Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
When we were kids, there was this game my sister and I used to play – more of a challenge really. It wasn’t anything crazy, in fact it was the sort of innocent dare you’d expect from a kid. But we gave it its own name, and any time we went swimming near a large body of water – on a beach or lake – we’d always play the game which we called, Touch The Bottom…
Now, I’m sure you’re ahead of me here, but if you can’t tell by its name, the goal of the game was simply to “touch the bottom” of wherever you were swimming. You might be thinking “why?” – well we were kids, and kids get bored. But also, the game offered a unique kind of thrill. If you’ve ever been swimming – and I mean swimming in natural water, the kind of water you can’t quite see all the way through – then you know what I mean. Floating over the darkness, above the unknown, it can make you uneasy. But diving into it, now that’s something else.
The biggest hurdle to something like that, isn’t the physical exertion. If you wanted, you could dive off a buoy or boat and let physics do most of the work. No, the real challenge was all mental. Like jumping off a high ladder board, it’s making the choice to go. But the difference here is it’s all happening in slow motion, and every inch you’re making that choice again – give up or go further. Because even after that initial dive, there’s no guarantee you’ve made it. If you were lucky and the water was shallow, you’d come up with a rock or handful of sand in a matter of seconds. But if the water was deeper than that, you’d make that initial plunge and find yourself frozen…
All your momentum has stalled and when you reach out, there’s nothing there. Nothing except the sense that within any direction there might be something. But how far? An inch? A foot? A mile?
How much further would you have to go? How much further would you go?
And that’s the question. That’s the game. Because as soon as you’ve touched the bottom, it’s over. Relief strikes as you feel the sandy floor. You kick off, and now you’re like a balloon, suddenly carried by the air that you thought had already left your lungs.
Well, me and my sister, we got pretty good at our little game. We may not have always touched the bottom but with every dive our confidence reached further. Still, there was one place where we never played.
Nyona Lake was the scene of our annual family reunion. Hidden off a highway exit that’s easy to miss, the small town circled a lake larger than itself. On a map, the town looked like a puddle surrounded by farmland.
Our family owned one of the cabins by the water and even had its own boat dock. Now if that sounds like I’m bragging, believe me I’m not. The cabin was more like a barracks in both function and fashion, and typically held an audience past its maximum capacity. And our sailing situation was nothing more than a well-worn pontoon. But if our want was luxury, we would have booked a cruise. Truly, Nyona Lake was Nyona Lake for family, and like family it came bundled with all its imperfections – such as the diner down the street whose owners and name changed every year, or the pizza place with the ever-shrinking arcade, and least to be forgotten, the lake itself.
Why would we never dive under Nyona Lake? A better question might be “why would we swim there at all?”
The murky green water offered more reason to stay on land than to ever dip a toe. Signs scattered around the lake warned of several subsisting species whose appearances leaned Lovecraftian. And once every few years the shores bloomed with a toxic blue algae.
If we caught the boat, we might have been escorted to a section of water removed from these visible concerns. But if we were slow or last in line, we’d have to swim out there on our own, passing through the slimy shallows that tickled with seaweed and gunk. However, once out there we were content to float… and only float.
Because beneath a foot of water, you were gone. A black curtain as deep and dark as space concealed anything below our brightly colored floats. And just like space the water grew colder the deeper you went.
According to my sister, Nyona was once a dumping ground for the Chicago mob. I discarded the claim as just another rumor, though the lake certainly would be prime for disposing of any evidence… or people, for that matter. I shuddered at the thought of dying that way, dragged under the depths by concrete boots.
Well anyway, for all those reasons, Nyona Lake was the one place where we’d never play Touch The Bottom. That is until we did…
I’m not sure what made that day any different. Maybe the water was a little warmer. Maybe at twelve I thought I was brave. But for some reason, some way, I thought I’d attempt the impossible and touch the bottom of Nyona Lake.
It was midday. About ten of us were out on the lake. A few were on the boat, drying off and serving drinks, while the rest had drifted off into their circles, chatting and drinking and drinking even more. I was swimming beside my sister when I made my daring decision.
When I told my sister what I was about to do, she laughed. Of course, she thought I was joking. But as I climbed up the pontoon, she readjusted her floating chair.
I’d go with the classic pencil dive, as per usual. Diving headfirst had never been my thing, especially now when all was muck. And if there truly were skeletal remains at the bottom of Nyona, I’d let my feet find them first.
I approached the edge of the boat. It seesawed slightly, bending lower to the mossy-black water as if inviting me in. Standing like a statue, I stared down.
It couldn’t be that deep.
The thought was a poor substitute for courage, but I gripped it tight, took a deep breath, and jumped…
When I broke through the surface, there was a bitter shock. Like throwing off a warm blanket, cold water rushed around me, enveloping me in sharp, icy pins. I sank down and down like an empty bottle, until at last I stopped moving.
By my guess I had made it about 5 or 10 feet. I had my eyes closed – not like it would have helped in those dark waters – so I only had my experience to judge. Now came the hard part.
I kicked out my hands, still preferring to go feet-first, and descended even lower. The thought of loose seaweed or a stray fish made my toes crinkle up as I went down. Down and down, pushing myself deeper.
I was maybe 15 feet. 20? I knew offhand that the deepest point was purportedly 30 feet, but that meant little to nothing when measured in your head. The vague light beyond my eyelids had disappeared, hidden above the water. I felt the first thump in my lungs as they tested for air.
25 feet. Or maybe still 20. It was getting harder to tell. I knew if it was only a little more, I could still make it. 25. Just a little bit further. So close. My chest began to throttle, and I knew I was at my limit.
Still nothing. That should have been 30 feet…
Whatever, I needed air. Giving up, I began to ascend.
If I had only reached it, I could have kicked off the bottom. But at least now I had my legs to help me swim. Going up always feels so much faster, but at the same time it’s so drawn out. By the time you’ve expended half your air, your brain is flashing red. Yet the desire to rise compels you faster, so rarely are you running on fumes.
My lungs were pumping with anticipation. With each halted breath I pushed harder, swallowing the temptation to breathe. I was moving much faster now, kicking and swimming higher and higher and higher and higher and…
I’m not sure when it happened, or when I realized it was happening. Caught in such a primal loop it’s easy to ignore your thoughts, the rational ones at least, and it wasn’t like I was counting the seconds. But then I was…
The thought shot terror through me. It was taking too long to surface! Some microcosm of my brain fought to stay calm but now I was in a full-out frenzy. I kept swimming and swimming and swimming, trying to get out – by now I had tried opening my eyes, squinting to make out the distance… but it was all black.
No, that can’t be right!
My lungs were burning now, and I felt if I didn’t breathe the water might just stab right through my chest!
How!?! Did I go the wrong way!?!
It’s such a strange thing to question. You’d think I’d know up from down, but as all logic left me so did my equilibrium. Suddenly, I felt cast into a storm. I was shaken like a snow globe, the entire lake seemed to turn left, then right, then upside down! I might have vomited if I wasn’t so desperate for air.
I was losing control, my limbs resisting to move, exhausted.
I just… needed… to…
“. . . B R E A T H E . . .”
The voice was crushing, both in my lungs and mind. It wrapped around me, darkness strangling. There was nothing. I was nowhere. And I was no one…
Every thought, every feeling drained out of me, except for one… suffocation.
It was only instinctual, my body’s fight to survive, the will to hold out. It was impossible though, there’s no way I could have stayed conscious for that long. It was like I was being kept alive only to suffer, only to…
“. . . D R O W N . . .”
The voice shook me awake! The pitch-black water held a dagger to my throat, pressing for an opening, an opportunity, a single breath. That’s all it would take. If I breathed an ocean of ink would swarm my lungs and I would be out in an instant.
I had to keep fighting. Something inside me was screaming to survive, my heart pounding like a battering ram. I willed my limbs to move, to swim – it didn’t matter what direction, I just had to get out!
But I was weightless, stuck, the world around me turning into one of those nightmares where you run and run but go nowhere. Then the voice charged with the roar of a fighter jet.
“. . . B R E A T H E . . .”
It was no longer a request but a fierce demand. About this time my vision was failing – or maybe I was beginning to see. Like a static film over my eyes, hundreds and hundreds of stars appeared, speckling the grand nothingness, getting brighter, closer.
My lungs were reaching up my throat and pulling at my teeth. It took everything in me to control my movements. Convulsing tremors wrecked across my body making every action and every thought a monumental challenge. Yet somehow it felt like I was nearly free!
I felt the current of something HUGE swirl around me. The stars were orbiting closer on a collision course. There came a bellowing wave, a tsunami, rising impossibly fast with the weight of a whole ocean threatening to pull me back down!
I climbed onto the boat so fast it was like something had thrown me. I gasped for air only to find my lungs were intact. The exhaustion, the pain, all of it was suddenly gone. Wide-eyed I looked around to see everything as it was, family casually swimming on the water, undisturbed. I met my sister’s eyes. She stared at me, puzzled, then asked if I had done it, if I’d touched the bottom.
It was like no time had passed.
Did all of that really happen?
It took me a long time to process it all. It took me even longer to tell my sister. It wasn’t until we were both adults, when the memory of that day had lost its sting, that I confessed the truth. I had told myself it was all a delusion, just my overactive imagination, because nothing like that ever happened again, to me, or as far as I knew, anyone else in my family. Plenty of times we went back on Nyona Lake and every time we were fine.
I rehashed the story to my sister the same way you’d describe any memory of your childhood, with a bit of embarrassment and nostalgia. Of course, originally, I had lied and told her I touched some nasty seaweed before swimming back up. And I could tell she believed it, the same way she seemed to believe the new version of my story.
She gave a curious look, one that was uncertain yet fixed. She told me she vaguely remembers that moment and that she was looking down at the same time when I was coming up. And it was weird, she said, because for a second, just a second, the water glimmered, like it had a hundred stars.
Except “stars” wasn’t the word she used. She said the little orbs of light that blinked below me almost looked… like eyes…
When I used to swim in deep, dark water, I was afraid of touching the bottom…
Now I’m afraid it might touch me…
Created by Danny Ingrassia