The swimming felt hard, much harder than it had felt just a few minutes ago chasing the fish. After a minute, he looked up to check his progress and realized he was further out than when he started for shore. Suddenly, going down to the beach alone before breakfast felt like the worst idea he’d ever had in his life.
He shifted to treading water. The ocean was extremely still. The playful waves he had been enjoying seemed to have vanished. “I always thought the rip tide was rough,” he accused.
“Not always,” said a voice.
Quinn kicked around and saw a woman swimming behind him. “The rip tide can be very gentle.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“I live over there.” The woman lifted an arm out of the water to point in the direction of the bluffs. “I saw you struggling and thought you might need a hand. Unfortunately, I don’t have any life preservers. Come on. You have to swim sideways to the current. If you swim against it, you’ll exhaust yourself and drown.”
She led and Quinn followed, an ebb and flow dance as the tide hauled them out to the deep sea. The water, which had been summer warm, felt terribly cold so far out, and Quinn started to worry about hypothermia. “Here, you’re not doing so well,” she said. “Hold on to me.”
“I’ll sink you!”
“No, don’t worry. I’m a strong swimmer.” Quinn wrapped his arms around the woman’s neck, making promises to himself to let go and drown rather than take her down with him. But she seemed almost undisturbed by the ocean’s pull. “I see a boat over there; we’re going to head for it. Keep your head above water!” With a start, Quinn pulled up. He thought they were free of the rip tide now, the water didn’t feel so forced. But he didn’t think he could have swum even if there had been no current at all. He held on to the woman’s neck and hoped her strength would be enough for both of them.
“Are you some kind of mermaid?”
She laughed, and he realized he’d spoken aloud. “No. I’m just a very good swimmer.”
The motorboat grew closer, and when the woman hailed it, it powered over to them. It was a little speedboat. A speck of salvation in a vast grave. Suddenly, warm hands hoisted Quinn up by the shoulders and someone wrapped a blanket around him. “You have to help her!” he insisted.
“Nah,” said one of the fishermen. “That’s Maryann. She can take care of herself.”
Quinn looked back towards the ladder he had just been hauled up and saw a gray tail flip up in the distance. He tried to stand but crashed forward into the deck instead.
“Easy there. You need to keep moving, but not like that.” Someone helped him up onto a padded bench.
Around chattering teeth, Quinn argued, “But she’s a … she’s a…”
“Dolphin,” said one of the fishermen firmly. Quinn blinked at him. “What’s she d-d-doing here?” he asked. The boat rounded and headed in for shore, and Cliff heard another of the men on a cell phone talking to emergency services.
The one who had known Maryann’s name and called her a dolphin said, “Couple of years ago she washed up at the science center all busted up like she’d run afoul of a boat. Her dorsal fin was a mess. They didn’t think they could keep her alive, much less rehab her. But they worked on her, and the staff swore sometimes they saw a woman swimming around in her tank. By and by, she got better, and then one day, she just left. Now, she hangs out and watches for swimmers caught in the rip. She’s trying to pay back a debt.”
“Alright, and she’s a…”
“She’s a dolphin. If she was anything else, do you think they’d let her swim free?”
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.