72 - The Mistake

The Guardian Dolphin

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Jonesy put on a rock and roll station. Rock has a certain appeal—a basic, driving rhythm, like a beat of a heart, or the surf. That afternoon, in the ambulance, it combined with the rhythm of the road, and the heat, to lull me into a sort of trance.

That's why I'm not sure whether I did the next thing on purpose.

I shifted my weight and slid down the wall so that I was lying on the seat, instead of sitting.

The part I'm not sure about is whether I intended to end up with my ear in Julie's conch.

I could hear the sea in that shell. My mind drifted through the past, putting memories together, making patterns, one way, then another.

I remembered a day at the beach with Charlie—I was nine or ten. He sat on an old, frayed, green beach-towel. I sat next to him in the sand.

We worked on a sand-castle. Charlie used a little shovel to smooth one side of the castle. He was taking me through our private catechism.

"And what is Mrs. Jenson?"

I gave my standard, sing-song, response.

"A Human."

"And Mr. Kettle, at the gas station?"

I cut little notches in the turret.

"A Human."

"And the paperboy?"

He always kept it up until I started to giggle.

"A Human."

Once I laughed he would move on.

"And me?"

I became serious again.

"A dolphin, Charlie."

"And you?"

I laughed.

"A dolphin, a dolphin, a dolphin, Charlie."

"And what's the difference between a dolphin and a human, Pup?"

I was vaguely aware of the ambulance, the rock and roll, the straight jacket—but now I was tracking memories with crystal clarity.

I remembered Ann in her attic, talking about her mother, the hot scent of pine and the flickering light.

"She called this place—the restaurant and house-my 'legacy'."

I remembered telling her about Charlie.

I remembered Charlie, dying in his bedroom.

"Promise me you'll follow your vocation. Be a Traveling Angel, Pup, like Dudley in the movie…"

And I remembered him smoothing the sand with that rusted blue shovel.

"…the difference between a dolphin and a human, Pup?" he asked.

I had cleared my young throat, even while I worked the turret with my Popsicle stick.

This was the important part.

"Humans live…"

I sat bolt upright in the ambulance. The memories came easily—I didn't need the shell anymore.

I remembered Ann, running her finger along the easel's edge.

"I'd promised Mother. It's too late for me."

I remembered Charlie, pouring milk into the jelly glasses.

"It's too late for me."

And Ann again.

"Julie's different. She can do it."

And Charlie.

"But you can, you're young—and strong."

The blue shovel had a little dent in its edge. It left a ridge in the side of the sandcastle.

"…the difference between a dolphin and a human, Pup?" he asked.

I had cleared my throat.

"Humans live for…"

The ambulance slowed, pulling into a driveway.

Ann, in the attic, looked me squarely in the eyes.

"She's got more talent in her little finger… "

Charlie, weak, in bed, gave a raw chuckle.

"You've got the touch, all right."

I came down the ladder to talk to Julie.

"You might be one of those who can do it."

Julie tried to get around me at the beach.

"I don't want to be a dolphin."

I cut another notch in the turret of our sand castle. The end of the Popsicle stick was stained red.

"And what's the difference between a dolphin and a human, Pup?"

I cleared my throat.

"Humans live for themselves, Charlie. Dolphins live for others."

Julie put the conch down beside me in the ambulance.

"Maybe you helped me become a dolphin after all."

The ambulance pulled to a stop. Rock and roll blared. The heat was unbearable; the straight jacket, uncomfortable.

I didn't care.

I had made a terrible mistake.