The Waterwood Box, 23

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I’m going to find out what happened. Adam rolled over to slide the top off the waterwood box. In a flurry of excitement, the school slapped the water with their hundreds of fins. As Adam pulled the breather from the box, the box collapsed in on itself.

“It’s all right,” said Spot. “That’s what happens to a wet, empty, waterwood box.” The box folded up into a tiny, flat square. “Put it away. You may need it.” Adam tucked the box into his suit.

Spot eyed the breather in unusual, quiet anticipation. The rest of the school swam silent as well. Hundreds of fish eyes stared at the translucent disc between Adam’s fingers. Adam gave Spot a nervous glance. Spot nodded up, then down. Adam took a deep breath and put the disc into his mouth. A single, tear streaked down his cheek. Adam swallowed.

Immediately, Adam stopped breathing. He tried to cough up the breather. Once, while eating out with his parents, he swallowed an ice cube and the cube lodged in his throat. His father had to grab him from behind and squeeze painfully hard. The ice cube flew from his mouth and onto a neighboring table. Now, the breather was stuck in his throat and there was no one to force it out.

The tiny disc was lodged in Adam’s windpipe. He struggled for breath, gasping and hacking while Spot and the school looked on. They seemed more interested in the process than concerned for Adam’s safety. Adam tried in vain to work the disc loose by rubbing his throat.

“Adam,” Spot said. “Adam, calm down. I think it’s supposed to do that.”

With eyes wide and full of panic, Adam turned to Spot. Unable to speak, he could only shake his head back and forth. Spot looked Adam right in the eye, then shot himself out of the water and over Adam’s head. This sparked the school to action.

The Waterwood Box, 23

The Waterwood Box, 22

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“What? Why do I need that thing if we’re looking for land? Besides, I’ll choke if I swallow it.”

“For two reasons: one, the school doesn’t think the breather will choke you if you swallow it. If the breather lets water-folk breathe air, we think it will allow air-folk to breathe water. Two, we have to be careful about where we take you. If the Urchin Army sees you and files a report…oh, the entire school would be in trouble. And who knows what they’d do to you. Take you to Altern, that’s for true.”

“Where’s Altern?” asked Adam.

“Not where – who. Altern is king. King Altern of Deep Fright. Great Leader of the Urchin Army, High Lord of Ocean, and so on and so on.”

“Altern doesn’t like humans?”

“I doubt Altern’s ever known one. But the point is this: we don’t want to cross the King. The more discreet we are, the better. We want to avoid, not invite, the Urchin Army along for our trip. All you have to do is swallow the breather and, assuming it does what we think –,” at this Spot turned over to float belly up alongside Adam, “we float right on by any trouble.” The fish smiled at Adam. To show approval, the rest of the school slapped their fins on the surface and spit fountains of water into the air. “We can find land just as easy underwater as above.  It doesn’t float, you know.”

“What doesn’t float?”

“Land, of course. So swallow up.”

Adam looked up toward the sky that had always been there above him. Patient and secure, its ever-changing shades of blue and purple and grey, the sky snuggled the world like a safety blanket. Adam thought of his parents, his friends, his bedroom, his old life. Was it all really gone? Were they all dead? They can’t be, thought Adam. Not all of them.

The Waterwood Box, 22

The Waterwood Box, 21

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Two more jellyfish closed in at Adam’s side and pushed their heads around the first jellyfish and Adam too. Another jellyfish pushed its head into Adam’s arms, which forced him to let go of the box. Adam could no longer swim. The jellyfish gripped him tight before the whole mass slowly started to sink under the water.

Adam heard a small splash behind him then a familiar voice yelled, “JELLIES!” Adam looked up in the air to see Spot overhead. The fish had leapt from the water over the tight mass of jellyfish. The water around the jellyfish came alive with a foamy fury. From beneath came hundreds upon hundreds of fish that all looked like Spot. Their rapid swimming and jumping caused the water to froth up violently.

The fish swam in a tight formation back and forth over, around, and even through the group of jellyfish so that the jellyfish couldn’t help but be swept along by the force of their movements. The jellyfish had to let go and, as they did, Spot’s school split into several different groups. Each group circled around one or two jellyfish and then swam off away from Adam, carrying their jellyfish along with them.

Throughout the excitement, the waterwood box didn’t float away. Adam swam toward the box, thankful for its support. Spot’s head popped up right beside him. “Adam, everything’s going to be all right. My school has decided to help you find land.” Adam didn’t reply. He put his head down on the box and passed out.

When Adam woke, the hundreds of fish in Spot’s school surrounded him. The fish startled Adam and he thrashed about in the water, letting go of the box and forgetting how he was supposed to swim now that he had on the suit. He sunk into the water. Several members of Spot’s school swam underneath Adam and buoyed him back up to the surface. Adam rolled over and floated on his back, breathing heavily. Spot took advantage of the break in the confusion to speak up: “We’re going to help you, Adam. But, you have to swallow the breather first.”

The Waterwood Box, 21

The Waterwood Box, 20

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Chapter 4
Being a Breather

Adam decided he would swim slow and steady in one direction until he ran into land or ran out of energy, whichever came first. He tried to kick his legs only to remember that he was wearing the warm, constricting clothes. After some experimenting, Adam found he could swim as well as before (if not better) while wearing the tube, just not the way he was used to. He had to move his whole lower body in one, wavy motion instead of moving each of his legs separately. So, gripping the box, he swam forward without knowing or caring where he might wind up.

In a trance, he moved this way, seeing nothing but water, hearing nothing but wind. Adam’s trance broke when his bare feet brushed up against something soft and slimy. He immediately stopped swimming and pulled his legs in toward his body. The water around him undulated. Adam gripped the box tightly, trying to sit atop it and get his body out of the water. All around him, just under the surface, floated fluid, purple-red-blueish bubbles. Adam kicked and thrashed at the bubbles but they wouldn’t pop. Instead, they multiplied. They multiplied and drew nearer…close enough for Adam to see long, milky-colored tentacles trailing out all around him and the bubbles. He was floating in a giant bloom of jellyfish.

Adam panicked and pulled out his Swiss Army knife. Trying to swim directly through the bloom was like trying to swim through a bunch of wet clothes. He slashed out with his knife but still the jellyfish packed in tighter. It didn’t seem to matter to them that he cut and thrashed them. One of the bigger bubble-headed creatures made its way through the throng from behind Adam. It pushed its gooey, bendy head right into Adam and, like putty pushed against a stick, it began to mold itself around the boy.

The Waterwood Box, 20

The Waterwood Box, 19

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“Maybe. But where would you go if you swallowed it? Is there any land around here?”

Still staring at the breather, Spot slowly said, “Not that I’ve ever seen.” Adam’s face tensed up with a sad rage. Spot added, “But what do I know, Adam? I’m always with my school and we don’t go hunting for land. Maybe there is land somewhere, Adam. And, now that you’ve got your suit, maybe you will find it.”

“Maybe,” Adam choked back a sniffle. “What am I supposed to do, Spot? I can’t float here forever.” He put the breather back into the waterwood box.

—-

“What’s left in there?” Spot asked.

Adam tilted the opening of the box towards him and peered inside. There was one other item in the box. “There is something else.” He reached in and removed a folded piece of dried seaweed. Adam let go of the box and flipped over on his back so that he could unfold the seaweed. In a chalky, glorious cursive it was written:

I must apologize, young man.
Often, that which spells Tragedy for one spells Blessing to another.
Enjoy the gifts.

Furious, Adam crumpled the seaweed and tossed it into the water. “Somebody did this on purpose? Everything? On purpose?” Adam cried to the open sky. Why would someone want to hurt him? Why would they want to take away everything? He sobbed uncontrollably, with great heaves and shudders. Waves of anger and loneliness roiled through his body. Spot swam close by, paying attention but letting Adam alone.

Eventually, Adam settled down. He rested on the box and stared off into the distance. Without saying anything, Spot disappeared under the water and didn’t come back up. Adam began weeping again, for himself and for his lost world.

The Waterwood Box, 19

The Waterwood Box, 18

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With renewed energy, Adam pulled his arms from the tube and let it float beside him while he took off his water-logged jeans. He slid his entire body feet first into the cloth tube. The material covered him from the bottom of his ankles to just underneath his armpits. His arms, shoulders, and head were free to move about. The tube squished his feet together but Adam didn’t care. He was so, so warm. He rolled over to float on his back and inhale the salt air with a deep satisfaction.

“Wow, Adam,” said Spot. “Now you look like a water-man!”

“Well, I don’t care how I look. I feel like I’m wrapped up in a hot towel,” he said to Spot.

“What’s a towel?” asked Spot.

“Never mind,” Adam said and turned over to watch his jeans slowly sink beneath him. Just before they were lost to the depths, he remembered his knife. Somersaulting in place, Adam dove underwater and darted, not unlike a fish, toward his jeans. He pulled the knife from the right back pocket and tucked it into the top of his new swimsuit. For the first time since the flood, he felt comfortable.

—-

The next item Adam removed from the waterwood box caused Spot to spitter and sputter and spatter and splatter salt water everywhere. Between water-wrinkled fingertips, Adam held to the sun a thin, semi-clear circle about the size of a quarter and made from some flexible material like rubber or plastic.

“A breather!” gasped Spot.

“What is it?” asked Adam as he turned the thing over in his hand, bending it in half and half again.

“It’s an antique. The Coral Annals recall that the Turtles invented breathers after the Rise. They’ve been long forbidden.” Spot swam around Adam’s hand and stared at the small disc.

“Well, what do I do with it?”

“I don’t know what you do with it. The Annals tell tales of water-folk using breathers when they wanted (or needed) to leave Ocean.” Spot’s eyes never once strayed from the breather. “Maybe it’s for me?” Spot whispered.

The Waterwood Box, 18

The Waterwood Box, 17

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“I’m confused,” Adam said, when Spot returned.

“Well, that is what words do best, ya know?”

Spot and Adam talked until Adam’s voice started to give out. He still felt drained, cold, and hopeless. He also really needed something to drink. Spot didn’t have any suggestions but one – for Adam to open the box.

“I already opened the box, remember? That’s why I’m here. The box was empty except for a drop of water. Then the flood came.”

“And I told you – this a waterwood box, Adam. It will be empty…until it gets wet.”

Adam didn’t believe Spot. Then again, Adam was talking with a fish in the middle of a vast ocean. Still, thinking about the box at all brought him close to tears. If he could have survived without using the box as a float he would have let go of it a day ago. The waterwood box brought this trouble. But he didn’t have many other options. So, Adam opened the box again. Spot was right. The waterwood box was not empty.

Chapter 3
Adam Opens the Box (Again)

The first thing Adam pulled from the waterwood box looked like a single leg from a very large pair of pants. The outer layer was covered by a scaly, pale blue fabric that shimmered in the sunlight. The inside of the garment felt like wool, soft and warm to touch. “What do you think this is?” he asked Spot.

“Hmmm…I don’t know. For your arms maybe?”

Adam let go of the box and put one arm, then the other, into the fabric tube. Not only was the fabric warm inside, it was dry, too! But having both his arms inside the thing didn’t feel quite right to Adam. Despite his sense that he wasn’t wearing the tube properly, Adam hesitated to take it off because he didn’t want his arms to touch the cold water again. Then, Adam had an idea.

The Waterwood Box, 17