NEVER GIVE UP
I woke up underwater, deep underwater, and this was my first conscious thought. Cold. Dark. Where was the surface? I kicked in all directions, trying to find my way up. I twisted and turned, and then I saw it: a light. Dim, pale, and far away.
Instinctively I shot for it, and quickly noticed that the water around me was growing brighter. That had to be the surface, the sun.
But how could the sun be . . . square? I must be seeing things. Maybe some trick of the water.
Who cares! How much air do I have left? Just get to it. Swim!
My lungs ballooned, little bubbles escaping from my lips, racing me for the distant light. I kicked and clawed the water like a caged animal. Now I could see it, a ceiling of ripples coming closer with each desperate stroke. Closer, but still so far away. My body ached, my lungs burned.
My body writhed as a sudden jolt of pain shot from toes to eyes. My mouth opened in a choked scream. I reached for the glow, grabbing for breath, for life.
I exploded into the cool, clean air.
I coughed. I choked. I wheezed. I laughed.
For a moment, I just savored the experience, closing my eyes and letting the sun warm my face. But when I opened my eyes, I couldn’t believe them. The sun was square! I blinked hard. The clouds, too? Instead of round puffy cotton balls, these thin, rectangular objects floated lazily above me.
You’re still seeing things, I thought. You hit your head when you fell off the boat and now you’re a little dazed.
But did I fall off a boat? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember anything, in fact; how I got here, or even where “here” was.
“Help me!” I shouted, scanning the horizon for a ship or a plane or even a speck of land. “Please, somebody! Anybody! HELP!” All I got was silence. All I could see was water and sky.
I was alone.
Something splashed inches from my face, a flash of tentacles and a thick, black and grayish head.
I yelped, kicking backward. It looked like a squid, but square like everything else in this strange place. The tentacles turned to me, opening wide. I gazed right into a yawning red mouth ringed with white razor teeth.
“Get outta here!” I hollered. Mouth dry, heart pounding, I splashed clumsily away from the creature. I didn’t have to. At that moment, the tentacles closed, blasting the squid in the other direction.
I floated there, frozen, treading water for a few seconds, until the animal disappeared into the deep. That’s when I let out a long, throaty, tension-draining “ughhh.”
I took another deep breath, then another, then a whole lot more. Finally, my heart settled down, my limbs stopped jerking, and, for the first time since I woke up, my brain switched on.
“Okay,” I said aloud. “You’re way out in a lake or ocean or whatever. No one’s coming to save you, and you can’t tread water forever.”
I did a slow, 360-degree turn, hoping to see some thread of coastline I’d missed before. Nothing. In desperation I tried one last scan of the sky. No planes, not even a thin white trail. What sky doesn’t have those trails? One with a square sun and rectangle clouds.
I noticed they were all moving steadily in one direction, away from the rising sun. Due west.
“As good as anywhere,” I said, giving another deep sigh, and started swimming slowly west.
It wasn’t much to go on, but I figured the wind might help me along a little bit, or at least wouldn’t slow me down. And if I went north or south, the breeze might slowly blow me in an arc so I’d end up swimming in circles. I didn’t know if that was really true. I still don’t. I mean, c’mon, I’d just woken up, probably with some kind of massive head injury, at the bottom of an ocean, and was trying really, really hard not to end up back there.
Just keep going, I told myself. Focus on what’s ahead. I began to notice how weird my “swimming” was; not the stroke, pause, stroke motion, but the sense of gliding across the water with my limbs along for the ride.
Head injury, I thought, trying not to imagine how serious that injury might be.
One good thing, I noticed, was that I didn’t seem to be getting tired. Isn’t swimming supposed to be exhausting? Don’t your muscles burn and quit after a while? Adrenaline, I thought, and tried not to imagine that emergency gas tank running out.
But it would. Sooner or later, I’d lose steam, cramp up, go from swimming to treading water, then from treading water to floating. Of course, I’d try to rest, bobbing up and down to conserve energy, but how long could I keep that up? How long before the cold of the water finally got to me? How long before, teeth chattering, body shivering, I finally sank back down into the darkness?
“Not yet!” I blurted out. “I’m not giving up yet!”
Shouting out loud was enough to perk me up. “Keep focused! Keep going!”
And I did. I kept swimming with all my might. I also tried to be über-aware of my surroundings. Hopefully I would spot the mast of a ship or the shadow of a helicopter, but at the very least, it would take my mind off my current predicament!
I noticed that the water was calm, and this gave me something to feel good about. No waves meant no resistance, which meant I could swim farther, right? I also noticed that the water was fresh, not salty, which meant that I had to be in a lake instead of an ocean, and lakes are smaller than oceans. Okay, a big lake is just as dangerous as an ocean, but c’mon, you got a problem with me trying to look on the bright side?
I also noticed that I could see the bottom. It was deep—don’t get me wrong, you could sink a pretty decent office building and never see the top—but it wasn’t bottomless like the ocean is supposed to be. I could also see it wasn’t level. There were tons of little valleys and hills.
That was when, off to my right, I noticed that one of the hills had grown so tall that its top disappeared beyond the horizon. Did it break the surface? I turned north, northwest, I guess, and swam in a straight line for the hill.
And before I knew it, the hill grew into an underwater mountain. And a few seconds later, I actually thought I saw its top sprout above the water.
That’s gotta be land, I thought, trying not to get my hopes up. It could be a mirage though, a trick of the light or some mist or . . .
That’s when I saw the tree. At least I thought it was a tree, because, from that distance, all I could make out was a dark green angular mass perched atop a dark brown line.
Excitement propelled me like a torpedo. Eyes locked forward, I soon saw other trees dotting a tan beach. And then, suddenly, the green-brown slope of a hill.
“Land!” I shouted. “LAAAND!”
I’d made it! Warm, firm, solid ground! A few strokes and I’d be there. A wave of total relief washed over me . . . and just like a real wave it washed right back out.
I barely had a second to celebrate before the island came into full view. By the time I reached the shore, I was just as confused as the moment I’d woken up.
The island was square. Or, rather, it was made of squares. Everything: sand, dirt, rocks, even those things I first thought were trees. Everything was a combination of cubes. “Okay,” I said, refusing to believe what I was seeing. “Just need a minute is all, just a minute.” Standing in waist-high water, breathing, blinking, I waited for my eyes to clear. I was sure that any minute, all those harsh right angles would return to soft, curvy normalness.
“Gotta be that head wound,” I said, wading ashore. “No problem. Just make sure you’re not bleeding too bad and—”
Instinctively, my hand went up to find the supposed injury, and as it came up in front of my face, I gasped.
“Wha . . . ?” There was a fleshy cube at the end of my rectangular arm, a cube that wouldn’t open no matter how hard I tried. “Where’s my hand!?” I shouted, my voice rising in panic.
Head swimming, throat closing, I looked nervously down at the rest of me.
Brick-shaped feet, rectangular legs, a shoebox-shaped torso, all covered in painted-on clothes.
“What’s wrong with me!?” I hollered to the empty beach.
“This isn’t real!” I screamed, running back and forth, trying to tear the painted clothes off my body.
Hyperventilating, I rushed back to the water, desperate for the calming reflection of my face. Nothing greeted me. “Where am I?” I shouted to the shimmering sea. “What is this place?”
I thought of the water, of how I’d woken up . . . but had I?
“This is a dream!” I said, relief breaking into my panicked voice, reaching for the only thing I could think of. “Of course!” And for a second I almost pulled myself together. “Just a crazy dream, and soon you’ll wake up and . . .”
And what? I tried to imagine waking up in my home, in my life, but it was all gone. I could remember the world, the real world of soft, round shapes, of people and houses and cars and lives. I just couldn’t remember me in it.
My vision narrowed as an invisible fist closed around my lungs. “Who am I?”
Tension pulsed up through the veins in my neck. I could feel the skin on my face, the roots of my teeth. Dizzy, nauseous, I staggered back against the base of the hill. What was my name? What did I look like? Was I old? Was I young?
Looking down at my boxy body, I couldn’t determine anything. Was I a man or a woman? Was I even human?
“What am I?”
The thread snapped. My mind collapsed.
Where? Who? What? And now the final question.
“Why!?” I screeched up at the bright square sun. “Why can’t I remember? Why am I different? Why am I here? Why is all of this happening to me? WHYYY!?”
All I got back was silence. No birds, no waves, not even the rustle of wind through those angular excuses for trees. Nothing but pure, punishing silence.
And then . . .
The sound was so small I wasn’t sure I’d heard it.
I definitely heard it that time, and felt it, too. It was coming from inside me. My tummy was rumbling.
That was all I needed to break my downward spiral. Something to do, something simple and clear to focus on, and next to breathing, there’s nothing clearer or simpler than eating.
Grrrp, growled my stomach, as if to say, “I’m waiting.”
I shook my head violently, trying to get the blood back in my cheeks, and looked down at my body to see if I had anything to eat. I’d been so shocked the first time I’d seen myself that I might have missed something earlier. Maybe I had a waterproof phone in my pocket, or even a wallet with my ID.
I didn’t have either, or even pockets. But what I did find was a thin belt, painted the same color as my pants—another reason I’d missed it the first time—with four flat pouches on either side. Each pouch was empty, but while going through them, I suddenly realized I could feel the slight pressure of something resting gently on my back.
I call it a “backpack” but it didn’t have any straps or hooks or anything that should have held it in place. It was just stuck there, and like the belt and my painted-on clothes, I couldn’t take it off. All I could do was reach back and swing it to the front.
“Crazy dream,” I said, coming back to the only mental crutch I had. The pack’s inside was lined with twenty-seven small pouches, just like those on the belt, and also totally empty.
So much for taking inventory, I thought, as the feeling of hunger grew constant. That meant foraging for food. I looked around for something, anything, that looked remotely edible. At first, the only thing I could find appeared to be one-block-high blades of rectangular grass. They grew in ones and twos on the green-covered dirt behind the beach. I reached down to one sprouting right at my feet, but somehow I couldn’t pick it up. Instead I just swiped clumsily in a rapid punching motion.
Anxiety welled up in me again. It was one thing to have a strange-looking body, but a whole new crisis to discover that that body wouldn’t obey! I tried again, missing the grass, and again, and when I finally connected, my fist smashed my target to oblivion. And I do mean oblivion. The tall green stalks didn’t just fall over or break, they disappeared. One quick crunching noise and poof, gone.
“Aw, c’mon!” I pouted, looking at this angular appendage. “Just work, will ya?” For some reason, pleading with my hand wasn’t the answer. Neither was trying to repeat the same fruitless motion on another identical clump of grass.
I’ve heard, although I can’t remember where, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. I don’t know if that’s true for some people, but for me, it was pretty darn close.
“Just work!” I grunted angrily, punching the grass like it had swung first. “Work. Work. WORK!” It was starting again, the mental slide. My mind was balancing on a thin tightrope at that moment, and I really needed some kind of win.
I didn’t get one, exactly, but I did break the cycle by accidentally, literally, breaking the ground. On the fourth try, I hit so hard and for so long that I didn’t only destroy the little green blades, but also knocked away a whole block of dirt beneath them.
“Whoa . . .” I stammered, frustration replaced with curiosity.
At first I didn’t see the block, just the block-sized hole it’d disappeared into. I peered into the divot and saw a cube floating at the bottom—actually hovering off the ground—and much smaller than it had been. I reached in to pick it up and didn’t get halfway there before it flew up at me.
Copyright © 2017 by Max Brooks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.