<p>The whole world has somehow bent; the sky is fixed and dull, and slants hugely towards the earth, as if a single, immense piece has cracked and fallen loose.</p>
The ground is so dry, so parched from summer’s onslaught, that the air actually smells of hay; the yellow patina of desiccated grass releases heat in clouds as the students run, or more often than not stumble dejectedly, back and forth, across the blazing oval.
For many of the taller, better built specimens, vast sweat patches and occasional muttered curses are the only indications of the incredible, oppressive heat. Most of the others adopt a more proactive response, and complain vehemently at their teacher whenever she scurries into range.
The heat is of the intense, dry, February variety; a purging heat..
Removed from the bulk of the students is a small group of teenagers who have evidently decided that the usual stipulations of a Physical Education lesson do not, necessarily, apply to them. They are thus situated under a tree near the border of the sports oval, sprawled in a disorderly mass, like some malignant growth sprouting from the bright yellow earth.
It is towards this crew that Joan is walking. Her shirt clings to her and she screws her face against the sun and the flies. Her hair feels disgusting. After an abortive attempt to participate actively in whatever pointless exercise the teacher was drilling them in, she has decided that she would rather be sitting with her friends, even though she knows that Harry and Olivia will be flirting with each other awkwardly, and that Lucy will probably be high as a kite. Actually, she thinks, that might be unfair; as far as Joan is aware Lucy usually restrained herself to lighting up on a strictly extra-curricular basis. At any rate, she can see her dopey friend’s flaming mass of orange hair glinting in the distance already like a flaming tower toppling to the earth.
As she walks towards them she sees Harry reach out and clasp Olivia’s shoulder. He leans in towards her ear and, staring straight at Joan, mutters something. Their unnecessary proximity is not lost on Joan, who squints into the blinding sunlight and wipes the sweat from her glistening brow. Olivia is laughing at whatever witticism Harry has just muttered to her.
The dull heat is suddenly cut. A desperate cry rakes the sky from somewhere behind Joan; she half-turns and falters slightly. She stops and then turns awkwardly to view the students from the rest of the class as they heave themselves through the heavy air. The arched and monumental sky, astonishingly blue, swings on its axis pendulously above her. She cannot identify the source of the noise; her class seem to have noticed nothing. As she looks across the oval her eye meets with Brian’s, who grins at her in a way that makes her feel sick. Joan does not like Brian. He is tall, muscular, and very blond.
Joan had known a friend who had briefly dated Brian. Sophie. Her name had been Sophie. When things turned sour, Brian had shared a certain photo of Sophie around the school by hacking into her Facebook page. She took it down as quickly as possible, but not before it had racked up hundreds of views.
There was nothing to be done, of course. The school followed procedure, Brian was interviewed, students were called to give character testaments. That hardly helped; Brian was popular before the incident and, with a certain type of adolescent boy, more popular afterwards. The school could prove nothing and it made sense to some people that a stupid girl would post a photo online and then cast herself as a victim. These young people simply do not understand the risks and responsibilities inherent to social media; they are naïve. These kids are surely fools.
The worst bit was that Joan never really did enough. There was nothing she could do, really. She could not prove that Sophie hadn’t posted the photo herself. But it still felt terrible. It was always there, somewhere, this acidic creature sitting in her stomach. It scratched at the lining of her stomach whenever it saw Brian, scratched and tore with its hideous nails.
Sophie left the school, and Joan has not heard from her since. No-one has.
A sharp, high cry rattles through the air again. Joan suddenly feels very afraid. Her breath is catching in her throat, as if it is a jagged, rusty piece of piping that keeps snagging the air gushing to and from her lungs. She looks around the burning oval nervously. Nobody seems to have noticed anything. The students continue to stumble across the dry face of the earth. Joan looks back over her shoulder, into the light; squinting, she thinks she can see her friends staring back at her. She decides that whatever is making the noise is being too mysterious to deserve her attention, and turns fully to approach the group under the tree.
The otherworldly scream rends the world again, devastatingly this time – deafeningly loud and so desperate in tone that Joan is utterly terrified; she is shaking and sweating violently, the light is flickering too intensely into her eyes. She looks up and finds that the sky has darkened around the edges, as if the light is bleeding slowly away from the edges of the dome, leaching the blue away and leaving behind something grey and terrible. Although the light is fading from the sky, the sun above the tree-line seems to be burning brighter than ever, beaming into Joan’s face.
Joan is shivering now, she feels feverish and elastic. There is a terrible pain, inside her skull. A deep, metallic thrumming is pounding through the air now. It is low and alien, felt rather than heard, and terrifying. It feels unearthly, and invasive, as if it is forcing itself into a world which it does not belong in.
The light suddenly flares with an incredible intensity and the world becomes gold and white; Joan can see nothing. The thrumming gradually becomes clearer and she realises that it is composed of voices – they are singing, chanting, somehow simultaneously low and high, the impossible sound of light being delicately rearranged, gently pulled into thousands of individual notes and chords, weaving a burning sonic tapestry. It grows louder, and louder still, and then as it reaches a crescendo that flows through Joan’s quaking body, the golden light disappears abruptly.
Joan is lying on the ground, and her eyes, she realises, are tightly closed. She pulls herself up from the ground and gasps in terror. Before her expands the oval, but terribly distorted, twisted. It seems endlessly vast, and the whole world has somehow bent; the sky is fixed and dull, and slants hugely towards the earth, as if a single, immense piece has cracked and fallen loose. The air is still and utterly silent. The space between Joan, the school, the students, between everything, in fact, seems to have warped and frozen; people’s legs do not match with their torsos, the branches of trees jut out at impossible angles for impossible lengths. The world has suddenly become a smashed mirror.
Joan jumps in fright as something hisses, serpent-like, behind her. She spins around. She sees a tall figure before her, a man who gleams and shines like new pavement in summer. He has thick, dark hair which falls elegantly to his shoulders and he is clad in a robe of white which clings tightly to his muscular frame. More pressingly, he has a pair of vast, feathered wings sprouting from his back. They gleam so brightly white that they are painful to look at. His face is beautiful in a way that Joan cannot equate with the universe; his cheekbones and jaw look carved from marble. His irises are gold. He is only a few feet from her.
The man is eerie, certainly; he seems comfortable in the new and freakish reality that bends and glimmers around Joan. She is not immediately frightened; instead she feels an impossible yearning, a sense of aching desire for something that will make the fractured world hers again. She is still shivering, and feels hot – not as she had before, from the raw friction of the sun scraping her skin, but from an internal warmth in her gut which slowly expands and tingles through her body. The man stares at her with what is perhaps amusement. Joan cannot speak; there is some rip in her mind, some gulf separating thought from language which makes speech impossible.
A faint, devastatingly beautiful melody shimmers into earshot – whatever that means now that distance has apparently been kicked out of shape. The sinuous lines of song begin to twist like satin cords through Joan’s ears, and the sound is so delicate, so high and so thrilling that she forgets, for a moment, all about the man standing before her, whose face is sliding sardonically into a smile, and looks up to the warped sky, as the song fills every part of her body. Her heart beats wildly. Infinity seems to grow in her mind and all is still and beautiful.
Something touches her on her chin and she is brought back to earth. She looks down and sees the unearthly man standing directly in front of her. He lowers his perfect hand from her face and she looks into his eyes of molten honey with pupils dark like eternity. They dare light to attempt entry.
The lips suddenly split from their smile and a long, black, forked tongue lashes out, flickering before Joan’s eyes with a rattle and hiss from a nightmare. She shrieks and jerks backwards; she stumbles; she falls; the earth is tugged away like a rug and she is spinning and flipping through the dizzying dark, ripping the dark apart, the world is at her feet and then pulls her by the hair, the air is running down her throat and then climbing from her nose, and she is breathless, lying on the burning oval, dirt in her hair and eyes, the delicate dry rustle of thirsty grass in her nostrils, sun pushing down on her.
She hears cries of alarm and slowly pulls herself from the ground into a sitting position. Her friends are on their feet in the shady distance, shouting to her. She blinks and twists around as she hears the thudding pattern of sprinting bodies behind her. Joan is not sure what she thinks or what she wants, or whether she can even be bothered standing up. She decides that she probably won’t, and waits in the sunlight as the class hurtles towards her. All she knows is that somehow everything is very, very different from what it was when she stepped out onto the oval earlier that afternoon. Everything has changed.
The first few boys from the class reach her and it is Brian, she notes with interest, who leads them. He crouches before her, sweat gleaming in rivulets tracing his face, cheeks red, powerful arms on his knees. His eyes bore confidently into hers. His hair is lank with sweat, and he breathes heavily. His smile lurks somewhere between concerned and lascivious.
‘Hey, Joan!’ he says huskily. ‘Are you ok? Hey!’ he calls over his shoulder, ‘Get us some bloody water down here!’
Joan fixes her eyes on his, and suddenly finds her face breaking into a grin.
‘Honestly, don’t worry about it,’ she says. ‘I’m fine. Really. I… I don’t think I’ve ever felt better.’
Brian smiles at her. Joan smiles back at Brian.
This world is new, she thinks to herself. I have seen the face of the deep and it has been recast. The world is new. And the first thing I’m going to do in it, she is smiling more broadly than ever, and a great calm is descending over her heart, and she reaches slowly to Brian’s hand, smiling into his uncritical eyes, fingers playing against his – the very first thing I’m going to do in this new and breathless world, will be to carve your fucking face apart.