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"Do I get to swim with the dolphins today?" Zachary Haas asked, his bright blue eyes shining with excitement as he looked up from his wheelchair at Mike Fontana.
Mike crouched down even with Zach. "Absolutely."
The boy's wheelchair was parked at the edge of the dolphin pen forged out of the waters around Key Biscayne. Humidity soaked the air and sunshine sparkled off the ripples made by the swiftly moving dolphins, their slick torsos shimmering when they surfaced to breathe.
"Got to feed them first, though," Zach said, and lowered himself out of his wheelchair. A form of meningitis had taken all four of the boy's limbs, leaving stumps where his arms and legs should have been.
Still in a crouch, Mike eased a bucket of fish over Zach's shoulder. The boy crimped his neck to hold tight to the handle and started forward onto a dock left over from the years when Dolphin Key had been a marina. A lagoon now rested where Key Biscayne residents had once stored their boats in private slips before Hurricane Andrew had struck the island in 1992. Fences extending all the way to the bottom rose three feet out of the water, joining a trio of man-made jetties in isolating the pair of dolphin pens. Three lime-colored buildings with peelingpaint stood fifty yards from the grassy shoreline, up a slight natural hillside.
"I hope he's hungry," Zach said, propelling himself along on his stumps as Mike kept pace with him.
They reached the end of the dock and Mike lowered Zach to the floating platform where Dolphin Key's head trainer, Gus Anton, was waiting. The boy angled his entire body to the right to ease the bucket off his shoulder onto the wet wood. An intern named Martha Wallick sat down on the dock behind them, notebook in hand, and Mike nodded to Gus, who leaned over and clicked his fingers in the water to call the dolphin over.
Directly across the lagoon, two more morning sessions atop identical platforms had just gotten underway as well, the scene looking very much the same. Trainer, therapist, and dolphin joined in the common goal of helping the child who sat amidst them. The goal might have been the same, but the cases never were. Autism on Platform 1, word and speech recognition on Platform 2, and Zach here on 3.
"Good girl, George," Mike said, as Gus tossed a small herring to the dolphin who had just popped her head above the surface. Then, to Zach, "Your turn."
Zach anchored a pair of tongs between his neck and shoulder and leaned over toward the wet platform surface. Keeping his head cocked to control them, he lowered the tongs into the bucket and snagged a capelin that he promptly lowered over the water. George opened her mouth gratefully and Zach eased up the pressure on the tongs enough to release the fish straight in.
"Bull's-eye!" Mike complimented, and Gus Anton signaled George to spin in the air directly before the boy.
Zach was already stabbing the tongs into the bucket for another fish. He pulled out a squid this time and dropped it tentacles first toward George's mouth. He missed but the dolphin gobbled it from the surface, and Gus signaled George to wave her flipper as she backpedaled in the water.
Zach shifted his shoulders together as if he were clapping, giggling with appreciation. The tongs slipped to the platform in the process, but he quickly retrieved them and plunged them back into the bucket.
"He likes herring best," the boy said, after George swallowed a second and a third he'd plucked out nimbly.
"She," Mike corrected. "Want to throw her a ball next?"
Zach looked at the dolphin, then nodded.
Mike reached behind him and grabbed a light rubber ball out of a milk crate that had been waiting for him on the platform. He pushed backward to widen the distance from Zach and then tossed the ball lightly forward. The boy leaned over and trapped it between his neck and jaw, then twisted his entire body to the right. The ball sailed sideways, hitting the water a foot in front of George.
"Hey," Mike said, beaming, "got it the first time today. Now let's see how you catch."
Before them, George retrieved the ball and tossed it back with a flip of her nose. The ball landed just short of Zach and plopped onto the platform with a small splash. The boy leaned over and squeezed it between his head and shoulder.
"Girls can't throw," he said.
"Not as good as you."
"Can we swim now?"
"You're the boss."
Mike slipped gently into the lagoon first and then easedZach in after him. He made sure the boy's yellow life belt was tight and then cradled Zach in against his chest before paddling away from the platform.
"What should we try first?" Mike asked.
"You got it," Mike said and leaned back. On the platform Gus fed George a fish and gave her the proper hand signal.
In the next instant, Mike felt the dolphin's powerful nose jam up against his foot and begin to push. Immediately he was being propelled backward through the water, Zach squealing with delight in his arms. George circled them back to the platform where Gus was ready with another snack.
"How about a ball push next?" Mike suggested.
"So let's go for it."
"Here it comes," said Martha, the intern, from the platform.
She put her notebook down and tossed the rubber ball out into the water. Mike gave Zach enough slack to crimp his body over and capture it, just as he had on the platform. The boy maneuvered the ball against his chest, and George approached from the front, her nose riding over the water enough to lodge against the ball. Again she pushed her passengers in a circle that ended back at the platform in cadence with a soft chorus of whistle blows from Gus.
"I want to get in the water with George," Zach said, as the dolphin rose eagerly before Gus for another fish.
"I mean swim in the water with her. For real. On my own. Like other kids."
Mike looked up at Gus, who was glaring at the birds that had gathered atop the railing behind them, waiting to stealwhatever fish eluded George. Mike heard him mutter something in German under his breath.
"How about next time?" Mike asked Zach.
"So long as you're patient with me."
Copyright © 1999 by Jon Land