It wasn’t a greeting I was used to hearing and I ignored it at first, presuming the voice I’d heard from behind me was calling out to somebody else.
“Hey! I mean you,” the voice continued. There was something slightly shrill and quite insistent about it. Looking around, I saw the strangest, most captivating, beguiling smile I had ever seen. Long, dark hair cascaded over her shoulders, a little wild and unkempt and her eyes seemed so… so… well, so wide and deep, like they held the ocean inside them. I dropped my gaze, as I think I was starting to stare. I must have blushed a little.
As I say, not a greeting I was used to hearing and when I had wandered into the aquarium that afternoon, I wasn’t expecting anyone to hit on me, if that was what she was doing. I had been leaning over the big open pool and, ignoring the “do not touch the fish” sign, was stroking the wing of a cute little stingray, which seemed to be enjoying the attention. I had noticed the creature gliding gracefully through the water, pressing its lips up against the glass of the tank. I thought it looked rather sad.
Silly really, as I am sure fish do not have facial expressions. Dolphins, perhaps, and I had just seen a dolphin in the previously unoccupied sea mammal viewing tanks. They used to have a small dolphinarium but, after several campaigns by animal activists, they no longer kept any. The aquarium said they were looking after just this one dolphin after it had injured itself in some fishing nets. The presence of a lone dolphin had proved to be something of a crowd pleaser, which was why I was in the open pool area and not the mini dolphinarium. I don’t like crowds.
“Aw, don’t go all shy on me,” said the young woman, bringing me back to the present. “I don’t bite… well not often,” she said laughing. I had to laugh with her. I was behaving a bit like a silly schoolboy. “I’m Cordelia, by the way.”
“Greg,” I said, smiling and holding my hand down to her, which she took and squeezed rather than shook.
“Ah, so polite, as well as shy. How cute.”
I laughed again. “Sorry, but it’s… it’s just that… well, I’m not often described as handsome.” As I said this, my hand went up, unconsciously, to the deep scarring that covered half my face. Cordelia smiled, sympathetically.
“You’re a bit like me, then” she said. I wondered what she meant. I could see no blemish to mar her cool, clear skin, and she seemed to me, if anything, strikingly beautiful, in a mysterious sort of way. “Damaged goods,” she added, by way of explanation, nodding down at a colorful blanket that covered her lower body in the wheelchair. I felt a bit awkward at that and wasn’t sure what to say.
Breaking the silence, Cordelia suggested we go get something to drink in the aquarium’s little café and I readily agreed. It was great to talk to somebody new and interesting and, well, funny and attractive at the same time. I went to grab the handles at the back of the wheelchair but thought better of it. Cordelia led the way, powering the wheels forward with her arms, and I followed. She found a place by the window, overlooking the beech, and shoved a chair out of her way, to make room at the table.
Over coffee we talked about the aquarium and all the fish and other creatures exhibited there and discussed whether it was cruel to keep them in captivity. We talked about how beautiful the sea looked in the afternoon sunshine, and we both admired the foaming surf sliding in towards the shingle beach. Listening to Cordelia talk about waves crashing on the shore and the beauty of the deep was fascinating. The more she spoke, the more captivating I found her. I felt like I was sinking into her breathtaking blue eyes, which were so dark they were almost black and seemed to have a depth that went on forever. When she spoke or smiled, she revealed sharp little teeth that were almost predatory. I found myself feeling a little giddy just looking at her. I wanted to say how beautiful she was but ended up merely complimenting her on the lovely pinkish coral she was wearing on a gold chain around her neck. She gave a little laugh as if she knew how uncomfortable she was starting to make me feel.
As time went on, and we began to run out of conversation, I thought she might be about to leave. I tried to pluck up the courage to ask her if we could meet again some time when an alarm went off and a security guard came in and said that there was nothing to worry about, but would we mind all leaving, please. It was an emergency of some kind. People started to get up and move out and then the security guard, noticing the wheelchair, asked if ‘my friend’ needed any help. I was just thinking of something clever to say like ‘why don’t you ask her’ when Cordelia answered for herself.
“Oh, don’t worry about me, thanks,” she said. “I have my Sir Galahad with me.” As we waited for the others to leave the café, Cordelia looked up at me with the sweetest smile, saying: “You will help me, won’t you?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said, flattered that she wanted me to stay with her. Noticing another security man walk past, I asked him what was up.
“Dolphin escaped,” he said.
“What?” I said, wondering how a dolphin could escape from a water tank and not be found flapping around on the floor nearby.
“Beats me,” he added, shrugging, before striding off through a door marked ‘restricted’.
When I turned back to Cordelia, I thought she looked a little tense. “Don’t worry,” I said, grinning. “I won’t let it bite you.” She said nothing and gave me an unconvincing half smile. In any case, we needed to go. By the time we got to the front entrance, we were the last visitors to leave.
“I’m afraid you can't take the wheelchair outside,” said the guard at the door, again speaking to me and not Cordelia. I hadn’t, until then, noticed that the wheelchair had the Aquarium’s logo printed on the bar at the back.
“Can we use the rear exit to the car park?” Cordelia asked. “I can get straight into the car from there,” she said, looking up at the guard appealingly. I wondered if she had driven herself there or had someone waiting for her, and I started to feel a little disappointed, thinking that she might already have someone else. The guard nodded us to go ahead, and we started to hurry to the back of the building as I held open doors for Cordelia, and she wheeled herself through. We headed for the back door and had to pass the room with the big observation tank where the dolphin had been kept and…. escaped from? Surely there must be some mistake, I thought, and I peered through the glass into the tank to see if it was in there hiding somewhere, but the tank was one big open space with a huge glass screen one side, facing into the adjacent public area. Apart from a few wavy fronds of seaweed, there was nothing in it but water.
Cordelia suddenly stopped and turned the wheelchair around to stare at me intently. “Look,” she said, her voice now urgent and imperative. “I really do need your help…”
“Of course. What do you want me to do?”
“I need you to wheel me outside, then carry me down the steps to the beach. Hurry! Before anyone sees us”
“What?” I asked, wondering why getting onto the beach right now was so important.
“Will you help me, or won’t you?” She was starting to sound quite aggressive. “All I want you to do is pick me up and carry my down to the water’s edge.”
I hesitated, not sure what to say. Then in frustration Cordelia pulled the blanket aside a little to reveal what looked like a sleek and shiny, leathery blue/grey coat or other covering. With further hesitation on my part, she pulled the covering right over so that I could see. What was it? No, no, no, surely not…
“Ahhhh!” I almost screamed as I saw that, below the waist she had no legs but a thick, blue, solid single trunk like a, like a, a… I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It wasn’t a coat or a costume of any kind, it was living flesh and it wasn’t human.
“You see now?” she screeched, horribly. “You see why I need your help? If they put me back in that tank, I will die. Alone and away from my family. Please help me. Please, please, please, I need you. Take me down to the sea where I belong and away from this prison and a certain and horrible death.”
By then, my heart was racing, I was panting, gasping and, with a scream, I ran, in complete panic, for the door. Sprinting out of the building, I didn’t look back but ran and ran away from this bizarre nightmare. Then I stopped, conscience pricking me, and turned back.
The poor girl, I thought, as I headed back at a jog, wondering what I was going to do when I got there. I only knew it was cowardly to run off like that. I must go back to Cordelia and do whatever I could. She was only asking me to carry her down to the water, after all. I could see why she was so desperate to get back to the place where she belonged, even though I still could not believe what I had seen. How can she have possibly found herself in this position?
I burst through the back door and into the tank room. The lights were off, but I could just see, at the edge of the water tank, the wheelchair lying on its side, in a big puddle of water. I looked around for Cordelia but couldn’t see her anywhere and she could hardly have run off. She must have somehow clambered over the top of the tank. It was the only explanation. I was starting to feel dizzy and wanted to leave again, to walk away from what I couldn’t possibly understand, but I didn’t. Drawn forward towards the tank I peered through the viewing glass.
At the far side of the pool, I saw movement, a vague movement, a darkened form gliding through water, the up and down motion of a tail fin. The shape turned and shot directly at me, at the observation glass, and then turned aside.
It was a dolphin, and it had something tied around its neck.
As I stood there, shivers running up my spine, the dolphin flipped her upper body above the water, covering me in a huge wave and hitting me in the face with something small and hard, before swimming around to the shadows at the far side of the pool. I grabbed the delicate gold chain and, opening my hand, stared at the little pink coral that Cordelia had been wearing.
Standing there, wet through, I began to shiver, but not from the cold.
* * * * *
© Raymond G. Taylor
You can see more of my work on my vocal blog:
Author of Run with the Pack, Short and Sweet, and A Town Called Raymond
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.