Thoughts from the Depths
A Short Story by Ezra Bowers, Class of 2021
Heat. Crushing, Damp, Eternal. The sun’s grip like a vice, even beneath the futile protection of the mango trees – and beneath the humidity, a thin layer of rotting fruit, its sugary scent snaking through the undergrowth, coating the neighborhood with the smell of an early harvest, a harvest that creeps earlier and earlier each year, as an unknowing iguana creeps towards a cliff. Luis glanced at the sun, and was punished for it. Sweat crept down his neck and soaked his shirt collar. Every step pounded through his whole body like a drum, his heart struggling to keep him walking. It surrounded him, the heat. It poured from the sky and emanated from the black tarmac. There was no escape. The humidity was a predator and he was its prey. Captive. His backpack, once an ally, had turned against him with the weight of a thousand bricks. It’s straps tore on his shoulders, dragging them further towards the endless void of the tarmac. To rebel against such powerful forces of nature was too much for Luis, and as he slumped to the ground, his life flashed before his eyes.
Suddenly a voice called from somewhere beyond the void, pierced through his murky conscious, beckoned him from the edge of death. The voice, angelic and pure, awakened a newfound strength in him, like a rain after a drought, like an oasis in the Sahara. He listened closer, letting it’s silky melody call him back into reality. It was like a miracle, a blessing from god. In fact, it sounded a lot like… his little brother.
“You good Luis?” Mason asked.
“I wasn’t born for this climate,” Luis groaned.
“Whatever, just don’t be late again,” Mason retorted, “you’re the only person I know that can make a two block walk into a life or death crisis.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Luis responded, still curled up on the side of the road, “Dad didn’t make you take three AP’s.”
“Because I play soccer, look, we all have to get off the island somehow.”
“Dad’s not leaving the island”
“He’s staying with mom,” they both grimaced, instinctively glancing towards the mountain that towered over the island, casting its shadow like a curse.
“We can’t be late,” Mason mumbled, his tone distinct. The conversation was over. Mason jogged away, using school as an excuse, yet every step he seemed to falter slightly, imperceptibly but surely. There was a heaviness that carried his gait, and this time it wasn’t the heat. Behind him, in the dust, Luis stewed in the humidity as the familiar tone of the school bell rang out across the neighborhood like a hurricane siren.
Ocean waves, rising, falling – turmoil. The sound used to calm him, but now it sounded like a threat, and every crash of the tide seemed to yearn for revenge. The sea was hungry, and he was feeding it. An old friend, turned enemy; his dad would be disappointed.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sandoval?” his assistant’s voice echoes behind him, struggling to be heard over the rolling roar of the sea – a beast, to be certain. He turned to face his assistant, a frail, scrawny man with scraggly blonde hair and an ill-fitting suit. His face was red, and he clearly hadn’t adjusted to the heat of the artificial island resort. This was a man that fit the assistant’s archetype in every way.
“What is it, Charlie?” Mr. Sandoval grumbled, his voice grating and broken from years of premium Cuban cigars – truly luxuries in a world where Cuba was hundreds of feet under.
“He’s here to meet you, sir” Charlie responded, promptly, anxiously, “and he’s not looking too happy about it, either.” Mr. Sandoval considered this for a moment, as if a scene from his youth had resurfaced, against his will.
“He’s a respectable captain, he shouldn’t be.”
“Yeah, but – “
“Tell him I’ll be at the marina.”
“I -” Charlie protested once more, but before he could speak, he noticed Mr. Sandoval’s features were twisted into a grimace of determined resolution. Evidently this wasn’t easy for him, either.
For Luis, the walk home was never so life threatening as the walk to school, because on the island, the humidity always begins to dissipate around sunset. However, there was more to it today, he could tell, it was some kind of sixth sense, a raw emotion tainted the dusk with its undefinable presence. Oftentimes the sun would be pleasant, at that hour, slung across the ocean like a hammock, providing soft light without the punishment of the heat. Today, though, today it seemed sinister. It was no longer lounging across the waves, it was ducking behind them. As he walked, the palm trees dipped low, shying away from the twilight sky, scraping their fronds across the pavement – the sound softly rattling around him, like a warning. Nervously, Luis glanced at the passing sea wall construction site as he walked by, half expecting something to leap out of the dark recesses of the machinery. The ocean lapped closely at the concrete barriers, it looked ravenous. Nervously, Luis traced the length of the sea wall with his eyes, all the way down the soft curve to where it met the horizon. Construction was ongoing, and the sea wall was a couple of feet higher than it had been last month. They were winning the race, for now, but only three more degrees and the island wouldn’t stand a chance. It was bound to go underwater.
This much had been proven to him during the first hurricane, six years ago. The live news forecasts for that hurricane had vastly underestimated its magnitude. Luis still remembered standing on the deck watching the clouds roll in, menacing, like serpents, twisting and coiling, like a cat about to pounce on unsuspecting prey. The news in the background, blaring:
“The Category 3 Hurricane Charlie still appears to be on a direct course towards the small Pacific island group of Laos Tiko. Residents of the area should expect winds of up to 110 miles per hour and a storm surge of up to 12 feet.”
Right on queue, the sirens began blaring, their noises like voices – screaming, twisted voices that suffocated Luis and clouded his mind with terror.
“You okay buddy?” his mom asked from inside the house, “we get hurricanes all the time, it’s nothing to worry about.” Luis turned to face her, still stricken speechless by the sight of the boiling clouds, ready to burst. His mom sighed, and led him back into the house. “Come on, let’s get to the temple safehouse before it starts pouring.” Luis nodded, but the gesture was empty, his eyes were devoid. He followed his family up the hill towards the temple, his dad cracking jokes to suppress his nerves and his mom carrying his whimpering little brother. The rain picked up, and the wind, once small gusts, began to display its malicious intent, tearing at their clothes and plastering their hair to their dripping faces.
“Category 3, category 3, category 3,” Luis couldn’t help but repeat the weatherman’s mantra as they struggled further up the hill. The wind, ever stronger, seemed to taunt them as it tried to force them back down the hill, seemed to say:
“Wouldn’t it just be so much easier to go down?”
Luis’ dad leaned towards his mom, and Luis barely caught snippets of the conversation over the gale, a conversation he probably wasn’t supposed to hear.
“Talia,” Luis’ dad said to his mom, “I’m not sure we’re gonna make it all the way up to the temple.”
“But Alex, there’s nowhere else to go,” his mom responded.
“I know, you’re right, but Luis just looks so tired.” They both glanced back at him, shuffling along behind them, clearly miserable. Alex glanced at one of the houses lining the road.
“I doubt they’d mind if we used their house to shelter from a hurricane right?”
“Are you sure that’s safe? With all the windows?”
“I mean, it’s only a category 3.”
“I guess so, huh,” Talia sighed. The wind howled at them, and the clouds above seemed to pick up speed as more and more raindrops fell.
“Sounds like our queue,” his dad laughed, picking up Luis and running with Talia towards the house. The moment they shut the door the rain began to pour down, and the relief was palpable.
“Alright kiddos,” his dad said, “time for bed. It’s a lot easier to sleep through storms like this.” Luis glanced up at him, and he smiled back. It was a shielded smile, as if his dad wanted to believe what he was saying just as much as Luis did. They gathered blankets from the beds and laid them out in a corner of the living room, all while the wind scraped at the window panes outside, and the rain assaulted the roof.
“We aren’t stealing, are we mom?” Mason stared up at Talia, eyes wide, filled to the brim with temporary innocence.
“No don’t worry,” his mom laughed, “we’ll even wash them before we put them back.” Content with that answer, Mason curled up and closed his eyes. Before he knew it, Luis was out cold, too. Throughout the night he was periodically awakened by a clap of thunder, the shudder of a tree branch, the groaning of the house. At one point he woke to his parents mummering to each other. They sounded on edge, but Luis was too drowsy to distinguish anything they were saying, and his heavy lids soon urged him back to the unconscious.
The thunder hit like a truck, and Luis was immediately awake. Eyes wide, he glanced around the room. It was still pitch black, and the storm was still waging war on the island outside. Then, a white flash lit up the room, followed by a roar of thunder. The nearby window exploded inwards. His mom screamed, and threw herself across him as glass shards, sharp as daggers, riddled the floor. Another white flash, another roar of thunder. His dad woke up and began yelling, but in Luis’ shocked state it was incomprehensible. Something dripped down his face, something warm, something that was definitely not rain. It coated his hair, something vicious, like honey. He struggled to get up, but his mother’s body had become limp. His arms collapsed, and his face hit the ground.
Mr. Sandoval shuddered, watching the ocean from the marina always seemed to rouse horrible imagery from his youth. The waves lapped at the rotting planks of the dock, threatening to completely consume them. The water, dark and murky, had already swallowed numerous decommissioned ships that had been abandoned there after the the new transportation legislation had made privately owned vehicles illegal. He glanced at the sky, and where there would’ve once been a net of plane trails, there was now emptiness. The environmentalists had called these laws a good thing. Said they’d reduce pollution, bring us back over the tipping point. To Mr. Sandoval, though, all they’d done is reduce production by 20%, and that was catastrophic.
Silently, a small yacht skimmed into the harbor. It was painted with dark blue ocean camouflage, and every inch of the deck was haphazardly covered with green tarp. From the cabin, he could barely differentiate the silhouette of a man against the surrounding shadows. The boat drifted to a halt next to him, and the wake sloshed up the edge of the dock with newfound vigor. The ship had no lights on, but the captain had perfectly maneuvered the behemoth through the graveyard of a marina regardless. Mr. Sandoval scanned the ship for anything defective, any signs the boat had been tampered with, bugged – but it was pristine. The gangplank swung down, pneumatics hissing, and gently came to rest on the dock. He hesitated before stepping on, fully aware of the commitment he was making, the life he was about to resurrect. It would be the first time he stepped foot on a ship since he left his home island for boarding school, fifty years ago. He glanced up, hoping for some sign from… something, but all he saw was the radar spinning lazily, mocking him.
Defeated, and with a sigh, he gave in, and stepped up to the ship.
Wide eyed, Luis stared at the clock.
It took about ten minutes to hike up the mountain to the temple, which meant to be there on time he’d have to leave around…
Silently, carefully, Luis pulled back his sheet and tenderly placed a single foot on the floor. No creak. Yet. Praying for the same luck, he let his other foot grace the floor. No creak. Safe. He began to pick his way towards the door, mapping the path across the floorboards in his head. Floorboard to floorboard, he danced silently, limberly. The moonlight coming from a crack between the shutters lit his path, and the dust swirled in the rays behind him as he crept. The ground, was an unevenly polished cobblestone of wooden planks – some far older than others. To anyone else, it would be nothing unusual. Just an old, patchwork floor – but to Luis, he’d been learning its song all his life. Which ones creaked, which ones were hollow beneath, which nails stuck up a little too far and could punish the slightest inconsideracy. Which ones were treacherous in the summer months, but docile in the winter. Each board held meaning, a memory. Some represented carelessly sprinting down the hall with his brother – a race to breakfast. Others reminded him of the damp nights of the monsoons, water-stained with the ghosts of raindrops. Some carried heavier weight, like the four marks left on the ground in the corner from the legs of his mother’s favorite chair. He hurried past this corner now, and grabbed the door handle, beginning to turn slowly. The hinge clicked and the door protested as he carefully swung it open. Luis stepped outside, and he swung it back closed with a hiss, the handle clicking back into place.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Luis whipped around, his grandma was standing smugly in the driveway, smoking a cigarette. Luis tried to respond, but she had already started off towards the temple. He followed behind her, silently.
“Your dad told me about it,” she said. Luis glanced up, surprised.
“About boarding school?” Luis grimaced, expecting mounting tension to follow.
“What else?” she laughed. Luis’ fabricated tension released as suddenly as it built up, like pressure from a gas valve.
Regardless, Luis scrambled to explain himself. “I just can’t pass up such a good opportunity, but I swear I’ll -”
His grandma cut him off. ‘I guess it’s finally time for our family to leave this island, huh?” Luis glanced up at her, trying to read her expression. They were now walking side by side. Generations new and old. The tarmac path swallowed their footsteps and blended in with the darkness under the tree cover. The leaves had moulded themselves into a tunnel over the path through the years, and the darkness was nearly complete, even under the full moon. Luis shook his jacket off, unexpectedly the heat of midday still lingered long into the night, even here near the peak. The air was thick with the scent of magnolia buds, and had it been light out, he would’ve expected to hear the soft hum of honeybees – but in the dark, it was silent. Not a thin, threatening silence, but a soft, blanketing silence. Tonight, the island felt content.
Minutes later, they rounded the final curve. The path was no longer steep, but flat at the peak. The temple, came into view.
“Our families been here for generations you know,” his grandma broke the silence. He knew. Just now, walking up the temple path, he’d passed his mother’s grave, the newest in the graveyard of his deceased ancestors, the headstone third to the right. Luis’ eyes averted to the temple entrance. Grandiose, yet understated, the red arches towered above him, from the grey concrete foundation to the golden pagoda roof. The full moon gleamed across the bells hanging from the open rafters, and they rustled softly in the breeze, whispering an august melody.
“Come here, Luis,” his grandma whispered, hushed by an unseen force that enveloped the temple. Luis obliged, walking to where she stood, gazing up at the wall. “It’s the star chart,” she said. Luis followed her eyes. “Once a month, every full moon.” In front of them stood a massive, intricate engraving on the wall. A circle, with a mural of the solar system in the middle, surrounded by twelve glass portholes, presumably to allow light in. One was illuminated now, and an image of the full moon pierced the temple wall through from the outside. “The temple speaks to us, it can see your future.” Luis continued to stare up, in awe. “You are its child, a native of the island. It’s talking to you now”.
“Really?” Luis asked.
“No,” his grandma responded, “but many do believe it can give omens.”
“So with me going to boarding school tomorrow…”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Now hesitant, Luis glanced at his grandma. “What’s it say now?”
His grandma studied the face of the wall, reading it like a language lost to time. She frowned, “it’s an ill omen.”
“I wouldn’t lie about that,” his grandma’s usually lighthearted eyes had frozen solid with grim resolution. “Look at me, Luis.” He complied, still unbelieving – shaken with whiplash from how fast the mood had crumbled. “You wouldn’t ever betray the island, right?”
“What do you mean?”
The gangplank groaned as Mr. Sandoval shifted up it, and he shuddered as more memories came rushing back, swirling in his head as the ocean did now far beneath his feet. A light breeze drifted in from the east, carrying with it the scent of deep ocean. He hesitated once more, nothing was making him do this. No, that’s wrong. His family was. Their spectres looked on in shame, fear even, of what he’d become. He’d subdued his heritage, monetized it, sold it off like so many products before. Even now, procuring a captain willing to comply had cost a fortune – and that fortune no doubt had a price larger than itself.
The deck of the ship was solid, and the gangplank reverberated with relief as he stepped off it. As the boat rocked, Mr. Sandoval found himself instinctually keeping his balance. More memories returned. The ship began to reverse out of the marina, its turbines silently churning the water, persuading the vessel into motion. He turned around to face the shore, scouring it for witnesses. A trade company CEO spending resources on a purely sentimental trip was unheard of – but alas, nobody was there to catch him in the act, and he guiltily had to suppress some disappointment that he wasn’t being stopped. The universe truly wanted him to burn with shame, to see the evidence of his failures firsthand.
Hours later, after the sun had long since hugged and passed the horizon, they came to their destination. A calm spot in the ocean lay before him, taunting him. Though Mr. Sandoval had heard the news long ago, it truly haunted him now. Slowly, and with much mental exertion, he peered down into the depths.
Small schools of fish, flickered and glimmered in sun rays that filtered deep into the water. Algae grew in unnatural clumps, coating the seabed with the silhouette of houses, cars, trees, and fences; waving slowly in the current. A stop-sign rose from one of the clumps, pale and bleached pink, its pole bent and surface rusted with age. The outline of a tarmac road still cut through the submerged neighborhood, it had maintained its shape, the last essence of hope in a society long forsaken. In one house, a lone window-pane still stood, reflecting back at him the underside of the boat. Barnacles coated an old bicycle like the ocean’s own coat of spray-paint, its frame bent and beaten by years of violent currents. The sea wall also still stood, like a last bastion, a lone guardian, a captain gone down – in vain – with his ship. Its foundation, however, had been crippled, and rebar jutted out from the broken concrete like a ribcage; the seawalls bones exposed, a martyr. Solemnly, Mr. Sandoval traced an exposed tarmac path to the highest point in the village, where the corroded gold roof of a temple stood shining. Red paint was peeling off the walls, leaving its wooden frame exposed. The once grand entrance had been partially washed away, taken by the ocean like a trophy. Mr. Sandoval squinted, and thought he could just barely make out the shapes of bells lining the exposed rafters of the temple roof. Beyond that, in the graveyard, algae coated the lumpy shapes of each headstone. One of them, third to the right, no longer stood. He shuddered, and images danced through his head like newspaper headlines:
“Luis Sandoval, the first islander to be accepted to the most prestigious boarding school in Thailand”
Swirling, turbulent, accusing images.
“Meet the Valedictorian of Bangkok University, L. Sandoval”
They coalesced, broke apart, reformed.
“Live with L. Sandoval Trading and Co.’s Youngest Board Member”
All shouting, screaming. In pain, and in suffering, uttering one message.
“Trading and Co.’s CEO Resigns, L. Sandoval assumes position”
“It’s my fault.”
“Climate Change Has Emerged as a Climate Crisis”
“It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“Trading and Co. Has Their Best Quarter Yet”
“It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“Sea Level Rise Has Claimed Thousands of Pacific Islands”
“It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“Trading and Co. Emerges As a Monopoly”
“It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“Climate Change Related Disasters Have Now Claimed 18 Million Lives”
“It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
“Trading and Co. CEO Luis Sandoval Has Resigned”
“It’s my fault,” Luis cried out curling on recoiling on the floor, retching in his waste. “I’m so sorry I’m so sorry I’m so sorry,” he sobbed, praying to a god he’d abandoned. “What’ve I done. What could I do. I’m so sorry so sorry. It’s my fault my fault my fault my…” his speech deteriorated as he gurgled in his own spit and tears, squirming, repenting – showing all possible sincerity, vulnerability – yet…
The island did not respond.
The island could not respond.