DIVING TO DEPTH
by JOE BECKER
al heaved his equipment bag upon the truck’s rusty tailgate and took a glance to the ashen sky. It was quarter past eight, the season of summer coming to an end in the foothills of the desolate western plains, tree insects claiming their final calls, crops wobbling on tired, ochre ground, sweat still sticking to grimy necks.
"Maybe half-hour before we go down, Sepi.”
"Alright then," replied Sepi readying his gear.
Sepi was only a nickname, given by Kal during one of his frequent barbecue cookouts. As the region’s only diving instructor, Kal felt all his students needed some kind of moniker, comfort in the relationship being the prime reason. Years of being a diving instructor taught him this, especially when it came to those destined for night-diving certification. After all, when you submerge yourself into complete liquid darkness with nothing but the stark beam from an unearthly light cutting the path in front of you, partner congeniality is paramount not only to your safety but your sanity. To Kal, the guy looked Italian, so “Sepi,” the first name that arose from his then-inebriated lips, was chosen.
For the same reason Kal slung out nicknames—a sense of camaraderie, bonding, good will—he'd hosted cookouts for many of his students over the years. Good grub, too. The very thought of which was beginning to ping around Sepi's echoing gut.
"So, time's the next feast, Kal?"
Kal shook his head. "Shoot, ain't no gas 'round for cooking. Damned place. Haven’t seen propane for weeks. Have to run fifty miles just for a tank. Or even charcoal. ‘Cause last time I checked, Meyer’s is clean the fuck out of both. They always say it's some kind of distribution thing."
“Yeah?...Plenty 'o wheat around, though.”
They both heard the sound—a thud followed by water crashing against itself—but neither thought enough of it, at the time, to interrupt their conversation. Sounds like these were common around the quarry, although more so when college kids were still around for summer. Rarely, however, was anyone near the quarry so close to twilight hours.
“Guess we can burn that. Got a big ass harvester?” laughed Kal.
Sepi looked from the quarry and the deep-blue, darkening by the minute, to the wide hole in the earth where he would soon be certified for nighttime diving. It was his last in a series of underwater certifications—only then could he get a license to become an undersea welder. At that point, he could move out, very far out, if one happened to look at working on oceanic oil platforms that way.
Kal stared out along with him, then flopped himself upon the tailgate. He launched spit to the dirt and furrowed his eyes.
"Kids. Rock jumping at this hour,” came his complaint. “Stupid, man. They can get caught on something down there. You better be careful, too. Happened before, trust me."
"Dumbasses," replied Sepi as a way of seeking his mentor’s approval.
They slipped into their wet suits, attached their buoyancy vests, slung their weights and tanks over their shoulders, and headed along the quarry's hardscrabble upper edge. Before long, Kal pointed down towards Monolith Rock, the local name given to the large abandoned slab that stuck out from the liquid like a shoreline glacier. It was their point of entry, and they turned into the narrow path that wound in its direction. The path was tight, shadowy at this hour, with only enough of the moon to distinguish the collection of debris strewn to its side by years of restless teens.
When they reached the rock’s edge, another thud resounded throughout the quarry with its sound waves lingering over the rippling water. It came from their left, from the other side of a steep rock isthmus jutting out over the quarry. They eyed each other, shaking their heads. So be it, they seemed to say, kids will be kids.
"Guess we'll have company," said Kal with resignation.
They dropped down on their backsides like a pair of penguins and slid along the smoothness of Monolith Rock, air tanks dragging behind them. When their feet found water, they adjusted their gear and came into their fins.
Kal peered at his student one last time, questioning his bravery and intent. The kid was solid, he thought, unfazed, cool as ice. Seemed like the perfect candidate—the type of guy that didn’t let much get to him. Levelheaded. Stolid, in both his manner and demeanor. Yes, he reckoned, he picked the right guy. The right guy, indeed.
When both were ready, they gave each other the thumbs up sign and donned their masks. They sucked in their mouthpieces, and without such as a waver, slid into the quarry.
Deep onyx enveloped them, disappearing their body parts inch-by-inch. In accordance with their dive plan, they descended slowly at first, progressing past tepid shallow waters and acclimating to the changing pressures and dropping temperatures. Ultimately, they reached the zones of depth that had never felt the warmth of the world.
Kal motioned for Sepi to stop with a signal of his hand. They held their position level and checked their gages under their bright flashlights. Fifty-plus feet. Kal threw out an O.K. signal and Sepi reciprocated in kind.
They hovered there a moment, surveying the surroundings, adjusting to the blackness and to their penetrating beams of light, as well as the shocking cold.
Sepi could almost feel the trauma of the water through his wetsuit. On top of that, he began to feel the ethereal openness of the space altering the connections of his brain. The water at this depth was almost incapacitating; his entire body subjected to a systemic brain-freeze. A three-millimeter wetsuit? Maybe that was too conservative, he realized. He'd have to tough it out though, a task not unfamiliar to Sepi. Block out the pain, he told himself, allow time for his body to spread his warmth throughout the his suit. Stay relaxed, keep breathing. Then rational thoughts would move in and begin to counteract the benumbing shock of the deep quarry waters.
But if there was any consolation to Sepi's burgeoning terror it was in the luminosity of his flashlight. It spread wide and bright, capturing small particles floating through the water, bringing them into relief against the endlessness spread out before him. He gave his beam a sweeping arc across the void—his way to reassure himself that the black beyond was indeed capable of taking in the rays of reality; that he wasn't entering into a realm of the complete unknown; that he wasn't submerging further into some underwater purgatory, to which his final fate was waiting.
He gave a downward tilt to his flashlight. The sobering light captured the jagged remains of excavation crews working many years ago, giving proof more than anything, that he wasn't inside a natural pocket of the earth. That he wasn't, in fact, caught within some otherworldly place. He scanned the bottom's surface, with his light highlighting the scattering of debris—bottles, cans, sheaths of plastic clinging to rock and tucked into crevices—which somehow gave him a sense of relief and comfort.
True, if Sepi's flashlight did provide a feeble sense of security to this liquid, hallucinatory world, it was still enough a crutch to allow him to steal away from his mentor, if only for a moment. As an independent type, the sense of aloneness often intrigued Sepi and pulled him into vicinities that even he couldn't foresee. It's what his mother often complained about—"your carefree meandering"—and his grade school teachers were right on board with this assessment, and with good reason; his strangeness was a magnet to the crueler children. He was always the last to enter the class from recess, preferring to stay longer in the woods alone. Wandering, exploring, discovering the new and foreign that the classroom couldn't offer.
His affliction (if that's what it was) was a bad case of wanderlust. An unshakable condition which became his identifying persona, and one that had stayed with him to this day. "You're such a rogue," he would often hear them say, "an aimless vagabond." In turn, Sepi became a sober-minded fellow, earnest and introverted, one who typically denied the fool-hearty their due and refused to take lightly the bullying ways of the world.
Sepi soon found himself favoring the direction of deeper and away, loosening with each graduated stroke the emotional bonds that attached him to his instructor. The emptiness around him drew him further into his beam of light, inescapably and inexorably, like a marble drawn into the nozzle of a vacuum.
Up ahead, a large abandoned hunk of quarried stone stood on end, a behemoth that resisted the earth's gravitational pull with every determination in its stubborn weight. Gray, cold, immovable; it resembled a wreck at sea that never correctly settled to the floor and Sepi was drawn by its magnitude, headed right towards it.
Kal noticed this drift and gave casual pursuit, idling briefly to record his gages. Time, depth, compass, oxygen levels. All was going according to plan, he determined.
Sepi figured the face of the off-kilter slab to be about seven feet across, nine high. He cornered around its left side. Kal took around its right. Their beams splitting it like divergent tracks of rail.
Again. Another sound penetrating the surface, echoing this time against the face of the massive stone. Distinctive and telling, and from the left. A heavier splash for sure. Even at fifty feet below it was no problem for them to accurately determine both its size and location.
Sepi buoyed himself higher and began heading in the direction of the splash. He couldn’t help himself, curiosity and impulsivity being a natural part of his constitution. Whoever the kid was, he needed to be seen, his body needed to be tinseled with a spectrum of light to verify his existence. Besides, he thought, there'd be nothing like shocking some punk kid braving his ability and temerity in the late summer hours of a darkened quarry. Nothing like assaulting his fragile nerves with a blast of light from the inhabitable depths below.
He cut off his light. Now only Kal's flashlight—veering somewhere behind him—illuminated the liquid world around them. Sepi knew the reveal had to come out of nowhere, so he swam further ahead and gave the dark a few seconds to grow, to expand into his consciousness. As it did, he questioned himself, his juvenile motives and the crass notion of fright in general. But he knew there was no turning back. Under the circumstances, the idea was too compelling, too inescapable. He was already visualizing the outcome, claiming the horror as foreordained. Kal would understand. Hell, he'd probably even appreciate the execution of the terror.
Sepi figured his depth was close to thirty feet, thirty-five at most. He swam further and higher, the water pulsing with thermal pockets of warmth he felt against his face. He edged closer to the region below the sound of the splash. Then he stopped.
"Now!" he said to himself. He pushed the button on his flashlight. A movement, swift and fleeting. It came against the furthest reaches of his light. Was he mistaken? Was it still descending? Only the craziest of kids would be diving down this far. That's it, he thought, I'll give it to him good.
Rising bubbles wavered in his light, giving him a jolt. The kid was still descending. Sepi swam faster, trying at once to understand the intent of this movement and whereabouts of his instructor. Then, while gazing past his own fluttering fins and looking through Kal's beam of light at depths twenty feet below, he instantly saw it.
The mass assembled on the quarry floor.
Incongruous and out of context.
With a head of light he descended, ever closer towards it.
It wasn't just one—if that was all, Sepi’s heart might not have skipped a beat—but a heap of them, their alabaster flesh peeling away in the current's easy sway. Skulls atop torsos, legs and arms twisted perversely around like tangled wire, soft white flesh mixed with even whiter bone. The fresher ones were amassed atop figures of indeterminable decay. All were quieted by their conjoined company, all except the school of bottom-feeding fish milling about and nibbling out cavities. Pecking at limbs that dangled with scraps of torn cloth. Hollowed skull holes, holes that once held eyes that held the world, stared blankly at him. From above, another thud. From behind, Kal's light, adding depth-of-field to a field of death. Cinder blocks, everywhere cinder blocks, holding the beings to their grave, keeping the crush and pile forever entombed.
A swiftly sinking human figure raced by, roped at its waist, fingers twitching with the water’s resistance. The lower edge of Sepi's light caught the figure's eyeballs, saw them briefly locking into his own. Alive? Possibly. Or tricks of a panicked eye. What he thought he saw though, if for only a split second, was a human being beckoning for succor, grasping for one last moment of existence. He couldn’t give that to him, no, he reckoned he could only give that to himself.
In a frenzy, he headed to the quarry's surface with Kal trailing directly behind. They surfaced at Monolith Rock, slamming themselves atop its slope like sea lions under pursuit. They threw out their arms and heaved their chests and gripped as tight as the slickness of the rock would allow. Sepi spat out his mouthpiece, throwing his mask above the crown of his head. He sucked a loud gasp. Then his eyes froze into Kal's, desperately and questioningly, though more for an explanation as to what he witnessed than whether what he saw was reality. Sepi knew what he saw.
Suddenly, Kal pointed up over Sepi’s right shoulder, straight up over the rock wall that jutted out beside them. He could tell Sepi was in a state, foggy-eyed and panicked. But he knew there was no room for panic. Revealing themselves would be disastrous, and they were in no position to be exposed.
Gingerly, Kal held his index finger to his lips and portrayed unmistakable calmness. Sepi took a deep breath, nodded, and laid his wobbly arms flat against the rock. He rested there a few seconds, silent, shaken. Kal gave him a moment, then gave a gentle push against his arm, motioning him to move slowly along the rock toward the edge. He wanted a direct look at whoever was up there. He needed a clear sight without being seen.
With their air tanks holding them buoyant, they eased hand over hand along the rock. In moments, a line of sight was achieved.
By the falling crescent moon, they could make out a truck's tailgate, laid open. It was at least fifty feet above them. Despite the cliff’s obscuring edge, they were able to make out the top half of two burly figures, standing on either side of the truck with their backs turned. The distant resonance of their voices seeped down into the quarry like the sinister murmurings that come in psychotic dreams.
Sepi and Kal kept keen eyes to the cliff for a moment, maintaining a posture low and calm. But Sepi's stomach began retching for relief and a mouthful of mucus and water shot out. Quickly, Kal grabbed his arm and forced him to tread back out of sight.
"Get off your gear," he demanded.
"I said take it off. Quietly, and up on the rock."
"Why?" Sepi asked in a faltering whisper. He was already shedding his buoyancy vest and fins.
"We need to get up there. We can't have this shit on us. Got it?"
"The authorities. We need to call...the sheriff or, or...someone."
"Hell that," struck back Kal. "Ain't no time for that. They'd be gone by then." Kal's voice began to rise and he checked it down. Distant and desultory laughter was heard from above, which prompted Kal to push Sepi along the rock, only so far to determine that their cover was safe.
Keeping an eye on their silhouettes in the pale light, they could make out a strange sight. One of the figures hoisting a cinder block overhead with each of arm, pumping them up and down as easy as if they were Styrofoam buoys.
They crawled back over, and Kal continued, "And you know what, Maxwell? Then we'd have to answer...fuck, we'd have to answer to all those bodies down there."
"But what? You're certified now," whispered Kal as he jabbed his finger at his chest. "Hell, yeah, you are. You want that job? Doing clean-up and removal? 'Cause that's what you'll get. You'll get just that, Maxwell."
Sepi paid no notice to the use of his real name. He could only hear the question, like a white-hot metal prod poking through his eardrum. The revulsion of the thought of seeing them, all of them all over again, tweaked his brain and left a residual, pulsing pain. He tried to block it out because he still had to deal with Kal's question. He knew Kal expected an answer.
"No," he replied.
"Well then," issued Kal.
"The bodies...who'll get the bodies, Kal?"
"No tellin'. But I know they ain't going nowhere." A darkness overtook Kal's eyes, a disposition brought on by the harrowing situation. He directed his attention above to the burley figures. "This shit ain't right. You know it ain't." He grabbed Sepi's arm, tight. "O.K., Sepi? O.K.? First things first. We take care of business."
They shed their wetsuits and laid their gear atop Monolith Rock. Still dripping, they headed up the path with Kal leading the way. Midway up, he stopped. He figured it was best to hash out their plan beforehand, better still while out of earshot. "Get a number off the truck if you can. And only if they're headin' out, that is. Otherwise, we overtake 'em together, quick and quiet. From the rear, blades on the back." He held up his scuba knife with conviction. "Take 'em down to the ground. But listen, we do this only when they're occupied with...with the weight. Got it? Surprise 'em, get 'em down, hands behind the back. Then we tie 'em up tight."
Sepi nodded along with each of Kal's points, patting his pants to double-check that knife and rope were contained within. He was still disoriented, disarmed by what he was asked to do and how quickly he had to do it. His mind was floating in a weightless void, with death still an arm’s length away.
Somehow, the information given was able to weave through all those interferences; even the interference that manifested as a physical form—body and face—that came amid the sounds of Kal’s sharply spoken words. It was as if the person himself were overlapping Kal’s own features, shaped slowly into existence like a ghost from an old cartoon. Eventually, Sepi saw him leaning against the classroom door, waiting there as he often did, to taunt him following his return from lunch break. He could even hear Bryce Taverns' own callous voice coming through.
The extra weight Bryce Taverns carried could have been fat, but it also could have been muscle buried beneath fat. No one in their high school, including Sepi, dared to test which one. His face was flattened and dominated by red boils. Whoever cut his hair—barber, father, mental health professional—cropped it close, giving him a deranged look. These were the features that stood out as Sepi stood there listening to Kal’s orchestrated plan.
"What, were you out meeting your maiden, Maxwell? No? Guess it was your sissy-ass boyfriend then. Huh, Max-i-well?" He'd then feel the slap to the back of his head. He even felt it now.
He had wanted to punch Bryce Taverns square to his gut. Wanted to double him over, and more. But he hadn't; he was recoiled by a fear that locked his fists firmly to his side. And he had terminal regret over this. It was possible, however, that someone else didn't feel that same regret, as one weekend night Bryce Taverns found himself headlong in the grill of a Mack truck with a fifth of whiskey gurgling in his stomach. The driver swore he saw two other people standing next to him before impact, but no one ever came forward.
Human or divine, Sepi figured justice was served. Next time, if there ever was one, he wouldn't hesitate to take the offering. He'd take it raw on a cold plate.
They reached the clearing and tucked away into the brush. The moon was crouched low, hidden amidst the trees’ foliage. The truck was parked ahead of them, its darkened headlights facing them like dead eyes of a demon. In the dimness, they couldn't tell if the truck was grey or red (or covered over in mud or rust). They couldn't possibly tell its make let alone pick out a license plate number. Nevertheless, one of them was able to make out the figures from the facial contours of their silhouettes. And their voices—deep and callous and irreverent—also helped give them away.
"Hell, I know those fucks," Kal said, cupping his hand to Sepi's ear. "Guys from the crematory. Everyone outta gas 'round here. Pitchin' 'em where nobody'd find 'em, right down in the drink."
Sepi squinted his eyes and looked to the tailgate. He thought he saw bare feet hanging over the side, but he couldn't be sure in the near-dark. The guy who had been military-pressing cement blocks was leaning his stomach against the back of the truck watching the other one, who, as far as they could discern, was busy twisting rope between block and flesh.
A flashlight suddenly blasted to the ground. Kal and Sepi ducked lower. They could hear the voice of the guy working the rope: "Comb it around real good. Don't leave no evidence." The light zigzagged around awhile, discovering nothing but dirt. "O.K.," he said again, "last one. Grab your side, Billy."
Kal elbowed Sepi in the ribs, giving him a firm nod of his head. He peered into his eyes, hard and unmistakable. The time was now.
Kal and Sepi inched towards the front of the truck, eyes focused on the men’s backs. They stopped at the hood of the truck, peering through the windshield at the sight of the two large men readying themselves for the dead weight laying on the tailgate. Sepi could see the figure: middle-aged man, semi-clothed, pale and listless. They watched the men position his body forward, then struggle to hoist the cement block atop his midsection. They were trying to achieve proper balance, but the man’s stomach went flaccid under the dense concrete form. Finally positioning it correctly, the two men reached for the dead man's limbs.
Kal pointed to himself. Then to the left side of the truck. He jabbed his finger at Sepi, then pointed right. His finger went against his lips and was followed by a circular motion in the air.
"O.K., Billy. Heave on three..."
They advanced. The stealth of wolves. Scuba knives substituting for teeth and claws. Reasoning instead of instinct. Revenge for raw need.
"...and fuckin’ let go on time..."
In seconds, Sepi's knife came against his man's back. The cloth and flesh was hard, but he knew there was tenderness to be found at the edge of his metallic sharpness. He tightened his grip and pressed closer against it. He felt the man’s body twitch from shock. He looked at his hand and the knife it held. The image was surreal, electric. He found himself saying something, something definitive and clear into the guy's ear and then pulled him close with his other arm.
Then he heard it: the garbled noise of a recently cut throat.
Sepi glanced over to see Kal holding his guy's hair, blood spilling from his neck. The man collapsed, and as he went, so did the weight he held. Paralyzed by shock, Sepi's guy never let go of the dead man's legs and the fall caused an unforeseeable shift. Instantly, Sepi heard something guttural and unmistakable. The utterance of life being exterminated before him.
He looked down and found his hand holding tight to the handle of the knife, with the metal end submerged well into cloth and warm flesh. No doubt an organ laid in its path. It felt good. He plunged further in, twisting over and again until the shirt was darkened and soaked in blood.
As Sepi sat in Kal's pickup truck, staring at the headlamps as they carved road out of night, the enormous echo of crashing water still rung in his ears. It was one of the last things he remembered. That, and Kal calling out orders, hollow and translucent like the moon breaching through the passing trees: to search the place clean—"not a fucking drop"—and to cram the cab with fresh death. The rolling tires, breaking limbs, the sight of it over the cliff. Then the sound. That is really what he recalled the most amidst the density of fog that saturated his brain. The enormous splashing sound in the quarry.
Kal grabbed the coffeepot off his counter and topped his mug off with a substance that poured like tar. On his kitchen table, the local morning edition was splayed out in front of him. Nothing out of the ordinary: a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a feel-good 4-H story, a brief on wheat futures. Typical stuff in a small rural town dotting the western plains. No mention anywhere of a local business missing its operators.
It was three days since and Kal hadn't heard word one from Sepi. He had dropped his student off with his equipment that evening, with a wordless understanding and a feeble handshake. Not hearing from him was fine by Kal. Perfectly fine. He wasn't expecting as much either, but one never knows. Probably heading to the Gulf and all that oil. All seemed well that morning as Kal dumped spoon after spoon of sugar in his coffee cup.
The phone rang and he spilled his coffee, obliterating instantly a picture of a local high school football player. He picked up the phone but didn’t answer.
"Kal?" the voice said.
"Sheriff Woodbine here." Kal hesitated, then set his coffee cup upright.
"Sheriff?" he said without inflection.
There was moment of silence, then the sheriff spoke, "Line's secure on this end. You?"
"They put up a fight?"
"Didn't have a chance. Went down like lambs in a slaughterhouse."
"Good. Clean it good? Please tell me you did," said the sheriff anxiously.
"Left it bare as a baby's butt. Clean and quiet, too. No kids around, made sure of that. I haven't heard much in town, which is good," he remarked.
"Don't worry 'bout that. I'll cover those variables when they come up, which they will. Remember, those boys were hunters and there’s lotta country out there. Know what I mean? How 'bout our boy?"
"Well, you don’t worry ‘bout that one. Told you, I picked the right guy," Kal said with proud assurance.
"Good, good. You know it was time these boys had to go. They served their purpose. Hell, they had shit-for-brains and just couldn’t be trusted either. Made the wrong choices time and again. I told ‘em that, but they never listen. Never did.”
“And never will,” Kal said with a bent laugh.
The sheriff went quiet, and it occurred to Kal there was more the sheriff needed to know. It was the main reason for the call, the most important aspect of their conversation. The sheriff spoke. “So, you see our guy down there?"
Kal poured some more coffee and drew a long sip. "Nope, he wasn't below. Found him still up with the guys in the truck. Got a good look at him before we took 'em down, so at least they did that job right."
"Throw him in the truck cab?"
"Yep. And that's where he'll stay, in the truck, keeping the dumb fucks company. Sixty feet below, along with the rest of ‘em."
Joe Becker is a graduate of Kennesaw State University. He is a part-time writer living in Roswell, Georgia, where he helps raise three children. He pecks at the iPad with two fingers, usually during his long wait in after-school carpool.
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