The Waterwood Box, 69

Catch up!

There was no stopping Adam now. He could make out the windows and doors on the big ship in front of him. Halfway there. Unfortunately, there was also no stopping the sharks all around him. In frenzied frustration, they snapped and lunged with teeth that, if sunk into Adam, would gnash his flesh to pulp.

Closer still to the sunken ship, Adam began to worry. It hurt to breathe and his legs were beyond tired. He slowed down and could sense the sharks’ bites around him getting ever closer.

“ADAM!”

Adam heard Ramata and Spot yelling through the water but he couldn’t yet see where they were. His only thought was to keep swimming towards the ship.

“ADAM!” They yelled again and this time he saw Ramata, hanging one hand out of a door and waving. “ADAM, HURRY!” Knowing that Ramata and Spot were waiting gave Adam a surge of energy. He kicked on with renewed vigor. He was was less than one hundred yards away. Eighty now, sixty…

“ADAM, LOOK OUT!” Adam heard the warning and smelled the sweet stench at the same time. Then he cried out in pain as the snaggletooth shark bit into his left foot, taking two of Adam’s toes. Adam screamed but kept swimming.

“The bleeding bleeder bleeds!” hissed the sharks.

Tears welled in Adam’s eyes. Through the agony, he kept swimming. Every new kick hurt worse than the last. Every new kick oozed out a fresh dollop of blood that further enraged the sharks’ frenzy. One shark attacked another and the two fell out from the chase, fighting each other, so great was their lust for some kind of blood.

Ramata and Spot held open a door for Adam and he swam into the room where they waited. Ramata slammed the door behind Adam and the dull thud of sharks smacking against it sounded. Outside, the sharks hissed in unison, “The bleeding bleeder bleeds!”

Adam cried in pain and tried to hold his foot in his hands. “Spot, please, help me. It hurts so bad.” Spot swam over to Adam’s wound and sized it up. “It’ll be O.K., Adam. Ramata, can we stop the bleeding?” Two thuds sounded against the door followed by angry, urgent hisses. “The sharks won’t stop while they still smell blood. We’ve got to stop Adam from bleeding.”

The Waterwood Box, 69

The Waterwood Box, 68

Catch up!

“The bleeder, the bleeder,” the other sharks repeated, drawing out the words while flashing double rows of teeth pointed and sharp like broken glass.

“This blood is a new blood.”

“New blood, new blood.”

“What do you want from me?” Adam asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“And the blood bag has words?” The snaggletooth shark swam so close to Adam he could smell on its breath a sticky, sweet rotting aroma. Adam curled his lips in disgust. The shark rejoined the circle.

“Yes, oh yes. This is the bleeder.”

“The bleeder, the bleeder.”

“And we, we happy few, we – are the feeders.”

“The feeders! The feeders!” screamed the sharks.

The circle slowly tightened and the sharks’ eyes rolled back into their heads as their jaws again opened wide to bare those never-ending rows of jagged teeth. They whipped their tails against one another, wailing, “The feeders! The feeders!” Adam gave up rotating along with them and gave up trying to keep his eyes on all of the sharks at once.

He gave up thinking altogether and swam up out of the circle as fast as he could, heading towards the closest ruin. Still in the early stages of their frenzy, the sharks were caught unaware but that didn’t stop them from following Adam’s blood trail through the water. Adam swam hard, harder than ever, up and over, down and around all the ruins he could. The sharks followed close behind yet Adam refused to stop.

Finally, at the ruins’ edge, sharks above, below, and behind him, Adam saw what it was that Ramata called the “floater”: a sunken cruise ship. There was nothing to cover his path between the ship and the edge of the ruins – nothing but a straight shot through wide open water. Adam had no time to plan a safe route and instead had to act on instinct alone.

He broke from the ruined buildings. The sharks’ sick chant filled the water around him. On his right side, one of the sharks took a snap at him. Adam dove down and under the shark. He heard another snap above him as a confused shark narrowly missed his back and bit the water instead.

The Waterwood Box, 68

The Waterwood Box, 67

Catch up!

Once he’d caught his breath, Adam felt ready to get to the floater, what he guessed was a sunken ship. He surprised himself by not being panicked (for once) that he was alone. It helped him to know where he needed to go and that friends would be waiting there for him. He stretched his legs inside his suit and headed out in the direction he’d seen Ramata and Spot swim toward.

Adam took his time, swimming at a decent speed and taking care to not wear himself out again. Ramata had been worried about swimming through the ruins, but for what? Adam hadn’t seen anything besides them swimming around here, much less anything else to worry about. Ramata’s just paranoid from a life lived in that prison of a city. Always thinking that someone’s out to get them. Adam reached out to touch a nearby steel beam. He looked up the beam and tried to see it as the large building it used to be. Remembering city stuff made him smile.

Adam ran his hand up and down the beam and cried aloud as a piece of splintered steel caught his finger and sliced a deep gash into it. By the time he pulled the wound toward his mouth a small pool of blood had spilled and slowly mixed with Ocean. Ouch. Adam sucked his finger. I’d better get going. He swam off at a brisk pace. Every now and again he’d put his hurt finger into his mouth to stop the thin trail of blood that leaked out behind him.

The first shadow passed over Adam so quickly that he barely registered it. He looked up to miss seeing what it was that cast it. He kept swimming. Two more shadows, larger this time, circled around Adam’s shadow on the ocean floor.

Adam didn’t miss this new shadows and stopped dead in the water. Three more shadows joined the circle, which was now less a circle and more like crisscrossing mayhem on the ocean floor. Adam looked up. Five large sharks swam above him, slowly making their way down in a spiral – just as Adam had when he rode the manta down to Tiskaloo.

The shark circle widened as it descended around Adam. He rotated himself along with the sharks, trying to keep his eyes on all of them at once. One of the sharks, who had a huge tooth jutting out from its bottom lip, spoke in a slithering whisper, “So swims the sad, sorry bleeder.”

The Waterwood Box, 67

The Waterwood Box, 66

Catch up!

“Maybe you’ll be able to answer that yourself after you see it. I know it’s human-made and must have floated at some point. Anyway, go straight ahead. You won’t miss the floater. GO!” Ramata stuck out a hand for each of them to grab hold of.

“Stay close.” And then Ramata kicked.

They swam in and out of steel beams, concrete pilings, and the occasional rusted light post. At first, Adam thought that Ramata was leading them by some uncanny sense of direction but he soon realized that the water-folk was winging it. Ramata’s main concern seemed only to keep moving and to keep moving erratically. They all knew the direction to go, but how to get there best seemed anyone’s guess.

Ramata zigged left and zagged right, swam up, down, and around whatever happened to wind up in their path. They let go of each other’s hands to increase their pace and Adam and Spot stayed as close to Ramata as they could. Spot was much better than Adam at keeping up. At times, Spot actually swam ahead of Ramata. The distance between the two natural born swimmers and Adam became more and more pronounced. So did Adam’s breathing. Two zags, an upswim, a zig, another up, and Ramata and Spot pulled too far ahead of Adam for him to follow. He watched them continue on through the maze of concrete and steel, then disappear altogether.

Forget it, he thought. I gotta catch my breath. So he swam down to the ocean floor and leaned against one of the old skyscrapers’ massive, steel beams. The beams sprung up around him like a forest of metal. Adam closed his eyes and took slow, deep breaths to calm his pounding heart.

With his eyes closed, Adam didn’t notice the dark shadows that passed over him. First one, then two, then five oval shadows crawled over and circled around his resting body. When his eyes opened, the shadows disappeared into ripples of sunlight on the sandy bottom.

The Waterwood Box, 66

The Waterwood Box, 65

Catch up!

Ramata had no response but a wet, blank stare. The words “highway” and “gas station” meant nothing to water-folk.

Adam said, “Never mind. Let’s keep moving.” He turned away in frustration but Ramata grabbed his shoulder.

“Is that what you meant?”

“Huh?”

“There,” Ramata pointed off to Adam’s left. “Can you see that?” In the distance stood several tall structures.

“Is that Tiskaloo?”

“No, Tiskaloo is,” Ramata pointed behind them, “that way. That,” Ramata said, pointing  back to the left, “is where we’re going – the Big Ruins. Well, actually, we’re going a little ways past it.”

Adam, Ramata, and Spot looked at the remains of the big buildings.

“Is that a gas station?” Spot asked.

“No, those are what’s left of a human city: skyscrapers.”

“The Big Ruins,” Ramata added and swam strong toward the buildings.

Chapter 14
Come on Down to The Big Ruins! We’ve Got Everything!

Once the trio arrived on the outskirts of the Big Ruins, Adam saw that the highway’s desolation extended to the ruins as well. There were no old houses. In fact, there were barely any buildings left at all. Seven ruined skyscrapers, really nothing more than girders and posts, protruded from the sand along with six or seven other buildings. Concrete crumbles all around them. Together, the jumbled mess formed an underwater, ghostly likeness of a downtown city.

Ramata stopped them before they got too close. “We need to stick together and move fast. Sharks like to feed here. If something happens and we get split up – just keep going straight through to the other side. You’ll see a large floater there. We’ll meet up at the top of it. We won’t have to worry though, if we stick close. Any questions?”

“Nope,” said Spot.

“Wait, I have a question,” Adam said. “What’s a floater and why is it at the bottom of Ocean?”

The Waterwood Box, 65

The Waterwood Box, 64

Catch up!

“You’ve sold me,” blurted Spot. “LetsmoveletsmoveletsmoveIdontwannaminenoway.”

“Uh, me too,” Adam agreed. He wasn’t sure what magma mining was but he knew it was the opposite of finding a Turtle.

Ramata took their agreement as a cue to get back to swimming. Ramata swam even faster than before. Adam and Spot fought to keep up. Any doubts in Adam’s mind about his decision were erased after Ramata’s explanation of the situation. He was more intent than ever on finding a way to land, to home. Funny enough, he didn’t mind being in Ocean. As lonely and scared as he was, he was having a fantastic adventure.

He just couldn’t bring himself to stay with the Tiskaloons, perpetually confined to that prison of a city. Neither could he live in an Ocean overrun by the Urchin Army and their King. Admiral Pinch was creepy enough. Adam shuddered to think about Pinch’s boss.

Adam’s intent to find answers remained strong and this helped keep his legs kicking. He felt completely at ease in his suit and he’d gotten so used to breathing underwater that he’d forgotten that he didn’t really breathe underwater. But wait – he was breathing underwater…

“How much further?” he called ahead to Ramata.

“We have to go through the Big Ruins first. Then I can get my bearings. We’re on track though. Look down below.”

Adam looked down and saw lined out beneath him, here and there exposed through the silt, a layer of dark rock dotted with faded, yellow spots of rock. As they followed the line of rock below, a strange feeling of familiarity began to grow within Adam. They were swimming above what used to be a highway.

His eyes stayed focused downward for some time while he swam forward. Adam soon grew bored and confused by the highway. None of this felt real. Below him used to be a road upon which millions of cars traveled everyday. Now all that remained was a skeleton. Nothing but the highway. He didn’t see any cars, houses, or other signs of humans.

“Where are the houses, the city?” he called to Ramata.

“You mean the Big Ruins?” Ramata stopped swimming and waited for the other two to catch up.

“No, I mean the other stuff. I see a highway down there, or what used to be a highway. But there’s no houses, no gas stations – nothing.”

The Waterwood Box, 64

The Waterwood Box, 63

Catch up!

The three swam through warm water and they swam through cool water. They swam through waters deep and waters so shallow the sunlight warmed the sandy bottom. They swam through clear water, murky water, safe water, dangerous water, lively water, and desolate water, too. They swam for hours on end, resting only when Ramata gave the OK, which wasn’t too often.

“What are you so worried about?” Adam asked after one particularly long bout of non-stop swimming. “Can’t we please stop and rest a while?”

“I’m not worried about anything, Adam, except the Urchin Army coming along and grabbing us. Tiskaloons aren’t allowed to be this far from the city.”

“Not allowed by whom?”

“By Altern, of course.”

“I thought Tiskaloons didn’t answer to Altern.”

Ramata’s smile was tired and patient. Adam had stumbled upon the absurdity in the Tiskaloon attitude toward the monarchy. “Officially, we don’t answer to Altern. The problem is that Altern doesn’t recognize that we don’t recognize Altern’s rule.”

“Huh?” both Adam and Spot said.

Ramata stopped swimming and Adam was grateful that this conversation had led to a break. “Tiskaloo can talk until it’s green in the face that it doesn’t follow King Altern. It doesn’t. We do what we need to do as a city. And, so far, Altern’s been rather gracious about letting us manage Tiskaloo. No matter how we feel about the kingdom though,  to Altern we are subjects — disloyal subjects — but subjects nonetheless. We know that if and when Altern wants to, the Urchin Army could come to Tiskaloo and overrun us. Altern hasn’t sent that order yet but some of us believe it’s only a matter of time before Altern brings a reckoning to Tiskaloo. That’s what we were debating at Frear’s house.”

“What to do when the Urchin Army comes?”

Ramata shook her head. “Whether to admit there is even a threat.”

Spot said, “My school and others have dealt with Altern’s rule.”

“What you must understand is that our history paints us as the chosen of Ocean. Admitting that another has rule over us is tantamount to heresy. Altern’s history goes back thousands of years, to when Ocean first rose, but Tiskaloon history reaches back even further than that, to the Waterwood Tree itself. Altern doesn’t care about real history though and the Tiskaloon circle of influence grows smaller and smaller the further we get from the city itself.”

“Why?”

“Because Altern treats Tiskaloons like criminals if we’re caught outside the city. Most inhabitants of Ocean are leary to associate with us. We’ve got to keep on the move. If we’re caught, we’ll be sent to work the magma mines.”

The Waterwood Box, 63

THE WATERWOOD BOX, 62

Catch up!

Chapter 13
Goodbye, Tiskaloo!

Ramata led Adam and Spot through the twists and turns of Tiskabloo, past row after row of faded blue, coral housing complexes and corner-shop business selling food and supplies made from kelp, rock, bone, and coral. Adam and Spot had no trouble following Ramata’s lead, because they knew that without the water-folk they would be absolutely lost in the winding, disorienting city. The byways and side streets of Tiskaloo went not only forwards and backwards but also up and down. Once you got into the city, you really were into the city.

After some time the three stopped at a coral wall that was half-blue and half-pink. “To our left is Tiskabloo. To our right, Pinkaloo,” Ramata told them.

“Which way do we go?”

Ramata looked up, laughed, then kicked their great tail once to shoot up and over the side of the split-colored wall. Spot looked at Adam and grinned, too. “See you on the other side.” Then Spot swam over the wall.

Adam looked back the way they’d come. Even if he wanted to head back, he’d be without Ramata’s lead and would never make it anywhere. Likely some Tiskaloon would help him get to Frear but Frear already said he couldn’t help Adam find land or even get home. Adam had to find land or, if not land, some answers to what had happened. The only way get either was to swim over the wall and follow Ramata.

Adam’s legs delivered a powerful thrust and his body surged up the wall, u-turning just above it before racing down the outer side. Ramata and Spot waited.

“What took so you long?” Ramata asked.

“I had to think about whether I was making the right choice.”

Ramata nodded, then headed off, away from the city. “Doesn’t seem like much of a choice to me,” Adam heard Ramata say from up ahead.

Spot said, “My school says, ‘There is always a choice to act or not act; both a decision to make.’”

“I’m tired of choosing, Spot. I just want things to be the way they were, that’s all.”

“That’s everything, Adam. Everything. Once a thing changes, rarely does it return to the way it was before. Everything is headed towards a maybe, Adam. And you’re headed towards something that no longer exists.”

THE WATERWOOD BOX, 62

The Waterwood Box, 61

Catch up!

Spot objected. “If you can find a Turtle and if you can get a Turtle to talk a Turtle might be able to help, Adam — but all this is pure speculation.”

Throughout this banter, Adam said nothing. Spot and Ramata went back and forth arguing over the likelihood of finding a Turtle, getting a Turtle to talk, and the odds that a Turtle would know anything definite about land above Ocean. Finally, Adam had heard enough.

“Will you two be quiet please?

Ramata and Spot stopped mid-argument and looked at him.

“Ramata, do you really know where to find a Turtle?”

Spot answered in her stead, “Adam, a Turtle is about as hard to find as land. Don’t be–”

“This Turtle isn’t a myth and I do know where to go!”

“Adam, my school says, ‘Sometimes a myth of hope is better than the hurt of truth,’ but I think we’ll just be wasting time to go off on this mad hunt.”

“What will we be doing if we stay here, Spot?” Adam asked.

Spot was silent.

“Exactly – wasting time. Ramata, what do we need to do?”

“Well, there’s a long swim ahead of us so the sooner we leave the better.”

“Spot, you’ll come with us, won’t you?”

Spot hesitated, then shrugged his fins. “Of course, I will,” Spot said. “I’ve kept watch over you so far. I can’t stop now.”

“Then we must leave,” Ramata urged. “Frear will be back soon to check on you and unless you feel like explaining our plans to him–”

“He doesn’t seem to think there’s any chance of land,” Adam said.

“Well, he may be right, Adam,” said Ramata. “But that’s what we’re going to find out. C’mon!”

The Waterwood Box, 61

The Waterwood Box, 40

Catch up!

Adam stared and shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh, I’m sure of it. Water-man gets cursed by a wicked Turtle or eel, falls asleep, woken by the kiss of a water-lass, herself on the run from a tyrannical mother. You should know this; typical Tiskaloon lore, full of unbearable wisdom.” The Admiral carefully watched Adam for some response and getting none said, “No? Well, no matter.” Pinch turned away from Adam and toward some nearby urchins. “The recruits are on their way. We’ve got 150 with another 100 promised upon return. Prep the manta for Tiskaloo. Our fears our confirmed. The cry was human and the Tiskaloons must answer for its whereabouts.”

These last words stuck in Adam’s head. The Urchin Army thought he was already in Tiskaloo! He breathed easy. Adam watched the underling urchins roll off to carry out the Admiral’s orders. Then the Admiral hoisted himself up onto the bench next to Adam. “We’re finally going to get you home. I bet you’re ready for that.”

“Yes, I am,” said Adam.

“What are you most excited to see, water-man? The Hydean heat vents, or perhaps the rock monument at Kimball’s Rift? Oh, do tell me.”

Pinch was prodding Adam. He must be on to him. Surely, he’d watched Adam swim off to the kelp or during his return to the manta. But, rather than get drawn into Pinch’s game, Adam decided to tell the truth.

“I miss my family,” he said. “I’m most excited to see them again.” Well, it was true, wasn’t it? Pinch didn’t press Adam or poke fun, but rather quietly sat. The two sat together for a bit, neither one speaking or moving. Finally, frustrated and uncomfortable, Adam did what Spot told him to avoid. He spoke.

“Admiral, why did we stop here?”

The Waterwood Box, 40