This short story won Reedsy’s writing contest #152 — Calling all Bookworms. You can also find it on Reedsy’s site.
Shaun jumped from the cliff’s edge. With each passing 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 weren’t moving at all.
Down and down he went, falling 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 – just 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 was changing, steadily. The world around him shifted through hues of blue; from a bright, sparkling azure, to the greyish near-black cerulean that pressed upon him from all sides. He flicked on his Aqualite, and a bright, broad beam exploded from the small cylinder clipped on to his shoulder, revealing a face where previously there had only been shadow.
Shaun almost screamed, before remembering the regulator that he had clamped in his mouth. He inhaled a small sip of the brine; not enough to cause him to cough, but sufficient to make him wince from the taste. The illuminated face looked equally surprised, and quickly turned and darted away, retreating into the safety of the distant gloom that Shaun’s light could not penetrate.
Heart ricocheting within his chest, Shaun continued his descent. In the gigantic silence of the depths, the pulsing blood of his veins throbbed his ears like the thudding bass of a nightclub.
Shaun had come of age and was therefore legally allowed to Go Down. His parents could not stop him, like they had throughout his younger years. Eighteen years old and dropping into the abyss, thought the young man, numbly – but this was what he had wanted for as long as he could remember. Shaun wondered: now that he had it, did he actually want it? Or had he only wanted this because he couldn’t have it? Now that he was free to do so, would he do this again, or would the one time be enough? Would he return older and wiser, finally understanding 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. Except, unlike the bubbles, the incessant naggings in his mind didn’t float off, upwards, destined for release.
Shaun fell into the darkness.
Shaun was getting close now. For several minutes he had been able to see the silhouettes of skyscrapers in the distance. They were too far away to properly make out in any detail, but their great, ominous shadows could be nothing but those great 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 suddenly felt a fleeting sense of thalassophobia.
In addition to 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 vaguely like a gun. He unclipped it now – carefully – 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 swam this way and that, in giant, sparkling orbs of teeming thousands. Sharks – some with hammer-shaped heads, others with large, outlandish fins – patrolled the city skyline of old, seeking food. The sight of the predators made Shaun’s heart-rate accelerate, but for the time being, they seemed uninterested in this invading human from above. 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 looming 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 – this was absolutely forbidden, 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.
When his feet had hit the inundated floor of the city street with a dampened thud minutes earlier, his heart seemed to have echoed the sound, reverberating it 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? Surely, they did, right? It was his safe connection to the above; both a rope that lead 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, walking the street immediately in front of him; 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 been evicted, and aliens were the new occupants.
Shaun walked the urban streets, trying to take it all in. He’d need a decade to properly document the sights of the new conurbation. He meandered in a vague approximation of the route he needed to take, willingly letting himself wander here and there, following wherever his overwhelmed senses directed him.
The buildings – both tall and small – had been eroded into rounded shapes, their sharp corners now softened. The metal had rusted and flaked and browned, and most of the glass was gone entirely, 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. Shaun did not have much issue traversing these little obstacles, however. When he came across a gap in his path, Shaun used the underwater physics to his advantage, and swim-jumped over the hole. He felt like a character from a plaftorming videogame.
Multicoloured corals had sprung up all over this artificial reef of concrete and steel. He approached a crossroads – one he actually remembered from before. On his right, before the two roads intersected, a wall of yellows and pinks and purples and greens rose upwards, made up of flat plants that looked like cousins of desert succulents. They piled on top of each other, growing over one another, seemingly content with the blurred boundaries. They look like a cosy family, thought Shaun. The location had once been a city bank – large and marbled, with 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. Beginning to feel slightly detached from reality, Shaun crossed the roads and entered the reformed gardens via the long-gone gate, eyes on stalks.
The trees had rotted under the water. Their lifeless husks had been used to support new organic structures. Staghorn corals of oranges and blues, tabulate corals of salmon pink, and a thousand more spanning the entire colour spectrum had sprouted up where once had been elm and oak.
Different species of fish – so many that he could not name even half of them – whirled and dashed in a thousand directions, seemingly at random. 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 surrounding waters, making them practically invisible.
Bioluminescent plankton flashed – pink, red, purple, blue – in the dim recesses of the park, lighting his way in an all-natural firework display. Had he not been gripping the regulator tightly between his teeth, his mouth would have been agape in awe. He switched off his invasive lights and walked the rest of the way through the gardens, aided by the light of a billion drifting organisms.
Shaun passed through the city common in a daze. He came out the other side, like a man waking from a dream.
He knew he was not far, now. His stomach churned and twisted, with excitement and anxiety.
After five minutes, Shaun finally 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 been subjected to the same change as the rest of the megalopolis. It had not been spared, for it was not special – at least, not to the ever-fluctuating 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 that it was now leagues under the sea, that was – for it was still sitting in the middle of the row. The houses were no longer identical, however. Mother nature, thought Shaun, the original hipster. Each house was decorated in a unique fashion; corals and plants and seaweeds of different shades, colours and shapes were now blooming throughout the neighbourhood.
Shaun’s heart was beating hard again. It felt as if the blood-pumping organ was at the base of his throat. He stepped towards the door, which was miraculously still in one piece. The number plaque – 3317 – had rusted but was still legible. He ran his fingers over the numbers, watching as small flakes of rust drifted away. Feeling like a spaceman, he lifted his hand to the handle, briefly worrying that the damn thing was locked.
He needn’t have worried, however, as the sea water 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.
Feeling like Neil Armstrong, Shaun took a giant step and entered his old house. And quickly discovered it was no longer his.
Inside, shafts of light broke up the darkness, shooting 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 – and instantly decided to not tarnish his memory of those happy places.
He went up the stairs, taking care to not disturb the small biosphere that had bloomed there. All around, life was thriving.
His bedroom was not what it had been. The window was gone, and aquatic vegetation was invading. 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 writhing purple and green vines, and his wardrobe now homed an eel that frightened him, before disappearing into a hole in the floor.
The vision of his old hideaway – shelves of toys, blanket forts, cartoons and comics, stuffed animals, soft carpets, colourful nightlights, a view of the street below, where the other children rode bikes and kicked footballs and played and laughed – started to audibly 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.
Everything had been abandoned. The Great Rise had claimed three-quarters of the land.
Shaun had been just a child, no older than six. He remembered the before times – both good and bad, for you cannot have one 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 of greenness, grass, 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 frequently that the visions had become tatty around the edges like heavily worn photographs. He jumbled through these memories with reckless abandon, until – even in the saltwater – he began to feel the tears burning 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, for this was what his soul yearned for; his heart was like a dropped anchor weighing him to the depths of the ocean. He felt its pull, he was helpless to resist, he would never go back, never, and he knew it was all a lie.
The low air alarm buzzed audibly in the silence, unleashing a cacophony of bubbles before his eyes.
His heart sank with the cold reality of adulthood. The sensation reminded him of the feeling he had when he was younger, and the summer holidays were drawing to an end – knowing 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 slowly, over time, like 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 really had to Go Down. He understood his father, asking him if he wanted company. He understood his sister – wise beyond her years – saying that it was all gone now. He understood. He understood.
The Lifeline was dangling, floating aimlessly, more or less where Shaun had left it. He reattached himself to the cable, suddenly feeling a bit guilty. Were they panicking up there? Wondering where he was? Worrying about if he was still alive? There was a click! and a whoosh! as his regulator began taking air from the Lifeline instead of the mostly depleted tank.
Shaun took an extra-deep breath before he double tapped the UP button, and then felt himself being pulled, ever so gently, from the drowned street. He was flying, rising, soaring, up above the city that had been. It was still a city – full of life and thriving – but a city no longer meant for mankind.
Shaun shone his Light Cannon around. Not too far away, below him, flying through the skyscrapers, Shaun saw three silhouettes: two whales and their calf. If he strained his ears, he thought he could hear their melancholy love song drifting along with the ocean currents.
The light was changing, the blue of the surrounding waters intensifying. 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, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ledge from which he had commenced his dive. Shaun could not make out the top off the cliff just yet, but he did see the sunlight’s fractured beams scattering through the waves far above. All around him danced a rainbow of sparkling glitter; a beauty from above he had never witnessed before. Or had never paid attention to.
Shaun rose upwards, from the darkness.
23rd August 2019
Winner of Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest #152 — Calling all Bookworms