The Things That Do Not Float

Shaun jumped from the cliff’s edge.

With each second, he felt the temperature drop and the pressure rise. The sensation of the movement was faint; if he closed his eyes, it felt as if he didn’t move at all.

Down and down he went. He fell forever.

“Do you have to?” his mum had asked.

He dropped, he was dropping, he would continue to drop. Always, always.

“Would you like me to come with you?” his dad had asked.

Further and further he coasted away from the world above and behind him.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering, it’s all gone now, anyway,” his sister had said.

Shaun glanced up — for a moment — and realised he could no longer see the precipice from which he had leapt.

“Yes. No. Because I have to,” he had replied.

The light changed. The world around him shifted through hues of blue. From a bright azure that sparkled to the grey-black cerulean that pressed upon him from all sides. He flicked on his Aqualite and a broad beam exploded from the cylinder clipped to his shoulder. It revealed a face where before there had only been a shadow.

Shaun screamed. And then he remembered the regulator clamped in his mouth. He inhaled a small sip of the brine. Not enough to cause him to cough, but enough to make him wince from the taste. The illuminated face looked surprised, and turned and darted away. It retreated into the safety of the distant gloom that the light didn’t penetrate.

Shaun continued his descent. His heart ricocheted within his chest. In the gigantic silence of the depths, the blood throbbed in his ears like the bass thump of a nightclub.

Shaun had come of age and was thus allowed to Go Down. His parents could not stop him as they had throughout his younger years. Eighteen years old and dropping into the abyss, thought the young man. But this was what he had wanted for as long as he could remember. Shaun wondered, now that he had it, did he want it? Or had he only wanted this because he couldn’t have it? Now he was free to do so, would he do this again, or would the one time be enough? Would he return older and wiser? Would he understand why almost nobody ever decided to Go Down? Would this journey strip him of his youthful dreams and ambitions?

Questions, questions, and questions floated around his head. Like the very bubbles he exhaled. Unlike the pockets of air, the naggings in his mind didn’t float off, upwards — destined for release.

Shaun fell into the darkness.

Shaun was close now.

For several minutes he had been able to see the silhouettes of skyscrapers in the distance. Too far away for details. But their ominous shadows could be nothing but those human constructions. At least, Shaun hoped. He pushed the nightmarish ideas and visions of monsters away. Childish thoughts, childish thoughts, Shaun chastised himself, you’re better than that. You’re old enough, now. If they knew you got scared, they’d smile smugly and tell you, “See? We told you so!” No. No.

Beneath him was an inky pool of blackness. It stretched from the ragged cliff-face behind him to the far reaches of his vision. The sheer and utter nothingness made his stomach turn. Shaun had never been afraid of water, but he felt a vertiginous sense of thalassophobia.

Besides the Aqualite strapped to his shoulder, Shaun also had a Light Cannon secured to his belt. It was a bit bigger than the Aqualite and looked like a gun. He unclipped it now and clicked it on. A sister beam to the Aqualite’s ray of brightness shot out from the end of the Light Cannon. Shaun directed the light stream from the Cannon downwards.

The beam was not strong enough to light all that was below, but Shaun saw enough. Rooftops, streets, what had once been above-ground gardens and parks. Schools of silvery and multicoloured fish teemed in giant orbs of thousands. Sharks — hammerheads, threshers, and mackerels — patrolled the city skyline of old. The sight of the predators made Shaun’s heart-rate speed up. But for the time being, they seemed uninterested in this human’s invasion.

What had been a bustling metropolis was still a bustling metropolis — but for aquatic life.

Shaun dropped down the edge of the cliff-face. The left-behind world loomed up to greet him, like an old friend. Welcome back, Shaun, said that watery cityscape, it’s been too long. We’ve missed you.

He unattached himself from the Lifeline.

Shaun knew he wasn’t supposed to — but he had to. He had to look. He had to see. He had to live it, feel it, and breathe it; not with his lungs, but with his heart.

His feet had hit the inundated floor of the street with a dampened thud minutes earlier. His heart seemed to have echoed the sound — it reverberated from his very core to the world around him.

Ka-thunk! He let go of the Lifeline and let it dangle. It swayed and danced in a gentle current. Is there an alarm blaring, up there? Shaun thought. Do they know I’ve severed the Lifeline? They did, right? It was his safe connection to the above. Both a rope that led the way home and a provider of oxygen should his tank run out or fail. Shaun observed the snakelike movements of the heavy-duty tube. No bubbles escaped its mouth.

Shaun shrugged. Why worry now? It was a problem for him when he returned to the surface. If he returned to the surface.

Shaun set off at a stroll. He moved in exaggerated slow motion. Like the astronauts in that grainy black and white video from Tranquility Base.

The Lifeline behind him waved like a flag in the breeze.

The entirety of the city’s tenants had departed, and aliens were the new occupants.

Shaun walked the urban streets and tried to take it all in. He’d need a decade to document the sights of the new conurbation. He meandered in a vague approximation of the route he needed to take. He let himself wander here and there. He followed wherever his overwhelmed senses directed him.

The buildings had eroded into rounded shapes, their sharp corners now softened. The metal had rusted, flaked, and browned. Most of the glass was gone — either broken by the environment or by deep-sea denizens. The road beneath his feet had cracked and peeled — here and there entire chunks of paving were missing. But Shaun did not have many issues traversing these little obstacles. When he came across a gap in his path, Shaun used underwater physics to his advantage. He swim-jumped over, like a character from a videogame.

Multicoloured corals sprung up all over this artificial reef of concrete and steel. He approached a crossroads — one he remembered from before. On his right, before the two roads intersected, a wall of yellows, pinks, purples, and greens rose. Flat plants that looked like cousins of desert succulents. They piled on top of each other, grew over one another, content with the blurred boundaries. They look like a cosy family, thought Shaun. The location had once been a city bank. Large and marbled, the smell of freshly-cleaned carpets ever-present. Shaun considered the new additions as a great improvement.

To his left, thin reedy plants swayed in the abyssal breeze — a mass of a thousand shades of green. Fish darted in and out of the seaweed’s maze, ignoring the extra-terrestrial in their midst.

Beyond the intersection, there had been a small inner-city park. Detached from reality, Shaun crossed the roads and entered the reformed gardens. He passed through the long-gone gate, eyes on stalks.

The trees had rotted under the water. Their lifeless husks supported new organic structures. Staghorn corals of oranges and blues. Tabulate corals of salmon pink. A thousand more, which spanned the entire colour spectrum, sprouted up where once had been elm and oak.

Fish — so many he couldn’t name half of them — whirled and dashed in a million directions. Some were yellow with blue stripes. Others were orange. Some were pink on top and white on the bottom. Others were the same blue as the waters, which made them all but invisible.

Bioluminescent plankton flashed — pink, red, purple, blue — in the dim recesses of the park. They lit his way in an all-natural firework display. Had he not gripped the regulator between his teeth, his mouth would have been agape in awe. He switched off his lights and walked through the gardens aided by the light of a billion organisms.

Shaun passed through the city common in a daze. He came out the other side, like a man who wakes from a dream.

Not far, now.

His stomach churned and twisted.

After five minutes, Shaun laid eyes upon what he had come down here to find.

At first, he didn’t recognise it, and why should he have? It had undergone the same change as the rest of the megalopolis. Nature had not spared it, for it was not special — at least, not to the ocean.

His family home (the old family home, Shaun, the old one) used to sit in the middle of a row of identical houses. The house hadn’t moved — if you ignored the fact it was now leagues under the sea. It still sat in the middle of the row.

But the houses were no longer identical. Mother nature, thought Shaun, the original hipster. The ocean had uniquely decorated each house. Corals, plants, and seaweeds now bloomed throughout the neighbourhood. Each one a different colour and shape.

Shaun’s heart beat hard. It felt as if the blood-pumping organ was at the base of his throat. He stepped towards the door, which was still in one piece. The number plaque — 3317 — had rusted but was legible. He ran his fingers over the numbers. Small flakes of rust drifted away. Feeling like a spaceman, he lifted his hand to the handle. For a brief moment, he worried the damn thing wouldn’t open.

Yet he needn’t have panicked, as the seawater had corroded the latch. And the hinges. Shaun turned the handle and pulled, and the entire door came free from its frame. He staggered away as the thing fell forwards and came to a gentle rest face-down on the floor. Shaun had to suppress a giggle — laughing was hard with a regulator in your mouth.

Like Neil Armstrong, Shaun took a giant step and entered his old house.

And discovered it was no longer his.

Inside, shafts of light broke up the darkness. They shot at odd angles. Algae and barnacles scaled the walls, and waist-high sea reeds grew from the floors. He glanced left and right — into the shadows of the dining room and the living room. He decided to not tarnish his memory of those happy places.

He went up the stairs and took care to not disturb the small biosphere that bloomed there. All around, life thrived.

His bedroom was not what it had been. The window was gone, and aquatic vegetation had invaded. The television was a ruined skeleton, and what sat beneath it must’ve once been a games console. Shelled crustaceans now smothered it. His bed was a tangle of purple and green vines that writhed. His wardrobe now homed an eel — which frightened him before it disappeared into a hole in the floor.

Shelves of toys. Blanket forts. Cartoons and comics. Stuffed animals, soft carpets. Colourful nightlights. A view of the street below, where the children rode bikes and kicked footballs and played and laughed.

The vision of his old hideaway started to rip.

He looked at it all; the things that had not floated away. It was not evidence of the child he had been, it was an echo, a sketch, an outline, a shadow. Fading, fading.

It hit him in the gut — everything, all at once.

Shaun remembered.

They abandoned everything when The Great Rise claimed three-quarters of the land.

Shaun had been a child, no older than six. He remembered the before times — both good and bad, for one cannot exist without the other. He remembered the event itself. The incessant talks of the grown-ups, the endless debates. The initial ambivalence that turned into a mass panic.

Before, thought the boy. Before, thought the man. Before, thought Shaun. Before.

He clung to gold, faded memories. Greenness, grass, and trees. A cool breeze. The tinkle of childish laughter. The chatter of happy adults. The smells of summer. Flowers. Sun-kissed skin. Fresh sweat. Barbeques. Warm tarmac. Mud and soil. The coppery aroma of summer rain.

Shaun had gone over these memories a hundred times, a thousand times. So often that the visions became tatty around the edges, like worn photographs. He jumbled through them with abandon, until — even in the saltwater — the tears burned his eyes.

He would never leave; never. This was his world, his home, his life. This was where he belonged, where he had been happy, where he would be happy, he would stay, he would stay, he would stay. And even if they sent someone down here to take him back up, he would fight them off. This was what his soul yearned for; his heart was a dropped anchor that weighed him to the depths of the ocean. He felt its pull, helpless to resist, he would never go back, never, and he knew it was all a lie.

The low air alarm buzzed in the silence. It unleashed a cacophony of bubbles before his eyes.

His heart sank with the cold reality of adulthood. The sensation reminded him when the summer holidays drew to an end. The knowledge that school would start soon.

He would go back. He would return. Shaun knew not whether he would Go Down again, once he returned to the surface. These memories — warm, soft, cosy and comforting — were just that. Memories. Gone. Gone. Gone. It was safe here, protected here, inside the shell of a clam — and Shaun was the pearl. But that wasn’t life. Life was the opposite of that. Life was up there, swimming with the sharks. Life was cold, and scary and exhilarating. Life was swimming with your shoal, shining and shimmering with bright, hyperactive life. Friends, family, loved ones, enemies, strangers. All swarming around, crossing paths. Bumping into each other, leaving each other, sometimes meeting again, sometimes not.

Down here was the comfort, but down here was also the decay. The rot. Shaun knew it would suffocate him. Not at first, but over time — seaweed wrapped around the throat of a gull. It would be okay to dip a toe here and there in the pool of nostalgia, but it was a lifeless pool; a pool of things long past. It was not a place meant for living creatures.

And now Shaun understood. He understood his mother, asking him if he had to Go Down. He understood his father, asking him if he wanted company. He understood his sister — wise beyond her years — when she said it was all gone now. He understood. He understood.

The Lifeline dangled and floated, more or less where Shaun had left it.

He reattached himself to the cable. Were they in a panic up there? Did they wonder where he was? Did they worry if he was still alive? A click! and a whoosh! as his regulator took the air from the Lifeline instead of the depleted tank.

Shaun took an extra-deep breath before he double tapped the ‘UP’ button. And then it pulled him up, from the drowned street. He flew, rose, soared. Up above the city that had been. It was still a city — full of life — but a city no longer meant for mankind.

Shaun shone his Light Cannon around. Not too far away, three silhouettes flew between the skyscrapers. Two whales and their calf. He thought he could hear their melancholy love song as it drifted along with the ocean currents.

The light changed. The blue of the waters intensified. Shaun flicked the Cannon off and, after a moment’s hesitation, switched off the Aqualite as well. If the stranger from the darkness wanted to greet him once more, Shaun would not deter them.

He looked up, to catch a glimpse of the ledge from which he had commenced his dive. Shaun could not make out the top of the cliff yet. But he did see the sunlight’s fractured beams as they scattered through the waves far above. All around him danced a rainbow of glitter; a beauty from above he had never seen before. Or had never paid attention to.

Shaun rose upwards, from the darkness.

Won the Reedsy prompt: “Write a story about a teenager visiting the place where they grew up.” — 23rd August 2019

12 thoughts on “The Things That Do Not Float

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