Sixteen-year-old Jane longs for the life of a dolphin. Wild. Graceful. Free. But between her mother’s strict rules and the cliques at school, she feels strapped into a child-sized life vest.
It’s not until Jane gets a tattoo and befriends popular Sam Rojas, a star on the school’s swim team, that her life feels a little freer. She begins to wonder: Is there a way to be an individual and not be alone?
While she navigates these murky waters, a wave of events crash down on her, separating her from her family, her best friend Lexie and Sam, who Jane’s fallen fin over tail for. Now she must figure out how to surf through rough seas without having everything she cares about pulled under.
DOLPHIN GIRL, author Shel Delisle’s debut novel, is a story of family, friendship, first loves and most importantly – freedom.
I never knew how painful this would be.
That’s what I was thinking—what I was about to say aloud to Lexie—when Tattoo Man asks, “How come a dolphin?”
“Everyone comes in here with a reason for why they get inked, and everyone has a reason for what they pick.” He harrumphs at himself while the needle pricks the skin on my lower back. Tears flash, blurring my vision. “You should tell me. It’ll take your mind off the hurt.”
From my awkward belly-down position on this imitation dentist chair, I catch glimpses of Tattoo Man’s arms and hands. If this wasn’t just another steamy day in South Florida, you’d swear he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. But he’s not. It’s his tats, solid from shoulder to fingertips.
Lexie and Desiree—my partners in crime—wait for me, sitting along the wall in metal chairs with shredded black leather seats. Lexie rests the back of her hand against her mouth, and I can’t figure out if she’s holding back a laugh or a shriek of utter horror. Desiree’s flipping through some magazine. Organic Gardening, or something like that.
“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” Tattoo Man sings.
“Rod Stewart. You know him, right?”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “How much longer?” I ask.
“A little bit. You might as well tell me why a dolphin. Unless you like it when I sing you oldies.”
Not especially. “Okay. Why a dolphin? I think the whole thing comes from this time when I was around five years old.”
“You’re eighteen now?”
And so I tell Tattoo Man the story of when our next-door neighbors at the time—the Mitchells—bought a third-hand boat and invited us to go for a cruise. The strangest thing is my almost total recall of that day. The way the wood dock creaked as we walked toward their boat. The strips of space between the boards, where I could see and smell the salt water below. I remember feeling afraid that my sandals might catch on the edge of one of those boards and I would fall through the crevice.
The gaps were way too small for that to happen, probably only three or four inches wide, but I worried about it anyway. Apparently, so did my mom.
“Careful, Jane!” she said, gripping my wrist as tightly as a knotted shoelace.
At the boat, Mr. Mitchell lifted me up and over onto the deck. He handed Mom an orange life vest.
“Here you go.” She wrestled it over my head. It smelled wet and a little dusty, like it had been buried somewhere. “This will keep you safe.” Mom emphasized every word as she pulled the straps taut.
The back of the jacket had this huge cushion roll that kept my head immobile and made it practically impossible to look around without turning my whole body. “Take it off,” I begged. “It’s uncomfortable.”
“It’s for your protection. In case you fall in the water.”
“John isn’t wearing one,” I complained.
“John’s almost eight.”
“I won’t get hurt. I’m a good swimmer.” Which was 100% true. I’d taken swim lessons the summer before, and the instructor had called me a little fish.
Suddenly, the needle stings and Tattoo Man says, “So you want a dolphin ’cause you’re a good swimmer. Makes sense.”
“No,” I say, “there’s more to the story.”
“There always is.”
“Well, really, there was no use arguing with my mom about the life vest.”
Because it was not coming off, no matter how much I yanked at it or made faces or hurky-jerked around like I was being tortured. So I finally sank into one of the seats and decided to make the best of it.
After all, the sun was shining and once we’d pulled out of the marina, Mr. Mitchell sped up. A clean breeze blew into my face, whipping my long hair behind me. The only thing that could have made it better would’ve been convincing Mom to take the life jacket off. Or, at least, loosen it a little.
Finally we made our way out of the Intracoastal.
“Let’s open her up.” Mr. Mitchell pushed the throttle forward, and we took off, skimming along waves.
Even eleven years later in this sterile tattoo parlor, I can smell the gasoline, salt water and seaweed. I can still feel the wind blowing in my face. I can practically taste the spray that landed on my lips. It’s weird to remember every single detail, every single sensation after so much time has passed.
Eventually, when we were a ways offshore, Mr. Mitchell cut the engine. “Look there.” He pointed at a spot we’d just gone past. All I could see was the sun reflecting off the waves as the boat rocked back and forth, but Mr. Mitchell didn’t lower his arm. “C’mere, Jane.” He pulled me over to him and let me follow along the site line of his finger. “See them?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. And then, a fin broke the surface of the water.
“Is that a shark?” I asked. I knew all about sharks because John had played for a baseball team that had one as their mascot. But even as I asked this question, I knew it was definitely not a shark. The shape rolled forward until there was only a hint of its tail.
Mr. Mitchell’s finger tracked one as it resurfaced. “A dolphin. I’d guess a bottlenose. Keep watching, you’ll probably see the others.”
I did. They surged alongside the boat and then swam to the front of it. Mr. Mitchell and Dad took me up there to get a closer look.
“Make sure you have a good hold on her, Tom.” Mom’s voice was as tight as my life vest.
The next thing I knew, I was hanging over the edge while two of the dolphins grinned up at me. “Hi there, dolphins,” I said.
“To this day,” I tell Tattoo Man, “I swear they said, ‘C’mon in and play. The water’s nice.’ They didn’t say it with their mouths, but it’s like I heard their voices in my mind. And so I wiggled out of my Dad’s arms and jumped.”
Tattoo Man stops with the needle. “That was either really brave or really stupid.”
“They bobbed around me and nudged me gently with their noses while my mom screamed in the background, ‘Get her in the boat! Get her in the boat!’”
Everything happening on the boat seemed like chaos, while my spot in the water seemed calm beyond description. It’s almost like I was separated from the boat by more than just a few feet. It felt like I was in another world, another place.
In the middle of all of this, there was a huge splash next to me. Mr. Mitchell was in the water. ‘Stay with us’ came from the dolphins. And I would have, if two strong hands didn’t grab me and lift me overhead into my dad’s arms.
“Are you okay Jane?” He set me down onto the deck.
“It was neat, Daddy.” I tried to walk over to the edge of the boat to look at the dolphins again, but my mom had knelt next to me. She grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me while looking into my eyes. “You could’ve gotten hurt. You could’ve drowned. What made you do that?”
“The dolphins talked to me. They said for me to come in.”
Mom shook her head, locking her frantic eyes on mine. “Don’t you ever do that again. You almost gave me a heart attack. Not ever. Do you hear me?”
I laugh, remembering Mom’s look. “I was never, not even a little bit, in danger,” I tell Tattoo Man.
“I ’spect you’re right.” He wipes the tip of the needle with a paper towel. “You’re all done.”
I’m not sure if he means with my story or the tattoo, but then he angles a mirror.
I crane my neck to see my body art. “I love it.”
“Glad to hear that. And that was some story you told me. Now I know why you’re getting inked in addition to why you picked a dolphin.”
He knows why I’m doing this? Honestly, I’m not even sure I know why I wanted a tattoo badly enough to fake being eighteen. “You could tell all that from my story?”
“So why am getting it?”
“Because—” he sits back to admire his work— “it’s your way of ripping off that life jacket.”