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Chapter OneThe winds roared, the sea rocked and the sky blackened. Rutt, Ruff, Raul, Reck and Rup flew furiously through the water in single file, following their father, Ralph. Like a knife, they pierced through the increasingly dark and turbulent ocean, heading Southwest, as the storm exploded behind them. Bulging clouds spurted tortoise-sizedtears; gargantuan gusts sucked and swirled rocks into the air; thunderous booms sent whimpering stingrays -- tails double-tucked -- far beneath the ocean floor. Waves swelled to such towering heights that they washed every last bit of blue out of the heavens and hurled helpless creatures about like limp pieces of seaweed.

With each push of the hind flippers, the five seals drove themselves farther away from everyone and everything they knew and loved.

While their father Ralph was nearly blinded by the light of what was happening to his family, the young seals groped in the semi-dark. They certainly knew about the storm and its rage; they had looked into its eye and watched it steadily, ruthlessly pound its way towards the Mild Drove rocks, with nothing but destruction on its twisted mind. They knew a real live destroyer had landed near the birthing rock earlier that day, oozing oily blackness into the waters and puffing wretched smoke into the heavens. But they had no idea just how cruel its hu-means were, or how determined they were to bring death and devastation to their peace-loving community, with their boney sticks, clingy nets and empty eyes.

They knew that their mother was, perhaps at this very moment, birthing their new baby brother into the world in the middle of a ravage storm. But they trusted her implicitly and knew that if anyone could keep a newborn safe from danger, it was her -- which explains why they never even considered that their brother might be a stranger to them forever, or that they might never feel their mother’s warm licks on their noses again.

Just that morning, before everything changed, their mother Shirl had waddled over to her sons with her bulging belly. She arched her long tired back, and then lovingly wet their sleepy snouts one by one, as she always did.

“You just lie down and relax, Mom,” Rutt the oldest propped himself up.

“Oh, you’re such a dear,” she sighed.

Rutt stretched out his neck, exposing his exceptionally blubbery middle to the morning sun. Then he proceeded to lick and nudge the snouts of his younger brothers on his mother’s behalf, with big brotherly pride.

“Is... it... m... m... m... morning... al... r... r... ready?” Ruff, the second oldest of the Rea-son seals, asked with his usual stutter. He pried an eye open, glanced around with puzzlement, rolled back over and slipped his curly flippers under someone’s cushy bottom, only to drift back to sleep.

Raul was the third and middle pup whose loyal bottom had warmed Ruff’s flippers on too many occasions to count. His bottom was unusually plump for such athin-skinned seal. Following an invisible hunch as he often did, he lifted up his soft round head to meet his mother’s gaze. Quickly, he prodded Ruff out of his early morning stupor, “Get up, Ruff! Mom’s got news!”

“News?!” barked Reck, the fourth and feistiest of the Rea-son seals. “I bet it’s herring! Mom brought us a whole pack! Right?!” Before anyone could answer, his chest was already puffed up and his body pouncing towards the family fish hole. Reck was known for his monumental appetite and his perpetual desire to be the first to the breakfast hole -- or to anything, for that matter.

By now, everyone was awake, except for Rup, the fifth and littlest pup in the family, who had somehow managed to wiggle his way over to his mother’s belly without opening even half of an eye. He nuzzled his small freckled face into her warm embrace.

“Oh, my darling puppalas! I have something wonderful to tell you!” she announced, rubbing her tummy and Rup’s back simultaneously. “Your baby brother is almost ready to come out!”

Within seconds, all five pups were clamoring for a spot at her glowing belly, squeezing their earholes against it. Little Rup, now rudely awakened, had to work extra hard to guard his space.

“Do you think he’ll come today?!” Rutt could barely believe it. Even though it was pupping season, he had counted on much more time to prepare for his new brother’s arrival. Now, suddenly he had to figure out how he’d escort his mother to the birthing rock while keeping his brothers away from mischief!

“He certainly might,” Shirl answered with a wink, “This one’s as wiggly as they get! I suppose he just can’t wait to meet you all.”

“Wh... wh... what if h... h... he’s not a he at all?!” Ruff stammered in all sincerity.
His brothers burst into a fit of giggles -- even Raul, who rarely laughed at anyone’s expense, much less his closest brother Ruff’s. Everyone knew that Rea-son seals only birthed he-pups. The only she-pup ever to be born into a Rea-son family, in fact, was born at least five generations ago. And it was said she didn’t even survive a week. No one knew why she didn’t make it, and no one ever talked about it.

But Ruff often pondered over the possibility of having a sister, and his mother knew this. “I suppose we’ll find out when the pup arrives,” she said, un-ruffling his coat with loving flippers.

“Do you think he’ll look like me?” Reck barked, peering over the family rock to admire his handsome reflection in the water.

“I should hope so!” Shirl smiled.

“Do you think he’ll be really thirsty?” Rup asked quietly, sticking to his mother’s bosom like sea glue.

“Oh yes,” she said, “I’m sure he will.” Then she cupped her flippers around his freckled face and peered into his worried eyes, “But, my darling Rup, no matter how thirsty he is, no matter how much milk, love, and attention he needs, you will always be my little Rup.” Rup’s tiny shoulders melted; a smile as wide as the ocean spread across his small face.

Like shiny black wings, Shirl stretched out her foreflippers and enfolded all five of her beloveds into her soft embrace. Kissing Rutt, Ruff, Raul, Reck and Rup on the head, one at a time, she whispered, “You will always be my beloved puppalas! Always.” Her sons needed nothing else. They dropped their eyelids, inhaled their mother’s sweet scent, and surrendered to a comfort so great, time all but disappeared.

* * *

But this was before the evil destroyer and ravenous storm opened up their jaws and gobbled up everything.

Now Reck’s sides were cramping up from swimming too fast. Rutt, Ruff and Raul’s flippers flailed like jellyfish, and poor little Rup had to triple-whip his hind flipper just to keep up. At this moment, the young seals would have given anything to return to their mother’s embrace, to gather round the family fish hole and enjoy just one more of her abundant spreads of salty delights. They wouldn’t even mind waiting quietly, with great self-restraint, for their father to arrive at the fish hole and grunt the breakfast go-ahead. (They rarely gulped down a morning herring without their father’s permission.)

But Ralph hadn’t made it to breakfast that day. He hadn’t joined the family for breakfast three days in a row, in fact. He’d been too busy up at his sky-high observation rock, sitting stiff as a hammerhead and watching each miniscule movement of his wary whiskers. Already then, they should have known that something was terribly wrong.

But they didn’t, which is why they were as shocked as they were when he interrupted their daily frolic and rushed them away from the Mild Drove rocks.

If only he had let them wait just a little bit longer. If only he had let them ask one more question. If only they hadn’t heard someone’s bloodcurdling scream.

They would never forget that scream, that heart-wrenching howl bellowing out of one of their neighbor’s mouths. Nor would they forget the wildness in their father’s eyes, or the blue veins popping out of his blubbery throat when he barked, “That’s it! We’re leaving! NOW!”

“What’s going on?” Reck asked, sticking his head above water to identify the frightening source of the howl. There, towering above him, was the biggest, darkest, coldest, hardest monstrosity of a thing his young eyes had ever seen. He let out a gasp so loud, so shocking, that his brothers had no choice but to shoot up to the surface and join him in an agaped glare.

“Get down!” Ralph screamed. “All of you!”

The seals immediately dove beneath the water, their bodies shaking and eyes glued to the ocean’s bottom.

With a look of desperation that sent shivers down his sons’ spines, he barked: “I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.

You must follow me at all costs.

You must remain in single file so that I can keep track of you.

You must swim fast and low -- as if your very lives depend on it.

You must obey all of my orders.

You must ask no questions.

And, you must not, I repeat, NOT look back.”

Like true Rea-son seals, the brave brothers bit their bottom lips and readied their bodies for the drill of a lifetime. They snapped into single-file and hurled themselves in the direction of the Southwest. It did not matter that their dark sleek skin was scraped by sharp corals, their heads dizzied by interminable breath-holds, and their stomachs tumbled by the great unknown. They didn’t make a single complaint.

They didn’t look back either. Not even once.