Plagued by his insomnia, Johan looked up from the dull light of his computer screen over to the wall clock. Two in the morning. Still, he could not feel any fatigue.
Large, dark circles had formed under his eyes, he was losing weight and his face had become gaunt. No longer could he bear to see himself in the mirror. His health was at risk, and his doctor had provided him with pills to help him sleep. Already he had taken the maximum dosage; any more and he would have another reason to fear for his life.
Still, he could not feel any fatigue.
It was that gentle scraping noise. It followed him everywhere. It kept him from sleeping. None of his friends could hear it. But he knew it was there. They must be lying.
He could prove it, he just needed to…to…
"Shit," Morgan sighed, leaning back in her comfy computer chair. She had just hit the wall again. What had been a firm idea on the layout of the scene had become mere passing thoughts, like ice turning suddenly to mere wisps of steam.
Looked like she'd have to scale back her writing next time she got to it and take it from there. Luckily, she thought, it would only be that last damnable sentence that would have to be removed.
Even she wasn't quite certain what the source of the noise was, but she shrugged off the lack of forethought with the rationalization that the less she knew about it herself, the better she could convey the mysteriousness of 'the scraping'.
Glancing at the calendar that hung on the wall behind her monitor, she smiled. No red circle in sight. When one was to be seen, it felt like a looming monolith. Something that was just strangely terrifying in its potential to simply tip over and flatten her on some inanimate whim.
Without it, however, she knew that she was free to seize the day. Spotting the setting sun through the glass doors leading to the balcony at her right, she smiled. That view alone made the cottage worth every inconvenience.
It was a half-hour drive from nearest town, one that – to get an image for its size – had only one gas station and one grocery store. From there, it was another hour and a half – two if one was worried about getting a ticket – from a real town; well, more of a city, really. Of course, going there was only necessary in the rare instance she'd need to speak with her publisher in person or with her ex for the sake of research.
Both of which, more times than not, were simplified by a simple phone or e-mail.
Still, the television had little to offer without springing for satellite, renting movies was almost certainly out of the question unless she wanted films from the 80s. Of course, gone too was any easy access to specialty stores, restaurants, and many other life-simplifying accommodations. If she wanted something fixed or taken care of, she'd have to set aside a portion of her time to do it herself.
But what a view. The dusk was directly in line from her balcony, seemingly dipping into the lake that lay just beyond. The trees that had not been cleared – ones that did not have the misfortune of once obstructing this view – were like many fingers reaching to help bring the setting sun to its resting place until the following morning.
It was still early in the process, with the sky and the clouds taking a golden sheen, but before hues of red become visible.
Feeling no urgency to resume work on her story – it wasn't even a fantasy novel, after all – she saved the file, closed the program, and hurried through the cottage to the entrance.
Before too long, she found herself running full speed towards the water's edge where she kept her boat. It wasn't fancy – she wasn't that successful – just an aluminum boat with a motor, but it was enough to get her out on the lake and able to enjoy the rocking of the waves.
The engine was needed only for a minute and she was far enough out in the water to feel at peace. A gentle breeze made small waves on the lake's surface; enough to make the boat feel like a rocking cradle.
Laying back in the boat and adjusting her lifejacket to use as a pillow, she stared up at the colorful sky. Once or twice in the time she stared up at the drifting golden clouds, she felt something in the water bump against her boat and figured that the fish were particularly active.
Sitting up, she decided that with fish as brazen as to smack into her boat, this would be as good of time as any to get her fishing rod. With one jerk on the pull-cord, the motor started up and her boat suddenly rocked violently.
Immediately, she killed the engine, fearing something had gone wrong with it to cause such a strong shaking. Peering into the water, she found a red tincture that was gradually becoming more prominent along with something floating up to the surface.
From the size, color, and shape of what was rising, she believed it to be a dolphin; a thought that didn't make sense to her; only raised further questions. Soon after, Morgan noticed that halfway up the sleek aquatic body became that of a man. From a gash beginning where – on a human – the thighs would be upwards along the side of the body up to a few inches shy of his ribs, blood leaded out to mix with the water.
To an ordinary person, this may have raised more questions than had it been a dolphin. An ordinary person may have very well been afraid of either the concept of a 'monster' or the idea of possibly being responsible for the death of something that very closely appeared human.
Morgan, however, lived for fantasy, and would have remained solely a fantasy author had some ideas for horror not have invaded her happy world and wound up making her a nice sum. The sight of a merman seemed to satisfy all questions she had and quickly pulled the wounded creature into the boat. This was an example of just what she wished was reality. This was something she could use in her stories. This was something she could – hopefully – communicate with and find more ways to blur the lines of reality and fantasy.
This was a chance to have direct contact with someone other than the elderly couple who lived seven minutes by foot away.
This was – after looking away from the tail for a moment – a chance to know someone who was easy on the eyes.
Once sure that none of the merman was left in the water, she started the engine once more and brought the boat back to her property. When it came time to carry him from the boat and into her cottage – a literal uphill battle – she came to realize just how heavy he was. Placing the human portion of him on her back and wrapping his arms around her neck, she made her way up the gentle but continuous incline with his tail dragging on the ground as they went.
The thought of him already being dead crossed her mind as she moved, but the feeling of his warm breath on her neck and the gentle movement of his chest as he breathed both dismissed that fear and left her toying with the idea of just how bad of an idea it would be to place a mint in his mouth.
After a slow, steady march up and around the cottage to the entrance and a slight juggling act to push open the front door, she had to make a decision on where to put him.
The guest bedroom wasn't very far, and one of the beds would make for a nice, flat surface on which to place him while treating the injury. The bathroom – specifically, the bathtub – was a few steps closer and somehow seemed appropriate, judging by the patient's nature.
It also meant she wouldn't wind up dealing with bloodstained linens.
Making her way to the left of the entrance, she stepped up to the side of the tub, lowered one shoulder and let him gently roll in, his body hitting the bottom with a dull, wet thud. She breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing that he did land on his back, saving her the trouble of needing to roll him over.
Taking a seat on the toilet, she leaned in close to inspect the cut. The wound was a foot long but not terribly deep, and he was not bleeding as profusely as she had expected. By virtue of the lake water's cleanliness and that she hadn't dropped him on the trek up the hill; she found no dirt or debris in stuck in the cut upon rinsing out the blood with the showerhead.
For being caused by the motor's blade, she marveled at how clean and straight the wound was. He must have arched his back to swim into the lake's depths when the motor had started, which would explain the placement of the injury, and been hit only by the first blade as it started to spin.
Getting to her feet, she went to the foot of the tub and began rummaging through the linen closet for her first aid kit. Spotting the gauze, Morgan began to worry about the process. She remembered some research she had performed for one of her stories, on how to treat an infected wound. That involved packing in some gauze, but this didn't appear to be quite the same scenario.
Digging through the first aid kit, she found some instructions in the enclosed booklet and set to work, applying some antibiotic cream to the bandage, pressing it against the cut, and then taping it to the surrounding area such that the sides of the wound were pressed together. Taking a moment to consider his species, she fished out some waterproof tape from the storage room next to her cottage's entrance and made sure the injury was completely covered.
With her work done, she breathed a sigh of relief and took a moment to stare and appreciate the creature before her.
His hair, a shade of teal, was long and straight, the ends coming to rest upon his shoulders. It wasn't very glamorous or well maintained hair – tangled and with many split ends – but simply knowing that the color was natural made it special. Beyond what was on his head, he did not have any traces of hair.
From a lifetime of swimming, his body was fit like an Olympic swimmer; no bulging muscles, but not a hint of fat to be seen. Finding no signs that he was conscious or ready to wake any time soon, she reached out and began gently prodding his arms, chest and stomach, getting a feel for how well-trained his body was.
Receiving no reaction beyond a few twitches and the occasional moan, she moved her hand down to the end of his tail, exploring with childlike glee the texture of his aquatic flesh. Not only did it have the same appearance as a dolphin's, the texture was identical as well, leaving her giggling in a way as she happily rubbed the skin that would have surely caused the merman to think her insane would he to awaken to hear such ill-contained laughter.
Looking back towards the rest of his form, she considered examining him further – for research, of course – but shook the ideas from her head, deciding that such things would be rude if done without consent.
She consciously ignored that what she had already done would be considered one such violation.
By the grumbling of her stomach, she realized dinner was long overdue and left her patient for the kitchen; a room only a scant size larger than the washroom. Rummaging through the refrigerator, she found herself torn between leftover meatloaf and salmon.
Smelling her hands, she decided she had enough of fish for the time being and put the meatloaf in the microwave. As it cooked, she pulled a carrot from the crisper and a couple slices of bread. As the bread started to cook in the toaster, she chewed on the carrot, waiting for her patchwork dinner. Once the microwave beeped, she popped out the partially toasted bread and headed into the combination dining room, living room, and place of work just adjacent to the kitchen.
Placing the dish on the table, she started to break off a piece of her meal with her fork when she heard a noise to her left – from the washroom. It was the unusual sound of a fish flopping around. It only lasted a moment before becoming a stomping noise like someone placing their feet firmly on the ground. A number of gentler thuds followed, coming closer with each noise, and she soon found her merman rounding the corner from the washroom, moving along by pulling himself along the floor, relying on the slipperiness of his tail to help him along.
At one point in his floundering crawl, their eyes met and he froze. The staring lasted for a few minutes, in which time Morgan noted that he possessed a second pair of eyelids. She was also fascinated by his blue topaz eyes, but couldn't think of the proper way to describe their tincture at that moment.
Finally, it was he who made the first move, continuing forward at a fast pace and lunging for her food, reaching far above his line of sight and quickly pulling his hand away after feeling the warmth of the meat.
She stayed motionless in her seat as she watched him shake his hand and blow it on it to cool it down. Thinking about it, it made sense to her that he wouldn't be familiar with cooked food, what with the difficulty of starting a fire underwater.
After sufficient time for him to see her as harmless, he propped himself up with his tail, arched his back, and supported himself with his hands just high enough so that his he was like a dog, with his eyes peering from just over the top of the table and staring at the food like it was some prize. His body swayed slightly, leaving her with the impression of a snake awaiting the time to strike.
"You can have some, if you want," she said softly, hoping to speak to him without causing him fright.
It failed; he suddenly jerked back and went stiff, as if preparing for a strong blow. He was clearly out of his element and rather shaken up about his situation.
Letting out a sigh, she realized she'd need to communicate with him as though he were a child. Using her fork, she cut a piece of the meatloaf off, blew on it to cool it down, and ate it. She then set the fork down on the plate and slid it over to the edge of the table nearest to him.
There she continued to sit in silence, waiting for him to loosen up. Eventually he found the nerve to approach the table once more and reached for the plate with one hand. At first, he reached for it as if it were guarded by some sort of mechanism, or was intended to lure him into a trap, then quickly snatched it away as if to ensure she wouldn't change her mind. Setting it on the floor, he proceeded to eat it as she had presented, occasionally glancing up at her to ensure she wasn't making a move.
As he ate, she examined him, taking in his mannerisms, such as his understandably skittish behavior, and his muscles as he moved even the slightest amount. Looking at him from this side, she noticed that his dolphin tail didn't go quite so far up as to cover his buttocks, a fact that put her on the verge of giggling, were it not for a voice in her head that reminded her that doing so would only frighten him all the more.
Remembering her toast, she settled with nibbling on that rather than heading back to the kitchen. Before she had finished her first piece, he had cleared the plate and licked it clean. As she ate, he looked up at her expectantly.
Swallowing what she had, in her mouth, she pointed at herself and spoke. "Morgan." It was said more so in the hopes of having him adjust to the sound of her voice instead of an attempt to communicate, so his response came as quite the surprise.
In response, he pointed to himself and replied, "Dace." He then pointed to the toast remaining in her hand and said with a curious tone, "food?"
Handing it to him, she nodded. "You can talk?"
She assumed those words meant nothing to him by the way he tilted his head to the side, presumably in confusion. After a second, however, his eyes went wide and he began mussing his hair with both hands. Morgan wasn't certain whether this sudden behavior meant he was familiar with the question and furiously thinking of his answer or simply had a case of some aquatic breed of fleas. When she spotted his lips moving without him speaking, she realized it was the former.
"No?" she asked, hoping to help him along.
In response he clapped his hands and pointed at her excitedly. "No!"
She smiled at his child-like glee at finding the right answer, even if it wasn't the desirable outcome. It was clear that he didn't know the language, but had picked up some English from what she assumed was prior exposure to humans. It was unfortunate but expected that there was the language barrier, and she wished there was a way to overcome it. Spotting her computer sitting in the far corner against the windows showing off her balcony, she knew what to do; to the Internet.
Getting out of her chair, she started to walk to her computer when she looked down to find Dace staring at her agape. When she took a step, he twisted his back and started to crawl alongside of her, staring at her legs and marveled at how she walked.
Half-way across the room, her shin connected with his face as he suddenly decided to examine her movements from a different angle. As she moved her leg back, she felt her heel pressing against his hand, forcing a squeal of pain from the merman. Startled by the noise and thrown off balance as he tried to pull his crushed hand away, she fell fanny-first onto the very end of his tail, drawing out another squeal.
As soon as she moved herself off his tail, he curled up into a ball, keeping his face and injured hand covered.
"Okay," Morgan sighed, "I think you should rest for today. We can get you learning English tomorrow."
As expected, he didn't react to what must have just sounded like noise to him.
"Just like a puppy," she smiled, crouching and stroking his head in hopes of comforting him.
It took a couple minutes, but he finally unrolled and stared at her. She made a motion for him to follow and she started towards the washroom, taking special care to watch her legs and his position.
Instead of going through the door in front of her to the washroom, she opened the door to her right and showed him the guest room; a reasonably sized room with two beds for guests any visitors that might come. Something she felt Dace qualified as. Sitting down on the nearest bed, she motioned for him to come as well. As he made his way over, she pulled back the sheets for him.
He crawled up the side of the bed and imitated the way she sat. Once he had satisfied himself with the imitation, he stared at the bed's surface and started to press on the mattress with the palm of his hand. Morgan felt that she would be able to enjoy the sight of his wonderment for quite some time to come.
Taking him gently by the shoulders, she eased him into a supine position, with his head resting on a pillow. Reaching for his tail, she placed it on the mattress and slid it under the covers. Before pulling the rest of the covers over his body, she decided to inspect the bandaged wound, making sure that all his crawling hadn't agitated it. Though he hadn't put up any fight against it, he looked around nervously, unclear on what was going on.
She tried pantomiming the concept of sleep, to which he seemed to somewhat understand the concept. He closed his eyes for a few moments then reopened them. Smiling and nodding, he closed his eyes once more and stayed that way.
Breathing a sigh of relief at how easy that had been, she got to her feet and flipped the light switch to the off position. As soon as the room went dark, she heard a slight squeal and a bit of thrashing, to which she quickly turned the lights back on to find Dace staring up at the ceiling with a mix of awe and horror.
At this spectacle, Morgan broke down and laughed for a good long while. Wiping a tear for her eye from laughing too hard, she looked to Dace whose expression was clearly a pout.
He set to work, readjusting the sheets to how they had been before his panic and closed his eyes, making a defiant face like that of a pouting child trying to prove to a parent they needn't be treated like an infant. Turning off the lights once more, she heard a muffled squeal briefly and managed to stifle her chuckling until she closed the guest room door behind her, opened the double glass doors to her room just a few steps further, and closed them behind her.
It had been a long day, and though she didn't get to enjoy the sunset as planned, her find was undoubtedly worth missing any number of dusks. Crawling into bed, she couldn't help but feel young again, trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. Tomorrow would be interesting.