“There it is.” August pointed down, her eyes nearly shut with squinting. “I’m telling you, it’s the same one.”
“No way.” Kenny leaned out over the steel railing of Easton Bridge, peering into the clear water below. Drifting along the bottom, leagues down, was the tiny but unmistakable form of a bright red double sofa. At least, they assumed it was red; the tint of the water made it seem purplish. Kenny nodded slowly. “Yeah… okay, that does look like the one you told me about last week. But, come on, what is a sofa doing moving around the bottom of the preservation lake?”
They paused as a high-speed hover transport buffeted them with a strong wind, speeding silently down the road that dominated the miles-long bridge. The spires of Easton poked like glimmering crystals out of the mountain-guarded valley half a mile away; none of the city’s residents liked to walk much more than a mile or two out onto the bridge. It was another twenty to the other side of the preservation lake, and anyone going that far could hop on the transports for a few cindos. But quirky August liked coming out here to search for “mysteries in the deep,” as she called them, and Kenny frequently tagged along. Today he was glad he had; this was the first thing she’d spotted that honestly interested him.
The preservation lake had no official title. Built ages ago, before the last Dust War ruined the local historical records, it was prized for its clear, clean water, fed from an unknown source and kept clean by unknown means. Any trash tossed into it inevitably disappeared, although sometimes people claimed to recognize garbage that turned up in the city’s fountains. You still weren’t supposed to toss stuff into it, though; anyone caught dumping was severely fined. The idea of someone dumping something as big as a sofa into the precious lake seemed almost blasphemous.
“Maybe it’s too big to clean out,” Kenny mused. “I bet it’s moving because whatever cleans the lake is pushing it along.”
“But why wouldn’t it get stuck?” August asked, brow furrowed. She leaned farther over until her wavy brown hair fell along either side of her face. “You’d think there’d be a drain or something, and if the sofa doesn’t fit, it would get clogged. But if that’s the same one, it’s just circling back around.”
Kenny nodded, his thoughts circling like the couch inching slowly around the bottom of the lake. Actually, it must be moving really quickly if we can see it moving from this far away, he realized. “So what should we do? Report it?”
August turned to stare at him for a long moment. Then a slow, sly smile filled her tan face. “Why would we do that?”
Kenny blew a red lock of hair out of his face and rolled his eyes. He’d had a feeling this was going to turn into one of her little adventures.
Few people tried to dive in the preservation lake. Sure, boating and swimming were fun, it was a comfortable temperature, and there was something to be said about hanging suspended in a vast inland sea of water so clear you could make out the drop-offs on the opposite side. But many Eastonites bore the silent fear that they might be swept up in whatever forces cleaned the lake, never to be seen again; most others just thought there wasn’t much point to diving in a huge lake with nothing to see but a flat, sandy bottom for miles. There weren’t any fish or coral or interesting caves, aside from the occasional indent carved out of the shore by tidal forces. And, of course, there were the rumors of mysterious, unexplained flashes in the deepest parts of the lake that no one could explain. But enough tourists and treasure hunters with an interest in finding the mysterious technology that fed and cleaned the vast, pristine lake visited Easton to feed a small chain of scuba-diving rentals.
August waved to her Uncle Jim as she and Jimmy walked out of his tiny shop on the east shore, hitching streamlined air tanks comfortably against the small of their backs. It was a short walk down to the pier, where a few other divers and sightseers stood around, some taking pictures. August headed straight for her uncle’s speedboat. “Come on; this’ll be faster than swimming all the way to the bridge.”
“Assuming it’s still by the bridge,” Kenny pointed out, eyeing the speedboat skeptically. “Do you really know how to drive that thing?” It wasn’t totally unheard of for a middle schooler to learn how to pilot a boat, considering their lake-dependent community, but somehow the idea of August being in control of a large motorized vehicle of any kind made Kenny start sweating.
“Pilot. You pilot a boat,” August said primly, swinging her leg up over the side. She tossed her fins and facemask gently onto the plush seats. “And yes, I can. Now stop being such a baby and get in.”
Kenny scowled. She knew he didn’t like being called a baby; the kids at school made fun of his size more than enough for his liking. But it worked, and he climbed in.
The soundless engine soon pitched them forward, away from the shore and out onto the endless crystal blue. Kenny watched the bridge approaching them, like a giant steel-blue millipede slowly crawling sideways in their direction. What would they find when they reached the sofa? Maybe the answer to the lake’s secrets? They didn’t have enough air to follow the sofa the whole way around the lake, and besides, people had tried that before. “Seeker” objects disappeared at random points all along the lake bottom, and tracking technology would abruptly cut out, with nothing in sight to explain the malfunction or the disappearance once people came to investigate. It was a mystery that most Eastonites had given up on solving, but still… to be the one who found the answer… Kenny’s neck prickled with excitement at the thought.
Okay, so maybe August wasn’t the only one who liked going on adventures.
Small waves chopped the surface as they drifted close to the Easton Bridge. August cut the engine, letting the boat settle to a stop. “See if you can spot it, Kenny,” she commanded, already pulling on her fins and mask. Water slapped the sides as Kenny leaned precariously over the side of the bobbing boat, spying for the tell-tale blip of red. It was difficult to see anything amidst the ripples, and it had been so small to begin with… but…
“Oh!” Kenny’s finger shot out, almost dipping into the water. “I see it! Take us a little more that way!” Sure enough, probably a few hundred feet further along the bottom than when they’d been on the bridge an hour ago, the peculiar double sofa drifted. August sent the boat skimming forward until Kenny told her to halt. They gathered at the edge of the boat, staring down at the mysterious piece of waterlogged furniture.
“What do you think we’ll find?” Kenny whispered. It felt like an appropriate moment for whispering.
August shrugged, trying not to show her uncertainty. She failed, because she was still unconsciously chewing her lip, a sure sign. “Probably just a sofa,” she said with false confidence. “Come on, let’s get down there!”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t have reported this?” Suddenly the prospect of diving into the depths to investigate this mysterious sofa made Kenny nervous. Even as they watched, he could just make out that it had progressed another few feet. Something was down there. Something with the power to move a sofa of considerable size.
And there were all those conspiracy theories about the lake taking people out of the water along with the garbage…
August fixed him with a deep glare. It was the glare she always used when she was angrily refusing to acknowledge that she was nervous. “Look, I told Uncle Jim about it! He didn’t seem worried. And if we’re not back in an hour, he’ll know where we went, and they’ll send people looking for us.” She snapped her fingers and stepped back over to the console, flicking a switch. “There. I’ve set the signal beacon. See?” The slight girl grinned wide, giving him a slug on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine! Now let’s get down there and see what’s up with this crazy couch!”
Kenny exhaled slowly. She was probably right. What could really happen in the preservation lake, anyway?
Within minutes, the two preteens were flipping backwards over the side of the boat, into the warm, blue water.
Kenny took a few deep breaths through his clear facial mask, reassuring himself that he could breathe. Their oxygen tanks were full and good for about four hours. August’s voice sounded in his ears, as clear as if she’d been standing next to him on shore. “Equipment good to go?” Kenny gave her a thumbs-up and repeated the phrase back to her, receiving a thumbs-up in return. Responsible duties done, the kids dipped down and turned on the small jet fans on their packs, and went zooming gently into the depths.
Surrounded by the endless blue of the preservation lake, Kenny felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of awe. This must be what birds feel like, he decided: floating weightlessly through the air, blue above and blue below. He was just a tiny speck in this lake, probably unnoticeable even to someone looking straight down into the water. And yet, something kept this entire lake pristine – preserved. It had to be powerful, some lost technology that Kenny couldn’t hope to understand. Not that he expected to. He was just a kid, after all – even smaller than most of the small people who blindly trusted the lake with their lives and livelihoods every day. Even if he and August did happen to discover the way this lake worked, nobody would expect kids like them to be responsible for something so big.
Still, it was an oddly comforting reminder: he might be small for his age, but everyone was small compared to the lake.
“Coming up on the objective,” August said importantly into his ear. Kenny shook off his reverie and watched with fresh apprehension as the mysterious sofa loomed larger and larger in their view.
The kids hit the bottom of the lake with a light stirring of sandy material, flicking off their jets. A few feet away sat the sofa. Just as they had assumed, it was a double-wide, one of those big types that could hold five people with reasonable comfort. And it was red. Some sort of leathery material, Kenny would guess; it looked slick and unbothered by its watery surroundings. But the truly strange thing was how it floated just a couple of inches off the bottom of the lake, moving along at a fast clip. The kids swam to catch up, latching onto the armrest so they would be pulled along.
August flipped upside down, gently paddling her fins as she peered under the sofa. “Well, this makes no sense,” she declared.
“What do you see?” Kenny gingerly squished the red material under his fingers, eyeing how it moved. It seemed to be a kind of synthetic leather.
“Nothing!” August flipped herself back upright, clearly baffled. “It’s just… floating! It should be sunk to the bottom, but there’s about five inches of empty space between the legs and the ground.” A thoughtful frown crossed her face, and August tried to put her fins down. She seemed disappointed when they dragged up a billowing curtain of sand instead of stopping a few inches from the lake bottom.
“Weird.” They let themselves be pulled along for another thirty seconds. Kenny’s arms were beginning to feel the strain. On an impulse, the boy dragged himself forward over the armrest, and plunked down onto the couch cushion. He had to grip the armrest and hold himself on to prevent his natural buoyancy from separating them, but all in all, this was a much more comfortable ride. He and August grinned widely at each other, and soon, she was seated beside him.
The couch continued to drift along as they sat together, giggling. “Now this is the way to see the lake!” August laughed. She playfully kicked up another wave of sandy lake bottom. “We should rent out this sofa as an undersea tram! I wonder how long it takes to go around the whole lake?”
“Probably a few day—”
Suddenly the sofa picked up speed. Kenny’s stomach flip-flopped. He glanced over at August, who looked more surprised than worried.
“Should we get off?” he asked, gripping the sofa tighter.
August hesitated. It suddenly occurred to them both that they had been moving steadily away from their boat – and the beacon. And now they were going faster. It wouldn’t pay to get themselves stranded way out in the middle of the lake without transportation. But finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to see where it goes. Maybe we’ll finally discover what cleans the lake?” She bubbled a nervous laugh. “And at this rate, maybe we’ll just loop the whole lake in an hour and come back!”
That was starting to seem like a distinct possibility; the sofa continued to pick up speed. The kids dug their hands down into the cracks between the cushions, gripping the understructure of the sofa to hold on. Kenny’s stomach flutter grew stronger the faster they went; if they lost their grip going at this speed, they’d be stranded out in the middle of nowhere…
The sofa slammed to a stop, nearly throwing the kids through the water. Kenny jerked his head up to see a circle of blue light flash overhead, and then they were consumed by darkness.
(A/N: This story is for a prompt challenge I gave myself, wherein my readers could submit to me random story prompts and I had to pick one and write a short story about it. It turned into a three-parter with over 15k words. Just goes to show, you never know where an idea might take you!)