Written by Mark H. Jamieson
First ePublished May 28, 2016
Cover Art by Mark H. Jamieson
Version morph 2016 5-May 28
ISBN 9781310176265 (e-published)
Young Adult>Science Fiction & Fantasy
Books by Mark H. Jamieson
Small Steps, a science fiction novel set in space in the near future
Ico Island, a children’s picture book
Prom Revolution, a science fiction novella taking place on Earth in the year 2116
The Janitor’s 13th Key, a science fiction short story at a boarding school
Morph, My Story, a short story set in the Florida Keys
My name is Kara. I grew up in Oklahoma, but my grandmother reminds me every day that none of our people belong in that state. So far from our true home, forced here over a hundred years ago. Never humble or shy, she lets people know what she thinks, and loves to get into debates with people. Never calls it an argument, no matter how loud she gets. Always classified by her as a cordial exchange of ideas – a debate. I proudly wear, as a reminder of her spunk, a necklace passed from generation to generation from when we lived near the sea. The strand consists of one hundred thirty-two round pieces of seashells. A number that I discovered when the string broke, and I had to reassemble it. I ran a new string through the center hole in each iridescent front and then out the dull gray back. So now I sit in this plane waiting for my chance to find my own shells on a beach, maybe at a place that one of my ancestors walked. I can find my own, and create a new necklace from broken bits to pass on to the next generation. I glance at my legs hopelessly dangling off the chair, reminding me of my condition. Why do I even think such things?
I hate planes; to be more specific it’s all the people staring at me – the girl-freak. Flying requires me to be in public, out in the open away from the sanctuary of my home and worst of all, away from my dog – Thor. Just thinking of him calls up visions of his dark brown eyes begging me for a treat. Thor understands me. He doesn’t judge me for what I can’t do or what I look like. He loves me for me. But instead of holding him, I’m surrounded by strangers seeing me for the first time. Instead of an accepting face, tilted stares, as everybody looks too long, an impulsive pull to confirm that I exist.
I wouldn’t mind flying without the people part. I actually love looking out the window, swimming through the sky. On this part of the flight only water below, nothing to mark progress except for clouds. Mom calls our plane from Miami to Key West a puddle jumper, maybe thirty people on board for the ride. It feels unbalanced, with only two seats on our side of the aisle and one seat on the other. I keep waiting for the pilot to say, “Everybody on the right side, especially the bigger passengers, you know who you are, I need you to lean a bit towards the center,” but she never does. There’s something strange about flying in a metal box so unnatural that brute force moves it through the air and the designers don’t care about interior symmetry. I should have added hot air balloon to my wish request, something round and balanced, flying in concert with the wind, instead of ripping through it. Can’t change that, so I’m stuck here in this heavier than air transport until we finally make it back down to dry land.
If I make it to eighteen, I’m taking hang gliding lessons, that will be my gift to myself, only one more year and then freedom. Putting my feeble legs in the fabric cocoon, letting the wind grab the kite, and soaring into the sky. That would be perfect. Flying free and alone, instead of in this metal box with walls shaking, and everyone staring. The guy across from us can’t stop looking up from his phone at me. I think he took my picture, probably going to post it online. One of the lonely people stuck with no seat next to him. I can’t get away from his eyes, so I keep looking out my window hoping for something new to appear marking a countdown to this entrapment.
It’s Mom that can’t stand the actual flying part, two glasses of wine in Oklahoma, one on the flight to Miami, and then none in Miami airport, not enough time. Now a rushed glass of wine as we won’t be in the air long, and Mom recognizing the need for efficiency, finishes her drink long before the flight attendant returns to pick up trash. She’s to my left in the aisle seat, forcing herself to stay calm, which makes it worse. With her own problems she’s ignorant of the man’s continued gaze at me.
I’m unique, Mom can’t relate. At my age she wanted to be famous, to be in movies or TV. As a kid she had her face on cereal boxes across the country. They still make the multicolored treat today, but she bans it from our house. Says that it doesn’t meet her standards, but an empty box with her face sits on a shelf in the extra bedroom. Never got her movie or TV show, just a picture of her smiling face behind a spoon hovering over a giant delicious bowl of sugar-coated spheres that I’m not allowed to eat. Strange seeing your mom as a kid. She had a different life. I’ll never sell cereal with my face, not the kind of look that sells stuff.
Instead my face made a little boy cry once. Looking out from his school bus window he became the unlucky one that caught a glimpse of me riding in the backseat of our car. A forgotten myth, a sign of something lost, whatever he thought, he couldn’t turn to his friends to share the discovery. His face locked in by the sight. Just one of those things that pulls you in without letting you go and then I screamed at him through my open window. The wall of noise broke the spell and his face jerked away. I don’t know if I made that precise boy cry at that moment, but I know it happens, maybe not to him or maybe not then, but in nightmares perhaps or in the retelling to younger brothers or sisters. It must. That’s how all horror stories begin. The telling and retelling of something true until the layers and layers of embellishment create fantasy, the wolf becomes a werewolf, the hitchhiker becomes a serial killer, and the shooting star turns into an alien spaceship. At some campfire I’m no longer a girl riding inside a car, but a monster tied down in the bed of a truck attempting to break free.
When I was eight, the doctors thought that I had juvenile systemic sclerosis, as my skin tightened and thickened. At thirteen they thought it was something else. Now after years of tests all I know is that I’m going to die. They say I’m unique, my body hardening from the outside, a genetic flaw. One of the first signs of my condition straying from known diseases was the loss of use of my legs. My source for walking, running, and jumping have slowly lost all function. I can’t feel them anymore and they don’t respond to any commands to move. As I’ve continued to grow, they’ve remained small and shrunken as the interior muscles and bone fade away. I blame my mom and dad, and all of their family before them. Whoever committed the dark deed in the past that unwrapped my DNA and inserted this lethal concoction cursed me.
I found in the basement in a shoebox of old family pictures, a family standing next to a horse drawn wagon. Riding in the back under a blanket was a girl with long dark hair covering her face. Hair like mine, but purposely combed forward. No names or labels to identify the people in that picture, no year either, but something in their faces. Blankly staring, everyone but the girl – face covered. I wish that I could see her face, see if she has the scars and bulges that mark mine. There has to be another person like me out there, now or in my past. I don’t want to be classified as unique. Having a doctor say that you’re unique means they don’t know how to make you better.
My skin now cracks and bulges as pockets filled primarily with calcium try to emerge from within. When they break through, exposed portions look like fresh water pearls with no business on my skin. Gray striations crisscross my body connecting the deposits that tend to clump just under my skin. Simple constellations over the years have evolved and grown into weaves of overlapping lines. Across my face the hardening pulls and elongates my skin, a smile hurts and laughing rips thin wounds that harden a bit more each time. I live with anticipated pain tampering any joy and in self-defense I wear my stoic frown. I’ve learned to hold it in, the hardening of my skin inadvertently forming an emotional shield.
On this trip at each airport the other passengers wait for me when boarding the planes. Their entrance to the plane delayed while they push me in on my wheelchair, families craning their necks to see what privileged person enters first, and in disappointment they see me, an honor that I would abandon, yet that option never a choice.
“We’re almost there,” Mom announces to the ceiling somehow hoping that we really aren’t thousands of feet in the air. I don’t know why she forced us to take this trip. She hates flying, and we never flew anywhere as a family in my lifetime. I just wanted hang gliding lessons at the local airport as my wish, but Mom overruled me. Her own karma from rejecting my request forces her to endure this trip. The Make a Wish Foundation never saw that request to peaceably soar in a hang glider back home, Mom making up excuses, declaring me too young. So instead we got this wish, a loud trip tearing through the sky towards our destination in the Florida Keys.
The Foundation paid for this trip, everything. Part of the hypocrisy arose from my true wish to be normal, not famous, rich, or swimming with dolphins, just to be able to walk down the street, not bound to a wheelchair, but the Make a Wish Foundation can’t grant that wish.
With Mom boycotting hang gliding, I followed Grandma’s suggestion and picked the ocean. I’ve never seen the ocean. I’ve seen land that stretches for as far as you can see. On vacations I’ve seen mountains higher than the clouds, but to this Oklahoma girl with a seashell necklace, the ocean doesn’t exist. So after selecting the goal of visiting the ocean, my wish coordinator suggested the dolphin rehabilitation program at Island Dolphin Care.
“Do you see the water, Kara?” Mom asks.
Outside, the Atlantic Ocean stretches out beneath the plane, the same ocean that I’ve been looking at since Miami. I hold a loop of the seashell necklace in my mouth, my one piece of ocean, trying to make it all more real, and not just a vision from above. “Yes, everywhere,” I want to touch the ocean, not look at it from thousands of feet away. From here it looks like television, worse as scratches across the glass interrupt my view, but it’s real.
For a second she smiles, but my mother’s cheeks fail to keep it aloft. I’ll miss her when I die, her and my dog. Her more, but right now Thor would make a better flying companion. Thor would be pushing and nudging his way to stare out the window with me, not looking at the ceiling. He would hate these non-opening windows though.
After we land on the ground and finish our roll to the terminal, the airline attendant smiles at me, “Please wait.” It’s my turn to pause and watch as the other anxious passengers disembark. “We’re waiting on a lift. There’s been a delay.” The passengers walk by us, Mom and I trapped in our seats. Most try not to look, but it might be their last chance, so they casually turn without any justifiable reason to the right as they pass our aisle. I lock eyes with most of them, breaking any hope they had of going unnoticed.
On the flight I kept my purple and black striped seat cushion from my wheelchair between my legs to still them. Unable to reach the floor, they would sway and clang into each other with every change in direction of the airplane without the pillow. The doctors want to amputate them, keeping them a risk they say without any benefit. At this stage the chance for infection grows, threatening my entire body, but I’ll keep my useless little bits a while longer.
From under my airplane seat I pull out the folded morph tires for my wheelchair. Pulling out the axles and rotating a metal spoke reforms the wheel from an oval into a circle. I slide over to Mom’s aisle seat. She stands in the walkway already holding our carry-on luggage. With the other passengers gone, the attendant drags over my lightweight chassis, it’s not heavy but she appears to be dramatically having trouble. Who she is pandering to, I have no idea. I pop in the morph-wheels easily moving it around. The cushion snaps on and I hop into the wheelchair without strapping in my legs to roll off.
For my own personal exit a portable elevator lift finally arrives to the plane driven by a man wearing a straw hat. This place is small, no elevated walkway into the terminal for our plane, just straight to the tarmac. Everything is out of proportion in this airport, as our puny puddle-jumper dwarfs the private prop planes parked next to it.
Inside the terminal I push myself over to the carousel in my purple chariot. I need to remain active for as long as I can. Having people pamper me hurts any long-term chance at success. More places on my skin will permanently harden, another restriction on movement, but not yet, I’ve still got some flexibility.
I spot my bag and position myself by the revolving path of luggage. After years of traveling by arm power, the muscles on my arms bulge as much as they can on my teenage frame as I lift my suitcase. Mom’s bag follows and I quickly toss mine to the ground. It will be a week down here on our trip. Two days in Key West before traveling up to Key Largo for the five-day program at the Island Dolphin Care.
Turning from the mass of people still looking for their belongings I spot a man with balloons. Wearing khaki shorts, a long sleeved white shirt partially rolled up and sandals, he smiles at me. His face looks like a larger version of the rich guy from the old Jurassic Park movies, someone’s grandpa smiling and waiting for his family. Not the artificial smile of the airline assistant, but a full-blown ear-to-ear grin directed at me. He pulls behind him at least a dozen helium balloons all dark blue with the Make a Wish shooting star overlaid with my name. This smiling stranger walking towards us is waiting for me.
“I’m Nick.” Instead of holding back, afraid to touch me, his hand feels warm in mine. “My pleasure to be your guide this week,” he says as he reaches down and then kisses me on the top of my head. “This way.”
Outside towering over the other vehicles a modified Mercedes van waits for me, with its handicap lift already down. Inside a wide screen television covering the rear window plays a video showing a pod of dolphins chasing a boat and across the ceiling there are blue led accent lights twinkling. From the television and lights, the entire interior is washed in blue.
“I thought that you should start getting prepared for tomorrow. Wanted you to feel like you were already in the ocean.”
“Thanks.” Tomorrow was snorkeling and Monday was the first day at the dolphin encounter.
“We’ll be going out on my boat tomorrow. Should see some dolphins, maybe some rays and sea turtles, more real stuff than you will see locked up in Key Largo.”
Out of the airport Nick drives us to the hotel on the water. I can’t say a hotel on the beach because there really isn’t one; the building ends feet from the water. The hotel doesn’t have a real balcony just a sliding glass door that opens to a railing inches away. Looking out over the railing from the third floor I see a sliver of sand with chairs lined up for sunbathing but not much room for anything else before the ocean. No wide-open beach, dunes or sea grass, just building, row of chairs and then immediately the water. Even from up here I can tell that the sand doesn’t hold any real shells, just fragments smaller than the pieces on my necklace.
So I’m here in a hotel with a fake balcony looking down at a beach that barely exists, but with the window open I can feel the sea. With each wave reaching the shore my ears hear new sounds and begin to anticipate the next crash. My skin begins to tingle as the salt air reaches my tongue making me crave more, and I feel warm. Not hot from the stupid heat, but inside something feels new and right. It’s the ocean, the presence of this vast body trying to touch me, but I’m still not able to join it and despite the pain I smile. Tomorrow we will meet for the first time
Our Sunday morning agenda includes a snorkeling trip. At the marina I easily spot the boat flying the Make-a-Wish flag – a dark blue shooting star on a light blue background. As I roll down the dock Nick waves from the Fish ‘n Ship. Not sure if Mom notices the name and I can’t spot any reaction on her face. She has on a wide floppy hat and sunglasses with large round lens blocking her eyes, leaving just the tip of her nose and mouth exposed. Even though she is in sandals, she maintains her high-heel walk with her right arm bent while keeping her hat from blowing away with her other arm.
“Hey Kara,” Nick shouts while keeping his now familiar smile flowing from one side to the other, “I’ve brought along a diving buddy for you.” At his side stands a brown dog, no discernable breed, with alert perky ears with an orange doggy lifejacket around his body. “His name is Deogi,” Nick yells to me as his dog jumps from the boat to the dock and races towards me. Reaching me he quickly spins around me to walk by my side. Leaning into my wheelchair he matches my pace so I can easily scratch him. Deogi is smaller than Thor but still not a small dog, easily able to put his head in my lap and he does when I stop.
“How much experience do you have in the water?” Nick asks.
“We have a pool.”
“She’s a natural,” Mom adds from behind me showing that she is paying attention.
“Can you float?”
“I can float,” I reply pulling myself up higher in my chair while petting Deogi. Nick looks at my legs, but turns quickly. It’s hard not to notice them. They don’t help when I swim, but being small they don’t drag me down either. Years of relying on my arms provides me with more than enough strength to plow through the water without any help from useless legs.
“While you’re on the boat, I need you to wear this life jacket.” Nick tosses me a dark blue life jacket. On the shoulder my name has been embroidered on the material with light blue thread. The jacket fits perfectly. “You’re welcome to come on board.”
A narrow ramp barely wider than my wheelchair but with raised edges to guide the wheels leads from the dock down to a floating platform level with the back of the boat. I move Deogi’s head from my lap and cross the ramp, keeping my momentum in check by constantly resisting the wheels from their desire to spin freely. The aft of the boat contains a large white chair with its own seatbelt mounted on a pole blocking my way.
“Sorry, that’s the fighting chair for when we fish for marlin. We won’t be using it today,” Nick explains, as he pulls up the chair and hands it off to a guy probably a year or two out of high school with tanned skin a shade darker than mine but covered with tattoos.
“If we do fish for marlin, I’ll teach you their language, they talk in color,” the tattooed boy tells me. I don’t know if he’s joking or not as he flashes the same smile as Nick, “Back me up, Papi.”
“Is that true?” I ask Nick.
“I might teach you their language one day. I’ve just shared it with family so far.”
“Grandkids, both of them. You can tell we’re related by the matching tattoos,” Nick jokes as he starts climbing up a ladder to a crow’s nest with a second set of controls for the boat. “Someone’s got to continuing loving the ocean when I’m gone.” He says the last part to no one in particular.
Mom comes down and stands with me while the crew starts removing the ropes to the dock. Deogi pushes his way between us to grant me the pleasure of scratching his back once more. Thor and Deogi could be brothers if judged just by actions and not appearance.
Nick’s tattooed grandkid joins me in petting Deogi. Across one arm fish race over coral towards his hand and on his back a mermaid swims heading for the surface just outside of the shadow of a fishing boat. The mermaid’s golden hair sweeps back and swirls forward to cover her chest. My own charcoal hair barely extends to my shoulder, never going to be mistaken for a mermaid.
“I’m Dillon,” he discloses after turning around showing a shark dominating the scene on his chest, “and my brother is Slater.” Pointing at the smaller guy with the same tan body. “Named after Kelly Slater.” Dillon has light blue-gray eyes that stand out from his skin. “Slater, the surfer.”
In response I shrug.
“Where are you from?” he continues.
“Not much surfing in Oklahoma.”
Can’t disagree with that. “Nope.”
“Is your chair stable? Can you lock that down?”
“Sure.” I flip down the wheel locks.
Dillon grabs the back of my chair and rocks it back and forth. “That fighting chair would make me feel better,” he says trying to dislodge my wheelchair, still testing its stability. “Maybe next time we’ll go fishing and let you reel in a marlin, give you a chance to test the chair.” The whole time we talk he never looks at my legs or the scars on my skin, just his eyes on mine. Dillon, never met a boy named Dillon before, let’s hope he doesn’t ruin the name.
The boat’s engines already rumbling when we arrived at the dock increase in volume as they engage and we pull away. My mom, only slightly less afraid of boats than airplanes, grabs my arm with one hand while the other clinches a railing by her chair.
Leaving the marina we head due south into the Atlantic. The boat crashes through the rolling waves and my locked wheelchair slides a bit but I stay on board. With each bounce I tug on my lifejacket, it’s snug, and Deogi remains at my side.
The wheelchair slides some more and then Dillon grabs it. “Do you want to be in a regular chair?” he asks.
I start to say, “No,” and then the entire wheelchair loses touch with the boat as it drops. “Yes, please.”
Dillon reaches down and puts me on the bench next to my mom. I normally hate when people grab me. Being smaller seems to be an open ticket for people to want to pick you up, but I don’t mind right now.
After ten minutes of rolling waves the sea flattens, as the boat levels I can see more of the ocean in front of us, but its behind the boat that keeps my attention. In the wake with each breath, a dolphin exposes part of its body out of the water before disappearing below.
The largest one in the pod has a notched dorsal fin. While the others stay partially hidden, this one jumps out to expose his whole body. His last leap instead of at the wake occurs right next to me and culminates with a front flip.
“That’s Sam, he is a bit of a showoff,” Dillon from over my shoulder tells me. “He’s normally on his own, but today he’s looking for a lady. He will probably keep that up all day.”
“You’re a dolphin expert?”
“Dolphins, no; guys, yes. See Sam is a guy. He wants to be noticed. Not much a dolphin can do to get noticed by a girl. Can’t text her, can’t send her flowers, he’s a dolphin. So what does he do? Jumps, flips and hopes that some girl notices him.”
Sam matches the speed of our boat keeping his head just below the surface. His left eye locked on me through the water.
“So you think Sam shows off just to attract girls?”
“He acts like every other guy I know.” At that moment Sam disappears diving straight down. The other dolphins continue playing in the wake. Then the water explodes in front of them as Sam bursts out of the water and he does a double flip over them. “Yep, no other reason,” Dillon concludes.
After awhile the dolphins grow bored and stop following us. As they swim away, Sam continues to do his flips over the females as they retreat.
We continue without the dolphin escort with Dillon on one side of me and Deogi on the other. They act like it’s the most natural thing in the world to be standing next to me and it feels right.
We reach the dive site and tie our boat to a mooring buoy that with each roll of the ocean exposes layers of sea life living on its bottom. An identical marker nearby already has boats and divers in the water.
Dillon unlatches the back rail revealing the diving platform behind the boat. Small waves rock the boat, as the ocean’s current treats us like a large kite pulling and tugging away at our anchor line. Even from above the surface I can see hints of color in the reef below as fish swim through a maze of coral.
Deogi paces at the back of the boat searching the water for fish. Tail wagging back and forth, turning back from his search, looking at Nick for permission, “Go for it, boy,” and with that Deogi leaps out and begins paddling around the reef. “Kara, stay within thirty yards of the boat today. It’s calm but I don’t want to lose you on our first day out. Dillon will be your human partner.”
“Do you need help?” Dillon offers.
As much as I did not mind the thought of Dillon helping, I do not like being considered weak. “I’ve got it.” I lower myself to the deck to crawl with my hands. While Nick claims this is calm, I’ve never had to maneuver on a tilting floor that rises and falls with each wave. I snap my new life jacket to my chair to leave it on board. I’m going to explore today, not just going to float on the surface and with the next wave lifting us I slide towards the back. Right before I plunge in the water, I grab the side of the boat and catch myself at the edge. Being thrown into the water on my first day would have been embarrassing. Holding on allows me to watch Dillon barreling past and looking back bewildered as he sees me still clutching the boat, while he can’t stop himself from plunging into the water.
When he resurfaces, I scream, “I don’t need rescuing,” to my want-a-be hero. I drop myself onto the diving platform and with extra confidence, “I’m fine.”
“Scared me,” he responds head soaked just bobbing in the water. Nick tosses him a snorkel and mask, and while he puts it on I scoot so that my legs dangle off the diving platform. Sitting here enjoying the water I put on webbed swimming gloves making my entire hand into a paddle. Then on my own terms I slide into the water.
In the water I’m almost the same height as Dillon, both of our heads just out of the water, it’s an equalizer. No more looking up from the wheelchair. We can now face each other at eye level. Deogi swims between us, salt water splashing us both equally.
Time to put on my mask and before inserting the snorkel I shout, “Race you.”
Swimming face down fully exposes the reef below me. In parts the coral runs further down than the deep end of our pool back home, but it feels closer. I enjoy coasting across the surface, Dillon is next to me and the loud splashing noise must be Deogi following us. The valley in the coral below me forces a school of light blue fish with yellow tails to swim in a tight formation. I dive down to get closer. Totally submersed, all the surface noise diminishes, replaced with uniform calm.
The school of fish startled by my presence dart away to my left. A small golden fish not part of the group hovers in front of me, daring me to race before dashing off. I feel like Harry Potter and give chase. He dives down between the coral rising from the bottom. Following above I’m able to keep pace in a somewhat straight line as he zigzags around obstacles that fail to reach to my height. When I travel near the surface, I take quick breathes through the snorkel not wanting to ever move my eyes from the racer. All the other fish scatter as we plunge forward. I’m gaining on him, hand out reaching for the prize, when I feel someone tugging on me. Looking back it’s Dillon holding on to me and frantically pointing to the surface. When I look to the bottom my challenger is gone.
I head up, with Dillon by my side. Under the water, Dillon appears huge next to me, all allusions of equivalent sizes gone.
I break to the surface hearing Dillon shouting at me, “Where are you going?”
“Look around you.”
“The boat.” Around us there is nothing and the nearest boat a hundred feet away. “You were swimming at full speed, plus the current was going with you. Crazy.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
No, the opposite, I feel invigorated, for the first time in years I wasn’t thinking of my disease, my mind felt free, no limits. “I’m good. Which way is the boat?”
“It’s that way. Just past that character dumping all the tourists. Stay with me.”
The swim back was harder and it takes us a while to return. We travel near the surface and fight through the current, but Dillon lets me take my time. And as we near the Fish ‘n Ship I dive down deep into the coral to fully immerse myself. I never see the golden fish again, failing at my first attempt as a seeker.
At the boat Nick stands at the back his smile gone; Mom right next to him with her arms folded. Neither one says anything. As I pull myself onto the diving platform the salt water rushes off my body, and the feeling of invigoration leaves with it. My muscles ache and the breeze pulls away my warmth, I begin to shiver. As I towel off my body, the chase of the golden fish feels more and more unreal – a dream. The gray lines crisscrossing my body and the connecting bulges of calcium appear to pulsate. With each flex and turn they burn. Maybe this world, my life confined to a chair is the unreal one, a nightmare waiting for me to wake and return to the sea. For the time that I was in the water today, I got my true wish, while chasing that fish all my fears and pain caused by this disease were gone from my mind. I quickly wipe away my tears, indistinguishable from the salt-water dripping from my hair, and take a deep breath. I can’t wait to do that again.
The sun rises out of the Atlantic bathing the room in gold when I wake. We need to drive to Key Largo today with Nick, our driver, guide and host. He will be downstairs with the van in an hour, so I get ready while Mom remains in bed pulling up the covers to shade her eyes.
I don’t use my wheelchair in the room, instead my arms are enough to maneuver around. I pause at the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Across my forehead a new line that wasn’t there yesterday crisscrosses over one of the original raised lines over my temple adding to the latticework of hardened skin across my head. More lines have formed across my arms; and just moving around the room I feel the tears and rips underneath as strands of fibers try to form a hard outer shell. This is what the doctors predicted, my body fighting me, trying to break the stalemate and stop me from moving.
As Nick drives us away from Key West the mile markers count the distance. Each sign takes us further from Dillon, Slater and Deogi. Sam is back there too, not sure where or if it will be possible to see him again. On the bridges it’s easy to spot boats cutting out into the Atlantic or back into the gulf, but no signs of dolphins. I was part of that world for a moment but now I’m back in mine. Riding in this van I feel the same tug that I experienced in the airplane. I need to be in the water and everything about this vehicle feels artificial. I’m in another metal beast, while just outside the windows the ocean stretches to the horizon.
We finally get to Island Dolphin Care after driving for hours. The last mile of the trip passes through a neighborhood. Not a “kids in the street” type of block but row after row of houses with cars in the driveways. While the hotel in Key West wasn’t on a real beach, this dolphin sanctuary, a large coral-blue building on stilts, is surrounded by pastel painted wooden houses. I ask the obvious question, “Where is the ocean?”
Nick responds, “They’re on a canal.”
We pull underneath the building and I’m pleased to see an elevator to get to the main floor above us. Mom and I head towards it while Nick drives off to take our bags to the Key Largo Hilton. Upstairs the elevator opens into a lobby with a large aquarium right in front of us, but I ignore it, rolling around to the balcony. Out there I smell the water, and hear the splashes. Behind the building next to the canal in two separate pools swim the dolphins. In the area closest to me there is a child and trainer, and looking straight into that the kid’s eyes a full-grown dolphin.
Already on the balcony in a bright yellow shirt and rainbow colored pants is a girl on crutches. Hearing me roll onto the wooden boards she declares, “That’s Oscar, an Atlantic bottle nose. He’s my dolphin partner.”
“He looks like Sam.”
“Who’s Sam?” When she asks the questions, she turns and sees me for the first time. She hops backward, putting more space between us on the balcony.
I continue like nothing awkward just happened, “A dolphin. Not here. Saw him in the ocean the other day.”
Mom steps out on to the balcony. “We need to check in, Kara. Tell your new friend, ‘Bye.’”
“Bye,” I shout back in my most pleasant voice, keeping my anger in check. Inside I move past aquariums lining the walls. No golden fish in here, but plenty of local coral. I sign some papers and then roll around while Mom completes checking us in.
I’m scheduled for an afternoon encounter, so they have me in the classroom until then.
The classroom is behind the gift shop, kind of regular with rows of chairs except that the walls are covered with pictures of dolphins. The girl from the balcony is in my class along with a handful of other kids. Can’t tell what is wrong with the others. They look healthy.
“Okay, for the students that haven’t had their first dolphin experience I want to give you a sneak peek,” the instructor announces, before switching off the lights and television starts showing dolphins jumping out of the water. “This is video from this morning. This week everyone of you will be touching, training and playing with dolphins.”
On the screen a picture of that girl from the balcony hugging Oscar pops up. No signs of her crutches, just a regular girl experiencing something special. I’ll be out there soon. Not just watching someone else with a dolphin.
Oscar swims at the edge of the enclosure while I roll along the dock.
“He loves beach balls.”
“I don’t see one,” I reply to the trainer.
“Your wheels. They’re round. I think he is fascinated by them.”
“Let me test your theory.” I park the chair and slide out of it to the deck. I pop off my wheels and hold both of them up with my arms.
Oscar immediately begins swimming backwards, half his body out of the water. “You gave him a command,” the trainer tells me.
“Oh, I was just trying to show him the wheels.” I break down the wheels moving them back to their elongated oval position and hold them up for Oscar. Instead of backward swimming he moves in for a closer look. “It’s magic,” I tell him as I switch the tire back and forth from oval to round. Oscar begins talking to me, clicks and whistles erupt from him, but I don’t understand any of it. He repeats the same notes and then stops.
The trainer hands the dolphin a fish and rubbing his neck says, “You’re very talkative today. What’s got into you?” Turning to me the trainer reaches out to shake my hand. “I’m Ashley. For today’s session I just want you and Oscar to get to know each other.” I shake her hand, not worried about a little fishiness.
From the morning class I recognize the two indentions on his body as marking him as a male, just like Sam. He’s a big dolphin, but not as large as Sam. Maybe younger as Oscar doesn’t have any major scars and his dorsal fin lacks Sam’s notch.
I spend the afternoon with Oscar petting his back when he comes over to me. No backflips or tricks today, just unearned petting for Oscar. Deogi and Thor would be jealous.
Back at the hotel after my second day of spending time with Oscar, my arms feel weak. I got in the water with him today, felt great, just afterwards it hits me, all my energy gone. Everything on the trip has been planned out, marked down to the minute, but this afternoon just has four hours blocked off for field trip, departure from hotel lobby, with no listed agenda. Mom wants me go downstairs to meet Nick, she’s exhausted, not sure what from, but she has decided to stay at the hotel. “Done with boats,” she says. I want to join her in the room and crash until she says, “Boats.” My mind snaps with the word making the connection, boats mean ocean. I leave Mom in the room racing down the hall, rolling around people moving way too slow. In the lobby Nick is waiting with Dillon.
Weird seeing him here, someone that should be miles away. “How did you get here?” I ask Dillon.
“We thought that you might want to get out in the ocean, see some real stuff, so Nick had us bring up his boat.” We leave the lobby out the back exit, following a raised wooden path through mangroves. At the hotel’s dock a beautiful white boat waits for me.
So two days later I’m back on the Fish ‘n Ship, with Nick, Dillon, and Slater with the blue flag flying. Deogi stands by my side allowing me to repeat the privilege of petting him. With each crash through the waves the ocean spray falls over me and I rub the salt water into my skin not wanting any of it to fall onto the deck. After playing with the dolphins by the canal I’m exhausted, but something about being out here revives me. We head out into the ocean crossing paths with fisherman ending their full day.
“Wanted to take you to a spot that Slater and I marked on the way up. Not many have ever seen it,” Dillon shouts over the roar of the engine.
Dillon slows the boat, the front lowers to run parallel with the surface. In front of us is a sandbar with something on it. As we get closer I can see birds. Tons of seagulls and some of them are standing on something. “Why is there a piano out here?” I ask Dillon.
“This is Disappearing Island. People come out here to party. Something about the waters here is special and my guess is that someone thought this would be a great place for music.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Seen weirder.”
Slater and Dillon then begin moving around the boat, dropping an anchor and preparing to stop.
“Thought that you would want to have a swim in magic waters.” Dillon opens the back of the boat and Deogi leaves my side to stand at the edge. After receiving permission he jumps in. With less grace I follow. Dillon doesn’t rush into the water this time, instead he waits before jumping in.
Slater shouts from the boat, “No racing fish. And Dillon, remember she’s fast.”
Swimming towards the island is a new experience. No coral beneath and schools of almost clear fish inhabiting this little sanctuary. Dillon trails me, staying close, not giving me a chance to make a run for it.
The birds scatter as we approach their island. The base of the piano has sunken into the island, while the formerly black top is blanketed white in seagull poo. For a magical place this island stinks.
“We have company.” Dillon points to the far side of the island at a pod of dolphins. A familiar notched fin swims with them. From our side we watch as the group rounds the corner of the island and moves between us and the boat. Sam stays in the water, no backward flips today. “Can you see the dolphin in the middle?” Dillon asks. Sam is the largest dolphin in the group and right next to him is another smaller dolphin moving slower. “They know this place is special.”
Swimming in a large circle the dolphins keep themselves between us and the dolphin in the middle. As they pass I try to count. At least twenty traveling together, all females except for Sam and some juvenile males that are no match for Sam’s size.
As they twirl, the dolphin in the center begins to dive down to the sandy bottom. Her tail slapping and stirring up clouds of seashell dust in the water.
“Do they do this often?” I ask.
“Never seen it before,” Dillon replies while pulling out his phone to record.
As the dolphin climbs for each breath Sam matches her strokes so that they rise and fall together. Something is wrong with this dolphin. An injury or something attached to her tail, the blemish noticeable when she gets closer to the surface. With another swoosh of her tail a smaller tail begins to emerge from the dolphin’s body, I recognize now that there is nothing wrong with her, just a baby trying to get out. Sam and the expectant mother continue their ballet in the water. With each repeat, more and more of the baby emerges. Minutes pass as we sit and watch. Then with a hard thrust of the mother’s tail and rush of excitement the newborn separates and starts her new life. Her mom explodes into action keeping herself below the newborn and helping it with its first breath of air at the surface.
From the boat I hear shouts as Nick and Slater celebrate the birth. When Dillon turns at the sound of the celebration I notice a tear forming at the corner of his eye. I don’t comment, not wanting to interrupt his appreciation, and together we continue to watch in silence.
During my afternoon of playing with Oscar, we spent our entire time tossing a beach ball. Wherever I tossed it in the pool he knocks it out right at me, but I kept missing and I have to stop. My arms are sore and my forehead hurts, tonight would be the perfect night to just curl up in bed at the hotel.
But no rest tonight and no ride on the Fish ‘n Ship, because tonight is the bar-b-que when family and friends come by the Island Dolphin Care for a sunset feast. There isn’t a direct view of the sun but the sky blushes pink and the burning tiki torches announce that we are not in Oklahoma.
Dillon, Slater and Nick arrive with my mom. They form my entourage. While Nick and Mom hang out with the old people, I get to introduce Oscar to Slater and Dillon. A trainer that I recognize, but don’t know, supervises our visit. She keeps staring at Dillon, asking him if he has any questions – giving him way too much attention.
Oscar already has three beach balls floating in his enclosure from other kids showing him off. While the trainer talks to Dillon, I toss Oscar some fish and let him do whatever he wants. Not going to make him work at a party. While getting the lid back on the barrel a fish slips out of my hand. The trainer notices the fish sliding over the pool deck and without looking at me, gives the fish a nudge with her foot to continue its slide the rest of the way to the pool.
Oscar, waiting and watching, snags the fish before it falls off the edge into the water. Dillon leans down and starts petting Oscar while Slater stays away from the pool. Although he’s a dolphin, Oscar acts just like Deogi, Thor or any other dog. He just happens to be a better swimmer.
“So they really let you play with dolphins here?” Dillon asks me, looking around the trainer.
“Part of it. Spend most of my time in their classes learning about the ocean, but this is the best part.”
Slater keeps looking at the canal and the low walls around Oscar’s pool, “Seems small. Doesn’t seem right.” Slater paces the edge of the deck by Oscar’s enclosure counting his footsteps. “Too small.”
I’ve spent three days here. Never thinking about Oscar as being captured. Treating him like a dog, a pet, not like a caged wild animal. Oscar repeats a set of clicks and whistles that he first said to me on the first day. Play? I know it means, “play”, he’s telling me that he wants to play. So is he happy here playing with beach balls, or does he want out, playing in the ocean? I roll back and throw a ball to Oscar.
“Kara, are you okay?” The voice sounds like Dillon, muffled, but I can’t see him. The wheelchair rolls off the deck, everything shifts, I feel myself sliding out. My head hits something and there is pain across my chest, inside me everything burns, and then it goes dark.
I wake up in a room, I immediately recognize it as a hospital room. They have tubes running into my arms providing me with fluids and extra oxygen running to my nose. Sunlight pours into the room but from this angle I can’t see out the window. I could be back in Oklahoma.
“I want to go back.”
“We’re waiting until they discharge you. A doctor is scheduled to drop by this morning. They won’t let you go until a doctor signs off.”
I pulled the covers up, the sheets feel rough against my skin, little comfort to the cold around me. Something about hospitals, I need water, something to wash out this taste in my mouth.
It’s then that I know what is going to happen. I start to get out of the bed, but I’m tied to an IV drip. As I’m trying to figure out how to disconnect, or get the pole and me into the bathroom, the nausea increases. My mom jumps away faster than I’ve ever seen her move before, but she doesn’t escape the spray of vomit. My hospital gown, the sheets and floor below me are covered in dark green lumpy ooze that has also struck the bottom of mom’s pants and her shoes.
“Nurse,” Mom yells while searching the bed for a call button.
I collapse back on the bed, everything aches but I feel better. Nothing to do in here that I can’t do back home, this isn’t on my wish list. Lying in a hospital, surrounded by vomit, definitely not a top-ten vacation day.
After being here for hours with nobody really doing anything to me, they let me out of the hospital. The doctor says that I have the flu, nothing meriting taking up a bed. Wants me to rest for the next couple of days. No swimming with dolphins, just resting my body.
Outside the air feels dry. “Where are we?”
“Homestead, nearest major hospital for your condition.”
“We’re not in the Keys?”
“Close, but back on the mainland.”
Nick pulls up in his van. If anybody deserves a medal for this vacation it’s Nick. We have him driving us up and down the Keys, and now he’s here.
“How are you doing Kara?”
“I’ll be all right,” I say, but I know I won’t. Everyday on this vacation it’s worse; I’m a step closer to the disease winning. Whatever happened it wasn’t the flu. I know my body. Everything has been inching me closer.
I can smell the ocean as I exit the van at the hotel. The doctor’s prescription is rest, so I’m to go straight to bed. I’ll spend my final day tomorrow at dolphin camp watching the other kids playing with the dolphins. Nick walks up to the room with me. Mom says that she is hungry, didn’t eat anything while I was in the hospital, and leaves us to pick up some food from the downstairs restaurant. She offers to bring back something to our hotel room, but I’m not hungry. I’m on a toast and bland food diet while my stomach recovers.
In the room Nick unlocks the sliding glass door, opening up the balcony while the sun begins to set. It’s a real balcony with enough room for me to roll out and Nick follows.
“I always enjoy sunsets in the Keys. Some of the best,” he announces as he sits in one of the chairs.
“There are better?”
“I’ve seen a lot. Been everywhere that you can get to from a boat and they all claim to have the best.”
“Almost,” Nick replies while nodding his head remembering and then agreeing with his own statement. “I started when I was Dillon’s age, just left, went from boat to boat, doing odd jobs. Did that for over thirty years. Makes you old living on the sea, but just living makes you old, so I’m glad I spent most of it out there.”
“Not doing more stuff for others, like you.”
“Nobody else out there is like me. The doctors say I’m unique.”
“Then someone not like you, but also deserving her first snorkeling trip in the ocean. Maybe next time you’re down here, I’ll hire you to become part of the crew.”
“Now you’re talking crazy, what would I do?”
“Still haven’t had you out there fishing for marlin. That might be your thing.”
Mom comes back to the room while Nick and I are still on the balcony. Only traces of light remain from the sun already turned in for the night. She seems happier, ate a real meal downstairs, probably had a glass or two of wine. Guess this is not one of her top ten vacation days either.
I wait until I don’t hear anything from Mom in the other bed before getting out of mine. The sheet slides out with me, stuck to my skin from a thick sweat covering my body. I peel off the sheet and put on a shirt. I’m leaving. I’m so close to the ocean and I need to be closer.
Taking the winding path through the mangrove trees at the back of the hotel I get to the dock. Tomorrow is our last day here, only time to watch the other kids play and then the drive to the airport. Once on the dock, the wheels rhythmically thump marking my progress across the slabs. With my heart matching the beat I near my goal. Away from the artificial smells in the hotel, this is my last chance to feel the ocean.
Behind me a waning moon rises over the hotel, its rays lighting up the top of the water. It’s calm on this side of the island tonight; the tops of each lapping wave stretch only inches to enjoy the moon’s glow before gravity gently pulls them down.
A broken fin strikes through the surface. He’s coming. He jumps in the air, joyfully playing as he approaches. Others swim along with him. The pup from the other day tries to stay close to his mom with multiple short arches by her side. At least seven other adult females move around in front of me, but I wait for him.
He rises up just beyond the edge of the dock and does a backward flip in the air. He’s showing off for me. Water splashes the dock, the few drops that hit my arm feel warm and I rub them, mixing the salt water into a sticky film rising from my pores.
Whatever is oozing out of my skin has seeped into my shirt. I take it off, as it has become a wet mess. I’m still wearing my swimsuit, haven’t gone full crazy, and I feel better without the clingy t-shirt. I wait for the next splash and I’m not disappointed as Sam directs the water right at me.
I need more, and try to lift myself. My muscles resist this simple task that this afternoon would have been no problem. I’m only able to get inches off the seat, but it’s enough to allow my body to slide down the front of the wheelchair. It works, but it is not a graceful exit. My body thumps and rolls a bit on the dock finally resting me on my side. The nice thing about my unorthodox dismount is that I’m closer to the edge. I can partially get upright but fall back down. My arms are unable to fully support my weight. With these attempts, I’m able to rock my body back and forth. Getting some momentum going, I slowly inch closer to the side of the dock. Nothing is going to stop me.
Sam does another flip, the splash from his entrance washing over my entire body this time. The salt tingles on my skin. As the water pools on the dock I’m glad that I’m wearing only the bathing suit as every inch of exposed skin rejoices. I need more.
I’m not going back to Oklahoma tomorrow. Waking up in a hospital this morning pulled me back to reality. Even if I did make it back, what then? More tests? More chemicals poured into my dying body? I’m losing this fight, the change accelerating and beating me. I can’t control what happens to me inside, but I can a least control how I live for these final days.
I make it to the edge. Leaning out I can see the dark waters below me. With no real waves the water fails to get any closer. I lean and stretch my body, willing it to move further, my shoulders now hanging out over the water. Sam jumps again.
It’s time. While he’s in the air I stretch further out, and we fall together towards the ocean, our combined splashes cover the dock. I try to catch the edge, doubting my decision for a second, before the murky water consumes me, no coral reefs or tropical fish greet me underwater, just jagged barnacles witnessing my descent.
Above me a snarl of dolphins crisscross, weaving in and out blocking that route to moonlight. Instead of holding me up to breathe the dolphins swim between the air and me. With each pass they scrape across the top of my head and back, knocking me down. With each strike I sink further in the dark water, my plunge stopped by only the shallow bottom less than fifteen feet deep.
Around me, instead of the pristine coral reefs, I find old bottles, cans and other discarded trash tossed from above. I don’t want to be here. I need Thor, I need to be home. The dolphins continue swimming over me, keeping me down with each glancing blow.
Curling inward I wrap my arms around myself. Closing my eyes I hear the whistles of the dolphins seemingly coming from everywhere. One whistle deeper than the rest keeps repeating the same notes over and over.
I open my eyes and see Sam hovering in the murky water in front of me, the source of the sound, while around me a now milky residue seeps out of my skin. With the water fighting to enter my throat, a bubble of air escapes from me, one of the last, as I shut my eyes for the final time. A bitter cold radiates out from my heart, while pain swells from my lungs as the salt water now encounters cells previously only exposed to air. I know there is no air, but I want to breathe, and I involuntary gulp more water.
I grasp my necklace with my fingers as my arms remain locked in a permanent hug, the hardening of my exterior accelerating and unstoppable. I feel Sam pushing me across the bottom with his nose. My bathing suit catches on something and rips. As I tumble across the sand it loosens further, my body rolling across shells and bits of trash. Small pieces of this polluted ocean floor attach to my body attracted by the sticky ooze secreted from my pores. With each tumble more accumulates on me. A pasty gritty film covers my face locking my mouth shut and covering my nose. They will find me down here hardened and curled up like one of the last citizens of Pompeii.
I hear the whistling. It’s Sam. I recognize his voice. He wants me to play. Play?
A translucent surface with crisscrossing dark streaks surrounds me, bathing the liquid interior in a dim white light with soft shadows. Hazy water surrounds me, but my body feels normal. No panic, no dizziness. My arms and legs compete for the limited space inside this enclosure, while bits of sand float before my eyes. I follow the path of one speck as it slowly lands on my shoulder.
Just on the other side, Sam moves up and down tapping his nose against the thinner areas of my prison. I uncurl my arms feeling the smooth texture of the wall trapping me. The surface flakes away with each sweep of my hand, tossing clear flecks into the already contaminated mixture around me. No corners to this barrier, just an organic sphere encasing me.
Maneuvering within the confines of this enclosure, as skin touches skin I realize my arms are smooth. No lumps, no hard patches or strands disfigure me anymore. My fingers glide over my arm feeling this reborn limb for the first time, and the smoothness extends to my shoulder and chest. I’ve lost the exterior casing that ruled my life. In this dim light, I need to know, moving my hand up to my face, exploring my nose, mouth even my checks, everything rough gone, replaced with a fresh smooth layer covering my body. I’m new. Looking at the thin walls around me, I recognize the familiar constellations crisscrossing the enclosure as the ones that covered my old body.
Play? The whistle returns.
I begin to bang on the surface trapping me and from the outside a knock echoes back from Sam. I pound on the enclosure, striking it harder and harder. It’s then that I begin to feel the pain. A weight crushing down on me and causing my head to pound. Looking down in the limited light I see my chest rise and fall. With each contraction, blood and bits of shell flow out of matching crescent gashes on each side of my body. I’m alive and breathing, but trapped. Water flows in and out of these new exits, through a maze lined with millions of cells pulling oxygen out. Bits of shell float around me and with each contraction of my chest more join the chorus. A primitive part in my brain recognizes the peril of remaining within these walls.
Above me Sam continues knocking and a crack appears. I pound harder from the inside, feeling the wall shift. Another hit, a chunk breaks off, enough for blinding light to enter. With an opening barely wider than me, I leap upwards ripping through the enclosure shattering fragments trying to prevent my escape. Sam rushes forward and together we move upward. As I swim up I’m taking deep gulps of water that rush through me. I feel no fear of drowning or desire to breath air. For the first time in my life every part of my body works together. No more fighting myself.
I leave a trail behind me of blood and pieces of shell that becomes less dense as we rise. The pain vanishes as I continue breathing underwater without fear and before we break the surface the water flowing out of my chest is clear.
Matching Sam’s speed my full body leaps out of the water. I attempt to do a flip mimicking Sam, but end up striking the surface full on with my back. Recovering from smacking the water, I rest, coughing out a vile mixture of water and grit still in my mouth. I keep coughing while Sam pushes my body from underneath, helping me to let air back into my original lungs. Floating on the surface in full sunlight I see my new glossy skin. Green, gold and blue hues sparkle with dark lines across the sides of my chest outlining the gashes now partially sealed when exposed to air.
I look for Key Largo, but it’s nowhere, but I recognize this place. It must be low tide as to the west I spot Disappearing Island just breaking the surface with a flock of seagulls enjoying the sanctuary and resting on the piano. I take some broad strokes with my arms and swim closer to the shore. Sliding over coarse shells, instead of cutting me the new skin easily deflects them sending warm shimmers through my body. I scoop up a handful of the crushed pieces and then rub them over my shoulder and their energy flows outward to the tips of my fingers. I roll in the shallows letting new parts of me experience the joy. By the time I stop there is a hole beneath me matching the size of my body. I’ve made a seashell angel. My hair now heavy with granules of dirt and shell hangs wet and straight, longer than in years. Out in the deeper water in the lagoon Sam waits, none of the other dolphins remain with him.
Now mentally invigorated but physically weak, I sit in the water, small waves still flowing in covering and then uncovering my tail when they retreat. Tail? My legs have shriveled to small nubs maybe useful for steering, while a tail has grown from beneath me. The same colors as my new skin but more intense dominate this new appendage. The tail appears juvenile ending in a partial fluke; somehow I know that it will grow larger and broader with age. I move my hand down the back of my spine and it continues into the tail. While morphing in my cocoon I’ve internally added vertebrae to my spine, continuing and forming multiple pieces of a true tailbone.
I admire this new part of me, holding it up out of the water, balancing with my arms, as I lean back against the sand as it rises. Only slightly above the water, new muscles fail to hold it aloft for long. Collapsing back into the water the tail splashes. While hidden I look rather normal, just a beach goer alone on a sand bar with no boat. Oh, and no bathing suit. The new skin covering me has a thin clear coating wrapping around me, while blue, green and gold emit from below. I wrap my arms around my chest now very aware that the next boat out will find this naked girl-fish. No boats are coming and I hold onto my seashell necklace the only thing that remains from my prior life hoping that Dillon doesn’t find me like this. Bizarre that Dillon, not Mom, is the first person I think of.
Red pigment flows through my skin starting at my head and rushing downward. My entire body turns red. Staring at my palms I only see a uniform red. I slowly rub my palms willing the stain to retreat and it fades leaving me with my original tan hand and bright red running down like sleeves. If only it wasn’t red. While in front of me the color grows darker until the arm is as black as a wetsuit. A wetsuit would be appropriate. I look at my hands and the darker pigment stops in a clear line around my wrists leaving my hands free and my reflection in the water confirms the extra pigment in my face has retreated to below my necklace. To boaters I’m no longer naked; just some crazy girl in a wetsuit sitting in the water. I run my fingers down my chest focusing on the touch and blue ink trails behind each connection until it fades back to black.
“You knew this, didn’t you Sam?” My voice cracks still getting use to air and sounds higher with new structures limiting my voice box. Clicks, whistles and squeals for “Play” echo back to me in the water vibrating up my spine. I push off of Disappearing Island to join my lively friend and as I swim underwater, I allow my skin to switch back to radiating blue, green and gold blending with the ocean. I use the new pathway in my throat to direct water away from my lungs and through the passage lined with cells that celebrate capturing the oxygen from the water. I try to call to my friend. Underwater my throat fails to vocalize words, but I am able to emit a squeal.
“Play,” he keeps repeating.
And I mimic, “Play,” as best as I can back at him.
Sam rises up from underneath me. I reach out with both arms, using my new tail to swim. I feel my muscles pulling and stretching, and enjoy the wonderful sensation, compared to the rips and tears that I was forced to endure when my skin fought against me. Sam and I match speed and I grab on to his fin. As soon as I get a grip he accelerates and together we dart through the water, side by side. Sam takes me around the island twice before returning to the cove. I release, and float in the shallow water. When my tail is fully-grown I’m going to race Sam. He’s fast but I know I can beat him one day.
The other dolphins return to Disappearing Island. I don’t know if they are here for Sam or me. I keep my distance, not approaching them, allowing them to make the first move. The mother with her newborn at her side is the first to approach. I didn’t anticipate this and it seems counterintuitive. The other members of the pod stay back keeping their distance. The mother slowly turns in front of me and begins to circle so that the baby swims feet from me with his mom on the outside. I place my right arm out and on the next pass the baby slides underneath my hand.
Sam let’s out a squeal, higher pitched than Play and the baby and mother stop swimming and hover next to me. The baby swims even closer allowing me to touch him. As I pet him he nods his head and a trail of bubbles escape. “I’ll call you Bubbles. Bubbles is your name.” More head nods from my new friend. His mother also approaches and lets me place my hand on her. With locked eyes the name of Sky seems attached to her face. As much as anyone can name another, I give her that name.
At the mechanical hum of an engine, I mentally shift my skin back to mimic a wetsuit. The dolphins also react, tightening up the group with Bubbles and Sky back into the middle, while Sam stays by my side. I keep low in the water not wanting to be spotted, but they are already close. The boat, on a course heading straight for my island, flies the Make a Wish flag. Dillon with binoculars rides at the front of the Fish ‘n Ship. He waves. I’ve already been spotted.
Past Disappearing Island the water remains calm and inviting. I could escape. Nobody would believe him. Fish-people don’t exist. But why are they here? And then I see Mom. With both arms waving she rushes to the front of the boat wearing a bright orange lifejacket.
“Kara!” across the water my mother screams for me.
I swim out to greet them, letting everyone see the real me. Using my new tail I glide at the surface, keeping my head out of the water. As I near the boat Mom jumps in. Never athletic it’s more of a fall. Thankfully Nick shuts off the engines, as the boat continues forward with her bobbing in the ocean next to it.
“What are you doing Mom?” She flails in the water doing the doggy paddle, and it looks ridiculous in a life jacket as she just ends up splashing herself.
“Stop. Let me come to you.”
Without the water splashing around her, I can finally see her face. No makeup, eyes red, she been crying. As I near her, Mom stretches out for me and we hug.
“Kara, I thought we lost you.”
“I’m good, better than good. Look at me.”
“Your face! All those lines that covered up your beautiful smile. It’s been so long.” She reaches out with her hand, letting it caress my check. “You look like you did when you were little.” We stay like that, together, rising up and down with the rolling waves, the longest she has held me in years.
When she finally releases me, I swim around her, letting the tail rise to the surface.
“Oh, Kara, that is going to take some time for me to get used to. Does it hurt?”
“No. Feels normal. I’m not sure what happened.”
“Grandma wouldn’t let me waste your last wish on hang-gliding, if there was any hope in the stories being true. You belong in the ocean, alive, not dying on land.”
“Mermaids. Look at you. You didn’t think mermaids were blondes or red-heads with pale skin?” Mom questions me. “They’re all natives.”
“So you knew?”
“Grandma knew, I thought she was crazy, but look at you, she was right. She made me promise to get you down here. I tried to argue with her.”
“Yes, debate her, and she convinced me to try. The worst result would be no change, and the best outcome this. You will live.”
“Are there others?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does Grandma know?”
“No, she doesn’t. I’m sorry. The stories are old, from before the tribe was forced to move.”
Mom in her orange lifejacket with her arms again wrapped around my body reminds me, “Kara, you’ve always been unique, you’re so special to me.”
Nick above us on the boat shouts down, “Everybody is unique, Kara, but you’re not alone.” He pulls up the sleeve on his shirt revealing an old tattoo. “I told you Dillon and I have matching tattoos.” Nick’s design lacks the bold colors of Dillon’s, instead it’s green and faded showing a female mermaid with long dark hair looking down at the face of a baby in her arms. Around the necks of both mother and child are seashell necklaces. “I’ve seen many things on the water and I can take you where I saw them.”
Morph, My Story, is a science fictionfantasy short story about Kara, a girl from Oklahoma that suffers from a unique terminal disease. On a trip to the Florida Keys sponsored by the Make a Wish Foundation she gets the chance to swim with dolphins, both wild and captured. It's a week of new experiences for a girl that never saw the ocean before. While her true wish remains to be free from the disease, maybe she will get what she needs on this trip. The story is told from the point of view of Kara. The disease has hardened and deformed her skin making her the subject of unwanted stares when in public. The simple act of smiling hurts, as she competes against her increasingly inflexible exterior. She lives her life in a shell and in the Florida Keys she gets the chance to break out.