"We're almost there - almost there - almost there!" sang Nick loudly, like a little child. He was clutching his digital camera, a huge grin on his face, poised as though the moment the Hummer came to a stop he was going to run out the door.
Amanda laughed, "Oh my gosh are you in your thirties or your tweens?" she asked teasing him, leaning forward between the two seats, "I swear you're five."
Nick let out a weird, barking laugh, "Just you wait til you see what we're gonna dooo!"
The Hummer pulled up to the impressive looking building, which was flooded with people. Two school buses were pulled up to the entrance way and children (who were acting much calmer than Nick, who had literally begun squealing when they got in the parking lot) were pouring out onto the sidewalk. Brian drove around until they found a parking spot - way across the lot from the building. "And of course we have to park in East Cupcake," Brian laughed, rolling his eyes as Nick literally flung the door opened and leaped out of the Hummer. "G'Lord, that boy's going to drive me insane before the day's over."
"He's a little nuts about the fish," Amanda observed.
Nick was hopping from one foot to the other at the front of the hummer, calling, "C'moooon you guyssss! Hurrrryyyyy! I wanna see the fish!!"
Brian glanced over his shoulder at Amanda, "A little nuts?"
Nick kept glancing at his watch as they walked across the parking lot to the doors. Brian started to get in line for tickets behind the two school buses worth of kids, but Nick shook his head, "No, no, that's not where we gotta be. C'mon." He led the way through the doors and to the front desk, where he held a hushed conversation with the receptionist who gasped, nodded, and pointed. "Thanks!" Nick waved for Brian and Amanda to follow him as he raced down a corridor that was painted two shades of blue to look like ocean waves. A random orange fish shape was plastered here or there with the aquarium's logo in the center of it.
They reached a door at the end of the corridor, having passed two large fish tanks with turtles that peered at them curiously. Nick had paused momentarily to look at them, but then bolted down the hall once again, seemingly extra energized at the sight of the sea creatures.
"Is he always like this around fish?" Amanda asked.
"You should see him at Seaworld with the dolphins," Brian said, laughing. "Though if ya'll continue the trip, I'm sure you'll be at Seaworld eventually. There's no way in Hell Nick would've planned a road trip without Seaworld." Brian laughed, "Nick barely plans a weekend without Seaworld."
Nick was rapping on a door marked Employees Only. Amanda started to get a feeling she had an inkling of what their day was about to include.
A girl with bright red hair and green eyes, who was probably twenty or so, opened the door and beamed at Nick. "Hey! You made it!" she gave him a hug, then turned to Brian and Amanda. "Brian!" she rushed over and gave him a hug, too. Amanda felt third wheel.
"Amanda, this is Jess," Nick explained, "Jess, this is Amanda."
"Hey Amanda, it's so cool to meet you, I've seen a lot about your trip online," she beamed, "So awesome you included the aquarium on your way through!"
Nick was practically ready to pee his pants, "Can we go now? Huh? Please?"
"The tank's last," she said apologetically, "You just missed morning feeding. You'll have to wait for afternoon. We're on our way down to the penguins right now... c'mon in, we'll get you geared up."
Brian leaned over to whisper in Amanda's ear, "Jess was one of our dancers on the This is Us tour. She left to get a degree in Marine Biology."
"Ah, so that's how you guys know her," she said, feeling better that it wasn't like a sweetheart of Nick's or something.
Brian laughed, "Yeah. She's really bendy," he added, "She was some kind of championship gymnast as a kid or something."
As long as she didn't ever date Nick I'm fine, Amanda thought, Like I could ever follow up a gymnast in bed, jeez.
Jess dug out some huge rubber pants and gloves, which she handed around to the three of them, keeping a set for herself. "There are the get ups," she pointed to a fleet of rolling coolers, "And there's the fish."
Nick was already half into his gear before Brian and Amanda had even realized they were expected to get it on now. Jess gave them each a cooler to pull along behind them, and they headed off through the aquarium. Jess stopped at an employee breakroom for a moment, and returned with three bright yellow hats with the aquarium logo on it. "Here ya go," she said, handing them each one, "Employee hats." She pulled her own on, and they continued onward.
The school buses full of little kids were just starting to pour into the entrance as they went by it. Several of the children gawked up at them as they walked by, pulling along the fish coolers. One little boy pointed at Brian and whispered, "Look, he works for the aquarium!" he muttered in a reverent voice.
Brian laughed and whispered to Amanda, "And to think I haven't quit being a Backstreet Boy to do this full time! What am I thinking?"
Jess led them into another door marked "Employees Only" and inside this one was an elevator. It was a funny looking elevator, though, with a grate for a bottom. Jess held the door as they all rolled their coolers in and stood there. "Okay so I'm going to warn you now, this is going to feel kind of weird - the floor submerges."
"Submerges?" Amanda asked.
"Yup, we're actually going down into the penguin tank now," she explained, "See the penguins are sub level, the people stand at a rail above and look down at the tank. We're coming in through the south entrance, in the Rock Hopper colony. The elevator will submerge about waist deep in water, and the doors will open to the entrance cage, which we use so the penguins don't get stuck under the elevator." Jess smiled and hit the button that made the descent begin.
The water rushing up from the floor was such a weird feeling, Amanda was reminded of the scene in Titanic when Jack and Rose take a lift into the lower decks and the elevator fills with water. Part of her wanted to panic. She clung to Nick, watching it rise around her, and he laughed, smiling at her.
Just as Jess had described, the doors opened to a cage large enough for them all to climb out into. A little black and white bird with an orange tuft of hair on his head was standing expectantly on a rock just outside the cage, watching them. "He knows it was feeding time," Jess explained.
Nick was grinning. "I love penguins."
"Ok, let me get this straight," Amanda whispered, "You love penguins, but hate ducks?"
"Ducks bite," Nick said with a shrug, "Penguins are just sexy little bastards." He pointed, "See? Look at that. He looks like he's got a little tux on."
The penguin looked at them. "Gork," he said. Jess opened up the cage door and led the way out into the tank, rolling the coolers along behind them. As soon as they were out of the cage, the penguin jumped into the water and started swarming around their legs, darting between them and pecking at the coolers. Brian laughed.
One by one, all the penguins started coming over. People were laughing and pointing from the railings up above as the birds got excited about their lunch. Jess led the way to a rock that was built with a ramp that led up out of the water. She pulled her cooler up that ramp, "Leave yours down there guys and come on up."
They followed her up onto the rock, and were immediately followed by 20-30 of the little birds. Jess motioned to the cooler, "Go ahead, one of you can start feeding them the fish."
"Me!!" Nick cried, leaping forward. He flung the cooler open and the little birds quickly swarmed around his feet, grabbing at the rubber pant legs and gorking loudly, flapping their wings and their little feet, dancing side to side.
Brian laughed, "Aw, it's just like Mr. Popper's Penguins!" Amanda laughed, watching as Nick was mauled as he lifted up a fish. "Or trying to leave a concert venue," Brian shrugged.
"Ah!" Nick cried. One penguin had climbed it's way into the cooler and was flapping, jumping on the fish trying to get at the one he was holding up over his head. "Dumbass," he said to that penguin, "You're standing on a crap ton of fish and you want this one?" He threw it into the water and about ten penguins threw themselves over the edge of the rock, like synchronized swimmers.
The one in the cooler was still hopping up and down, flapping his wings, so Nick picked a fish up from under him and slid it into his mouth. The penguin swallowed it so fast he barely had time to taste it, then flipped over the edge of the cooler, into the water below.
He picked up an armful of the fish and chucked them into the water, "There ya go birds," he called as they all flocked around the fish.
The day went by so quickly, Amanda couldn't believe it was almost over already as Jess was leading them up a long spiral staircase to the room over the huge central tank that housed all the fish.
They'd fed five different kinds of penguins - including little tiny ones that were about three inches tall, and they'd visited with some seals who did tricks and painted them pictures, clutching the paint brushes in their mouths. They'd patted a 103 year old sea turtle, whose back was covered with barnacles, and touched a ray, who had decided he liked Amanda because he kept jumping every time she touched him. Jess had laughed and said it was a sort of mating thing - he liked the way she touched him. ("Yeah well, get in line, bucko," Nick had said to the ray, sticking out his tongue.) They'd even gotten to play with a baby orca whale, who had been brought to the aquarium for a rehabilitation program after breaking one of its fins during a hurricane. Nick had stroked the whale's stubby nose and it had reared up and pressed it's face against his cheek like it was kissing him.
Now, they had just been given a crash course in scuba diving (or Brian an Amanda had anyway, Nick had been correcting things that Jess said wrong about the art of diving, like a know-it-all kid in class), and brought into the central tank to see the sharks and tropical ocean fish.
Amanda felt like she was naked in the form-fitting wet suit. Her hair was pulled back into a really tight bun, and a pair of goggles hung around her neck. At the top, Jess helped them all pull on heavy air tanks and got them acquainted to the feeling of the mouth pieces blowing the oxygen into their lungs. Brian was reminded of the O2 machine at the hospital.
Nick waddled over to Amanda, who was getting flippers put onto her feet, his flippers already on, and kissed her cheek. "You're sexy in that outfit," he said, grinning.
Amanda laughed, "You just think that because we're about to see the fish."
"The fish are sexy, too, but you're sexier." He took her hand in his and grinned, looking in the direction of the tank - which from this angle looked like a giant in-ground pool. "Maybe I can certify you and I can take you out to see the corals in Australia sometime." He said it like Australia was in the backyard.
Amanda laughed, "See how this goes first," she instructed him.
Brian waddled over and struck a pose, "Does this suit make me look fat?" he asked in a valley girl voice, which reminded Amanda of Paris Hilton. Brian was tilting his hip toward them all sexy-like.
Amanda burst out laughing, but Nick jumped up and said, "Uh, like yeah - totally! Does mine?"
Brian clucked his lips - much as his mom had done at Amanda's ankles - and shook his head, "Like oh my God, don't they make these in like better colors? Black is so last season!"
"Are you three ready to go?" Jess called, laughing from the ladder that led into the tank, "Or are you going to stand there being strange all night?"
Brian looked at Amanda, and, still in the Valley voice, said, "Are you coming or what girlfriend?" Amanda laughed and joined him and Nick at the side of the tank, not entirely sure what she was about to get herself into.