The clang of her skull hitting metal would be a sound that Grace was going to remember for a while.
Her night had been going so well, snow had given her village a beautiful Christmas card look, and she was with her mates wandering around killing time, relaxing now that school was over and Christmas was four more advent chocolates away.
Then everything changed.
She had been talking to her friends, walking backwards in front of them as she dictated what she hoped to get for Christmas that year. While she listed films, smellies and books, secretly she hoped for bigger changes in her life. If she had been paying attention maybe she'd have seen the flight of steps behind her.
“Mind your step!” Jo, her best friend, had cried out.
“Wha...?” Grace blurted out.
She looked over her shoulder and saw the danger, but was too late to do anything about it.
Grace twisted and flung her arms out to balance herself as she stumbled down the first few steps.
She swayed for a fraction of a second, but came to a complete stop.
That should have been it, a little bit of embarrassment, but no drama.
However the steps were icy.
Grace’s feet moved out from under her and she fell backwards.
Her back hit the top step, which was a solid block of concrete.
Then she rolled down the stairs first on her side then head over heels.
She was only able to utter a single yell, it all happened so quickly she had no time to stop herself.
“Grace,” Matthew, another of her friends, shouted.
She felt every impact and every cut and graze. There was a sudden and terrific pain in her left leg.
Then her head hit the railing.
There was a loud, metallic ringing sound like the worlds most out of tune cymbal.
Then it all went black.
Grace opened her eyes. She was staring up at the night sky that was filled with a full moon and bright, flickering stars. She tried to remember what had happened, how she had ended up like this, but there were no memories to draw on.
She didn’t move, instead she just let her body report on the damage it must have suffered. Weirdly she seemed fine, no pain at all, in fact she wasn’t even tired or achy.
The only thing she was feeling was embarrassment, she must have looked like a right idiot. Grace was glad no one would have had time to film her, or take pictures on their phones.
She scowled she wasn’t seeing a circle made of her friend’s heads, all looking down at her in concern.
She sat up "It's alright guys I fine, thanks for checking on me..."Grace trailed off, alarmed by the scene in front of her.
An ambulance was parked to her left and its blue flashing lights were creating a strobe like effect on the nearby library green, casting shadows that danced around the revolving light.
Paramedics, police and her friends were focusing on someone lying on the ground who wasn’t moving.
Her attention turned to her friends.
Jo was literally screaming her head off and weeping into Matthew’s shoulder. They were all comforting each other looking down at who the paramedics were working on, covering their mouths with their hands, as if trying to prevent themselves from throwing up or breathing hysterically.
Police moved the crowd back and tried to calm down her friends.
Grace got up and stumbled over to the paramedics and looked down at who was receiving the treatment.
It was her.
She looked up and saw the icy flight of stairs, and then she remembered.
She then looked at her broken body again and properly examined herself for the first time.
After a long, hard stare she felt like someone had punched her in the gut and she turned around and walked away breathing deeply in shock.
Her body was in a terrible state. A broken bone had pieced her left leg, she remembered the pain. Her left hand was bent at completely the wrong angle; a large cut on her temple had spread blood across her forehead and into her curly black hair.
Her normally bright, hazel eyes were open, yet they looked vacant, empty.
Am I dead? Grace thought to herself.
She then looked down at the body she was moving around in now.
Her eyes widened in surprise.
She was no longer wearing her cold weather clothes, but instead her best pair of blue jeans, a yellow shirt and her favourite jacket and shoes. She felt her hair, which fell onto her shoulders the way she always wanted and felt like the the most expensive, softest fleece she had ever touched. She was also standing taller, she relaxed her body and expected it to slouch, yet her amazing posture remained without effort.
But her sudden change of clothes and a sudden great manicure was the least surprising thing about her 'body'. More incredible was the fact that she was shining, as if she was made from light itself.
“I’m a ghost,” she said to herself. “I am dead! I must be,” she called out hysterically. “I don’t believe it I’m dead, what happens now?” Grace screamed to the heavens.
She then patted the air and her frantic breathing slowed. A sudden realisation hit her. Hmm it’s not that bad, she thought admiring her figure.
“Is...” came a voice, followed by a sniff, “...she dead?” Grace heard Jo blurt out between tears.
“No she’s not,” the paramedic said, reassuringly. “But she’s severely injured we need help getting her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance,” he added in a serious tone of voice, speaking directly to the police.
I can’t be a ghost, I’m still alive, Grace thought, out of body experience, whoa.
“Hey Jo I'm here,” she said, but got no response from her friend. “Hey Jo I'm here,” she repeated.
The paramedics carefully placed her actual body onto a stretcher and Grace moved closer to it and reached out to take her own, ‘real’ hand.
It was then the world around her suddenly splintered and fractured along dark lines.
“What!” Grace said.
She pulled back her hands as the whole world continued to break like glass, radiating out from her body in the pattern of a spider’s web.
The ambulance, her friends, the ground on which she stood all broke apart. Only she remained whole, as finally everything shattered and she no longer had anything to stand on.
Grace fell, screaming out as she tumbled into nothingness.
She looked up and saw above her the pieces of the world disappearing, swallowed by the darkness.
As she was falling the light from her body left a trial in the air, as if she were a small comet.
She breathed in and screamed again, twisting and flailing her arms in the air hoping to grab onto something to stop her fall.
“HEEEEELLLLLLLPPPPPP,” Grace shouted.
No one replied.
She fell for what seemed like hours. With no end in sight, no ground rushing up to meet her.
The whole time she fell she was dimly aware that she was falling beside a massive wall of stone, every so often in the darkness, its jagged rocks could be seen under the glare of the light from her own body.
Then she saw that her bodily light was illuminating something beneath her, something she was about to crash into. She gasped and foolishly raised her hands to protect herself from the impact.
Her hands struck the ground and a world erupted in front of her in a blazing explosion of light.
Grace staggered and fell to the floor.
She gagged, but she had no stomach to vomit from so it came out like a awkward cough.
She looked up pushing her brilliant hair from her face. She was no longer falling in darkness, but instead she was looking out over the most beautiful world she had ever seen.
She then corrected herself, the most beautiful world there ever could be.
Grassy fields stretched as far as the eye could see flowing with the wind like the waves of the sea. Rivers and streams that gleamed like jewels intersected the view and trees of astounding colour and shape towered over the landscape. To add to this beauty the entire land shone of its own accord just like her body. The sun, which was high in the sky, was black as if in permanent eclipse, a dark sun that didn’t need to shine light on this dazzling landscape.
It was wonderful to look at.
Something that was brilliant to behold.
Grace felt tears in her eyes, he smile grew and she didn’t blink not once as she looked around. She wondered if she had actually gone to heaven.
Yet it looked like she was in Africa, a continent her family always visited, usually a different country every year like Uganda, Lesotho or Ethiopia. Mostly because of her mother and father’s missionary work. She stood up and walked around letting her hand brush through the long familiar grass. She heard the rustle of leaves in nearby Coral Trees, they were red, it was near the end of winter here.
I am dead she concluded, this is the afterlife.
She thought of her parents, she was far away from them now, further than she ever had been. Her friends were gone, her daily routine was over. Instinctively she felt for her mobile phone, she had to call them, but of course she had no phone. She felt like an idiot for trying.
She was about to despair at her loss, but then suddenly brighter thoughts entered her mind.
No school, a lovely world, her body felt healthy - unbreakable.
Grace felt some guilt at that thought.
No guilt there though. They were always on her case at just about everything homework, school and looks. Not to mention the constant arguments and shouting.
That thought felt good. There was no longer any pressure on her to conform, to be popular and to follow stupid rules that made no sense. She no longer had to feel embarrassed at behaving any which way she pleased, within reason of course, she mentally added.
She broke into a run and screamed “I’M FREE,” and flung her hands into the air.
She let herself collapse into the grass that was softer than her own bed and closed her eyes.
No more worries.
“You’re probably thinking you’re in heaven right now...far from it, in fact you’re not even dead yet,” said a voice behind her like a hissing snake, followed by some maniacal laughter.
Grace opened her eyes and gasped in surprise.
She turned and saw a creature of unimaginable horror, with a creepy smile, looking down at her. Behind it was a mountain of black and grey stone rising high into the sky, she hadn’t noticed that before.
“Welcome to your Soul Life human,” it said as its laughter died away. “It’s not so bad, yeah you'll be working in a mine for many many years but still, you'll have some breaks,” it added, and then reached out to her, with a hand studded with claws.