda Accord and tossed our bags in the back. I started going through the messages I’d received for my birthday on my phone as she pulled out of the parking lot. My heart almost stopped when I read one from Ocean Ramsey, the famous shark conservationist, former model, and free-diver. “OH MY GOD,” I yelled as I read it.
“Damn, Vicki, there wasn’t anything wrong with my ears until THAT,” she said.
I *might* have been a little loud in the enclosed space. “Ocean sent me a birthday greeting! She said that now that I’m a legal adult, I can free dive with her without her insurance people objecting!”
“That’s fantastic! When?”
“I don’t know yet, but whenever it is, I’m on it like a duck on a June bug! Maui over spring break? We could film some promotional videos for my project!” I’d been a fan of Ocean Ramsey ever since we found her videos on YouTube, showing her swimming with Great White Sharks. For my sixth birthday, my parents had a photo of her swimming next to Deep Blue, a 20-foot pregnant Great White, turned into a mural for my wall. On the wall by my bed was a signed poster from when I first met her in San Diego at age eight. She’d taken an interest in the little blonde girl who loved sharks, and we’d kept in touch ever since. “Do you want to go with?”
“Sure, if I can, but I’m not swimming with THOSE things. Sharks are your thing; I prefer dolphins. Smarter, faster, and they won’t bite a chunk out of your ass.”
“Yet we’re still friends,” I teased. “You did a great job with the write-in campaign to bring them back.” Dolphins had been a mainstay at the Zoo its first 35 years, but when maintenance closed the exhibit, the remaining dolphins were re-homed. The beluga whales were long gone as well, sent in 1987 to San Diego after the male of the pair developed a bad infection. Discovery Bay now had a pod of four Pacific Whiteside dolphins, thanks to the lobbying of the Legislature to fund their return in the last round of Zoo upgrades. As seniors in our last semester, we got to focus on our favorite part of the Zoo for an apprenticeship-like experience. Amy was helping train the dolphins, while I worked with the sharks. The Zoo was the only place left to see them in Minnesota after SeaLife went bankrupt following the Covid-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021.
We talked about our projects and homework during the short drive to Falcon Ridge Middle School, where the pool was. Since our high school season was over in the fall, we had to work out when we could. It was available for only thirty minutes between the time the pool emptied, and when the middle school team practice started. Thanks to the earlier end time of their school, we would have about four minutes to change and shower before we were losing time.
Both of us had changed into our suits under our clothes in the break before the last class, so when we hit the locker room, we just had to remove our street clothes and hit the shower. We waved to Coach Sullivan as we entered the pool area and put our gear on. Mask, snorkel, weight belt, and extra-long free diving fins went on before we slipped into the water.
As soon as the boys were out, Coach whistled at us and held up his hand. “SIX,” he yelled before he tossed the diving rings into random locations in the 25-meter-long, ten-lane pool. It was our training game, one he designed to push us to swim farther and longer underwater. We had to retrieve them all before coming up for a breath.
We did our breathing exercises, calming out bodies before starting our stopwatches and slipping quietly under the water. I went left, and Amy went right. The long fins and porpoising swim motion helped me move through the water with minimal effort, conserving the oxygen in my muscles. My best time underwater was four minutes and twelve seconds; Ocean Ramsey could stay under for six and a half minutes.
I spotted the first ring and grabbed it as I caught the location of the second. The third ring took a little more searching, but I found it near the swim platforms. I caught up to Amy, who had two and was looking for the last one. It took us another thirty seconds to find it. By the time we breached the surface by Coach, we’d been underwater for nearly three minutes. Both of us hung off the edge as we breathed deeply, making up for the lost time. “Not bad, girls,” our old swim coach said. “Now that you’re warmed up, we’ll try eight.” He tossed the rings in while we continued to breathe.
We did the drills until there were only three minutes left. “Finish it strong, out and back as fast as you can,” Coach said as the boys started lining up by the pool for their practice. The High School Boy’s Swimming season was almost over, with Regionals on Friday and the State Tournament at the end of the month. I could feel them watching my ass as I moved like a torpedo underwater. I did a kick-turn and powered back to the other end, touching three seconds before Amy did.
“You look good as a mermaid,” Josh Spencer said as he reached a hand down for me. I let him haul me out of the water, then turned aside before his hand could smack my ass. We’d been friends for years and even dated for a bit sophomore year, but it didn’t work out. He wanted to screw anything that moved, and I was saving myself. We ended it amicably and were still good friends. “Happy Birthday, Sharkbait.”
“Thanks, Josh.” I sat on the starting block to remove my fins. “Good luck this weekend.”
“I’m having a party after the meet, and I’d love to see you there.”
“I can’t; I have to go out of town this weekend.” Coach blew his whistle, and he turned to go. “Swim fast,” I told him as I packed my gear. I walked into the girl’s locker room with Amy, which was empty. We put our suits in the dryer then hit the shower. “I wish we had a seriously deep pool to swim in,” I said as I rinsed out my long blonde hair. “We can hold our breath as long as we want, but it’s not the same as getting down thirty or forty feet.”
“They aren’t building pools that deep anymore,” Amy said. “Fucking lawyers and insurance companies have gotten rid of high dives and platforms, and springboard doesn’t need more than twelve.” It sucked. “Are you excited? You could be turning in your V-card tonight!”
“Don’t start with me,” I said. “The party is for our Pack and a few others. I’ve already met all the boys coming; if there is a mate bond there, we would have sensed it, don’t you think?”
“Probably,” she said. “Maybe you could ‘work out’ with Josh if you don’t find a wolfyboy who gets you all hot and bothered,” she teased.
I turned the shower off and grabbed my towel. “I’ve come this far, and I’m not giving my body away to scratch an itch,” I said.
“I don’t know, that itch is awful damn fun to scratch if you find a guy with the right equipment who knows what he is doing.” Amy lost her virginity at 15 at a youth camp with a pack in Wyoming. Despite a bad first experience with a ‘two-pump chump,’ she started dating older boys and found a few good ones along the way. Amy hooked up with dozens of humans and werewolves since, but none since before she came of age. The last thing she needed was to find her mate and have the smell of another man on her. “Maybe we’ll both find our guys this weekend.”
“I hope to Luna that I don’t,” I said. “I know what happens to girls who find their mates as soon as they came of age. Look at your sister! She just turned twenty and has a six-month-old baby and another on the way. Remember when she talked about going to college and studying architecture?” I shook my head as I dried my hair. “All her hopes and dreams, gone with a single look from her mate. No, thanks. I want to have a life of my own first.”
“Siena is happy, Vicki. She loves her mate and her baby, and wouldn’t change a thing.” I pulled on my jeans as she dried off. “Don’t ever say never. Anything can happen at a scratch ’n sniff.”
“Fucking Council. For fifty years, the Summit has been the second Sunday in February. I’d miss it by ONE day, and have another year before I’d have to go. But NOOOOO! Miss Alpha Mantle has to be in the parade, so they push the meeting back a week this year!”
Amy came over and hugged me. “If we both strikeout, we’ll head to the beach.” The Summit was near Pensacola, Florida, this year.
“We’ll go diving,” I said. “I already looked, we can rent gear from a dive boat since we’re both open water qualified.” Both of us had been PADI Junior SCUBA qualified since we were allowed to test at age 10, and fully qualified open-water at fifteen.
“Deal.” We dressed quickly and got out of there; there was a lot to do to help Adrienne prepare the Alpha house for the big party.