Whether they were beneath the ethereal glow of the faux, ocean-surface lights or splashing around in the giant wave pool of the water park, everyone in Summerville could be found at the Aquablast Amusement Park and Aquarium on any given weekend in July, but especially on the grand opening of the new shark exhibit that particular Saturday. Billboards and flyers all over town boasted the new baby great whites that would be housed in the aquarium building next to the Hypnotic Hydro-slide.
The smallest of the litter was a four-foot pup aptly dubbed Runt, who was already the star of the show. Everyone would find out soon enough just how ironic that name could be, but as the day started out, they all just ogled over tiny Runt the baby shark.
Amina wouldn't have been at Aquablast that weekend if she could have helped it, but they'd scheduled her to work and promised her overtime pay for the hefty crowd that was expected, so she really hadn't had much of a choice. She was still working her way through her marine biology degree, and she needed all the cash she could get to keep those loans from stacking up. So there she was, running left behind, donut-shaped floaties back and forth by the over-crowded wave pool and picking up trash leftover from purchases made at the nearby concessions stand, hating her life.
The heat made her wish that she could be swimming too, but she hated public pools enough that that little daydream was short-lived. Pools were breeding grounds for bacteria and basically comprised of about eighty percent urine. They were full of chemicals that aimed at keeping things hygienic but basically only succeeded in drying her skin and hair and making her eyes burn. She hadn't stepped foot in one since she'd had a bad skin reaction to her aunt's over-chlorinated pool in Texas when she was eight.
For all her hatred of pools, Amina loved water — the ocean specifically — and all the life that inhabited it. That's what made her so passionate about marine biology and so determined to get her degree. Imagine her dismay when she'd applied at the only aquarium in fifty miles to find out that she'd actually be working in the waterpark.
Oh well — it was a job, and it payed decently.
Her scummy boss, Otis McMyer, had tried to convince her to train as a lifeguard: "Aw, come on, that hot latina bod in that uniform swimsuit would draw in a whole new line of customers!"
"I'm Pakistani..." Amina had grumbled angrily under her breath.
If he'd heard her, he'd ignored it, simply grinning and fussing at the thin combover he used to hide his shiny, balding skull. She remembered that first day like it was yesterday. He'd shown her all the areas where she'd been expected to maintain: the restrooms, the poolside lounges and tables, and the then under-construction concession stand. She glanced over at the new concession stand as she stooped to pick up an empty popsicle wrapper. The line wound around the corner past the bathrooms.
She remembered Otis showing her the empty steel and brick construct back on the day she had been hired: "It isn't much yet, but it's going to be a real money maker when we're done! People love their greasy, fried foods," he'd winked.
Amina had nodded, trying to hide her disgusted grimace with a smile. That's when she'd spotted the door off to the side in the inside of the space. The sign on the front had read, "KEEP OUT LABS IN PROGRESS."
"What's that?" she'd asked, hopeful that it was some kind of temporary aquarium lab that she might sit in on, learn from.
Otis had laughed somewhat nervously from what she remembered. She swore his face had flushed and his eyes had widened as he'd sputtered to answer her, but she couldn't remember anymore if she'd just imagined his anxiety or if it had been real. He'd said something like, "Oh that — that's nothing. They're just running focus groups and things out of there. Nothing of interest to you..." and he'd ushered her on to the next part of the tour.
Now she knew almost every inch of the Aquablast Amusement Park and Aquarium like the back of her hand, but she'd still never been in that room in the concession stand. Any time she'd tried it had been locked, and when she asked about it she was told it was for food workers only because of non-disclosure rules about their recipes or something like that. She'd mostly let it go. But every once and a while she dreamed up ways to sneak in there and see if there was something they were trying to hide. She liked to imagine they were pumping the food full of addictive additives or something like that. She knew it was a bit silly, but it lent some excitement to her otherwise humdrum life.
She had no idea, as she mopped up a spot of what she was pretty sure was human feces from the floor of the women's restroom, that things were about to get a lot more exciting. Nor could she have ever guessed that it would have everything to do with the strange room that lay behind the door where the KEEP OUT LABS IN PROGRESS sign once hung by a single piece of dirty scotch tape. No one could have known. In fact, no one could have even conceived that such a thing could happen at a place like Aquablast.
Until the teenagers arm was found washed up on the sparkling concrete of the faux shore at the World's Largest Wave Pool.