“Breathe, kid.” Stuart sat next to Zachary on the Zodiac as Tyler and Virgil disappeared under the water. “Go through the numbers in your head and breathe.”
Thinking about the numbers was an exercise born of compliance and a need to adhere to rules in the roughest of situations. It meant running through the entire dive from the moment fins touched water to the moment you were back on land eating a Twinkie. Thinking about the numbers was also a way to relegate the nastier finds—the putrefied bodies, the floaters, the infants trapped in car seats after a minivan submerged—into anything other than once living humans. Dehumanization was necessary, and a focus on numbers was a good way to turn a morbid situation into a check-the-box mechanical routine. It was needed, especially when mission success meant a body in a coffin and a crying family at a funeral looking for closure.
Zachary had only pulled one body from the water in his short time with the team, and he had made the mistake of assigning it human qualities. Such a brazen act of personification had led to the resignation of many a recovery specialist. You did not want to think about the person you were recovering; you wanted to think about the body you were moving from point A to point B. You didn’t want to think about the history of the victim or their grieving loved ones who needed to know what happened; you wanted to think about the mechanics of placing a thing into a bag away from crying eyes.
Recovery was a cold business, but there was no other way to do it. Emotion kills.
When Zachary had thought about the boy he recovered, he thought about himself and imagined all the loves lost, the smiles, the laughs with friends, and the dreams of future adventures that would never come to pass. Worst of all, when he thought about the boy he recovered, he thought about his missing sister. Was she dead, rotting away on the side of some forsaken wilderness mountain or dissolving like the lot of those below him? It was a mistake to humanize a body, and that same thing threatened to happen now on what might be the largest recovery effort in the last few years. Already it was newsworthy, even with the current affairs of a burning world. There would be media and cameras, articles written, and feature stories aired. It would do the victims’ families no good to flip out in the middle of the operation.
Inanimate things were down there, not humans.
Let others call them people.
“Doing better?” Stuart put a hand on Zachary’s shoulder. Zachary took in a few more deep breaths as he went through the numbers in his head, eyes plastered on an inflate valve on the side of the boat.
“I’ll give you a minute while I tender the lines.” Stuart turned to other tasks assisting the team below. “Numbers, boy. One, two, and three.”
Zachary’s mind floated away as tiny waves lapped at the side of the Zodiac. One: check the buoyancy compensator. Two: check the weights. Three: check the releases. Four: check the air. Five: do a final check. Zachary ran through the sequence above water again, then one more time. Next, he concentrated on the five-point dive.
Signal, orient, exchange, timer, BCD. Look down. Let the darkness take you. Check the bubbles.
Zachary looked across the water at the LED of the marker buoy Stuart had clipped to the body. It blinked rapidly, visible even in the brightest daylight. The waves brought it up and down, and with each crest of wave and descent to a trough, Zachary rattled off another dive step, another number, another something to keep his mind focused on the task and eliminate the emotion.
A second dive marker popped up a few feet away from the first. It broke the surface for about a foot, then splashed down. Within a few seconds, a third and fourth marker followed. That made thirty-five markers on the water, bobbing up and down mindlessly identifying material to be bagged and recovered later.
Zachary’s eyes widened at the sight of more and more markers until the second team had lofted all of theirs.
Stuart lifted the radio to his mouth. “Base, Recovery One.”
Clarke’s voice cracked back. “Report.”
“Bravo team returning. Alpha team, dive in five.”
Zachary took a deep breath, his eyes still locked on the nearly forty LED markers blinking like glitter on the water. He heard Stuart but did not catch his question. It was all background noise to the repetition of numbers in his head.
The second dive was easier, and Zachary found his mind-numbing revulsion had been replaced with abject disgust as he dehumanized each body the two encountered. The circular search pattern was no longer necessary, and it became more of a grid search, one leaded foot at a time. They had dropped down where the last of the other dive team’s markers had come up and were hard pressed not to run into bodies. It was, as Clarke had called it, a forest of souls, bodies like trees, putrefying and planted in the silt. At one point, Stuart had to unclip the buddy line to move around a body, but Zachary found himself so engaged in the task that the panic he should have felt at being disconnected from his lifeline was missing. The tether to the surface, however, was a problem neither diver could get rid of, and on more than one occasion it was possible that the line had bumped into a body or two and dislodged pieces of flesh or hair. The longer the two divers stayed in the water, the cloudier it became. There was still just enough visibility, however, to find a leaded foot, attach a marker, and launch it to the surface.
After sending all their LED markers to the surface, Stuart and Zachary ascended with a decompression stop along the way. After they returned to the Zodiac and swapped out with the second dive team—Virgil and Tyler—they both glanced out toward the surface of the lake, gray under the ever-darkening sky the sun refused to lighten. Almost sixty markers now bobbed up and down, stars on the water.
By the fourth dive, the forest of souls had become less constricted. They were running out of dive markers on the Zodiac and had only taken fourteen down between the two of them. The bathymetry of the lake bottom showed they were now at fifty feet, and that meant their time down could be a little longer or they didn’t need to make any stops on the return to the surface. At this depth, the rest of the operation might go faster. In addition, both Stuart and Zachary had agreed that the buddy line was no longer necessary as the visibility had improved and they were more oriented to the situation. This was the last dive before returning to the shore and sending out the second two teams. They would grab a bite to eat and prep for future returns to the water.
Zachary reached another of the bodies and descended just far enough to reach the weighted foot. As his hand reached around to unclip a marker from his belt, however, an errant kick of his flippers rattled the nerves of a large fish from its feeding. While they had expected fish, they had yet to make their presence known much, and this one would certainly be a catch. Zachary held his position just above the lakebed as the fish swam back and forth around the body. It was a salmon, likely twenty pounds and getting heavier as it nibbled at the smorgasbord of flesh that peppered its home turf. Remaining as still as possible, Zachary took in the sight and let a tiny smile light his eyes; he had truly dehumanized the bodies at this point. He loved fishing—or at least pulling fish from the water—but he had rarely thought of what they looked like in their natural habitat. Not that this invasive stack of decaying ruins was natural, but at least the lake water was its home.
The fish shot forward directly at Zachary, past his head, and off toward the deeper parts of the lake. As it did so, Zachary jumped and one of his flippers caught the bottom. A cloud of silt exploded around him and dropped the visibility rapidly. If he could swear, he would have let out a stream of profanities at his lack of situational awareness and composure. Instead, he internally cursed himself and waited until the silt cloud relinquished its grip on sight so he could clip the marker and move on.
Zachary looked down at where his flipper had hit the bottom and brought his dive light around. A glint off something metal and rather large and round caught his eye.
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