Mark slouched back in his chair, feet outstretched, and gave a mighty yawn before pushing his long, black fringe out of his eyes. People dozed and daydreamed in the rows in front of him, willing the lesson to end in separate unity so they could go home. The teacher, Mr Gray, droned on like a broken fan, barely pausing to breathe or look at his class from behind his circular glasses, which magnified his eyes to twice their normal size. Dim light reluctantly seeped through gaps in the resiliently opaque blinds, which would be most unhelpful for note taking if anyone actually bothered to take notes. The only other sounds were that of the central heating, which hummed in the background as if trying to imitate Mr Gray, and the occasional snore. Mr Gray turned to the blackboard and began writing with chalk that matched the colour of his hair.
With Mr Gray's back turned Mark glanced left to his friend Orissa, currently applying yellow eyeliner, who returned his look of bored despair. She was a pretty girl, with conventionally perfect dark hair and blazing blue eyes, but she made every effort to hide this, which included wearing a bright multi-coloured jumper and earrings in the shape of a bloody hand.
Mark glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes to go. How had only five minutes passed since his last check? Mr Gray, noticing Mark's head was turned, swivelled round and asked "Mark, what do I do next?" Mark shot up with a jolt, resulting in stifled laughter from Orissa.
"Sorry- Ah!" Mark cried, clutching his chest as a stabbing pain ripped through it. He could feel his heart pounding all the way up to his ears, the pain spreading throughout his body, and he felt ready to vomit. Orissa stared at him, the smile now vanished as her face became the image of anxiety.
"Mark, as you are aware, pupils should pay attention at all times," Mr Gray lectured, taking no notice.
Biting on his lip, head on the table, Mark twitched when the pain stopped. He looked up, his hair now messy and tangled as it dangled in front of him.
"Sorry, sir..." Mark repeated. The lesson moved on and Mark felt his chest under his shirt. It seemed fine. He briefly considered going to the nurse, but he knew Mr Gray would never accept another interruption, so remained quiet.
Orissa gave him a worried look, saying nothing in fear of Mr Gray's wrath. Mark forced a smile, which seemed to reassure her.
He took another look at his watch - eighteen minutes. Time had decelerated to a snail's pace. Mark began to panic; what had caused the pain? He shut his eyes, desperate for the lesson to end so he could check his chest properly. Without any visual input to distract him, his mind became fixated with the hypnotising "pit-pat" of rain on the window. It had such a rhythm to it... The "pit-pats" became cymbal crashes, Mr Gray's drone now an echoing roar... Then images began to form, shades of white and lines crept along his vision. The image of a street unfurled ahead of him, in black and white like an old photo. An ocean of rain poured over him but Mark seemed not to feel it, like he had become a ghost. He walked over a cobbled street which felt smooth under his bare feet, passing cars without a care or hesitation. A flock of grey birds flew overheard, each one engulfed in hysterical laughter. One must have told a particularly funny joke, he guessed. There were gaps in the street, through which stars shone brightly. He knew clearly where he was going, and turned to face a crack in the wall of shops. Grey people marched in front of him in unison; the soldiers of the street. As that idea entered his mind he noticed a tank at the end of the street violently firing grey roses in the direction of any passing pedestrian. His attention turned back to the alleyway.
Mark looked round, and Orissa stood in front of him, smiling. Her hair was now grey, along with her face and clothes, giving her the appearance of an animated statue.
"What's in there?" Mark asked eagerly, twitching with anticipation. Orissa smiled again, highlighting her beautiful grey teeth. She beckoned for him to enter.
Mark saw no reason to argue, so turned and entered the alley. He looked back and Orissa faded with a final wave. Mark was alone. Grinning, he took several steps forward, excited to discover this alley's secrets. Ahead he saw the faint outlines of two men caught in a struggle, shouting. One pushed the other against a wall, shortly followed by a "snap" sound, after which the outline of a body slumped to the ground. One of the men looked up and saw Mark. He got to his feet and began walking forward.
Mark began to feel faintly uneasy, his confidence draining. A reflection at the man's waist showed that he was holding a long and bloody knife. A wave of terror swept over Mark at this realisation, and he turned to run back down the alley. However there was no longer an alley to run down, but this could not be seen in the darkness and Mark only discovered it during colliding with a wall. He fell backwards in a daze, his head pounding from the collision, barely able to recognise the footsteps advancing towards him.
The man bent over Mark, knife raised. Mark got his first proper glance at the man's face, which only added to his terror. It looked like it had been pecked at by extremely hungry crows; grey scars stopped where areas of ripped out flesh began. He lacked an eye, and clumps of hair were missing.
Without wasting any more time, he plunged the knife into Mark's chest and the unbearable pain returned. Mark screamed and writhed in agony, feeling warm blood as it flowed through his clothes onto the ground. With each breath it was like being pierced again. Mark began chocking on the blood. His vision blurred. No longer could he feel the cold concrete. His senses numbed, preparing for the end...
A bell rang.
Mark opened his eyes. He was back in the maths classroom, now chaotic as people rushed for the door. His wrist stung, and from the teeth-shaped red marks he'd appeared to have bitten it.
"You're finally awake, lazy!" Orissa laughed, stuffing books into his bag.
Still dazed, Mark took the bag and stood up, at first struggling to keep balance. Had that been a dream? He stumbled out the door and left the room, Orissa following behind. Their houses were not far from each other, so they usually walked home together.
Mark could still feel a twinge of pain in his chest, like he'd just swallowed a very hot drink. That must have been a dream, he reasoned; nothing else could be that strange. But the alley had felt so real... The pain so intense...
"You're very quiet," Orissa said after a few minutes of silence. About to reply, Mark suddenly stopped. Ahead of them waited the very same alley from his dream, not at all appealing now, although in slightly more colour - indeed, to its left was a flamboyant paint shop.
"I think we can get home quicker if we cut through here," Orissa said, pointing to the alley. Mark shook his head, his mind buzzing with fear. She gave him a strange look and said, "fine, I'll go this way. See you later." Biting his nails, he watched her strut into the alley, desperate for her to turn back but unable to say a word. He would never see her again.
© Copyright 2016 Mathew Nicolson. All rights reserved.