The next day was Friday, and Allen’s tail arrived. He wasn’t due to join the aquarium feeding schedule until Tuesday, so he put the tail on and spent some time practicing for the last couple of hours of the day. On Saturday, he went into the aquarium and helped Katherine during her two feeding times. He enjoyed the freedom the mermaid tail gave him. Although he could swim as fast with just a monofin, somehow it felt right to have the tail. Katherine’s mom came to visit them on Sunday. She planned to stay for a week. That first evening, Allen spent a long time going through the details of his submarine accident and subsequent captivity. He had been very reluctant to talk much about it before, other than when he reported his experience to Dave. He found the experience to be cathartic, especially with the loving support of his wife and mother-in-law.
“How do you like wearing skirts?” Janice asked him.
“It felt really strange at first, but it’s a practical solution and I’m used to it. I don’t plan to continue the practice after my legs get separated.”
“Your legs would look a lot better if you shaved off those hairy patches.”
“Is your operation planned yet?”
“No. Dr. Hansen said I should call during the second week of September and they would do an evaluation to see if I am ready.”
“So long? What are they waiting for?”
“She says she wants my body to fully recover from the burns and to gain strength and muscle mass.”
“Well, you seem to be making good progress at getting stronger. You look very healthy to me.”
“Thank you. I feel much better as well.”
On Monday, they all visited the Houston Space Center. For convenience, they took the wheelchair for Allen instead of his crutches. Despite being in the area for several months, this was the first visit for Allen and Katherine, and they enjoyed seeing the historic site as much as Janice did. The Saturn V rocket was very impressive, as was the mission control from the Apollo flights. Allen and Katherine returned to work on Tuesday, so Janice had to entertain herself during the day. They kept coming back in the evening to find little changes in their apartment. One of the rooms would be extra clean, or they would find some new dishes in the cupboards. Janice even had dinner ready for them in the evenings. Some couples would feel upset about this “interference” with their apartment, but Janice was conservative and did not make any drastic changes. Rather, she noticed things that the new couple might be missing and tried to help them out. They were grateful for her help, all the while insisting that they didn’t need it.
“I know you can manage just fine by yourselves.” She said. “But please let me mother you a little bit.”
On Friday, Katherine and Renna were the first two mermaids to participate in the swim with mermaids activity. The greenhouse pool and connections were not ready yet, so they put on their tails and got into wheelchairs. Fernando went with them as they rode the elevator down to the first floor and then out the back door of the practice pool building into the swim with mermaids area. A group of customers was already there, milling around the cabanas. One lifeguard was sitting in a tower at the edge of the pool, and the other two were working with the customers, finding spandex mermaid tails to fit them. The lifeguards wore red swimsuits with the Gulf Aquarium logo on it, and they all looked tan and fit—it looked like Audra had hired some experienced people and not just local high schoolers. When the two mermaids wheeled up to the edge of the pool, one of the lifeguards called out.
“Presenting Mermaid Renna and Mermaid Katherine! These two lovely young creatures are the mermaids you will be swimming with this morning. Please give them a big hand!”
The customers all clapped, enhanced by a few squeals of delight from some of the young girls in attendance. The customers seemed to be mostly younger girls, often accompanied by their mothers. One or two dads were present as well, and a couple of families had their sons with them. It was mostly the girls who were putting on the mermaid tails. The parents and brothers mostly seemed content to just swim in the pool, though there were one or two boys and dads gamely joining in with the mermaid tail wearing. Renna and Katherine wheeled over to the side of the pool, and Fernando lifted them out of the wheelchairs and tossed them in the water. Katherine swam over to the shallow section of the pool and was soon surrounded by little girls and their mothers. She answered questions and helped some of the older girls learn how to swim with their tails. The pool was not crowded, as Audra had set a limit of 50 people in each swim with mermaid session. The session lasted three hours, though some of the customers trickled out well before the time was up. When the time was up, Fernando came back with the wheelchairs. Katherine and Renna swam up into the shallow end of the pool and Fernando came down into the water to carry them out of the pool and put them back in the wheelchairs. Katherine hoped it wouldn’t be long until the greenhouse pool and the connecting tubes were completed.
On Saturday, Katherine and Allen were both assigned the morning session in the mermaid swim pool. Katherine was pleasantly surprised to see that the little girls flocked around Allen, and to see how kind he was with the children. They were both surprised when they noticed that one of the customers was Janice.
“Mom! What are you doing here?” Asked Katherine.
“I thought I would join in on the fun.” She answered. “I called Audra and she arranged for a ticket for me.”
Janice put on one of the spandex tails, and Katherine showed her how to swim with a monofin. One of the girls asked Allen if he was married to Katherine, and her mother seemed a little doubtful when he said that he was. He turned around to help another customer and he heard the girl’s mother tell her- “They probably aren’t really married. They just say that for fun, like the tails are just pretend.” Allen decided to give the girl a show, so when he had a moment free, he swam over to Katherine, hooked his tail around hers, and gave her a long, lingering kiss. They were in the deep area at the time, so they sank to the bottom as they kissed. When they released their clinch and returned to the surface, many of the patrons clapped. Allen winked at the little girl and grinned. Before long the morning session was done and Fernando came to help them out of the pool. Fernando took them to the practice pool so they could use the potty pool, then lifted them back out and they both dried off and left their tails on. They had lunch in the employee cafeteria, then Katherine went to her office. She would be feeding the fish in the aquarium at 2:00 and 4:00. Allen returned to the mermaid swim pool, this time accompanied by Lacy. Since both Maria and Renna were off on Saturdays, the mermaid duties were shared by the remaining three.
They said goodbye to Janice on Monday. Allen was sad to see her go. As he got to know her better she was becoming a replacement for the mother he lost to a drunk driver. They returned to work and settled into a routine. On Thursday a couple of weeks later, Audra called the mermaids together to tell them that the greenhouse pool and connections were complete. She suggested they take a tour, so at 3:00 they all went to the locker room and changed into their tails. Katherine and Maria were already changed from earlier shifts at feeding the sharks. Once they were all ready, Audra led them to the side of the pool and showed them the new tube. They had all seen the construction for the past few days, but the construction crew had lowered barriers into the water so that they could have a dry area to work. Audra waved at the construction supervisor, who was in the pool room for the unveiling. He pushed a button and a crane lifted the barriers out of the way. The area behind had already been filled with water, so there was no sudden rush of current, only some waves and sloshing from the removal of the barrier. Audra Swam into the tube, followed by Allen and the other mermaids. The tube was ten feet in diameter, with the top two feet out of the water and the rest submerged. As they swam through the tube, they could see that it was dimly lit by lights in the ceiling outside the tube. After swimming just a few feet they passed out of the practice pool building and into the living quarters building. Almost immediately a second tube exited to their left.
“This is the way to the new potty pool.” Audra explained. She swam down the cross passage. After a short distance, they came to an opaque wall that blocked the end of the tube and extended up to a few inches above the surface of the water. The top of the wall was rounded, and with a flick of her tail, Audra slipped over the wall and into the pool beyond. The potty pool was cylindrical in shape and about 15 feet in diameter. There were grab bars along the walls at the water level, and Allen could feel a strong current from several water inlets around the perimeter of the pool.
“We made the walls of the potty pool opaque for privacy.” Audra explained. “The water in this pool circulates separately from all of the other aquarium water. You can do your business in here and it will quickly be sucked away and filtered. Now let’s go back and out to the greenhouse pool. Allen had a great idea and I think you will really like it.”
Audra led the way back out to the tunnel and further along into another large pool. Bright light shone through skylights, illuminating the pool below. In the pool, large patches of sea grass and kelp grew in the sandy bottom. Several terraces with aquatic plants growing in them had been built at different heights, making the room into a garden with multiple winding paths on different levels. At present many of the plants were small, but Allen knew that many of them would eventually grow to great heights. The mermaids were delighted to see the new pool, and most of them immediately dove deeper into the water to explore. After letting them look around for a few minutes, Audra motioned for them all to follow her. They swam to the far end of the pool. There were two barriers in place at this end of the pool—one on the left, and one at the end. To the right, two more tubes could be seen.
“The barriers cover openings for two more tubes, which will lead to eating and sleeping areas.” Said Audra. “Both of the tubes on the right lead to the mermaid swim pool. Let’s take the top one.”
The top tube was mounted higher in the wall of the pool and sloped upward. After a few feet, it rose above the water level, and there were handrails along the sides. Audra swam up the tube and then pulled herself up to the top with the handrails. The handrails extended up a few feet and then ended, and the tube curved quickly back down at that point. Water sprayed into the side of the tube, making the next part a slippery water slide. Audra pointed to a big red button on the side of the tube.
“We have a gate at the bottom of this slide to keep guests out of the mermaid quarters. Push this button to open the gate before you slide, and go one at a time.”
Audra then pushed the button and launched herself head first down the tube. They all heard her “Whee!” As she slid down, followed by a splash. Allen and Katherine were right behind Audra. They could see the gate closing quickly after Audra left the slide. Katherine pushed the button and let herself slide down the tube. The gate opened in front of her just in time for her to shoot out of the slide into the deep end of the mermaid swim pool. Allen, Lacy and Maria quickly followed.
“That was fun!” Maria exclaimed.
“It will also make for a dramatic entrance.” Audra added. “We’ll go back by way of the bottom tube.”
The second tube was just to the left of the exit from the slide tube. It had a gate across the entrance, and a waterproof keypad was embedded in the wall next to it. Audra entered a 6-digit code into the keypad and the gate slid to the left. They all swam into the new tube, which went straight out from the pool. Once they were all in, Audra had Lacy push a button on the wall to close the gate behind them. They swam down the tube and came to a small rectangular room.
“This is our lock.” Audra said. “Everyone crowd inside.”
The room was as large as a big freight elevator, so the five of them fit inside without much crowding. There was a control panel on one wall, and Audra pressed a button. A door slid across behind them, sealing the room off.
“Be ready to hold your breath, because when I open the other door the room will fill with water.” Audra said. She pressed another button and a door opened in front of them, allowing the water from the tube beyond to rush in and fill the room completely. Thanks to the warning, all the mermaids held their breath and then swam into the tube on the other side, which curved upward and exited in the greenhouse pool. Audra closed the door behind them and followed. Once they had all surfaced, she asked them what they thought of the new pool.
“I love it!” Said Lacy. “The plants make it seem like an underwater garden. I think it will be a fun place to swim and relax.”
“I liked the slide. What a fun way to start work in the morning.” Said Maria.
Katherine chimed in as well. “And I like the practical aspect of being able to swim from the practice pool out to the mermaid swim pool and back. Getting around in a wheelchair gets old pretty fast. When will the rest of the mermaid quarters be finished?”
“It will take about another month.”
“I can’t wait to see the whole thing completed.”
That weekend they all enjoyed the new pool and the access to the mermaid swim area without having to use a wheelchair. They developed a system where they would tap on the side of the tube when they were ready to slide into the pool, and one of the lifeguards would introduce them as they slid down and dove into the water. They would dive deep and swim around the pool for a couple of minutes before coming up to meet the customers. Renna felt that there should be an educational element to their show, so they started setting up an aquarium on the island with a few of the hardier fish species in it. The two mermaids would sit next to it and tell the customers some facts about the fish inside. This made the mermaid swim an even more popular attraction, and by the middle of September it was sold out every weekend.