The Deep Down
By Anna Zumbro
We’re so far out in the country that we can see the Milky Way, a smoky band of red and silver across a star-cluttered sky. Just like last night, I worry that the pool won’t be there, but it is, about fifteen feet from the edge of the service road, a perfect circle no wider across than my station wagon.
The inky surface reflects nothing. It’s stubborn and darker than death. “Let’s go.”
“Not yet,” my cousin Karina says. “You’re breathing too fast.”
“Quit nagging me.”
“You have to Let. Go. Okay?”
She’s trying to help, but she doesn’t know how to reach the Gate any better than I do. All we know is that there should be one at the bottom of the pool. The people who do know how to reach it don’t talk about it. News reports say they hardly talk at all, even to their families and friends. They come back different. Most importantly, they come back with a gift: self-healing architecture, a cure for Alzheimer’s, the type of amazing invention that gets your name boldfaced in history textbooks. Not that they care. They usually vanish after a few months, perhaps back to whatever paradise they found on the other side of the Gate.
Despite the breeze, the water doesn’t ripple. It smells like wet tree bark. I don’t remember it having a smell that first night two weeks ago. We were driving to my ex-boyfriend’s bonfire party to celebrate the end of junior year and our GPS led us here. Fate, I guess, but the pool disappeared and left us lying in the mud just seconds after we jumped in. Last night wasn’t much better.
Some people claim they went through the Gate and sell books or online courses teaching their secrets, the kind of thing advertised to insomniacs for three easy payments. You know they never got close when the only gift they have to offer the world is a highly mockable infomercial.
Karina bought an online course as soon as we found the pool. It’s better than nothing, she said. They say it only appears for you three times. “They” being the infomercial quacks. But I’ve never heard otherwise. Three tries, and tonight’s our third.
She entwines her pinky with mine the way we used to do in elementary school. We were born three weeks apart, and her bone marrow saved my life when we were twelve. We’re as good as twins. For a while we tried to look like it, too, matching shaved heads followed by matching purple hair when mine grew out enough, but Karina had to dye hers brown when she took a job as hostess at a swanky restaurant.
I inhale and exhale on counts of four while she keeps her eyes on the stars. Cygnus, she whispers. Aquila. She’s retaught me the constellations half a dozen times, but they never stick. We both say we’ll bring back a cure for cancer if we get a choice, but I know Karina. If the gift reflects your deepest wish, she’ll return and build a space elevator.
And then we jump, perfectly synced without a word spoken. I bend forward and hold my nose, breathing into it to equalize the pressure so I can swim deep down without my head hurting. The water rushes past me with a cool lightness, like air against the face of an alpine skier on an easy slope. It’s darker with my eyes open than with them closed.
I kick gently. No rush. My lungs feel tight but they’re not burning yet, and when I reach the Gate I won’t have to worry anymore. There must be air once you’re through the Gate. There has to be. Above water, I’d take slow breaths to calm my nerves, but here all I can do is keep kicking at a steady pace. I think the pool pushed me out last night because I tried to dive down too fast. Now it just surrounds me, unfathomable and promising and impossibly black.
My right hand touches icy metal. This is it! An air bubble escapes my lips as I twist and try to look up without losing my position. Karina, we made it!
Somewhere far above, I can see a small point of light, maybe a star or a planet. It twinkles, then vanishes. A whole world winking out of sight. I’m alone in the watery darkness with a dull pain in my chest and the touch of the Gate, so cold it burns.
Karina, don’t leave me like this. That wasn’t the plan.
There’s a ridge in the metal. All I have to do is pull. Instead I stretch my left hand back behind me, just in case.
The water pressure that I should have been feeling hits me fivefold all at once. Then I’m lying in a puddle of mud, gasping for oxygen.
“Natalie! It kicked me out right away, but I thought for sure you’d made it all the way down.”
It takes me a moment to find my voice. “No, I… I panicked.”
“At least we tried, you know? We could still cure cancer. People invented things before the pools showed up, right?”
“Absolutely.” I dig my fingers into the cool mud. They’re still burning. They feel like they’ll hurt forever. “Yeah, absolutely. We could do anything.”
After the darkness of the pool, the stars shimmer so bright and lovely that my eyes sting looking at them. A memory from last summer comes back to me: Karina shining a red flashlight on a star map, then tilting my face up. I point with my left hand, the one that doesn’t ache. “Cassiopeia, right?”
“What? Oh! That’s right!” She takes my hand and pulls me to my feet. I slide and stumble in the mud, but she catches me and lets me lean on her as we walk by starlight back to my car.