Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Manta – Part 6 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Dish washing was a matter of putting the dirty dishes in a chicken-wire cage in the airlock and checking on them later after the scavengers had picked them clean.
“I took pictures of you cleaning the fish.”
“Just don’t take pictures of me in the water closet, and I’ll be fine.”
She put her hand to cover a smile. “I’m not that bad, am I?”
He shrugged, but with a smile. She got to her feet and went to the counter top to clean up the spilled spices. Arranging everything with labels facing out, she began straightening everything within reach.
Nice feminine touches.
Scrubbing made her face facts. I’ve upset his world. I have no right to come in here and demand to know his life story. He’s not used to people, and I’m forcing this all on him.
When she turned, to ask him whether to wash the cleaning rag on not, she saw him watching her every move. It was so different from the last time. He’d hidden behind that book the whole time.
But the expression on his face was sadness. 
At least it’s not anger. I’ve forced him to put up with me, at least until the storm passes. A guest. I’m a guest, and I shouldn’t make my host angry.
When he went to sit in his chair, it was plain he wasn’t really comfortable in that old worn out robe.
Next time, if there is a next time, I need to bring him a newer robe. Something that’s comfortable damp. Something that washes well.
He was poking at the books, trying to choose one. He must have read them all a million times.
“You like to read.”
He looked up. “I’m used to it.”
“Did you always read a lot?”
He shook his head. “Read what I needed. Engineer, not a philosopher.”
She moved a little closer to look at the titles. Yes, there was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. There were a dozen other science fiction titles, but mainly adventure tales, not deep sociological stories. There was a cookbook, a couple of marine biology text books, and three books that looked very waterlogged.
He watched where she was looking.
“I recovered those from a ship wreck. Got them out before they were too far gone. It took a lot of effort to separate and dry the pages without tearing them.”
“What are they about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, I’ve read them, several times. But I don’t speak French. Some of the words make sense, but not enough. Maybe someday.”  He looked pleased in anticipation of that far away event.
You poor, poor man.
“The storm is building.” He pointed to the churning surf, like an active ceiling above their world. “It’s only afternoon, but it’s getting dark.”
He liked the way her eyes lit up when she discovered something new about the world around her. Not so much when she tried to puzzle him out.
She went to the wall and leaned against it, searching the water outside.
I wish she were wearing this robe instead of me. To her, the nightgown was probably nothing strange, but it was exotic and enticing every time he looked at her. He’d harbored a suspicion that she was trying to seduce him, but if so, she was taking the long way around. Maybe she just honestly wanted to befriend him.
And take his picture for her newspaper.
In either case, he needed to stay out of touching range.
“What is your current project?”
“For the paper? I’m officially here to write a story about your volcano and hopefully to get some interesting pictures. But it looks like I’ll have a chance to include pictures of the hurricane from the underside as well. Although, the way it’s gotten darker, my shots will probably be blurred. I don’t think my flash will reach that far.”
“I can help. Come with me.”  He led her down a narrow passage.
“The Manta was designed to be a marine biologist’s platform. There are a few features with that in mind.”
“Marine biology. Swim with the whales?”
He nodded. “And the sharks, and pace migrating populations of fish and turtles and anything else that would benefit from long range operations without the necessity of a support ship.”
He led her around to a platform on the other side of the water closet. “That’s an optical flat port, perfect for taking pictures. I have flood lights, although I can only use them for a short period of time to avoid draining the batteries.”
With a flip of the switch, the underside of the surf was angry and dramatic. He turned the light back off.
“I’ll need my camera.” She dashed back and returned a few seconds later, making settings changes. “How long to I have?”
He hesitated. “It will get worse. How about limit it to a minute, this time?”
“Great. Several stills and a video clip then. Help me get up there. I want to hold my camera up against the glass.”
He took her hand and helped her up, then handed her the camera.
“You’ll have to hold me steady.”
“Okay. Ready?”
He flipped the switch, and then as the lights came on, he pushed up on her hip. She was intent on her shots, but he was mesmerized by the feel of her skin. He moved up the other hand to help.
“That's a great shot. How much more violent will the waves get?”
He released her and turned off the floodlight.
Mind on business. His blood was pounding. He carefully helped her down.
She put her hand on his chest. They were too close and he knew it.
She looked at his eyes and then asked, “Do you have a shirt?”
“A shirt. You’ve been bare-chested the whole time except when you’re in this robe. I’d love to take your picture, inside the Manta. But my co-workers have already been kidding me about my motives for tracking you down. I’d rather not show you in your robe, or looking too sexy.”
He pulled away with an effort and went to rummage through his closet. There were tools and interesting shells, and several tennis ball sized manganese nodules. Nothing was on coat hangars anymore. The hangars had proved too valuable a source of wire for repairs. He pulled a khaki shirt from a drawer.
“I haven’t worn this in a while.” He held it out and she could see why.
She sighed. “I have a needle and thread. I can repair it.”
She sat cross-legged on the floor with the torn shirt in hand, rebuilding the seam that had separated.
He watched her, concentrating on her fingers, to keep his mind off the way her nightgown was clinging to her skin. The humidity was very high, the air was stuffy, and even down here, he could feel the warm waters grabbing at the Manta’s hull.
I guess I need a shirt. He’d hardly missed it. It was never cold. He spent his days away from the direct light of the sun most of the time. Luckily his shorts had held up, or he’d be walking around naked all the time.
Not in this robe. It’s all ready too stuffy for it.
There had been other clothes. He remembered them. But they’d all turned to rags, and then lost over time.
But if I’m going to entertaining a girl... He smiled. There was a time, back in college, when that had a different meaning.
The smile faded and he concentrated on her fingers again.
Brenda was feeling slightly out of place, doing these domestic chores–woman’s work. She was a working professional. She ate out, rarely cooking. If something tore, it took too much time to mend. She just bought new things, and retired the worn-out stuff to a box in her closet to fix someday.
I need to throw that box out. I’ll never get back to it.
Nemo’s eyes on her made her self-conscious. She was aware when he smiled and when his face dropped into that strange sadness.
“There. Try it on.”
She held out the shirt and he took it. He hesitated and then went to the water closet. 
Bashful. Men don’t usually worry about dressing in front of me.
Not that she’d had a real boyfriend in quite some time. Linda had made a point of checking on her status from time to time. A couple of guys at the paper had expressed interest, but she gently shut them down. Luckily, her boss was totally married. Although she’d seen a certain look on Karl’s face from time to time, she knew he was safe.
Nemo came back out wearing the shirt and his faded blue shorts. He put the robe back in the closet.
“It’s too hot for that.” He apologized.
She could see his shorts were still damp. He’d been right. With the humidity so high, things didn’t dry.
“Did you want to take pictures now?”
She looked at the light. It was afternoon, but the storm had made it dark above. Nemo was avoiding turning on lights to save power, so it was dim inside even with all the window space. She’d stuck her fingers a couple of times while working, it was so dim.
“No. Let’s wait until the light is better, after the storm passes.”
“Good.” He unbuttoned the shirt and carefully put it in the closet as well. “It’s too hot for this thing as well.”
She was jealous.
He asked, “Does your lace keep you cool?”
“No, it doesn’t. Will it get any better?”
“Not until the storm passes. I have a snorkel that I can send to the surface so we can exchange this air for fresh, but not in this surf. The air system will keep what we have breathable, but I can’t do anything about the heat and humidity.”
She was really tempted to peel it off. He might not mind. But was she ready for the consequences if he took it as an invitation?
Brenda hesitated, and asked, “Would you mind if I changed to my swimsuit?”
He paused for a moment, and then said, “No. Go ahead.”
She stood up and went to her bag.
The way he stares at everything I do, I feel like I’m naked already.
She blushed slightly as she ducked into the water closet to change.

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