Floundering. Her flailing hands were floundering. She groped for the surface as it slipped further from reach every second. She grasped for the ascending bubbles, hoping to hold one and ride to the surface. The weight was enormous; her bound limbs moved frantically. The water clutched her throat and pressed the breath, pressed life from her.
And then it was over. She opened her eyes and she was dry. The choking pressure of water was gone.
In fact, all water was gone.
She was laying on the bottom of a lake. Not a drop of water. No dead fish. The lakebed was dry, though the seaweed and algae still swayed with the current that was no longer there. The pier she had been pushed off was next to her, solid timbers well worn. She sat up and untied the socks full of stones from around her ankles and wrists. She emptied the socks and slid them onto her bare feet, then she stood up and started weaving her way through the dense algae.
Her memory was flitting away, but she held onto a single truth (or she thought it was a truth): in the center of the lake was a single pillar of land, a piece too small to even be called an island.
Climbing out was impossible, but it didn’t matter; she was compelled, supernaturally drawn to the island. Surrounded by seaweed moving to a phantom current, beneath the surface of a phantom lake, most likely a phantom herself, she made the only choice she could: she moved away from the pier and deeper into the lake.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly so, the sun’s light diminished beneath the growing canopy of seaweed above her. Her eyes continued to adjust to the low light until she could barely see in front her.
The last glint of sunlight flickered behind wavering seaweed, then disappeared.
she reached outward she touched began to glow brilliant blues and greens. Radiating outward, blue and green light emanated from all the plants. Soon the entire lake was awash with a brilliant shade of electric blue, while smaller, low level plant life glowed bright green. The green stood out in stark contrast from the blue and created a path weaving through the forest of blue.
She was led down the green trail by an unknown hand emerging from the back of her mind. It urged her forward. It was a long, arduous journey through swaying green and blue slivers. There was nothing - no sound, no signs of life, nothing. As she traveled on, the seaweed began to thin and so did the landscape of blue. Resting on the horizon - if it could be called that - was a distant gleam of phosphorescent red. It looked to be an impossible distance away, but, as she walked, the red light grew, towering upward into an impenetrable fog.
This was the island. In a ring 100 yards around, all of the remaining blue and green algae disappeared: it was a no-man’s-land of nothingness.
The spectral hand in her mind tugged her forward once more; she had no choice. She had to move forward. Her first careful step rewarded her with a stumble face first into deep ditch of mud. She stood, clearing mud from her face, removed the now filthy socks and moved forward, step by step getting closer to red giant.
The mud, at some points up to her waist, made it difficult to move quickly across the distance, tugging at her shorts and slowing her like quicksand. Around three quarters of the way through, the mud began to lower and she could move at a better pace.
She neared the opposite embankment, her clothes caked in mud and her body weary from sloshing through it. The island’s red filled her vision as she mounted the embankment.
The island - from this angle it resembled more of a mountain - pulsed with different shades of red, rippling across it’s entirety like the grass on a windy prairie. Though there was no wind, it moved uniformly, surging upward. She put her filthy socks back on for protection, then followed the light, climbing the craggy expanse upward. As she surmounted the cliff onto a plateau, the red light disappeared except for a fine-edged ring around a giant iron portcullis. It was a jarring sign of human creation that reeked of grim energy. Fear lanced through her mind, but the spectral hand beckoned her forward.
She found the door’s clasp and turned it, putting her shoulder against the cool iron. The door wouldn’t budge. The hinges were rusted over and opening the door required more strength than she had. She rammed her shoulder into the door again and again. Her bare heels dug into the soft silt, yet the door wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, and in a blind rage, she slammed her closed fists into the rusted iron. Blood speckled her knuckles, but she didn’t feel pain as they were shredded raw. Consternation turned to exasperation and anger became fear. Tears welled in her eyes as her fists turned to feeble slaps. She slid down the decaying door until she sat on the moist silt.
For a moment she sat still, gathering herself, catching her breath, and wiping her eyes clear of tears. She stood facing the door, eyes closed. She slowed her racing mind, opening it to her spectral guide. Pleading for a solution, she placed her palm on the door. The rust flaked away around her fingers and the door radiated a confusing scalding chill. She winced but was resilient; her nerves were afire with pain and her knees buckled, but she did not yield. As quickly as it started, the pain disappeared. The iron door moaned and creaked, then begrudgingly moved inward. She opened her eyes and blinked, clearing the dancing stars caused by closing her eyes so harshly. Like the door, she moved inward.
The island was, in essence, hollow. It was a cylinder climbing upwards as far as she could see with precarious steps jutting out from the walls spiraling upward. In the center of the cylinder, reined in by the stairs on the outside was a tube of something. It looked fluid, but it seemed to be just a trick of the eye. The cylinder was defined with a clear edge, like a massive fish tank devoid of life. It climbed as high as the stairs and wide enough that the center of the cylinder was shrouded in darkness.
The wall of fluid appeared impassible, so she hugged the wall tightly and climbed the crumbling stairway. The steps were slick as if a stream ran down them.
Her legs burned with exhaustion. The rough stone lashed her heels and the walls scratched her hands. As she spiraled upward, her movement became clumsier; her feet, slick with blood, slipped more until she landed on her knees more than her feet. She crawled. The steps spiraled forever, an impenetrable haze enveloping the stairs she had climbed and those she had yet to.
Despair slipped from the back of her mind to the forefront. Beleaguered, she slipped, crashing to her knees. Breathing heavily, a pain she had never felt wracking her body, she stopped and rolled onto her back. The sharp corners of the stairs dug into her spine. She ached. Then she closed her eyes. She needed rest.
She opened her eyes. It was hard to tell how long she had laid there, how long she had been fitfully reaching outward for sleep, for some way to get out of whatever was happening to her. Time hadn’t passed in a meaningful way since she sat up on the bottom of the lake. She recounted her trip from the lakebed to where she was now, remembering it all in profound detail and now, for the first time, it all started to not make sense.
The lack of water. The flowing of the seaweed. The glowing pathways. The moat of mud. The iron door. It all haunted her now. The infinite staircase. For hours, days - or minutes - she had been walking through a land that made no logical sense. The stairs she climbed towered far and beyond the depth of the lake. It simply didn’t make sense.
For the first time, it dawned on here that none of this was real. It couldn’t be. The haze of distance around her began to disappear; the top of the stairs dissolved into existence and the first steps she had climbed hours before appeared. Each were closer than they ought to be - only half a rotation around the glass column in either direction.
She realized in a single moment that she had been a slave to her own imagined world; she had been the architect of her own Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder up the hill, only to see it slide forever. But now she knew. Her blinders were off. She knew the dream’s conceit and could see through it now.
Slowly, pain echoing through every piece of flesh, she rolled onto her hands and began to climb again. The end was now in sight and, finally, each skyward step rewarded her with the end coming one step closer.
She reached the top stair and paused, tempering her feeling of accomplishment. There was no door. There was no exit. The stairs simply ended with a lethal drop off directly above the first steps of the staircase. She sat on the top stair, confused, then angry.
The nagging tug of the spectral hand pulled her up, fighting the blistering anger she could no longer quell. Standing, her eyes burst open and she saw the same chamber with the same cylindrical, clear column in the center. Frustrated, she kicked outward to connect with the cylinder, but instead she kicked a pile of stones into it.
The cylinder was a tank. It was a 100 foot tall cylinder filled with water. She watched the stones sink quickly to the bottom, tracing their downward spiral until they landed on a massive iron door. The exit was there, she knew it. She felt it with an unnatural certainty. She also knew she could never descend fast enough to reach the door and in time to open it.
She needed to sink quickly and she had only one option. Sliding off the socks, she began to fill them with the pebbles and rocks that didn’t seem to deplete. She wrapped the burdensome socks around her ankles and wrists to make sure she sank fast enough.
For a short moment she questioned her idea, but the spectral hand in her mind didn’t let her contemplate her decision too long. She she plunged into the water, sinking quickly.
Even with the extra weight, it took her a long time to descend. Each second that passed a vital bubble of air escaped from her pursed lips. As her feet hit the door, her lungs were already screaming for oxygen. As she rotated downward to tug at the door’s clasp, her vision was already turning black around the edges. As she tugged at the clasp, water was already mercilessly pushing on her closed mouth. And as the door refused to move, a single burst of bubbles erupted at the surface of the cylinder. Then the water stood still.
She awoke gasping for air, her hands searching upward to find the surface. Except she wasn’t underwater. She was on a pier on the banks of a gorgeous, sunlit lake.
And then she was floundering.