I want to run through the halls of my high school
I want to scream at the top of my lungs
I just found out there's no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you have to rise above.
-- John Mayer
It was a trick of survival that Casey Connor had learned a long time ago: when the pain gets to be too much, think of something else. It was automatic now, at least when he saw it coming. When they grabbed him and started running down the hill full tilt, even while he was yelling and struggling, his mind would just slip off into some mathematical problem, or else call up a scene from a favorite book or the movie he'd watched the night before when he couldn't sleep. By the time he made contact with the flagpole, he hardly felt it. That would come later, when they left him alone; then the mental barrier would shatter and the pain would take over, along with its constant companion, humiliation. But then he could deal with it, when they weren't all watching and laughing.
It worked this morning just like any other morning. Before he was halfway across the high school yard, they found him, the usual crowd of kids who were all bigger and stronger than him and just needed to make that point ever now and then. Soon there was that familiar sensation of being carried and lurching along toward inevitable agony. With his eyes closed and his mind locked into something else, Casey only registered the sudden jarring stop, and then felt himself falling, dropped where he was. Ripples of triumphant laughter faded away behind the soft roaring in his head that muffled all other sensations.
Oddly enough, after that dislocating jolt, the rocking sensation of being carried along to destruction seemed to continue. And the pain had already caught up with him. Instead of being out there somewhere where he could sense it but not feel it, agony tore through him from the base of his spine to his toes and out, it seemed, through the top of his head.
"Something's wrong," Casey thought groggily. "It didn't work this time." It was as if the pain had just shifted to another level, sharp and dull at the same time. It was there in every part of him, as if every bang and bump and bruise and humiliation he'd ever received had been stored up somewhere, and now had been poured back into him all at once.
His eyes were clenched shut against it, but it seemed the light beyond his lids had gone dim. Sound was muffled, too, as if his other senses had fled, leaving only the sensation of agony. But under that there was the rocking motion, and, he realized slowly, something solid against his back, and an unfamiliar smell that didn't seem to fit with anything.
Casey opened his eyes, whimpering a little, expecting even that small movement to hurt. Above him was blank grayness, not solid but depthless like fog. He realized he was lying on his back on some hard surface, arms and legs splayed out. The hard surface rolled gently beneath him. He felt limp and drained and shaken, but he didn't think he could move.
"Just wait," he told himself. That's the only other thing to do with pain, he knew: wait and it would pass, or at least descend to a manageable level. But it didn't. It stayed right there with him.
The swaying, rocking motion, side-to-side and head to foot, started to make him feel sick. His stomach rolled in protest, and he knew he had to sit up or at least roll over. If he started to spew while lying on his back he'd probably choke and die.
That would get rid of the pain once and for all, a part of his mind suggested. But he didn't listen to it. He never did, even though he'd heard that same suggestion many times before. If he listened to that part of his mind, he'd have been gone long ago.
He managed to roll to the side, wincing, even though he found that movement didn't make it hurt any worse. He met something solid, a short wall of wood, and pulled himself up against it. Then he looked over it, and gasped. On the other side of the grey planks of wood there was nothing but water. As far as he could see, an ocean of water, rolling and green, and above it, endless gray fog. What he thought was a wall was really the side of a small, grey boat.
He looked around, squinting in disbelief. He had been lying with his head in the prow of the small wooden craft, which wasn't much larger than a single-person rowboat. Between his feet was the broken stump of a mast. There was nothing else, no ropes or oars, no seats or cushions, no motor or any sign that there ever was one.
"I'm not really here," he said, bemused and momentarily distracted from his discomfort. It occurred to him that maybe he'd really gone crazy this time, and that was a relief of sorts. It also occurred to him briefly that he might be dead, but that didn't make any sense at all, because he didn't think he'd hurt all over as he did, or feel so incredibly sick, or be in a boat with a broken mast.
"And I thought high school was hell," Casey thought wryly as his stomach spasmed. He leaned over the side of the boat, and it rocked and swayed with the shift of his weight, tipping him toward the water. That did him in. Breakfast returned with a vengeance, dumped from his heaving body into the endless ocean and quickly washed away. When he was empty, his stomach continued to heave, as if it was trying to get rid of even the memory of everything he'd ever eaten in his life. Finally the spasms stopped, leaving him gasping for breath.
He hung there, draped over the side of the boat with his face inches from the water. Taking deep gulps of air, he suddenly recognized the strange odor he noticed earlier- the smell of the sea. He'd never known it before, only the suggestion of it in a seafood restaurant or at the edge of a lake, but he knew at once that's what it is, as if he'd known it all along. The sea.
The analytical part of his mind started wondering why he should have dreamed himself here, drifting in a boat on an ocean with no sight of land. It seemed a strange place for his mind to bring him to escape the pain. But then, he usually knew enough not to bring the pain with him. That was the point, after all.
It didn't make sense. Nothing did.
He looked down at the water, into its murky shades of green, distracted for a moment by watching little waves break against the side of the boat. He couldn't lift his head. He felt thirsty, suddenly, but the water did not look or smell at all inviting to drink.
Eventually he called up the strength to lift a hand and dip it into the water. He felt dull shock at the cool wetness of it, as if it were real water, which it couldn't be. He splashed some onto his face, nevertheless, and found it surprisingly refreshing. He could lift his head again. The sense of feeling sick faded considerably, although he still didn't feel like he could get up and dance on a table. His head hurt less too, although the rest of him still ached and throbbed.
A couple more splashes on his face and neck made him feel soothed enough that he could roll backward. For a while he lay there, flat on his back, staring up at the blank grey depth above him. The cool water left him chilled, though, and he pulled his knees up to his chin, curling onto his side, groaning with the effort.
He huddled, shivering, drained and limp, and tried to think of a part of him that didn't hurt. Then he tried to think of something else, but he couldn't seem to remember any fact he'd ever learned. He couldn't recall a math problem or a science text, and his mind spun, muddled and swirling and dull like the sea and the sky.
Nothing made sense. Why a boat? Why the ocean?
He realized he'd faded away into something like sleep, as he came back to awareness suddenly. The muffled gurgle of the water had changed; it had sharpened and gained direction. There was a low rumbling and a rhythmic rushing sound, and it came closer swiftly. The boat rocked more sharply, dipping and rising.
Raising his head a bit, Casey sensed more than saw a solid shadow in the fog. The incessant rocking was too much, though, and dizziness overtook him. He dropped his head onto his arm and closed his eyes.
Sometime later he open them, sensing another change. The boat was no longer rocking, but something else was moving beside and above him. He heard the crunching sound of footsteps on gravel, the wash and tumble of waves, and soft voices saying strange words nearby.
He lifted his eyes with an effort, focusing blearily on the two figures who stood over the boat looking down at him. They had long, shiny hair framing solemn faces, and they seemed to be wearing some kind of robes that were the color of mist lit up by the sun. They looked as puzzled, as astonished, as he would have been if he had the strength. The two exchanged a glance and then looked down at him again, and one of them spoke. It seemed to be a question, but Casey had no idea what it meant.
"Look, I know you're not real or anything," he said weakly to them, "but could you help me?"
Their eyes widened at his words, but they continued to stare blankly at him.
"Not a clue," Casey muttered, and dropped his head hopelessly.
One of them reached out with a tentative hand, and touched Casey's damp face. At the touch of cool fingers there was a blessed moment when all the pain was gone and everything felt right again. And then, even better, there was nothing at all.
(continued in part two)