They crane their necks as they scour the massive lobby for a map. Heavy layers of black mold sprawl across the cathedral ceiling windows, interrupted by the occasional beam of light streaming through its broken glass. Rows of suspicious murmuring pigeons perched along the ceiling’s high ledges glare down upon them through the crisscrossing of vines. Lucas and Maia carefully maneuver around another rusted grocery cart tipped on its side.
“Careful around these escalators.” Lucas’s whispers echo across the lobby. “Lots of broken glass around the railings.”
“Escalators?” Maia whispers back.
Maia studies the corrugated metal steps. “Move … and go where?”
Lucas smiles, shaking his head. “I’ll explain later. We need to keep moving.”
They quietly shuffle past a row of submerged benches engulfed in clumps of weeds. Maia’s foot slips beneath the black water. She sinks to her chin, and her hands slide along the gritty tiles below.
“You okay?” Lucas wades back toward her.
She gains her footing and lifts herself out of the muck. Dripping wet, she nervously scans her palms.
Lucas grabs her hands, flipping them front to back. “Nada?” he whispers.
“Good. A cut is the last thing we need.” Lucas looks around. “Okay, back on the ship, Mario told me there would be maps in open areas like this. Look for some sort of framed glass, something that would have information on it.”
Maia glances around. They are in the middle of something called a “mall,” in a lobby of some sort. Dark halls extend in every direction while four different escalators descend from the floor above, circling around them with tarnished metal railings. In the middle of the room, a grand Romanesque statue of a man emerges from the water. His marble fingers reach to the ceiling as if in a desperate plea for help.
Nestled against one of the back walls is a large glass frame supported by a stand.
He stops in a beam of light and turns toward her. His long curls are tied off his face, half-hidden once again under a thick beard. He looks at her with that same serious Lucas face, the face she has probably seen far too much of these last few weeks living in LA. Always worried. Always on guard.
Maia tilts her head, smiling at him, and his features soften.
“You okay?” he whispers.
She nods toward the sign. “Could that be what we’re looking for?” she asks.
He twists in the water, following her gaze. “Could be.”
They carefully wade toward the sign. Slowly. Methodically. Their feet search beneath the black waters for sure footing before taking each step.
Maia tears the vines from the glass while Lucas scoops water between his cupped hands, splashing it against the cracked pane. The water rolls down in tiny balls across the heavy layers of dust. Lucas wipes the sign with the back of his fist, revealing a diagram of multicolored boxes.
He sighs in relief. “Okay, Mario said that our best hope to find supplies would be from places most out of reach. Difficult places.” He glances at Maia from the corner of his eye. “Dangerous places.”
He looks back at the map. “There should be a shop here that used to sell hunting equipment. Mario mentioned it will be at the end of one of the dark corridors and will have many floors. The most coveted supplies will be underwater on the lowest levels.”
Lucas continues to wipe the frame. Along the far edge is an index. He drags his finger along the glass. “Here, I think this is it.” He looks up, scanning the massive space for the correct entryway. “There. It will be down there.”
They both look in the direction he points—a gaping black hole leading down a long corridor. A curtain of vines hangs from the opening like fangs. A green Emergency Exit sign dangles between them. Half-unhinged from its post, it is slowly being pulled from its grip by a vine’s leafy tendrils.
Lucas looks down at Maia, his eyes plagued with doubt.
She grabs his hand. “Lucas, we’ve got to do this. We need more supplies before we try to find your brother, and this city is tragically picked over.”
“Yes, okay,” he says with a sigh. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Together, they wade across the expansive foyer to the corridor and push their way through the vines. Lucas reaches into his pack and pulls out a small flashlight. Flicking it on, a white beam cuts through the blackness.
The ceiling appears to be pulsing. He flicks his light upwards, revealing hundreds of sleeping bats.
“Oh, God,” Maia whispers.
“It’s okay. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.”
“I guess that would explain the smell,” Maia says with a grimace. “No wonder this water is so dark.”
“Try not to think about it.”
Lucas sweeps the torch back and forth across the flooded corridor, guiding their path in bursts of light as they continue to navigate their way deeper and deeper down the dark passageway. There are much smaller shops down here, their busted-out storefronts tattooed with graffiti, thick weeds, and a lacework of vines. Lucas shines his light inside each but only briefly. One by one, they are all the same, their insides long gutted from years of looting.
“That torch is amazing,” Maia whispers. “I can’t believe Jake would ever part with it.”
Lucas is quiet. “Yes, well,” he finally says without looking at her. “They had a few. They were very kind to me with their supplies.”
Maia’s foot rams into something beneath the water. “Lucas?” she whispers.
“What is it?” He shines the torch into the murky water, but the light only reflects back at him.
“I don’t know, but it’s not completely solid. Do I step over it?” Maia asks.
She nudges the mound with the tip of her foot, slowly inching toward Lucas. A metal shelf sticking out from the water slides off the submerged bulk, sending small waves in every direction. Lucas continues to shine his light where Maia now stands. A few air bubbles break along the water’s surface, and a bloated body of a man emerges.
Maia recoils, her hand to her mouth. The back of his matted head has been gravely injured, his skull caving in around his wound.
“He’s not that old, Lucas. People have been down here.”
“Let’s keep moving.”
Lucas continues to sweep the light of his torch across the corridor, stopping every so often to listen for noise. It is eerily quiet, save for the occasional flutter above. His light pauses on a row of vending machines looming before them, a perfect place to hide. He holds his hand up, telling Maia without words to stop. Pulling his knife from its sheath, he takes a wide angle around the machines, searching the surroundings with his torch. He stops, then glances back at Maia. “All clear.”
Finally reaching the end of the corridor, they are met with a large wall of busted glass doors. Lucas’s flashlight skims the rusted letters sprawled above them.
“This is it.”
They carefully step through the doorways of broken glass. Once inside, they wade past lane after lane of small black screens, the drawers below them open and emptied. It’s a scene Maia has come across her entire life. Those drawers used to hold papers and coins inside that held all the power in the world—a power now as useless as the papers. She wades past the closest lane. Its empty drawer sits on the countertop, untouched and covered in dust. A few paper bills still float beneath it.
Lucas and Maia reach the railings of another set of escalator stairs peeking out from the water, leading down into a gaping black hole.
“I think this is it,” Lucas says.
They stare down into the murky depths. Maia unzips her pack and pulls out a bundled rope.
“Let me go first,” Lucas whispers.
“But I’m the stronger swimmer.”
He takes the rope from her hands. “Maia, this is a fight you will never win.”
Maia sighs. Snatching the torch from his hand, she shines the light on him as he unravels the end of the bundle. He ties it around his waist and knots it a few times, then hooks the rest of the rope around his shoulder. Fumbling below the water, he unties his shoes, then hands the dripping sneakers to Maia. She sets them on the counter behind her, then turns to grab his shoulders.
“Okay, start packing your lungs like we’ve practiced—we’ll do the first round together.” She holds up her pack, and he loops his arms through the straps. “As soon as you dive, I’ll start counting,” she continues. “After thirty seconds, I’ll tug the rope, and unless you give three sharp tugs back, I will start pulling to help you get up as fast as possible. If you need me to pull at any time, just tug the rope once.”
Maia holds up one finger. In unison, they take a deep breath and hold it. She uncurls a second finger, and they fill their puffed cheeks with more oxygen and push it down into their lungs. Lucas nods and turns toward the escalators. Without hesitating, he dives into the black hole leading to the lower level.
Maia releases her breath as Lucas’s tiny beam of light disappears beneath the murk, leaving her blanketed in complete darkness. She grips the end of the rope as the water sloshes against the shelving.
One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.
After thirty seconds, Maia tugs on the rope. No response. She pulls hard, one hand over the other, grunting from the weight. Her feet sliding beneath her, she props them against the bottom of the escalator railings for leverage.
Just when she is about to panic, the light of the torch cuts through the blackness, and Lucas breaks the surface with a desperate gasp. Maia holds the escalator railing and pulls him to shallow water. She takes the torch from his hand and surveys his body for cuts. Searching his face, she whispers, “Are you okay?”
Lucas looks up at her but can only respond in gasps.
She lifts the pack from his back, and he wriggles his arms out. “What’s it like down there?”
“There’s not much,” Lucas says as he catches his breath, “but we’ll keep diving. It’s hard at first not to panic and vision is limited.” He unties the knot around his waist, then hands Maia the rope and takes the torch from her. As she works on tying it around herself, Lucas clears his throat. “Any chance you can use any of those powers of yours to hold your breath longer?”
Maia looks up at him, unsure. “I wouldn’t know how. But I can hold my breath for a long time. I’ve been diving my entire life.”
“I have too, Maia, but it’s pretty unsettling down there.”
“Where shall I go? No point scouring the same area.”
“Yes, dive straight to the back. There seems to be a lot more the farther back you go. Looks like hunting supplies back there.”
Lucas grabs her hand. “Be careful. Don’t let your rope get caught on anything. It’s a mess down there. Keep it wrapped like this.” He hands her the bundle. “And let it unravel as you swim.”
“Don’t forget to keep track of time. The farther back you go, the longer I have to pull you out and the more dangerous this becomes.”
“I know, Lucas. I can do this.” Maia places her shoes next to his on the counter.
“Don’t be stubborn! Listen to your body—”
“Lucas, I’ve got this.”
He grabs the sides of her face and kisses her. “Yes, okay,” he finally says. “Just please be careful.”
Maia takes the torch from his hand and wades to the end of the stairs. Her toes totter along the edge of the first step. She works through packing her lungs and then dives down. The water is disturbingly warm. She places the torch between her teeth, and the light cuts through the darkness in a small beam. She kicks farther down, gliding above the long trail of escalator stairs as the rope unravels around her arm.
Once at the bottom, her light trips over layers of toppled shelving covered in a thick blanket of sand. The endless mountains of rubbish seem to blend in one muted mess. She sweeps her light across the clutter until she sees the back wall.
She’s only just arrived and can already feel the strain on her lungs, like a balloon about to pop. Panic sets in, but she pushes it down, kicking deeper through the chaos of half-floating boxes, shreds of clothing, and endless bits of debris.
The darkness and the wreckage seem to close in on her. Lightheaded and disorientated, Maia twists within the water. Which way are the escalators? She traces the trail of rope beneath her with her torch. Reassured, she flips toward the back wall again, scanning its contents with her light.
And that’s when she sees them.
Still encased in flooded glass are what appears to be a selection of carbon hunting bows. Made with a system of cables and pulleys, they give the hunter power and speed unmatched by any handmade bow.
Maia’s lungs thrash beneath her chest. She is out of time. The rope begins to unravel around her arm, and she grabs hold as Lucas pulls from above. Kicking ferociously, she swims up the escalators, desperate to take a breath. She gasps as she breaks the surface and swims toward Lucas’s open arms. “I didn’t … didn’t … get anything.”
“It’s okay. Take a rest, and I’ll try again.”
“Back wall. Go…”
“Yes, I’ve got it.” He unties the knot from her waist and winds the rope around his arm, then dives back under.
Maia stands gasping in the dark, beginning her countdown once again.
When Lucas comes back up, it’s sooner than before. “I’m out of practice,” he says as he coughs up seawater. “I needed to turn around before I reached the back wall.”
Maia is more determined than ever. She can do this. She has held her breath many times diving for food. But then again, there was an endless ocean above her. And light. And she wasn’t in a flooded mall in the middle of Los Angeles with danger lurking around every corner.
That back wall. That back wall has everything they need. She must get to that back wall.
Plunging beneath the water, Maia follows the same path as before. Her tired lungs begin to ache, but she keeps kicking, gliding over the mountains of refuse and bins and shelving. Her light sweeps over the back wall while she fights to ignore her panicked lungs.
Reaching the bows, she bangs at the glass with the back of the torch. Air bubbles escape her pressed lips. She hammers again—nothing. She scans her light around for anything sharp to break it.
Breathe. Need to breathe. Can’t breathe.
More air bubbles escape.
She’s waited too long. She tugs at the rope and holds on tight as it drags her along. Grimacing, she covers her nose and mouth. The pressure from her burning lungs feels like it’s ripping her from the inside out.
Can’t … breathe…
She is on the verge of passing out. The rope tightens around her waist, and Lucas tears her from the water.
“Maia!” he screams at her. “That was too long!”
Wheezing and coughing, she falls across Lucas’s arms. “I…” she finally manages to mutter. “I … made it … to the … back wall. There are bows down there, Lucas.”
He sighs, holding her until her breathing calms. “Maia, what good is a bow if you’re not here to shoot it?” he asks quietly.
Maia pushes away from him. “I have to go back down.”
She laughs. “No?”
“It’s too dangerous, Maia.” He gazes down at her. Then shaking his head, he adds, “I don’t trust you.”
“I can hold my breath longer than you. I’m the only one between the two of us that can make it that far.” She coughs again. “Those bows … just one of those bows will make all the difference in the world for our journey. It will allow us to hunt and protect ourselves in a way that far exceeds any homemade bow. And they’re right there. I just need to break the glass. Give me your knife.”
Lucas reluctantly hands her his knife, and she tucks it into a zipper on the outside of her pack. He glares at her as he winds up the rope, then lassos it around her arm and hooks it over her shoulder. “This is the last time, Maia. I won’t lose you over a bow,” he says dryly.
“You won’t. I’ll get it this time.” Maia doesn’t wait for a response. She fills her lungs and dives down. Gliding through the water, she is focused. Resolute. Her lungs begin to panic but she is already at the glass. She keeps her flashlight between her teeth and pulls the knife from her pack, driving it hard into the case. Nothing. She stabs again. And again.
Fractures splinter across the glass. Her lungs burn. Panicked, she continues to bang. Hard, harder. Desperate for air, her chest feels like it’ll burst.
This is all in her mind. She needs to calm her mind. There is plenty of oxygen in her blood. She’ll be okay—she knows this.
The glass is fractured, but it won’t break. The pressure from the water must be holding it in place. This is her last shot; she can’t come down here again. She closes her eyes and focuses on the energy of the water surrounding her. Hovering her hand just outside the case, she pushes the weight of the ocean against it. She opens her eyes, watching in awe as the glass splinters further.
She rips her hand back, and the glass shatters across the gloom.
Maia’s rope tugs hard and, without a second’s notice, begins to pull her from the bows. She reaches for the wall, but Lucas has already pulled her too far. She twists within the water and grabs the rope, tugging back three times. The rope slacks, and she kicks back through the floating layers of shattered glass.
Grasping the bow with both hands, she places her feet against the wall and rips the contraption from its mount. She swims farther down and grabs a container of arrows. The rope around her waist tightens once again. She wraps her arms around the glorious carbon as Lucas drags her across the ceiling of the enormous warehouse and up the escalator stairs.
Breaking the surface, Maia thrashes as Lucas shouts. Grabbing her pack, he yanks her from the flooded stairwell and holds her until she finds her footing.
Embracing her brand-new bow, Maia catches her breath, peering up at an unimpressed-looking Lucas with a smile.
*Photo credit: Pinterest