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The Treasure of Atlantis

Richard Wu has lived near Johnson Space Center in Houston for much of his life. He is currently a Eugene McDermott Scholar studying at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The morning after the storm, the boy heads to the beach in search of scraps. The sun casts a soft glow across the seashore, transforming murky beach sediment into a kaleidoscopic splattering of color--reds and yellows, greens and blues, a rainbow of plastiglomerate fragments flashing in the light, like flecks of paint strewn across a canvas of sand.
The boy watches the rippling colors dance beneath the water's roiling surface as wave after muddy wave unfolds over the shore. His eyes study the back-and-forth cadence, a rhythm accompanying the twirling flurry of loose plastiglomerate sediment.
From behind the boy, a raspy voice grunts, "When I was your age, I collected shells at the seashore. Not old junk scraps." The voice's timbre has a weathered quality, as if whittled by countless impacts from countless ocean waves.
The boy turns to face his approaching grandfather, who carries a faded black box in his hands. The boy's eyes widen.
A relic. The boy's grandfather gently opens the box.
Inside is a rock that the boy has never seen before. The boy is transfixed by its swirling curvature, by the way its contours curl and wrap themselves together, like an ocean wave woven into a braid of stone. And the rock is hollow, with a gaping maw large enough to swallow up one of the boy's fists.
"What is it?" asks the boy.
"Seashell," the grandfather answers. "Used to find them all over the seashore. At least until the beaches started looking like they'd been covered in candy."
The boy remembers hearing about candy from his grandfather before. He tries imagining the taste of candy trickling over his tongue, the bygone sensation of colors spun into flavor--chocolates, peppermints, gumdrops, a spectrum featuring everything from the crimson swirls of luscious strawberry to the electric pricks of blue raspberry.
Then the boy hears his grandfather continue, "Back then, I'd go treasure hunting. Always wanted to find the lost city of Atlantis."
"What treasure did Atlantis have?" the boy wonders. "Candy?"
The grandfather chuckles. "Maybe. I wouldn't know, though. Never ended up finding the place."
The boy is the first to discover it later that morning. Something dredged up by the storm and half entombed in plastiglomerate sediment, with a surface adorned in layers of rust and crumpled into the resemblance of a turbulent sea.
The grandfather recognizes the object. They were once common, back before the plague. Before the virus emptied out cities and left the abandoned husks of human civilization to the mercy of the encroaching oceans.
"A license plate," the grandfather mutters. He scans its faded surface. Most of it is too corroded to read, but he can make out one word. "Florida."
"Florida?" repeats the boy.
"That's what this place was called, years ago," responds the grandfather, who points at the rusted metal object. "The word written there."
"I just see bumps."
"Not bumps," the grandfather grunts. "Letters." He grabs a jagged stone and proceeds to scrawl several looping shapes onto the beach's polychromatic surface.
"What're you doing?" asks the boy.
"It's about time you learned to read and write. Might come in handy sometime."
"What's the point of the letter c? It always sounds like k or s."
"A good question," responds the grandfather. "I don't really know. Just the way it was done back then."
A frown unfurls over the boy's face. "This reading-writing stuff doesn't make much sense." The boy gazes off toward the horizon, where the ocean lazily stretches out to meet the sky.
The grandfather already knows what is coming next.
"Let's take a break!" the boy exclaims, and he dashes off before his grandfather can respond.
The grandfather sighs and smiles before following.
The great dark mountain slumps out over the land, sprawled out like an enormous carcass too large for proper burial. From atop the mountain, the boy and his grandfather eye the shoreline below, watching as sunlight rolls off the undulating waves.
"Back then," says the grandfather, "entire stories were written with letters and words."
"Entire stories?" the boy repeats. "How many letters would that take?"
"Too many to count." The grandfather stamps his foot on the dark mountainous earth. "Like the hunks of dirt forming this mountain."
"Lah-nn-duh," the boy murmurs, softly at first. Then, louder, "Land!"
"Land?"
"Read it all by myself!" The boy points to the ground, where the four-letter word peeks out from the dirt. When he wipes the surface, additional letters emerge from the earth.
"Can you read the rest?" grins the grandfather.
A_A_A_Land-fih-lah-lahA_A_A_?A_A_A_
"Landfill," the grandfather mutters. "We're standing on an old dump."
The boy tries to imagine countless garbage heaps stacked against the sky, trash piled upon trash, sculpted into entire mountains. As numerous as the letters making up a story.
The boy idly glances off into the distance, when something catches his eye.
It is another mountain. Another story.
When the boy and his grandfather reach the base of that mountain, they are greeted by the yawning mouth of a cave.
Inside, sunlight spills down through gaps in the ceiling, glinting off pools of muddy water that drape the floor. A tomblike silence fills the space, accented by a faint musty odor hanging over the air.
In the middle of the chamber, suspended atop rusted metal girders, is the dust-encrusted hull of an old winged machine. The machine's midsection is splayed open, like an animal prepped for dissection, with a bone-white sheen beckoning from beneath layers of accumulated grime.
And running along the machine's side is one word.
"Ah-tuh," begins the boy. "lah-nn-tih-ss...." His eyes widen. "Atlantis--we've found it!"
The grandfather nods wistfully at the abandoned space shuttle. "Yes," he says softly. "Yes, we have."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

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