There’s nothing I crave more in this moment than a cheeseburger. Water is filling my lungs, I am gasping and choking and all I can think of is how hungry I am. They say you should never go swimming after eating, but I regret not doing just that. Not that I was planning on this lovely little swim.
The last thing I remember we were on a boat. We were on a boat, at night, doing a boat tour of the ‘haunted’ lake. A tourist trap if I ever saw one. But there we were anyway, sitting on this boat, watching the mist float over the water and catching glimpses of ‘victims’ out of the corners of our eyes—slightly more dense masses of mist and fog. If you cannot tell, I was skeptic. Of course, those tours can make even the most skeptic tourist’s skin crawl. It’s what they are made to do. The wow factor. They seem so real, so eerie. I know it’s all tricks, all illusions set to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, but, hell, it works.
So here I am, drowning in this lake next to the crumbling, fiery remains of my tour and the rest of the tourists, and craving a cheeseburger. I know how to swim, in fact, I was quite a strong swimmer; I was on my high school swim team, never the fastest, but never far behind. Yet, somehow, I am drowning. The water feels thicker, more like a solid than a liquid, and like it has its own field of gravity, pulling me under. My arms and legs push through it more sluggishly than I have ever felt them move and I am being sucked under.
My head bobs up and all I hear is gurgling screams of the other tourists. Every one of us seems to be experiencing the same phenomena, suddenly unable to swim, being dragged under by not the current, but instead by the extra gravity and density of the water. I can hear the different pitches of screams, able to differentiate between each of the people without knowing which pitch belongs to whom, just knowing they each belong to someone different, someone else about to lose their lives in the lake everyone warned us not to venture onto. The screams, each one of them happening for a few seconds, then stopping as the owner’s head bobs under water momentarily as they struggle to keep breathing, keep screaming, are getting weaker and fewer all at once. Where there was once about fifteen different screams, there quickly became twelve, then ten, then eight, then I could not hear them anymore as my own head submerged for the last time.
I held my breath for as long as I could, but the pressure, unnaturally high and getting higher as my body sank, forced the last of air from where it rested at the bottom of my lungs. It was a weight pressing down on my chest, forcing out slow bubbles that floated back to the surface at an unnaturally sluggish rate. They reached the surface and I could just barely see them popping in the moonlight, little blips on the surface. That was the last thing I saw before I closed my eyes and accepting death.
In accepting death, I also accepted the water, straight into my lungs. It filled my mouth, then my nose and it hurt so much more than I ever could have imagined. I could feel my lungs filling and burning, my throat constricting as it tried to reject the water, but it was no use now, my body was going limp after a bout of instinctual thrashing I did not know I had the energy for, and I was sinking. Quicker now than before, as the water filled my lungs, making me heavier. The next thing I felt was almost indescribable. It felt as though the water was entering my blood stream, but, no, not just entering it, replacing it, and I could feel every drop of it.
My blood felt just as thick but half as warm and much less viscous and I could feel it running its course, though my veins, my heart, my brain. The water was becoming part of me and I felt as though I was becoming part of it in the process. I sank. And sank. And sank. For what felt like years, I was sinking.
I knew I was dead, but I did not feel dead. Or, at least, I did not think I did. I do not know what being dead would feel like, but this is not what I imagined. I dared to open my eyes, and it felt just that: daring. Like I had never done something so courageous before. My eyes stung for a moment but adjusted fairly quickly. What I saw was not what I had expected either. I had expected the fires of hell, or a glowing light leading to nothingness, or a void, or oblivion. What I saw was none of these things. What I saw was the rest of the tourists, slowly sinking right with me, one by one opening their eyes as I did, glancing around and seeing each other. I went to let out a sigh and that shocked me. I could sigh! But I sighed out water, and that was when I realized that it was more than just sighing, I was breathing. I was breathing water.
I glanced around, watching the shocked faces as those around me came to the same realization. We were breathing, underwater. My next thought was speech. Could I speak? I opened my mouth and said, “How?” and the words came out just as they would above ground, clear as crystal, floating through water as they would through air. Within seconds the sound reached the other tourist’s ears and excited chatter spread between us. Some frantically wiggled their limbs, propelling themselves closer to each other as we continued to sink, hugging each other and whispering things like, “Oh my god we’re alive, how are we alive?”
I tested my limbs and they all still worked, I could move my fingers and toes. A man who had rolled onto the boat in a wheelchair was excitedly kicking his feet. His face contorted as though he was crying, and the tears looked like they were made of oil, streaming down his face and looking completely separate from the water.
I kicked my feet and pushed my arms through the water, propelling myself slowly upward, but I was sinking too fast. I concentrated all of my energy to push myself back towards the surface, but every push I moved forward I was moved the equivalent of three pushes back by the current.
“We can’t go back,” I whispered. No one heard me, no one noticed I had spoken, still too wrapped up in the joy of being alive. Louder, I repeated, “We can’t go back.”
The excitement faded quickly when the realization of what I had said hit everyone. It was immediately followed by a wave of panic. Some cried, some wailed, some just looked down, past their feet, past the water, resigned to a life away from everything we know and love.
That’s when I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the slightest glimpse of a sparkle, way down beneath me. It was so dark by this point, the moonlight from the surface not penetrating this deep. I was shocked anything could sparkle at this depth, but there it was, a shiny, gleaming…thing.
At first it looked like a spike, just something pointy to be impaled on. It was my turn to panic; however, I made sure to keep silent this time–no use scaring everyone else more than they were already. And, hey, at least we would not have to live the way we expected. We would just die instead.
I had decided that if I was going to die, this would be an appropriate time to do it. I personally had nothing left to live for, not on the surface, and definitely not in this underwater hell.
That was the first time I noticed the temperature. It had been freezing, though no one realized it until we hit what felt like a barrier of warmth. I looked down again, towards the spike, and saw more of them, many more of them, but not spikes, no: spires. Spires like on top of a church, but everywhere, spread across the floor of the lake. And underneath them, not the floor, but buildings, tall buildings, a whole underwater city.
“Look!” I shouted this time to avoid having to repeat myself, pointing at the city sprawling beneath us. I looked around and realized I was not the only one to spot it. Everyone was staring down in awe and shock.
It was a sparkling, glowing city, like the ones you imagine in your dreams, like Dorothy’s Emerald City. It was so bright we almost forgot we were underwater.
We pushed and kicked to force ourselves to land between the buildings. Our feet touched down gently, and the downward pull of the water released us, now no more than the pull of the gravity on land we were used to. We glanced around and everything was sparkling, glittering, beautiful. The buildings each looked like they were carved of different colored sea glass. There were people roaming the sandy streets, talking and running errands, just like people on the surface, as if nothing about this was weird and a bunch of tourists did not just fall from above them and land in the middle of the street. They wore strange clothes, clothes made of what looked like plastic
We huddled together, making sure not to lose each other in the crowds that flowed around us. Very few of us knew each other before getting on the boat tour, but we stuck together all the same. We probably looked like a huddle of confused birds, our heads turning this way and that, looking for some explanation. Everyone else ignored us. We stood there for a few minutes until we saw a small child running towards us, feet hitting the sand like it was concrete and moving through the water like it was air.
“Come, come,” he shouted to our group, tugging at the sleeve of the young woman standing closest to him, “Follow me!”
He bolted down the street, weaving fluidly through the crowd. We tried to follow, no alternatives presenting themselves to us, but we were slowed by the water around us and the sand under our feet and the crowd around us. It was like moving in slow motion.
Eventually, the crowd parted around us, they seemed to understand where we were going, but there were no knowing looks or glances; we were entirely ignored as the crowd parted fluidly. Through the crowd we could see where the road ended, interrupted by a large, castle like structure with more spires on it than the entire rest of the surrounding buildings, surrounded by coral. The child ran straight up to the doors, ripping them both open at once and running in screaming, “New arrivals! New arrivals!”
A very tall, lanky man was sprawled across a stone throne, covered in twisting blue, green, and red seaweed. His legs were draped over one of the arms of the throne and his back was arched over the other arm so his head was leaning down over the other side, his arms outstretched high above him. His hair would have gone to his shoulders if he was upright, but instead it just barely grazed the ground. He turned his from where he was staring at the ceiling to look at us. His eyes grew a little wider and a dark smile spread across his face.
“Welcome!” His voice boomed as he stood and it was louder than we expected based on the lankiness. He walked down to where we stood, arms open wide as if the second he got close enough he would try to hug us all. He stopped a few paces away from us, eyes glancing over each of us for a few seconds, before he dropped his arms and spoke again. “Welcome, I am sure you have plenty of questions, and I intend to answer them, but first, allow me to humbly thank you for joining me today. Now, I realize it was not by choice, but I am grateful for it all the same. Now, let’s get started, shall we? Come, come.” He waved his arm behind him and spun on his heel to face a corridor that led off to the left.
We followed him down the corridor, still tightly huddled together. At the end of the short corridor there was another room, one with a stage on one end and chairs set around circular tables on the other. It looked like one of those dinner and a show type of places. The man gestured towards the tables, inviting us to sit. We approached the tables slowly, cautiously. When we finally sat down, he nodded his head and climbed the steps at the side of the stage, walking out to the front center stage. He was a very histrionic man, I could see it I all of his movements, the way he held himself, the way every movement was accompanied by some sort of flourish. When he spoke again, it was as if to an audience of thousands, all there to watch him perform.
“Welcome, most distinguished guests, to my oh so humble home. From this day forth, I shall be your benevolent king. You will live here, under my rule, for the rest of your life.” Most of the room visibly tensed, and some fidgeted nervously, questions about to burst from them, but he pressed on, “Now, I’m sure you’re wondering where you are and what you are doing here and how you got here and so many more things, and I promise, all your questions will be answered in time. For now, let me start with the basics. Right now, you have just arrived in a lovely place we like to call,” he paused, looking around dramatically, before shooting hit hands into the air and screaming, “The Aquarium! Yes, The Aquarium, ladies and gentlemen! It’s a lovely place, a lovely place where you will live. The Aquarium is a special place, a special place indeed. It is, essentially, an underwater pocket of water with a science all of its own. Its own gravity, its own ecology, and most importantly, its own magnetism, the very same magnetism that drew you all here.
“Believed to be similar to the Bermuda Triangle, The Aquarium draws people from the surface into it, causing them to ‘mysteriously disappear,’ according to the folks on land. It draws in the people, sucking you down to us, into our little world. Once underwater, as I’m sure you realized, you could breathe just as easily as you could on the surface. The water is breathable.”
“But how do we get back?” I asked.
He scratched his head and laughed humorlessly, “Ha, well, that’s the tricky bit. You can never leave.”
I looked around, glancing at the faces of those around me. One by one, panic spread through the crowd. We ran out the doors, towards the underwater city and began flapping our arms, trying to swim up, but just looking like birds. We must have seemed mad, thrashing about in the street in a futile attempt to propel ourselves up, up, up. Little did we know how mad this place really was.