“At least no one died or was seriously hurt,” Dani said as she worked open the huge garbage bag that our faculty supervisor had given us.
Ameena nodded. “I hope it stays that way. I heard there are still a few people missing.”
“Why’d it have to be the computer lab?” Jon said. His shoulders slumped as he looked at all the scattered papers and wrecked computer equipment in the room we were assigned to clean. “Why couldn’t it have been the gym?”
“Or the cafeteria,” I added. That made everyone chuckle and we started picking up the pieces according to the instructions that Ms. Quince had given us.
Dani, Jon, Ameena and I had volunteered to help clean up the school after the flash storm hit our town a few days ago. We would get our community service requirement done for that quarter. And we would have been hanging out anyway.
The school, like most of the buildings in town, was still standing. Officials had gone in to check if the buildings were okay for the students and teachers to go back in. A lot of windows were broken and the stuff inside rooms was trashed, but the buildings were fine.
“Safety first,” Dani said. And we all smiled and started working.
Above the sounds of my friends rummaging through the trashed lab and chattering with each other, I kept hearing a sound repeating, a high-pitched sound like cheeping. I frowned. “Is that a bird?”
Everyone stopped and listened.
“Are you talking about that squeaking?” Jon asked.
Ameena had her eyes closed. “I can barely hear it.”
Dani tilted her head. “Is it coming from a broken speaker maybe?”
“No, it’s in this room. I swear,” I said. I tried to follow the sound. Now that everyone was quiet, I heard it more clearly. Jon was right. It did sound more like squeaking. Almost like the sound a dog’s chew toy makes.
I approached a pile of keyboards propped against the oldest monitor I’d ever seen. It didn’t work but it sat at the back of the classroom. It was shaped kind of a like a box and it used to be light gray, but was all yellowed now. It was lying on its side and the screen had shattered.
I knew I was getting closer when I heard a kind of wheezing in between the squeaking sounds.
I looked inside the old monitor. I could have sworn I saw what looked like a glimmer of bright purple light.
The squeaking was obvious now.
“Guys, I hear breathing,” Dani said.
I knelt in front of the monitor, careful of the glass from the broken screen. Dani knelt beside me. And at first, we didn’t see anything. But then, under the keyboards, we spotted some movement.
“Is it a kitten? Or…a rat?” Jon asked from behind us.
I reached out to the keyboards, so I could shift them or lift them. The others warned me to be careful that I didn’t get bitten or scratched by whatever was trapped underneath. Whatever it was, it might be hurt. Dani took her jacket off, so we could catch the animal and bundle it up.
I lifted the keyboards out of the way and we saw what was underneath.
It was not a kitten.
Or a rat.
“Is that…is that a toy? Or…what is it?” Jon asked.
But the rest of us had no answers. If the thing we were looking at was a toy, it must have been expensive. Because it was breathing and blinking and moving around as if it were alive.
It was maybe the size of my head, a little smaller. It looked like some kind of mutant frog. Its body was pudgy like a frog’s or a toad’s. Its skin looked smooth and was colored light blue, and light green, and light purple. And it was covered in little black spots. It had two front legs that kind of looked like a frogs, and its hands were light green. But then it had eight legs that looked like crab’s legs. They were bright orange. And it had some kind of feathery pink flippers come out of its backside, like a tail maybe. It had two eyes that were sticking out of the thing’s head on stalks, like a pair of antennae. The eyes had horizontal black slits in the middle. I couldn’t see any nose, but there was a mouth where I’d expect a mouth, some ways under the eyes. The mouth opened and the body puffed up like a balloon. And then it squeaked at us.
When I moved the keyboards out of the way, the creature rolled forward. There were bars of sunlight coming into the room from the broken windows. The creature lifted itself up on those orange crab’s legs and slowly walked toward the nearest bar of light. Its colored shifted when the light hit its skin. The colors seemed to fade. The black speckles on its skin vanished completely.
We just watched it for a few minutes, trying to figure out what it was, and if it was hurt, or if it would hurt us.
It stayed in the sunlight coming from the window, so we figured it liked the light. It squeaked a little less after being in the sunlight for a few minutes.
“It doesn’t look like it’s bleeding,” Dani said, taking pictures on her phone.
I leaned over to look at her screen. “Is it showing up on camera?”
Ameena stepped closer to the creature and knelt down.
“Be careful, man,” Jon said. “It might bite.”
“I don’t think it has any teeth,” Ameena said. She scooted a little closer to the creature.
“Okay then, it might spit venom at you, or it might have some kind of poison oozing from its skin. Don’t touch it with your bare hands.”
Ameena scooted a little closer. “It’s not scared of us. It’s not curious about us either.”
“I wonder if the storm brought it in,” Dani said. “I’ve read about how sometimes when a hurricane starts out at sea, it pulls up fish from the ocean, and then when the hurricane moves to the land, it could drop those fish on land.”
I shook my head. “But we didn’t have a hurricane. It was just a storm.”
“But it wasn’t a regular storm. It came out of nowhere.”
“If this guy lives in the ocean and got sucked up into the air and then dropped into our computer lab, then he’s probably real confused right now,” Jon said.
“Then it makes sense that it likes the light,” Dani said. “It might live near the surface of the water.”
Ameena turned to the rest of us. “Should we go get some water? Salt water? It might be dying.”
“It looks like a frog and has crab legs,” Dani said. “I feel like it might be okay on land, at least for a little while.”
“Should we report this?” I asked.
We all agreed that we should report the creature to a responsible adult. If we tried to handle the situation ourselves and the creature ended up dying, we’d feel terrible. But it took some discussion to figure out which adult we should tell. We ran through our options—our teachers, our parents, other adults we knew who seemed level-headed. At last we agreed that the best person to tell was someone who was both a teacher and a parent, and an adult who had a reputation of keeping calm whenever we did something reckless, like picking up a strange animal…Ameena’s dad, Mr. Mehta.
Mr. Mehta taught biology. All of us would be taking his class in a year or two, but we’d sometimes get a taste of what to expect whenever we hung out at Ameena’s house. One time, we were making sugar cookies over the holidays, and we started shaping the dough into animal shapes. Mr. Mehta came in and joined us, but he rolled the dough into a ring, then started putting all these blobs inside the ring and telling us he was building a model of a cell. He started with the nucleus. He called it the “brain of the cell, where the DNA lives.” Then he made something that looked like intestines and called it the ecto-something-something. Ectoplasmic reticulum. No, endoplasmic reticulum. I couldn’t tell if I’d get a good grade in Mr. Mehta’s biology class. But I had a feeling I’d like it, and I’d definitely learn a lot.
Once we decided he was the one to tell, we debated whether we should bring him to the creature, or bring the creature to him.
“We’ve got to take it somewhere we can come and go whenever we need to,” Jon said. “And where we could adjust the temperature and stuff.”
Dani nodded. “A controlled environment, you’re right.”
Ameena sighed. “I think I know where we could keep it.”
I volunteered to catch the creature. It was still just lying where it was. And the weird thing was that if we looked at it from certain angles, we could barely tell it was there. If we didn’t know it was there, we would have had a hard time seeing it. Dani thought it might be some kind of natural camouflage, like light-reflecting skin.
Jon warned me to watch for any sudden spikes popping out of the creature’s skin. Dani made some last-minute comment about how she hoped we hadn’t been exposed to any diseases from the creature, then assured us we were probably fine, then worried that we might get the creature sick. I hesitated, holding Dani’s jacket out to the creature, until Ameena told me to go ahead. We’d made our decision.
I was careful not to cover the creature’s eyes. It liked light, and I figured if I only covered its body, so we could smuggle it out without a teacher catching us, maybe it wouldn’t resist as much. I expected it to struggle or accidentally scratch me with one of those crab legs or something. I was ready to run after it. But when I gently put the jacket over it, the creature just cheeped once, like it was asking me a question.
“It’s okay, buddy,” I said. “We’re taking you somewhere so we can help you. We can’t do that here, okay?”
The creature didn’t answer me. I scooped it up in my arms, and we left. Ms. Quince would give us a talking to about how she was disappointed we didn’t finish cleaning up, and we wouldn’t get our community service credit, but we’d figure that out later.
When we got to Ameena’s, we went straight down to the basement. Her mom was at work, but her dad was in the kitchen, making himself a sandwich, when we rushed past and told him we needed his help in the basement.
“Aren’t you all still supposed to be at the school clean-up event?” he called down to us as we rushed down the steps.
“We found something, Dad. We need your help figuring out what to do about it.”
While Ameena spoke, Dani and Jon cleared the table she pointed to, so I could set our new friend down. When I set the creature down, it make a new sound, a kind of purring, and it tapped one of its crab’s feet on the table a few times.
“What do you think that means?” Jon asked, just as Mr. Mehta appeared at the foot of the stairs.
“My help?” Mr. Mehta said. “Why didn’t you ask your faculty supervisor?” He glanced around at all of us. “Why did you come all the way here?”
He couldn’t see it yet. The four of us were standing in front of the table. We moved out of the way.
Mr. Mehta frowned a little. He looked at Ameena. “Is this a prank?”
Ameena didn’t say anything. She just shook her head.
Then we heard a squeak. It was kind of dark in the basement. There was no sunlight. We heard another squeak. And Mr. Mehta’s eyes grew wide.
He took a step toward us, staring at the creature. We moved away from the table so he could get up close with the creature. It was squeaking every few seconds now.
He pointed to the sink near the stairs. “All of you, wash your hands and arms, and any part that touched this creature.”
“What is it?” Jon asked.
Mr. Mehta shook his head. “I don’t know.”
He asked us if any of us had developed any allergic symptoms since we came into contact with the creature, like trouble breathing or skins rashes. We hadn’t. He told us to let him know immediately if we did, or if we noticed anything strange at all, even if we thought it was because of something else.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, as we explained to him where and how we found it, and all of our theories about what it was. Mr. Mehta listened and nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off the creature.
“Do you think we should be worried about getting some kind of infection from it, or accidentally infecting it with something?” Dani asked.
Mr. Mehta shook his head. “I honestly don’t know. But with something that looks the way it does, at least part amphibian, my first concern was allergens or toxins. That’s why I asked you all to wash your hands.” He put his hands on his hips and started down at the creature. “You know, I have a colleague from my old job who specializes in rare and extinct species of animals. I could send her a description of this creature along with some pictures.”
For the first time since finding the creature, I felt something other than worried. I glanced over at Ameena. She was smiling a little. She looked back at me and raised her eyebrows. But Dani was the one who asked the question that I was sure we were all now thinking.
“Mister Mehta, do you think we might have discovered a new species?”
Mr. Mehta held up a hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First things first, we need to make sure we keep this little guy alive and comfortable. It might be wild. But for all we know it might belong to someone. It could be a pet or a research organism—“
“Research!” Jon’s eyes widened and he stepped up to the creature. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about that first. This is probably some kind of…mutation.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “Poor little guy. You didn’t ask to be like this.”
Mr. Mehta put his hands on Jon’s shoulders and gently moved him out of the way. “As I said, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Mr. Mehta put on a pair of gloves and moved the creature into a huge empty terrarium that he’d been setting up for Ameena before she changed her mind about getting a pet iguana. After we told him that the creature seemed to like light, he lit a few lamps and pointed them at the creature.
The creature stopped squeaking, but its skin didn’t shift colors or turn transparent the way it had done in the sunlight. And the little black spots were still visible. It shuffled around the terrarium on its crabs legs.
“It seems to exploring its environment,” Mr. Mehta said. “Maybe trying to find a way out.”
“Is that good, Dad?”
“I doubt it would be doing that if it was badly hurt. It would probably just stay in one place, a protected place. But you kids said it didn’t like being trapped under those keyboards, and it wanted to be in the light. So…I don’t know.”
“Before, it was sitting still in the light,” I said. “Like maybe it was soaking it in?”
“Maybe that’s how it heals,” Jon said.
I watched the creature shuffle around. “Do you guys think it seems like it doesn’t care about the terrarium lights one way or the other?”
We watched it for a moment.
“Maybe it needs ultraviolet light,” Dani suggested.
Mr. Mehta nodded. “If this little guy needs sunlight specifically, that’s a good guess, Dani.”
“He’s not squeaking,” I said. “I think that means he’s feeling pretty good, or at least that he’s not…”
“Distressed?” Mr. Mehta suggested.
“I’d like to make as many observations as I can before I write to my friend,” Mr. Mehta said. “But I certainly don’t want to distress this creature. He felt very delicate and fragile when I was holding him. He’s definitely been through some kind of ordeal.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘him,’ Mister M?” Jon asked, peering through the glass.
“I don’t. This creature could very well be female.” He turned to the girls. “Sorry, ladies.”
He turned back to the creature. “Or it could be both male and female, or neither, or some gender I’m not yet familiar with.”
“And are we sure that it’s an animal?” Dani said. She pointed to the creature’s feathery pink tail. “Could it be some kind of sea plant?”
Jon peered at the tail. “Mister Mehta? Could it be extraterrestrial? Is this an Audrey Two situation?”
“Jon, I don’t understand that reference. But if you’re asking if this creature is a danger to us as something other than a possible contagion, toxin or allergen, I don’t know…yet. Which is why we should keep it contained.”
Jon pressed the tips of his fingers against the outside of the terrarium. “If only we could talk to you and ask.”
To our surprise, the creature walked over to where Jon had his fingers against the glass and it tapped against the terrarium wall.
Then Mr. Mehta did something none of us expected. He pulled off the glove on his right hand and put his hand into the terrarium next to the creature. One of the creature’s eye stalks stretched toward the hand. Then the creature shuffled over to Mr. Mehta’s hand, and it reached for the hand with its own two hands. And it made that other sound again, that whooshing purring sound. It released Mr. Mehta’s hand and then pressed one side of its body against his palm for a moment before shuffling away.
Mr. Mehta pulled his hand out of the terrarium. We watched him wash his hands, and when he returned to the table, drying them, Ameena crossed her arms and asked.
“Dad, why did you do that?”
Mr. Mehta finished drying his hands, tossed the towel over his shoulder, and answered.
“I realized I was the only one in this room who hadn’t done anything reckless today.” He pointed to each of us before we could get too excited. “And now that we’re all even, we follow the prime rule of all work.” He raised his brows and waited for us to answer.
“Safety first,” we all said in unison.
“What did it feel like, Mister M?” Jon asked. He tilted his head and studied the creature.
Mr. Mehta pulled his phone out of his pocket. He tapped a few commands and held it to his mouth. He recited the date and a summary of everything that we’d told him about discovering the creature. Then he began describing the creature in detail, the shapes, colors, size. Then he turned to Jon as he recited the next part. “The creature’s skin feels velutinous, soft, firm, but with a fuzzy textured. This concludes our initial observations.” He stopped recording.
“I’ve never heard you use that word,” Ameena said, grinning.
“Velutinous? It usually used to describe the way certain leaves feel when you touch them. I believe it comes from a Latin word, ‘velutinus,’ meaning ‘velvet.’”
“I like how that sounds,” Ameena said. She turned to the terrarium where the creature was sitting still right in the middle. “Let’s call the creature that. Vel, short for Velutinus.”
I liked it too. And when I looked around I saw Dani smiling and nodding and Jon mouthing the word “yes.”
We gathered every day at Ameena’s house after school to do our homework, eat Mr. Mehta’s tasty cooking, and take care of Vel. With Mr. Mehta’s help, we figured out what to feed Vel, how to handle Vel, what temperature Vel liked. We observed and did our best to make Vel comfortable as we waited for Mr. Mehta’s old work friend to get back to him about what Vel was.
Mr. Mehta came home every free period he had to check on Vel (they only lived a few blocks away from the school). He didn’t tell anyone at the school yet about our discovery. We started researching for ourselves what Vel might be, maybe one of the options we’d already come up with, like rare species of animal, or part-animal and part-plant, or alien, or supernatural creature. We searched the internet. We checked out books from our school library and our town’s library. And we studied Vel.
We all agreed that Vel seemed to be doing better every day, even though we had no baseline for comparison, as Mr. Mehta put it. We just noticed that the wispier Vel looked, the better Vel seemed to feel. When the black spots faded and Vel’s colors got lighter and brighter, Vel purred, and purring seemed to mean that Vel was good, happy even. Vel’s body seemed to be getting rounder, while the crab legs were shrinking. And Mr. Mehta had to raise the lid a few times because Vel started floating in the air, like a balloon.
The first time it happened, Ameena saw it when she came to check on Vel late at night. She’d snuck down to the basement so she wouldn’t wake her parents, but she ran up to wake her dad and show him. And they stayed up for another hour just observing and recording their observations.
Mr. Mehta’s colleague did get back to him after a few days, but only to ask if he would collect tissue samples. Mr. Mehta refused because he didn’t know if Vel felt pain. He promised to send anything that might naturally fall off from Vel’s body or fall out of Vel’s body.
“So…you’ve promised to send her poop samples?” Ameena asked one day.
Mr. Mehta just shrugged.
And we waited. A week passed and we still got no word.
One morning, Ameena and I were leaving our first period pre-algebra class when the principal announced over the intercom that there was a report of a gas leak, and all students should proceed calmly to the exits and gather at our designated evacuations spots.
When we got outside, we met up with Jon and Dani.
“It’s not a gas leak,” Jon whispered to us as one of the faculty wing wardens blew a whistle and asked the students to line up for a roll call.
Jon told us that he’d heard another student mention seeing people in hazmat suits in the halls. And he overhead one of the teachers say the word “agency.”
I glanced among my friends. “Do you guys think…?”
“Vel.” Ameena pulled out her phone and called her dad. “He should be home. He doesn’t have a class today until third period.”
Dani poked me with her elbow and pointed to the roof of Building Seven. As I looked, other kids were started to call out and point too. The people in those hazmat suits were beginning to appear on the roofs of the school buildings.
A teacher passed by and counted us. Ameena tried to hide her phone, out of habit, even though we were allowed to use them in an evacuation situation.
We listened to Ameena talk to her dad. It sounded as if everything was normal, but then Ameena said, “Who is it?”
She put her hand on the speaker and said that she’d heard a knock on their door. Her dad said he’d stay on the phone while he answered. We watched Ameena listen to her phone. And we watched as her eyes grew wide.
“Dad?” Ameena looked at her phone. “Dad?”
“What happened?” Dani asked.
“He hung up.”
“Who was at the door?”
“I just heard my dad say, ‘Can I help you?’”
“They’ve come for Vel,” Jon said. “What do we do?”
Dani kept her eye on the roof of the nearest building. “This seems serious. Could your dad get arrested if they find Vel?”
I glanced around at the sloppy lines of kids who’d already been counted for roll call. “We have to get out of here,” I said. “We have to get to Vel.”
There weren’t enough teachers to keep an eye on all of us. We just skipped from line to line until we were close to the football field, and we slipped through a side gate along with a bunch of other kids who were—we assumed—just ditching.
Dani made us promise that we’d come back after we made sure Vel and Mr. Mehta were safe.
We rushed over to Ameena’s house. She let us in through the back door. It led into their laundry room. From there we crept into the kitchen. We heard Mr. Mehta taking to someone in the living room, a woman. Jon was the best at peeking around corners. He peeked into the living room. He gave us a thumbs up. I took that to mean that Mr. Mehta was okay for now.
Luckily we could get to the basement without being seen by anyone in the living room.
“It was a woman dressed in a dark suit and holding a cane with a fancy handle,” Jon whispered. “That’s all I saw, sorry.”
“Sounds like some kind of federal agent to me,” Dani said. “How’s our favorite unidentified being?”
“I can barely see Velly,” I said, peering into the terrarium. “Maybe that’s a good sign.” Vel’s eye stalks lowered to look at me.
“Where do we take you, Vel?” Ameena said.
We’d already decided on a plan on our way over. But Vel answered us by floating up into the terrarium, all the way up to the lid.
We bundled Vel up in a towel and hoped there would be no squeaking incidents until we got up to Ameena’s room. We could reach the roof from her bedroom window. But when we climbed up from the basement, we heard voices in the kitchen. It sounded as if Mr. Mehta and the agent had moved to the kitchen. The stairs leading up to the second floor were visible from the kitchen. We snuck back down to the basement.
“Do we have to go up to the roof?” Jon asked. “Maybe we can do it from the back yard.”
“At the school, those agents were checking the roofs,” Ameena said. “There must be a reason. They expected Vel to get to high ground.”
“It’s possible Vel could reach the proper altitude—whatever that is—from the ground, but it might take too long,” Dani said. “We’ve got to get as high up as we can get.”
I nodded. “Maybe I can make a distraction or get them back in the living room.”
“It should be me,” Ameena said. “I can circle around and come in from the front door and tell my dad that we were dismissed or whatever.”
We agreed on the plan and snuck back upstairs, but we didn’t hear the voices in the kitchen anymore. They were back in the living room. We were afraid that any minute now the agent would ask to come down to the basement to see Vel.
We raced up the stairs as quickly and quietly as we could.
We piled into Ameena’s room and locked the door just as we heard Mr. Mehta call out.
“We’ve been detected,” Jon said. “We don’t have much time.”
Ameena opened her bedroom window.
“Safety first,” I said.
She climbed out onto the roof. It was straight and there was a railing, but it still felt as if it would be easy to fall off. I handed her the bundle with Vel, who hadn’t squeaked once. Vel had turned darker colors under the towel, but under the direct light of the sun, began to turn transparent and to grow rounder.
The rest of us climbed out onto the roof. We each said goodbye.
“Vel, I hope you’re strong enough to float back home,” Dani said. “Sorry to do this so suddenly, but people are coming for you. We want to make sure they don’t get you.”
“Yeah, we want you to be free, buddy,” Jon said.
I smiled at the translucent balloon. “I’ll miss our long chats.” I paused. “Okay, I’ll miss you.”
“Goodbye, Velutinus,” Ameena said. “We love you.”
Vel purred and grew rounder still and became so translucent we had to narrow our eyes to see. Without another word or sound, our nearly invisible little friend floated up. And up and up.
A knock came on Ameena’s room.
Ameena climbed back into her room and opened the door.
Mr. Mehta entered the room, followed by the woman in the dark suit. The rest of us tried to hide, but they both headed straight to the window and looked out.
The woman in the dark suit had on a pair of tinted glasses. She gazed up at the sky.
She took her glasses off and glanced at each of us. “Well done,” she said.
She stepped away from the window. “Thank you, Mister Mehta, for answering my questions, and for the tea. If there’s anything else you can tell me, you’ve got my card.” She glanced at the rest of us. “Forgive my rudeness, kids, but I’m afraid I’ve got to go now that my reason for being here has floated away. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Your little friend was more likely to die than to heal down here.”
She nodded to Mr. Mehta and left. From the roof, we watched her get in her car and drive off.
“I guess we’re not getting any answers to our questions,” Dani said after we all climbed back into Ameena’s room and back down to the kitchen.
“Maybe a few,” Mr. Mehta said. “The agent identified Vel for us. She said that Vel is an air jelly—a jellyfish but one that lives at very high altitudes. She said this particular species looked like something called Aeres incorporeas. They don’t take corporeal form unless they fall out of their natural zone.”
“So it was the storm that brought Vel here,” Dani said.
Mr. Mehta nodded. “It seems likely.”
“What do we do now?” Jon asked.
“We should head back to school,” Dani said. “We didn’t get permission to leave.”
“Dani!” Ameena started turning red.
“Maybe you can do a reckless thing too, Mister M,” Jon said. “To even it out?”
Mr. Mehta sighed. “My reckless thing will be to overlook your reckless thing…this time. Let’s head back to school. And you’ll do your best to concentrate for the rest of the day. And you’ll probably fail, but just try, all right? Then after school, you all head back here.”
“To help you cook dinner?” I asked.
“Maybe we’ll get some pizza,” Mr. Mehta said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to concentrate either.” He corralled us toward the front door. “And after pizza…we keep learning.”
“I’m looking up that species the agent said Vel was,” Ameena said. “Dad, how do you spell it?”
“No researching and walking at the same time,” Mr. Mehta said, as we all spilled out of the front door. “Try and wait until after school. I challenge you.”
“Safety first,” we all said in unison as we walked out the front door and looked up at the clear sunny sky.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel