To Dance with Dolphins

by Bonnie Leon

Twenty-two-year-old Claire Murray has suffered from a mysterious disease for years. Her social circle has shrunk to a small support group for people with chronic illness and disability. But what if life could be about more than doctors, pain, and medications?

Claire and three others—old-grouch Tom, hippy-holdout Willow, and moody Taylor—hatch plans for a cross-country trip to swim with the dolphins in Florida.Only a day into the trip, they unexpectedly need help. And who happens to be hitchhiking along the highway but a young, good-looking loner named Sean Sullivan? However, the last thing he wants is to be harnessed to a bunch of ailing travelers.

Though the journey proves difficult, following God’s plan might be even harder. Will they find the courage to follow their dreams and dare to live again?

Chapter 1

Claire Murray headed for the barn, a burst of cold air lifting her long blonde hair and tossing it into her face. Pulling it back into a ponytail, she glanced at a darkening sky, her cane propped against her leg.

Hopefully a powerful spring storm would soon rumble through the rolling countryside of Southern Oregon.

She opened the door and stepped inside. The smell of hay and horse swept out to meet her like a wave of comfort. Drawing the door closed, she hitched it up a notch to make sure it fell into place and couldn’t swing open.

In the peak of the rafters, a shadow of an owl moved. A sparrow darted to a place beneath the eaves where a nest was tucked out of sight. Soon there would be chirping fledglings courageously making their first flight.

Claire breathed in the familiar. Did she have the courage to venture out from the place that had been her refuge for the last twenty-two years?

A soft nicker came from the nearest stall.

Cinnamon.

Claire made her way to the horse, grabbing a handful of grain from a bucket as she passed. “Here you go, girl.” She slipped her hand through the gate.

The big red horse snuffled the grain out of her palm.

“How are you this morning? Ready for a run, I’ll bet.” If only she could be the one riding her. “We had some good times, didn’t we?” She stroked the horse’s heavy neck, the sound of pounding hoof beats resonating in her mind. “I’m going to miss you.” Setting her cane against the wall, Claire opened the gate and stepped into the stall. She stood directly in front of the big horse and placed her hands on both sides of the animal’s face, drawing in the animal’s steadiness.

Like fresh rain, it quieted her nerves.

She ran a hand down the white blaze on the bridge of the horse’s nose, then pressed her brow against Cinnamon’s forehead. “I’m sorry I haven’t been out to see you. It’s been a bad week.” She patted Cinnamon’s neck and then combed out her mane with her fingers. “I’m going to be gone for a while. But I’ll be back. I promise.”

The horse nudged her as if trying to let Claire know she understood and that it was all right for her to go.

Claire looked into the horse’s dark brown eyes. “I hope one day we can go riding again. Maybe things will be better when I get back.” She could almost feel the wind in her face and the movement of Cinnamon under her as they galloped across the rolling hills of her parents’ ranch.

The sound of a car engine cut into Claire’s reverie, and a shiver of apprehension coursed through her. Maybe she should stay.

The barn door grated as someone opened it.

Time to go.

Footsteps crunched on the barn floor and the gate creaked.

She looked around and saw her mother leaning on it. Claire gave the horse another pat. “I’m going to miss her.”

“She’ll miss you too.” Her mom’s gaze went to the horse then back to Claire. “It’s time to go. Unless you’ve changed your mind.”

Claire swallowed past the lump in her throat. “No. My things are ready.” She ran a hand down Cinnamon’s face and across the velvet soft nose, then pressed a kiss to her white blaze. “I guess I have to go now. See you soon.”

Sunlight heated the interior of her mother’s Suburban, but Claire was cold. Maybe her parents were right. Maybe it was foolish of her to take off across the country with a band of disabled friends. She breathed deeply, hoping to calm her nerves.

It’s going to be a real adventure.

But doubts pummeled her. So many things could go wrong.

Swimming with dolphins?Where had that idea come from? Willow. It had been Willow.Of course it had been her. She was the dreamer in the group. Although the ideals of the ’60s had passed, she’d refused to put aside the lifestyle and dreams of her generation.

Maybe we’re all just dreamers. Claire clenched and unclenched her hands. This was a chance of a lifetime. If her illness got worse, it might be her only opportunity to do anything special … ever.

Claire’s mother glanced at her, knuckles whitening as she tightened her steely grip on the steering wheel.

Should she listen to her parents? They were right—stress always worsened her symptoms. So did fatigue. Would hours on the road drain what little energy she had? She could end up in the hospital.

But the trip could make her stronger. And wasn’t it time she faced life on her own? Twenty-two and still living at home?

Her mother and father had spent the last several weeks trying to convince her to stay.

A month ago, her father had paced the gray carpet in the family’s front room. “It’s too risky.” A week ago, he’d nearly walked off the roughness of the patio stones. “You’re being foolish.” And yesterday, he’d kicked up hay dust in the barn. “What will you do if you get sick?”

Her mom remained stoically silent. But the fear in her eyes and tight set of her lips revealed her anxiety.

Her older sister, Autumn, had understood. “It’s a great idea. Don’t give in to Mom and Dad. Do what you want. This is your life. Not theirs.”

While Claire packed, she’d tried to shut out the negative voices. But each item she added to her suitcase was accompanied by a reason she should stay home.

Her mother shook her head. “Why must you do something so drastic? Why not begin with something easier? Closer to home. Maybe a trip to the coast.” Tears welled up. “I’ve already lost one daughter.” She sucked in a breath.

“You didn’t lose Melissa. She just moved away.” And Claire had to admit she’d been glad to see her go. Melissa’s bipolar highs and lows were hard to take and painful to watch.

“I haven’t heard a word from her since she left.”

“She’s never been good at communicating. And I’m not Melissa.”

“I know that. But you’re not well. And you barely know these people.”

“That’s not true. I’ve been meeting with them for months. I probably know them better than anyone else, except for you and Dad and Autumn. A support group shares things with each other that they don’t tell anyone else.”

Her mother didn’t respond. She compressed her lips and stared straight ahead.

“And while we’ve planned out this trip I’ve gotten to know them even better.” Claire folded her arms over her chest. “I can’t let them down. It wouldn’t be right.”

Her mother’s chin quivered. “I feel like I’m losing you. Maybe you won’t come back either.”

“I’ll be back.”

A hawk circled high above a gully that fell between two hillsides.

She loved it here. This was home. She would return. “Maybe you should go out to Grand Junction and see Melissa.”

“You know she’d hate that. She’d say I’m interfering in her life.”

A desolate silence grew inside the car. Her mother slowed as they approached town. Finally she said, “I just never imagined you’d take off like this. Your doctor is here. What if you need medical help?” She pressed fingertips to trembling lips. “Every single one of you is handicapped. How will you manage?”

“Willow used to be a nurse. She’ll know what to do. And we’re not handicapped. We have challenges, but the point of the trip is to do this on our own. We need to. Every one of us is in a rut. Maybe the trip will help us find a better life. Even Colleen, our group counselor, believes in us. She thinks we can do it.” Claire’s own words helped bolster her confidence. “If I have a flare-up, there are other doctors, other hospitals.” Even though she said the words with assurance, the idea of trusting anyone other than Dr. Reynolds made her insides quake.

And what about Tom? What if he suddenly became ill, or Willow had a flare-up of her fibromyalgia or her back gave out?

And Taylor was a mental pinball machine.

“This isn’t reasonable.” Her mother swiped at a runaway tear. “We won’t even know where you are.”

Claire hated to see her mother anguish over this trip, but it was too important. “Mom, I’m not moving across the galaxy. I have a cell phone and my tablet. I’ll keep you up to date on Facebook. I’ll post lots of photos so you and Dad can see what I’m up to. And you can send me mail if you want. We’ll have postal pickups along the way. I’ll let you know in advance where to send things.”

Her mother put on her stoic face and stared at the road. “What if something happens when you’re out in the middle of nowhere? You’ll be on your own.”

“We’ll handle things like anyone else. We’ll call for help.” She offered what she hoped was a heartening smile.

“It’s not funny. I’ve watched you when your dysautonomia flares up. You faint without warning and can’t keep anything down. Every muscle aches, and your heart—”

“Mom. I know how I feel. You don’t have to remind me.” Claire turned so she faced her mother. “Please be happy for me. The last nine years have been about being sick. I feel like I’m drowning in my illness. This is a chance to make my life about something else.”

No response.

Perfectly groomed lawns flew by.

“You talk about faith, Mom. This will be a chance to trust God with me. I know it’s been hard for you all these years.”

“I do trust him. But trusting doesn’t mean being foolish. He doesn’t want us to be careless with the life he’s given us.” She tugged a Kleenex tissue from the box on the console.

“What if this is all about living out my faith?”

Her mother nodded and gently blew into the tissue. “Okay. But don’t tempt God by doing something imprudent and then expecting him to rescue you.”

“I’ll be careful. I promise.”

Chapter 2

They approached Tom Cantrell’s house, and her mom pulled to the curb across the street from a large cream-and-gray motor home with dark gray waves rolling along the sides from front to back.

Butterflies took flight in Claire’s stomach. It was really happening.

Her mother reached out and caressed Claire’s hair. “You’re so beautiful … inside and out. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

Claire rested a hand on her mother’s arm. “Nothing is going to happen. I’m going to be fine.”

Tears rose in her mother’s eyes, but her lips edged up in a smile. “Promise me you won’t pick up any hitchhikers. You can’t trust anyone these days.”

“I promise.”

Tom Cantrell stood beside the coach. He wasn’t an especially tall man, maybe five foot eleven with a slight paunch, but today he looked bigger than usual, and his deeply lined face was tanned and untroubled. His expression was uncharacteristically pleasant. Hopefully everything he’d said about his health and his ability to drive had been true. MS was unpredictable.

Her mom moved to the back of the Suburban and began unloading Claire’s things.

Her knees stiff and aching, she tried to hurry out of the vehicle and around to the back so she could help. “I can get that.” She set her suitcase upright and slipped on her backpack.

“I hope you brought enough.” Her mom lifted out Claire’s walker.

“Tom said to pack light.” She eyed the wheelchair. “I don’t need the chair.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“I’d feel better if you had it … just in case.”

Tom walked toward them, no sign of weakness in his stride. “You look pretty as a daisy,” he told Claire with a smile.

Hmm. Tom was rarely, if ever, sweet. “Thank you. You’re looking pretty good yourself.”

“That’s what an adventure will do for you.” He turned to her mom. “Good to see you, Mrs. Murray. I’ll get the suitcase.” He hefted it in a way that contradicted his age and physical health.

“Good morning, Tom. Can you talk some sense into this girl? She really should take her wheelchair.”

Tom turned to Claire. “Do you need it?” Deep furrows lined his brow.

“Almost never, just on especially bad days.”

“It’s up to you.”

Claire studied the chair dubiously. “I don’t want to take it.” She chewed on her lip. “But all right. Just in case.”

“Okay then.” Tom set the suitcase down and lifted the chair out of the back of the Suburban.

“I can push it.” Claire opened the chair and dropped her pack on the seat. She draped her cane over the back.

Her mother carried the walker.

Tom stowed the chair in one of the massive compartments beneath the vehicle. He lifted his glasses off his nose and glanced down the road. “We’re all set, just waiting for Willow. Taylor’s on board—and manic if you ask me. She has her nose in that computer of hers, charting our route or something. Says she has our route all mapped out. I’m about ready to put a stop to that.” He wore a determined grin as he climbed up the steps, dragging Claire’s large bag behind him.

“Don’t you have GPS?” her mother asked, voice sounding slightly shrill.

“Yeah, but it’s on the fritz. I meant to get it fixed.”

“You meant to?”

“Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Susan’s cheeks flamed, and the disapproving set of her lips left no doubt about how she felt about Tom’s comment.

“We’ve got real maps and we can always use Google.”

Claire turned to her mother. “I guess I’d better go. I’ll see you in a few months.” Now that it was time to say goodbye, it was harder than Claire had imagined.

Eyes shimmering, her mother pulled Claire into her arms. After pressing a kiss to Claire’s cheek, she stepped back. “I’m scared … but I’m proud of you.”

“You are?”

She gave Claire’s arm a squeeze. “So is your dad. You are so brave.”

Why couldn’t they have said that earlier? “Tell Dad I love him too.”

“I will.” Her chin trembled. “He knows. And he’s sorry he couldn’t be here this morning. He had a meeting he couldn’t get out of.”

“I understand.”

She took an envelope out of her purse and pressed it into Claire’s hands. “Just a little extra, in case you need it.”

Claire looked in the envelope. Hundreds of dollars in twenties? “No. I’m fine, really. I have my own.”

“Well, it’s never enough … believe me.” Her mom gave her another kiss. “See you soon.” She turned, crossed the street, and climbed into the Suburban. As she pulled away, she waved at Claire.

Claire watched, suddenly swamped with uncertainty. What was she doing?

“Good morning.”

Claire startled and turned to see a middle-aged man with a big friendly face. “Oh. I didn’t see you.”

“I’m Frank. Just out enjoying the morning air.” He glanced at the RV. “Tom’s had that rig parked since his wife, Doris, died. About time he took it out of mothballs.”

“Should be fun.”

“Morning, Frank.” Tom turned to Claire. “Do you need the walker often?”

“No. The cane is usually enough.”

“Okay. We’ll stow it. You have your meds handy?”

“They’re in my pack.”

Tom glanced down the road, then at his watch. He frowned. “Willow ought to be here. Told her we’d be pulling out at eight o’clock sharp.” His bright mood faded. He walked around to the other side of the coach.

“Have a great time,” Frank said, then strolled down the sidewalk.

Tom stood at the bottom of the steps and motioned for Claire to board. He moved aside and then followed her up the stairs.

Claire stepped into the front room and rested a hand on a dark brown leather recliner that sat just to the right of the entrance. It matched a small sofa in the living space.

Taylor sat at the dining table, her long dark hair falling into her face as she concentrated on her computer screen. She barely glanced up. “Hey,” is all she said before turning her attention back to the computer.

Thirty-one and acting like a teenager. Claire forced a smile. “Hi.”

Tom squeezed past and walked through the kitchen.

Claire followed him toward the back, past a bathroom and a closet. A bedroom with a walk-around bed and cabinets on one wall looked snug but comfortable. Her suitcase sat on the bed.

“You and Willow can share the bed,” Tom said. “I’ll sleep on the sofa, and Taylor will have the dining room fold-out bed. She said she doesn’t mind sharing the room with an old man.” He nodded at a small built-in dresser. “Those cabinets are for you two. When your stuff is put away, I’ll give you a hand with this mattress. There’s a storage compartment under it—good place for your suitcase.” He moved toward the front of the RV.

Claire unpacked her suitcase, placing her clothing in the small bureau. She’d brought just necessities, knowing the coach had limited space. After she finished, she made her way to the front and eased her aching body onto the bench seat, across the table from Taylor and her computer.

Taylor didn’t look up.

“What are you working on?”

“Mapping out our trip. I have it worked out. We’ll take Highway 138 over the Cascades and then use Highway 70 to cross the Rockies and move out over the Midwest. I’d like to make it to Loretta Lynn’s place in Kentucky before May. Willow said something about Savannah, Georgia, so we can head straight there after Kentucky, spend a couple of days, and get moving to Florida and the dolphins.” She stopped to take a breath. “Do you have some place you want to go?”

“I’d like to see my sister in Grand Junction, Colorado.”

“I’m pretty sure Highway 70 passes through there.” She squinted at the computer.

Tom pushed down the screen, closing the computer. “No itinerary. We’re taking this one day at a time.”

“Hey!” Taylor glared at him. “I’ve been working on that since two o’clock this morning.”

“I don’t remember anyone voting you in as tour guide.” Tom stared at her, his heavy brows bumping into each other. “You take your meds?”

She cast her gaze away from his. “I always take them.” She picked up her guitar, which was leaning against the window. “Okay. So we don’t have to use my plan. But we need a plan. I can stay connected most of the time.” She tapped a small modem on the side of her computer before strumming a few chords. “I have the computer wired with satellite.”

“I’m impressed,” Tom said, his voice laced with sarcasm. “But why do we need an itinerary?”

Claire nearly groaned. This might be a longer trip than she’d imagined.

A taxi pulled to the curb and the driver unloaded two bags and set them on the sidewalk. The passenger door opened and Willow stepped out. She looked like she did most days—graying hair wavy and free, falling to her shoulders. She wore a colorful ankle-length dress and sandals. Willow hauled two bags out of the backseat. Next, she reached into the car and led out a brown and white boxer.

Tom tromped out of the RV and strode across the street.

Taylor and Claire followed but hung back, making sure to stay out of what promised to be a stormy encounter.

Willow turned and faced Tom, her orange-and-yellow shift billowing in the breeze.

Tom glowered at Willow. “You’re late.”

“I had a few last minute stops to make.”

“And what’s that?” He aimed a sharp nod at the dog.

That is Daisy. My boxer. I couldn’t possibly leave her alone for months.”

“No dogs.”

“You’ll love her. She’s sweet and intelligent.”

“Does she bite?” asked Taylor.

“Oh, no. She’s very even-tempered.” Willow stroked the dog’s short, glossy coat.

Taylor edged toward Daisy.

The dog’s stub of a tail beat back and forth like a metronome at high speed.

Taylor rested a hand on the boxer’s head, and Daisy looked up at her with a sad expression. “She should go with us,” Taylor said, throwing an accusatory look at Tom.

Tom studied the boxer, then turned a determined gaze on Willow. “I said no dogs.”

Claire joined Taylor and Willow, and gave Daisy a pat. “I love boxers.”

Daisy leaned against Claire’s leg.

“Tom, we can’t leave her.”

Tom blew out a loud breath. “How are we supposed to take care of a dog? She’s too big. We’ll have to pack food for her—”

“I already did that when we were preparing the RV yesterday. It’s all put away—food and bowls.” Willow smiled.

“She’ll be nothing but trouble.”

“If she doesn’t go, I don’t go.” Willow’s blue eyes locked with Tom’s.

He looked at the dog and rubbed his clean-shaven chin.

“She’s a good traveler.” Willow glanced at Claire and Taylor. “A watch dog will come in handy.”

“Oh yeah, she’ll protect us all right. I can see she’s vicious.” Tom smirked. “I said no dogs, and I meant it.”

Willow’s gaze took command. “Then I’ll just have to go home.”

No one responded.

Finally, Tom threw up his hands. “Fine. She can come. But you’re completely responsible for her. I’m not feeding her or taking her out to … well, I’m not cleaning up after her. And I’m not doctoring her or making sure she stays out of traffic either.”

Wearing a triumphant smile, Willow gave Daisy a pat. “Come on, girl.” She moved toward the coach.

Tom picked up the bags she’d left behind and followed. “Let’s hit the road. I know a great place for breakfast.”

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