Zachary Zimmerman, our 19-year-old protagonist, has just met Elaine Ingersoll, a cute young woman he wants to impress. What better way than to take her swimming with a dolphin at Florida Funland, where Zack is fulfilling a college contract to photograph the park’s dolphins for a local author’s book?
Pandemonium in the Porpoise Pens!
Unless a female has a calf, she usually does not become very aggressive, but she may even kill a recently introduced animal if she has been permitted exclusive control over one area for several years. –David and Melba Caldwell, Bottlenose Dolphin, ibid.
“Oh, this is so exciting,” Elaine cried as we sped south on the Tamiami Trail. “I’ve never swum with a real live dolphin before! What’s it like?”
I groped for a word to describe my experiences with Ruby that wouldn’t totally pulverize my relationship with Elaine. “Wet,” I finally said. “Very, very wet.”
“Really? Wet? Wow!”
As promised, I was taking Elaine to Florida Funland so she could swim with the dolphins. If Beau had at one time been cautious about such experiments, the news that the park was closing must have made him less concerned. You can’t get blood from a turnip, after all. If he thought about liability, he probably figured it would fall as severely on the park’s owners as on him. Or maybe he was trying to be nice to me. A lot of time has passed, and I don’t really know.
“Do they ever talk to you?” Elaine asked.
These innocent-sounding questions got thornier and thornier. I didn’t know how to explain my telepathic experiences with Ruby, didn’t even know if they were real. We hadn’t communicated since the night I fell off the bed.
“The one we’re going swimming with, Ruby, I think she has.”
“Really? Tell me about it!”
My brief description of our “language lesson” impressed her. “Wow, that’s really cool! I mean, I’d heard they could talk and everything, but I never met anyone who’d talked to one of them before! Do you think she’ll talk to me?”
When I picked her up, Elaine had seemed a little aloof, as though she expected our relationship to stay platonic indefinitely but didn’t want to say so. Perhaps things would be different after this swimming expedition. Perhaps she would warm to me, recall some of the exuberance she’d felt the night we met at the juvenile detention center.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can try to get her to talk…”
“That would be so cool!” she went on. “Is she like Flipper?”
For the first time, I had an inkling of how marine mammalogists must feel, confronted with uninformed laymen demanding dolphin dictionaries.
“Elaine, there’s something you need to understand.”
“Well… the dolphins you see on TV resemble real dolphins about as much as the people you see on TV resemble real people.”
That stopped her cold. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not real, none of it! It’s all the product of Hollywood writers and producers and directors and editors and cameramen!”
That didn’t help.
“Have you noticed real life doesn’t have a plot, never breaks for commercials and doesn’t solve all its problems at the end of thirty minutes?” I asked, realizing I was talking down to her but not knowing what else to say or how to say it.
“Well yeah, I had, sort of. I always thought it was a bummer, that way.”
“It’s like that with the dolphins. They’re not like big, friendly dogs that happen to live in the ocean, Elaine! They’re not even domesticated animals!”
“No! They’re wild animals that have been captured and trained to tolerate humans! They have strong personalities, and, and they, uh, they get along with some people better than others. I went in with a couple the other day, and they sort of roughed me up.”
Now Elaine seemed aghast. Great going, Zack! “They wouldn’t hurt a person they didn’t like, would they?”
Satan flashed to mind; I could imagine him cheerfully playing with a severed limb. “Those were a couple of rowdy ones,” I said. “Ruby, the one we’re going in with, is the gentlest one in the whole place.”
“Well that’s good,” she said, relieved. “You had me thinking they were sharks or something! I don’t know how I’d explain it to my dad if a dolphin bit me. He’d probably say I must’ve bitten it first.”
The dolphin show impressed Elaine the same way it had me the first time I’d seen it, but I noticed some behavioral deterioration. Star was slouching through the hoops, rather than clearing them dead center like he used to. Saki missed his high jump the first time.
And the riverboat ride had shut down, permanently. There would be no more frolics in the bay for Ruby. Fogged or not, the photos I had of her jumping were it. I was disappointed that Elaine wouldn’t get to see Ruby perform, but it meant we would get more time with her without interruptions.
Perhaps Beau was reconciled to the inevitable. His mood had lifted somewhat from my last visit; he nodded affably as I introduced Elaine and readily agreed when asked if we could swim with Ruby. While Beau prepared for the show, Hank accompanied us to her pen. We strolled along, holding hands.
“My dad brought me down here a couple of years ago, but we just sat over there,” she explained, waving at the bleachers. “I never thought I’d get to go backstage!” She gave my hand a squeeze and flashed those blue eyes at me. I loved the way the corners of her mouth dimpled when she smiled.
Ruby was spy-hopping as we approached the pen. The mother and daughter, who had finally been named Splash and Spray, swam by the back of the pen. Beau seemed to shift them around frequently, I don’t know why.
I pulled another foam ball from my pocket. “They must be eating by now, aren’t they?”
“Oh yeah, they’re on their feed all right, but we still can’t get them to do anything,” Hank griped.
“Then there’s no problem playing catch with Ruby?”
“Be my guest.”
I handed Elaine the ball and she heaved it into the pool. Ruby swam over lazily, grabbed it, and threw it back–to me. She squawked and nodded and splashed. Elaine frowned.
“She’s one playful porpoise today,” Hank remarked.
I had to make Ruby understand that she was to play catch with Elaine, not me. “Try again,” I suggested. This time, when the dolphin fetched the ball, I stepped behind Elaine. Ruby stared at me for a second, then threw the girl the ball.
“Oh wow!” Elaine gasped, “this is ‘way too cool!” She tossed the ball back in the pen with a clumsy overhand pitch, and Ruby obediently swam after it.
I mentally patted myself on the back. Things were working out fine! I’d fulfilled one of Elaine’s dreams; maybe she could fulfill a few of mine.
The two of them played catch for a few minutes before Elaine went to the trainers’ house to change. With no one else around, the dolphin played rather diffidently. Being happy to see her again, I couldn’t imagine she didn’t share my feelings.
Elaine came back wearing sandals and a polka dot two-piece swimsuit that was something more than a bikini. It looked good on her anyway.
“Let me go in with her first,” I said, wanting to avoid a possibly embarrassing scene. Salina seemed to think anyone would be safe with Ruby, but I knew better. A pair of cheap old sneakers made getting in and out of the water a lot easier. As I waded in, Ruby blew noisily, then began to swim agitatedly around the pen’s perimeter, staying away from the shore where Elaine and Hank were standing.
“Wow, she’s really big. How long is she?”
“About eight feet,” I yelled back. The water was up to my waist. Soon I would be able to float.
“How much does she weigh?”
Something hard slammed against my legs. Ruby’s snout. I nearly lost my balance but recovered.
“Uh, about four hundred pounds.”
“She doesn’t bite?”
Ruby threw her head up, staring right at me. Then her gaze shifted to the shore behind me. What was she staring at?
“Does she bite?” Elaine repeated.
HOW COULD YOU?
That was odd, for a second there Ruby had made me think she was jealous… splash! Wham! She threw herself down, slammed her snout into my shins, then took off again around the pool. I was thankful she hadn’t targeted me a little higher up. What was the matter with her?
“You okay?” Hank yelled.
“She seems agitated,” I yelled back.
“It’s nothing,” Hank yelled. “She hasn’t been out with the riverboat for a while, that’s all. She’s just blowing off some steam.”
In the center of the pen, I lifted my legs and floated. Ruby drifted up to me, inches from my face, and stared at me– correction, through me. Her expression was unreadable. Her eyes were neither soft nor showing the glitter she had on her runs nor lit with the seductive gaze she had used on me the other day. They were a bit too wide open, as if she was upset about something.
Anyway, she’d calmed down. I embraced her and she floated in my arms, breathing occasionally. I waved to Elaine; she waved back. If I was going to make this easy for her I had to move Ruby into the shallows, but she didn’t want to go anywhere. For all the cooperation I was getting, she might as well have been a log. Of course, if this was Ruby-the-Telepathic-Dolphin, then I should be able to communicate with her, shouldn’t I?
Hello Ruby, come on, let’s go into the shallows…
She didn’t so much as blink.
It’s me, you remember me, don’t you? Come on, this is my girlfriend!
Dead silence on the etheric circuits. A chunk of coral would have had more to say. I got the odd impression Ruby was receiving my thoughts; she just wasn’t letting anything trickle out of her mind into mine, as if she’d erected some kind of barrier between us.
“Can I come in yet?” Elaine yelled impatiently.
“Just a minute.”
At least Ruby wasn’t trying to take me anywhere! She rolled in my arms, bringing her head up and pushing us farther out, so my feet came off the bottom. A second later, I felt her genital slit pressing the waffled soles of my sneakers. But her efforts seemed halfhearted compared to her usual flagrance, as if she found the audience inhibiting.
Cut that out! I thought.
Ruby was gentle and circumspect, but she wouldn’t stop. She stared blankly, pretending she couldn’t receive me, trying to convince me that human-dolphin telepathy was a stupid fantasy I’d dreamed up while getting stoned one night.
If I had been an observer instead of a participant, trying to stop a horny dolphin from rubbing off on my sneakers while my girlfriend watched, I would have burst out laughing. On the shore was Elaine, who professed to like me but wasn’t about to let me so much as cop a feel, while out here was Ruby, who would happily screw my brains out but happened to be the wrong species.
There was only one way to get her into the shallows. Feeling idiotic, I frog-kicked and paddled with my free arm, slowly moving us landward. Ruby didn’t bat a flipper to help – or resist. It was weird.
If I could only get my hands on your mind now, you stupid dolphin!
Finally my feet touched bottom, and I dragged Ruby into the shallows. She sank and began to bang her snout lightly, but not particularly gently, against my shins.
“Can I come in now?” Elaine yelled.
“I guess so…” I had my doubts, but Elaine was a big girl, and she could swim. She should be able to handle herself around Ruby.
Goddamn it, behave yourself!
Ruby’s gaze was defiant.
Elaine approached the dolphin more cautiously than her earlier enthusiasm would have suggested. Up close, Ruby was huge, and she stared at Elaine out of eyes devoid of any recognizable emotion. That was not reassuring.
“Hello, Ruby!” Elaine extended a wary hand to touch her flank. Ruby watched intently, but didn’t move. Thinking everything was okay, I waded ashore to get my camera. I wanted some pictures of this, and I was sure Elaine would, too. Heedless of the salt water dripping off my hair, I framed them in the viewfinder. I really needed a zoom lens, now, because Elaine was hanging on to Ruby, and Ruby was headed for the far side of the pen. I snapped a picture as the dolphin broke free of Elaine’s hold and dived. The girl spun in the water, trying to keep the dolphin in sight. I barely had time to wind the film before Ruby began pushing Elaine with her snout.
“We’re going deeper!” Elaine yelled.
“So float!” I yelled back.
She tried and burst out laughing. Ruby had discovered something I hadn’t: the insides of Elaine’s knees were very ticklish.
“She’s making me laugh–OOOH! Eeeee-hee! ULP! Glug!” Elaine went down, came up spluttering and began trying to push Ruby away, but Ruby wouldn’t go. She kept prodding Elaine, ducking her, and Elaine had no idea how to make her behave. Something seemed to be wrong, but Hank was unconcerned.
“Ah, she’ll be okay. Swim to shore!” he yelled. “Ruby’s just playing with her. Sometimes they get a little rough when they’re in deep water, but they don’t mean any harm by it.”
That didn’t explain why Ruby had pushed Elaine out there to begin with! The dolphin broke off for a moment, and Elaine swam in. I met her in the shallows. She was panting.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so… let me catch my breath.”
“Do you want to get out?”
“No. No. Not yet. I’m okay, now.” I had to admire her spunk. Elaine flipped the wet hair out of her eyes, heaved a sigh, and turned to face the dolphin. Ruby drifted in, let the girl grab her dorsal fin and began to tow her around the pen. This time Elaine seemed to take charge. She looked blissful. Being underwater, Ruby’s expression was impossible to see.
It would make a great picture! The two most important women in my life, I thought, half-jokingly. I mean, females… but that wasn’t right, either. “Hey Elaine,” I yelled, “over here!”
Her smile made me feel like a real man. This was working out great! I took a picture. Completing a circuit, Elaine let go of the dolphin in the shallows. This must be a spiritual event for her! Overwhelmed by the delicacy of the moment, I framed the shot. Gently, tenderly, with a smile of trust and compassion, Elaine extended the hand of friendship.
Ruby lifted her head to gaze at the girl, and, with a look of great deliberation, mashed her snout squarely into Elaine’s face.
My finger jerk that snapped the shutter was pure spinal reflex. Before I could move, Ruby was butting and beating Elaine, shoving her down and under. Elaine surfaced looking pale and frightened. She regained her footing and extended one hand toward the dolphin, as one might toward a hostile dog. Ruby blew and sank.
“Where is she?” Elaine whirled around apprehensively. “OW! Ouch! She’s butting me! Make her stop!”
“Get her out of there,” Hank said, suddenly grim.
Ruby broke off the attack, dashed to the far side of the pen and came shooting back, her dorsal fin cleaving water. I gulped. Elaine’s face was a mask of stark, mortal terror. It was a feint– Ruby swerved at the last second–but enough was enough! Dropping my camera, I jumped between them and threw an arm around–Ruby. Instantly, her aggression stopped. She floated passively.
Elaine stood, dripping, trembling, staring at me holding the dolphin at bay. “Don’t let her go!” There was more than a note of panic in her voice.
I planted my feet firmly on the bottom in case Ruby had other ideas, but she didn’t. She rolled her eyes to stare at me, then nuzzled my ribs. Elaine dragged herself out and Hank wrapped a towel around her. She was shivering.
Ruby blew and sank out of my grasp. I felt her snout nuzzle me gently in the ribs, then in my stomach…
…Then in my crotch!
It was a classic case of mis-timing. The only urge I felt was an overwhelming desire to bust that dolphin’s chops! This whole little melodrama had been nothing but a calculated ploy to get me in the water with her–and it had worked!
Ruby was jealous of my girlfriend!
“Get away from me!” I shoved her off and began to wade out.
“What’s the matter?” Hank yelled.
“She’s too rambunctious! She’s all fucked-up–”
Then Ruby, gliding in front of me, knocked me down. I picked myself up and kept wading. Another couple of steps and I was on the rocks where she couldn’t maneuver without cutting herself. She paced me to the shore, almost beaching herself. Hank gave me a hand out. I was wet, cold and furious.
Elaine, huddled under her towel, glared at me balefully. “I thought you said she was gentle!”
I wanted to crawl under a rock. “I’m sorry,” I said lamely, “she usually is.”
“Yeah, right! ‘Gentle,’ my ass! She practically drowned me!” I tried to put an arm around her, but she pulled away.
Hank shook his head in bafflement. “Zack’s right, Elaine, she’s usually the best-natured dolphin we’ve got. I’ve never seen her act that way before! I thought she was just playing at first, but she got so ornery that I don’t know what’s come over her!”
I did–but how could I explain it to Elaine and Hank? Ruby seemed to think I was her exclusive property! She blew and swam alongside Splash and Spray, who had kept their distance throughout the incident. Doubtless this had been a dolphinesque lesson in something for the little one, I just wasn’t sure what. The perversity of human nature, perhaps?
Hank glanced at his watch and asked if we wanted to watch the next show. “Let’s get away from here,” Elaine said, nodding toward the pen.
The second show was snappier than the first and ran well. Don somehow kept Star from slouching through the hoops, or maybe the dolphin was just warmed-up. Elaine warmed-up a little, too, snuggling against me as we watched. She didn’t seem to mind when I slipped my arm around her waist, but she was still cold. As the show ended, I asked if she wanted to play catch with the males. I was desperate for something–anything–that would take the burn off our encounter with the She-Dolphin from Hell. Perhaps the day could be salvaged. “Okay,” she said, managing a wan smile.
As we walked out on the dock, Star, Saki and Bimbo bobbed up, tossing scraps of seaweed, ready to resume the never-ending game of catch. But where was the ball? The last place I remembered seeing it was in Ruby’s pen. Leaving Elaine playing with the show dolphins, I trotted back there. Although the ball was bright pink and had been clearly visible against the dark brown water, there was now no sign of it. Perhaps Beau had removed it. I caught up with him by Trixy and Satan’s pen.
“Hey, Beau, have you seen a rubber ball around here? We were playing with it a few minutes ago.”
“I reckon not.” That seemed to end it until, as I turned to go, he said “You still got it?”
“No. That’s why I was asking you.”
“You don’t got it?”
“Where was you playin’ with it?”
“In Ruby’s pen.”
“With them two new ones?” Splash and Spray had been there for several months, but to Beau they were still “the new ones.”
“No, just with Ruby!” Why was this taking so long to put together?
Beau ran a hand through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. “Sweet mother o’ Jesus,” he said, staring toward Ruby’s pen. Then he took off at a dead run.
My stomach took the elevator down. I caught up with him. “What’s the matter?”
“You was playin’ with it there?” he said, pointing at the pen.
“Yeah! We were playing catch with Ruby!”
“And you got it back?”
“No! I thought you had it! What’s wrong?”
“You shouldn’t’a had it down there, friend!”
“But Hank said it was okay!” I protested.
“Hank don’t know everythin’ there is to know about this business,” Beau said. “Those two ain’t been fed since yesterday.”
We reached the pen, where three dorsal fins, two large and one small, cleaved the murky water. “What color did you say it was?” Beau asked.
“Oughta show up real good then, right?”
“You see it anywhere?”
Beau turned away from the pen and gritted his teeth. “I think that little one’s gotten it.”
My stomach hit the basement and kept going into the sewers.
“Spray? Hank said she was eating!”
“Don’t mean nothin’. She ain’t old enough to know the difference ‘tween a fish and a ball. How big was that thing?” I showed him with my fist. “Damn! Just the right size to fit down her gullet.” He shook his head. “Some o’ these damn critters’ll eat ‘most anythin’, ‘specially when they’re young and frisky like that. One trainer I knew had a prime old porpoise die on him, and when they cut him open, he had nearly five dollars o’ change in his stomach! Goddamn it if that stupid porpoise hadn’t been swallerin’ the pennies people was tossin’ in its pool.”
“Zack? I’m getting soaked up here!” Elaine yelled. “Have you found the ball yet? What’s going on? Where have you been?” She came trotting down the path.
“Uhhh… there’s a little problem, Elaine. Beau thinks the baby dolphin may have, uh, swallowed the ball.”
Elaine gaped. “Flipper wouldn’t do that!”
I had trouble believing it myself. Surely a dolphin, even a calf, should be able to distinguish between a palatable fish and an indigestible hunk of foam rubber! And if not, what on Earth were mother dolphins for–assuming that Splash was Spray’s mother, of course.
“Couldn’t it have drifted through the fence?” Elaine asked.
“Nope,” Beau said. “Tide’s comin’ in and the wind’s off the water.”
“Maybe Hank got it!” she suggested.
“Y’all stay here and keep an eye peeled for it. I’ll go find Hank. We’re gonna need him, anyway.”
I sat down on the rocks. My stomach now seemed to be in a bathyscaphe, headed for the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
“What are you going to do?” Elaine asked.
How the hell should I know what to do? Obviously, I wasn’t the dolphin expert around here! “I don’t know. Maybe they can give the dolphin something to make her throw it up.”
Beau was shortly back with Hank. I expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. In all the months I knew him, I never saw Beau lose his temper, but both men looked very grim. They stood by the edge of the pen and surveyed the scene. The dolphins swam around complacently.
“It weren’t up in the house, nor in the pool nor in the chickee neither,” Beau reported. “It ain’t nowhere up there.”
“It might have gotten lodged between two rocks under water,” Hank suggested, without much conviction.
“How could that happen?” Beau asked. “You said it was a floater, didn’t you, Zack?”
An odd thought crossed my mind. “Maybe Ruby did it.”
“Now why on earth would she do a thing like that?” Beau asked.
I couldn’t answer him. It was just a weird hunch.
“I could get my tanks and check it out,” Hank suggested.
“Don’t bother. I’m plumb certain that little one’s swallered it.”
“Couldn’t we just give her a big dose of mineral oil and hope it comes out the other end?”
“How big did you say that thing was?” Beau asked me.
I made a tight fist. “About that big.”
Hank frowned. “Nope, that won’t work, either.”
“If she can’t digest it, won’t she throw it up?” I asked.
“Maybe… not if it’s past her second stomach.”
Oh yeah, now I remembered. Dolphins, like their ruminant ancestors, have four stomachs. Fish scales and bones need a lot of digesting.
Beau and Hank exchanged the look of two GI’s who have just been ordered to take a heavily fortified enemy pillbox.
“You know what we gotta do, don’t you?” Beau asked.
“I guess I do,” Hank said resignedly.
“You get Don and the supplies. I’ll get the net.”
Elaine was aghast. I had visions of scalpels and blood. “What are you going to do?” I asked Beau as he headed toward the main pool.
“Only one thing we can do, friend. Git it outa her!”
“Shouldn’t you call a vet?”
“Don’t need no vet for this. Can’t afford one no-how.”
“What’ll happen if you can’t get it out of her?”
Beau looked at me with an expression that was at once condoling and condemning, but held no trace of rancor. “She’ll die, friend,” he simply said.
When he and Hank returned with Don a few minutes later, they were carrying the net, a cloth stretcher, a couple of old towels, a thick block of foam rubber about six feet long and a bottle of mineral oil. Hank asked me to help. We set the net and, with some difficulty, trapped the little dolphin as Elaine watched. Ruby and Splash didn’t interfere.
We wrestled Spray into the shallows, untangled her from the net and slid her into the stretcher. Hank, on one end, and Don, on the other, lifted her out and deposited her gently on the foam-rubber block, her head lower than her tail.
The little dolphin didn’t struggle much, but her plaintive, high-pitched distress calls–“whoooEEEP-wooo! whoooEEEP-wooo!”–drew Splash and Ruby’s attention. They began to watch, first lifting their heads from the water as they swam by, then pausing in the shallows to spyhop.
Beau gave us our assignments. “Hank, you get her flukes.” Hank grabbed Spray’s tail. “Don, get her head.” Don pinned the dolphin’s head to the mattress. Her whistles increased in volume and frequency. With his fingers, Beau pried open Spray’s jaws. He draped one of the towels over her lower jaw, leaving the ends hanging out the sides of her mouth. “Stand on that,” he commanded me. I put one foot on either side of her head, pinning her lower jaw to the mattress. Facing the pool, I could see Ruby and Splash peering at us intently. They had practically beached themselves to get as close as they could.
“Down here!” Beau said, returning my attention to the matter at hand. He had the other towel in place under the young dolphin’s upper jaw. “Grab them ends and, when I give the word, lift,” he said. “And don’t let go, ‘else we’ll have to get my arm out o’ her.”
On the foam mattress, the little dolphin blew every few seconds, rather than twice a minute, as she would have in the pen. She shrieked and tried to thrash, but every part of her body was immobilized. Beau opened the bottle of mineral oil and handed it to Elaine, who was looking rather pale.
“When I say ‘go,’ you pour this all over my arm, fast as you can, and Zack, you lift her jaws open. Got it? We ain’t got but one chance here.”
Elaine nodded. “All right.” Beau got down on his belly in front of Spray, his right arm, bare to the shoulder, cocked back. He looked around to make sure everything was in place.
“Everybody ready?” He took a deep breath. “GO!”
The bottle of mineral oil glugged as Elaine upended it over Beau’s arm. I hauled up on Spray’s jaw, exposing her white teeth like rows of needles. The little dolphin shook with terror. Then Beau plunged his arm right down her throat, up to the shoulder.
Knowledgeable scientists report that dolphins have no gag reflex; putting a one-inch tube down their throats to sample stomach contents presents no problems, they say. That may be so, but Beau’s arm was all muscle, and twice as big around as mine are now. If Spray wasn’t choking as that mass of well-oiled flesh and bone slid down her throat, she was doing a mighty fine imitation.
Beau grimaced, grunted, strained. Sweat poured off his brow. The act of mercy looked more like a gang rape than anything else. In the water, Ruby and Splash began an angry-sounding cascade of calls, apparently directed as much at rebuking us as at comforting Spray. The little dolphin’s jaws quivered. I hauled up harder. Her eyes rolled up in their sockets and went white. Then, with a sudden sucking noise, Beau pulled his arm out of her–empty-handed.
“Damn,” he said softly. “Damn. All right, everybody let go.”
Spray thrashed halfheartedly. Beau pulled the towels out of her mouth and used them to wipe the mineral oil and regurgitated gastric juices off his arm. Spray’s stomach acid was quickly turning his hairs dead white.
“How far did you get?” Hank asked.
“Second stomach. In this short o’ time, it shouldn’t a got no farther than the first.” He stared at the little dolphin and sighed. “Well, let’s put her back.”
As Spray was lowered into the water, Ruby and Splash came up on each side of her. There was a furious exchange of clicks and whistles. When the stretcher was released, all three of them took off for the deep end, as far away from us as they could get.
I wanted to roll up in a ball and die. “Hell, Zack,” Hank said, “we all make mistakes. It wasn’t even your fault – you don’t work here! I should’ve known better.”
That was cold comfort.
“What’s going to happen?” Elaine asked.
“I guess she’s going to die.”
I sent Elaine back to the trainer’s house to shower and clean up. I couldn’t stand to look at Spray, who had no idea she was doomed to a lingering, painful death, so I went back to the main pool. I’m sure the boys wondered why I wasn’t eager to play catch with them.
I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. My own ignorance had caught up with me in a very real and inescapable way, but I wasn’t going to pay the ultimate price for it; that innocent little dolphin was. Fate had a way of playing hard tricks on me. If Beau had been outraged, if he had cursed and screamed at me, called me a stupid idiot or any number of other names I so richly deserved, I might actually have felt relieved. But he didn’t even give me a hard look as he left, not a harsh word. This would be my last trip to Florida Funland. To hell with Salina’s book, I couldn’t bear to come here again under this cloud.
Elaine came out of the trainers’ house, freshly showered and dressed, and made her way slowly down the path to where I sat by the main pool, watching the boys swimming in circles.
“Are you ready to go?” I said.
She sighed. “I guess so.”
I got up slowly. “All right. Just give me a minute. I want to go say goodbye to Ruby.” And to Spray, who wouldn’t be here in a couple of days.
I picked my way slowly down the path to Ruby’s pen. This time, the dark cloud I had seen wrapped around Beau on the day of the catfight seemed to have draped itself over me. The sun was shining, the water sparkled, the sky was crisp and blue, but none of it mattered, and none of it seemed real.
In the pen, three dorsal fins broke the water together. If, as Lilly suggested, dolphins could use their echolocation to sonically “x-ray” each other, Splash and Ruby must now be aware there was something unusual stuck inside little Spray, something that wasn’t going to come out. The economics of the situation didn’t allow Beau the luxury of veterinary surgery, either. From his point of view, it was cheaper to catch another juvenile dolphin and hope no one was stupid enough to throw a rubber ball in her pen when she was hungry.
It was a live-and-die kind of world.
I stumbled to the edge of the pen, hardly able to see. I wiped my eyes and heard a dolphin blow close by. Ruby was floating in the shallows a few feet away, and rolling pinkly on the dark brown water between us was the foam rubber ball.
My inarticulate WHOOP! of sheer delight was heard all across the park. I stared at the ball for a few seconds, like the condemned man on the gallows stares at the governor’s last-minute reprieve, then grabbed it and went racing hell-bent up the path to the main pool.
“THE BALL! THE BALL! I GOT THE BALL!” I yelled.
Elaine stared at me, then burst into that smile I remembered. Beau came running from the chickee where he’d been preparing for the next show, his hands still smeared with fish blood. Hank and Don trotted over too.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Beau said quietly. He looked down at Ruby’s pen, then back at the ball. “Where’d ya find it?”
“In Ruby’s pen! I just went down there to say goodbye, and it was floating on the water!”
“I’ll be a fucked… uh, pardon me,” Hank said, remembering Elaine. “See, I told you she didn’t swallow it! It must’ve gotten stuck in the rocks somehow!”
Don just smiled, turned around, and went back to work.
“You keep that thing now,” Beau said to me. “Don’t be playin’ with it without askin’ me first. You got that?”
“Yes, Beau!” I almost saluted him.
“All right. You takin’ off? Been nice havin’ you two today,” he said to Elaine. “Sorry ‘bout all the trouble.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Elaine said. “It was, uh, exciting.”
As we started for the car, I remembered Ruby. Handing Elaine the keys, I ran back to her pen and threw myself down on the catwalk.
Ruby broke off from Splash and Spray and came right up to me, a look I’d never seen before in her eyes. If not actual guilt, there seemed to be a trace of remorse there.
I reached out a hand. She let me scratch her lightly for a few seconds, then backed off, still staring at me.
“What the fuck are you up to?” I asked. She didn’t answer, but watched me as I got up and walked back to the car.
Elaine was mostly silent on the way home. I was exhausted and wanted to process the day’s events with her, to say something that would make it okay, but there was nothing to be said. I pulled into her driveway and she started to get out.
“Elaine, can I come in? Just for a minute,” I asked.
She grimaced. “I don’t think that would be such a good idea, Zack. I’m really tired, and Dad’s home.” She brightened a little. “But thanks for taking me to see the dolphins. It’s been… it’s been… it’s been a real day,” she finally said, slamming the car’s door.