It's time to see what the other members of the I-Know-A-Merman club have been doing...
You can read Chapter 1 here, in case you've been missing all the fun!
Andrew Summers’s life had drastically changed in the last year. Not only had he been called to treat a merman by the United Nations back in September, he now was the personal physiotherapist to one of the richest families in the world, which meant little when compared with the fact that he got to work with merfolk on a daily basis.
He loved Chris’s enthusiasm and dedication to his rehabilitation, and he also loved the tight friendship he’d developed with the other human members of the I-know-a-merman club, but if there was one thing that still felt awkward, it was dealing with Chris’s dad, Julian Brooks.
At least you’re not meeting with Drake, he told himself as Julian’s senior secretary guided him to Julian’s office. In the months since he’d been working with Christopher, Julian had had few words with him, and never in private—much less at his office.
“He’s finishing up a meeting, but he’ll be right with you,” the older woman said, opening the door to an office that was twice as big as his apartment. For someone who had lived at least a century, Julian’s sense of style was quite modern. A tinted glass wall gave way to an impressive sight of New York City, and black sofas invited him to sit and admire it.
The air conditioner was set at its max here, as it was in their home, because merfolk needed cold environments to thrive. By now, Andrew’s wardrobe had a healthy amount of sweaters to deal with that.
“Mr. Summers,” Julian said a moment later, as he finished signing something his secretary was holding.
“Mr. Brooks,” Andrew said, extending a hand. Julian shook it with a ghost of a smile.
“It does make us sound too formal,” he said, as the doors were closed behind him. “Can I offer you something to drink, Andrew?”
With the way Andrew’s heart was racing, he wanted to say yes, but it would hardly look professional. “Just water, thank you.”
“I’m sure this meeting came as a strange request,” Julian said a moment later, handing Andrew a cool glass of water. Sitting down, it somehow felt as if he was about to be given an employee evaluation, and he had no idea how it was going to go.
“I can’t say I’m not intrigued.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk with you for a while, but things seemed to keep happening,” Julian started, choosing his words carefully. “I’ve been watching Chris, and he’s still struggling. He keeps saying everything’s going fine, but I can see he’s in pain. I know I’m putting you in a difficult position between disclosing your patient’s information and helping him out, but if there’s anything I can do to help you, I’ll gladly give it to you. And it might not even be something tangible, but rather ideas, any questions you might have that only a merman can answer…?”
The question lingered in the air, expectant. Andrew had heard similar questions from parents of children, and he had to remind himself that, in merfolk society, Christopher was still considered a minor. Julian was gracious enough to understand that Andrew might very well refuse to share any details that Christopher might not want him to disclose, but he also had a point: Chris was a unique patient, and Andrew had no resources to use and no colleagues to compare notes with.
“Chris is a wonderful patient,” Andrew said with all confidence. “He does his exercises, and he keeps with the routine. He’s invested in his recovery like no one I’ve ever worked with before.”
“But…” Julian said, having no problem reading where Andrew was going.
“But like you suspect, he’s stuck in his progress.”
Chris hadn’t made any significant improvement in the past couple of months, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. “To be honest, Mr. Brooks—”
“—to be honest, Julian, I’m running out of ideas. I know how the human body works, but all I have are educated guesses of how your bodies work. We’ve been working with his tail instead of his legs in the past weeks, and it does feel promising, it’s just that I don’t know how to guide him there. Your tails are not sea lion tails, or dolphin tails. I just don’t have a point of reference.”
“You need to study how a merfolk body naturally works, without injuries.”
“That would be ideal, yes, but I—I understand,” he added, not wanting to sound like a greedy mad scientist. “You don’t want your secrets exposed, and with the government knowing about you—”
“Let me worry about them,” Julian said, slightly amused. “Before we go into detail about what you need to help my son, there’s something else I was hoping we could discuss. Have you noticed a change in his mood recently?”
“With his therapy?”
“In general. I know you didn’t know Chris from before ORCAS, but that might mean that you’re better qualified to notice it.”
“Chris is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known,” Andrew said, frowning.
“It drives his brothers insane, that’s for sure,” Julian said with affection. “He hasn’t been sleeping much lately,” he confided a moment later. “He’s trying to be subtle about it. He’s been trying to catch up with napping after you go in the afternoons.”
“He’s been worn out, you’re right,” Andrew said, thinking back on the last couple of weeks.
“Distracted,” Julian added. “He’s been…quiet. Not enough that his brothers have picked up on it, but…”
“But he’s your son, so you’ve noticed.”
Julian nodded once, exhaling as if admitting this was a heavy burden. “Maybe I’m imagining it, and this is not something I want Chris to worry about. I just thought that if someone would notice it at all, it would be you.”
“I’ll pay closer attention.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for him. We don’t take lightly the fact that you’ve kept our secret.”
“It’s not been a problem at all.”
“And I’m not taking lightly Chris’s full recovery, either. You said you needed to study a healthy body. What, exactly, do you need?”
A long list of what he needed flashed in his mind, and he was sure that at least half of it was not going to be met with such eager eyes. “I think…I think we need to call Gwen.”
* * *
Around Gwen Gaston, six of her new colleagues listened to her every word with rapt attention. Gwen had been part of the Medox Hospital staff for ten days, and as much as she’d tried to avoid talking about Ray, the merfolk, or life as a semi-celebrity, she’d caved in to the pressure of awkward stares and silent questions.
“So, he was still moving?” a young nurse asked, half horrified, half excited.
“No, he was already in a coma. He never recovered.”
The official story was that Ray had died without ever gaining consciousness. After seven months of repeating it, there was no question she hadn’t answered, and no conspiracy theory she hadn’t dodged.
“He wasn’t put in a tank?” a resident asked, frowning. “I mean, that’s like the obvious answer. He was a merman.”
“He breathed air. Putting him in water was just going to be one more complication in treating him.”
“For all the good that did,” the guy said with disdain. “I bet if you’d submerged him in water—”
“Was he cold and slimy?” the nurse from before interrupted, sensing Gwen was about to strangle the resident.
“No. He wasn’t an eel,” Gwen said, now just praying for patience as the stupid questions started. She’d once told Chris the most outlandish beliefs people had about merfolk… She’d never seen him laugh so hard before. He was always eager to hear what people say to her, eager to complete a picture of what his existence meant to the world, she guessed.
“What about his teeth?” the woman pressed. “Were they razor sharp? You know, like a shark’s, or a piranha’s?”
Chris’s perfect human-like smile flashed in her mind. A lot had been discussed about the shape of Ray’s teeth by the “experts,” because they revealed what his diet was most likely to be. Sharp teeth for eating fish, was the standard answer, but it always made her pause.
“They were—” Her phone interrupted the conversation. “Later,” she told the group as she answered the call while exiting the room. “Andrew, you’re a lifesaver.”
“Happy to help,” he said. “Now, I hope you’re sitting down, because I’ve got one bombshell to tell you.”
* * *
“Hey, Alex!” Gill McKenzie called him as he was exiting History. “Wait up!”
Alex slung his backpack on one shoulder, and waited as she put her laptop on its case, the SWIMMER sticker starting to peel off at the edges. After their presentation on merfolk and legal personhood a couple of months ago, half of his class and his teacher had all signed up to the Sea Watchers International for Men-Merfolk Equality Relations organization, which meant he got to see the SWIMMER sticker a lot around class. If I ever find out who came up with that idiotic name…
“What’s up?” he asked. She looked more energetic than usual.
“Dad’s taking a case about merfolk,” she whispered, suddenly blushing as she intently looked at him. “You know, trying to prove they deserve rights?”
“I thought your dad didn’t want to take cases where he knew he was going to lose?” The main reason they had been able to write such a convincing paper was because Gill’s dad was a lawyer with a deep interest in merfolk and their theoretical rights.
“I know! It means he thinks he has a real chance with it. He wants to clear up all these conspiracy theories and alleged murders, and maybe—maybe even file charges against Roy Wallace.”
Oh the irony, Alex fleetingly thought. Sure, Gill, give us rights so one of us can be charged with murdering another one of us.
“No one knows where Roy Wallace is,” Alex said, feigning ignorance.
“That’s not the point. He wants to launch an inquiry into what happened to Ray. No one ever asked for it, but a lot of people—including some scientists from ORCAS—are coming forward with information that contradicts the White House and UN’s declaration. Don’t you see it? Ray might be alive!”
Alex stopped in the middle of the hallway, feeling as if every student around was watching him. He opened the door to the closest empty room, with Gill in tow.
“You can’t do that,” he admonished.
“I can’t do what?”
“Your dad can’t do that. Ask about Ray and what happened to him. He died, Gill. Leave it like that.”
She frowned, confused. “What are you talking about? Don’t you want to know what happened—”
“I know what happened. Look, the world knows what happened, and we’d like them to keep believing it happened that way. If your dad or anyone else goes asking questions, you’ll just put innocent people in danger—including Ray.”
Her eyes opened up. “Ray’s alive?” she whispered in wonder. Which was the opposite of what his inner voice was whispering in his ear: Shut up, you idiot!
A rash started to spread across the back of his hands and up his arms. Cursing silently, he hid his hands in his pockets. “I’m not—I can’t tell you anything else. Just don’t encourage your dad. Don’t encourage others to join the SWIMMERs. Don’t—”
“Talk to you?” she asked, her eyes dreadfully watery.
He felt like the worst merman on the planet. “That’s not—that’s not what I meant. You’re the one who told me you didn’t want to know so you wouldn’t say anything to the wrong people. And that’s the bravest, most considerate thing anyone in your position has ever said. And as much as it pains me to say this, there is no men-merfolk relations. There’s only ‘you and me’ relations—”
Whatever else he was planning to say died as Gill lunged at him and was suddenly kissing him. The electrifying contact sent a bolt through his body, scales shifting from the back of his neck to his lower back, following his shoulder blades at the soaring speed of his heartbeat. His rash was obliterated as the back of his hands also shifted. He lost his balance, colliding with the whiteboard, Gill’s lips still locked with his—or maybe his with hers? Stupidly, he realized that he was now the same height as Gill, who had her eyes closed while her reddish curls framed their faces.
The bell rang, snapping them both out of it. “I’ll stop him, you can count on it,” she said breathlessly. Two seconds later, she collected her things and fled the classroom, leaving Alex frozen in place.
He was in so much trouble.
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