Zachary felt a burning nervousness in his stomach which had less to do with the dive or the blackwater and more to do with what he hoped he would not find. It was almost like waiting for a zombie to jump out from around a corner in a game he once played as a kid. No matter how many times he played the game or how many times he had been attacked at the same corner, he still jumped.
The plan was to drop next to the marker farthest west and find the mini-mother and mast already dropped as an anchor point for the circular search pattern. The twenty-five-pound base weight would hold their search line as the two swam in an ever-increasing circular pattern looking for more bodies. When they found one, Zachary would clip a marker buoy to something solid—which meant something other than flesh—twist the marker and set it free. A blinking LED light would make visibility clearer from the shore and aid in the recovery efforts to come later. Zachary already dreaded that part of the mission. Maybe finding the bodies would not be as bad as trying to stuff them into a body bag and lifting them to the surface. It might be easier to just drain the lake.
Stuart pulled on the buddy line once and Zachary turned his direction. They were only three feet apart, and the farther they descended, the lower the visibility dropped. Zachary made out the green light stick clipped to Stuart’s suit, and he had to admit it was comforting to see. It meant he was not alone.
Stuart pointed down and then put up two fingers. They had about twenty more feet to go before they were on the bottom, and both divers needed to be careful not to stir up silt. As Zachary turned his head down toward the goal he made out the neon green line tied to the marker buoy up top and a victim on the bottom. Once they reached the victim, the two would turn west, travel thirty feet and tie off their line. At that point, the circular search would begin.
After slowing the descent, a shapeless blob took shape below Zachary. He stopped moving and pulled once on the buddy line. Although the shape was unclear, he knew exactly what it was and did not want to swim into it for any reason. In an almost unconscious move, Zachary adjusted his buoyancy compensator to maintain a neutral position in the water as Stuart swam closer.
The skin of the victim had loosened, and in the glow of the marine light through the darkened water, it took on a gray-green hue. The victim’s face pointed toward the surface as if gasping for air one last time, tongue puffed out like a tumor and eyes bulging. It was all an effect of the body bloating with gasses and wanting to rise while the weighted shoes kept it rooted. The arms floated free, and as Zachary moved his light over one hand, he saw the fingernails had already separated from the body. He knew from enough extensive training on body recovery that this was normal after two to three weeks, but it also meant he was now swimming near a body undergoing intensive putrefaction. An errant bump would hasten the process and a sudden intake of water meant he would ingest decaying flesh.
Stuart pulled on the buddy line, but Zachary’s eyes were glued to the sight in front of him. Here was a body—once a living, sentient creature with hopes and dreams and fears and failures—now decomposing at the bottom of a lake in the middle of nowhere for reasons unknown to anyone but its ghost and the ghosts around. It was like the old cliché: a train wreck. He was a rubbernecker witnessing a beautiful disaster, eyes frozen and suddenly disconnected from reality. It was both disastrous and hard to look away. When he had pulled the body from the river, it was nothing like this. The boy had drowned in a foot of water after being knocked unconscious in a fall. For a few weeks after the recovery, Zachary saw the kid’s face in dreams, in the store, everywhere he looked. But the body was not dissolving; rather, it was cold and rubbery, in a stage of postmortem lividity prior to severe discoloration and bloating. The boy could be moved, placed in a body bag with relative ease.
But this? This would be like putting soup into a freezer bag with chopsticks.
Stuart pulled again, and this time Zachary turned his face. His partner was a foot from him, and he saw through the face mask that he was not happy with something—either the scene or Zachary’s reaction to the scene. It was likely the latter, and with a growing sickness in his stomach and forced refusal to look at the body again, he gave an okay sign with his thumb and forefinger and then pointed to the west toward where they expected the find the mini-mother.
They swam about thirty feet to the west, approximately six feet above the bottom of the lake and with less than rigorous flipper kicks. The darkness was confining, and it would be easy to lose track of up versus down in a panic. The direction of the bubbles helped, and if Zachary became disoriented, he could reach up and grab the tether for comfort. It was a common hazard of diving in blackwater: up was down and sometimes left or right. It took concentration to remember where the surface of the water was, and even being close to something on the bottom did not necessarily help convince the brain all was well. On more than one occasion, he—and many other divers—had lost their orientation and hyperventilated. Training in blackwater helped, but it was a hazard that would never go away. Stuart, as Zachary had often noted, appeared to have no problem with blackwater, but if he did, there was little doubt the old geezer would hide it.
They reached the mini-mother, and the two clipped a search line to the mast. Anchored together by a buddy line, the search would be much slower, but Zachary took the outside, leaving Stuart to find what he missed on the first pass. When they completed what seemed like a circle, they would let out five more feet of search line and do it all over again until a good twenty feet had been combed over. Zachary found himself hopeful they would not find another body. A boat, sure. And coming up on a body when traveling through blackwater meant not seeing it until the last moment. If you did not stop in time, you might dislodge some flesh.
Which is exactly what happened on the third pass. Zachary had become more confident in their routine, kicking as necessary and keeping time with Stuart. The light illuminated little, and other than a fish that swam in front of his facemask at one point, Zachary saw nothing. He turned his head to the left to orient himself with Stuart when a fleshy cloud exploded in front of his face.
With a quick jerk, Stuart pulled Zachary away from the body. He was hyperventilating, his eyes wide, mind stuck in a loop of nonsensical gibberish. Zachary had bumped into the head of a new body and its right eye dislodged from the ocular cavity, floating just above the face with a greenish-yellow glow aided by the glow sticks. Like the last body, the tongue was bloated and pushed at the lips to get free from the mouth. A fist-sized chunk of flesh loosely attached to the victim’s cheek waved in the now turbulent water caused by the jolt of the diver. They were now fifteen feet from the mast and about forty-five feet from the other bodies. It was difficult to see past the body, but as Stuart brought the dive light up to the victim’s face, Zachary caught a glint off something hanging in the water behind the head.
Stuart pulled on the buddy line once and Zachary turned in his direction. The man held his fist up in front of his facemask, then pointed down toward the victim’s feet. It was a clear signal they had reached a place where a marker needed to be attached, but it took Zachary more than a few moments to recognize what was being asked of him. He floated in stunned silence in front of Stuart, only a foot distant, facemask to facemask. Zachary’s eyes were still wide, and the quick expulsion of bubbles from the regulator meant that his breathing had not slowed.
Zachary was in shock, even as a cloud of dislodged, putrefied skin floated between the two. He watched, detached as if floating above a movie screen. Stuart removed an LED marker from Zachary’s dive belt, clipped it to the body, twisted the CO2 cartridge to let it ascend, then reached up and quickly pulled four times on Zachary’s tether. With a jerk, he unsnapped the search line, grabbed the kid’s arm, and kicked toward the surface.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish