This story garnered a Special Mention in the Society of Women Writers Victoria Short Fiction Awards (2015).
The monitors glowed lewd moonlight onto her pale face. Three sat on desks around her small room. The thick carpet rushed under her bare feet, feet running fast under the desk as she flicked her mouse through pages of research. Her school shirt flapped around her, too big, and the heat lying stagnant in the room caused a bead of sweat to push through the baby hair in her armpits and slide down the thin skin of her rib cage. Long cord worms were coiled around the desk legs. Static zapped through her with a quick lick of pain when she accidentally collided with the metal of the desk legs. She hardly noticed, she was wondering about a dolphin.
Earlier that night, when dinnertime had come and gone and she had crept into the kitchen for a sandwich she’d heard the story blaring out from the TV in the lounge. When she’d heard the word dolphin Louise had stopped, frozen in front of the fridge with a block of butter in hand. A dolphin had appeared in the Barwon Heads River, a teenage bottlenose dolphin. Louise had never been to Barwon Heads. Even though it was nearby, only twenty minutes away. She’d never been outside Drysdale. Her Mum said Drysdale had everything they needed, a pub, a mall with Target and a supermarket. She said if she could buy computers from China online then she didn’t need to go anywhere.
Louise rested her hands on the linoleum bench and pictured the silver dolphin swimming up and down the river. She felt her heart growing fast with blood in her chest. The bread was full of holes from the cold butter being dragged over it, but she stuffed it in her mouth and started making another one. A dolphin, so close to her. She stopped chewing for a second and listened as the fridge hummed. She wanted to go and see it, the free dolphin. She tiptoed into the lounge room, flopping crumbs from her bread all over the floor. She wanted to ask her Mum how to get there, to the river, so she swallowed the lumpy bread like she was a python. Her Mum was asleep in front of the blue light of the television with an empty bottle of Lambrusco beside her chair. Her cheeks sunk in and she breathed heavy, wet breaths through her open mouth. Louise squeezed her pimples until she felt them sigh as the pus spurted through the broken skin. Mum wouldn’t take her. She would have to go by herself.
Louise walked to school early and the place was a wasteland of grass squashed flat by so many school shoes. Her stomach rumbled. She had forgotten about breakfast and her Mum had forgotten to remind her. She looked down at her watch. It hung dangerously off her wrist but she couldn’t make the band smaller. The digital numbers said seven am and oh-five seconds. She forgot about being hungry and pushed open the door to the office. Some teachers were there but they didn’t really look at her, it wasn’t time for school yet so they weren’t watching for kids. She walked fast, cap pulled over her eyes, her backpack slapping against her sweaty back, skinny pin legs poking out of oversize blue shorts. She walked into the staff room. There was only one teacher in the room, Mrs Castle, reading the paper over by the sink, her fat back facing the door. She walked over to the table in the middle of the room, piled with newspapers and took a paper off the top. She let the door crash in the frame behind him as she ran out, hoping it would make Mrs Castle’s fat rolls jiggle. She streaked across the concrete courtyard and scaled the piping up onto the portable. From the top of the portable she could see enemies approaching from any angle or she could lie down and hide and no one could see her from the ground. She spread the paper in between her hands and there, on the front page, was a picture. There was a dolphin in the Barwon Heads River. She was sweating black ink onto her fingertips. Voices came shooting up to reach her, calling her name and she tucked the paper into her bag as Sam poked his head up over the roof.
You comin to English.
Nah. Im goin to Barwon Heads.
Louise climbed down after Sam into the roaring tide of school. Sam was taller but Louise was better at computers and that counted for everything. Sam had never been to Louise’s house and she had never been to Sam’s. They never called each other. Sam didn’t have an iphone anyway. He said he was getting one soon and would get Louise to jailbreak it. Louise said it would cost him ten dollars just like everyone else. They met in the morning before class, sometimes on the roof, sometimes over by the fence at the far end of the school. They didn’t know if they were friends but they talked sometimes and other people said they were. Sam had an eye that looked at you the wrong way, he called it lazy. Louise thought maybe it made him clever because he could see in two directions at once.
How you goin to get there?
Yeah. Louise didn’t know you could get a bus there. She’d never had to get a bus before.
I’m goin to English.
She wondered if she would be able to get the bus today. She didn’t know where they went from or how to do it. She stood there until the concrete was empty and then she followed Sam to English. In class, she pulled out Sarah Cheswick’s iphone and started jailbreaking. Sarah had already paid her ten dollars and Louise had said she could have it back after second period. Someone was calling her name, the teacher was asking her to read something but she didn’t have any books in front of her. Sam passed the book to her and pointed to the paragraph. Louise couldn’t put the words together. She felt the burn of stress in her brain and all her thoughts jumbled together like multiple tabs and pop up ads on her computers. Next thing the teacher had her standing out the front of the class. The class was laughing and she looked down to see if she was still herself. She was still holding Sarah Cheswick’s pink iphone in her hand when she was sent to see the principal.
She walked home across the dusty ground, hands in pockets, bag flapping against her back in time with her steps. Her house was one block from the school but she always left for the walk across the schoolyard when everyone else had gone.
Her Mum had forgotten to leave her dinner again so she pressed two white bread slices over a piece of cheese and ate it in front of the computer while she scanned the picture of the dolphin from the newspaper and made it the background on all three of her computers. She spread out the newspaper on her bed and looked at the picture again, just a fin in yellow river water. She slowly read the article, sounding out the long words carefully. The paper said the dolphin was there because it was scared to go back under the bridge out to sea. Someone had named the dolphin in the river; they’d named him Archie.
She opened some pages in Safari and found the McHarry’s bus lines website, it was so old that they just listed the links to the timetables and didn’t have any pictures. She copied the bus timetable from Drysdale to Barwon Heads onto her desktop. It said a bus went every two hours. She would have to change buses in Ocean Grove. This Saturday she would get on the bus and go to see the dolphin.
She broke into the McHarry’s website and pasted a photo of a revolving magic eye on a loop on top of their timetables. Louise went to brush her teeth, the house was black around her and it didn’t look like her Mum was home. The bathroom mirror swung her splotchy face back at her and she picked a scab off her chin and licked at the blood as it came out.
She got to English the next day and Sam was there, one eye watching the door and the other watching the teacher. The teacher glanced up and lifted an eyebrow. They were reading Macbeth out loud. Louise’s feet ran fast under the desk, she picked at her face and pulled at her hair. She got out one of her phones and started mucking around with the school’s website, pasted pop up ads onto the homepage and ordered forty pizzas online through the principal’s email address. She didn’t notice the class getting up to leave until Sam started tugging her shirt.
Ms. Finn kept her back and said some things at her, Louise shuffled her school shoes over the thin blue carpet trying to make static and was sent to see the principal again. The principal asked if she knew how many times already this year she had been sent to talk to him. Louise answered, twenty-three including the time when the principal came to get her himself from English. The principal asked if Louise knew why she was here this time. Louise shrugged and watched a moth at the window, battling against the glass. Something has to change, said the principal. Louise watched the moth try to escape.
At lunchtime she climbed onto the portable, scaring the huge black crows that hung around waiting for the lunch scraps. Louise looked over the dusty oval and opened the map app on her phone; she looked at the distance from Drysdale to Barwon Heads. The river was a blue line inside yellow and green and the directions said it would only take three hours and sixteen minutes to walk from the roof of the portable to the river. She wondered if fifty dollars was enough money to get the bus from Drysdale. She googled, ‘how much is bus from dyrsdale to barwon heads river’ but was linked to the magic eye on the McHarry’s website. She guessed that fifty dollars would be enough for two bus trips. The bell sounded again and Louise had missed Science. Sam poked his head over the top of the portable.
You missed Science.
What you doin on the weekend?
Louise didn’t do much on weekends apart from work on a blog about how to beat the security on computer software. But this weekend would be different, this weekend she was getting out of Drysdale.
She looked into Sam’s good eye and said,
Sam got the hint and dropped out of sight. Louise waited for everyone to leave before she got down from the portable.
Louise woke up to bubbles on three screensavers bouncing silently around her computer screens. She put on her school uniform and swung her backpack over her shoulders. She walked along hot asphalt, across the dust of the empty school and into the mall car park filled with cars. She looked for people waiting, for a bus stop sign, but everyone was moving. No one stood still in car parks. She pulled the straps on her backpack tighter around her shoulders and scrunched her face up against the sun. Light belted off the cars and into her squinting eyes she saw a bunch of people by the road, waiting. They looked like they didn’t have cars for their big, seagull white plastic bags lolling on the pavement next to them. Louise stood apart from them but close enough that she wouldn’t be left behind. She scuffed her school shoes up against the curb. Up and down, one side and then the other, making grey scratches in the leather. A red and white bus pulled in with a quick slap smell of rubber and a sigh. Louise climbed in and thrust the driver her fifty-dollar note. The driver scoffed at the note but Louise swallowed and thrust it again, this time asking for a return to the Barwon Heads river.
Stops in Barwon Heads, not on the river. You’ll have to change in Ocean Grove.
Louise nodded. The driver tsked as he handed Louise forty-eight dollars change in small notes and coins. Louise slid down on the red leather seat and flipped her backpack onto her lap, hugged it into her chest and felt the bus jerk onto the road. She saw cows, just out of town, and farmhouses and bike riders. The bus sighed again and Louise looked up.
Last stop, love.
Louise shuffled down the aisle and everyone else from the bus was already gone.
She stood in Ocean Grove and started looking for more people waiting. The town was swarming with people, cars and dogs. She tucked through the bodies easily, walking up and down the main street until she saw a small red and white bus stop sign poking up next to the chicken shop. There were people waiting, all standing alone. Louise stood, holding her ticket and feeling sweat falling off her. She noticed that it was the same stop she had got off at. A bus pulled up and Louise sat in the front seat behind the driver. She watched as the ocean came over the hill and she looked and looked at the blue. Then suddenly they were out on the bridge and water glimmered on both sides. The bus stopped on a corner around from the river and Louise got off.
She walked past clouds of people drinking coffee in cafes and down to the bridge. Her shoes sunk at funny angles into the sand and she felt a trickle going into her sock. She walked to a quiet spot further along the river and stood right at the edge of the water so the water licked at her shoes. She watched the river until her legs got tired and then kept watching. Then she saw it, a fin spiking up and dipping down into the yellowy water. The silky creature, a real dolphin, was swimming along in the middle of the river. It just swam wherever it wanted as she watched.
Her skin rippled with goose bumps and Louise turned to find the beach empty of people. She turned back to see the dolphin one last time but it had gone, hiding in the calm river as the ocean raged outside. Louise walked back through the empty streets and back to the bus stop. She watched the night fall tightly around her outside the halo of the streetlight. She waited by herself at the bus stop, the ticket already in her hand.