The hotdog Papa had bought her soothed Hope Cook’s nerves a little.
“Now, I know you’re scared, but it’s perfectly okay.” He crouched down to her level, the stench of sweat thick in her nostrils. The scar tissue of his face rippled like a tear, the damaged eye hidden beneath a pirate’s patch. “We were all scared once when we came to The Park for the first time. But once you see the dolphin, you’ll forget all of your woes.” Papa smiled, and his imperfect face beamed. Hope couldn’t help but grin back. “It really is a beautiful creature.”
She took a bite of her hotdog and chewed through her mouthful of gristle. She wanted to wolf the entire thing down but knew she should savour it for as long as it lasted. Around them buzzed the rest of the parkgoers. Men, women and children in various outfits and armours. Leather with spikes, repurposed bike helmets, fingerless gloves, pieces of rebar. “But isn’t it wrong to keep them in boxes like that? We don’t live in cages.” Hope looked up at Papa. “Me, I’d be pretty sad if someone locked me up in a glass box like that.”
“No, well, see.” Papa looked off into the wastelands with his one good eye. Desert stretched off into the horizon, burnt and pitted like his face. Nothing moved out there except for the Wild Ones. “Once you see how much water he gets to swim around in, you’ll be jealous. All that water. More than he could drink in a year. And fish. My god, the fish! He gets all he can eat, day in, day out.” He squeezed her shoulder with his three-fingered right hand. “The dolphin lives better than we do. No need to feel sorry for him.”
Hope squinted up at him. “Okay, Pa.” Despite her hunger, the hotdog didn’t sit right on her stomach. Acid burned the back of her throat, and beads of cold sweat trickled their way down the nape of her neck.
“Now come along,” he took her hand, “the show’s about to start.”
The chairs had long since gone, so Papa had to hoist her up onto his shoulders to get a decent view of the water tank. Several patched-up cracks dotted the glass, along with spiderwebbed impact sites. Still, the windows held, and the brown-grey water within only leaked out at a snail’s pace. The scent of stagnant water and rot filled her sinuses.
Hope continued to nibble at the first bit of food she’d had in four days as she waited for the show to start. Some in the crowd — small children and young mothers — gazed at the luxury item with envy. Something jagged jabbed her cheek, and with her tongue, she worked the piece loose and spat out the bone. She took another nibble and watched a small boy scrabble for the fragment. Finally, he plopped it into his mouth like the candy of which she’d heard so much.
A commotion caught her attention dead ahead. Papa gave her a little shake. “Look, look!” He squeezed her ankle. “They’re bringing him out.” She raised her eyes to the platform above the water. Two burly men decked out in full denim struggled onto the stage with a burlap sack between them. They each wore elbow-length gloves and hats with funny masks at the front. Papa would later tell her about police riot gear.
Black-red patches stained the cloth of the bag, and something within fought. The two men argued for a moment, and then one threw up his hands in exasperation. His end of the sack dropped to the floor, and Hope heard the thump even above the crowd’s clamour. He reached, yanked the cord, and then helped his compatriot dump the contents onto the stage.
For the first time in her short life, Hope saw a dolphin.
He thudded to the ground as his keepers slunk away into the backdrop. Rust-coloured liquid splattered the deck upon impact, and he vomited some up. He lay there for a moment, eyes wide as he took in the sights of a thousand eyes upon him. The blackish-red liquid seeped from the corners of his mouth.
The crowd hushed themselves.
The flipper on his back had rotted to a shade of green, the skin where they’d attached it dying off in patches. The faux-beak covered the spot where they’d hacked his lower face away. But still, black jelly trembled out of that handcrafted maw. Blood oozed from the wounds where they’d stitched the flippers to his arms. But, Hope wondered, had they severed the limbs below or slid them inside? His captors had sewn the legs together and hammered the feet into a malleable tail. And — the pièce de résistance — the dolphin’s blowhole leaked a grey ooze dotted with flecks of red. It reminded Hope of how her snot sometimes had blood in it when she’d spent too much time near The Pit.
Down front, a third man banged a rusty metal bucket. A perfume of something far beyond rotten wafted past, and Hope wrinkled her nose. “Ah, watch,” said Papa. “It’s feedin’ time.”
At the hollow clangs and bangs, the dolphin’s head perked up. He had no ears — no external ears, at any rate — but he still sensed the sound. His watery eyes rolled over the enclosure, across the many faces of the crowd. He seemed not to recognise the cage that contained him or the people to whom he’d once belonged.
At the edge of the arena, the keeper dangled a decayed blindfish by its tail. The rotten corpse swayed in a silent breeze. The handler waggled it about, high in the air, and then tossed it into the water nearest the crowd.
The dolphin wasted no time. With flips and flaps, the dolphin lunged towards the edge of the platform. Brown fluids sprayed from the dolphin’s joints and splattered over tile and wall. The dolphin looked down into the muddy water, and Hope’s heart fluttered. Did he see his reflection there? Did he like what he’d become?
The dolphin plunged in.
He sank with a crash of water and a flurry of bubbles.
The crowd erupted in cheers, whoops and applause. Bits of rubbish landed in the waters — wrappers, things found on the floor, a hat. The handlers at the sides of the platform grinned and raised their hands to accept the praise. But, in the chaos of the water, the dolphin struggled for life.
The fingerless fins scrambled at the surface, and the dolphin inhaled a mouthful of water. The dolphin’s lungs sounded like a nail pulled from a rotted wooden board. The tail kicked against the liquid, but the broken bones hadn’t healed. Instead, the motion caused winces and whimpers. But the dolphin’s lobotomised gaze remained fixed upon the carcass, which floated on the foam.
Hope held her breath and watched the dolphin’s progress as the crowd around her jeered at the animal. She didn’t let go of the air in her chest until the dolphin reached the fish and snatched it up with one jerk of his head. She thought he’d take it and retreat to the stage, but instead, he banged up against the glass and consumed it there. His deformed limbs continued to thrash to keep him afloat, but that didn’t slow his appetite.
The grey-pink flesh tore away in ribbons, and small bones cracked and crunched. The dolphin chowed down. Bits of gore and fish innard’s dribbled down his chin. Hope took another bite of her hotdog — the penultimate mouthful, she lamented. At the mirrored motion, the dolphin twisted his head and looked her in the eye. He pushed his face up to the window, the jelly of the orb squashed with the pressure. A moment of silent message passed between the two.
She swallowed the last of her hotdog in one big gulp.
January 11, 2022
Written for the January #BlogBattle: “Park”