The Waterwood Box

A young adult, fantasy novel serialized throughout 2017.
Updated every Wednesday and Friday.

The Waterwood Box

…we must all part
Into this sea of air
–William Shakespeare

Chapter 1
Adam Opens the Box

Adam opened his eyes. He rolled out from under his cozy covers with a half smile on his face. Today was Adam’s thirteenth birthday. He walked into the bathroom and splashed some cool tap water on his face. Thirteen, he thought. Adam dried his face and bounced down the stairs to the living room where his mom and dad sat watching the morning weather report. Mrs. Might looked up from the television, her round face glowing with a good mother’s love.

“Happy birthday, hon. Come sit down. What do you want for breakfast?”Adam squeezed between his parents on the couch. Mr. Might put his hand on Adam’s head and tried to smooth down Adam’s hair (which stuck up every which way). In a funny, exaggerated, Bronx accent Mr. Might said, “Happy birthday, kiddo.”

“Daaaaad.”

“Well, not technically a kiddo anymore, I suppose. But ‘Happy birthday, teen-o,’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Weatherman says it’s going to be another scorcher today. Should we move the party inside? We can clear up some space in the basement.”

The town of Edinburgh, IN hadn’t seen rain since the beginning of June. It was now the middle of August. The days between had been hot, dry, and downright dangerous for those without air conditioning. “No,” Adam replied. “Everyone knows it’s going to be a hot day. We’ll be OK outside.”

“I sure do wish it would rain, though,” said Mrs. Might. Adam looked at her and she winked. “Just not today.” Mrs. Might stood up from the couch. “No, no, not today, honey. Ivan,” she said to Adam’s father, “do you need some more coffee?” Mr. Might nodded. She took his coffee mug from the end table and left for the kitchen.

“Dad, can we watch something else?” The weather report was over and now the anchorpersons were interviewing someone about lemonade. “This is lame.”

“Lame?” Mr. Might passed the remote to Adam and got up from the couch. “Tell your mother I hopped in the shower.” Then Mr. Might went upstairs. Adam sat on the couch, flipping through channels until he found some decent cartoons. Thirteen’s not too old for cartoons, is it? he asked himself. Nah, fourteen -fourteen is definitely too old for cartoons.

—-

The Might family prepared for Adam’s birthday party all morning. They hung streamers, blew up balloons, and set up the folding table with lots of goodies. Mr. and Mrs. Might had indulged Adam this year by allowing him to have such a big party. Adam was grateful and glad to have his parents around. Some of his friends had it bad when it came to their families. Mr. and Mrs. Might had fights and they sometimes yelled – typically over silly things – but, when it was all said and done, the Mights loved each other and Adam knew it.

Barefoot, Adam walked around the backyard, his long toes helping him scout out sticks and large rocks to clear off the lawn. He was sure that his friends would want to play some touch football or soccer even if got to be ninety degrees in the shade. Adam and his friends never seemed to think much about the weather. When it was cold, they  wore more clothes, then went outside. When it was hot, they put on shorts and flip-flops, then went outside.

He picked up sticks and stones and hurled them out toward the back fence. Eventually, he found himself near the table his mom had set up for gifts. There were already lots of presents stacked upon the table; a few from his parents and others sent by relatives. As Adam paced slowly alongside the table, however, his eye caught something that stopped him in his barefoot tracks.

He noticed a box on the table that stood out from the other gifts. First, the box wasn’t wrapped at all. Second, there were no ribbons or bows holding the box together – no decoration whatsoever. Third, the box seemed to be made of wood. Adam picked up the box. It is wood. This is weird. No card. He flipped the box over a few times then shook it. Nothing moved inside. His curiosity got the best of him. He put his hand on the lid and –

“Adam! Get away from those presents!” Mrs. Might came around from the side of the house, a tangled, green, garden hose trailing behind her. “You’re supposed to be thirteen years old! You can wait to open your gifts until your guests arrive!”

“I wasn’t–”

“Don’t ‘I wasn’t’ me! I saw you about to open that box.”

“Who gave me this present, mom? I couldn’t find any card or name or anything. It isn’t even wrapped. Look.” Adam attempted to hand her the box. Mrs. Might took the box and set it on the table without once looking at it.

“You’ll find out later. There’s probably a card inside. Now go inside and see how your father’s coming along with the cake. It’s almost noon.”

“But, mom, that box is…weird.”

“No ‘buts’, goofball. In two or three hours, we’ll all find out about that box. Until then – inside, inside.” She smacked him lightly on the bottom, sending him on his way.

Adam went inside and tried to forget about the box but couldn’t. He went into the kitchen where his dad was decorating the cake. The cake had HAPPY 13th, TEEN-O written on it. Adam smiled and took a swipe at the frosting on one edge. His dad was always doing stupid stuff like this. One St. Patrick’s Day Mr. Might dressed up like a leprechaun and hid in Adam’s closet, waiting until Adam woke up to find him. When Adam finally opened his closet door, Mr. Might jumped out and ran past Adam screaming, “You’ll never get yer hands on me pot o’ gold!” A goof.

“Dad, do you know anything about that wooden box out there?”

“Nosiree. Wait, what wooden box?”

“Out on the gift table.”

“Nosiree. Wait, what gift table?”

“C’mon. Quit playing around. Out with my other presents there’s a weird, wooden box that isn’t wrapped or anything. There isn’t even a card.”

“You’ve got presents?”

Frustrated, Adam left his dad in the kitchen. Sometimes goofiness was a pain. Adam thought about clicking on the T.V. for a while but then he noticed that it was a quarter till noon. His friends would soon arrive for the party. He ran upstairs to change clothes and comb his hair.

—-

Eight of Adam’s friends showed up to help him celebrate the big one-three. There was Cory McAry and Juan Villacruz (Adam’s two best friends), Mike Figgit (whom everyone called “Monkey”), Seth Bourder, Grant Willem, Carlos Marquez (whom Adam didn’t really like but had to invite because he was Grant’s best friend), Don Crane, and Leon Oliver. All of the boys were sat at the picnic table, talking, joking, eating cake, and sweating profusely.

“Man, I wish it would rain, rain, rain, rain, rain,” Mike said.

“Me too, Monkey,” said Juan. “Then I’d get to mow the lawn and help my mom in the garden again. Oh, God, please let it rain.”

“Whatever. Like your fat butt couldn’t stand to do a little work.” All the boys laughed. Juan and Monkey were quick to tease each other.

“Hey, Adam, why didn’t you invite any girls to this party?” asked Carlos. Some of the boys murmured a similar interest.

The question took Adam by surprise. He hadn’t really thought about why. “Umm…I just didn’t know who to invite,” he lied.

“Yeah, right. More like you didn’t know any to invite.” Carlos elbowed Grant and took another bite of his cake. “I dumf thinf I’f efah…” Carlos paused, swallowed, then continued, “seen you with a girl, man. What gives? You like girls, man?” A couple of the boys snickered but quickly stopped once they realized this wasn’t teasing like that between Juan and Monkey.

Adam was getting uncomfortable. He didn’t like Carlos and Carlos knew it. “I just wanted to hang out with my friends. That’s all.”

“What’s your problem, Carlos?” Cory interrupted. “It’s Adam’s birthday. Quit being a jerk.”

“Hey, I was just asking, man. Jeez.” Carlos leaned over to Grant and whispered something in his ear. Both boys laughed.

Adam looked at Cory and silently thanked him. They’d been friends since first grade and now they were about to start their last year of junior high together. Cory and Juan and Adam. The Three Musketeers, Mr. Might called them.

“Where’s your bathroom?” Leon asked Adam.

“Through the back door, take a right, go through the kitchen, down the hall, first door on your left. If you see my folks, tell them to come on out. I think we’re finished with cake.” Adam looked at Carlos, who had just served himself another piece.

“It’s so hot,” said Cory. “My dad says that if it doesn’t rain soon the rationing is going to get worse.”

“Like how?” asked Don.

“Probably have to start showering every other day or something” answered Seth.

“Oh man, we already all have to shower together at my house. If I have to see my sister naked one more time I’ll puke,” said Monkey.

Juan couldn’t pass up this opportunity. “You can send your sister over to my house to shower, Monkey. I’ll make sure she gets all cleaned up.” Again, all the boys laughed.

Adam heard the back door open and out came Leon. Mr. and Mrs. Might were right behind him with lawn chairs folded up in their arms. Before Leon could sit down at the table Mr. Might started to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Mrs. Might and all the boys soon joined in and Adam felt pleasantly embarrassed. As the final line of the song came to a close, Mr. Might added “and many more” in a funny, high-pitched voice that sent all the boys into a fit of laughter.

“Open your presents!” they all cried. Adam looked at his mom and she nodded okay. He walked over to the gift table and the wooden box immediately caught his attention. He resisted the urge. If there’s no card, it’ll just have to wait until last, he thought. So, one by one, he went through the gifts. Juan and Cory had gone in together to get him a new video game. Mike gave him a couple of books. Even Carlos had brought him some comics. Mr. and Mrs. Might’s gift to their son was a Swiss Army knife. Adam’s smile broke wide when he opened the package and saw the knife. He looked up to his parents from the pile of unwrappings around him and grinned at them. Mr. Might saluted back. Before going on, Adam put the knife in his pocket.

Finally, all the packages sat open except one. For some reason Adam now felt hesitant to open the wooden box. While he opened his other gifts, Adam kept a mental checklist of who had given him which gift. And, if his list was right, he’d already opened all his friends’ and his relatives’ gifts. Who was left?  The wooden box remained on the table, alone and unopened.

“You’ve got one more, Adam!” yelled Monkey. “Hurry up so I can go pee.”

Adam walked to the gift table and picked up the box. The thing felt incredibly light, weighing no more than a few sheets of paper,  but didn’t seem to be made of flimsy wood. He shook it again. Still nothing moved inside.

“Open it!” Monkey and Juan yelled simultaneously, then laughed. “Jinx!” they both yelled together again.

Adam shrugged and examined the top of the box. He had to slide open the lid in order to open the gift. He set the box down on the tabletop and placed his palm flat on the box top. The wood budged a bit, but that was all. Adam pressed his palms forward to slide the lid open. Nothing happened. He then tapped the edges of the box with his fist and tried again to slide the top open. This time the lid gave way. He slid the lid off and peered down into the box. Empty! No card, no gift, no thing. What? Then Adam smiled. He turned around.  “Daaaad, what’s this all about?”

Mr. Might raised his eyebrows. “What is it, son?  What’d you get?”

Adam laughed. “Nothing at all, Dad. It’s empty.” To prove his words Adam took the box from the table, shook it, spun it between his fingers, and turned it upside down. He tapped the bottom for emphasis. “Empty.  See?  Very funny, Dad.” Don Crane sat closest to where Adam held the box upside down.

“Whoa” Don said, pointing. “Look. There’s a drop of water in there.”

Adam lifted the box to eye-level just in time to watch the drop fall from the box. His eyes followed the droplet through the air to the dry ground at his feet. The light, brown dirt slightly darkened where the water drop landed. Adam flipped the box right side up and stuck his hand inside the box to feel for any other wetness. “There’s nothing in it though,” he said.

“Well, there was something, but you lost it,” joked Mr. Might.

“That’s not funny, honey,” said Mrs. Might, smacking her husband’s arm.

The joke wasn’t funny to Adam either. The situation made him uncomfortable. He set the box on the table. Monkey jumped up from the table and ran inside to use the bathroom. Adam looked down to where the drop fell. The small spot of wetness looked larger and darker still, as though someone spilled a tall glass of water there. But that couldn’t be. It was such a tiny drop. Adam slipped one foot out of his flip-flop and touched his toes to the wet ground. Is that mud? The spot grew into a spill and, before Adam’s eyes, it blossomed into a patch of mud. Adam panicked. “Dad, Mom, what was in that box?” Mr. Might stood up from his chair and he, too, noticed something was very wrong.

“What the – ?” he said. The muddy ground give way as soon as he put his full weight on it. “It’s muddy over here.”

“It’s muddy over here, too.” said Leon.

Cory looked at Adam. “What is it Adam? What’s going on?”

Adam shook his head in disbelief. He could only watch water well up from the ground around his feet. Confused and frightened, he couldn’t move. After a few seconds, Adam found his voice. Water encircled his ankles. Adam looked to his parents and cried, “What did I do?”

Mrs. Might tried to stay calm. “You didn’t do anything, baby.  It’ll be all right.” She turned to the other boys, who by now had moved to sit on top of the picnic table. “Let’s get in the house.” The boys looked at the yard around them. The water lapped at Adam’s knees. Carlos began to weep.

Adam snatched the wooden box from the table and waded back to the gift table for the lid. He grabbed the box lid just as the water reached the tabletop. He slid the lid into place and the box snapped shut. Adam held the box close to his chest as he swam to the picnic table. Plastic forks and plates floated around everyone’s ankles as all ten of them  stood crammed on the table top. Adam put his feet down and stood with the rest of them, on top of the table, overlooking a submerged backyard.

Over the next few moments, the rising water covered the first story of the Might’s house. The fences that partitioned out Adam’s neighborhood were now all underwater. From the window in Adam’s bedroom a voice rang out. “What is going on?” Monkey yelled. “I flushed the toilet and flooded the house!” Then Monkey noticed that the everyone was standing in chest-deep water where the picnic table used to be. Monkey screamed.

Carlos was crying unstoppably now. “I can’t swim, man.  I can’t swim,” he kept saying over and over.

“Here, hang on to the box with me,” Adam offered.

“Anyone who can swim, let’s swim to the roof,” suggested Mr. Might. He yelled to Monkey, “If you can swim, Mike, jump out of the window. As fast as the water’s rising we’ll be able to get on the roof in just a minute.” No one dared to ask how long it would take the water to cover the roof. Monkey jumped into the water. Mr. Might turned back to the boys. “Carlos, grab on to the box and you and Adam paddle over to the house.” Mr. Might gave a desperate look to his wife and started to swim. Mrs. Might and the boys followed.

Adam and Carlos, slowed because of the box, came up last. Some of the boys kicked up water that got into Adam’s mouth. “Yuck. It’s salt water,” he said to Carlos. Carlos was crying too hard to respond.

By the time they reached where the roof had once been, only the television antenna remained above water. The party clung to the antenna and to each other. There was hardly any room left to hang on, so Adam and Carlos floated with the box between them. Adam looked around at what used to be his neighborhood. He could see other antennas jutting above the water line here and there. Some ways off to the east, he could see One World, Inc.’s large office building. He saw bits of debris: a plastic rake, a soccer ball, floating around them. What he didn’t see were any other people. Adam guessed that about ten minutes had passed since he’d opened the box. Ten minutes for the world to become unrecognizable.

—-

The water rose to the top of the television antenna. Most of the boys were crying now. Mr. Might let go of the antenna and treaded water to free some space for the others. “I’m going to go look for something else that we can use to float on. Adam’s box won’t hold us all.” And with that, Mr. Might swam away. Everyone else had to let go of the antenna. The water was just too high. Juan and Seth swam to Adam and grabbed on to the box. The box sunk a little lower in the water.

“Get off, you tub,” cried Carlos between sobs. He tried to push Juan in the face. “It won’t hold us all.”

“It’s okay, Carlos,” said Adam. “It’s not sinking. See?”

Mrs. Might was crying now too. “We’ve got to find another float.”

“C’mon Don, Leon,” said Cory, “let’s go find something.” The boys swam off.

“Mom,” said Adam, “come over here. Take my place on the box. You need – ” Adam paused. He heard something that sounded like a strong gust of wind coming from off in the distance. “Do you hear that?”

Between sniffles and splashes, they could all hear something. To Adam, the sound was like the wind. To Mrs. Might it sounded like a distant train. Whatever it was, the sound grew louder. Soon, they began to bob up and down in the water; small, gentle waves rocking them about. Mrs. Might was the first to understand what those waves meant. “Hang on to that box, boys!” she screamed. Hang on tight!”

Adam and the others looked in the direction of the waves and cutting a new horizon across the sky was a giant wave, taller than any building, as tall as the highest mountains on earth. The smaller waves became bigger waves and lifted them higher and higher. Carlos stared at the oncoming mountain of water and let go off the box. No one noticed as the water’s steady ebb and flow pushed Carlos farther away.

The giant wave came upon them and swept them up, high onto its face. They rode the wave for a time, treading, floating, before it began to curl up and crash. The water’s force turned everyone over, and shoved them far, far under the surface. Adam thought of nothing other than hanging on to his breath and the box. He was underwater for so long. He wanted to open his mouth. Instead he willed his mouth shut and held his breath until it hurt.

Finally, in the wake of the giant wave, the box, with Adam clinging to it, bobbed up through the surface of the water. He opened his mouth to suck in salt-tinged air and yelled, “We made it! We made it!” A relaxing sigh of relief passed through him. He opened his eyes to see who needed help. No one was in front of him. He kicked his body around in a circle, looking for a head, a hand, anything. But there was nothing, not even a bit of trash floating nearby. He swam in another circle, slower this time. He was alone and floating in the middle of an ocean.

Chapter 2
Alone in the Ocean

Adam’s head and face burned under the intense, angry stare of a full sun. The seawater underneath, however, was cold and he couldn’t get enough of his body out of the water to warm up anything else. He tried by sitting on the box for a while, but it took so much energy to keep his balance that he found it easier to drape his body over the box and float with his bare back to the sun. No matter in which position he floated, though, some part of his body was in the water, making it impossible to fight the cold.

Where is everybody? Adam thought. All of them, where did they go? He put his head down on the box where his sadness leaked out in tears.

—-

There was no way for Adam to know how much time had passed between his birthday party and the big wave. Everywhere he turned looking the same. There were no people, no streets, no cars or trees, no sounds of life – just water, only water. Airplanes? he thought and looked to the skies. A flock of birds flew in a V formation far off in the distance. Well, at least something besides me is alive.

Adam gripped the box and propped himself up so that it rested under his chest. He kicked his feet and paddled ahead, hopefully in a single direction, but, with no landmarks for him to gauge whether he moved toward or away from anything, he was certain of nothing.

Adam paddled off and on until the sun went down. As darkness fell, the temperature dropped further. Adam’s felt his legs grow numb and he didn’t know what to do. He put as much weight as he could on the box without sinking it and tried to sleep.

Adam woke up thirsty. He was hungry too, but right now he was thirsty and wanted juice or milk or a glass of ice water. He tried drinking the ocean but its saltiness made him gag. Water all around me and I’m going to die of thirst. He coughed, growing angry thinking that he’d lived through a giant tidal wave only to be left alone, floating on a box. “Stupid box,” he said, wishing he could let it go. Unfortunately, without the box, he would have drowned long ago.

What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? Adam’s mind returned to that question over and over again. He didn’t have many options: sink or float, stay put or paddle. The only way he could be sure of a change of scenery would be to let go of the box. His family and friends all gone, his home, his school, his town, his world…it was all too much. Adam screamed, “HEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP!” The wind responded quietly but offered no assistance. For no reason other than sheer frustration, Adam dunked his head into the ocean and screamed again, “HEEELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP!” What Adam failed to consider was that sound travels farther and faster through water than through air. He pulled his head out of the water and laughed at himself.

Adam floated on, drifting in and out of sleep. His throat itched from thirst, his face ached from sunburn, and his arms and legs throbbed from the cold. A lazy breeze moved him back and forth on the water. Hurt and scared, Adam resigned himself to letting go and sleeping forever.

Adam heard a splash behind him. His attention picked up but he was too weak to lift his head. He kept his eyes closed and listened. A few seconds later, he felt a steady stream of water squirt him right on the forehead.

Adam’s eyes jerked open and he saw a black and bright blue striped fish, its head half out of the water, with its lips puckered up and ready to spit another stream of water at him. When the fish saw Adam’s eyes open its mouth dropped and water spilled out. “It’s alive!” cried the fish before disappearing under the surface. Stunned, Adam let go of the box and slid under the surface. The water revived him but he was still very weak. He bobbed back up, groping for the box. When he finally settled back with the box underneath him he paddled in a quick circle, looking for the fish who’d spit at him. Nothing. I must have been dreaming. No sooner did he think this than the striped fish’s head sprang up out of the water, talking a mile a minute.

“Whoareyouandwhatareyoudoingwiththatboxandwhendidyougetthat boxandwhereareyoufromandwhyareyoufloatinguphereandhowdidyougethere?”

“I -,” Adam began.

“Hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm?”

“I…I don’t…know…there was a wave and my family…,” Adam stammered. His thoughts moved slowly, he was so thirsty and tired. The fish swam around Adam in a quick circle.

“But why are you up here?” the fish wanted to know.

“Where else was I supposed to go?”

The fish looked at the ocean surface. “Below,” he said, as though the answer were completely obvious.

“Below? I …I don’t understand.”

The fish quickly dunked his head under the water and brought it back up again.

“Below, below, beeeeelooooow. I mean you’ve got to breathe, right?”

Adam laid his head down on the box.
“Right? Right? You’ve got to breathe. What kind of water-man are you anyway?”

“I’m not a water-man.”

The fish’s eyes widened and he disappeared under the water.

“Well, you’ve got that right. You aren’t a water-man. And you aren’t a coral. And you aren’t a shellback. You definitely aren’t an urchin. Are you a dolphin?”

“No,” Adam said. “I’m a person.”

“Well, duh…we’re all persons. No need to get snotty. But what kind of person?”

“What kind? I don’t…I’m a human.”

The striped fish gasped and disappeared again under the water. The fish’s up-down-all-around movements made Adam queasy. The fish popped up a second later and squirted Adam in the face with a thin stream of water. Then he disappeared again. Adam had no idea what just happened and laid his head down on the box to sleep. I must be dreaming.

Some time passed before the fish popped his head up again. Adam heard the small splash and opened his eyes. The striped fish was much further away now.

“Where did you go?” Adam asked.

“I had to go tell my school to go on without me. They were waiting to see if whomever called needed the entire school.”

“Called?”

“You – you called for help, right? Of course you called for help. Everyone in this part of the ocean no doubt heard you. Silly human. You’re lucky the Urchin Army didn’t send a unit your way.” The fish took a dip then resurfaced. “So, again, what are you doing here?”

“Why do you keep doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Going under the water so much.”

“I have to breathe, you know.”

“Oh…there was a flood.”

“What?”

“That’s why I’m here. There was a flood. I opened this box and then there was a flood and a big wave. The wave passed over us,” Adam’s voiced dropped, “and I hung on to this box. It brought me right up to the surface. Everyone is gone. I’ve been floating here for a day. I  screamed, ‘Help!’ because I didn’t know what else to do. I think I’m dying.”

Shaking its head, the striped fish swam over to the box. The sun danced over the fish’s stripes, entrancing Adam.  The fish said, “Well now, that’s certainly an interesting tale. How do you know of the flood?”

Adam stared. “I told you. I opened this box and the wave came. I know about the flood because I was there.”

“Hmm…” was all the fish said before moving to inspect the box. The fish put his lips to the box and said, “It’s waterwood. Who gave you this?”

“I don’t know. It was with my other birthday presents.”

“You don’t know but you opened it anyway? Silly human. Silly person. My school has a saying, ‘An unmarked gift may never stop giving.’”

“How was I supposed to know?”

“You weren’t,” the fish said flatly.

—-

“What’s your name?” the striped fish asked, one eye on Adam.

“Adam Might. What’s yours?”

“Spot,” the fish said with a touch of dignity.

“Spot? Why?” Adam sputtered and laughed.

“What’s so funny? Why are you called Adam?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that – it’s funny that your name is Spot but you’ve got stripes all over you.”

“What? Where? GET THEM OFF OF ME!” Spot screamed at Adam. He jumped out of the water, did a spastic twist as though he were trying to shake something off, then came back down with a splash. He resurfaced, still upset and said to Adam, “Are they gone? Please tell me they’re gone!”

Adam shook his head.

“AAAAAHHHH!” Spot yelled and jumped out of the water, coming down hard on one side. He jumped again, this time coming down on the other side with a painful SMACK!

They’ve got to be gone now!” Spot declared.

Adam shook his head again. Spot sped over to Adam. “Please help! Rub them off! Rub off those evil stripes!”

Not understanding, Adam said, “But they’re part of you. I can’t rub them off without taking your scales too.”

Spot paused. “Pick me up.” Adam picked up the fish. “Now point the stripes out to me.” Adam pointed at the stripes. “Not on me – on my reflection in the water.” Adam did so.

“See, here. Here. Here. Stripes all up and down your body, no spots anywhere. That’s why I think it’s funny that your name is Spot.” He put Spot back in the water.

“Those aren’t stripes, you dunce. Those are spots.” Spot dunked under, then up. “Don’t ever scare me like that again.”

“I didn’t know. We call them stripes.”

“Of course, of course. Just don’t tell anyone else who looks like me that they have stripes. You don’t ever want to see the things we call stripes. And, if you do, may the Exsalted help you.” Spot bowed his head ever so slightly.

“But I truly didn’t know. I understand every other word you’re saying. I thought that what I called stripes you would call stripes, too.”

“My school has a saying, ‘There is a word for ‘not a word.’”

“Huh?”

For the first time, Spot spoke in a slow, measured way, “Words are just sounds that can mean any thing people agree to. When I say spot you think of one thing and I think of another. It is a miracle that we can understand each other at all. What if my word for air was shells and the word air meant something else to me, something like – seaweed. Then I asked you, ‘How can you breathe shells?’ You would say, ‘I’m not breathing shells. I’m breathing air.’ We’d be dancing around, saying the same thing. Eventually we’d figure it out, but for a while you’d think I was crazy for saying you could breathe shells and I’d think you were crazy for saying you could breathe seaweed.” Spot dunked under for a breath.

“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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.”

“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.

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 fish swam in close to Adam and piled themselves on top of him. Adam could no longer stay afloat under the weight of the fish. Why were they trying to drown him? He sank under the water and, against his will, was forced to take a quick breath. His mouth filled with salt water. It tasted terrible and felt absolutely wrong in his mouth and nose, but not so bad and not so wrong that he wanted to quit breathing. He wasn’t drowning. Adam could breathe! He could breathe underwater! For the first time since the flood, Adam smiled.

Chapter 5
Under The Sea, Under the Sea

Adam swam down, down, down. He did half-flips before darting straight down and full flips before darting up toward the light and he did spirals and circles and corkscrews. Adam Might could breathe underwater! The sky shimmered green-blue beyond the surface of the water. Adam tilted his head to one side and caught a glimpse of the darkness spread out beneath him. How far down does it go? He shuddered.

Spot and his school gathered in a tight group ahead of and below Adam. He took a sharp breath and kicked off in their direction. Spot was in the center, talking to the school:
“All right, people. We’re looking for land. We’re looking for humans. We’re looking for anything that isn’t Ocean.”

“What about the Urchin Army?” a tiny fish on the outskirts asked.

“We are not looking for the Urchin Army,” Spot said with a wink toward the smaller fish. “Now, I have never seen land before. But, I had never seen a human before today so I think that perhaps land might exist, too. Does anyone have any ideas of where we might start?”

The school murmured and bubbled several responses. Adam heard “Coral City!” and “Water-Folk!” and other strange replies. Yet no answer seemed to unite the group. Finally, a voice cried “We need a Turtle!” This sent the school into a happy frenzy. They swam about so fast and furiously that Adam grew dizzy. Spot shot out from the throng and headed straight for Adam.
“A Turtle it is. They have seen many tides rise and fall and are sure to know something.”

“Spot!” called a fish from the frenzy. “Adam! Come join us.”

Adam looked at Spot and raised his eyebrows. Spot swam behind Adam and nudged him with his nose. “You gotta try it! Best feeling in the world!”

Adam took the hint and swam to the outer edges of the swirling mass. The fish within moved liked lightening. Adam was afraid to get in the middle of it all. He was new to this, couldn’t swim as fast as they could. Spot came up behind him. “Like this,” Spot said and darted right in.

“I can’t swim like that,” Adam said. None of the fish responded. They just swam around and around and around. Adam tried to follow their movements with his eyes but it made him nauseous after a while. Finally, he closed his eyes and kicked forward as hard as he could. With a start that surprised him, Adam found himself swept up inside the school’s excited movements. He didn’t have to try too hard to keep up because the other fish’s momentum kept him aligned. The school’s energy seemed to give the school more energy. Being part of it was like nothing Adam knew.

And, to his surprise, Adam didn’t feel sick at all. Now that he moved at the same speed as the school, their circular swimming didn’t bother him so much. He could even make out the blissful, determined faces of individual fish as their bodies propelled them around and around. Spot cut down from up above to swim next to Adam’s ear. “What’d I tell you?” he asked.

“It’s better than a roller coaster!” yelled Adam.

“A what?”

“Never mind,” Adam said. He let go of the bad things that had happened to him past few days and enjoyed, for a precious few moments, simply being caught up with the other fish.

—-

Eventually, the frenzied swimmers exhausted themselves. Adam and the rest of the school floated, dazed and recovering. A few fish began to swim again, asking about finding a Turtle or the possibility of land. Some asked about humans and if there were any left in Ocean.

Adam heard snippets of the conversation going on about him but he was so worn from swimming that he didn’t pay much mind to what was being said. He felt hopeful. He felt— “Urchins!” yelled a fish on the outer edge of the group.

The school snapped into a rough, diamond-shaped formation. The speed at which they grouped together into a single unit of black and blue amazed Adam. No way do I have energy left for that.

“Adam!” Spot barked. “Get into line. Quick!”

Adam, though tired, didn’t hesitate to swim up and over into the back of the diamond.
“Keep order, everyone,” a fish up front commanded. “Here they come.”

Adam looked around but didn’t see anything. What’s the fuss? he thought. Surely the school is able to out swim any urchins. The water above Adam began to darken. He looked up to see a giant manta ray swimming overhead. The manta’s wide, flat body blocked the sparse sunlight that filtered down through the water. “What is it?” Adam whispered.

“An Urchin Army patrol,” replied the fish in front of Adam. “They have to use mantas when they want to get this close to the surface.”

“Sshhh…” another fish whispered.The manta overhead stopped directly above the school then turned and began to drift in a downward spiral toward Adam and the school.

“Here they come, here they come. Order, order,” whispered several fish in unison.

Like a lazy leaf falling from a tree, the manta circled down and down and down. “It’s beautiful,” Adam said.

“They’re the urchins’ beasts of burden. Mantas are easy to coerce so the urchins take advantage of them,” said a nearby fish.

As the manta continued its descent, Adam could see a number of harnesses hooked into the manta ray’s mouth and into the tips of its wing-like fins. Groups of small, spiky balls – urchins – steered the manta. They were wrapped by the loose ends of each harness. Four pairs for each fin and four pairs for each side of the manta’s mouth. Adam noticed that there were hundreds of urchins covering the creature’s broad back, a multitude of purple, red, and green spiky bundles. The urchins steered the manta up alongside the school of fish.

As the manta slowed and stopped, the urchins quickly rolled into a formation meant to clear a path. Sure enough, after the space cleared, three purple-spiked balls rolled out to the edge of the fin and faced the school. The urchin in the middle was a shade of purple lighter and more flamboyant than any of the other urchins that Adam could see. This bright urchin spoke in a bright, high-pitched squeak:

“Identification number?”

“Diamond Fin School, charter number 32042.”

“Very well, School 32042. I am Admiral Pinch of the Urchin Army. We are patrolling these waters in response to a registered sonic disturbance. A distinctly non-Ocean cry was picked up not more than two days ago and we are on a fact-finding mission for a formal report to King Altern. The King is not yet aware of the disturbance and will no doubt want all relevant data once informed of this news. Has your school been privy to anything…unusual?”

“We’ve seen nothing, Admiral. Our school has been on retreat in these waters for two weeks and has encountered nothing but jellyfish and the occasional whale,” replied one fish.

“A non-Ocean cry? A bird?” questioned another fish.

“We suspect the cry may be…human,” squealed Admiral Pinch and, at the word “human”, all the urchins on the manta squawked their disapproval.

Adam shifted around in the back of the group. He was doing his best to stay invisible. Although he knew nothing about the urchins other than what Spot had said, he most certainly didn’t like the looks of them. The thought of getting caught and taken away by this collection of spiky squeakers frightened him immensely. When none of the fish responded to the Admiral’s charge, he continued: “Very well. I trust if you see anything out of the ordinary, human or otherwise, you’ll report it immediately?”

“Absolutely, Admiral. May the King have many wet years.”

“May the King stay wet indeed, Diamond Fin. Carry on.” Admiral Pinch rolled back from the fin’s edge and the other two urchins followed him. He squealed something loud and unintelligible and the urchins filled in the path they’d earlier cleared. Another two, high-pitched orders and the manta lurched forward.

Adam let out a relieved breath. He hadn’t been caught. The manta continued to glide by him and the rest of the school, its great, lumbering fins flapped and forced funnels of water around and through the school. Strong as the gusts of currents were, however, they couldn’t break the school’s formation. The manta’s tail drew close to Adam. His eyes took in the many urchins sprawled out like parasites over the manta’s back. Without emotion, the urchins stared at the school while the manta carried them by. One particular urchin caught Adam’s eye and Adam should have turned away, but didn’t.

The urchin’s spikes bristled and it squeaked out sharp and loud. The manta turned hard to the right in a slow, wide arc. It stopped right behind where Adam floated in formation. “Don’t turn around unless you’re spoken to,” whispered the fish in front of him. Adam didn’t have to respond. He was scared speechless. Adam guessed that the Admiral was making his way to the front of the manta. He guessed right. Admiral Pinch’s voice rang out behind him: “Water-man, what are you doing with school 32042?”

No one answered the Admiral’s question. “Water-man?” the Admiral repeated.

“Turn around, Adam,” whispered Adam’s neighbor. “He thinks you’re water-folk.”

Adam knew that if the Admiral thought he was water-folk than he needed to look and act like water-folk. Trouble was, he’d never met water-folk. How do water-folk act? How do they talk? He gently rotated his body around to float face-to-face with the massive, gaping mouth of the manta, ready to swallow up the entire school in one thirsty gulp! Admiral Pinch stood high above the school, on the tip of the manta’s upper lip.

“I was lost…” Adam stammered.

“What?” squawked the Admiral.

“I was lost…and the Diamond Fins stopped to help me,” Adam yelled.

“Lost?” Admiral Pinch squeaked something to the urchins next to him and soon the water filled with a chittering, squeaky chorus. “A water-man lost? Is this a joke?” Admiral Pinch’s voice almost burst with laughter. “Well, lost water-man. Would you like for us to take you home?” The squeaks of the other urchins irritated Adam’s ears. They were laughing at him.

“No, sir. I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

The squeaks suddenly stopped. Admiral Pinch focused down on Adam. “What’s that you say?”

Adam heard from behind him, “You have to go with them, Adam. You are not allowed to refuse an Army escort.”

“No way,” Adam said. “No way, no way, no way.”

“Speak up, lost water-man.”

“Go on, Adam. You’ll be OK. I’ll follow you.” That was Spot’s voice.

“No, Spot. I don’t want to.”

“You have to, Adam. To refuse is to doom us all. They’ll kill us. You can’t refuse. You just can’t. Swim up to the Admiral. They’ll take you to Tiskaloo, where the water-folk live. Try not to talk too much and you’ll be OK.”

“What’s going on down there?” called Admiral Pinch. “Water-man, come on. Let’s get you back home.” Sarcasm soaked his voice.

Adam swam out of the formation and up to meet the Admiral. “Hello, sir.”

Admiral Pinch’s spikes contorted and twitched. He called to the mass of urchins behind him, “He calls me ‘sir.’ Here is a water-man who knows his place.” The other urchins squeaked their approval. “Lost water-man, what do your people call you?”

“Adam.”

“Well, Adam,” the spikes twitched again. Adam gathered that this twitching was how urchins giggled. “Shall we make for Tiskaloo?” He squeaked and twitched, clearly delighted.

“Yes, sir,” Adam said.

“To Tiskaloo!” yelled the Admiral. “Let’s get this liquid lung home. One so obedient must surely be missed.” The Admiral barked his urchin orders to the pilots at the manta’s mouth. The four urchins pulled back hard on the harnesses and the manta slowly backed up. One pair of pilots eased up on their harnesses and the manta began to turn. Adam watched the pilots on the fins as they manipulated their part of the manta. He looked back at the school, still floating in their diamond formation. Just before he turned away Adam noticed a tiny, black and blue spot of color spurt out of the formation. He followed the spot until it disappeared underneath him. Adam looked at his surroundings. Hundreds upon hundreds of urchins. Hundreds of urchins and a lost, young man pretending to be something he was not.

Chapter 6
An Underwater Dream

“So, Adam water-man. How did you wind up lost and stuck within that dreadful school of fish and, as long as you’re answering, however did you wind up without blue hair?” asked Admiral Pinch as he rolled along the manta’s spine. Adam followed close behind him. He remembered Spot’s advice: Don’t talk too much.

“I’m not sure,” he offered, more so confused by the question of the blue hair than anything else.

“Not sure?” the Admiral huffed. “You are either the most humble or the most ignorant water-man I’ve ever met.”

“I mean, I can’t remember. Anything.”

“Pity, pity. Well, maybe not all pity. If you were to remember everything I doubt we would be having this conversation.”

“Why is that?”

Admiral Pinch stopped rolling and said, “Because urchins hate water-folk.” He continued rolling, “And they hate us right back.” Adam didn’t say a word.

Adam and Admiral Pinch arrived at the middle of the manta’s back where the urchins had attached several, long benches shaped liked sofas. The furniture was pinned into the manta and it looked painful. The Admiral rolled up to one and hopped onto it. “It’s really King Altern who detests the water-folk. But, what the King detests we detest. The water-folk do not listen and they do not obey. They live in their little city and make up their own rules of civilization. Ahh…much like their forebears, the humans did, or so the old tales caution.”

At this, Adam wanted to cry out, Did?! Are there no more humans? What happened to them?

“But this is elementary. I gather you don’t recall Ocean history either?”

“No, sir.”

“Sir,” Admiral Pinch repeated. “That, water-man, is why I offered to take you home. You, unlike the rest of your kind, have respect for authority. Had you displayed the impudence typical of your kind…I would have fed you to the manta.”

The Admiral turned to another urchin on the bench. “Commander, instruct the pilots to bear us toward Tiskaloo. We shall inquire about the disturbance and return this lost creature to his miserable home.”  The Commander’s spikes shook and the urchin rolled off the bench to squeak the Admiral’s orders to a nearby urchin. This urchin then rolled a ways and squeaked orders to another urchin. This process continued until the orders found the pilots’ ears and the manta ray glided off in the direction of the water-folk city, Tiskaloo.

Adam tried to stay as quiet as possible and thankfully, the Admiral didn’t press him much. Other matters aboard the manta required Admiral Pinch’s attention, which meant that Adam sat alone, half-reclined on one of the benches. The manta’s slow, gliding movement through the water kept him pushed back into the bench. Had he the desire, Adam could have easily got up and swam around but for now he simply enjoyed a moment’s quiet. He was frightened and surrounded everywhere by urchins, but the lazy way the manta moved relaxed him enough that he fell asleep.

Adam dreamed he was home. It was a Saturday. He was in his bed. Outside, his father mowed the back lawn and something smelled delicious downstairs. He got out of bed and looked through one of his windows. Sure enough, there was Mr. Might pushing the mower and bobbing his head to the beat of whatever music played through the portable CD player that Adam always teased him about.  Adam paused, sniffed the air, then turned his head to get a stronger sense of the smell. Pancakes.

He bolted from his bedroom still in his pajamas, practically slid down the stairs and almost slipped on the last step. The smell of pancakes filled the air. Adam’s mouth watered. He ran into the kitchen to find Mrs. Might with a bowl of batter in one hand and a thick stack of pancakes beside her.

“Hon, why don’t you sit down and pour yourself a glass of milk? Your father will be done soon and then we’ll eat some breakfast.” Adam sat down and did what his mother requested – except for getting himself a glass of milk. His father came in a few moments later and sat down beside Adam. The bitter smell of cut grass clashed with the sweet, welcoming odor of fresh pancakes. Mr. Might was sweating buckets. “Gross, Dad,” said Adam. “Go hop in the shower or something.”

“It’s OK, son. Have some milk.” Mr. Might reached over Adam to grab the milk carton and poured Adam a glass. Sweat poured off of Mr. Might as though some invisible hand dumped water on him from above.

“Dad, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Now, Adam, don’t make me tell you again. Drink your milk.” Adam grabbed the glass of milk and took a sip. It tasted salty.

“This milk is bad,” Adam said as he set down his glass.

“Nonsense, Adam. I just bought that carton yesterday,” said Mrs. Might as she brought the pancakes to the table. “Let’s just eat, shall we?” Adam looked up at his mother. She, too, was drenched with sweat. Everything in the kitchen glistened with a sheen of moisture. Mrs. Might plopped a plateful of pancakes in front of Adam. Fins and tails and scales poked out from every inch of the breakfast treats. “Eat up, hon.” Adam look from his plate back to his mother.  A slick, gray fish wearing an apron asked him, “Aren’t you hungry?” Adam turned toward his father. Another gray fish sat in his father’s place, reading the morning paper. Adam looked down at his own hands. Fins had replaced them. “Aren’t you hungry, Adam, honey? Aren’t you-”

“-hungry?” Adam screamed as Admiral Pinch stood holding out some white bits of meat.
“You are quite possibly the strangest water-man I’ve ever met. What in the sea are you screaming about?”

“Nothing.” Adam remembered that he shouldn’t talk much. “Just a bad dream.”

“Humpf. Eat some food then. We don’t want your people thinking you haven’t been treated with the utmost respect.” Adam watched this creature talk and hated it for its air of superiority and contempt. The Diamond Fins, the manta, the water-folk, nothing measured up in the urchins’ view. The only real sense of civility Adam had heard come from the Admiral was when he spoke of King Altern. “Tell me about the dream,” the Admiral said.

“I’d rather not,” Adam snapped.

The Admiral twitched. “Now you’re sounding like water-folk.” He rolled off to speak with one of the many urchins that surrounded him. The Admiral left the bits of meat on the bench for Adam to do with what he pleased.

“It was about my parents,” Adam whispered. “My dream was about home.” His tears trailed out behind him, as always, mixing instantly with the seawater all around.

Chapter 7
The Army Farm

The journey to Tiskaloo was, for the most part, uneventful. Adam sat on the bench almost the entire way. Time didn’t seem to mean so much under the water. For one thing, it was hard for Adam to tell what time it ever was. He slept when he felt tired, not when the surface looked dark because, although he could tell when it was light or dark up above, he could never know whether the dark meant nighttime or a storm. Eventually, he gave up trying to keep track of days going by and just accepted that time was measured differently in Ocean.

While in transit, there wasn’t much in the way of scenery to entertain Adam. His trip on the manta was unlike any trip he’d ever taken with his family. The murky, ocean water didn’t allow him to see much of his surroundings. Thankfully, the manta never dove down deep enough to escape all the light. He would have been much less willing to cooperate with the urchins were they traveling in total darkness. Some light filtered in from above and occasionally he’d catch a glimpse of something small, blue, and black off in the distance.

The manta made several stops along the way. At one stop, alongside an underwater cliff, the Admiral inquired about the disturbance to a family of octopuses living inside of hollows in the cliff face. The octopuses admitted to having heard the cry, but could say nothing of actually seeing anything out of the ordinary. The Admiral also steered the manta to a kelp forest. The seaweed grew in relatively shallow water and Adam could see all the way to the ocean floor. Up above, Adam saw the blurred outline of a warm, full sun. However shallow the water, Adam saw no signs of land.

The dull-green kelp plants swayed back and worth like grass in the wind. Hundreds of fish swam in and about the long, finger-like, fronds. Tiny snails and crabs covered the fronds and stalks. Adam asked if he might swim about the forest and the Admiral squeaked, “Stay right where you are. We won’t be long.” He then turned to the rest of the urchins and squeaked loudly, “That goes for the rest of you, too. I know this is home for many of you, but we are not on leave. You do not have permission to disembark the manta.” Adam watched Admiral Pinch and his entourage drop off the edge of the manta wing and listened to the disgruntled chatter of the urchins left aboard in his wake.

Adam decided to disregard the Admiral’s orders and, as soon as the Admiral dropped out of sight, Adam took off. He swam low over the back of the manta, over the urchin crew and the cargo tied down atop the manta’s back. After he cleared the manta’s tail he swam down to a smaller portion of the kelp forest that was off to one side. He hoped Spot was paying attention.

Adam swam two rows deep into the forest then got behind the large base of one plant to keep watch on the manta above. Things seemed all right so far. Adam felt a fuzzy something tapping his shoulder and heard a slow, “Excuuuuuuuuuuse me,” behind him. Adam jumped and swam around to put the kelp stalk in between him and whatever had touched him. He peeked around the plant and saw a huge starfish, balanced upright on two of its five points. The starfish spoke to Adam through a hole smack dab in the middle of its body.

“Nooooooo neeeeeeed toooo beeee afraiiiiiid. Aaaaare yooooooou reeeeecruuuuuuuitiiiiing alllllreeeeeeadyyyyy?”

“Recruiting?” The question baffled Adam.

“Yeeeees. Loooooooook arrrroouuuuuuund yooooouuuuuu.” The starfish swept one of his thick, light-orange “arms” out to one side of the kelp forest. Adam’s eyes followed the movement, yet failed to see what the starfish was getting at. The starfish tried again. “Looooook dooooooowwwwwwwwnnnn aaand aarrrrrrrouuuund yoooouuu.”

Adam looked at the floor of the kelp forest. The bottom of the ocean floor was covered with tiny purple and red spiky balls; baby urchins.

“What is this place?” Adam asked while still trying to take in the massive number of urchins the forest housed. If hundreds rode on the mantra’s back…there must be thousands, a million, here.

“Whhhhaaaaaaaat? Whyyyyyyyyy, thiiiiiiiisssss iisssss aaaaaan Urrrrrrrrrchiiiiiin Aaarrrrmmyy faaarrrmmm, nuuuuuuummmmmmbeeeeerrrrr thiiiiiiiirrrrrrtyyyyy-threeeeeeeeeeeeeee, toooooo beeeee exaaaaaaaact.”

“An Army farm? You mean…th-they grow urchins? For the Army? Adam began to think that leaving the manta wasn’t such a good idea after all. “What do you do here?”

“Iiiiii’mmmmm aaaaa faaaaarrrrmerrrr. Lllllleeeettlllleeees’sssss mmmyyyyyyy naaaame-,” here Lettles the starfish stuttered, which sounded most bizarre to Adam’s ears considering how slowly the starfish already spoke, “-eerrrr, Iiii meeannn nnummmbeeeerr Twwwooo Fiiivveeee Eeeiiighhhht Twooooo.”

“You don’t have to give my your number, Lettles. I’m not with the Army.”

“But Iiiii saaawww yooouuu coooooommme dowwwwnnnn froooommm theeee mmmmmaaaaannnttttaaaa tooooo iiiinnnssspeeecct mmmmmyyyy wwwooorrrrk.”

“No,” Adam corrected, “I came down because Admiral Pinch left. He is holding me on board. I escaped.” At this, Lettles gasped and each of his five appendages curled up to cover its mouth, forgetting that he was using two of those appendages to prop itself up. The starfish fell right over onto its back. Adam moved to help Lettles.

“Yyyyoooouuu hhhaaavveee toooooo llleeeaavvveee. Yoooouuuu’rrrree aaaaa ddaaannngggeeerrr toooo uussss allll.”

“I’m not going anywhere yet. I’m waiting for a friend of mine who will know what to do.” Adam nervously peeked out into the open water beyond the cover of the kelp. No sign of Spot. He darted a glance up towards the manta. It didn’t seem to be moving – yet. He hoped Spot hurried.

“Aaarreeee yoouuuuu trrryyyiinngg toooo gggeeett hooommmmmee?” asked Lettles from behind him. The question surprised Adam. He was trying to get home and he wondered how Lettles could know that. But then he remembered that everyone thought he was water-folk and home was Tiskaloo. Adam was slow to respond and when he finally did he simply said, “Yes, I am.”

“Wwwwwweeeeelll, Tisskaaaaloooo’sss nooot thaaat farrrr awwwaaayyyy. Iiiifff yooouuuu cuuut throoouuuugh theeee fooorrressstt, thhhhaaaat iisss…”

“I’m not-” Adam began, then figured it would be too dangerous to explain otherwise. No one here had ever seen a human so no one considered that he might be one. Adam guessed that might not be such a bad thing after all so he changed the subject. “Why do you work here, Lettles?”

“Dooooo I haaaaveee aaaa chooooiiice?”

Adam, surprised by the starfish’s answer, didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth several times but closed it every time he thought he had an appropriate reply. No response seemed sufficient. He wanted to say, “Yes, of course you have a choice,” but then he remembered his own inability to refuse Admiral Pinch’s offer and wondered how much of a choice the starfish had after all.

A familiar striped face and speedy voice darted into the kelp forest.
“AdamamIgladtoseeyouareyouallrightcomeonwegottagetyououttahere!” It was Spot, excited as ever. Spot’s eyes tried to take in everything at once, he was so nervous.

“Spot!” Adam cried. “I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Cmoncmoncmon,” Spot spouted while swimming in circles around Adam. “I saw Admiral Pinch getting ready to board the manta.”

Adam gasped and swam to the edge of the kelp. He looked up to the manta and, sure enough, members of the Urchin Army were loading large, kelp-packaged supplies and newly “recruited” urchins up onto the manta’s back. Adam didn’t see the Admiral but didn’t doubt Spot.

“Well, where are we going to run?”

“Run? Running requires legs! But anyway, we’re not running anywhere. You need to get back onto the manta!” Spot said.

“What? No way. I’m not going back there. I thought you were here to help.”

“I am. But, if you ride to Tiskaloo with the urchins you’re guaranteed to get there safely. You and I alone is a much more dangerous plan.”

“I’m sorry, Adam. This is the best choice, really. So go! I’ll be following you.”

Adam sighed. The whole world was turned upside down and now, here he was, taking orders from a fish. He didn’t like the idea of returning to the manta but he liked even less the idea of being found out as a faker by Pinch and the Urchin Army.

“OK,” Adam finally said. “I’m going back up there.”

“Gooood luuuuck,” said the starfish who, up until this point, had remained silent. Adam was about to say thanks but Spot cut him off in an unusually bitter tone.

“Shh. Don’t talk to that thing. Have you been speaking to it?” And then to Lettles, “Get out of here. You’re going to give us away. Go do your job.”

Adam reminded himself to ask Spot why he was so mean to the starfish. Lettles, however, paid Spot no mind. It simply turned around and ambled back into the kelp.

“NOW GO!” Spot yelled to Adam.

Adam shot up into the water that bordered the forest edge. There were plenty of fish swimming about so he was able to make his way from one group to the other in a zig-zag line up to the manta. None of the urchins paid any attention to him at all. Adam had sneaked off, and back onto, the manta under Admiral Pinch’s command without any trouble whatsoever!

Chapter 8
An Admiral Explanation

Back on the bench, Adam positioned himself so that it looked like he’d been sleeping the whole time Admiral Pinch was off the manta. He was lying down, hands under his head, when Pinch returned to check up on him. The sound of shrill, urchin barking “woke” Adam and he sat up.

“A-ha! The sleepy water-man wakes,” Pinch said. “Isn’t there a children’s tale about that?”

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 Admiral wasted no time in replying. “Well, I’m glad you asked! This is a much more interesting topic than nasty, old Tiskaloo. This-” the Admiral leaned his body out and swept it in the kelp forest’s direction, “-is one of many recruitment areas for King Altern’s Urchin Army.”

Adam sensed the urchin’s spikes tingle with pride. “You come by every now and then to ask for volunteers?”

“There are some volunteers, yes. But we mostly grow our own recruits.”

“You grow them?”

“Why, yes. We use only the most exceptional parents to give us the most exceptional offspring. Nothing but the best for the Urchin Army.”

“That’s very wrong, Admiral. You shouldn’t take a child from its parents.”

“Oh, come now. We are not barbarians. The child never meets its parents. Starfish tend over our recruits from the moment they are born. They see to it that our recruits are properly cared for until they are old enough to join the Army.” If the Admiral had a smile to give its brilliance would surely blind. “The system is as close to perfect as we’re likely to get.”

“Don’t you ever get recruits who don’t want to join the Army? Maybe they want to be farmers or teachers?”

“No. Not a one. The army is what these creatures, what I, was born to do. We know nothing else. To not be a part of this great organization would be to remove our purpose for living.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, water-man. You’ve been brought up with the notion that you are free to make of yourself exactly what you want in whatever manner you see fit. You were raised to believe you have a choice in deciding how things turn out for you. A pesky, Tiskaloon quality, that.”

The Admiral’s voice dropped into a false sympathy. “It’s not your fault. Blame your parents. Your education is as much a program as the Urchin Army’s. The difference is that, we urchins have no major choices to make. We can therefore devote ourselves wholly to whatever task is at hand while you Tiskaloons flounder about debating and reasoning every little thing.”

“But-” Adam began, but Pinch interrupted.

“And that is exactly why the Urchin Army is a model for all Oceanic activity and why Altern must be our guiding rule. Think of it: true contentment! We strive for an Ocean, unified under a single will, free from the burden of having to decide. It’s a vast playground that Altern wants for us all, Adam. Everyone free to follow Altern’s will. Isn’t it grand?”

What could Adam say? The manta swam and the waters of Ocean rushed past him. Admiral Pinch rolled off the bench to take care of matters aboard the manta. So, once again, Adam was alone with time to think. What Pinch said both did and didn’t make sense. How could one person be free if they had to act according to the will of another? Following someone without question didn’t sound like freedom. On the other hand, Adam thought that it would be quite nice to have someone who would always take care of the big stuff and leave him alone to play or read or wander. Life in Ocean was a puzzle. What kind of world had he drowned into?

As the manta swam out of the kelp forest’s shallow waters, Ocean’s darkness crept in around Adam. All the scenery he’d enjoyed, the bright schools of fish, the floppy, lazy plants on the ocean floor, and even the light-blue ceiling overhead faded away into a murky void. There was nothing to distract him except those ever-present urchins. And he was growing quite tired of those ever-present urchins.

What am I going to do when I get to Tiskaloo? Am I going to have to trick the water-folk like I’ve tricked the Urchin Army? How am I going to get home? This last question pressed upon Adam more than any other. Adam hadn’t seen for himself or heard anyone talk of land since he’d arrived. Do I even have a home anymore? These thoughts spun out of control. As long as the manta swam through deep, dark waters nothing captured Adam’s attention like his own nervous thoughts. Finally, he fell asleep.

Chapter 9
A Second Dream For a Flooded World

Adam dreamed of a large city brimming with people. He dreamed of a a city loud and bright. He floated over this city, watched cars moving, people crowding sidewalks. Adam heard traffic horns and emergency sirens and he floated up above it all. He soaked up all the people and the way they moved, one leg in front of another, then behind, one arm swinging forward while the other swung back, and he tried his best to keep focused on everything at once. Then Adam heard somebody scream. Ah, but in a city this large there was bound to be someone or another being hurt or frightened at almost every given moment. But then Adam heard another scream, and another. Soon, an entire chorus of screaming people burst forth from the rest of the city’s soundscape.

Adam saw why: flood waters. The first people to notice the water probably thought a water main somewhere had burst or that some punk kids had wrenched open a fire hydrant to soak themselves under the hot, noonday sun. As Adam watched, however, he saw the people realize what Adam already knew – the water wasn’t going to stop.

Flood waters rose to trap people driving in their cars. Those without power windows could swim out if they were quick enough to act. Many people ran into buildings and climbed onto a rooftop, but the water climbed right along with them.

Off in the distance, Adam heard a familiar sound – like a loud wind or a distant train – and looked up from the city to witness a great wave amble towards the skyline. Even from Adam’s vantage up above the city, the great wave towered impossibly high. One moment, the wave hung suspended over the city like a frozen waterfall, the next moment it crashed over and into and through the city. The wave hit Adam too, and knocked him under the water for a second time. This time, however, he didn’t drown. He only floated, suspended in liquid above the sunken city.

The wave passed overhead. Nothing moved below. After some time, fish began to inspect the flooded buildings and abandoned alleyways. Adam watched the slow decay of the city unfold before him like a video on fast forward. Dirt and mud built up along the streets and avenues while some of the buildings toppled and stirred up a murky mess. Eventually, there remained only a husk of human life and Adam woke up.

Around Adam, the water temperature rose. As the water warmed, diffuse light seeped through the ocean top, illuminating the water with a blue-green glow. The color reminded Adam of the sponges he and his mother used to wash dishes. Mom, mom…Adam didn’t want to think the worst but it was harder and harder to keep the worst away. He missed his family.

The manta swam on through ever clearer water. Off in the distance, Adam saw a pointy spire that looked like the top of a skyscraper but, recalling his dream, Adam didn’t want to get up his hopes only to find the ruins of a human city. The manta seemed drawn to the spire like a fish on a line. Ever onward, the manta carried its crew. The spire never seemed to grow in height, only in width.

The closer they got, the better Adam could see that the spire top wasn’t a skyscraper, not even close. It was something else entirely that almost breached the surface of the ocean. Strangely though, no matter how close the manta came, Adam remained unable to the see the spire’s base. All he knew from this distance was that the spire was chalk-white, wide, and incredibly tall.

The closer the manta swam to the spire, the more details Adam could make out. Around the bottom of the spire were three small, cone-shaped, points. The points were each a different color: blue, pink, and yellow. They must be coral. What a strange reef, Adam thought. The formation fascinated him and although the manta was still a fair distance away from the spire, he couldn’t keep his eyes from it.

When finally the manta was close enough for Adam to understand what he’d been seeing all along, he still didn’t believe it. The tall, white spire did come close to breaking the surface of the water. And, yes, there were three, different-colored, pointed formations situated around the white spire. What Adam could now see, as the manta swam next to the lip of a deep, ocean rift, was that those three points were the tops of three other, individual spires. And all four spires extended down to the rift valley floor. The white one, the largest, rose up from the ocean bottom taller than five radio towers stacked one on top of the other.

At the bottom of the rift, Adam could see the city of Tiskaloo teeming with light and movement. How’d they get light? he wondered. That thought passed though as he came to understand the massive scope of the valley city. The three, outer spires’ color inspired the rest of the city’s color scheme. From behind the blue spire sprawled out a thicket of blue buildings and roadways. The same thing occurred behind the pink and yellow spires. From this high up, Tiskaloo resembled a flower on the ocean floor; a flower moving and pulsating with light.

The manta took a sharp dip over and into the valley. A few urchins near the manta’s edge rolled away and sank down into the ocean that surrounded them. The sudden lurch surprised Adam but he held tight to the bench. Soon, rolling right up the middle of the manta’s back, Admiral Pinch appeared. He stopped at Adam’s tail fin.

“Look down there. Tell me what you see,” Pinch demanded.

Adam looked down the right wing of the manta as it banked in a spiral down, down, down towards the city. Lights hurried back and forth throughout most of the buildings. The only section immune to movement was the center-most ring around the white spire. No lights were on, nor did any move into, the center of the city.

“Looks busy,” Adam offered.

“Busy?” Pinch turned to a nearby urchin. “Busy, he says.” Then, back to Adam, “Boy, I’ve never seen your people move about so much. Busy? More like crazy. What are they doing down there? Tell me now!” Adam wished he had an answer for him.

“I don’t know. I’ve…I’ve been away.”

“—,” Pinch started to voice on objection but Adam cut him off with more of his imagined explanation.

“Besides, they don’t tell me much.”

Pinch accepted this and instead turned his attention away from Adam to a clinging urchin. He chittered a string of orders and the urchin rolled away, chittering orders of its own. Soon, the manta leveled out and stopped moving altogether.

“What’s going on?” asked Adam.

“I have dispatched an envoy to Tiskaloo. I don’t want my manta too close to whatever strangeness is going on down there.

Great, Adam thought. More waiting.

Once Admiral Pinch received word that the Tiskaloons were busy preparing for the manta’s arrival his nerves eased enough to order the manta to continue downward. “They’re preparing for me?” Pinch asked the urchin who brought the surprising news.

“That’s what they said when we asked what all the hubbub was about: ‘We’re making a party.’”

“But for me?” Pinch didn’t believe it.

“For ‘The manta’s guest’ is what they said.”

“In all my life, I have never known a Tiskaloon to celebrate the presence of any other, let alone an urchin. Surprises abound,” he said with glance toward Adam.

Adam listened to this conversation in silence. It worried him that Admiral Pinch and the other urchins had misunderstood the Tiskaloons and thought the welcome party for them. It was fairly obvious who was the manta’s guest. The welcome party was for Adam.

The manta slowed to a stop above the blue section of Tiskaloo’s inner-circle plaza. The streets and nearby buildings were neatly packed with water-folk, balanced on their tails, riding atop giant snails and seahorses, dangling out of coral-adorned windows. The water-folk didn’t talk to one another or mill about much now that that all had gathered for the manta’s arrival. “What a reception,” said Admiral Pinch.

Adam nodded. “It sure is something.”

Pinch rolled away, toward the front of the manta. A small herd of urchins followed behind him. Once he got to the foremost tip, Pinch addressed the Tiskaloons below, “Water-folk of Tiskaloo, thank you for this unprecedented reception. I am Admiral Pinch, of King Altern’s Urchin Army, and this is my vessel, Weaver.”

Pinch paused, awaiting a grand and awestruck audience response. When none came, he continued his rambling speech. “My crew and I have traveled many leagues to reach your city. King Altern sends regards.” Still no response. Pinch grew frustrated and insecure. Yet, he continued, “As you know, the good King is quite interested in welcoming Tiskaloo to the kingdom.”

“None wish for such welcome,” called one of the water-folk.

“Where is the child?” cried another.

This caught Pinch off-guard. He hesitated for a moment before leaning over to chirp orders to a waiting urchin. This urchin turned to chirp orders behind and so the urchins relayed Pinch’s message along the manta’s back until it got to Adam, who was calmly waiting for his cue to make an appearance. A tiny, bright-purple urchin rolled to his feet and piped, “Admiral Pinch needs you.”

Adam floated off and swam toward the urchins up front. Pinch saw Adam approaching and yelled loud enough for all to hear, “Hurry, hurry, dear child. Your people are anxious to see that we have safely delivered you home.” Adam paused for a moment then continued to swim forward and into view of countless Tiskaloons and their bubbly, eruptive hurrahs.

Chapter 10
The Underwater City

Adam examined the crowd of water-folk. Their faces were grim and determined, proud and ancient. They waited patiently for Adam to speak. Adam turned to Pinch. Pinch just looked at Adam and then back to the crowd.

“Hello,” Adam finally spoke and his voice was the call the Tiskaloons were waiting for. Immediately, a brigade of water-folk riding atop over-sized seahorses spurred their steeds to action. The water-folk hastily swam up to form a line in front of Adam, Admiral Pinch, and the Urchin Army.

“We will take the child,” spoke one of the water-folk, his long, blue hair flowing freely about his head.

“Not so fast,” Pinch protested. “I’ve come a long way to deliver this boy, at great risks to my person and Altern’s Army. I’ll not have you whisk him away without so much as a word. What was this congregation for? Who’s in charge here? I want to speak with a diplomat.”

“No diplomats. No discussion. Give us the child. Leave.” The water-folk pulled back the reins to the seahorse and the animal reared up.

“You people are utterly impossible – always! Altern will hear of this and there will come a reckoning. Take your foul seed!” Pinch rolled over and pushed Adam toward the edge of the manta.

“Hey!” Adam cried.

“You’re home,” Pinch sneered. “Back with your people, Neptune’s gift to Ocean.” Pinch’s voice took on an icy undertone and he spoke to all within earshot, “We will return to address your lack of gratitude, Tiskaloo.”

Four of the water-folk swam up to escort Adam off of the manta. “I can do it myself,” Adam told the two who tried to grab hold of his elbows.

The two water-folk looked at one another in surprise. One said, “Maybe Frear was wrong. He might be one of us after all.” The two grabbed hold of Adam anyway and carried him down to the plaza area, where not ten minutes ago thousands of water-folk gathered. Now, ten or fifteen lingered. All throughout, the spires stood watch over the city like ancient, silent ancestors.

From the valley bottom, Adam could barely make out the top of the closest spire, the blue one, and felt awe to know that the white spire stretched higher still. “The zigga are fascinating to gaze upon, no?” commented one of Adam’s escorts.

“Did you build them?” Adam asked. The water-folk laughed.

“OK, so Frear was right after all.”

Whether the person who spoke was male or female, Adam couldn’t quite tell.  The only hair on the water-folk flowed long and blue from their heads. Their skin was a pale shade of green, smooth all over, and their faces and arms appeared almost human. Most interesting, though, was that the lower half of the water-folk was a scaly, strong fish tail. They’re mermaids! Adam thought, though he kept it to himself and instead asked, “Why was Frear right?” Adam asked.

“No Tiskaloon would ask who built the zigga.”

“Why not?” Adam thought his question was reasonable.

“We do not remember, or we have chosen to forget, who built the zigga. All we know is that they are here, as models for our lives and our community.”

“The strength to stand as one pushes us all toward the surface,” recited all four water-folk in unison.

“Where are you taking me?” asked Adam.

“To Frear. They’ve been expecting you for some time. Frear had hoped you would find your way to Tiskaloo. It was too dangerous to send a search party out for you.”

Adam was shocked. “How did Frear know I was coming here?” Adam asked as the manta overhead rose upward in a spiraling motion. The Urchin Army was leaving Tiskaloo and Adam behind.

“News moves fast through Ocean’s water,” came a familiar voice from behind a small, coral structure to Adam’s right. First came the voice, then came the stripes.

“SPOT!” Adam yelled.

“AdamadamadamitsgoodtoseeyouIwassoworriedbecauseIgotheresomuchquickerthanyoudidbutthenImalotfasterthanamantabutstill…” Spot paused just long enough for Adam to reach out and hug his friend.

“It’s good to see you, Spot.”

“Well, it’s good to be seen, Adam.”

The water-folk led the pair through the winding streets and alleys of Tiskaloo or, as the water-folk called the blue section of their city, Tiskabloo. Adam giggled when he heard this name. “What do you call the other two sections?”

A Tiskaloon named Yaz, replied, “Why, Pinkaloo and Tiskyelloo, of course.” At which both Adam and Spot laughed and laughed. The water-folk shrugged them off as silly tourists and continued to lead the pair on, to wherever the one named Frear waited.

—-

Frear’s room was crammed full of water-folk. They spilled over rock furniture and filled most of the sandy floor. The room was so full that when Adam, Spot, and their water-folk escorts showed up they were forced to wait outside while someone passed word of their arrival along to Frear. Adam wondered why Frear hadn’t been at the manta’s reception.

Eventually Frear pushed and swam through the crowd and out the door, which someone forcefully closed, trapping the waiting crowd, and their raucous noises, within. A grim silence sunk in. Frear looked at the water-folk accompanying Adam and Spot. “You may go inside or leave. Inside is packed and we’ve come to agreement on nothing.”

The water-folk swam away and Frear turned his attention to Adam. “Is this the pet that brought news of your arrival?” Frear asked, motioning towards Spot.

Spot remained silent so Adam came to his friend’s defense. “Spot is my friend.”

“Hmm…,” Frear considered the possibilities, “…friends with a fish.”

“But you’re part fish!” Adam quickly said.

Frear swam right up to Adam’s face, massive tail tautly poised. Frear’s tail curled down and under, between the water-folk and Adam.

With stern patience, Frear asked, “What am I?”

“You’re part fish and part human,” Adam answered.

A smile. “And what is this?” Frear asked, pointing to Spot.

“I’m a–,” Spot tried to answer but Frear cut him off.

“I asked the child.”

“Spot’s a fish,” Adam said.

“And finally,” Frear asked, “what are you?”

Adam answered, “I’m a human.”

“So, I am part you and part that?” Frear paused to see if Adam would answer, well knowing that Adam couldn’t. “No, boy. I am not some conglomeration. I am Jur-Tiska, Person of Water, rightful caretaker of Ocean. I swim without fear. I am my own myth.”

Frear’s tone of voice frightened Adam. “What do you want with me?” he asked.

“I want nothing with you. Your kind broke many tides ago. I look at you here now in your water suit, mimicking water-folk, and almost believe in the possibility of humanity’s return. But I cannot say with truth that I want such a return. The truth is, I believe more that I want nothing to do with you. It is your friend here who thinks you may want something to do with us.”

“May I speak now?” Spot darted into both of their lines of sight.

“Please,” Adam said.

Frear added with disinterest, “If you’ve something to say…,”

“I do have something to say. I brought–”

“Followed,” interjected both Adam and Frear.

“Followed…Adam here because he needs to find dry land and a way to get home. I thought you might help.” Spot gasped and then swam to one side.

“There is no dry land–,” said Frear.

Adam yelled, “You’re lying! ”

“–and in a sense, you are already home.”

“No! I live on a street, in a house, with my mom and dad and I go to school and play soccer and climb trees and, and…” He couldn’t finish. There was just too much to try to fit in.

“This is where you’re from, child. Well, not you, but your kind. Before humans broke, this,” Frear swept his arms wide to indicate the entirety of Ocean, “this was your home.”

Chapter 11
The Myth of Sesre

Adam didn’t at all understand what Frear was talking about. The water-folk kept saying “broke” as though it should make sense to Adam. “What do you mean ‘this was my home’?”

“Don’t you know your history? Your own myths? Tell me now child, how do your elders teach you of your origins?”

Uncertain of where Frear’s question was headed, Adam replied, “Well, to learn, we go to a building and sit in a room where our teachers, our elders, tell us what they know.”

“And what do they tell you of your origins? Do you know from whence you came?”

“Sure, sure I do. Humans evolved from monkeys.” At this, Frear erupted in bubbles of laughter. Even Spot chuckled a bit. “What? What is it?” Adam asked. “Don’t tell me that’s not true. It’s evolution.” Frear continued to laugh and Adam found that he liked Frear much more when the water-folk was laughing. He just wished Frear wasn’t laughing at him.

“Oh no, child. I can’t contest evolution. That’s a fool’s game. But humans…from monkeys? I know not what a monkey is but unless that’s your word for water-folk…” Simply talking about such things brought fresh bubbles of laughter from Frear and a guarded chuckle from Spot.

“No, no, monkeys are a small, furry animal. They’re our closest ancestors. What else would we evolve from?”

Pride inflated Frear’s chest, which the water-folk then pounded with a closed fist. “Jur-Tiska. That’s what else.”

Now it was Adam’s turn to laugh. That’s why Frear had asked if monkey meant water-folk. Adam laughed, but stopped when Frear put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and firmly squeezed. In a voice both soothing and dignified, Frear spoke:

“This is not a jest, Adam. Confused myths lead to confused minds. Long before humans, in the early days of life, water-folk populated Ocean in great numbers. In every trench and trough, in every rift and rise, we prospered, tended, and toiled. Deep water, shallow water, warm water or cold made no difference to us. We were caretakers chosen by the webbed hand of Erato itself, and we were obliged. That, however, was Ocean before today, before landrise.”

“The water-folk in charge of Ocean at landrise did their jobs as best they could. Then, one day, a most curious event occurred. A small group of water-folk decided to get as close to landrise as possible without drowning in air.”

“Day after day, they would come up out of the water, force themselves to struggle to breathe, then fall back to Ocean for a refresh. Over time, their experiment, in a way,  acclimated them to breathing air instead of water. One particularly curious day, a water-folk named Sesre was exploring near landrise and got their tail stuck under a large rock. They were halfway out of the water already while the tide kept getting further and further out. Sesre grew desperate, thinking that their end was near. They struggled frantically to get free when, in one curious instant, they pulled so hard that they slipped right out of their scales. Those scales stayed pinned under the rock while Sesre lay on a soft, sandy beach, barely able to breathe.”

“Sesre pulled their way up the beach, taking in labored breaths, trying not to panic. When they did this they found they could breathe, if only barely. Sesre clawed and crawled. They were exhausted. When finally they dared to look down at what had become of their bottom half, they cringed in fear. They saw a bloody, runny, mass of flesh. They splashed salty, sea water on their wounds. The water washed and helped to heal them. Sesre saw that where scales and tail once were, two, thin pieces of muscle-covered bone remained. Two, separate limbs, mind you.”

“Legs…” Adam whispered.

“Yes, well, legs of a sort. Sesre had indeed pulled off their own scales and tail and found something like legs underneath. Unfortunately, Sesre didn’t see this as an advantage in their new situation. Instead, they sat on the shore lamenting the loss of their gorgeous water-parts. Sesre wailed and begged for Erato to take mercy upon them. The other water-folk heard Sesre’s cries and offered small consolations. They moved the rock which still pinned Sesre’s scales and tail and brought them to Sesre upon the beach.”

“’Here, you can put them back on and rejoin us,’” the water-folk suggested. Sesre tried and failed. They felt their life was now over. They grew hungry and began to crawl along the shoreline in search of shellfish to eat. They came upon a crab and just before picking it up to eat it, paused. Sesre had seen countless crabs during their lifetime but had never before paid close attention to how they lived their lives. Now, however, they interested Sesre very much. The crab, you see, uses its legs to move in a scuttling motion over the sand. So Sesre imitated the crab and pushed herself up on hands and legs. At first, they couldn’t move like the crab, but with practice they became able to move easily and quickly through the shallow waters.”

“Like the crab, Sesre scuttled up and down the beach. They found shellfish among the pebbles and caught small fish to stay alive. By day, they combed the beach and at night they crawled completely out of the shallow water to curl up in a small cove uncovered by the receding tide. The water-folk kept Sesre company as best they could. For those that could remain out of the water for a small time, Sesre offered shellfish and they in turn brought seaweed to adorn Sesre’s hair and body.”

“Sesre’s legs grew stronger the more they used them. Soon, they no longer needed hands and arms for support. Sesre could walk upright. Not very well, but Sesre could walk. And walk Sesre did. Every day they walked a little further inland than they had the day before. One day, they didn’t show for their usual visit with the water-folk and the water-folk began to worry. First one day, then many more went by with no visits from Sesre.”

“Eventually, Sesre returned to the water-folk full of fascinating stories about the inland. Sesre talked of seaweed that grew hard as a rock and of creatures with four legs and animals that swam through the air as though they were dartfish. Sesre told the water-folk, ‘I must return inland, for my heart and mind are no longer bound to Ocean. I shall not return again to meet you on this beach.'”

“This upset the water-folk and, after some debate, they decided to accompany Sesre. Ten of the water-folk attempted to rid themselves of scales and tails. Six succeeded. Two died while trying, and the other two couldn’t remove their scales and tails no matter what they tried. These two were charged with going back to Tiskaloo to tell the others Sesre’s story.”

“With Sesre’s help, the six that made it out of the water learned to move. The seven walked inland and never returned, as Sesre vowed, to that particular piece of beach.”

“But that doesn’t explain humans,” Adam protested. “Just because the water-folk got rid of their water-parts doesn’t mean that their babies wouldn’t have them.”

“Perhaps the parents removed the babies’ tails at birth? I don’t know either. But, that’s the story as we are told it. And now that I see you here before me, Adam, I believe the story so much more.”

Adam turned to Spot. “So, that’s why you brought me here? To hear this?” Adam was upset. He’d hoped to find a way to get back to land, not listen to some dreamed up tale about the origins of humanity.

Spot swam up close. “No. I brought you here because you needed help and I knew the Tiskaloons would want to help. You share a common heritage.”

“Adam, what is it you need?” asked Frear. A ruckus sounded inside the dwelling. The rough door opened and a young water-folk popped out from the crowded doorway. “Frear, you deal with this,” came a voice from within.

The water-folk curled up in a ball. “Leave me alone. You’re on a fool’s mission armed with worthless weapons. Self-interest philosophy won’t prevent Altern from taking Tiskaloo. We need to unite!”

Frear went over and lifted the water-folk’s chin. “Ramata, you are young. The Crisis has yet to come upon you. Keep your dreams, yes, but not at the expense of what your heart and mind tell you to be true. Make yourself presentable. We shouldn’t talk politics in front of guests.”

Ramata set their jaw firm and turned their pale face towards Adam and Spot. “Is that the human?” Ramata’s bright green eyes went from Adam to Frear to Adam again. They ran a hand through their dark blue hair and straightened up their proud body. “Maybe you can talk some sense into Frear. Don’t you think a war is best fought as a unit rather than a loose gang of stubborn ego-maniacs?”

Adam hesitated so Frear jumped in. “Excuse my sibling. They’re young and inexperienced. Adam, Spot, this is Ramata.”

“Hello,” said Adam, unsure about this new person. Their entire body quivered as though they were about to explode.

“How do?” asked Spot.

“I’m angry. Thank you. Goodbye.” Ramata’s powerful tail kicked out a strong gust of water and they swam off among the blue-tinted, coral alleyways of the city.

“You mustn’t mind her too much. She has lots of ideas but no small inkling of how best to broach them among her own people. Now, you were about to tell me what I could do to help you.”

“I want to go home,” Adam said, for what seemed like the millionth time.

“If you mean home, to land, I told you – there is no more land. If you mean home, among the water-folk – I welcome you.”

“I mean home, my house, my room, my parents.”

“I cannot help.”

Spot chirped up then. “But, surely you must know something. What about Sesre’s beach?”

Frear was patient but firm. “Truly, I tell you, there is no land. There are countless ruins, but no land above the water.”

Chapter 12
A Plan Swells Together

Adam choked up. “R-r-ruins?” remembering his dream of the ruined city.

“Yes,” Frear continued, “ruins of humanity. That’s why our city was so agitated to see you. The human world flooded many, many years ago and, so we assumed, all of Sesre’s descendants right along with it.”

“B-but – that’s impossible! It couldn’t have been that long ago.” Frear said nothing. “But I’m the one who did it! I flooded the world! I was there!”

“Child, I cannot explain the curse that’s brought you here and tricked your mind. Still, I assure you, these are human ruins I speak of.”

“What am I going to do?” Adam asked, grief-stricken.

“Don’t worry, Adam,” consoled Spot. “We’ll think of something.”

“Please, you’ll be more than comfortable here,” Frear offered. “Just let me go inside and see if there’s been any resolution. Then, I can work on getting you situated in Tiskaloo.”

“Resolution?” Spot asked.

“Yes, yes. All the hubbub you came in upon. We’re trying to decide what to do about Altern and the Urchin Army. Altern’s grip grows tighter every day. Those urchins who dropped you off will be back someday, someday soon.”

“What do you plan to do?” Adam asked, his personal troubles forgotten for the moment.

Frear smiled and again Adam thought that, when smiling, the water-folk wasn’t so bad. “Trying to do anything as a group is impossible in Tiskaloo. Now, mind you, I’m not questioning the wisdom of the zigga. But sometimes it is hard to manage with everyone so intent on honoring themselves first. So, I plan to put my opinion in the water with everyone else’s and hope that we all come to swim the same current. Presently, however, I plan to find a place for you and the fish to stay.”

“My name is Spot.”

“Spot fish,” Frear returned. Frear opened the door where the commotion continued, then squeezed in, leaving Adam and Spot alone.

“Adam, are you OK?”

“Why didn’t you tell me, Spot? You knew.”

“I didn’t know you didn’t know! How do I know what humans teach each other?”

Though angry, Adam recognized that Spot was right. How would the fish know?

“There’s got to be land, Spot. Frear hasn’t swam through all of Ocean.”

“Yes, that seems true. But, Adam, I’ve never heard of any actual land either, only in stories.”

“Well, somebody’s got to know something.”

“That somebody isn’t here,” chimed a voice from above Adam and Spot. Ramata sat on a rooftop, looking down on them. “You won’t get two shells of knowledge from a Tiskaloon.”

“What do you mean?”

“Knowledge is subjective here. That means that when the world presents a fact — this coral is hard — ,” the water-folk rapped knuckles on the roof top, “ — then each and every explanation that interprets that fact is OK by Tiskaloo. Then comes debate and talk and discussion and committee then, finally, after enough people have their say, we reach an agreement.”

“Well, that’s not too bad a place to be. Probably pleases a lot of people.”

Ramata floated off the roof-top and sunk to Adam’s level. “It is a bad place to be when you’re trying to decide how you should defend your people and need to act fast.”

“We have the same problem where I come from. We debate and vote and it all works out in the end.”

“And where did that get you?” Ramata wanted to know. “Look, you can’t ask, ‘Is there any land?’ of a Tiskaloon because no one ever bothers to check whether there is any land or not. They just talk about it and since enough have agreed that land doesn’t exist – land doesn’t exist!”

“I knew it!” Adam cried. “There could be land.”

“There could be. Could not be, too. That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?” piped Spot, who grew tired of these word games when he wasn’t with his school.

“The point is that any Tiskaloon will give you their opinion and expect you to consider that as some truth about Ocean beyond Tiskaloo even though most have never even been that far outside of Tiskaloo. But, you aren’t supposed to ask them how they know what they know. It isn’t considered proper to question their opinion. The point, Spot, is this: we don’t know for certain.”

Adam was close to pulling out his hair in frustration. Ramata just smiled and looked at Adam, Spot, and the door Frear swam behind. “They are discussing you staying here in Tiskaloo and you’ll never learn whether there is land or not.”

“Do you know?” Adam sarcastically asked.

“Haven’t any idea. But I’m not afraid to admit it either.”

“Oh, great,” said Adam. “That helps.”

“You didn’t let me finish. I don’t know, but I know someone who might. And this certain someone will at least give you an answer with some kind of evidence.” Ramata nodded toward Frear’s door. “Which is a lot more than I can say for the answers you’ll get here.” Ramata finished her sentence and the door opened up. Frear swam out with an armload of supplies, a kelp quilt, a brush to scrub the fins of Adam’s tail pants, and a key carved from coral.

“C’mon,” Frear said. “I’ve found you a place to stay.” Then Frear noticed Ramata. “Ah, good. You can escort our guest. Grey Hole, Never-Dry Burroughs. Do you know the one?”

“Of course,” she answered. “Follow me.” Ramata led the pair away from Frear and back towards the city center. Frear called out, “I’ll be by later to check in on you, Adam.”

In a quiet breath, Ramata said, “Clueless,” and continued on. Adam and Spot followed, Adam’s hands full of the gear Frear gave him.

“That was kind of him,” Spot said.

Abruptly, Ramata called back, “Do you want to find out if there’s any land left coming out of Ocean?” The water-folk paused to let them catch up.

Adam answered, “I thought you said that no Tiskaloon could give us a real answer.”

“No one in Tiskaloo can. We’ll have to find the answer elsewhere.”

“But Frear said they might be able to help.”

“Frear is distracted by all that’s going on with the Urchin Army. They may be able to help, but not for some time. Until then, all they can do is make you comfortable.”

“So what can you do?” Spot asked. “My school has also never heard of land.”

“And has your school talked with a Turtle?” snapped Ramata.

“NowehavenotandIseriouslydoubtyouhaveeithercomeonAdamwater-folkleadingusonawildgoosechase.”

“No, I’m not leading you on a chase. I know where a Turtle lives and I can take you both there. If anyone knows anything about land above Ocean, that salty, old thing does.”

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!”

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 to 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 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 and 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.”

“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.”

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?”

“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.

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 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.

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.”

Chapter 15
Should You Ever Go Looking for a Turtle…

Adam winced when Ramata touched his foot. “Ow!”

“It’s going to hurt! Be still.”

“How bad is it?”

“I’ll tell you later. Hold your breath,” Ramata said. They took a piece of seaweed from a belt pouch and tied it around the wound, cinching it tight. “This should stop the bleeding, but it’s going to hurt for a long while. Not much I can do about that.”

Tears welled again in Adam’s eyes as he contorted his body around in an attempt to see the shark bite. “This suit is a pain sometimes.” He gave up to rest and floated down to the floor of the room.

“I am so glad to see you two.”

“We didn’t realize we’d lost you until we got to the ship,” Ramata said. The water-folk swam about the room swishing the water as much as possible. “I’m trying to get rid of this blood,” Ramata replied to quizzical looks from Adam and Spot.

“We turned around, Adam, and no you! What happened?”

Adam looked at Spot. “You went too fast, I guess. You went too fast and didn’t wait.”

“But we agreed to keep at it until we arrived.”

“You’re here now, Adam,” Ramata reminded him.

“I know, I know. It’s not your fault. I’m scared, that’s all.”

“The good thing is: this is where we need to be.”

“What?”

“This is it. The Turtle is here. Well, not here, in this room, but in this ship. We just have to find it.”

“Ramata, this ship is huge,” argued Spot. “How’re we supposed to find the Turtle?”

Ramata opened the door a crack and stuck their head partway out. “We start by looking,” they whispered. “Looks clear for now. Adam, can you swim?”

“I don’t know. Spot, is my foot still bleeding?”

“Umm…looks all right. Ramata, are you sure those sharks are gone?”

“No, but they’re not right outside anymore, slamming against the door. And that’s about the best we can hope for. Adam, if you can swim, we should go.”

“I can try.”

Ramata was out the door without a word. The water-folk swam along one of the ship’s decks and followed it to a large opening into the ship’s interior. Ramata swam into the ship and and down three flights of a wide stairwell. Adam and Spot followed close behind the water-folk. All were nervous and silent, wary of the sharks. The interior of the ship was grim and dark; precious little light came through from above.

“Get in close. Don’t lose me.”

“Do you know where you’re going?” whispered Spot.

“Well, I know where I’ve been and where I saw the Turtle the last time. Now be quiet.”

Ramata led them down one more flight of stairs to swim in front of a pair of brass-handled, double wide, swinging doors.

Spot whispered, “What’s in there?”

“Soon, we’ll be.”

“Is that where the Turtle is?”

“I hope so,” Ramata said and pushed the doors open.

Inside the room Adam saw row upon row of chairs covered with torn, red fabric from which leaked bundles of dull, cream-colored and rotting padding. The rows sloped downward and at the bottom of the room they saw an elevated wooden platform. This used to be one of the ship’s theaters. The curtains that once covered the stage now hung in red, ragged strips, rotting like the chairs. The stage itself was riddled with holes and cracks. Adam wondered how long the ship had been under water.

“So now what?” he asked the other two.

“Well, I don’t know. Wait, I guess.”

“You don’t-. Spot, Ramata doesn’t know. All this way and Ramata doesn’t know what’s next…,” Adam shrugged his shoulders and swam down into a row of seats. He found one that was still mostly upholstered and tried to sit down in it despite his constricting swim suit. Spot swam up to the top of the room and back down again. Ramata moved to one corner of the theater and stayed there, quiet. No one talked. Adam sat in his seat, looked at the stage, and tried to imagine the shows that once graced it. He dreamed up dance numbers, magic acts, and smile-soaked songs. After a while, the noise in his head became overwhelmed by the lonely silence around him.

“What are we doing here, Ramata?”

“I told you, Adam. We’re-”

“We’re waiting, we’re waiting. Well, what’re we waiting for? That’s what I wanna know! There’s nothing here but us and those sharks outside!”

“Who, if you don’t quiet down, will hear you, Adam. Sshh. Remember how I first found you in Ocean?” Spot said.

Adam thought back to what seemed like years ago. He replied, much more quietly, “Yes. I remember.” The sharks were the last things he wanted around. His foot hurt so bad it was all he could do to not complain about it. “But, look, we’re just sitting here doing nothing.” He clenched his teeth and let the words struggle to get out from between them. “Ugh. I’m sick of waiting.”

Ramata looked all around the theater, confused yet interested.

“Adam, what was this floater?”

“This ship?”

“This ship, yes, this room, this thing. What did humans do here?”

“Well, people would pay to get on this ship and travel on top of Ocean. We called it ‘going on a cruise.’”

On the water?!” Spot blurted. “You never went in the water?”

“Oh sure. At the beaches, or in pools – but never this far under and never for very long. Some people did, I guess, but not as many as took cruises.”

“So, they cruised on the water, then what?”

“Then, whatever the wanted, I guess. Play games, lay out in the sun, watch people perform in rooms like this. Anything but work.”

“But somebody worked here, right? I mean, somebody had to guide the ship. And cook? And clean?”

“Oh, sure, a whole crew of people ran the ships.”

“So, what did those people do when they didn’t want to work?”

Hmm…I dunno, take a train ride maybe?”

“What’s a train?” Spot asked.

Think of it like a ship on land.”

“Strange.”

“Not too humans. We like to take time off doing what we do every day to try out new things.”

“But why take a land ship if you worked all day on a water ship?”

Adam didn’t have an answer.

“Were there many of these ships?” asked Ramata.

Spot spoke up . “This isn’t the first floater I’ve seen. First one I’ve ever been in though.”

“Ramata, what are we waiting for?” Adam tried to bring them back to their point for being there in the first place.

“Were there many of these ships?” Ramata asked again.

“Oh, jeez, I dunno,” Adam replied, annoyed. “A hundred maybe?”

“Oh…”

Adam noticed a hint of uncertainty in Ramata’s voice. “What, Ramata? What is it?”

“It’s just…well, I thought…I hoped this was the only ship.”

“Why?”

“Um, what if a Turtle isn’t in this one?”

“You don’t know if there is a Turtle is in this ship? You brought us here to see a Turtle, right?”

“Well, maybe it doesn’t live here, and goes from floater to floater – if there were so many of them. Maybe that’s how Turtles stay  hidden, keep their bubbles of mystery around them, you know? Or maybe Turtles just get tired of the same old floaters all the time and go to new ones, looking for new things.”

Adam’s face turned pink then red. The ocean water flushed cool against his warm, angry face.

Spot warned, “Don’t yell, Adam.”

“I’m not going to yell,” Adam said, his voice rising anyway. He turned that voice towards Ramata. “Where’s the Turtle, Ramata? You brought us all the way out here. My foot is ruined! And I still don’t see anyone or anything that can help me find land!” He swam over and got in Ramata’s face. “Where’s the Turtle?!”

Adam grabbed Ramata by the shoulders. Ramata turned and bit his fingers. “Don’t you ever do that to me!” The water-folk swam away. “I didn’t guarantee you anything. How could I?”

“Children,” came a voice from behind them.

“Shut up, Spot!” both of them yelled out, still glaring at each other.

“Uh, that wasn’t me,” said Spot from above them. “Look. There on stage.”