It didn’t take us long to get back to the Hiding Cave. Liz didn’t look like she was in great shape. I was worried she might not be able to make it all on her own steam. But she did. She’s tough; she always has been. Now that we were so close to getting home, she wasn’t about to let weakness defeat her. Jonah, though, gave me cause for concern on a whole new level. His color was off and he was constantly making that mewling noise. It sounded like he had been in pain for a long time. It sounded like the little guy just wanted to give up and die. There’s nothing worse for a parent than to witness the suffering of your own children, except perhaps this: that I needed both Jonah and Liz to suffer a little longer. Just a little more, just enough to get us back to the balloon ballast and out of Atlantis forever. Then we could rest, one way or another.

Back in the cave, Iara showed Liz a space where she and Jonah could sit. I knew what Iara was thinking now. We each grabbed two sacks and dove into the water, swimming down. She matched me quickly and kept pace, giving me oxygen when I signaled for it. I’m not sure if it was the anxiety about Liz or the adrenaline finally falling out of me, but I began to feel faint. Iara had to compensate. We slowed down and soon were entangled. I had to keep my mouth on hers just to keep breathing at all. I wrapped myself around her like a starfish, like John and Yoko, and she did all the work getting us to the jelly wall.

A strange feeling came over me. Iara’s hair was loose and billowy. Her eyes were faintly glowing. Her muscles, so firm and lean, were working hard, and I could feel her heart beating right next to mine. She was a tremendously beautiful woman.

This euphoria kept with me, even as we reached the wall. I was in a daze the whole time we worked to fill the sacks with jelly. She looked every bit an angel as she scooped me back into her arms and pressed her mouth against mine. I had that by-now familiar sensation of her pulling all my carbon dioxide away. I saw it vent out of her gills, familiar halo around her head. Up and up together we went, and I could have ascended like that forever and never given another thought to my old life.

Even when we broke the surface, I found it hard to shake the feeling. Iara stayed very close to me. We didn’t stop looking into one another’s eyes as we swam, sideways, to the edge of the pool. I got out first, but stooped to give her my hand and help her out as well. The jelly sacks slouched over the rocky ground beside me, forgotten.

Iara reached around me with her other hand. Her cool fingers slipped inside my wetsuit against my stomach produced the necklace she had given me earlier. I had forgotten it, truthfully, but she held it out in front of me then and placed it in both of my hands.

“David.” It was Liz’s voice. “Are we okay?”

“Yeah. Look what Iara gave me,” I said. Stupid. Showing off an underwater engagement ring to my wife, given to me by another woman. Stupid for doing all of that in front of Iara. Stupid for letting myself get there, like that.

I turned to bring Iara into the conversation, but she was jogging off. I wonder if she knew what she was doing? I wonder if she knew that I really was married to Elisabeth? No one else down here seemed to give that concept a whole lot of credibility. But I thought Iara was smarter than that. I gave Liz the necklace. She plucked it out of my hands and threw it on the ground. It shattered.

“We don’t have time for this, David.”

I looked up just in time to catch Iara staring at the broken necklace.

The good feeling was gone. I was mad at Liz for her callous disregard. I was mad at myself for being cavalier with Iara’s affection. I cared about Iara. A lot. But I couldn’t let those cares occlude my responsibilities as a husband and a father. It might feel good, but it wasn’t right.

Pushing these thoughts momentarily aside, I opened the case and withdrew the compressor inside. I placed my Dictaphone and my hard drives into a waterproof container, slipping them into my wetsuit. I attached the compressor to the balloon while Liz continued to hold Jonah tightly in her arms. It began to fill with air. When the balloon was about half-way inflated, Iara began to smear jelly on the outside of it. It was like a giant Chinese lantern, hollow in the middle, with space for us to fit inside. There was a small control panel attached to the inner lining of the ballast. Using this, I could manage the internal pressure of the balloon. It held enough oxygen for maybe an hour. Liz and Jonah climbed inside while I continued to both inflate the balloon and rub the jelly all over it.

This was the part of the plan that made me nervous. The jelly, used like this, could only mean one thing. I was pretty sure it was the one thing upon which our survival depended. That and finding the Daedelus, not running out of oxygen, not having the balloon collapse under the pressure, Iara not being so hurt by my stupidity and Liz’s confusing brand of jealousy that she refused to help, and Liz not stabbing me in the heart once I got into the balloon with her and Jonah and sealed the rubber behind me.

I was on pins and needles. Iara’s face was quivering, but she didn’t speak. She didn’t say a word, somehow managing to always keep herself on the far side of the balloon so I could barely even see her. I suppose I should have been grateful for that, but it just made me feel worse.

The compressor beeped around the same time we ran out of jelly. The balloon was covered in a layer about three inches thick. It glistened. Iara came around from the back and walked in front of me to the water. She didn’t look at me, but she stopped just past me and spoke slowly.

“I gave everything.”

It hurt to look at her. Her eyes lit up her face like the headlights on a freight train. She was fierce, but hurting. I chose my next words very carefully. “I cannot give you what I have already given them.”

Iara paused, took a breath, and then forced a smile on her face. “You understand.” And then, taking my hand in hers, she stroked the ridge of my thumb, electrifying me one final time. “I’m happy.”

Just then I heard a noise from behind the balloon. A thump. And then a whimpering, followed by an unfortunately familiar voice. It was the voice of loose-ends and nightmares, a voice I’d hoped never to hear again.

“Hello preacher-man,” said Chris.

He was holding Jonah in one arm. He had a knife in the other hand, and I could see Liz behind him on the ground. She was awake and moving, but there was blood coming from a scrape on her forehead. She obviously wasn’t in fighting shape.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

Chris continued dangling Jonah. My son couldn’t catch his breath. “David. Maybe you can help me with something.”

“What are you doing, Chris?” I repeated, voice low.

“I don’t really want the fishy-fetus, David. I want Iara. She’s got some connection to the beast, and I want to see it. I want to ride it. I want to make it into something special.”

“Chris, I’m going to kill you.”

He burst out laughing. Iara began moving slowly to his far side. “Come on, Iara. Come trade yourself for the little Mann. I don’t need it. I don’t want to hurt it. But I will. I’ll give it a new smile. Maybe some flippers.” Chris traced his knife along Jonah’s legs to make his point. I prayed.

And then he dropped my son. Jonah landed on Chris’ boot and bounced once onto the rocks before skidding into the water.

Everything happened so fast then. I leaped for Jonah as Iara dove at Chris. He avoided Iara’s attack but slid his arm around her waist and pulled her tight. His knife was once again at the throat of someone I loved.

Chris had always been strange, but his oddities had festered into something worse. He wasn’t weird. He was possessed. He was in league with dark powers.

Liz had come to and was now hip deep in the pool holding onto Jonah, who was screaming his head off. She was too. Chris grinned. Iara looked at me full in the face and shook her head.

And then he cut her.

Blood flowed over her hands as she clapped them both to her throat. Everything was moving quickly, too fast to be understood as anything other than slowness. I couldn’t breathe.

I needed Iara.

“All I want,” Chris started “is the monster. I want to cut it and stuff it and eat it in pieces. I want to drink the black booze out of its dead skull. I want it to be inside me.” Iara moaned that low whalish refrain. She was doing exactly what Chris wanted. She was summoning Leviathan. She wailed and she sang and she called, and then Iara collapsed onto the cavern floor. I started over to her immediately.

“David,” Liz whimpered my name. She could barely say it. “David, please.” I knew what was coming. It wasn’t fair. I dreaded the next thing I would hear from either voice.

“You should leave, David,” Chris echoed. He was still smiling. “Iara and I can finish up here.”

“I’m sorry, Liz,” I said.

Chris walked away from us as the pool water began to bubble. He raised his arms up to the sky like an idolater. He waved his knife back and forth and leaned backwards, soaking up the anticipation. Liz and Jonah ran to hide in the balloon, unable to fully close the door for fear they’d miss something important. I came to Iara’s side and swiped some of the jelly from off the balloon and onto her throat. The cut wasn’t deep. It didn’t have to be. She wasn’t dead for sure, but she could be. No guarantees. No certainty.

Just faith.

I begged God to spare her life. Liz was still making noises, calling for me to relent. Chris’ whole attention was focused on the bubbles and the swelling blue. When Leviathan broke the surface, Chris broke into a dance. He jerked his arms up and down, calling to the creature. Leviathan considered him. The seven heads made seven surveys of the scene below. They moved like snake’s heads, to the side. I felt each pair of eyes hone in on Iara, and one of the great heads came down right above Chris. Slowly. So slowly. Chris reached up with his hands and began to rub under its chin. He was stroking the beast. He began to speak in some ancient language. He was chanting. He was dancing. Then he made a small incision on the underside of one neck. Leviathan’s heads moved to the side. And Chris was alive. Iara sat up a little. She lifted my hands from off of her throat. She turned to face me and placed her blooded hand upon mine.

“Goodbye, David Mann. Time for home.” And I realized with a terrible finality that she was right.

Iara dove into the water and swam down the tunnel. Leviathan watched her and began to ebb away. But Chris would not be robbed of his prescientific prize. He cut the creature again, deeply. And so Leviathan reared up one head. And Chris danced and chanted. And Leviathan brought that head down onto Chris’ body and smashed him upon the rocks. Both his kneecaps burst and his elbows inverted. Chris screamed. His wrists bent back, completely distended from the tendons and the bones in his arms. Chris shrieked. Blood spewed from the back of his head. His back was broken. His eyes came forward in his face and his legs jerked too far from his hips.

 

On earth there is nothing like him…

he disdains every high thing,

and is seated above all the children of pride.

 

Chris had been turned into something unnatural. A broken thing. A thing remade. A cryptid himself, now, fit for his own book of unnatural half-life. I walked past him, feeling nothing but shame for what I had allowed to happen to Iara. And to Liz. I got into the balloon. I sealed the ballast behind me and turned around. Liz was holding Jonah tightly but didn’t look at me. My son did, though, with big eyes and a blank expression. He was looking better than he had back in the palace, but I knew he was still a long way away from being completely recovered.

So was Liz.

So was I.

The last thing I saw as I closed the door to the balloon ballast was Scyla and Schylla, a mouthful of slobber and a hand full of eager fingers. They were just a few feet away. I guess they’d managed to get close without us knowing. But they were not interested in us.

They took Chris away on a spineboard. He was still screaming.

And then the balloon lurched as Leviathan gummed us into one of his gargantuan mouths and pulled us under the water and out to sea. Forty days after being born again under the water, I was ascending back into the heavens from which I came.