A visit to the doctor is anything but normal when you're a merman.
We're two days away from the release of Underground - A Merfolk Secret. You can read Chapter 1 here, and all the chapters in between as well.
From the Inside Out
Something about this place was making Chris nervous.
The light-blue halls of Medox Medical Center looked spotless, and the many people who walked through the labyrinth that was the Labs area seemed not to pay him any attention, but from Christopher’s perspective, everyone was watching him, waiting for his scales to shift so the whole world could see what they already knew: a merman was walking in their midst.
Stop it! he chided himself, as a young nurse smiled at him in an appreciative way. He tried to smile back, but he wasn’t sure if it came out more like a sneer than an actual friendly greeting. Beside him, Andrew nudged him with his elbow, as he’d noticed the exchange. In front of them, Gwen was telling Julian how things were going at her new job.
“And I gotta say, I was very impressed with the head of traumatology,” Gwen was saying as she guided them through the third floor. “He’s a no-nonsense guy that every hospital needs. I was dreading some interrogation regarding ORCAS and my ‘celebrity’ status, but the guy barely mentioned it...”
ORCAS. This place looked exactly like Christopher had imagined ORCAS to be. From the confinement of his bed, he’d stared at the double doors that led to his room for hours, and he’d imagined that corridors full of shadows and men in lab coats with scalpels awaited him out there. Most of the time, Matt had distracted him from his fears, providing an escape from his overactive imagination. But he’d never stopped wondering.
Now, walking through an actual hospital, his body seemed to remember all too well what his mind had conjured seven months ago. He looked around, unable to dispel the feeling of being watched.
“Mr. Brooks,” a short, bald doctor said as they turned a corner, stopping the entire group. “I’m Dr. Bennett. We spoke on the phone? I hope you’ve found everything to your satisfaction?”
Despite Julian’s request that their visit be private, it was inevitable that at least someone from the administration would greet them. The trick was to minimize how many people knew they were there, even if only Gwen and Andrew were going to see the actual tests.
“Dr. Bennett, yes. I thank you for your accommodations on such short notice. Dr. Gaston here has been giving us the grand tour. I couldn’t ask for a better guide.”
Julian was one of the most prominent donors at Medox Medical Center, and although he’d been keeping up with the hospital for altruistic and research reasons, this was the first time he’d called in a favor. Medox had the equipment Andrew needed to form a better diagnosis on how to treat Christopher’s injured legs, and Julian had the resources to ask for a full day of uninterrupted use of the labs and the machines. From ultrasounds to MRIs, this day was going to last forever.
“If you need anything at all, you just have to say the word. Many of our specialists are in the facility today, though I’m sure your son already has the best care in the world.”
As the exchanged continued, Chris leaned on the wall. His legs didn’t seem to be cooperating today. And although merfolk didn’t sweat, Chris could feel the grip on his cane sliding. It was as if someone was draining his strength.
“Are you okay?” Andrew whispered beside him, a slightly concerned frown on his face.
“Yeah...just...thinking about how things were at ORCAS,” he answered.
“Not as nice as here, I can assure you,” his friend joked. Chris barely nodded. “Everybody had all sorts of crazy shifts, and if you weren’t careful, you could walk right into an exit instead of the place you wanted to be. The cafeteria food was okay, I guess,” Andrew kept saying, making Chris’s two stomachs cringe. He couldn’t eat right now even if his life depended on it. “But I always looked forward to working with you.”
“You were only there for three days,” Chris said, frowning.
“And I looked forward to treating you every single one of them,” Andrew said, beaming.
“So, if you don’t mind, we would like to start,” Julian was saying, cutting short Dr. Bennett’s grand speech.
“Of course. I hope everything works okay,” the short man said, shaking hands with Julian, then Christopher, and finally Andrew. He waved at Gwen, and the four of them breathed.
“I told him you wanted privacy. I wasn’t expecting him to come and talk to you,” Gwen said as she walked them through a couple of doors until they arrived to the MRI room. Chris swallowed hard.
“That’s okay, Gwen. It’s the first time I’ve come in person, so I was expecting it. Now, the sooner we get this going, the less people are going to come in here to talk.”
“Right. Andrew has a very detailed list of what he needs, and there are a few things I suggested that we both think would be good. Now, the question here is: how slowly can you shift?”
“So you can study how the muscles move?” Julian asked. Both Andrew and Gwen nodded eagerly. “Can’t say I’ve timed myself. Our aim is to do it as fast as we can, so it becomes an automatic shift. I guess we’ll find out together.”
“Okay, the gowns are in that room. Take your time to change while we set things up here.”
Chris opened the door to a small room with nothing but a bench and a couple of hangers. “Dad?” he asked as Julian started to take off his watch and unbutton the cuffs of his shirt. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Julian looked at him, confused. “If I’m sure I want to do what? Help your doctors understand how to help you? That’s not even a question.”
“But...doesn’t this go against everything we stand for? The secret we’re protecting?”
“The secret that the whole world knows by now?” his father pointed out, smiling. “Chris, it’s okay. They need this because you need this. Spending a few hours lying down while they run their tests is the least I can do.”
That’s what they did to me, isn’t it? They ran their tests while I was in a coma… So why does this feel so wrong?
“Maybe there’s nothing anyone can do for me, you know? Maybe what happened to my legs is irreversible, and I’m totally okay with that. I mean, Dad—we really don’t have to do this.”
Julian stopped unbuttoning his shirt, and looked straight at his son’s eyes. “What exactly are you talking about?”
“You’re putting your identity in danger for something that might not even help me at all. It’s not worth it.”
Julian placed a hand on his shoulder, and for one moment Chris thought his father was going to desist, and they would leave this wretched place at once. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t risk for you, do you understand? If I had to walk out and announce to the world I’m a merman in order to save you, I would do so in a heartbeat. For you or any of your brothers.”
“Now, stop this nonsense that I’m in danger. Gwen has the controls and you’ll be playing guards with Andrew to ensure no one opens that door. We’ll be home before you know it.”
* * *
The last time Julian had had a physical, he’d still been living in The City. It was the last requirement to leave, actually, since they had to make sure he would survive the trip to the surface. Those leaving were guided by The City itself, to make sure there were no dangerous predators in the area. All they wore was a watch to illuminate the way, and a thousand hopes of a better, brighter future.
“How long do you need?” he asked Gwen, looking at the MRI machine closely.
“About twelve minutes between each phase,” Gwen said.
Julian chuckled. “Phase?”
“What do you call them? Stages?” Gwen asked, frowning.
“Well, there are legs, and then there’s a tail. It’s pretty straightforward.”
“We’ll take whatever we can,” Andrew said. “Just try to make it last as long as possible.”
You can still say no… Chris whispered in his mind. For some reason, his eldest’s anxiety was still filling their connection. It was as if whatever had Chris anxious on a daily basis, had blossomed as soon as they’d stepped into the hospital.
“Okay, how about we start easy?” Julian suggested. “We do the twelve minutes for legs, and twelve minutes for a tail, and then we’ll try the ‘phase’ thing.”
And hopefully, we don’t spend five hours in here.
With a plan of action, both Andrew and Chris got out of the room, while he and Gwen got ready to start. As he sat on the MRI’s narrow bed and Gwen gave him the earplugs to tone down the machine’s noise, Julian started to get a sense of what was making Christopher so nervous.
“And then you lie down and don’t move. Easy peasy.”
“Gwen? You ran these tests when Christopher was at your hospital, right?”
“Some of them, yeah.”
“Is there any chance he was partially conscious?”
“Not as far as we could tell. Why? Does he remember anything?”
“No, he’s just been…jittery since we arrived.”
“A lot of people get jittery with lab tests. It’s perfectly normal. You’re in a strange environment, half the time you’re naked; there’s people poking and prodding you. There might be discomfort, if not outright pain. Look, the whole thing just makes you vulnerable,” she explained, shrugging. “Besides, isn’t this the first time you’re taking one of your kids to the doctor? Like, ever?”
“I won’t confirm or deny that,” he answered, making Gwen laugh.
“Don’t worry. I won’t call Social Services on you, Mr. Brooks. So, enjoy your time—and don’t move.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Julian said under his breath as he lay down. The earplugs felt uncomfortable, and as the bed moved inside the long tube, he had the sudden need to scratch his knee.
It’s all in your head, he told himself as he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. This is going to take a long time, so you better get comfortable.
It was easy to wander in the boundless space of his mind. Chris’s brilliant blues were a bit more energetic than usual as he tried to get his nerves under control. Andrew had picked up on his mood, and was chatting his ear off, probably trying to distract him. Further away, his other two sons were having a discussion at the school library, one Julian skipped over. Unless he was feeling a distress signal from either of them, he avoided overhearing their conversations. It was bad for parenting, apparently.
Further still, Diana’s vivid purples jumped from one point to the other. She was excited about the UN talks, and if he had to guess, he would say she was talking with Nathan right this moment. She hadn’t declared her intentions for their human ally, and frankly, he wasn’t sure if she actually loved him or merely cherished him as a good friend, but there was no denying the strong feelings she sent every time she was talking to him.
And not far away from her, Drake’s dark energy moved like a caged panther. Unlike Diana’s happiness, Drake was far more reserved with the outcome of these talks. And before those talks even happen, he has to deal with Major White.
Part of Julian felt guilty that Drake had made a deal with the major on behalf of his family, but he understood Drake’s decisions. They would’ve had to deal with the government eventually. He just wished it hadn’t been this soon.
Having fun at the doctor’s? Drake asked as he stopped reading some reports.
Can’t say I’m thrilled, but at least Gwen makes this bearable. How are things going on your end?
I’ve been getting some flags from the Navy. It seems they have some interesting theories regarding Brazil. I’m sending Mireya everything I’ve got. Her Portuguese is far better than mine ever was.
How did it go with the major?
I’m leaving first light on Saturday. They can’t wait to do a real deep diving test, and the sooner this is over, the better for all involved.
“Okay, Julian, we’re good with this part. Ready when you are with the tail.”
That’s my cue.
Good luck. I’ve never liked shifting out of the water, Drake said as he faded out of Julian’s mind. His friend had a point: Tails were meant to be used underwater. Even sitting at the edge of a pool was uncomfortable, let alone shifting while lying horizontally on an extremely narrow bed.
He was used to doing it fast, but that was with the aid of water. As he started the fusion from his hips down, the flat surface of the MRI bed slowed him considerably. He joined his knees, which made him arch his back, and by the time his ankles merged into his tail, he’d had to put his hands on the curved wall to steady himself, since his lateral fins were completely useless for the task.
“Everything okay in there?” Gwen asked from outside the MRI, where Julian’s tail was brushing her arm. She sounded far away and distorted through the earplugs, but he could still understand her.
“I bet. The section we want to study is not large, but I would love to get a closer look at those hips of yours, if you don’t mind.”
“Since I’m your captive audience, you mean?”
She laughed, and although Julian couldn’t see her, he felt her covering his tail with a blanket. If anyone did enter the room, at least he would have enough time to change under the cover.
Lying there in merform felt vulnerable in a way that lying there with legs didn’t. When Christopher had been trapped inside ORCAS, he’d shared plenty of fears with his son, but now that it was him inside, even if he was here willingly and in no danger, he still got a claustrophobic vibe. The idea that humans could cage him and essentially treat him as a lab rat felt too real, and it gave him a renewed purpose for dealing with the UN and the government in the best way possible—or to run to the other side of the world if he couldn’t.
* * *
“Does he seem tense to you?” Andrew asked Gwen as Chris went deadly still inside the MRI two hours later.
“Funny, Julian thought the same thing. He said he was going to keep Chris’s mind out of it, but that I should ‘hurry it up’. As if you could hurry this baby up,” Gwen said, patting the monitor in front of her. It had been almost an hour and a half before Gwen had let Julian go, and it had taken Andrew that long to convince Chris that this was a good idea.
“I wasn’t expecting that being here would be this distressing to him,” Andrew commented, as Chris marginally relaxed.
“Well, you gotta factor in this: Being attacked was not the worst thing that could happen to him. Waking up at ORCAS was, and I can see why he would associate this place with that place. Your subconscious mind can be such a bitch sometimes.”
I have to make you start talking to me about this… Andrew thought.
“How did it go with Julian and the shifting phases?”
Gwen barked a laugh. “He did try, I’ll give him that. It was a lost cause, for the most part. We might have better luck with the ultrasound later.”
On the monitor, Chris’s legs showed up distinctively not human. Merfolk didn’t have human-like bones. They were more like cartilage, if one could fuse cartilage together, of course. They appeared dimmer on the screen than femurs would, and although the cut to Chris’s tail had not touched the structure, Chris’s impaired walking was taking a toll on his knees.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Gwen said as the test proceeded, “why didn’t you want an EMG done? Aren’t his muscles the problem?”
An electromyogram was a fancy way of describing electrical torture. Andrew had been subjected to one when he’d been a teenager, and boy, did that thing hurt. An EMG measured the electricity running through the muscles to discard muscular or nerve problems, but it required needles to be inserted at various points in the leg so electricity could flow, measuring abnormal electrical activity. The side effect was painful electrical shocks.
“I would have done it the first week he came to see me if it had been possible. He can’t stand the electrical current.”
“From what he told me, I think they all are. Apparently, if I were to apply any real electrical stimuli, it would trash his shifting capabilities and I would end up with a strange mix of man and merman. He made it sound gross,” Andrew said with a frown, “but it’s also the main reason why his recovery has been so hard. Electro-stimulation is one of my main tools to treat muscles, so I’ve been working with a hand tied to my back, and no tests to fall back to. At least he tolerates ultrasound therapy.”
“No wonder you were so excited over the phone when you called me.”
“Hey, it’s not every day a merman offers to shift under an MRI. And, you know, they can use the information, too. These are the first images of the inner workings of their body that any of the younger Brookses have ever seen in their lives. How cool is that?”
“I don’t think Matthew and Scott are going to be interested,” Gwen said with raised eyebrows. “But maybe Alexander will. He’s always struck me as the smart one.”
“How smart do you think they really are? Like an average IQ?”
“I have no idea. But one thing I can tell you is this: I’d rather have Drake on my side any day than a moron from the Pentagon.”
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