by R.M. Juillerat
Life went on when the rain didn’t stop.
It started with the glaciers melting. Then the tsunamis and hurricanes, eyes small, teeth barring, hit the coasts. No one listened. Earthquakes decimated eighty percent of countries, and no one listened.
No one listened when the rain came, when it lasted a week, three weeks, two months, a year.
But they listened to the roar of waves as they gobbled up the coastlines to the foothills of the Appalachians and Rockies.
New York, L.A., Miami, all lost under thousands of tons of water. No skyscraper is tall enough to pierce the anger of this planet. A nation of metropolises now a country of towns filled with small-town farms and small people.
We’re aliens on our water planet, and I’m a girl who can breathe underwater. There’s enough of us that, like mystics in a tribe, we’re feared but respected. What became of the American government hunted us down within months of the flooding and voluntarily enlisted us as representatives in the Natural Resource Department. We were scavengers in an underwater world.
“Be proud!” people called out as they waved us off to our dives.
But I wasn’t.
The first time I breathed under water, my heart was out of my chest from loneliness and my brain was bruising against my skull from too much moonshine and oh, oh, I just wanted to join my family under the water.
But I couldn’t.
I was the girl who tried to drown herself and instead became a miracle.
We swim on borrowed time until, one day, we drown like everyone else.
Five of us stood around the edge of a sailboat. Gas was limited but not gone, so we sailed. Somewhere over the edge of the boat, under all that black water, was Atlanta.
I’d visited once with my family. All I could remember was the long car ride from New York and my brother pulling my hair. I remember wanting to kill him. And now I was the one who couldn’t be killed and he was the one who shouldn’t have been dead.
Three guys and two girls poised above the water. Two of the guys were older; one had greying around his ears and the other was all grey. They both wore wetsuits. The other woman was wrinkled beneath her wetsuit, her hair cut in that old lady bob. She looked like she should have been in a kitchen cooking for her grandchildren, not standing on the side of a boat over Atlanta.
Her eyes were vacant and grey, and I wondered who she had lost to create that look I saw in my eyes every morning.
The other guy was about my age. I’d dived with him before but we never talked. He never took his shoes off, yet he swam faster than any of us. Whenever we got back from a dive, he’d pull on a shirt, drop off his finds, and go straight to the diner at the edge of town that served too greasy food and work a shift there. I never understood why he worked there. Divers were the richest people in town. The government compensated us well.
There was no ceremony to the dive; we all just jumped in. The crew on the boat, two guys in fluorescent orange windbreakers didn’t even look at us.
Instead, the ceremony began underwater. We all waited, just under the surface, until our lungs burned from holding our breath. I could always tell the ones that wanted to live because they squeezed their eyes shut until that first breath underwater didn’t prove to be their last.
I was surprised to see the old lady’s eyes sealed shut. The young guy and I made eye contact until we opened our mouths for that first breath. Then we swam away from each other.
There were other gifts to this life. The cold and pressure from thousands of tons of water didn’t phase us. We could see with no light guiding us. At first I tried to explain it as night vision, but it wasn’t like that opposite-black-and-green camera vision. So now I just say it’s like sitcom TV night scenes: far too much light from one lamp.
The first place I went was a penthouse in one of the skyscrapers downtown. I was feeling lazy and it was close to the surface and had an open window; apparently, the previous residents didn’t get the memo about the rain. It was amazing what survived underwater. We were such a chemical-ridden society; almost nothing decomposed. It creeped me out to see weird tentacle, seaweed things drifting up from fruit bowls. The rest of the penthouse looked glamorous, as if the owners would walk in at any moment.
There was a list of things to look for. Most computer parts had something that could be recycled, even if the circuitry was destroyed. Anything metal or glass. Lightbulbs. Clothes that didn’t fall apart when I touched them, the same for furniture.
On dives, we took with us an inflatable board that we strapped our finds onto. I had figured that if we were breathing in water, we wouldn’t be able to inflate this board, but that’s not what the government figured out.
Anything too heavy for us we took pictures with underwater cameras and made notes of its location for heavy duty machines to come and get later.
Since the rain, I hadn’t heard much about public relations. As far as I knew, other countries around the world were struggling to stay afloat, just like us, pun intended.
I had my raft inflated and burdened with my finds. I hadn’t even left the penthouse. I’d found phones, computers, laptops, six TV’s, close to forty lightbulbs, and a handful of synthetic material dresses.
I stopped by the window I’d come in, looking out as the woman whose dresses I was taking must have. There were other buildings around this one, tall and casting shadows in this dark world. The view was slightly obstructed, but I could see a forest of tree stumps in the distance. At one point it must have been a beautiful park, before waves knocked over the trees.
I could almost pretend the world hadn’t suffered a mini-apocalypse, that I had moved out and gotten this penthouse. That my parents were proud and my brother visited just to annoy me. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get my feet to lay flat on the floor; I couldn’t forget I was underwater. I couldn’t forget that I was one of the freaks who couldn’t drown.
I pushed the raft up out of the window and it floated up just out of my reach.
Next to the window was a much smaller version of the sculpture David standing flat on the floor, just to spite me. I left him behind in this desolate water world.
I sat with this new ocean lapping at my feet and muddy grass soaking my butt. I watched as submarines surfaced, dark shadows, the moonlight illuminating them as if they were the backs of a sea monster. Barges went out with cranes and pulled our finds up. I was less concerned with what we found for the government and more intrigued at how the cranes looked like tentacles.
I waited until the moon almost touched the water, the tentacled cranes and monstrous submarines had been gone for hours, then I walked into the water. I walked until it passed my knees, hips, shoulders. Then I stopped, as waves crashed behind me, the current tugging me in, pulling me onto my tip toes, water kissing my chin.
There was no one here to see if I could breathe underwater still. No one to see if I closed my eyes while I prolonged that first breath.
There never was anyone.
I dipped my head under, pulling my knees in until I sat on the ocean floor. My butt sank into the mud.
I kept my eyes open.
Leaning back, I laid down flat, crossing my arms over my chest.
I could see the moon in waving, dancing stripes.
And then, lungs burning…
Later, when I was standing, dripping, in my apartment, I tried to figure out where to put the Penthouse David. All of the art I’d stolen had a name given based on where they came from. Most of them were sculptures because they held up the best. Some of them were artwork, the originals that were worth millions (although at this point, worth more) stolen from museums.
I had a Monet. I’d never really liked him as an artist, but it was an original and it was art in a world focused on surviving. My favorite artist was Pino, and I had managed to get three of his originals from New York. Doing so had gotten me suspended from dives and a pay cut.
But standing there, feeling cold above water when I couldn’t feel the chill below it, surrounded by all of this art, I realized I was more alive than anyone else in this world.
A week later I was standing on the edge of the sailboat, water more blue than black, somewhere over North Carolina. The same old lady with lifeless eyes stood next to me in her wetsuit. On my other side was the guy my age I’d dived with several times. Behind us, on the port side, were three divers I’d never seen before.
There was a splash and the three divers were gone. The water was choppy, shaking the boat. The crew and other divers seemed fine, but I was feeling cautious. A win for irony.
The old lady next to me nodded at us and jumped off.
My nerves tensed. Ready.
The guy my age was staring at me. I noticed he had blue eyes, the same dark shade as the water we were about to dive into. His eyes were bright, alive.
“I saw you with David last night.” He smirked at his own joke. A year ago, that would have been a likely comment, said with a lot more anger.
Another win for irony.
“Every time we dive together, I’ve seen you go back for art.”
I noted his tennis shoes, red and bold, and his black shorts. His chest was sculpted, as were his shoulders and arms, facts I would have loved before. His mouth was cocky, quirked up in one corner. His eyebrows matched. The only things out of place were his eyes; they were alive, alive.
“So you just like to watch me dive?” An older version of me came back. I didn’t like seeing her.
He shook his head and stared off across the water. He was still.
“I stand in the water until I’m no longer afraid, I’m just numb.”
It was the most honest thing in this lying world.
“I’ll show you my apartment sometime,” I said and he smiled. It was the art, the humanness we both needed, not people who chose to not move forward.
He waved and jumped in, slicing into the water with no splash. I followed and was surprised to see the old lady still there, waiting for us. The other three divers were gone.
She was already breathing, her eyes open. He and I looked at each other, my heart beating a little faster than normal. This fear was new.
He smirked and opened his mouth to breathe. I saw the water whoosh into his mouth.
His eyes widened and he gripped his chest and throat. His face turned blue, eyes red. He started to convulse.
I took in a breath and screamed. A wall of bubbles hid him from my view.
He was dying.
My heart pound, pound, pounded, the only thing I heard in this dark, underwater world.
The bubbles were gone. His head was back, eyes rolled back into the sockets. His arms floated out to either side of him, an image of the crucifixion.
Strong arms held me back as I tried to swim to him. The old lady, one slow stroke at a time, pulled us further and further away from him,
I saw my family choking, seizing, floating. Shadows, smudges in the water that I couldn’t die from.
My tears disappeared into the ocean.
I always wore white dresses when I dived. If I could no longer breathe underwater, I wanted to be dressed for my funeral.
The old lady and I stood next to each other, looking over New York City. This was the first city I’d dived in. I didn’t know why we were back here. My knees shook. The old woman looked at me. It wasn’t vacancy I had seen before, it was pain. I recognized it because I had even more of it in my own gaze now.
“This was my home,” I told her. She took my hand and squeezed it.
I hesitated after she dived in. Since he drowned I’d become terrified of diving. Seeing death for the first time since I’d seen my family die showed me I still had a life to live for.
I missed my apartment on the long trips. I missed having the great minds surround me. The old lady had been over for dinner once a week since then. We never talked. I think she waited for me to initiate and I wasn’t ready to care about someone else just to watch them die.
I took a deep breath, tasting salt in the air.
The water was cold, a shock, as it covered me. My hair floated up around me, my dress floating up to my knees.
The old lady watched me. I’d never seen her close her eyes again since we’d watched him die.
My heart raced. This part, the waiting, was a white terror now. I held my breath as long as I could, until my lungs burned and the muscles in my throat clenched. Past that, until black invaded my sight.
My body forced me to breathe.
It was cold, the water that flooded my mouth. It snaked down my throat, into my lungs.
I saw black still. My lungs, brain, heart were starving.
It was so, so cold.
The muscles in my chest and abdomen started to spasm. My arms flailed.
The old lady held onto my hands until I stopped seizing.
I wish I’d gotten their names. Knowing their names would have made them more real in my life. Would have helped me not leave alone from this world.
I couldn’t feel my heart or my fingertips. This world was black.
There had been pain and fear. I had tried to find peace, and now it was finding me.
I felt hands cross my arms over my chest and pull my dress down. And then I felt myself float down to my home. My family.
Category: Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student