Audra finally returned on a Monday. Allen and Katherine weren’t working, so they were in the rec pool when Audra swam in. She was wearing a collar painted to match her tail, but hers had no tubes coming out the sides. Allen paused the TV show they were watching to talk to her.
“I like your new collar.” He said. “Is it just decorative?”
“No, it’s my special breathing collar.” Audra said. Her voice sounded a bit hoarse and raspy.
“Are the air tubes detachable?”
“No. This collar is a bit more extreme than that. I had a tracheotomy and the tubes go directly through my throat to a special valve in my trachea.”
“That does sound extreme. Can you take it off?”
“We used the same adhesive that we use on the tails, so it can come off with a solvent. But of course then I would have an open hole in my throat. If I wanted to take it off, the doctor assures me that with a simple operation they can remove the valve and the hole in my throat would heal up.”
“Wow. And what does the valve do?”
“Well, when I’m in underwater mode, it keeps water from going down into my lungs and provides a channel for the oxygen and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the collar. In that mode, air doesn’t travel over my voice box so I can’t talk. In air breathing mode like now, the valve opens and I can breathe and talk normally.”
“How do you switch between modes? Is there a button or something in the collar?”
“No, there is a little sensor in the collar that detects if I am underwater or not. It switches modes automatically.”
“Are you going to want us to get the same kind of collars?”
“Well, I’m not going to force anyone to have an operation. I actually ordered a full set of the collars with tubes so that everyone can have one, and another set like mine, so anyone who wants to go all the way can do so. Of course, the aquarium will pay for the medical expenses if you get the collars like mine.”
The mermaids spent the next day or so talking about Audra’s collar. None of them seemed quite ready to commit to such an intrusive change to their bodies, except Daphne. She wanted to be able to truly swim with the dolphins, and she didn’t want the tubes and mouthpiece in her way. So she immediately talked to Audra and arranged for Carla and the other mermaids to cover for her during the 10 days it took to have the operation and recover.
While Daphne was gone, Renna called all the mermaids except Audra together.
“What did you want to talk about?” Allen asked her.
“Well, as you all know, Maria stopped paying for an apartment and lives here full time now, but the rest of us haven’t been willing to give up our two weekends a month with legs. I have a proposal for any of us who might be interested.”
“Okay, what is it?” Lacy asked.
“Since we all have different weekends off, why don’t we share the rent on a single apartment? That way we’ll all save some money and our apartments won’t be sitting empty all the time.”
They all agreed that it was a good idea, and after a bit of discussion they decided to use Lacy’s apartment. She had two bedrooms, so there would be room for friends or relatives to come visit, and her apartment was on the ground floor and more easily accessible for Allen or for mermaids who wanted a day out of the aquarium without removing their tails. Even Maria participated, as she wanted to have the option to get out occasionally. Over the next couple of weeks, they each spent their days off making arrangements to move out of their old apartments and into Lacy’s apartment. There was a storage unit available for items that they wanted to keep, but didn’t need from day to day. Allen and Katherine boxed up a lot of their possessions and put them into the storage unit. They moved their queen sized bed into the master bedroom, as Lacy only had two doubles. Lacy sold the second double bed. Most of the rest of their furniture they sold, as it was second-hand furniture already and they didn’t need it in the new place. They contributed a few pots and pans to the kitchen, and then hung up their clothes in one of the closets. Closet space was at a premium in the new apartment because all six mermaids and one merman had clothes they wanted to use when they were out of the aquarium. The master bedroom had a walk-in closet, and Lacy offered half of it to Allen and Katherine since they were the only married couple. Lacy took the other half, and Renna and Maria shared the closet in the second bedroom. To accommodate Daphne and Carla, they bought a clothes rack and set it up in the second bedroom. The dressers were also in high demand, but Renna contributed hers and Carla contributed hers and they all had a set of drawers to store their underwear in. They put one of the extra dressers in the master bedroom and one in the dining room. So the apartment ended up slightly crowded, but was functional for those days when they were out of the water.
In addition to selling a lot of their furniture, Allen and Katherine sold Katherine’s car. Since Allen couldn’t drive there was no need for two vehicles, and Allen’s car was newer than his wife’s, so that was the one they decided to keep. Between selling the furniture and car and their lower expenses from living in the mermaid facility, Allen and Katherine were able to start saving a good portion of their salaries. Although he was pleased with their growing bank account, Allen knew it would take many years to save enough to pay for the operation to separate his legs. He decided it was time to try his luck with the new insurance company. He called Dr. Hansen’s office and gave them the new insurance information, then asked them to see if the operation could be pre-approved.
About a week later, Allen got a letter in the mail from the insurance company. His pre-approval was denied because it was for a pre-existing condition. He submitted an official appeal, which was also denied, listing many of the same reasons that the previous insurance company had used. Audra listened to his complaints.
“Why can’t you over-rule them?” Allen asked her. “Isn’t Burns Pharma supposed to be self-insured?”
“Self-insured means that all the medical expenses come out of our pocket. We still pay the insurance company to handle all the administration. Government privacy laws prevent us from getting directly involved. I know about your situation because we spend a lot of time together, but if I were to intervene with the insurance company I might be subject to fines, or the insurance company might sue me.”
While they were talking, a loud buzz began to sound over the PA.
“That’s the emergency alarm!” Said Audra. “Everyone needs to go to the potty pool!”
All of the mermaids swam to the potty pool. Daphne and Carla arrived last, because they had to come all the way from the dolphin arena. Once they were all there, Audra told them it was just a drill. The security company had been working with Audra to develop plans for many situations, and they had encouraged Audra to have periodic safety drills. The potty pool was chosen as the meeting place because it was structurally one of the strongest areas, and it was near the center of the complex. Also, since the water in the potty pool was separate from the rest of the system, it would be safer in case the pools got contaminated. When the drill was over and everyone started swimming back to where they had been, Audra asked Allen and Katherine to stay behind.
“There is one way we might be able to get Allen’s operation done.” She said. I could fund it out of Burns Pharmaceutical’s pocket if you were willing to sign an employment agreement with me.”
“What kind of agreement?” Allen asked.
“Well, if you would both agree to the upgraded collars, and sign an agreement to stay with the company for two years, I could make the case to my investors and I think they would release the funds.”
“So would I get the operation right away?”
“I think we would have to set a time period first. How about after you have worked for me for one year? Then we do the operation and you agree to work at least one more year?”
“What do you think, Katherine?”
“Well, we both like our jobs, and we weren’t planning on leaving soon anyway. So a two-year agreement doesn’t sound so bad. Can you wait another year for the operation?”
“I’ve managed for the last seven months. I suppose I can last another year. When we’re here at the aquarium it doesn’t matter if my legs are separated anyway. Does the tracheotomy scare you?”
“A little. I’ve never had an operation before. But Audra and Daphne seem to be managing just fine.”
“OK Audra. It sounds like a deal we’re willing to make.”
“Good. I’ll get the paperwork moving.”
The next day, Allen and Katherine signed the papers. A few days later, Allen went to the hospital to have his new collar installed, and after his ten days of recovery were over, Katherine went next. Their throats were sore and their voices were hoarse for a while, but before long they were healed and the collars became second nature. To encourage the others to make the change, Audra offered a bonus to any mermaid willing to get the upgraded collars. With that incentive, the rest of the mermaids each decided to make the change, and one by one they left for ten days and came back with the new collars.
A disc regenerator an a disc supply box were installed on a shelf in the rec room. Every day before bed all the mermaids would take the used absorbent discs out of their collars and put them in the regenerator. It would heat the CO2 absorbing material to drive out the carbon dioxide, and run a stream of oxygen over the oxygen-absorbing material so that it would fill up with oxygen. Once the discs were regenerated, they would be vacuum-packed in plastic and put into their supply box, which had several hundred of the discs. At night, they plugged a power cord into the back of their collars to re-charge the batteries while they slept.
With the new collars in place, it was not necessary to sleep on top of the water, so Audra and Daphne experimented with using a diver’s weight belt to become neutrally buoyant, and sleeping just under the surface of the water. It took a little adjustment as their bodies naturally wanted to breathe through their nose, but Audra experimented with nose plugs and found that after a few nights sleeping with the nose plugs in place, her body learned to sleep with only the air from her collar.