“Have you floated with us before?"
Sam looked down at the clipboard the short receptionist was holding behind her desk. He’d been filling it out for the last ten minutes, crammed into a shitty little plastic chair in a waiting area to the left of the entrance. And he’d missed a section.
“Sorry, no,” he said. “First time. My girlfriend uh, got me one for my birthday."
“Great,” she said, circling NO with a pen. The pen had a pink feathery topper thing that wobbled and followed the movement of her hand.
The receptionist unclipped Sam’s paperwork, folded it neatly in half, and tucked it into a folder on top of her desk. Sam shifted his weight back and forth while he waited for her to finish.
“Great,” she said again. “Welcome! We’re happy to have you here at Second Wind. I’ll give you the tour, and a quick orientation, and then you can start your float."
She grinned, then turned and lead Sam down a short hallway toward the back of the building.
The tour didn’t take long.
“Here we are,” she said, opening the second of three doors. “You’ll be in floatation tank #2 today."
Sam had read about isolation tanks before driving to the south side of town earlier that morning. The tank looked something like a giant egg, and took up most of the center of the room. The hatch was open, and the interior of the tank was filled with water that bubbled with unseen jets. A light at the far end of the tank glowed a dim yellow.
“That’s weird,” said the receptionist. “It’s supposed to be blue."
She cocked her head to the side, the clapped her hands together.
“So!” she said. “Your float will be 90 minutes. You can turn on music here,” she said, pointing to a knob on the inside of the tank. “You may want to use the pillow to keep your head afloat, and use this towel if you get any of the water in your eyes."
“Ok,” said Sam. “Seems easy."
“It is!” she said. “You can shower before and after you’re done, if you want. The water can leave some residue."
“All right,” he said. “Anything else I should know?"
“That’s about it,” she said. “Just try to relax, and we’ll see you when you’re done. Ok?"
“Ok, thanks,” said Sam.
She left the room, shutting the door behind her. Sam sat down on a bench against the wall, and started to untie his shoes.
He drifted in the dark, saline stinging the corners of his eyes, until he gave up and wrapped the yellow foam head cushion around his neck. Sam’s neck muscles relaxed, relieved of the burden of his head, and he sank into a kind of oblivion there in floatation tank #2.
His mind wandered, and he followed it down corridors long forgotten. A flickering image of the birthday party his mom had thrown when he was 16. She’d saved up and bought him an electric guitar, used from Caddywampus, the music store up on Main Street, but good. Real mellow sound, even with the tiny little amp Mr. Forrest had thrown in. Sam never learned to play more than a few notes, but his cousin Josh said it was a good guitar. He’d been playing since Sam was a kid and there were bells coming from somewhere in the tank.
Sam’s eyes snapped open, that birthday party fading away, as his ears tried to zero in on the location of the bells in the dark. Only silence greeted him as he raised his head out of the heavy salt water, listening for that sound. It was a deep, solemn noise, like church bells, and brought to mind an image of heavy iron clappers and half-ruined towers.
The inside of the tank seemed bigger now that he was awake, and his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. His bare ass scraped against the bottom, and the surface was different. No longer smooth and inoffensive, the perfect little egg full of salt he’d gotten into a lifetime ago. It was rough, like sand paper.
Sam reached out blindly, groping for the inside cover of the tank. His hand swung, finding only empty air, and he sat up, stretching. The inside of the tank was only a few feet high. He should have been able to touch. He stood, carefully, feet gripping the strangely rough bed of the tank. Even standing upright, Sam couldn’t find the top of the tank. In the distance, he thought he saw a dim yellow light. He wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep, or somewhere in between. Some kind of fugue state. He’d read these kinds of things could happen to people in sensory deprivation tanks, though almost always to experienced floaters. Not first timers.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice echoing strangely in the dark, bouncing around before being swallowed by the darkness ahead of him. Sam stood naked and shivering, holding his head rest loosely in one hand, toes digging into something that felt like silt or sand beneath the warm salt water. He took a step forward, then another, following the memory of his voice down the dark corridor that opened up before him.
Sam walked carefully, never able to find the edge of the tank, and nearly screamed when something bumped into his ankle. He jerked back, and it bumped again, brought closer to him by a slight current that seemed to be flowing out of the corridor, away from that dim yellow light. He bent and groped for it, finding the now familiar curve of a foam head rest like his own. He kept walking, carefully stepping into the gritty floor, body slick with saline and covered with goose bumps in the chilly air.
He ran into another head rest, then another. The sound of bells came again, from behind him this time, or to his right. The dark was complete, and made it almost impossible to judge time or distance.
“Ow, fuck!” he said, withdrawing his right food and balancing on his left. Something was sticking out of the ball of his foot. Something sharp and curved. Sam bent, digging the object out of his tender flesh, then running the ball of his thumb along it. The light was too far away to see what it was, but he felt a jagged cut in the smooth surface, and with the fading echo of those solemn iron bells surrounding him, realized what it was.
The light seemed closer now, seeming to bob up and down, almost playfully, as he drew nearer. Sam kept moving toward it, eyes focusing on that dim yellow light, the pain in his right foot almost forgotten. The bell sounded once more, as the yellow light filled his vision, close enough he could feel a sick heat burning into his skin, and hear something moving behind the light. Something with many legs, sloshing through the saline and crushed bones underfoot, something with a great and terrible hunger.