Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Sea Hag -Chapter 12-

 

Michael


Sirena twitched and moaned in my arms and I adjusted my hold so that her head rested on my shoulder, face pressed against my neck. Both of my hands were occupied so I took slow, deliberate steps, relying on Gabe to tell me if I veered off course. He counted down the steps to the stairs that led to the front door and I followed his voice.

I heard the creak of the old wood-and-glass door swing open, and Gabe directed, “Angle her left a little bit. Okay, you’re through. I guess just put her on the couch?” his voice turned salacious, “Unless, you want her in your bed…?”

“Gabe,” I said disapprovingly, but I was actually considering it. For her privacy if nothing else. “Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Still in her studio, I assume. She’s working on a new sculpture. You know how she gets.”

I did, indeed. Cecelia Maria Mendoza-Morgan was an artist, a pretty highly regarded one. She had started out as a painter, and her work had fetched moderately high prices in galleries all over the world. It was at one such display that she had met our father. Both in New York for business, she a Spanish aristocrat by way of Ecuador, he a noted marine biologist from Oregon invited to lecture at a symposium and dragged to an art show by some colleagues.

The way they tell it, they fell for each other almost immediately, though they came from very different worlds. They left the gallery together and spent the night in a hotel room. And then five more nights, both of them blowing off all other engagements. In the end, they decided that they simply couldn’t bear to be apart and Cecelia happily joined Dr. Jonathan Morgan wherever his work took him.

When she became pregnant, they decided to make it official and finally get married. To the everlasting disapproval of her family. She had us both baptized Catholic which mollified them somewhat.  And she used a moderate portion of her trust fund to secure this house on the Oregon coast so as to raise us as close to nature and, of course, the ocean that Dad so loved.

After Dad died, Mom stopped painting. Stopped doing anything, really, except holding her rosary and crying and praying in Spanish.

My sudden blindness was a shock to all of us, especially me. But it somehow seemed to shake Mom out of her grief, or at least give her something else to focus on. I was struggling with compounded grief for both my father and for the future I had envisioned for myself. My new reality was full of limitations both real and painful. Mom had stepped up to help me through that. And, a couple of years later, she slowly returned to her first passion. This time, though, she became a sculptor. Mixing media and techniques to create brilliant tactile and auditory pieces that had earned her numerous awards, both for creativity and accessibility. 

Our mother would probably be in her studio until sundown, but I didn’t want to keep secrets from her. Especially not here. So I shook my head and moved to the couch in the front room, skirting the coffee table and shuffling sideways until I could safely set Sirena down on its length.

I smoothed and arranged her limbs and checked her pulse and breathing. “Gabe?” I called, hoping he was still there.

“Yeah,” he confirmed from the archway that led to the dining room.

“Do you see any wounds or bruising I might have missed? Her vitals seem okay, and I’m hoping it was just standard ketamine in those darts, but…” I gestured to encompass her body.

“Hold on, I need light,” he said as his booted footsteps clomped across the hardwood floor and I heard a soft click. Oh, right. Light. 

He clomped over and he knelt beside me. I followed his movements as he lifted and turned her with surprising gentleness, inspecting her thoroughly. When he was finished he took my hand and guided it to the spots as he spoke. “Needle mark here, on her outer thigh, and here on the back of her right shoulder. He guided my finger to the place, but I could detect nothing. I nodded and went back to stroking her cheek.

Gabe sighed heavily as he rose and his hand ruffled my hair. “Look, I think there’s still some coffee in the kitchen. Let’s go get some.”

I shook my head, letting the mussed strands fall back to their accustomed places. “No. I don’t want her to wake up in a strange place all alone. I want her to at least see a familiar face.”

He seemed to ponder this for a moment. “Yeah, okay,” he said finally, his steps moving toward the kitchen. “But if we’re gonna keep vigil here, I’m gonna go grab a cup. You want one?”

I turned my face and smiled up at him. “I’d like that. Thanks Gabe.”

“You’re still explaining this to Mom!” he called as he left.

I chuckled and went back to solemnly tracing her features. “What are you?” I whispered. “You shouldn’t exist. Nothing like you exists in the natural world. Are you an alien? A mutation? Were you born or were you made? How can I be falling for you when I don't know anything about you?” I found her hand and gripped it, pressing the backs of her knuckles to my forehead and closing my eyes, not expecting an answer. Not even really sure I wanted her to hear the questions.

“Michael,” she murmured and my head shot up. She moaned again and I felt her shift. I held onto her hand and reached for her face with the other. She thrashed and moaned.

“Sirena,” I crooned, stroking her cheek rhythmically, “Sirena, it’s Michael. You’re with me. You’re safe.”

She sat up suddenly, hissing, and her hand was around my throat, her claws digging into the back of my neck. She was strong. Strong enough to snap my neck, I could feel it. I lifted my hands and tried to look as non-threatening as possible.

“Sirena,” I choked through the crushing hold on my windpipe, “Stop. It’s me--”

Booted steps returned and Gabe said a startled, “Oh, shit,” as she leapt up with her hand still a vice around my throat and moved behind me, putting me between herself and Gabe.

I could feel her chest heaving in great fearful breaths. She was disoriented and frightened and apparently, her first instinct was aggression. I kept my hands up and still and said, “Gabe, don’t move.”

“Yeah, okay,” he said uncertainly and I was relieved to note that he had frozen where he was.  

None of us moved for a long moment and then I felt her shake herself and her hand released my throat. She pushed herself away from me and I reached for her reflexively as I rubbed my throat. She hadn’t actually hurt me, I noted, though she could have. Easily.

“Michael?” she said, her voice breathy and pained. She didn’t take my outstretched hand so I let it fall back to my side. “Michael, where are we? What happened?” she paused. “Who is this?”

“Gabriel Mendoza-Morgan,” said Gabe as he moved toward us and I heard two mugs being placed on the coffee table, smelled the rich aroma. “I’m the one who saved your fishy butt from whoever-the-hell those guys were at the beach. You’re welcome.”

“Morgan?” she said softly. Then stated, moving further away, “You are twins.”

I cocked my head at her with a half smile, not sure what the problem was. “Yeah, he’s my twin brother. Is something wrong?” I tried holding out my hand again but she ignored the gesture and began to move around the room. I could hear her strange, soft footsteps accompanied by a click of nails on hardwood. I turned, tracking her movements, confused.

“Who is your father?” she demanded suddenly from over near the front door.

“The fuck is happening right now?” Gabe made his own demand for information, and I actually agreed with him for once.

“Our father was Jonathan Morgan,” I said simply, hoping to calm her enough so she would explain. “What is this about, Sirena?”

She hissed and I could hear her pacing. “That’s why you looked familiar. That is why I trusted you! You look like him. Did Venter send you? How much did he give you to earn my trust?” she demanded. “Is he here? I’m not going back, you hear me?” She was stalking around the room, her voice rising. “Show yourself, Altus, you coward!”

I moved toward her, making shushing motions with my hands and made sure my face was pointed at hers. “Sirena, please. I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no one here, and no one paid me anything.” I splayed my hands out to the sides, offering them to her. “Do you really think I nearly drowned myself on the off chance that you would come save me? Kind of stupid as plans go, don’t you think?”

“Did you say Altus Venter?” Gabe chimed in, unhelpfully. “Like, the billionaire?” 

I moved closer to her, hands outstretched and gave her my most sincere and placating smile. “Sirena, we’re not going to hurt you. On the contrary, we got you away from those that would. You’re safe here in our home. I promise.”

Her long fingers finally slipped into mine and my smile grew broad as she threw herself into my arms with a tiny hiccuping sob. I wrapped my arms around her and held her for a long moment, her face buried in the space between my neck and shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she whispered into my chest. “I’m so sorry, Michael. This is just--I can’t believe they found me. After all this time, I don’t know why they are even still looking.”

Gabe sipped coffee across the room in the most obnoxious way possible, letting us know he was still there. I smiled and captured her face between my hands. “It seems like we have some things to talk about. Do you think you maybe wanna sit down, hash all this out?”

She nodded, her hands covering mine as she did so. I couldn’t help it, I leaned in and placed a kiss on her forehead before taking her by the hand and leading her back to the couch.

I asked if she wanted some coffee and she physically recoiled at the offer, but gratefully accepted the offer of water. I asked Gabe if he would get it from the kitchen, partly because he could do it faster, but mostly because I didn’t want to leave her side. She sat with her whole side pressed against me, leg to shoulder, her hand wrapped around mine. Her fingers were easily half again as long as my own, the webs stretching all the way to the last knuckle. And those thick claws. She could rip a man’s throat out or snap his neck with equal ease.

My hand went to my neck as I remembered the feel of her claws there. The strength of her grip. I didn’t realize what I was doing until she said quietly, chagrined, “I didn't hurt you did I? I wasn’t trying to. I was just confused. Frightened.” She was inspecting my neck, her claws making delicate trails that were sending shivers of pleasure down my spine. I shook my head and then her mouth replaced the claws and she was kissing a trail down to my chest--

“My God, you two are like a couple of highschoolers,” Gabe boomed into the room. “Keep it PG in the common areas, for Christ’s sake. Don’t make me get the hose.” He paused before Sirena and then moved back to his chair across from us while I heard her guzzle.

“Thank you, Gabriel,” I said with minimal snark. I slapped my palms lightly against my knees. “So, let’s start over. Sirena, this is my twin brother Gabe. Now, apparently, you knew our father, Dr. Jonathan Morgan. Would you like to tell us more about that? Because, I’m pretty sure he never mentioned you to us.”

The sound of an empty glass on the wooden table. Sirena taking a steadying breath. Gabe sipping quietly.

“I am not a natural creature,” she said finally. “I once had a twin as well. We were created from the same recombinant DNA, one male and one female. We were created from a mixture of human and animal genes, the result of countless hours and billions of dollars in research. All highly illegal, of course. But to a man like Altus Venter, laws are merely suggestions. He was the founder and owner of Project: Deep Blue.

“Venter’s goal was to remake humanity. He was building underwater habitats that he said would become humanity’s home when the surface became unlivable. But, for humans to survive long term, he said, they must ultimately evolve and adapt to living underwater. This was why he created us: to be the genetic Adam and Eve of his new human race.”

“Augh,” spat Gabe, disgusted, “You mean he wanted you to-- with your own brother?” 

“Yes,” she said simply. “We were raised in an underwater laboratory, by scientists, including your father. We didn’t know about that taboo. We only knew that it would be our duty once we reached full sexual maturity.”

“I don’t remember Dad ever mentioning working in a secret underwater lab with two illegal genetic experiments, do you, Mikey?”

I glared briefly in his direction and searched out Sirena’s hand to hold. She squeezed back in reassurance. “I imagine there was a pretty hefty and ruthlessly enforced NDA involved in  a project like this, Gabi,” I said, using the nickname he hated. I squeezed her hand and prompted, “Go on, Sirena. What happened? How did you escape?”

“I met your father, Dr. Morgan, when I was small. Maybe four or five years old. My brother and I were well kept. We were fed and educated. We were studied, yes, but never mistreated. We were taught many things by some of the most intelligent people in the world. Your father was particularly taken with us, I think because we were the same age as you, his children. He taught us all about the sea. About all of the life within it, and about ourselves. He taught me that my skin was like an octopus, able to change color and texture at will. I have a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and I can stay submerged on a single breath for nearly two hours thanks to my gills.

“But mostly I remember how loving and affectionate and playful he was. The other scientists kept their distance from us, emotionally which, in hindsight I suppose, was probably for the best. Your father was the closest thing to a father I ever had. When he left, a piece of me left with him. And then…” she didn’t say anything for a long while. Gabe and I both recognized the trauma of loss in her silence and sat in stillness and patience for her to continue.

Her hand squeezed mine and then her other hand touched my cheek, turning it toward her. She swept the hair off my forehead with her claws, running them through my hair. I smiled, small and uncertain, wishing for just a moment that I could see what her face was saying.

“You look so much like him,” she said.

“So I’m told.” My smile felt a bit sad as I ducked my head and kissed her palm. 

She took another deep breath, fortifying herself and let my face go. “Dr. Morgan, he -- had issues with Altus. I don’t know what specifically, but they disagreed often. On the day that their mutual antipathy came to a head, it was so bad that I could hear it from outside the lab, in the water. I couldn’t make out the words, but they were actually screaming at each other. Dr. Morgan left after that and I never saw him again. Shortly after that -- maybe days -- everyone started packing things up, in a hurry. They were shredding things and burning others. Some they just pitched outside, into the ocean. Altus came and told my brother and I that we were to be moved to a new facility. There had been a security breach. We were frightened, but there was nothing to do but obey.

“Then, a guard came in with two trays bearing our evening meals. I hadn’t seen him before and he was cold and armed and something in his eyes frightened me. I was going to tell my brother not to eat it, but he had already done so. His tray hit the floor and he fell, foam spewing from his lips. I screamed and tried to help, but he was already dead. Gone. Just like that. The guard stepped forward, to do what, I don’t know. I went mad. I leapt upon him and tore his throat out before he could even scream for help. I ran down the halls, looking for an escape. I was mad with grief, rage; feral. I don’t remember much after that. I may have killed more if they got in my way. Eventually I found an airlock and just let myself out. No one chased me. I swam off and disappeared into the sea.”

“You’ve been alone all this time?” I said, though I knew that answer. I searched out her hand to squeeze it. “You were just a kid, though. Surviving in the wild alone must have been…” I searched for adequate words and, finding none, finished lamely, “difficult.”

Her small exhalation at that made me smirk in return. “Not as difficult as you might imagine. I was designed to live in the water. Trained to survive there. Mostly it was the loneliness that got to me. I’m human enough to crave social interaction, but not human enough to actually be able to interact with them -- you. Thankfully, other marine mammals helped me fill that void. Porpoises and other whales are really quite affectionate and playful. There were pods I met up with regularly during the year that sort of adopted me. We slept and played and travelled together until they headed for waters too cold for me.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t all just ‘playtime-with-dolphins, unda-da-sea carefree’, was it?” Gabe said flatly. “You were fuckin’ shit up for fishermen all over the place, weren’t you?”

“Gabe,” I said warningly.

“No, he is correct,” Sirena said with a brief squeeze of my fingers. “Everyone needs a purpose. I made it mine to halt overfishing wherever I could. I’ve seen first-hand the devastations corporate greed has wrought on the oceans. I’ve cut dolphins free from tuna nets, dodged whaling ship harpoons, watched as those who couldn’t were slaughtered. My friends.” Her voice grew heated, heavy with emotion as she continued. “I’ve seen sorrow and carnage you can only imagine. So I count those fishermen lucky that I broke only their equipment, and not their necks.” I could feel her tension through our contact,she was fairly vibrating with rage and she spat the last sentence with a venom I hadn't known she possessed.

I heard the leather chair groan beneath Gabe's shifting weight and waited, tensed to step between them if it came to that.

“Whoa, whoa!” cried Gabe and I relaxed a bit. “Okay, that’s totally fair. No need to get all...spiny.” What? He must have seen the confusion on my face. “Dude, she went full pufferfish!” He was laughing, delighted as he said it. “That is so cool,” he murmured.

“I’m sorry,” Sirena withdrew from us, sinking a bit more into the couch. “Sometimes my skin...reacts to the way I’m feeling. I don’t always realize it’s happening.”

“Now she’s turning red!” Gabe provided, “Like, actually candy-apple red!” 

I felt her shift around, moving in nervous little motions. “Thank you, Gabriel, but I think you’re embarrassing her now.”  I ran the backs of my fingers up her arm and skimmed along the edge of her jaw, but whatever changes were taking place, I detected only smooth, slightly rubbery skin. “Sirena, it’s alright,” I assured her. “You don’t need to hide or be ashamed of who you are. Gabe can be an ass sometimes--”

“I’m sitting right here!”

“but he’s the best man I know. He’s always had my back and I know he’ll do right by you, too.” 

“That’s right,” came our mother’s voice from down the hall and I stiffened, my heart hammering in my chest. “My boys are the kindest, most loyal, best--Madré de Díos!” Something clattered to the floor as she stopped in her tracks and everyone went utterly still.

5 comments:

  1. Such a fun different story. Absolutely love it. Anxious to see how Mim takes the news

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  2. I love having Gabriel describe Sirena's look! Nice details, definitely gave me those pesky butterflies in the stomach. Really loking forward to the next chapter!

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  3. Nice chapter, really liked seeing this through Michael's "eyes". It's so nicr when you drscribe how things are for him! Excited to see what's coming!

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  4. Love this story - as always!

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  5. This story is so different & refreshing. Love it!

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