Funny thing about being under water. You can’t stay forever, but for as long as you can hold your breath it’s pure freedom. Free from chores, from trouble, even gravity.
Adam hung in weightless bliss just under the surface and smiled at the muffled sounds of his little sister’s squeals and giggles as she splashed in the shallow water. Hearing her laugh was the best.
He waited for the sound of his big brother diving in. Adam had won the footrace to the pond, but not by much.
He blew the air out of his lungs and sank to the bottom. Relaxed in the weightless haven, he took a moment to enjoy the cool stillness and the refracted sun beams piercing the clear water. I would stay down here all day if I could. Every care seeped from his body into the quiet sanctuary.
The water darkened, and he lifted his face upward. What happened? He vaulted from the floor like a missile.
A few strokes and kicks should have brought him up, but … Wow. It’s deeper than I thought. He strained against the water as he swam upward. Why is it taking so long?
He looked around him. Was the water getting darker?
His smooth stroke turned to a panicked thrashing. He pumped harder, arms flailing. He pressed his lips closed with all his might as his lungs screamed for air.
Dad? He expected to feel the rescuing grasp of his father or big brother any moment. But no one came.
He kicked harder. Am I even swimming the right way?
He could hold his breath no longer. His thoughts clouded and consciousness began to slip away as darkness closed in.
With one last thrash, he surged upward and broke the surface, gasping precious air. But then it hit him. Something’s wrong. The air—it’s …
He swiped water from his face.
What in the world? Where is everyone? Where is our house?
He swam to a sandbar and waded out of the pond, water raining from his wiry, adolescent frame.
The picnic blanket and all the food were gone. No sign of his family or anyone else. His house, the neighbors’ houses—all gone. Only weeds, rocks, and trees surrounded him.
He could hear his heart pounding in the eerie stillness.
Again, something about the air. He waved his hand back and forth. The air was … thin. Empty. Like the atmosphere itself was dead.
“Mom? Dad?” The sound of his own voice in the silence startled him. Mind racing, he turned a full circle. Am I dreaming?
He started up a nearby rise for a better view, his stomach knotting as he suppressed tears. After a few steps, his pace exploded into a frantic run for a higher vantage point.
Atop the hill, his heart sank. The expansive view revealed only an endless carpet of treetops stretching to every horizon. No people, no roads, not even a path. No sign of civilization.
Reality seeped into his thoughts like ice water, chilling his soul. He was alone in this … place. Tears finally broke free. “Mom!” His voice cracked when he called out. “Dad?” Then he shrieked. “Anyone? Please! Help me!”
He slumped to the ground, pulled his knees to his chest, and covered his head with his arms, trying to wish his way out of this terror. Was he trapped forever in this strange, empty world?
If only his brother were here. He’d know what to do. He rubbed his temples. What would his brother do?
Then he opened his eyes wide. He couldn’t picture his brother—or even think of his name. What’s wrong with me? The image was blurry, the shapes reminiscent of someone familiar but refusing to snap into focus.
Still, thoughts of his brother, vague as they were, comforted him. Adam tried to imagine him walking up the hill, calling his name.
Then he realized—if they did come, they wouldn’t even know where to look for him. They could be at the pond right now!
He jumped to his feet and ran down the hill back to the pond.
Still no one there.
With a whimper, he began wandering around the tiny lake, searching for a position that would provide a good view of the whole area. If his parents came, he didn’t want to miss them.
He settled on a place near where he had come out of the water and found a comfortable spot to wait. He shivered in the cool air and curled his toes inside his soggy shoes. Why was I swimming with all my clothes on? He tried to replay the moment he’d jumped in. It was no use. It was as if the depths of that pond had sucked in all previous memories like a black hole.
He leaned back against a rock—then bolted upright, turned, and pressed his hand to the boulder. It wasn’t hard like a normal rock. This isn’t right. He ran his hand along the boulder. What is this place?
He picked up a small stone and rolled it in his hand. He squeezed it. Then he ran his fingers through the dirt. Nothing was right. The stone was too light, pebbles too smooth. The soil didn’t dirty his hands.
He examined the landscape. Everything beyond arm’s reach appeared … flat. Almost like pictures on the pages of a storybook. Things seemed real enough up close, but the farther a tree or a rock was from him, the less real it appeared.
He caught his breath. In the distance, purple, red, and yellow rays shot upward. And there were other colors—colors he had never seen. They were rising from … Hey—that’s a building!
He jumped to his feet and squinted toward the building. Now the colors were gone, but he could still see the structure. What happened to the colors? And why hadn’t he noticed that building before?
He closed his eyes to replay what he’d witnessed. The memory arose so vividly it startled him. Yes, he had seen colors. They had radiated from the building. And they moved, shimmering like light reflecting off water. No, not like water. This movement was different. Like the movement of a living thing.
He looked again at the building. It was up in the hills, but he could see it clear as day—an old, ramshackle cottage. The longer he studied it, the more his fascination grew.
That cottage had to be his best chance of finding someone who might help him, but … what caused those lights?
He told himself it was silly to be afraid of colors. What could they do to him? It was probably just the angle of the sunlight—or his mind playing tricks on him. But how could there be colors he had never seen?
Once more, he squeezed his eyes closed. This time the images in his memory were even more striking. And they were more than mere colors. He had not only seen them but felt them—like they held some kind of power. A power that … wasn’t safe.
Maybe going there wouldn’t be such a great idea. If he left the pond, what if his parents came and he wasn’t there? They might not notice the cottage. He hadn’t at first.
He didn’t want to leave the pond, and he didn’t want to stay at the pond. He wanted to go home.
He circled the pond again, watching for a place where he could see beneath the surface. If he dove in, would it take him back home? Or somewhere else? Would he come up at all?
He waded in up to his knees. Then he stood and peered into the murky abyss and shuddered.
He backed out of the water and turned again toward the cottage. In time, a few of the colors reappeared. Something about them tugged at his spirit, drawing him despite his fear—almost as though it were a person, beckoning him.
He blew out a big breath, gave the pond one last glance, and set out for the cottage. If he trained his eyes on it and kept a straight course, it shouldn’t take long to get there.
Within ten minutes he had lost line of sight with the pond. Between him and the cottage lay steep, rocky terrain, and dark shadows haunted the valleys. The knots in his stomach returned.
Something rustled behind him and he spun into a defensive stance—legs planted and hands up. But only trees surrounded him.
He heard the noise again and looked up. A dark, churning cloud rolled toward him.
The cloud resolved into a massive flock of birds. Adam stared wide-eyed, then broke into a smile.
Their wings whistled, and the pitch varied with their speed, creating a delightful symphony. Groups split apart, cutting, darting, and circling in a kaleidoscope of brilliant, dancing color.
One bird lighted on a nearby branch. Its bright purple throat deepened into a darker purple breast with golden bars running down the underside.
While the strange hues of the cottage had frightened Adam, these colors delighted him.
After examining Adam, the bird flew off, rejoining the flock which moved back toward the pond. Enthralled, Adam followed, hardly aware he was walking. Whenever he stopped, the birds circled him, then resumed their progress as if drawing Adam along were a game.
For Adam, it was a game. He waited for the birds to encircle him, watched them go again, and ran after them, laughing.
The entertainment continued an hour or more. But eventually the sounds and movements of the birds grew monotonous, and boredom set in.
Free from the distraction, he reawakened to his plight and the terror returned. What had he been doing? How could he so easily forget his family just because of a dumb flock of birds?
He turned back toward the cottage, now a tiny dot in the distance. That’s impossible. I didn’t wander that far. He sighed. Now it’ll take forever to get there.
A blinding flash and a crack of thunder made him jump. Pouring rain pelted him. Adam dashed for shelter under the trees.
A shiver ran through him. As the storm intensified, he backed further into the refuge, grateful for the leafy haven.
He pushed a branch out of his way, and something soft grazed his cheek. He reached to brush it away. His fingers punctured the fuzzy little ball and dripped with juice. A peach! Adam loved fruit—especially peaches.
He licked his fingers. The juice tasted sweet as candy.
He examined the surrounding trees. I’ve wandered into an orchard!
For the first time in this world, Adam realized he was hungry—ravenously hungry. And the void of longing seemed to arise from deeper inside than his stomach.
The cottage can wait, he thought as he liberated the delicacy from the branch.
He bit into it. Pleasure coursed through him, head to toe. He had the strange thought that he would fight to the death for this peach. And yet, he didn’t finish it. Exhilarating as the first bite was, he wanted another peach—a different peach. He dropped the first one in search of a bigger, juicier one.
He picked another, and another, rushing from branch to branch to fill his arms. The load spilled when Adam’s toe caught on a stray root and he stumbled, landing on his hands and knees with a large green ball beneath him.
A watermelon! This orchard was too good to be true. With a sharp rock and a little determination, Adam soon had red juice running down his chin as he devoured one piece after another.
As he wandered among the trees, everything Adam sampled delighted his palate. This orchard offered every imaginable fruit—and many Adam had never seen before.
Each bite made him want two more. But even after stuffing himself, he didn’t feel full. In fact, he felt empty. Not hungry, but hollow and unsatisfied.
He ate some more and felt even less satisfied. In fact, a growing nausea rose in his stomach as he ate. What’s wrong with this fruit? He bit into an apple. Sweet, but unsatisfying. He chomped another bite. His nausea worsened.
He examined the apple. No worms. Nothing wrong with it. He took another bite. Ugh! He threw it against a tree. It ricocheted and rolled to a stop in the dirt.
Adam stared at the thing and hated it. He went to kick it into the bushes, out of his sight. But when he reached it, he paused. He picked it up and examined it again. He cleaned the dirt off the best he could and devoured the rest of it.
As Adam ventured further into the orchard, travel became easier—level ground and fewer stones and logs to step over. A corridor emerged. This is a path. There must be people around here!
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard movement among the trees ahead—someone walking.
Adam’s heart raced. His darting eyes could make out nothing through the trees. He thought he wanted to find people in this world, but … Will he hurt me? Or take me away? What if it’s not even a person?
Adam crawled into a thicket and froze.
The footsteps came nearer, slowed, then stopped.
After a moment, they started again. Adam held his breath until he could no longer hear footsteps. He silently lifted his hand, pinched a branch, and moved it aside to risk a peek.
His heart stopped when the opening revealed two eyes staring at him a foot away.