There was something about the water of Blooming Lake that frightened me when I was younger. The lake seemed to stretch on forever to the other side of the bay, and I had often wondered if it went as far down, too. I was always imagining what was down there—sharks, snakes, crocodiles lying in wait for a small child to step into their hungry mouths. I mean, I knew I was in Kansas, but I was also just a kid back then. Never did I think I'd actually find out.
"Hey, piggy. You ready to break some waves?" James said, standing over the picnic table, fist raised.
"Uhm, I'd rather stay here," I replied, inching my book closer to my face as if it would protect me from my brother's words or wrath. I was a husky kid, and James would never let me forget it.
All I wanted was to stay at our campsite and keep reading, but I was stuck with him and my step-dad that day.
"C'mon, stop being such a pussy." James punched my shoulder, propelling a sharp blow. He was bigger, meaner, older, and most days it felt like he genuinely hated me. My arm stung something awful so I decided to fight back, which, as always, made everything worse. It was only when Tom—my step-dad—arrived back did he let off.
Tom had just bought himself a jet ski earlier that year and was dying to finally try it out. Camping out at Blooming Lake was the only time I felt like I ever saw him enjoy himself. At home, he was quiet, reserved, and often kept to himself the garage, except when he'd have to pull me and my brother apart, which was quite often.
"Hey! Cut it out!" Tom shouted, his beer belly ready to separate us. He was already in his swim trunks, something that immediately worried me.
"He started it."
"What? No, I didn't—"
"Enough. I don't want to hear it. Both of you. Go change now."
James scoffed, grabbed his bag, then went off to the bathrooms.
"We're not waiting for mom?"
"No, your mother will join us later this afternoon; she's running late."
"Oh. Well, can I stay here and wait around till she gets here or till you and James get back? I'll watch our stuff." By stuff, I meant my book, my bag, and some s'mores ingredients I had unpacked because other than that, our campsite was empty.
"No, you're coming with us. When your mother gets here later with the rest of it we'll set up tents. Now get movin' like your brother."
Arguing with him was pointless. So, defeated, and with what felt like no way out, I went to the bathrooms to change; tip-toeing around the stall I could hear James rummaging around in.
Afterward, we got into his truck and drove down to the docks, where the hulking machine bobbed in the water. Sunlight shimmered off the lake, refracting a sunflower incandescence everywhere around me. The air smelled of tackle box, bait, and sunscreen. Mosquitos buzzed and lapped at my ears in a rhythm that mimicked the crashing of waves against the docks; hypnotic waves formed by far-off boats and other vehicles, which by the time rolled in were little more than tides at the pool.
I slid my water shoes on and walked down the ramp towards the dock where Tom and my brother were. I remember watching bass nearby make ripples in the water then vanish. At least, I think they were bass.
Tom was sitting in the front seat of the machine messing with some ropes while James kicked at the water and fiddled at his life jacket–something I had forgotten up until that point.
"Wait," I said to both of them, stumbling onto this revelation. "I don't have my jacket. I think it's in mom's car."
For a moment then, I thought myself the luckiest kid alive, but it was short-lived as Tom pulled off one of the leather seat cushions behind him and tossed me a spare.
"Nice try, piglet," James sneered.
"Hey, shut it!" Tom said, wrapping the anchor up into the seat, placing the cushion back on top.
My heart sank as I held the foam orange life preserver in my hands. I was trapped, cornered, desperate. It was now or never, so I decided to put my heart on the line and cast it out.
"Please, Tom, I really don't want to go," I said, "I don't like the water out here."
"Freakin' baby, I swear," James said.
I didn't care. Call me any name you wanted; just don't call me Ishmael.
Tom's sigh sounded more like a groan as he rubbed the bald spot of his head. Pearls of sweat glistened off it. "Listen," he said, "my friend Roland is out here today; you remember him? Let's go meet up, and we'll head over to his camp afterward. Maybe even go fishing or cook up some dogs while we're there, alright?"
"How long do you think it will take?"
"How long do you think it will take before we're at his camp? Five minutes? Ten?"
"It will take as long as it has to. Now come on, you're burning daylight."
I remember struggling to put the life jacket on. I recall Tom shaking his head at me while James laughed. It was much too big. Even after tightening its straps it felt like it could slip off at any moment. I wish I had said something then, but before I knew it they were ready to go and waiting on me.
I was reluctant to hold onto James, for fear he would try to kick me off, so instead, after climbing on, I spun around to face the rear where the nozzle was. This handlebar morphed out from the edge of the seat, and though it was awkward to grab, it was something. When the engine of the machine started, it and I became inseparable. The engine bellowed with this droning chug-like sound that only grew more intense the more Tom throttled the gas. Before I knew it, we were passing this large sign wading in the marina that read, "SLOW NO WAKE," as the docks behind us shrank into a blur of sun, sky, and light.
At first, it actually wasn't too bad. It was kind of like riding the back of the bus where the occasional road bump would rise one off their seat. Once I got used to that and the chugging sound anyway. The engine of the machine was overwhelming, like a gang of motorcyclists all on its own. If Tom or my brother had ever said anything to me, I probably wouldn't have been able to hear it.
I had this vast, strange, and somewhat beautiful view of the sky and lake converging into one, with only the occasional tree line or nimbus cloud to interrupt. The jet split the water beyond me like Moses parting the sea, creating this tessellating pattern in its wake. Each splash a kaleidoscope of rainbow color.
And then we started to go faster. And faster. My fingers dug into the handlebar. My knuckles turned red. I was rising higher off my seat with each wave we struck, bouncing up and down like some ragdoll. I tried to plant my feet, but they slid. The front of the jet ski continued to rise— accelerating at tremendous speeds. When the water hit my face, it was no longer a splash, no longer beamed with color, but an icy slap from an uncaring body.
"Stop!" I shouted, failing to turn my head. No one heard me, but between the tumultuous roar of the engine and the piercing wind, I could hear James's laugh.
It was then that we hit the wave. I think Tom must have turned sharply following another boat's wake, but I'm not sure. I didn't see. I remember it came out of nowhere, though, and the next thing I knew, I was skyward, flying off the jet ski that hung twenty feet in the air and out of my life jacket.
Images flashed before my eyes: my last birthday, trick candles that refused to go out, James mashing my face into vanilla icing, an empty bottle of Aloe Vera, the smell of pencil shavings on the dark side of a beach. Gravity brought me back from wherever I went. Back tumbling into the present and into the deep unknown.
It swallowed me.
It swallowed me whole, spitting me out blind, wet, and without a modicum of breath. Sinking down, down, and further down into darker depths, and that's when I saw it—collecting light from the bottom, a great city illuminating the depths around me. Pyramids bathed in golden light. Towers with walkways churning like giant eels. Highways blinking like slot machines from a casino strip or stars burning within a night sky. It looked holy, sacred, like it was on fire. A city made of brass and gold, entirely alive, yet hidden beneath the surface of some lake in Kansas.
It wasn't heaven, I don't think. I don't know what it was.
An arm pulled me out of the water then. It was Tom's. He looked more scared than I did. We had to flip the jet ski back over while in the water, something surprisingly difficult to do. Thankfully, some other boaters had seen what had happened and came out to help us.
By the time my mom arrived that afternoon, Tom had asked me to keep our little outing a secret. Later that day, I sat with my mom at the beach, reading our books. I recall staring out onto the lake, trying to make sense of what I had seen earlier, asking her if there had ever been a city out here, one where the lake now was. I remember she looked up at me and smiled 'possibly.'
My imagination was free of sharks, snakes, and crocodiles. I knew what was at the bottom and how far it went down. And something about that made me less afraid. I didn't move from that spot until sunset. I just stared out onto the water contemplating the city beneath the lake.