“Not just on vacation?”
“I’m here on a research grant.”
“Figured you weren’t a tourist. After a while you get so you can place them too easy.” He opened valves, checking air pressure. “Ever used this kind of buoyancy vest? Here’s the automatic inflator. You can always go manual if you want, here’s the dump valve.” He helped me on with vest and tank.
“Here’s your pressure and depth gauges. We’ll head back at a thousand pounds, come out at four hundred to be safe. You’ve done all the drills, mask clearing, buddy breathing? Any trouble with your ears?”
“Send me in, coach.”
“Indulge me. You know the ‘don’t touch’ sign? I’ll show you some fire coral if you’ve only seen pictures. No fun getting a hit.” He handed me fins and mask and marched me into the water.
“Aren’t you going to warn me about air embolisms, the bends, nitrogen narcosis, and Great White attacks?”
“They’ve only eaten two or three people this week.”
He sank below the surface. I followed.
The earthbound world and its shadows fell away into stillness. I was floating, drifting down into the sea’s embrace, kicking effortlessly above a smooth slope of sand and shifting pattern of lights from above — flying, more than swimming, through crystal clarity. The water somehow amplified details of fish and coral, outlining shapes with a knife edge, infusing colors with their own lights. A cloud of silvery fish drifted past and broke into glittering sparks around me.
The slope plunged deeper, sea taking on a bluer tinge. I rolled over face-up and watched etched-glass air bubbles rise to the surface, dropped back farther to revel in the freedom from gravity. Arching into an open somersault, the tank only a weightless bulk, I drifted down in a slow free-fall past darting schools of fish in colors I’d seen only inside aquariums.
Vic was waiting below, beside a wrinkled brain coral. He gestured, and I followed him deeper over a drop-off. I caught a quick, echoing breath.
It was a lost alien city. A mad architect run amuck with coral. The reef had proliferated into fantastic shapes — tall arches, convoluted ribbons and passageways, pagoda-like spires plumed with delicate fringed plants in muted colors — submerged in flickering bands of surreal light. From out of its watery maze, a huge black manta ray suddenly lifted, flying on rippling batlike wings. The devilfish. It soared overhead, shadow touching my face, circling and gliding deeper, disappearing with a last beckoning dip.
I hovered, staring after it, caught in a disturbing, impossible sense of déjà vu. Seen before, but not by me. John? A dark foreboding stirred inside me.
A high-pitched sound below caught my attention. Vic guided me on, through a dappled lacework tunnel of coral, lancing lights strobing the dimness inside. Orange blossoms of a feathery creature sucked into its tube on the rock, vanishing like a mirage as I approached. We emerged into a shimmering silver cloud of fingerlings. Vic, peering under a branching coral, waved me over, pointing at a dark crevice underneath it. I squinted into it.
A mass of slippery-looking pinkish flesh, and an eye staring out at me. The shapeless blob writhed and rolled closer. A tentacle shot out at my face.
I scrambled backwards in a gush of air.
Vic’s laughter bubbled. The tentacle had unrolled to reveal the row of suction cups on an octopus arm. With an oddly human gesture, it deposited a pink spiral shell. It rolled up again, retreating into its hole.
Vic put the shell in my hand, closing my fingers around it, his hand warm in the cool sea. He gestured, indicating my vest pocket. I peeled open the velcro and sealed the shell inside.
He checked our gauges and shot off along the reef. I kicked hard, but fell behind as a school of large, yellow-tailed fish scattered behind his fins. I turned to watch the fish shoot by, the mask and awkward tank limiting my range to a blinkered forward view. I kicked faster to catch up. I was panting, sucking at the hissing regulator, the water resisting me now. Glancing down to the fanlike growths and fronds of seaweed streaming sideways, I realized I was fighting a current. I looked up. My guide’s fins had disappeared. A dark flicker, more felt than seen, moved in beside me, and I angled to the side to see.
Six feet of lean, steel-gray, hook-jawed fish had materialized beside me in a glitter of sharp teeth.
I sucked in a shocked breath, coughing on seawater.
The barracuda fixed me with a glassy stare. I edged around to face it. It disappeared in a flash. I turned back into the current and it was there, hovering inches from my face.
I gasped. The regulator mouthpiece popped out.
Coughing, choking, I flailed for the air line. Finally grabbed the mouthpiece and purged it of water. Took a deep, shaky breath, kicking in a nervous circle. The barracuda was gone. But the current had carried me backwards. I kicked forward again. Couldn’t find Vic. I was breathing hard, straining. Checking the gauge, I realized my aimless thrashing was using up the air. I’d lost my bearings, wasn’t sure which way to head back. The water was darker out here, murky.
I looked down. I’d drifted out over the drop-off, looking down into bottomless blue rippling with the shadows of devilfish wings. I was hovering over the abyss, staring into all that dark emptiness, trying to slam doors against my nightmares.
Something touched my leg.
I kicked convulsively. Fingers slid down my calf, tightened around my ankle.
*night sea, a light beam shivers over the creatures carved in stone, stirring into life. Hissing breaths, a spill of bubbles, and the icy hands of the shadow man drag John drag me into drowning depths*
Flailing against their grip, pulse pounding in my ears, I wrenched free. Rammed into a coral outcrop, salt burning scraped skin. Groping through entangling fronds, I thrashed around to ward off another attack.
It was only Vic hovering there, eyes closed as he replaced and cleared seawater from the mask I’d kicked off his face.
I shook my head, mimed a mortified apology. He dismissed it with a gesture. Checking my gauge, I saw I’d used up most of my air in my stupid panic. I held up five fingers and Vic nodded, pointing down-current.
We headed in, the current’s flow gliding us smoothly over the reef’s rise. I hung back over the last sandy slope, unwilling to emerge. Now that the surface was close, I was reluctant to relinquish weightlessness, the clean sea hush, the shallows luminous with wavering sun. I sighed and broke through into the world.
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