How long had it been since he’d breathed? Seconds? Minutes? He could feel his lungs screaming, his chest crying out in pain. He had to get to the surface. Up, up, up, closer and closer to where the daylight shimmered, where he could let his lungs do their jobs again. Up, up, up, almost there, but the pain was like the inside of his body on fire. He would burn to death under water. Lightheadedness began to take hold, but he was so close now, so close to the light. His right hand broke the water’s surface. One final thrust from his legs, one last pull from his arms, and he was breathing again, gasping for air…
Tom was lying face down in the alley when he regained consciousness. He didn’t hear any thugs around, so he sat up, and instantly regretted it. His head felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, and throbbed with pain. There was an angry buzzing in his ears that penetrated into his brain and made it impossible to think. He reached back and touched the spot he’d been hit. A huge lump, and just a little blood. Probably a concussion. Standing up slowly, Tom staggered a few steps, and leaned against the wall. How long had he been out? The sun hadn’t moved much, so Tom looked down at his watch. It read 9:15. He’d been unconscious for five minutes, at the most, but it felt like hours or days. The arcade, which had seemed so appealing 10 minutes ago, now only looked like it would make his headache worse. With nothing better to do, he headed towards the school.
Every step he took was agony, but Tom managed to get to school right at the start of Mr. Smith’s third period history class. Mr. Smith was just taking attendance, calling out for ‘O’Reilly’ just as Tom staggered through the door. Mr. Smith glanced at him briefly. “Mr. Russell,” he said, his voice dripping with unfriendly contempt. “So nice of you to grace us with your presence this morning. Please take your seat.” Tom started walking towards the back of the classroom, towards his desk near the back. “Wait just a second, Russell!” Mr. Smith’s voice was piercing, even from the front of the room. “What happened to your school uniform?” Tom looked down at himself. His clothes were torn in a few places, and he could feel that a little blood from his head had dripped onto the back of his collar. “Oh, this is going to cost you, Russell. That’s three demerits for breaking dress code. You’d best watch yourself, or you’ll wind up in detention--not that that would be particularly unusual for you. Anyway, let’s pass back last week’s exams, shall we?”
With that, Mr. Smith reached for a clipboard on his desk. He started at the top, at the letter ‘A.’ “Anderson…A-minus. Beckonsdale…C-plus…” It seemed to drag on and on. Every few names there was a happy exclamation from someone who had done well, or a bitter groan from someone who had not. The list gradually took Smith closer to Tom. “O’Reilly…B. Not bad, O’Reilly, keep it up. Rosada…C. What happened, Rosada, are you slipping? Get your head back into school, or you’ll wind up like Russell, here. Speaking of the devil…” At last it was Tom’s turn. “Russell…No, this can’t be right…B?”
Inwardly, Tom was quite pleased with himself. Usually he slacked off on tests, didn’t think they were all that important. Last week, though, he’d decided to pull together, and study for a change. It took a few hours, but he’d really learned the material; anything was worth it to see the look on Smith’s face.
“Ok Russell,” Mr. Smith interrupted Tom’s train of thought. “Whose paper did you cheat off of? If you agree to be honest with me right now, I promise to make my punishment significantly less harsh. It’s in your own best interests to tell me the truth right now.”
“What?” Tom rose to his feet angrily. “What the fuck are you talking about, old man? Don’t you try to take this away from me…”
“Is that a threat, Russell?” Demanded Smith. “And swearing at the teacher? Another 2 demerits. I’ll see you after school today. And just how did your uniform get so tattered, hmm? Fighting, I imagine. I’ll call that another five demerits, and see you tomorrow afternoon, too.” He looked Tom straight in his eyes, an evil look on his face. “Keep in mind that this punishment is nothing, Russell, and I mean nothing, compared to what I’ll do to you when I can prove that you cheated.” In the ensuing silence, the two, student and teacher, stared defiantly at each other. After what felt like an eternity, the bell rang, and the tension was broken.
The students from each class filtered in the hallway, flooding school with the sounds of a hundred conversations reverberating off the pale brick walls. Somehow, though, above it all, the loudspeaker blared once. “Thomas Russell, please report to the office, Thomas Russell.” Tom was astounded. Had Smith already gotten to the office with his bullshit? Tom thought not. There was no way he could’ve made it to the office that fast.
God, how he needed to get out of this school. Today had started off well enough, but Smith knew how to ruin a good day like no other teacher. Now that old feeling of suffocation that always seemed to hang over his days at school was back, bad as ever. It choked his attention span as he walked towards the office.
When he arrived, the secretary was already waiting for him. “You Thomas Russell?” She asked, in that indifferent way every secretary seems to talk. “You got a note from your mother.”
This made no sense at all. Tom knew exactly where his mother was: At home, trying to hold the house together. Why would she have left him a note at the office, anyway? She had his phone number. “What’s it say?” He asked, reluctantly revealing some curiosity.
“Well, you’ll have to read it yourself to figure that out,” said the secretary, handing him an envelope with his name on it. It wasn’t his mom’s handwriting.
“Thanks,” said Tom. He spoke like a man whose mind was somewhere else; probably because it was. Tom had a bad feeling about this letter, and he didn’t know why. He stuck it in his back pocket, walked away from the office, and headed towards the back stairwell, the place he went when he wanted some privacy. Whatever architect had designed the school had put in a staircase that connected the library with the foreign language wing. It would have actually been somewhat useful, if the school librarian hadn’t put signs all over both ends saying not to use it. All that did was make the stairwell quiet, so Tom could go there and relax when he didn’t feel like going to class. No one ever seemed to know he was there.
It was no wonder, then, that that was where Tom took the letter. A flick of his wrist and some torn paper, and the envelope was on the floor, leaving a note with just a few lines scrawled in pencil in Tom's hands. It said:
How’s school going? I heard you’d actually studied for a test the other day! I hope that worked out well for you. Anyways, this letter really only has one purpose: To warn you that, for you, things are about to get a little strange. You’ve been deemed a ‘special case,’ you see, and will be receiving some special attention. There’s more to the world, more to everything, then what you think you know, Tom. Just letting you know so you don’t freak out when your time comes. Well, you’ll probably freak out anyways, but there it is. We’ll be in touch.
She dotted her ‘i’ with a heart. Tom stared down at the letter in disbelief. This was a joke. A stupid joke, by some stupid kid, trying to piss him off. But the studying…even his parents didn’t know about that. He told himself again: Just a joke. A stupid, stupid joke.