Unhooked part one

It should be noted a more polished version can be obtained by downloading the free PDF under published works. It also includes a different opening and optimized pacing.

“For Sparta!” A man in the phalanx shouted next to me as the onrushing Persians crashed into our battle line. I suppressed a yawn as I casually swatted aside several Persian soldiers with my shield, and skewered four at once with my lance.

I had dreamed about this before, but a movie about the battle of Thermopylae had been on while I was awake, so I figured I’d recreate some scenes.

“Break ranks.” I say to my fellow soldiers in a conversational tone. The men give great shouts and rush the Persians, scattering them like flies. I decide to use some slow mo and dice up several Persians with my comrades. Then I got tired of using my traditional weapons so I decided to use some good old fashion sith lightning to take them down. Then when that wasn’t enough I tried flying around the battlefield, deflecting arrow volleys with great gusts of wind and calling down meteor strikes on the Persian archers.

Something still didn’t feel right. The enemy was evaporating like water thrown onto lava. My army was singing my praises, and both Spartans and Persians all around the battlefield were kneeling down to worship me as a god. It still didn’t seem right, but thankfully my REM pill was wearing off, and my alarm should be going off any second.

Sure enough, a heavy metal guitar riff sounded in my ears, and I open my eyes. My room is far less extraordinary than the dream I had just come from, and there are no worshippers here. Still, it seems friendlier to me. I like the pictures of my family that I have hung up on the wall. I should probably call my mom. Her four hour wakeful cycle was irregular, so it was hard to get a hold of her. My best bet was to call one of my three siblings that still lived with my parents and leave a message for her.

It was something I’d have to worry about later that night, now I had to get on my laptop and go to work. I, like most of the civilized world, telecommuted. I was IT support for a major company’s website. I logged in, and spent thirty minutes making sure that everything was fine. Everything was fine. I look at the clock and think I still have three and a half hours until I go back to sleep.

My first thought was to go back to sleep, but the current generation REM pill requires four hours of continued consciousness before it can be used again affectively. I start daydreaming about my next lucid dream, and try to plan it out. Trip to Mars? No, I’d founded a martian civilization twice this week already. Recreate some video game battles? That was too similar to what I had just done. Some of those creepy things nobody wanted to admit to doing? I already felt too much shame from last time, and I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I honestly couldn’t think of anything that I hadn’t already seen and done a dozen times. Nothing new was on the internet or the television. Well, nothing really new, there were reboots, reruns, and adaptations of old ideas, but that wasn’t going to satisfy me today.

Maybe my friends would have some ideas. I call up a couple acquaintances and ask if they want to come over. We’re all on the same wakefulness cycle, so they say sure. Their automated cars would have them over in just a few minutes.

I felt better, friends would surely have some ideas. Within about a thirty second window my two of my friends show up. We all live pretty close and the automated transport is really quite incredible.

“Hey guys, what’s new?” I ask.

All three shrug. “Sandy had a great dream about the great barrier reef.” My friend james tells me. “How’d it go Sandy?”

“I mean anything really new.” I rudely interrupt. “I mean, Sandy I’m sure it was great, but how many times have you been to the great barrier reef?”

“26 Ryan.” She looked a little terse that I had cut her off. Sandy would go on for hours about the reef if you let her. It was her favorite place to dream.

“Look Ryan.” James said. “If we’re not going to talk about dreaming we might as well go.”

“What?” I said rather shocked that my friends would depart so quickly. “But you just got here.” They looked bored at my indignation.

“Well yeah.” Sandy said. “But Ryan just got these new REM pills that you can take for a one hour dream even if you just woke up from your dream cycle.”

“That sounds unhealthy.” I commented.

“And you sound lame.” Sandy shot back. They all stood up.

“If you want to be a party pooper we best be on our way.” James tells me, and they start making for the door. I can’t believe this. They’ve been here two minutes tops, and they’re already leaving. This wasn’t how I had thought this would go.

“But don’t you guys want to talk? Can’t we think of something to do?” James actually laughed at that.

“Ryan we’ll talk to you in the dream, and find something way more interesting to do there.”

“But it won’t be me!” I shouted after them. They didn’t hear me. They had already shut the door.

I just stared at the door for a minute. I couldn’t believe they had dismissed me like that. We normally got on pretty well. We also normally just talked about dreaming, but I had thought our friendship meant more than that.

“I’ll call my family.” I tell myself. Putting word to action I pick up my phone again and call my younger brother Joseph.

“Hey Joseph , this is Ryan, are mom or dad up?” I ask.

“Ryan? What are you doing calling at this hour, we’re all still asleep.” He responds in a groggy voice. “I was having this great dream about a dragon and some flying cars.”

“Sorry Joseph, I know it’s early.” I look out the window and see the sun is high in the sky. “But I was looking for a bit of company, is it alright if I come over and hang out?”

“Why?” He asks.

“I don’t know.” I say. “I just thought it would be fun. I mean people hang out and have parties.”

“Ryan, that’s only in the movies. Normal people just hang out in dreams. Matter of fact, tell you what, I’ll have a nice long adventure with you as soon as I’m back asleep.”

“But it’s not me.” I try and tell him, but he’s hung up. I didn’t even get to ask him to leave a message for mom and dad.

Family wanted to dream, friends wanted to dream, work was already done, and still over three hours left to kill. I get up and start pacing the room. There’s got to be something I could do. There were some online chat rooms I could try. They’re all full of dull people who just want to talk about their last dream, but at least they want to talk.

I sigh and give in, picking up my laptop again and typing in the address in my browser. I’m sitting through an ad by sleep core, manufacturer of the REM pill, when I hear my doorbell ring. At first I don’t recognize it as my doorbell, I haven’t heard it in years, but then it goes off again, and realization strikes me. There’s someone at my door, and they probably want to talk. They probably want to talk about religion, or something they’re selling , but I’ll take anything at this point.

“Coming.” I say, and with a renewed spring in my step I put my laptop and glide to the door. I open and see that there’s no one at the door. That’s strange. I know I heard somebody ring my bell.

I glance around just in time to see some kid dashing around a house in my cul-de-sac. Kids, they must be probably playing some prank. I start to close my door, when I notice that it’s actually pretty nice out. It’s not as nice as a dream would be, but for real world weather this was kind of refreshing.

“Well, there’s nothing to do for another three hours anyway, might as well go for a walk.” And with that I set off down a random sidewalk, taking turns at will. It’s pretty boring at first too. You’ve seen one townhouse you’ve seen them all. No one else is out walking, and there isn’t so much as a dog for company.

I’m about to turn around and head back, when the houses begin to give way to forest. I catch glimpses between the long rows of white monotonous homes, and then more are more, until I see a path going through. I walk to the start of a path, and marvel at one of the trees. I stare at it’s bark, and how it’s truly random. There’s no pre-thought pattern emblazoned on every inch. I pick a crack and follow it all the way up until it gives way to branches, and then leaves. The leaves practically take my breath away.

If I spent an entire dream crafting one tree this finely detailed in my mind I wouldn’t find one half so good. Every single leaf was so subtly different. There was no mental copy pasting that produced the background for elven adventures while I was asleep. Every leaf was a different shape, had different veins, and was connected to a different part of the branch. I counted the veins in one leaf, and tried to found another that matched it. Some were close, but no two were the same. Even if they had the same number, when I reached up and plucked two to compare more closely, the cells were lined up differently.

They felt different too, there was a leathery softness to it, like skin, but rougher and more coarse. I rubbed it between my fingers. This wasn’t how I had imagined they’d feel. I thought they be boring, like paper, but they are beauties. I put the leaves in one of my pockets.

I thought I heard a snickering sound. I turn around quickly, but see nothing. After scanning my surroundings for a moment I brush it off. It was probably the wind blowing through the trees. Besides, I had a whole forest to look at, and I still had about three hours left! Man, the next time I went under, I was going to try and make a forest this beautiful.

I wander around looking at the different trees, trying to guess which are the same species, and how thick they are. If I chopped them up for firewood would they burn? Did you make firewood out of just any tree? I tried to think about climbing them, which would support my weight. How would I get up? I needed to do this more often. Waking research like this made for excellent dreams.

A whispering sound courses through the forest. This time it really is the wind. I stop and close my eyes. The sensation of countless individual little green wings fluttering all around, was breath taking. I literally stopped breathing until the wind passed so I could hear it better. It was as if every single tree was telling me to relax, it would be alright. For several moments afterwards I just stood there taking deep breaths and imagining the sound I had just heard passing through again.

Instead of hearing a blissful gust of wind through the leaves I heard in the distance, but rapidly getting closer, some voices singing. I opened my eyes and saw running through the woods towards me, two men and one woman, all about my age, and sprinting towards me. I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet in anticipation of meeting some people to talk to. I thought it was a bit weird that they were running through the forest, and not on the path. The leaping they did over the logs seemed like an awful lot of work for people not dreaming.

“Haloo!” One of the men shouted at me as he got closer. “Haloo!” The other two shouted to me. They didn’t sound even slightly out of breath. As they got closer I could see they weren’t even sweating.

Taken aback by their exuberance I raised a hand timidly in greeting.

As the lead man rushed passed me he hit me on the shoulder. I stumbled back a step.

“Tag.” He said over his shoulder playfully, without slowing his pace.

I looked at him with a frown. That had been unfriendly of him. I felt another strike to my shoulder and I flailed my arms and took another two steps back.

“Tag.” The second man said as he ran by. I anticipated the girl’s action and as she got close I turned quickly, and almost fell right over. She stopped running, put both of her hands on her knees and laughed. She laughed loud, and for several moments. The other two stopped and jogged back to see what the fuss was about.

“What’s up Jess?” The second man to strike me asked. I felt like I should speak up, as they had all said something to me at least once, and I had remained quiet, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I still felt rather foolish for almost falling over several times.

“This zombie can’t have been unhooked for more than a few days.” She says, wiping away tears of mirth.

“What?” I finally manage to ask. I wanted to ask, what are you people doing? Why did you hit me? How are you all not passed out from exhaustion? What’s unhooked mean? And several other things, but all that came out was ‘what’.

“Don’t worry about it friend.” The leader said. “Jess is just playing with you, how long have you been unhooked?” Jess puts her hands on her hips and winks at me.

“Unhooked?” I asked, not having enough of my mental faculties about me to form longer sentences like ‘what does unhooked mean and why does she think I’ve been unhooked’?

“Oh man Frank he must be fresh. I don’t think he’s run into a pack of free people before.” The man next to the leader says.

“Is that true?” Franks asks me. “Have you ever seen people like us before?” I shake my head. The man whose name I did not yet know gave a whistle.

“Welcome to the club brother.” He says, and stick out his hand. Still very much confused about what’s going on I shake his head, and somewhere in the introductions that followed I discover the as of yet unidentified man is named Thomas, the three of them are all siblings, and I manage to scrape my wits together.

“I still don’t understand what’ going on.” I tell them. “You guys keep using words I don’t understand. What’s unhooked? What are free people? Why did you call me a zombie? Do I smell or something.

“No you don’t smell.” Frank tells me. Thomas and Jess exchange doubtful looks with each other.

“Okay you don’t smell much, but anyway. We called you a zombie because you’re recently unhooked, and we’re all free people because we’ve been unhooked.” I shake my head again.

“Unhooked, that’s the crux of it. What does it mean?” Thomas cracks a sideways grin.

“Isn’t it obvious?” He asks me. “Do you notice how we’ve been running through the woods and we’re not even slightly out of breath? Do you see how there’s no one else about, and you’ve managed to run into not one, but three of us. I know you don’t have a mirror, but do you see how we’re laughing, and smiling, and singing, and everyone else you know just wants to sleep?”

“So you guys spend your wakeful cycle being active, so what? I spend a lot of my dream time running around too.” I retort.

“That’s just it.” Jess says. “Ryan, we don’t dream.” I look at her like she had three noses and had just declared herself the first human mouse.

“Everybody dreams, it’s a natural part of sleep.” Thomas snickers when I use the word natural.

“There’s nothing natural about the way you sleep.” Thomas tells me. I feel a need to punch Thomas. For the first time that day I wish I was asleep so I could cause him some suffering.

“Ryan.” Frank tells me, much more gently than Thomas. “We don’t sleep like you do. We do dream, despite what Jess says.” Jess and Thomas are now narrowing their eyes at Frank. “It’s still a dream guys, just not like what they do.” They backed off a bit, but the comment had offended them. These people were insulted by dreaming. These guys just kept getting weirder. I waited for Frank to continue his thought.

“When we sleep we don’t take any pills. We just lay down, close our eyes, and in about eight hours or so we get up and get on with life. If we dream.” He glanced at Thomas and Jess as if to challenge them. “We don’t control it, it controls us, and when we wake up we quickly forget it.”

“Eight hours!” I exclaimed, my jaw dropping. “How do you guys stay so active? I sleep twenty and I don’t have a fraction of the energy that you have!”

“It’s true.” Frank said. “Stay with us a while and you’ll see. Come one, we’re heading back home, you can follow along.” I didn’t have time to consider his offer as he punched me in the shoulder again.

“Tag.” He said, and the three of them darted away as quickly as they had come.

“You’re supposed to catch us!” Jess called back to me.

How? They were running way too fast for any normal human to catch up. They were almost around the bend in the trail and if I didn’t move quickly they’d be gone. I considered going back home and forgetting this whole ridiculous incedent, but just then the girl looked over her shoulder at me, and something about her pulled me after them.

I started to move towards them, slowly at first. This running they were doing looked dangerous and I didn’t want to leap into it. I increased my pace, and my forward momentum began to allow me to take longer and longer strides. It took more effort than walking, I had to think about constantly pushing myself forward. I was moving quicker, but I was still losing them.

I began to feel warm when I really began to hit my stride. It was almost like small jumps forward. It came naturally to me and I began to hear blood pumping in my ear. It was an exhilarating feeling. I was generating my own breeze now, and it felt just like the one that had swept through before the trio had arrived, only instead of peace this one brought energy. I pumped my arms and began to feel like a warrior. I had been a warrior before, a general, a sniper, a legionnaire, a marine, a Spartan, a jedi, and even a god, but now I really felt like it.

Then I started to have trouble breathing. My breaths had been quickening, and now it seemed like I couldn’t get enough air. I stumbled nearly fell flat on my face as I stopped running and leaned over to combat the sudden onset of my shortness of breath. I took deep breaths, and I had to almost spit the sweat out as it ran down my face. The deep breaths weren’t working. They just weren’t working. Short breaths, that was it, just get air in and out quickly, in and out quickly.

“He’s hyperventilating!” I heard the girl call. They must’ve been on the way back, but I couldn’t look up, my vision was starting to do something funny. “You shouldn’t have tried playing tag right away Frank he can’t take it.” Her voice was close, and I felt a hand on the back of my head, and something was placed in front of my mouth.

“Just keep breathing.” She said in a low encouraging voice, like a mother telling her child that it was going to be okay. “That’s it.” I heard a crinkling sound, and as my vision began to clear I saw a brown paper bag in front of my face. As had happened so many times today I once again was utterly at a loss as to what had happened.

My breathing slowed and I felt like I was getting enough air again. I stood up and took a deep breath again.

“There.” Jess told me. “That’s better.” She pats me on the back. “You just got a little too excited from the run, that’s all.”

“Does that happen every time you run?” I thought it was a stupid question, but Thomas and Frank didn’t say anything sarcastic to me.

“No, not usually.” Jess tells me. “It only typically happens when you haven’t been working out in a while, which, I’m guessing you haven’t.” I didn’t know if I had ever done a workout. I shook my head.

“There you see.” Jess turned to Frank and Thomas. “He hasn’t done anything like this before, so we got to ease him into it. How about we just try keeping you awake for a regular 16 hour rotation first?” the question was directed at me. I had forgotten that they claimed to only sleep eight hours a night, and not control their dreams at all.

“I don’t know how you expect me to recover from being tired by being up for so long. I was planning on going to sleep as soon as I got back to my house.” Jess shook her head at me.

“Nope, wrong answer, you sir are going to come with us and enjoy yourself with some good old fashioned hanging out.” Hanging out, that word comforted me, and I let her take me by the arm and start walking up the path. I had started this day wanting to hang out, and in a very indirect roundabout way it was happening. It was happening with strangers, and odd ones at that, but it was still happening. I guess you got to be careful what you wish for.

On the walk back I noticed that my legs seemed weaker than they had before. I had to limp periodically. I wondered if I had broken something. Maybe they should take me to a hospital.

“That’s normal.” Frank said from beside me. He was watching me walk, and had noticed my limp. “The first time you workout a muscle it typically hurts a lot afterwards. It normally doesn’t take place so quickly, but people don’t normally get as out of shape as you do.” I tried to think quickly to respond that insult, but Jess spoke first.

“Don’t worry, it’ll get better quick. You’ll be running through the forest in no time.” Jess encouraged me.

“I can’t stand all this walking!” Thomas exclaimed.

“No one’s making you.” Frank informed him.

“Good.” Thomas shot back. He bolted forward and to my continued amazement, jumped into the low hanging branches of a nearby tree and swung himself around several branches without even using his legs.

“His arms must be as strong as his legs.” I said.

“Not quite.” Jess told me. “There’s a technique to climbing. Trust me, it looks more difficult than it actually is.”

I found that hard to believe. He flipped out of the tree and I almost swallowed my tongue.

“Do you people do anything normal?” I asked.

“By your definition?” Thomas asked. “Probably not.” Great, I was once again tempted to head back home, but I wasn’t sure I could make it all the way back.

“Here we are.” Jess said. “Home sweet home.” The three of them lived in a town house. That was a pleasant bit of normality. I half expected them to live inside a giant turtle or something with how this day had been going.

Several rushed minutes later they had me sitting around a table with funny little cardboard cutouts that had numbers and symbols on them.

“It’s called hearts.” Frank told me, and the rules seemed about as foreign as everything else had this day, but were easy enough to master. I quickly cleaned up the first few matches, with my opponents only seeming like a round or two from failure.

Then, just as they had with my walk, and my experiment in running, things changed. I started losing, badly. Every single hand they seemed to know what was in my hand. This wasn’t right. I was amazing at card games.

“I play all the time with my friends, and in my dreams, and I always win.” I told them. “Are you guys looking at my hand?”

“No we’re not cheating Ryan.” Thomas told me as he made me take a whopping sixteen points in one hand. I didn’t even have a shot at shooting the moon because Jess had taken a heart on the second trick.

“Your friends are just bad at cards, and you’re bad at imagining what actual strategy is.” I took another three points. I bit my lip

“Give it a minute Ryan.” Frank encouraged. The next hand I also lost badly, taking nearly all the points once again, and Jess decided to comment.

“You know you’ve done the same thing the last three hands. You’re used to getting rid of one suit to try and dump the queen on somebody. You also like hoarding hearts to throw on people’s hands. So when you throw down a club on the first turn we know you’ve ditched your diamonds and probably have lots of club and hearts with one or two spades to cover your queen.”

“You have been looking at my cards.” I threw down my cards and stood up. “Do you guys make a habit out of cheating at games with strangers you’ve just met?” I asked.

“It’s not cheating.” Thomas said flatly. “It’s called pattern recognition. People who are hooked either play with themselves in their own world, or play with friends who wish they were in their own world. Either way, they use the same tricks and never learn because they don’t care. They’re zombies. Pick up your cards man.” These people had a habit of pricking my nerves, and then the next moment calming them. I felt a bit like a baby who yells at the slightest change in temperature because he hasn’t learned to take the pain. I take my seat and shuffle my cards, embarrassed by my outburst, and embarrassed that he was right. I did use the same strategy, I never had a reason to change until now.

Luckily my cards had landed face down and we can continue without a re-deal. I examine my hand closely and make my move, getting rid of all of my diamonds. I take 9 points, but Jess takes 15, for the first time since we started playing, I wasn’t losing the worst.

“What now Thomas!” I shout.

“Two points.” Thomas says, holding up the two hearts he had taken during the game.

“Well, yeah, but Jess has 15!” I exclaim.

“You didn’t even change your strategy.” Thomas says exasperated.

“No, but I didn’t have to, all of you were expecting me to change, that’s what let me dump the queen on Jess!” Thomas didn’t have anything to say to that. I felt a rush. They had laid down a challenge and I had won! When was the last time that had happened? All of dream challenges I knew I could win, and I had never taken on something in real life I couldn’t win.

“Deal faster.” I encourage Thomas. “I am totally gonna own you guys this round.”

“Let’s see you put your money where your moth is big guy.” Jess taunts.

Three hours later I begin to feel drowsy.

“It’s been great guys, but I gotta head back home. It’s past my bedtime.” There’s a moment of silence.

“You really gonna hook man?” Thomas asks me.

“Well yeah, how else are you gonna sleep?” I ask him back.

“By waiting twelve more hours.” Franks tells me. “Come on, we’ve seen this before, when Thomas unhooked it was the same thing. You need to get a regular sleep cycle going, and you can’t do that with the pill. Besides.” He lifts the cards. “In your dreams, this isn’t a game, and can you honestly tell me that you get this excited about cards? Come one, when was the last time you did anything this normal in a dream?” He had me there.

“I don’t know.” I say reluctantly.

“Tell you what.” Thomas says. “I’ve got a spare REM pill sitting around here for just such an occasion. Let’s make a bet. I’ll arm wrestle you. If you win, we give you the pill and take you home, no questions asked. I win, we take you somewhere that’ll really wake you up.” Thomas puts the pill on the table.

I could just go home and take my own pill. It was sort of a bad bet, and I think I could find this place again tomorrow. I had found some friends who be willing to hangout whenever. I didn’t need to stay up.

“You know Ryan.” Frank tells me. “Another big difference between dreams and here. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, things don’t always go according to plan. If you’re going to be awake you’re going to have to take chances.”

I place my arm on the table. Thomas grins and locks my hand in a grip while Frank counts backwards from three. It’s no contest, Thomas pins my arm in a heartbeat.

“Hah!” He exclaims. “Don’t you remember me swinging from the trees? I’ve got arm strength for days.” I smirk, grab his hand again, and pull him across the table. Frank and Jess are so shocked they don’t move.

“I lift free weights while I work on my laptop and watch TV.” I tell him. “I may not run fast but I can lift weights plenty well.” Frank is silently laughing and Thomas looks like he had heard his own mother swear profusely.

“Now where’s this place where you really wake me up?”

“It’s a lake.” Thomas tells me. “People swim in it.” He adds patronizingly.

“I know that.” I say. “I’ve just never been in one before.”

“First time for everything.” Frank says, and runs into the water, taking a dive when he’s a few feet out. Thomas and Jess rush out too.

“Come on chicken the water’s fine.” I put one foot in the water and discover it most certainly is not fine. I shiver as my foot feels possibly the coldest it has ever felt. How on earth did they stand it?

“You can’t just put one foot in.” Frank tells me playfully, now treading water several yards out. “You gotta rush in all at once or you’ll take all day.” My foot begins to feel warm again, so I put another in and discover the water is still just as cold. Frank, Thomas, and Jess all shout a mixture of encouragement and jeers as I slowly wade out, taking a minute to pause when it reaches my waste. It takes me three whole minutes to get chest deep. During those three minutes I keep staring at the dark muddy water in front of me.

Anything at all could be in the water. I could barely see six inches. A shark could swim by and take out my leg before I saw anything. Or more mundanely there could be broken glass, or some kind of flesh eating bacteria. I reasoned to myself that my three friends were here, so it couldn’t be that bad, but my imagination kept painting pictures of tentacles shooting out of the water and triangular fins racing towards. This wasn’t a dream anymore.

Something large and strong grabbed me and forced me under the water. I didn’t have time to take a breath and I hit the water screaming. I hoped my friends had heard me. I didn’t know if it was some strange water monster or a serial killer, but I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I was dying. You couldn’t live long without breathing. I had to get air. I was on my back and flailed my arms in the water trying to push myself up, but the grip stayed strong.

I kicked my legs, trying to find some purchase on the lake floor, and still nothing. My legs must’ve been too tired from before. I was still screaming, and almost out of air now. I started to cough and inhale water. There was water in my lungs and it hurt. It stung and made me cough more, which made me inhale even more water. I was almost out of air, and tried one last swing with my arm, this time aimed at my attacked. It worked, the grip released and I shot to the surface gasping for air and coughing out water.

I felt like I had inhaled half the lake, and I couldn’t seem to breathe properly. Every time I inhaled it made the water in my lungs hurt, so I coughed some out, but then I needed to breathe again. It was brutal process.

“Are you okay Ryan?” Thomas asked from behind me. Then it clicked, eyes red from being underwater, clutching at my chest and drying desperately to breathe I rounded on my attacker.

“You.” I coughed out, and then had to take several breaths to get some more water out of my lungs. “You, why did you.” I coughed violently again. Frank and Jess were by my side. Why weren’t they saying something to Thomas. Why hadn’t they helped me. I must’ve been under for two minutes. He almost killed me.

“Are you okay?” I coughed some more, my lungs were almost clear.

“I’ve been punched, mocked, humiliated, torn up my leg muscles, almost passed out trying to run, kept awake past my bedtime, and now almost drowned in some dark dirty lake, and you ask me if I’m okay?” I get the last bit of water out of my lungs, and I take my first breath that doesn’t hurt. It feels so good I take another and another. I minute ago the only thing I wanted in the whole world was to breathe, and now I could. Nobody could stop me greedily sucking in as much air as I could. I just wanted to stand here and breath for at least ten minutes.

“Yes.” I tell Ryan. “I’m okay.” I return to my breathing, and Frank puts a hand on my shoulder.

“Why are you okay Ryan? You almost drowned just now.” This felt rehearsed but I didn’t care. All I cared about was that no strange lake monster was holding me under, and the air flowed cleanly in and out of my lungs.

“Because a few hours ago I was a Spartan god of lightning mowing down thousands of Persians with ease, and it was the dullest thing I’ve ever done. Now, I’m just breathing and having the time of my life.”

Frank patted me on the back. “Welcome to the real world Ryan. You can die here, but it’s the only place you can really live.”

“Welcome aboard.” Thomas high fives me. I still feel like killing him, but that can wait a minute. Jess gives me a hug.

“You’re off the hook.” She tells me, but I barely hear. When she touches me it’s like an electric shock goes through me. I can’t move, and I am suddenly intensely aware of the fact that she’s a girl. She doesn’t seem to notice, but Frank and Thomas do. Thomas mouths ‘should we’ at Frank, and Frank holds up a hand as if to say ‘wait a moment’.

Jess lets go and dives off into some nearby reeds. Frank and Thomas follow, I move to join them and while Jess’ head is under water Thomas asks. “Get a new hook did you Ryan? Doesn’t feel like that in a dream does it?” I suddenly find the courage to bury my head under the water.

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