This story is by Thomas Heaven and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Thomas Heaven (1714 words)
Three to four foot swells this morning. A little choppier than Alex liked, but he knew that once he slipped beneath the waves, it wouldn’t seem so rough. He opened the valve on his tank, checked the pressure gauge, put his mouthpiece in, and held his mask tight to his face before falling backward off the Boston Whaler. He left his spear gun in the boat as he would be looking for lobster and knew that as soon as a lobster dies, the flesh turns to mush. His gloved hands were all that would be needed to pick them up and toss them in the boat.
His weight belt overcame the buoyancy of his body fat, and he gradually sank into the warm water of Waimanalo Bay. A familiar, intense sense of tranquility washed over him. No other activity in his life made him feel as serene as this weightless flight through the ocean water.
One troublesome consideration did threaten to disrupt the enjoyment of this dive, however. He knew he was violating the primary tenet of scuba diving; “Never dive alone.” His usual dive buddy, Ben, called him this morning and canceled. He said he was experiencing a bad case of “party punishment” from the excesses of the night before.
Alex didn’t worry about diving alone here, though. He had been diving this reef for many years and was familiar with every square inch. He knew all the holes where Morays were often found with their head and ferocious teeth protruding. More importantly, he knew exactly where to look to find lobsters hiding between the outcroppings of coral and the sand below. He didn’t know if lobsters slept or not, just that they would be still in their deceptive hiding places in the sand at the edge of the reef. The coral above them provided a relatively safe haven to get some rest after a night of roaming the nearby open ocean floor searching for scraps of food.
Even more reassuring were the multitudes of colorful reef fish species. There were large grouper and parrot fish, several varieties of butterfly fish, angel fish, and trigger fish, to name just a few. The numerous schools of these fish were witness to the fact that the thickness and length of the reef prevented sharks from making this a hunting ground.
Only rarely did a storm with large enough waves allow a shark to surf over the reef and into the leeward side where they became a problem for surfers and smaller fish. When that happened, the Park Rangers took their boat out and herded the predator two miles to the closest opening in the coral, where it immediately headed out to deeper water.
As Alex swam slowly along, just over the sand, he saw a large shadow ahead. Visibility was only fair today, so he couldn’t tell how far away it was. There had been a strong storm three days ago, so at first, he thought another shark might have washed over. When he noticed that the shadow was not moving, he relaxed and continued swimming toward it.
When he was close enough, he saw that the mass was a large piece of coral which must have broken off during the storm. Directly above, there was a hole where it must have been knocked loose.
He took out one of his light sticks and crushed the outer capsule. The light it produced allowed him to look inside the hole. He was surprised to see that it was the opening to a cave. It must have taken hundreds of years for the coral to cover this fissure.
The lack of a dive buddy now became more significant. It was one thing to dive solo in familiar, safe waters but quite another to explore unknown caves by yourself.
Alex thought, “What the hell, I might just as well continue. There shouldn’t be any wildlife in there since the opening had been blocked by that coral.”
He reached and found that the opening was large enough to accommodate him and his scuba gear, so he carefully swam in.
“The sides of the cave appear to be relatively smooth, and composed of rock, so this can’t be just a gap in the reef formation. It must have been here first. It seems to be tapering somewhat. The surrounding wall is getting closer. I wonder how far in I can go?
It’s getting tighter, but it is still open up ahead. I can hear rock scraping the side of my tank. I am going to have to back up to get out of here. If I can…just…turn…this way…a little. Oh, I am through. The hole has opened into a cave. My exhaust bubbles show me that the ceiling is not very high above, but as I swim down, the floor appears to be a good twenty feet below me.
I should get a feel for how big this cave is. If I swim with my hand against a wall and keep an eye on my pressure gauge, I can go for a while, then return, with my other hand on the other wall, until I have a little more than half a tank remaining. I will keep going in that direction until I get back to the opening… I seem to be going on forever. Wait! That is the same outcropping of rock that I passed a while ago.
That means I have gone around in a circle. This entire cave can’t be more than approximately fifty yards wide. Shit! If I have been traveling in a circle, I should have gone by the opening. I have been swimming along the same plane as when I entered but haven’t seen it.
My light stick is getting dimmer. Thankfully I have brought plenty.”
Alex crushed another light stick and followed the fluorescent glow to the top of the cave then went down again feeling the surface of the wall trying to find the opening through which he had entered. He followed this routine until he returned to the familiar outcropping of rock. When he realized that he had not found the opening, he began to panic and started just swimming round and round pushing along the wall and thinking that he was trapped in the cave.
He suddenly became aware that he was breathing too fast, and knew his air would run out much too quickly if he continued hyperventilating. He forced himself to hold his breath and count to five before exhaling, then repeated this pattern until he regained his composure and started thinking about his wife and baby back home. He looked at his pressure gauge again and saw that he had just under a half tank left.
He continued to move along the wall, pushing outward as he went. Praying that he would be able to find the opening while remembering why it was so important for him to survive.
I remember how Jeannie looked on our wedding day. How my heart raced as I waited for her to walk down that aisle. Knowing it was beating rapidly, not from nervousness but from my physical response to her beauty. Her beauty was not just skin deep. She was a truly beautiful person. As devoted as any woman could be. She always strives to make me happy in every possible way.
One of the most wonderful things she did for me was to make me the father of a lovely baby girl. How many times have I felt proud and grateful for the two amazing girls in my life?
I have got to get out of here!
Oh no! my pressure gauge is under a quarter of a tank. I have to hurry and find that damn hole!
With every frantic inhalation and exhalation, he became more and more aware of how little time he had left. He swam faster and faster no longer thinking about how much air he had left, only about the possibility that he would never see his family again.
Suddenly his light stick revealed a bright green something near the cave roof. As he got closer, he saw that it was a piece of something stuck on the coral. It looked like the yellow of the “Full” labels that the dive shop put on scuba tanks to keep them separate from those waiting to be filled, but this was green. Then it hit him, the blue light made the label look green but it was yellow, and it must have come from his tank when it scraped against the coral on his way in.
When he pushed hard against the coral and rock just below the piece of label, it started to give way. He backed up kicked and pushed as hard as he could, the obstacle suddenly dropped out of the opening. He was then able to swim out by twisting in the reverse direction from when he entered.
He dropped down to the sand below just as he took in the last gasp of air left in his tank. He had remained shallow enough during the entire ordeal that he did not require any de-pressurizing stops and was able to shoot directly to the surface.
While hanging on the side of his boat, he started thinking, “How could that large coral plug get from the sand where I left it, back up to cover the hole? That must have been a two-legged culprit that sealed me in. But why? I don’t know anyone who wishes me harm. The only thing I have of value is my family.”
He drove his boat back and beached it on the shore while he got his truck and backed the boat trailer into the water. He then pushed the boat out and floated it over the bed of the trailer.
On his way home he kept thinking over and over, “Who could it have been?” He did not come up with an answer until he pulled into his driveway and parked behind Ben’s car.
When he got out of the truck, he reached into the back and picked up his spear gun. He put a spear into the slot as he entered the house and heard Jeannie moaning with pleasure.