To start at the beginning, use this link: Link to chapter 1
Janice got the message while she was visiting Katherine at the aquarium.
“They’re almost here!” She told her daughter.
“Really? What happened? Why haven’t we heard from them?”
“I don’t know. Dave just says he couldn’t communicate for a few days but his ship is now almost to Houston.”
“When will they get here? Can we meet them at the dock?”
“Dave wants us to meet them at the hospital. He says to bring Eric Kensington and his special control to fix the collars.”
“Why can’t we meet them at the dock? We can have Eric meet us at the hospital.”
“I don’t know. I’ll reply to Dave’s text and ask him about it.”
Janice sent her text but there was no immediate answer. So she tried calling Dave’s phone. When she did that, she was immediately shunted to his voice mail.
“He’s either turned his phone off or he has no signal.” Janice said.
“I guess we’ll have to meet them at the hospital then. What time did he say?”
“I hope Mr. Kensington won’t mind coming so late.”
Katherine called the guard and asked him to come get them out of the pool at midnight. Janice stayed with Katherine, discussing all the things they wanted to do and say once they were re-united with Allen and the others. Sleep was out of the question. When the time came, the guard helped them out of the pool and they dried off and dressed in the locker room. The guard came outside with them to help them into the car and to help them feel safe on a dark night in the empty parking lot. Eric Kensington was waiting for them in the hospital lobby.
“I’m sorry to bring you here so late at night.” Katherine told him.
“I don’t mind. I’ve been wanting to meet the other mermaids anyway.”
They checked with the front desk and the administrator told them to wait at one of the back doors. When the appointed time arrived, a line of ambulances pulled up outside. They all went outside to meet them as the orderlies got out and opened the rear doors. Katherine started to worry. Were they hurt? But then the orderly pulled a gurney out of the first ambulance with Allen on it. He was strapped down to the gurney but he looked at her and smiled. Katherine rolled over next to him.
“Are you OK? What happened? Are you hurt?”
Allen just shook his head, and the orderly answered for him.
“They’re all fine, ma’am.” He said. “But Dave wanted them to come to the hospital for some tests and this was the easiest way to transport them. Now, if you would back up a little I can get him inside and undo the straps so he can sit up.”
Katherine took Allen’s hand and wouldn’t let go. She tried to roll her wheelchair with the other hand but kept bumping into the gurney, so Janice came over and pushed.
“Hello Allen.” She said. “It’s so good to have you back again.”
Allen waved his other hand. As soon as the gurney entered the doors of the hospital, the orderly stopped for a moment. Eric was standing next to the door with his briefcase. He tapped a phone mounted in the case and Allen felt the valve in his throat open.
“It feels good to be able to talk again.” Allen said, his voice a bit raspy from disuse.
“It’s good to hear your voice again.” Dave said. “We’ve reserved a set of rooms for all of you on the third floor.”
The orderlies pushed each merperson through the halls of the hospital and up an elevator to the third floor. They were put two to a room in a set of 5 rooms along one hall. Allen had a room to himself, but of course Katherine and Janice came into the room with him. Dave came too.
“Can I tell them?” Allen asked Dave.
“If they make the same promise not to tell anyone else.” Dave told him.
The orderly released the straps holding Allen to the gurney and helped him slide over into a regular hospital bed. He sat up in the bed, adjusting his USS Florida t-shirt. Dave’s eyes opened wide for a moment as the t-shirt registered.
“I didn’t think about the t-shirts.” Said Dave. “We’ll have to come up with an explanation. We’ve scheduled an MRI for each of you, and Dr. Hansen will be by to check on you in the morning. I’ll leave it to you to tell your story, Allen. But for now I’m looking forward to a long shower and sleeping in my own bed. Janice, would you mind dropping me off on your way home?”
“I’d be happy to, if I can at least hear the outline of what happened first?”
“Of course. I’ll go make sure all the others are settled and then come back here.”
Allen told his story. First a relatively short summary for Janice, and then a more detailed version after she left. Katherine told her husband her story as well, from the time she was separated from the other mermaids until they were re-united. It was nearly 4 in the morning by the time they were done. They couldn’t both fit in one hospital bed, so Katherine used the second bed in the room and they both slept for a few hours. In the morning, Katherine made a few calls to the aquarium to let the new mermaids know they were on their own for the day, then she sat with Allen as the nurses came and took his vital signs and took him for his MRI. Dr. Hansen came and checked him over after the MRI was done. She showed him the images from the MRI and explained that his results were similar to his wife’s. His body had grown to fill the space between his legs and to incorporate the tail into his skin.
“What about these rings around my wrists?” Allen asked her.
“I think we can remove them without much difficulty. They’re not as firmly attached.”
“Let’s do that at least.”
“I’ve also talked to Eric Kensington. He thinks he knows how to permanently fix your collars, but he will have to cut into them to do it. I want to be present to make sure he doesn’t cut too deep. Would one of you like to be the first one to have it done?”
“Sign me up.” Said Allen. “I don’t want to be vulnerable to a bad guy with a radio.”
“I think we have time for that now, then. I’ll need you to lay back in the bed.”
“I’m going to strap you down so you can’t accidentally move during the procedure.”
Dr. Hansen proceeded to pull a strap across his chest and one across his head to immobilize him. Then she left the room for a minute and came back with Eric. He had a set of drawings with him that he referred to as he looked carefully at Allen’s collar, as well as a tool box that he set on a table by the bed.
“According to the plans, the radio circuit is right here, beneath this scale on the side of your neck.” He said. “I just need to cut around the scale and lift it up so I can access the electronics underneath.”
With Dr. Hansen’s guidance, he cut carefully around three sides of the scale, making sure not to cut through the silicone into Allen’s neck. Allen could feel the pressure on the side of his neck, but the scalpel didn’t cut through and there was no pain. Once he had cut all the way around the scale, he was able to lift it up like a little flap. Underneath was a complicated-looking set of circuitry on a flexible substrate. More confident now, Eric got a small pair of wire cutters out of his tool box and cut a notch in the flexible circuit.
“OK, I’ve cut the two traces that carry the wireless signals from the transmitter to the microprocessor. Now that I’ve cut these traces, no signals can get through and the micro will stay in its default state all the time.”
Eric pulled a tube of silicone sealant out of his toolbox and squirted it around the edges of the scale, then pressed it back down into place. He used a piece of duct tape to stick it down until the sealant dried. Once he was finished, he promised to come back and do Katherine and the other mermaids the next day. After he left, Allen and Katherine got into wheelchairs and went down the hall to visit the others. They decided to all get together to talk about what their plans were, so they asked one of the nurses if there was a room they could all meet in. She led them to an unused conference room at the end of the hall. It was a little crowded with them all in their wheelchairs, but they managed to squeeze in.
“So you’ve all heard Dr. Hansen.” Allen started. “What do you want to do?”
“I for one, plan to go back to the aquarium and stay a mermaid.” Audra said. “And all of you are invited to live there as well. You can work at the aquarium like before, or just live in the living quarters and do something else, but there will always be a place for you.”
“I’ve had enough.” Said Carla. “Despite the dangers I’m going to ask Dr. Hansen to separate my legs and take the tail off.”
“I totally understand.” Said Audra. “And I will pay for the operation out of my own pocket. I don’t care what the insurance company says. What about the rest of you?”
“I think I’ll stay as a mermaid for now.” Answered Katherine. “I’m getting used to it, and I enjoy working at the aquarium. Also, we can see how Carla’s operation goes and decide if we want to try the same thing later.”
The rest of them agreed with Katherine. It only made sense to see how successful the separation operation would be before deciding to have it done.
“I wouldn’t mind being a merman.” Fernando said. “But not as a seahorse. Do you think we can do something about my tail?”
“We’ll call Mermaid Fantasies and see if they can fix you up with a better tail. I think Allen and some of the others may need some patching up as well.” Said Audra.
The merfolk all spent one more day in the hospital so that Eric could work on all of their collars. Dr. Hansen visited Allen and Fernando to cut away the remaining bits of silicone around their wrists, shoulders, and neck where the extra-confining tails had been attached. She had to cut away some of the skin that had grown into the silicone, but with healgel-infused bandages she felt they would heal without scarring. Audra spent much of her time on the phone to Burns Pharmaceuticals and the aquarium. Amanda Robbins and Jacob Bryson came to visit almost immediately, bringing a laptop so Audra could start working again. When the time came to leave, each merperson rode in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse out the front door of the hospital. Audra had arranged for two vans to come pick them up and take them to the aquarium. They were surprised when they opened the door and saw news vans and a crowd of reporters. The familiar face of Kari Davis was in the front of the pack, holding out a microphone as they pushed their way through to the vans.
“Is it true you were kidnapped by the King’s gang again?” She asked Lacy, who happened to be the closest.
“Yes it is.”
“And your tails are now permanently attached?”
“I hear they used healgel to glue them on. Does that mean healgel is dangerous? Will people who wear healgel bandages get them permanently stuck to their skin?”
Audra asked her nurse to push her forward. “They used our special prosthetic healglue to stick our tails on. Our regular healgel has been tested for over ten years and it won’t cause bandages to stick. But for those who need a permanent prosthetic we developed the healglue.”
“Thank you ma’am. May I ask your name? You seem to know a lot about healgel.”
“That’s because I invented it. I’m Audra Burns, owner of Burns Pharmaceuticals.”
“And they made you wear a mermaid tail as well? I thought only the aquarium mermaids were kidnapped.”
“Actually, there were three people kidnapped other than the regular mermaids. But we’ve been through a lot and we’re tired right now. How about we set up a press conference at the Gulf Aquarium tomorrow?”
“I’ll have Carmen Menandez, our marketing director, set it up with all the local stations.”
After that, they refused to answer any more questions and got into the vans, which were equipped with wheelchair lifts. The news crews followed them all the way to the aquarium, but they were held back by the security guards until everyone was able to get inside. Although it was past quitting time, a group of Burns Pharma and aquarium employees was waiting in the lobby. They all applauded as Audra came into the room.
“Thank you.” Audra told them. “I know this has been a rough time for you as well as for me. I’m grateful to those of you who have kept things running in my absence. I’m going to get settled in and then tomorrow we’ll be going back to business as usual. Carmen, thank you for waiting. Can I speak with you for a moment?”
The welcoming party broke up, with most of the group moving forward to shake hands or hug Audra and the merfolk before leaving. Audra spent a few minutes talking to Carmen about the press conference. She wanted to combine it with an announcement about the aquarium re-opening.
“I want to have a grand re-opening of the aquarium on Friday.”
“But that’s only 5 days away!” Said Carmen. “We won’t have much time to get marketing materials out.”
“We can do marketing after we open as well. I understand Jonas raised our prices. We’ll lower them to a dollar less than before. That will do some of the marketing for us. And it will take us some time to get the dolphin shows and the swim with mermaid activities set up again. Those can start later.”
“You’re the boss. I’ll start working on it. What time do you want the news conference?”
“How about 6:00? That way we’ll be on the early evening news shows.”
“You got it.”
The next day, Audra called a meeting with all of the old and new mermaids. They met in the cafeteria pool and Audra had donuts on the tables for them all. They spent the first part of the meeting getting to know each other. Then Audra told the story of their captivity. Finally, she announced:
“I know that some of you have wondered what might happen to your jobs when all of the full-time merfolk returned. The first thing I want to assure you is that none of you will lose your jobs. I know we’ve been on a bare-bones schedule for the last week or so while the aquarium has been closed. We are going to re-open on Friday, and we have a lot of work to do before then, so we will be back to a full schedule starting tomorrow. Katherine will give you your schedules. And you will all get an extra week’s pay as a bonus for sticking with us.”
That got a cheer from all of them.
“I know most of you are college students and part time work is what fits your schedule. We will continue to accommodate your schedule, which should be easier now that we have more people to help. You may be wondering how this will work with twice as many people. I’m not sure of all the details, but part of the answer is that not all of us will be working in the regular aquarium jobs. I have never worked in the aquarium, other than to fill in once or twice, and Anna is in the same boat. Others, like Lacy and Katherine, worked in the aquarium but also had other jobs. Now that we have you to help, they may spend less time feeding fish and more time developing new healgel varieties or marketing materials. Carla has decided to leave the aquarium as soon as we can arrange to remove her tail. So I’m sure we can work with all of you to help you have a great experience working here.”
Everyone clapped, especially the new mermaids. Then Fanny, one of the new mermaids, raised her hand.
“Ms. Burns, I’m getting close to graduation. Would there be a chance for me to get a full-time job at the aquarium?” She asked.
“Of course, depending on your degree and what we have open when you graduate.”
“What if I want to become a full-time mermaid? I want to wear a tail like you have, and get a breathing collar that doesn’t use tubes.”
“Really? That’s very interesting. Why don’t you and I have a private conversation later and we’ll discuss it.”