We didn't so much break into Gameland as sneak in, although putting it that way might suggest it was a piece of cake. While it was easier than it should have been, there were more than a few problems, beginning almost as soon as we set off for LI. But each time trouble arose, we pushed even more doggedly on. I've lost count of how many times we should've turned around. At least a dozen. We should've cut our losses, but we didn't. Not once did any one of us even try to force the issue. We just kept right on going.
Of course, it wouldn't have mattered. Even before we slipped into that water, it was already too late to turn back.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Everything grows eerily quiet as the tunnel envelops us in inky blackness. The canned sounds of my own breathing and the ghostly inhales and exhales of my friends around me seem loud. Every once in a while, there's a click or a tap or some strange rattling noise. The sounds echo all around us, coming from everywhere and nowhere, telling us nothing about what might be making them.
My eyes quickly adjust to the gloom. Five other glow sticks bob about me, looking like pastel St. Elmo's fires: yellow for Micah and Jake, green for Ash and Reg, and red for me and Kel. Six flashlight beams pierce the underwater twilight and illuminate a surprisingly open passageway.
Several of the flashlight beams converge on a vertical divider, separating what was once the southbound and northbound tubes. Micah had mentioned this earlier, and by prior consensus we all kick to the right.
We've gone maybe a hundred yards in—it's hard to tell exactly how far since there's a definite push provided by the current—when my Link pings. I look down at the glowing screen and see it's Ash:
<< U OK? >>
I quickly type back while keeping an eye out for Kel's light next to me:
<< YES. U? >>
<< :o} >>
<< SO KUL >>
There's a pause and I glance up and try to identify which spot of green light up ahead is hers. Then, I get another ping.
<< :o) >>
I smile to myself and show the messages to Kelly. He nods and gives me a thumbs up, then urges me to catch up with the others.
We encounter our first obstacle about ten minutes later. It's actually not an obstacle, but it does make us stop. I don't see it at first. Kelly puts his hand on my arm and gestures ahead, shining his light.
It's a school of fish, small ones, thousands. Maybe millions. They move like a silver fog, and the water is so thick with them that it seems as if they're a single organism. We float there, entranced, until Micah waves at us and points to his Link, reminding us that we're running out of time.
The next obstacle, about twenty minutes later, nearly forces us to turn back.
It's a huge pile of garbage—boards, pipes, furniture, tree trunks, tires—all dammed up against the hulking carcass of an old bus. Everything's bleached to a universal gray-brown by layers of silt and mud and slime. The windows of the bus are opaque, hiding whatever might be inside. Seeing it, I wonder why there aren't more vehicles down here. I've seen all kinds of objects on the floor of the tunnel, but very few automobiles.
I get an urge to go down and inspect the bus—a sense of adventure, or maybe nervousness at not knowing what's inside—but once more Micah shakes his head. He points forward and I know he's right. We're not here to explore. Maybe if there's time on the way back we can. Of course, by then it won't matter so much. After LI, an old empty bus won't seem so new and exciting, even underwater.
Jake finds an opening against one wall, about half way up. It's roughly six feet wide and just as tall. The current is strong here, so we're careful as we wend our way through it, cautious of any sharp edges and loose objects that might cut us or fall on us.
The path through seems simple enough at first. Some sort of large metal frame appears to be both holding everything in place and preventing it from filling the opening. We grab it for handholds and actually have to "walk" our way through, since the current is quite strong.
Near the other end, we reach a mass of twisted wire and chain link fencing.
I look up just in time to see Reggie's hand slip. He crashes into Ash and together they slam into what looks at first glance like a solid wall. But their impact causes something to shift and pieces of garbage begin to rain downward. Something hits the cage above us, producing a loud thong!
A large wooden dresser appears out of the darkness above. It tumbles down, heading straight for Ash. Reggie pulls her out of the way at the last second, and the dresser goes rolling lazily into the darkness below, where it lands with a muffled crash.
When the current washes away the mud and silt we've disturbed, I can see two yellow glows hanging in the darkness ahead. My Link pings. It's Ashley telling us she's okay.
Kel and I let go of our perch and slide through the end of the opening and out past the garbage dam. We time our kicks to avoid hitting anything else, twisting and turning past the unstable rubble. Micah and Jake are already ahead of us and closing in on the others.
Once the way ahead is clear, I send her a message back:
<< WAY 2 STAY KUL >>
I'd worried about her losing her air, but it seems that she's handling everything just fine.
She immediately pings back:
<< ABC GUM! >>
I almost laugh.
The screen suddenly blurs. I blink, but when that doesn't help, I try wiping my goggles, thinking they've fogged up. The blurriness remains. The fog is on the inside of the lenses, stupid! My head pounds. I'm starting to feel lightheaded.
I'm dimly aware of Kelly grabbing my elbow, but I can't move. He turns and gestures before coming back to me.
He holds up his Link for me to see:
<< OK? >>
I don't answer.
He shakes me.
Then Jake's there. I feel him yank on my belt. My throat hurts and my eyes are burning. Everything seems too bright.
A moment later, everything clears. The ache in my head is still there, but it's fading. My vision is clearing.
He shows me the used cartridge, then his Link:
Kelly shakes his head and glares as best as he can through his goggles and mask.
As we leave the pile behind, I wonder about that cartridge. Was it just an accident? Could it really be defective? How many of the others' are as well?
The garbage dam disappears into the darkness behind us. The tunnel ahead is wide and tall and, other than the occasional drifts of garbage along the floor and that one huge pile, it's remarkably uncluttered.
Micah—or maybe Jake, I can't tell which, just that it's someone with a yellow glow stick—shines their light on the sides of the tunnel. We drift pass old traffic signs and ancient graffiti, past the tendril remains of old wiring and pipes. Light fixtures dangle from the ceilings and walls, looking a little like the tropical moss that hangs from the trees along the south Connecticut coast.
A sudden burst of bubbles draws my attention to my right. We all hear it, stop and turn to look. It's Kelly and he appears to be struggling with his mask. In a panic, I swim over to him. His hands drop just as I reach his side. He frowns, waving me away. Then he points to his goggles. Relief washes over me as I realize he's just clearing them of water.
Our Links all ping at once:
<< EVERY1 OK? >>
It's Jake. We all give him a thumbs up. I can't really tell with the masks over our faces, but the look Jake shoots Kelly doesn't seem like concern as much as hostility. It's like there's this electric current running between them. But I still can't understand why Jake would harbor such feelings toward Kelly. Or is it just that he's sensing Kelly's jealousy? I don't know.
The look between them lingers a moment longer, then we're off again. I give a kick of my flippers and propel myself through the group. I want Kelly to catch up with me. I want to be in front for a while, instead of always in back and following.
Also, as long as I'm in front, I won't feel like I have to keep turning around and shining my light into the darkness, fearing that something is going to come out after us, a large fish or an alligator. Or shark. It's silly, I know, but I can't help it.
Even though there's this fear, it's not that bad. More like a shadow of fear, or a memory of it. There's obviously a sense of wariness and caution, just not the alarm I'd expect considering the risks we're taking. Maybe our excitement is neutralizing it. Or maybe it's the lack of sleep. I don't really care.
I keep kicking, feeling the strength in my legs. I know it'll be an effort for Kel to keep up, but I don't slow down. My Link pings. I ignore it.
I can feel my pulse beginning to pound inside my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a beam of light closing in, then the red glow of Kelly's chemical stick. He reaches out. His hand brushes mine, but I keep moving. That's when I sense the change in the water.
I slow. Then stop. Kelly slides up next to me. He holds his hands up, giving a wondering gesture. I look behind us and see that the group has spread out: two blue glow sticks between us and the two yellow ones further back.
I realize I'm drifting toward them. That's what Kelly's trying to tell me.
I raise my Link and quickly type:
<< TIDE RVRSING >>
I send it to everyone.
I can see the glow of five more Link screens, twinkling as they close the distance. A flurry of messages scroll across my screen, coming from Ash and Jake and Micah:
<< HOW FAR 2 GO? >>
<< WE R OK >>
<< NEED 2 HURRY >>
The others reach us, motion for us to stop for a moment. Micah types into his Link and sends it out to the group:
<< STLL TYM. OVR HLF WY. STY STDY >>
I can always tell when he sends a message because he hates using vowels.
He looks at me and gestures, as if knowing my thoughts. I nod, slowly and exaggeratingly: We need to push harder now or else struggle later. I thrust myself forward into the waiting darkness ahead. I can feel the others close behind.
I soon find myself pulling away from the group again. The sound of Kelly's breathing grows fainter behind me. I slow down to let him catch up, but it's Jake who reaches me first this time, Kelly close at his heels.
Kelly's breathing hard. The current is definitely strengthening, though it's not too bad. Yet.
I hear another rush of bubbles, and we all stop and wave our lights around until they find Reggie clearing his goggles. Ash and Kelly take the opportunity to clear theirs. I want to warn Kel to save his air, but I'd only be telling him something he already knows.
My mask is tight against my skin, sealed with Vaseline, as is everyone else's. A little water has leaked in, not much. I go ahead and raise my thumb and find the button just above the bridge of my nose and push.
Pressure on my eyeballs. My ears pop, then there's a sudden snap and my goggles slip away from my face. Everything around me suddenly goes blurry. I wave my hands around trying to find them, but I can't see anything. I drop the flashlight and its beam swings around before dropping to the end of its tether.
Air bubbles burst from my nose. Instinctively, I try to pull them back in and suddenly I'm coughing, choking. My lungs constrict. The air leaves my mouth, but not into the canister. It bubbles past my face and is quickly lost above me. Now my lungs are empty and so is my canister. I can't even find my goggles to use the compressed gas.
My ears are ringing, my throat constricts. I want to open my mouth and inhale and my mind screams at me, No! No! Don't do it!
I feel hands on me, on my arms and legs and head. Then my goggles are pushed into place against my face while another hand presses on the back of my head. There's an explosion of air and my vision clears. My lungs are beyond bursting.
The hand behind me forces my head down and another set of goggles is there. I'm not sure how many releases it takes before I realize there's air rushing up and into my face. I open my mouth and gasp, taking in putrid river water and air and I cough and gasp and cough some more and I feel like I'm drowning and going to die.
The air suddenly stops. Luckily, I've recovered my wits a little and my lungs are full. I feel my mask getting shoved into mouth, but I still can't see because of the hands holding the goggles into place, trying to fix the broken headband.
I reach up and try to push them away, but they stay. I bite down and exhale explosively into the canister, then inhale just as quickly. The air tastes stale in my mouth, but it takes the edge off, so I repeat the cycle again and again until the dizziness leaves my head.
Finally, the hands holding the goggles move aside enough so I can see the Link held up into my field of vision. I blink and the screen comes into focus:
<< UR MASK BROK >>
I nod. No shit.
The words scroll up and a second line of text appears:
<< OK NOW? >>
I nod again.
<< CANT FIX. TRY 2 HOLD URSELF >>
The text slides up.
<< OR GO W OUT >>
I reach up with both hands and push against the mask. I need them to see. The other hands fall away. Now I can look around me, though my own hands limit my peripheral vision. I see the concerned faces gathered in a circle around me, treading water. Without letting go of the goggles, I manage to hold a thumb up and everyone nods and reciprocates.
They pull away, all except Kelly, who lingers a moment longer. Despite how little of his face I can actually see, what isn't distorted by the goggles and mask, it's obvious he's worried. He holds up his Link so I can read it:
<< DONT DO THT AGN! >>
He leans forward and plants his lips on my cheek. The kiss is cold, but it sends a surge of warmth through me.
He slips beneath me and retrieves the flashlight on the end of its tether and flicks it off, knowing I can't hold it myself now, not without letting go of the mask.
Jake slides into view, gesturing that we need to go. I'm not sure how far we've slipped back in just the few minutes that have passed, but it puts us further away from our destination. Once again, I'm holding the others back.
Embarrassed, I let the others go ahead of me. I hold back a moment, wondering if we should turn around and head home. I won't be able to swim very fast with my hands like this. And dispensing with the goggles so I can doesn't seem like much of an option, either.
Kelly tugs me forward, his hand on my elbow. Despite what I've just gone through, he doesn't even ask if I want to go back. It pisses me off. But already the rest are moving on, and I know he has no choice but to follow.
Neither do I.
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