“Welcome,” said the sky.
Spots of brightness appeared behind my closed eyelids. I opened them slowly, feeling my lashes peel apart as though they had been coated in glue. They did not open far; I immediately squinted against a wall of blurred brightness.
It was white.
It was sand.
I opened my eyes fully, ignoring the stabbing sensation behind each eye socket as I took in the view – at least all of it that I could see from my position, lying slightly on my side and mostly on my front, one arm thrown up over my head.
I became vaguely aware of movement, of something washing in and out of my peripheral vision. I turned my head towards it and waited for my eyes to focus.
How odd. How very odd, I thought.
I don’t remember being at the beach, I thought.
And how very, very odd, that I should have imagined the sky speaking to me.
“Welcome,” the sky said again.
I flipped over onto my back, bracing against the softness beneath.
There was a mouth.
It stretched from over side of my vision to the other, one horizon to another, hanging unsupported in the broad blue of sky. Its lips were unpleasantly smooth and pink. It opened to speak, and a deep glistening darkness filled the void.
“We are so pleased that you could join us,” said the mouth.
It smiled politely, and the sky was full of teeth. They were evenly matched, evenly spaced, and evenly and uniformly sparkling white.
I pushed my hands down into the sand at my sides, my fingers reaching out as though they expected to encounter something familiar and reassuring. This did not occur, so I used the pressure to push myself into a sitting position.
I kept my face tilted upwards, towards the still smiling mouth. I don’t think I could have looked away.
“Hello,” I said, or tried to say, suddenly aware of how dry my throat was.
The mouth – well it, was a mouth, so it couldn’t look, obviously, but – it looked at me.
“What’s –” I coughed. “What’s happening? Please?”
The words scratched across my tonsils and came out as a whisper. I wondered if I had somehow swallowed some of the sand.
The sky, if it were possible, beamed even wider. As it stretched, I could see some faint discolouration at the far ends, the corners. Flickering on and off, in square shapes. Pixelation.
“You have elected to take part in the Perspective Project,” the sky informed me.
“The Perspective Project,” the mouth repeated in a practised and courteous tone, “is a guaranteed contributor to overall, lifelong happiness. So much of modern life is about getting, and keeping, that we often forget to appreciate what we already have, and are reduced to reminding ourselves that other people have it worse. The age-old admonition that children should eat their vegetables because other children are starving somewhere, for example.”
I was familiar with this, but I could not remember where I’d heard it before. I could not recall anyone ever saying it to me. But I couldn’t recall anyone ever saying anything. Nor could I remember vegetables, now that I thought of it. I remembered what they were, but I could not remember eating them.
“Those people would appreciate what we have, we decide,” continued the sky. “The things we own, and accomplish, which leave us so unfulfilled – we decide that if only we had been more unfortunate to begin with, we would benefit properly from them.”
Memories flickered briefly, brightly, from beneath a heavy mist. Hard, shiny surfaces, gleaming with promise. A smooth softness, my hand reaching toward it. Lights, and colours, smells and tastes, and the sense of being drawn towards them as though by a current.
The sky interrupted, and the memories submerged themselves once more.
“But all that does is guilt us into sending our hard-earned money to those that we use as reminders. That’s no good, is it?”
The tone turned patronising.
“We don’t want less money, do we? No, we want to enjoy what we have. And if the way to do that is to be put in an unfortunate circumstance beforehand, well, then –”
The smile froze for a moment, before flickering back into motion, pixels jarring as it did so.
“ – in an unfortunate situation we must be.”
There was a pause.
“I – ” I said. “Um.”
Despite its promising start, I wasn’t sure where the sentence was going, so I didn’t finish it. Instead, I turned my head slowly towards where I’d seen the sea, earlier. There is was. And, as I looked in the opposite direction, there it was again. And in front, and behind.
The island could not have been more than two hundred meters square; most of it was sand, with a little darkened area of scrubbiness toward the middle. The flat, uncaring sea lay on every side.
“You see what unfortunate circumstances you find yourself in, participant.”
Can’t you use my name, I was about to ask, before realising that I couldn’t remember what it was myself. Instead, I asked,
“Did I sign up for this? I don’t – ”
“You don’t remember. Well, participant, of course, that’s a perfectly normal part of the experience. Vital, in fact. All those poor people that remind us to eat our vegetables didn’t ask to be starving. Otherwise, why would we feel sorry for them?”
My head hurt. My eyes felt as though the light was burning through them, burrowing back into my skull, and my neck was stiff from craning it to look upwards. I was beginning to be thirsty.
The sky seemed to be waiting for an answer.
“I guess?” I offered weakly.
It beamed at me, pixels jostling to rearrange themselves. I wondered if I was imagining the faint humming noise that seemed to thrum through the air as it spoke.
“You’re going to be so grateful by the time this is over, participant,” the sky assured me.