The colors flashed bright across the screen.
Florida 1 news, channel 7
Jill turned her face away when Jenny’s picture appeared, an old photo of her smiling face surrounded by green and orange letters. Margo picked up the remote, turning the newscaster’s voice down to a soft buzz.
“She’s seventeen,” Jill sniffled.
“Almost.” Margo remembered the countdown on the calendar in Jenny’s room.
“That’s how old you were…”
It was twenty-three hours since Jenny had been reported missing. The protocol was to wait until someone had been missing for twenty-four until police began searching, but Spring Hill was a small town and everyone knew the Allans. They began searching at hour six.
“She was supposed to come home.”
“I know, Jill.”
“She always obeys her curfew-“
The grandfather clock in the hall rang six times, echoing in the empty house.
“We’re halfway there,” Jill said quietly, sinking back into the couch with eyes fixed on nothing in particular.
“They say if you don’t find them within 48 hours then you probably never will.” Jill’s voice cracked. Margo pulled the quilt up around her and draped her legs up over the arm of the chair.
“They’ll find her.” She picked at a seam on the arm where the leather had begun to peel from all the times she had slid her legs over like that.
“Stop it,” Jill barked quietly. Her eyes flashed at Margo for a moment, then back at the distance she was staring into. Margo wondered what Jill was thinking, or if she was thinking anything at all. The way her eyes glazed over she could tell Jill was entirely somewhere else. Maybe she was stuck in a dream of opening the door to see Jenny safely snuggled in her bed, of her sneaking in the back door in the middle of the night saying she had lost track of time. Maybe this was all a dream. Margo realized she had been in an entirely different place for a moment too, and decided to let Jill remain that way.
Margo gazed at scrawny, fourteen-year-old Jenny in the photograph on the mantle. Margo was just a teenager when Jenny was born, and she thought of that day often. She had been bitter throughout most of Jill’s pregnancy, because once again everything was about Jill and Margo was in the shadows. But when Margo saw Jenny for the first time all those feelings dissipated.
She tried to picture what it looked like to see Jenny walk through the kitchen door, what it might’ve looked like if Jenny came home. But Margo hadn’t been to Jill’s in a while and Jenny seemed to look different every time Margo saw her. Margo turned away from the old photo on the mantle and looked over to the one on the table next to the couch. That was more what Jenny looked like now. Hair bleached with streaks of blonde, face thick with mascara and dark lipstick and always wearing jeans with holes up the thighs. Sixteen going on seventeen, or sixteen going on thirty-two and Jill always told people. “She’s growing up,” Jill would say, “She’s going through a phase.” Jill never had any phases, but Margo knew what phases were. And these never seemed like them; they just seemed like Jenny.
Margo brought her wandering eyes back to her lap, to the snag in the blanket that lay over her legs, thinking of what happened fifteen years before. She could not bear the thought of Jill going through another tragedy. Margo would never admit it to Jill, but she had always blamed herself for the accident in their childhood home. Sure she didn’t start the fire, no one started the fire. It happened on its own. Jill made it out with skinny little Jenny, her tiny face gray from the ash. But Margo came out alone. She only saved herself. She wanted to run back into the house, she wanted so badly to brave the flames and run back up the crumbling stairs to get Mom and Dad out. But when she saw Jill’s face as her tears slid down onto the blanket Jenny was wrapped in, she couldn’t get herself to move.
Jill always had Jenny wrapped in that blanket. The only time she didn’t was at the funeral. Jenny was wearing a tiny black dress, kicking her feet and gnawing on a rubber toy. Margo remembered seeing her two little teeth poking through her gums as she smiled even in the sea of black, and how she didn’t cry while teething like most kids do. She always seemed content. “Your parents were wonderful people, they will be missed,” people offered as they left after the service. Jill nodded and thanked them, but Margo held her tongue. All she could think to say was “Then why did this happen?” but she didn’t. It wasn’t something Jill would’ve said, and she always seemed to find Jill as the standard she had to hold herself to. When she was young, she found it annoying and unfair that people always compared her to her older sister; but once she got older, it became too much effort to fight it. She just let happen, she learned to stop caring who people wanted her to be and be content with who she turned out to be. And she became content with who Jill was, too.
The thing she wanted most in that moment was to keep staring at Jenny’s photograph and let Jill stay sedentary there. She looked so small, crumpled into the couch and partially covered with the blue fleece blanket from the end of Jenny’s bed, entranced by the blank wall across from her. If it were up to Margo, no one would’ve knocked on the door at that moment. But someone did.
“It’s the sheriff, Jill. Open up.” He banged a few times with his fist. “Jill? Are you home?” Margo stood up and turned the brass knob slowly, afraid of what might be on the other side of the door.
“Oh. Hello, Margo.” He seemed surprised to see the younger of the Allan sisters, almost disappointed.
“Mr. Donaldson, please come in” Margo nodded her head as she swung the door open for him. There was nothing else out there, just him. No ambulance, and no black bag, which made her breathe a quiet sigh of relief. But also no Jenny, which made her inhale again.
“How’ve you been, Margo?” Sheriff Donaldson always had a hard time making polite conversation.
“Fine,” she replied, voice void of emotion and eyes stuck on the manila folder he held in his hand. “And you?” He ignored her attempt to return his nicety.
“May I?” he turned to Jill, waking her from her daze. He gestured toward the spot next to her, and Jill nodded.
“Yeah.” Jill’s voice was still distant. He seemed unsure. “Uh, sure, sure, of course. Please.” Jill forced her face into a smile, a smile Margo hadn’t seen from her big sister since Jenny was a baby.
Sheriff Donaldson plopped down on the couch beside Jill, flipping open the folder. He exhaled deeply before speaking up.
“So… We still don’t have a clear lead.” Margo could see Jill’s shoulders sink. “But we might have something.” Margo scooted to the edge of the chair. “A resident saw a girl matching Jenny’s description early this morning.”
“Where?” Margo snapped.
“Near State Road 55. Almost to Weeki Wachee, edge of the county” the sheriff answered.
“What was she doing all the way out there?” Jill furrowed her brow.
“Let’s go.” Margo shot up out of the chair, grabbing her jacket from the coffee table and throwing it on. Sheriff Donaldson just looked at her, silent. “Come on.” Her tone sharpened.
“We can’t just go driving around Weeki Wachee.” He almost chuckled. “It’s mostly swamp out there anyways, the roads are mush.”
“How much longer can we just sit here?” Jill spoke up, eyes still fastened on the blanket draped across her lap.
“It’s not gonna help anyone,” Margo added.
“You two can’t go out there looking,” Donaldson stood up, looking down at Margo like a dog who wouldn’t stop barking.
“Then you can escort us,” Margo huffed, storming out the door.
It should’ve taken them less than thirty minutes to get to the swamp town, especially with Margo’s lead foot. She should’ve left Sheriff Donaldson in the dust with that lead foot too. But of course, the one-lane road was painted red with brake lights.
“There shouldn’t be traffic,” Margo barked. It was the first time either of them had spoken since they got in the car. Margo was wary of saying anything really, worried that the Sheriff could read her lips from the car behind them. Every time she glanced in the rearview mirror, he seemed to be glaring at her.
Margo knew she was never the favorite of the Allans. She had always been strong-willed, with a head of dingy auburn that came nowhere near Jill’s glowing orange. And being the youngest made her feel like she was a phantom that disappeared behind the weight of her sister, like people noticed her sister but never noticed her, even though Jill was always more reserved.
Margo certainly liked her sister best out of the family and it didn’t take her long to figure out that most people agreed. She was personable and polite, and out of the two of them she was never the one to receive instructional books on manners or “How to Act like a Lady” from relatives for Christmas. These feelings of inferiority stuck with Margo from her childhood, and made her sympathize with people like Sheriff Donaldson, who had never been the nicest person either. His wife took their daughter and left him when Margo was young, and from that point she always remembered him as rough and unapproachable. He was kinder before the rough stuff happened, which Margo knew was at least a little true of herself too.
After an hour and a half the Sheriff pulled off to a road with dusty, cracked pavement. Margo slammed on the brakes and turned off the highway to follow him to the trailer park down the road, looking over at Jill and cringing as she took in the scene around her. Jill did not cringe back. Jill’s face had gone white, so white that it was almost blue. Margo watched her eyes, her pupils contracting as all trace of optimism drained away. Her breathing slowed until it was silent behind the rattling of the car engine. Margo was scared Jill might faint, but she was never one to make a scene. She just sat there like a doll, not even a twitch until the road ended and the sheriff stopped in front of them. The car lurched forward as Margo pushed hard on the brakes, the front wheels sliding into a crack in the asphalt. Jill’s blueish skin turned to green, and Margo pushed the back of Jill’s head forward so she would throw up on the floor of the car and not on her own lap. Margo jumped out of the car, trying to keep herself from following suit. She bent over, taking in quick chugs of the dank fall air. Sheriff Donaldson hopped out of his car and pulled Jill outside. He sat her down in his passenger seat, and shut the door of Margo’s car with a cringe.
“She okay?” he asked Margo.
Margo followed him as he walked up to one of the mobile homes and rapped his fist on the door. Immediately the door swung open, leaving just the screen door between them and the almost-toothless woman in the house.
“Hello, there-” Donaldson started.
“Not here” the woman snapped at him.
“I’m sorry ma’am, one of my partners was here a while ago-”
“She not here. She went” the woman stopped, pointing vaguely in the direction of the coast.
“Towards the water?” he asked.
“Small water. Not ocean.” She slammed the door closed with a grunt before he could finish thanking her. He turned around to Margo.
“About as much as they got from her before.” He forced a half smile, his eyes trailing down to the plank missing from the steps leading up to the door. All Margo could do was nod her head, her eyes following his. Everything comes back to missing something, she thought. In that moment she thought herself profound, but only in that moment.
The car hummed louder on the way home, maybe because there was less traffic or maybe because Margo wasn’t listening out to make sure Jill was still breathing. She was glad the Sheriff offered to take her home. The thought of spending another minute watching Jill’s face turn paler than paper made her want to throw up herself.
Margo was happy to remain in silence the whole way back. She spent the first twenty minutes or so racking her brain for anywhere, anywhere in the world Jenny could’ve gone. There weren’t many people in Spring Hill who could’ve done something to hurt Jenny. There weren’t many people in Spring Hill at all. Margo didn’t get the feeling that Jenny had been kidnapped, either. If she were entirely truthful, she would’ve admitted that she always thought Jenny was too much like herself. Stubborn, head filled with dreams of a different place and a different life, just rebellious enough to make Jill worry but not enough to make her a problem child. But after those twenty minutes, she didn’t think of Jenny. She thought of Jill, when she graduated high school and announced to the family that she would never be having children because she didn’t want them to have to go to the dumpy little high school in their town, because she didn’t think she’d ever be able to get out there. One of those came true — she didn’t get out. And after this, Margo thought, even if she did move away, she’d never really leave Spring Hill behind.
Margo often wondered if Jill thought about Jenny’s dad much, if she even remembered making that declaration at the table or if she realized he had ruined some of the first plans she ever made for her life. The first few months of their marriage were fine, but after a while Jill stopped being able to recognize him at all. By the time she found of she was pregnant, she already knew he was going to leave. And as everyone expected, finding out about the baby was the last straw. He never called, never sent money, never inquired about Jenny even once. The only time Jill ever brought him up was to say that Jenny must’ve gotten her stature from him, because by the time Jenny was fifteen the top of Jill’s head only came up to her shoulder. Jenny was always lanky and had legs a mile long, only just recently starting to grow into her long limbs. She was beautiful, just like her mother, and Margo noticed it even more as she spent more time with Jenny.
Until Jenny started to mature, she never really showed much interest in her aunt. But it always seemed like she started to realize the same time Margo did that they were very much the same. Margo assumed it was because Jenny had finally begun to understand herself, and she was jealous of how young Jenny was to be thinking big thoughts like that. It took a tragedy for Margo to even realize she had things like that to figure out. Sometimes Jenny talked about deeper things with Margo, since she never really talked to her mom like that and her aunt was the only other one around.
There were often instances when Margo thought herself to be Jenny’s friend more than anything, especially when they dove together. Diving was always big in Spring Hill; there was never much else to do. Naturally Margo had learned to dive when she was only four or five, and Jenny followed suit. Once she was old enough to use adult-size gear, she would walk to Margo’s up the road, all her gear in tow, and beg and beg until Margo would agree to take her out. They started with shallow lakes, but as Jenny got better and their trips became more frequent, they moved to deeper and more ambitious dives. Jenny would always come out of the water glowing, her light eyes bright with adrenaline and her skin flushed.
“That was amazing,” she would say as drank in the fresh air. “Maybe we can make it farther next time.” Margo missed seeing that look on her face, all her cells ablaze with excitement. Suddenly the hazy clouds and the road before her faded from her vision like dust, and all Margo could see were Jenny’s eyes. She began to cry, alone in the car, for the first time since Jenny disappeared. And for a short time, it helped some.
Her sobs were cut off like the slice of a knife when she pulled in the driveway. Her eyes fell on the door of the shed as she drove up to the house. It was cracked open, just enough that she could tell it hadn’t been shut properly. When she looked closely she could see the lock hanging open. Jill never let Jenny have the key to the shed, she always kept it safely fastened to her keychain that read “World’s Best Mom.” But Margo remembered a few days prior when Jill had said she must be going crazy, because she was sure she had left her keys on the table by the door and they were nowhere to be found.
When Margo made it up the driveway she screeched the car to a stop and flung the door open. She bolted towards the shed but slowed down once she came up to the door, suddenly afraid to open it. She pushed it lightly with her fingertips so it creaked open slowly. Immediately she could see an empty hook where one of their diving suits hung. Jenny always talked about going out by herself, Margo thought, about what it’d be like to be surrounded by utter silence and stillness, alone with her mind. And then Margo understood.
“I know where she is,” she breathed. “I know where she is, I know where…” Her voice became louder as she sprinted out of the shed towards the house. She made it back to her car just as Sheriff Donaldson was helping Jill out of his.
“Jill! Jill!” Margo yelled as she ran up towards them.
“What? What, Margo?” Jill began to panic.
“I know where she is, I-I know, I know where she is,” Margo panted.
“Know what?” Jill looked at Margo with wide eyes. “How do you, how do you know? Where? Where?”
“You know that place she always talks about, that place they shut down when the people died? That dive site…the underwater caves?”
“You don’t think…” Jill hesitated.
“She’s there. I know she is. She was talking about it the other day, about doing the hardest dive in the state. It was on her bucket list I think, I-I have to go look-”
“But people died down there, why would she want to go there? You can’t go, what if she didn’t go down there?” Jill said with worry.
“What if she did?”
This time there was no traffic going out towards the coast. Margo was in the car alone again, but she wasn’t crying. She was nervously tapping her fingers on the wheel as she raced past the speed limit, glancing back in her mirror about every thirty seconds to make sure she wasn’t being followed. She had to do this for Jill, she owed her that much. If there was any chance, even a possibility of Jenny being down there, she had to look. She had to.
She arrived to Weeki Wachee after not too long. Margo didn’t know exactly where Jenny’s dive site was, but she knew it was somewhere in that swamp village. After driving in circles through the only two streets that went through the town, Margo pulled over to a woman walking down the sidewalk.
“Hi, uh, the dive site? Is it near here?” Margo stuttered.
“Keep down this road. You’ll run into it. But don’t go,” the woman said.
“Why?” Margo questioned.
“Most don’t come back.”
Margo went anyways. Per the woman’s directions, she followed the same street down for a mile or two until she couldn’t go anymore. The road ended in a clearing of trees, with a thin dock jetting out into the expanse of water. Margo hopped out of the car, ready to continue, when she saw the sign posted at the start of the path. It read, Stay away! There is nothing down here worth dying for! The picture of the grim reaper on the sign glared at her, it’s black, empty eyes trying to convince her not to go on. She felt her stomach twist and churn, her body’s warning against the danger ahead. And then she saw the jacket. The little pink hoodie tossed at the base of the sign. It was the one with the blue and green “J” Margo had embroidered on the front when she first learned how to sew. Jenny was thirteen at the time, and kept telling Aunt Margo how much she loved it. Even though Jenny must’ve realized by the time she was fourteen that it was rather poorly done, it was still her favorite sweater.
“Jen…” Margo breathed. She felt a wave of nausea, and was thankful for the loss of appetite that had left her stomach empty. She felt her pace quickening and sweat beading up on her neck, and squeezed her hands into fists until her nails began digging into her palms. She had to go down there. For Jenny. For Jill.
Margo opened the car door and pulled out the diving gear she had hastily thrown in the back seat in her frenzy to get away. She turned towards the water. She knew at any moment someone could pull up behind her, having learned the location of the site from Jill. Margo slowly unzipped her jacket, tossing it in the backseat before slamming the door shut. She shivered as the wind caught, only a wetsuit keeping her from the cooling November air. She pulled the tank over her shoulders, a movement that had always been effortless for her but in that moment was strangely difficult. It was like her muscles were turning to slop, her vision tunneling and her toes beginning to tingle. She yanked the straps of the tank so it was tight against her body and breathed as deeply as she could in attempt to remain conscious. She took another breath in and held it as she started forward, not letting it out until she neared the end of the mossy dock.
She stopped for a moment and looked around. There was a big tree next to the water, a tree that had clumps of mold growing on the side of it. Margo’s stomach churned again. She looked back towards the water and the ringing in her ears began to fade away as she focused herself. When it did, she heard it. The chorus of sirens and breaks screeching and car doors flying open and slamming shut. She could hear the voices singing a unison of stop and don’t go any farther and you’re gonna get hurt. She took another step closer to the edge.
Margo’s head was foggy when she scooted to the end of the dock. The dock disappeared into long wooden steps leading to the surface of the water, with a sign post next to them that read “Eagle’s Nest.” Margo remembered Jenny talking about this place, about how it was the most amazing dive in all of Florida and maybe even all the world. Margo had asked if this was true, why she hadn’t heard of it before. Jenny had explained that it was probably because no one had ever gone past a certain point in the labyrinth of caves that lay under the swampy surface, and most people who even reached that point didn’t come out alive. Why the thought of this dive exhilarated Jenny so much, Margo never understood.
Jenny was always passionate, and when she decided she wanted something she wouldn’t give up until she got it. Margo knew she should’ve seen it coming. Jenny was never really afraid of anything, and Jill always said it was just because she was raised in a tiny town where the people were nice and nothing bad ever happened. There had only been one death in Spring Hill as long as the Allans lived there. It was an old man whose wife thought he had eyes for another woman, so she picked up her things and moved into the inn down the road. He messed up his blood pressure pills, the ones she usually set out for him, and he didn’t make it through the first night without her. Margo usually laughed at that story, but she didn’t find it funny anymore.
Margo unhooked the flippers from the side of her tank, sliding them on her feet and pulling her goggles down over her eyes. She pulled the mask from the tank and strapped it over her face, and feared for a moment she might fall over from the lack of oxygen. She stepped down the staircase slowly, the wood slates creaking from the pressure of each step. It wasn’t warm down there, like most bodies of water in Florida were, but everything around her was wet. She couldn’t tell if it was just the swamp humidity or if she was sweating with anticipation, but her body was soaked from head to toe.
In front of her was just an expanse of black. The sun had fallen behind the trees that surrounded the lake, and any light that did reach the water was sucked in and devoured. If it hadn’t been a story passed around the diving community, no one ever would’ve known what was down there. From what Margo knew, it was an elaborate network of caves that seemed to have been dug first and later filled with water. It just kept twisting and turning until divers would completely lose any sense of direction, and then there was the point of no return: a huge pit in the middle of the web of tunnels, sinking down farther than any other point in the cave. No one was really sure if anyone had made it past that point, or even to the bottom of the pit, because anyone who made it close was discovered dead. The whole idea of it made Margo uneasy, and she silently wished she had brought something tough to clamp her teeth down on so all the blood wouldn’t rush out of her head.
When she made it down to the last step she heard them close behind. She knew the sheriff would’ve found her eventually, but she had hoped it would be after she had already gone under. Some of the cops were yelling to stop, some just calling out her name. But none of them were Jill’s voice or Jenny’s voice or anyone’s who mattered to Margo. She felt her pulse rising and rising, but not because of all the cops in her pursuit. Her view of the water and the expanse of swamp trees around it was beginning to melt away, but this time it was not because she was forgetting to breathe. Everything she looked at just morphed into Jenny’s face, into the curves of her cheeks and her big bright eyes. She was all Margo could see.
In what seemed like a missing gap of time, Margo ended up in the water. She didn’t remember jumping in or switching on the oxygen, but somehow the surface was above her and she was breathing steady. She pulled the cord out from the back of her suit and hooked it to one of the posts holding up the dock. The cord extended with her, leaving a trail back to the shore, as she began her descent into the consuming darkness.
Jenny always dreamt about places like this. Margo sometimes heard people call it the Eagle’s Nest, but mostly people called it the Sinkhole. For all Margo knew, it could’ve all been legend of what lay down there. When Jenny began diving regularly with Margo, the place had just opened up from being closed for four years. She spent hours over that summer researching the best places to dive in Hernando County, and the rest of Florida really. The first moment she mentioned the Sinkhole she was turned down.
“You’re not going there,” Jill had told her.
“But they reopened it. It’s not closed off anymore.” Jenny had argued.
“Why do you think they closed it in the first place? People died there, Jen.”
Margo remembered Jenny being bummed at her mother’s decision, but Jenny was so devoted to her mother that, even through her rebellion, she always listened. She never even heard stories about her father, so Jill was her everything. And she was Jill’s everything.
Margo could feel the pressure rising as she got deeper. Being down there gave her a sick churn in her stomach. It was something like the nausea she had when she first started diving. She couldn’t have been more than nine or ten when her dad taught her to dive. He tried to teach Jill too, but Jill was always scared she’d get stuck under. It never scared Margo. And that was always one of the reasons Margo saw so much of herself in Jenny, and why it always worried her.
The deeper she went, the less familiar the feeling in her stomach became. It was not like
the pressure she was used to feeling when she dove. At 50 feet down, she had to squeeze through a fifteen-foot-long tunnel that was only a couple feet in diameter. She knew this was just the beginning, but for some reason she felt like once she entered the cave she wouldn’t come back. But down she went, deeper and deeper and deeper. There was a wide open space for the next hundred feet down, and once she hit 150 feet deep, her head began to throb. The tank still read ¾ full. It must’ve been because she hadn’t gone that deep in a while, Margo thought. Since she lost her parents, the only times she really dove were with Jenny. Only recently had Jill allowed Jenny to go out by herself on small dives, so Margo sort of stopped diving in the past few months all together.
She missed being down there. It was serenely quiet, unlike anything above the surface. It had always been Margo’s safe place where she could think about the things she was scared to think about anywhere else. She remembered going diving for the first time after the fire, the only place she could think to go where she wouldn’t be able to feel the tears come and go. Her sobs would just get washed away in the currents. She knew she’d be safe from fire down there as well. She went down there when she needed to clear her mind, to relax, to be surrounded by something familiar that she could understand. She thought it had become the same sort of place for Jenny, too.
It seemed like an eternity for Margo to dive the next 50 feet down. She had reached the beginning of the labyrinth that she half expected didn’t even exist. The expanse of water she started in had shrunk to a tunnel just tall enough for her to stand up in. There was still the faintest glow that stretched down from the surface, leaving a green shadow behind her. But she rarely looked back. She had to get Jenny, that was all. She couldn’t stop even for a moment and look around. One minute she wasted was another minute Jenny was gone.
Soon enough the light behind her faded, and everything was just black. Her little headlamp didn’t do much to illuminate the expanse of twisted tunnels. Strangely enough, Margo wasn’t scared down there at all. Even though the caves curved sharply ever few yards, she wasn’t concerned with what lied around the corner. And even though the dive site was open again, she never really heard of anyone going down there since those people died a few years back. She didn’t know who the people were, but the place had lost its reputation in all of Hernando’s diving community. Margo guessed that Jenny didn’t understand that.
She kept looking back at the meter on the tank. She seemed to be sinking slower than when she had started, though the cave had gotten much steeper. Breathing started to get more difficult, but Margo pushed forward. She came to the edge of a valley in the cave, the ground jutting down far below where her eyes reached. There was no edge in sight. The only way to go was down. The point of no return, Margo realized. As soon as she stopped, her meter beeped. 200 FEET. That was the deepest her suit was built for. She had come that far, though. She couldn’t give up on Jenny. Jill would keep going, so Margo had to. She pushed off the edge and dove towards the bottom.
It was incomprehensibly dark. Margo was used to dives being dark, but this darkness seemed to eat up her headlamp light before it reached a foot in front of her. She found the bottom of the cave when her hands crashed into it. She grunted in pain, feeling her knuckles split open from the rock. She cradled her busted hand and stopped to try to find anything visible around her in attempt to gain her bearings.
There was nothing to the left, just the wall of the cliff she had jumped off of. Then Margo looked to the right. Her pulse skyrocketed so quickly she thought her heart might burst, and if she wasn’t underwater, her screeching would’ve killed her own ears. The cave was illuminated just enough to see a pale face in the shadows in front of her. She begged her feet to push her away, away, as quick and as far as they could. But they didn’t. They stepped closer, because she had to see if it was really what she dreaded. And when the light hit her face, she could tell. Jenny wasn’t missing anymore.
After a moment, Margo’s heartrate began to slow from her initial shock. She tried to come to terms with what she was looking at, but the more she tried to tell herself that Jenny was dead the more she felt the scene in front of her getting father away. A moment before she could swear Jenny was close enough to touch, but suddenly she was miles away and she couldn’t reach her arms out far enough. Jenny’s body began to sink under her, like the ground of the caves had split open to swallow her up. Her vision began to narrow, like cataracts were forming. And then there was a burst of pain. The back of her head smacked against something hard. The cave ceiling, she realized, looking up to see she had floated sixty feet up to the top. She looked back down to see Jenny where she should’ve been, stuck against the wall down at the bottom.
Suddenly her pace picked up again, her eyes cleared, and she was flailing through the water to get back down to Jenny. By the time she got back down to the bottom her tank meter was beeping like crazy, flashing CAUTION pressure critical. She could hardly hear the noise in the midst of yanking on Jenny’s body. She had to bring it, she had to bring her body out of that hellhole. But Jenny’s tank was somehow wedged into the cave wall and would not budge. Margo pulled and pulled, shaking her body around like a doll but not moving her an inch. She couldn’t get her fingers still enough to unclip Jenny from her tank, and she had to leave the tank on in case maybe she wasn’t really gone yet.
Margo tugged for as long as her strength allowed her, and eventually collapsed next to Jenny, arms still on hers. Every inch of her body shook with hysteria, her mind moving as fast as light but her thoughts coming like molasses. She rolled over and let herself hover at the base of the cave, looking up at the ceiling that wasn’t really that far away but seemed more impossible to get to than Mars or the Moon. She took the deepest breath she could of the impossibly thick air left in her tank. She could still hear the beeping of the tank meter faintly, but couldn’t quite recall what the beeping was for. After a moment she tuned it out entirely.
When she calmed down, her eyes still sharp and jumpy with panic, she could see something on the ceiling. The whole thing, probably forty or fifty feet wide, was covered in little white dots like stars. And the stiller Margo got, the brighter it became. The whole cave had an eerie glow, not like sunlight or starlight or moonlight. It was a light she hadn’t seen before, and she let out a breath as she stared up at it.
She didn’t take another breath after that. She glanced over at Jenny and saw for the first time that not only was her tank wedged into the rocks, but her pulley rope was wrapped around her waist and around rocks on either side of her. She had tied herself there. Margo began to laugh, not sure if it was because she was hysterical with shock or if she realized this was all some kind of cosmic joke that she had walked in on. She unclipped her rope and hooked it onto Jenny’s, keeping her tied down there just as Jenny was. It was beautiful, and slowly Margo could understand why Jenny had wanted to stay there. It made her forget about everything else.
She might’ve heard the beeping again as the tank flashed red with critical oxygen level, but her ears began to ring again as the blood stopped flowing. She kept her eyes up on the ceiling, and as her vision blurred to black she could see strange shapes forming from the lights and reaching down to her. She saw the eyes of her mother looking at her, and the twisted claws of monsters stretching down like death trying to grab her. Swirls of red light intertwined with blue and green and purple and wrapped around her neck, and she watched like an onlooker as the claws grabbed tight around her throat. She didn’t try to gasp for air, she was frozen and paralyzed and felt her veins filling with water and ice and flames all at once. The last thing she saw was a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye as the whole cave glowed gold. She saw Jenny twitch at the waist and throw her head back, like she was being yanked forward. And then the darkness overwhelmed her.
When Margo came to she thought she was still in the cave. Her stomach and lungs were filled with water, and the pressure was building in her chest. Suddenly there was a slam against her ribcage, then another and another. The water came pouring from her mouth like a waterfall, covering the front of her and running down the sides of her face. Her eyes flung open and she took in a gulp of air that was so clean it felt foreign. First she saw the red and blue lights spinning in circles, then she saw the yellow. Yard and yards of yellow tape. She tried to sit up, to no avail. Her body was still frozen from shock. She moved her fingers around to feel the ground beneath her, running her wrinkled fingertips over the knots in the wood. Her feet were still in the water, and her diving tank was thrown on the ground next to her. All she understood was that she had somehow ended up on the dock.
“They followed your line and pulled you out” an unfamiliar voice blared in her ringing ears. “You were probably wondering how you got out.” Actually, she wasn’t. She was only wondering about Jenny.
“Nitrogen narcosis,” another voice spoke up.
“I’ve heard of cases like this… never seen one myself though.”
“Scary. Makes you all kinds of crazy. I hear it’s like losing your mind. You can’t think straight and you don’t even realize you’re drowning. And hallucinations. Some insane stuff you see.”
“That’s what most of the casualties are here, aren’t they?”
“Probably. Never any signs of struggle.”
And then the voices vanished. Margo wasn’t sure how long she stayed like that, or what they were doing rather than checking on her, but they let her lay there long enough to see the sky change from aqua to fuchsia to purple. When she finally had the strength, she lifted her foggy head up off the wooden steps and looked around. There really was yellow tape everywhere, and three ambulances and five fire trucks and all the cop cars Spring Hill had. Margo’s eyes trailed off to her tank that still lay beside her, and her gaze followed her pulley rope from where she had tied it to the dock to its end. It was still hooked to the other tank, which lay empty and dented a few yards away. Just above it was a gurney. The black leather bag was on it, zipped up but still laying there like there was a chance it would open up and Jenny would come out. There was a figure standing beside the body, hunched over and shaking with sobs. Margo squinted until her eyes were clear and she could recognize the wavy, graying hair. Sheriff Donaldson.
Margo glanced around to the rest of the scene around her. There were a hundred people all walking in different directions, some of them in Hernando County’s signature gray, and some in navy blue with big yellow letters and gloves. One of the grays reached down to help her up, wrapping a blanket around her and giving her a cup of water and two blue pills demanding she drink. She obeyed, and a hand began pushing her back, guiding her to the white-clad EMTs waiting by an ambulance.
Then, in the sea of gray and blue and yellow, she saw a flash of pink. Jenny. Her sweater was draped over the edge of another ambulance, one of the sleeves dragging on the dirt ground. Her eyes trailed up from the jacket to the identical scene she had seen fifteen years before. Jill was curled up in a fire blanket sitting on the back ledge of the ambulance, face wet with tears. Before she had been clinging to a crying jumble of blankets, little fingers flailing as Jill remained still with grief. But this time her hands only held a sleeve of that pink sweater. She looked frail and her face had aged, Margo noticing for the first time the toll of her thirty-six years on her skin. Her sunset hair had started to be broken up by bits of gray and she had these little lines around her eyes, just faint enough that Margo noticed them but no one else probably could. Jill looked up from where her hands lay in her lap to meet Margo’s gaze. They stayed there for a moment, letting the empathetic bond they’d always had kindle as they tried to comprehend what was going on around them. That bond was the only thing that felt real.
Margo attempted to mouth “I’m sorry,” but wasn’t sure if her lips had actually moved. Her mind had only begun to clear, and the pills she took had calmed the throbbing in her head but kept her thoughts slow and jumbled. But even if she hadn’t said anything at all, her sister could always tell exactly what she was thinking by her eyes. Jill’s countenance softened as she read Margo’s mind, understanding why she felt she had to go after Jenny so brazenly. Her quivering lips stilled for a moment as she responded with a silent cry, “It’s okay. I forgive you.” For the first time since the fire, Margo felt the burning weight of guilt lift off her chest. She had done it, she had done all she could. There was never anything more than that.
Margo kept her gaze locked on Jill, despite every possible commotion that surrounded them. She knew her sister’s face well, and despite the tears on her cheeks that glittered in the flashing lights, the face Jill had at that moment made the pit in Margo’s stomach a little less deep. “I forgive you.”
And finally, Margo let go.