“You sure you want to do this? I can wait,” Jack glances over at her, and the hunger in his brown eyes betrays him.
“I’ll be fine,” Natalie swallows bile rising in her throat and throws a half-hearted smile at her younger brother.
But Jack isn’t even looking for the tell-tale signs he has always been so careful to accommodate. His desire surpasses her comfort, and Natalie closes her eyes tight and counts to ten. She’ll have to get to “fine” pretty soon.
Natalie curls her tremoring hand into a thumb down before kicking her legs out and plunging backward into the water. It is the only way she can go in: without looking.
Once she is in the water, her anxiety subsides. The sea is warm, a crisp, sheer blue that wraps around her like Jack’s baby blanket. There is nothing scary down here. It looks darker from the surface, like something could be hiding, waiting.
It is easy to imagine Cthulhu lurking when you’re standing on the boat. In reality, the monster would be as out-of-place in the sea as a grizzly bear at a tea party.
Natalie kicks her legs, propelling herself forward. She glides through the water like she should be down here, like this is her world. Jack darts next to her, his slim body a dark streak against the blue. His hand forms a circle.
Natalie returns the signal, her circle smaller, somehow dainty in the black neoprene gloves.
Jack takes the lead down to the Coin.
He discovered the Coin on an ill-advised solo dive two weeks ago. When he returned, he dropped the GoPro on Natalie’s stomach, savasana interrupted with a startled belch of air.
‘You have to see this,’ Jack said. They watched the video together, hunched over the miniature screen. Natalie’s back had begun to ache by the time the Coin appeared.
At first, it was a faint light, a glowing pinprick in the distance. As Jack got closer, the video revealed a narrow circular passage in the gray rock wall, the water illuminated so it shone a brilliant blue in the dark.
‘You have to come with me. We have to see where it goes,’ Jack had said. And Natalie had simply nodded, not sure to what she had agreed.
As they dive deeper, the water shifts to a thick, sapphire blue. Jack’s headlamp cuts on ahead of her. Natalie clicks hers on as well, startling a nearby school of fish that glint silver in their exit.
Jack called it the Coin because he said it was more metallic in person, and because he felt lucky finding it. Like it was a penny, heads-up. Natalie asked him why he didn’t call it the Penny, and he rolled his eyes and said it wasn’t orange.
Natalie sees the glow ahead of her and understands what her brother meant. It is still that brilliant blue color, but shot through with an earthy shimmer, like looking at the inside of a geode.
They hover in front of it, and the circle exceeds their shared width. If they spread their arms out as wide as possible, the Coin would still eclipse them. It has grown since her brother was down here. In Jack’s video, they would have had to swim one following the other. Now they can swim side-by-side.
Or they could have, if Jack had not already gone into it.
Natalie follows him, but he is moving too fast. She is closing the distance, but she will not be able to catch up and swim next to him — at least, not without overexerting herself and using too much oxygen.
Jack’s body arches back and he pauses, floating in a kind of bent crouch. Natalie swims closer and his eyes grow wide, terrified. She shakes her head, confused.
His hand goes flat, the fingers spread wide. In a slow, stiff arc, Jack moves it back and forth.
Something is wrong.
Natalie reaches out, her grip tightening around Jack’s wrist. She pivots as an electric current pulses into her. Her body contorts and Natalie shivers with that pins-and-needles sensation, like she has gone numb and feeling has just returned to her body.
Next to her, Jack remains limp. His eyes dart in fear, long eyelashes fluttering. He floats, tethered only by Natalie’s hand. She drags him behind her, pulling the two of them back through the passage in long, labored strokes.
Her left arm feels like it will seize and give out, but the rest of her body quits before it gets the chance. Natalie’s vision comes to a point as the blue fades and the world shifts to a white, cotton ball haze.
Something bubbles near the shore. Lii’s sharp face snaps to attention. Her icy eyes sweep over the surface of the cove until she spots the shapes in the gray.
Two figures stand near the rocky point. They wear tight, oily black clothes and turn in drowsy circles, gauging their surroundings with muffled shouts. Wrangling tubes and canisters, the two figures look bulky against the smooth surface of the lake.
The smaller one points at the forested hills on the other side of the cove. Lii can tell from the noises that they are confused, frantic. They grow louder when they remove their masks, their screams echoing. They are sharp and painful, like the bloody bellows of wounded game.
Lii has never seen interlopers emerge from the portal before, but she is ready. She scans the horizon and turns, eying the forest close to her section of shoreline. Birds caw in the dense trees and she is still safe. The beast has not yet heard the interlopers’ call, but soon it will. And it will answer in death.
She picks up her spear and marches forward.