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Where Dolphins Go by Peggy Webb

Chapter One

Forgetfulness came quicker if he mixed bourbon with his beer.

Paul left his chair by the window, proud of how he could hide his condition as he walked to the closet where he kept his waders. He swayed a little at the door, then caught the knob to steady himself.

"Whoa, boy. Can't have Bill find you like this . . . good old Bill." He opened the door and reached inside the deep rubber boot. His hand closed around the bot¬tle.

"Be mad as hell if he caught his good old buddy having a little afternoon boilermaker."

Carrying the whiskey close to his chest, he made his careful way back to the desk. His hand shook only a little as he poured the liquor into his can of beer. Whis¬key sloshed over the side of the can and pooled on the scarred desktop.

Paul stared at the stain awhile, as if it affronted him. Then he shrugged and lifted the can to his lips.

"Physician, heal thyself."

He closed his eyes, waiting for the warm gray fog to settle over him, waiting for the blessed numbness to overtake his brain. The only thing that overtook him was the certainty that the next day he'd have a hang¬over.

In the holding pen outside Paul's window, a huge dolphin surfaced and slapped his tail in the water.

"Not today, Ferguson. Can't come out and play to¬day."

The great tail hit the water once more, and Paul turned to look out his window. Ferguson circled round and round in the pool, occasionally rising up in a foun¬tain of spray, his body glinting silver in the bright hot summer sun.

Across the pool Bill McKenzie stood with his back toward Paul, talking to a woman. She was half-hidden behind Bill, but Paul could see enough to know that she was fair and slim, bordering on skinny, and that she had a quiet face with big earnest eyes.

For a moment Paul's curiosity was stirred.

The woman talked with her hands. Her body lan¬guage was urgent, almost intimate; and her movements were graceful and eloquent, like music come to life.

Music come to life? He was drunker than he thought— or perhaps not drunk enough.

Paul saluted the woman with his beer can. "Here's to you, whoever you are." The beer had gotten piss warm, but he didn't care. As long as it anesthetized.

He reached for the whiskey bottle and poured an¬other shot down the small elliptical hole. Might as well make sure.

Outside in the holding pen, Ferguson began to chor¬tle and squeak. What was Bill doing? They had done vocalization studies with Fergie that morning.

Paul turned back to the window. The first thing he saw was the child, a tiny tousle-haired boy, sitting in his stroller, pale and motionless as a porcelain doll. His head lolled to one side, and his arms and legs stuck out as if they had no relation to his body. He looked like a Tinkertoy put together wrong.

Paul clutched his beer can so hard, the sides began to buckle. The child gazed into the water, helpless, while the woman with the solemn face leaned toward Bill.

The little fact was so still, so still.

"For God's sake, Paul. Do something. DO SOME¬THING!"

Caught in a time warp, Paul stared out the window.

As the aluminum gave way under the pressure, liquid ran down his hand, his arm. He didn't notice. All his attention was focused on the child, the silent, needy child.

A wave of dizziness came, followed by nausea. Even in his semi-anesthetized state, Paul knew it wasn't the boilermaker at work: it was the past with its ghosts that wouldn't let go and its memories that crawled out of the dark corners of his mind when he least expected them.

"No . . . God . . . no." He stood up fast, knock¬ing his chair over. With his fingers still sunk into the sides of the beer can, he went to the refrigerator and leaned his forehead against the cool door. An image of the child wavered, faded, then came back with a ven¬geance.

Paul clutched his stomach and heaved. Nothing came up except guilt and pain—and the memory of a tiny face, looking up at him with big pleading eyes.

"Paul?" The outside door to the combination office- feeding room clicked shut behind Bill. "Are you all right?"

Paul felt the hand on his shoulder, large, warm, the hand of friendship and compassion. He had promised Bill he would do better. And he really had tried. Oh, Lord, how he had tried.

He turned to face his friend. "You don't deserve this, old buddy. I'll give you my written notice tomorrow."

"Like hell you will. You can't keep running."

"I can't keep accepting your charity."

"This is not charity, it's a job. And you're going to stick with it until you can pull yourself together."

Bill's pale red freckles nearly disappeared in the color that flushed his face as he pried the can from Paul's hand. "Dammit, Paul. I'm not going to let you kill yourself—at least not on my turf."

Bill strode to the desk, jerked up the bottle, and flung it into the garbage can along with the beer. Metal clanged against metal. Broken glass tinkled. Bill stared into the wreckage, his chest heaving.

Paul was not too far gone to see past his friend's anger into his pain. He didn't like to see Bill hurting. More than that, he didn't like to be the cause.

"I'm sorry, Bill. I tried to wait until I got out of here." Paul ran his hands through his hair, hating the way they trembled. "Sometimes life seems so damned . . . useless."

Bill hung his head and cursed the floor until all the anger went out of him. Then he sagged, like a sack of potatoes settling into place.

He put both hands on Paul's shoulders. "You can't keep doing this to yourself. You, of all people, should know better."

"Guilty, as charged.”

"You need a challenge . . . something more than feeding dolphins."

"The dolphins don't expect much of me except a few buckets of fish. I like it that way."

"I don't. It's a waste, Paul." The air around Bill seemed to stir and hum as he made his way to the swivel chair. Hurricane Bill, employees at the center fondly called their director. He picked up a pencil and twirled it between his fingers. "You're wasting your life here at the center, and I can't seem to do a damned thing about it."

"It's not your place, Bill. You and Maggie have been wonderful to me."

"You'd do the same for me if you could." Bill studied the gaunt man leaning beside the refrigerator, then threw the pencil onto the desk. It bounced and rolled across the concrete floor, stopping inches from Paul's feet.

Paul picked it up and put it back on the desk. "You dropped this."

"Son of a gun." Bill grinned. "Half-crocked and still trying to get me to control my temper."

"It's bad for your blood pressure."

"Maggie will thank you. Probably with one of her chicken casseroles." Bill doodled around the edges of the desk calendar, turning the one into a stick figure, putting ears and a tail on the eight. Then he sat back in his chair, tapping the pencil against his teeth and studying his artwork.

Paul waited. He had nothing else to do except go to bleak bare walls and functional furniture, an empty space that didn’t even deserve to be called home. Bill would insist on driving him, and Paul would consent. He had no intention of adding highway murder to his list of" sins.

"A woman came to see me today," Bill said. "A woman and a little boy."

Paul went very still.

"Her name is Susan . . . Susan Riley. She knew about the center from that article in the newspaper last week."

There had been many articles written about Dr. Bill McKenzie and the research he did with dolphins. The most recent one, though, had delved into the personal¬ity of the dolphins themselves. An enterprising reporter had done his homework. Dolphins, he had written, relate well to people. Some even seem to have extrasen¬sory perception. They seem to sense when a person is sick or hurt or depressed.

"Here little boy has a condition called truncus arteri-osus." Bill squinted in the way he always did when he was judging a person's reaction.

Paul was careful not to show one. Truncus arteriosus. A condition of the heart. Malfunctioning arteries. Surgery re¬quired.

"Bill, I don't practice medicine anymore."

"I'm not asking you to practice medicine. I'm asking you to listen."

"I'm listening."

"The boy was scheduled for surgery, but he had a stroke before it could be performed."

For God's sake, Paul. Do something. DO SOMETHING!

Paul held up his hand. "Don’t go any further with this, Bill.”

"Just listen, Paul. The child is depressed, doesn't respond to anything, anybody. She thought the dolphins might be the an¬swer. She wanted to bring him here on a regular basis."

"You told her no, of course."

"I'm a marine biologist, not a psychologist." Bill slumped in his chair. "I told her no."

"The child needs therapy, not dolphins."

"That's what I thought, but now I’m not so sure.”Bill gave Paul that squinty-eyed look. "You're a doctor, Paul. Maybe if I let her bring the boy here during feeding times.”

"No. Dammit, Bill. Look at me. I can't even help myself, let alone a dying child and a desperate mother."

Bill looked down at his shoes and counted to ten under his breath. When he looked up Paul could see the pity in his eyes.

He hated that most of all.