Sleepless. Not just for a string of nights, but for several months. Is this what dying feels like? To be in a constant state of shuffling through the ether but going nowhere? Melodramatic, maybe, but there is something heavy pressing in around me. Katherine sleeps soundly on the other side of the bed, but I… cannot seem to force my pillow to make dreams. She sleeps on her side and I watch as her chest expands up and out with each rhythmic breath. If I catch her at the right moment, she will snore a little, but only enough to elicit a smile and never enough to keep me awake. She denies that she does this, but I hear it. I know it to be true.
The sheets are warm between us. Our collective body heat has sucked out the coolness found at the moment we slip beneath them. My pillows are the same, warm to the touch with no cool side to flip over and rest upon. I sit up against the headboard and stare out into the dark room. I know the furniture; I could walk this room blind and never touch a thing, but my eyes eventually adjust and I get up quietly so as not to wake her. I won’t be returning to bed anytime soon. Once I’m up, I’m up for the entire measure of the day.
I head down the hall to the guest bathroom and take care of my morning business. In the kitchen, I slide open the window above the sink, turn on the exhaust fan over the stove, and light a cigarette. I exhale through the window, the smoke from the cigarette disappears up into the vent. The first smoke of the day always makes me woozy in a way that makes me feel I exist.
I don’t know how to explain it better than that.
Lift lid, add filter. Scoop three spoonfuls of coffee into filter. Fill pot with water, empty pot into reservoir. Turn on. Brew.
The smell of coffee fills the kitchen, mingles with the leftover tobacco. The paper has not arrived yet, so I’m alone with my thoughts. I rummage through the drawers, looking for nothing in particular. I open the linen drawer, lift each pot holder and hand towel, find a pair of orange-handled scissors. I place them on the kitchen table. In the living room, I come across some old magazines; pages of art and celebrities, political news and home furnishings. I take a stack of the periodicals and place them next to the scissors on the table.
Open cupboard, remove mug. Open fridge, remove creamer, fill mug a quarter of the way. Put creamer back into fridge. Pour coffee. Watch it swirl from black to vanilla brown.
The steam from the mug wafts up to my face, bathes me in smell. I sit at the table and flip open the first magazine, one filled with home improvement projects and how-to guides on making your home less cluttered. These simple bookshelves can be run along the walls of any finished basement or unused room as storage, a page reads. I wonder why someone wouldn’t just toss the stuff out if it’s clutter. I turn the page.
A wrap-around porch on a stout two-floor ranch home is spotlighted. The roof covers every foot of it and it seems obvious there is room for a dining set and a rolling barbecue grill beneath the eaves. Perfect for hosting!
Katherine and I wanted a house with a porch. We wanted one like in the magazine, big and comfortable in case the weather turned, but the houses themselves were either unaffordable or just too big. We settled on a place crammed next to others that looked the same, deep in wild suburbia where you could get lost in the maze of same-looking streets lined with same-looking families.
Wake up, go to work. Come home, have dinner, watch television. Lay in bed reading, fall asleep until whenever. We rarely talk anymore, Katherine and me.
Each day tastes the same flavor of beige. Even after the dawn started rising red.
But it’s Saturday. Katherine will sleep in until I wake her with breakfast, something I have done every weekend since we married eleven years ago. Perhaps it has lost its sentimentality because she can count on it. Perhaps she still secretly loves that I do it, despite the quiet fracture that has come between us as of late. It’s early yet and I won’t start breakfast for another few hours.
I lean in closer, inhale. It smells like sky and rain, snow and lightning. It smells like everything and nothing all at once.
I go outside, shut the front door behind me gently. The morning sky is cloudy and the alarming color of deep maroon. Even the grass seems to be dew-kissed with little, glistening droplets of blood. Unnerving at first, this change in the weather and morning routine, but we adapted. It’s what we do, I suppose. Change our routine into something unexpected and we adjust to it accordingly. We thought the red skies would dissipate, that some scientific phenomenon had occurred, but they stuck around and we later heard they were man-made. The fear never really left, but it’s abated, tamped down, simmering just below and ready to come back out and play sometime. Maybe we’ve just adjusted to the fear, infused it to our daily living.
We’ve heard a thousand excuses for it all, never truly believing any of them. Solar flares, the earth moving closer to the sun (though we weren’t getting hotter), airborne pollutants mixing with atmospheric molecules, so on. I don’t claim to know much, but these all sounded like nonsense to me. One day the sky was perfect blue and the next? The next day looked like the world had been painted in blood by some new millennial angel of death. We felt like aliens on our own planet. Perhaps some still feel that way. It’s understandable.
I walk around the perimeter of the house and pull random weeds from the dying flowerbed. Without proper sunlight, our lawns have withered, but we keep on trying to play house. What else are we to do? Nightly news is one-note and depressing, but there’s always been work to be done around the house. We try to forget the red is what’s killing the flowers and work at the garden anyway. Doing something helps in the forgetting, but we know it’s a Sisyphean thing.
I often forget to put shoes on before coming out in the morning and today is no different. The grass feels lush between my bare toes. When this happens, I like to imagine I can feel the grass growing up and out, covering me like vines as it tickles its way across every inch of skin.
I carry the weeds to the garbage cans on the side of the house. From the corner of my eye, I see an object in our backyard. The sun peeks up over the horizon and blinds my line of sight, burns corona images onto the back of my eyelids. It’s a large thing, squatting perfectly in the center of our backyard and rising several feet higher than the fence. I cannot remember it being there last night and I’ve heard no one make any noise near the house since waking. I place my hand over my eyes, try to block out the sun. No good.
I pass through the chain-link gate and shuffle through the grass. The dew feels especially nice, but my feet are covered in grass clippings now and start to itch. The object is massive. I walk around it twice, once clockwise and once counter-clockwise. I think I am just tired, just seeing things, perhaps hallucinating. It is a fluffed kind of round shape, but not perfectly so, and seems to hover just an inch or so above the lawn. I get down on my knees and press my face to the ground. I see right through to the back fence.
Cotton candy. The phrase screams in my head. It is a giant ball of cotton candy. Of course this can’t be right, but the texture, the look… I imagine burying my face into its gossamer surface, biting into it, and swallowing the tendrils of whatever it is made of. I imagine it tasting oversweet as it melts on my tongue.
I lean in closer, inhale. It smells like sky and rain, snow and lightning. It smells like everything and nothing all at once. It is a singularly unique smell that I cannot definitively place or name, but it is calming and reminiscent of quiet autumn evenings. I rub my hand across its surface, feeling it give softly beneath my touch. Spongy, springy. It rebounds slow when I take my hand off. The texture is incredibly plush, pillowy, a softness that I don’t believe man has ever achieved on his own.
I could not be sure before, but I am now. It is a cloud, sitting fat and soft in my backyard. Tendrils of cloud fiber snake out into the morning air, lifted and moved by the first breezes of the day like medusa hair. I climb up the side of it, feeling my hands and bare feet dig into the spongy surface easily. I pull myself up over the edge. My first thought is that it is a large atmospheric cushion or pillow and I fall easily into slumber. The top layer gives beneath my weight, creating a large man-sized divot in its surface, and cocoons me in a feathersoft embrace.
I awake to Katherine calling out to me, wondering where I’m at. She is on the ground below and, I’m sure, shocked at this new manifestation resting in our yard. I feel lighter, as if some unnamed burden has been lifted while I slept and my body tingles with a soft energy. I suppress a laugh; she won’t have expected me to have climbed up and fallen asleep here. I lean over the edge and wave. Hello, dear, I say. She gasps and gives me an unsure smile, waves limply.
What are you… what is… Jesus. What’s going on?
I shrug my shoulders. Come join me.
Climb. I’ll take your hands. I’ll help you up.
She begins to climb and the oppressiveness of the morning seems to have gone away. I watch her struggle up the side of the cloud, tongue hanging out the left side of her mouth in concentration. She reaches up and our hands touch, clasp together, grip tight. Her face is lit up by the sun, seems to glow in a way I have not seen (noticed?) in years. I feel like I’m twelve years old and crushing again.
I don’t know how to explain it better than that.
We lay next to each other. My hand rests on hers which rests on my chest. I can feel my heart thump through her. Or maybe it is her heart I feel thumping through her hand and our arrhythmias match.
Her face is nuzzled into my neck, her leg draped over mine. This cloud mattress has done something to us, something wonderful that neither of us wants to question for fear of losing the moment. We drown ourselves in the feeling, let it wash over every pore and slip into every orifice, let it fill us to the brim before overflowing.
I feel her breath along my neckline. It is warm and sweet and I breathe it all in. For the briefest of moments, I’m reminded of our courtship, of days spent laid out on shoddy quilts and blankets at the park, swapping secrets in whispers and napping with each other beneath a yellow sun in a blue sky. The memories are fuzzedwarm and comfortable. I slip into them easily, but find my way out of them less so.
What do you think it means? she whispers.
I’ve no idea, but I like it so far.
You were up early again.
He nods. Though, somehow I napped up here before you came out.
It’s like laying on a wish, she says, murmuring into his neck.
Do you remember the last time we did something like this? Just curled up together with no plans of doing anything?
Three years, two months, fifteen days, six hours, and twenty minutes ago. Far too long.
He runs his hand through her hair, feels her irregular scalp below, agrees. Far too long.
She opens her eyes and sees, across the red sky, bits of cloud breaking off, falling slow as if the entire city were caught in a molasses dream.
That one looks like an elephant, she says.
That one, an alligator with sunglasses.
A bus full of children.
A snow fort.
An ocean liner.
A second chance.
They watch the tufts fall soundless from the sky, remaining wrapped up in each other on top of their own bit of grounded heaven. It is a strange storm falling in slow motion. The surfaces of buildings and cars become dusted with cumulus. Large chunks fall in backyards and intersections, parking lots and highway exit ramps, on playgrounds and sandboxes. The world stops and takes stock of itself for the first time in forever.
They lay next to each other. His hand rests on hers which rests on his chest. He can feel his heart thump through her. Or maybe it is her heart he feels thumping through her hand, and their arrhythmias match.
Katherine vaguely remembers him waking that morning. His early risings had become small anomalies in her dream time, bumps in the road on the way to the subconscious. Her eyes would flutter open when he rose, but would calm again once he left the room.
His side. Her side. Wasn’t the bed supposed to be their side? Why had it taken this strange bit of skycandypillow to get them to curl up into each other, to feel each other from the inside out? For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what he sounded like when he slept beside her in the bed, but she knew she’d remember what it was like for them out here. She’d remember his breathing, the heat beneath his undershirt, the throbbing of his blood pumping out to every appendage, the un-showered smell of him, the feel of his fingers combing through her hair, the way her lips dry out against the skin of his neck, the soundfeelingmovement she feels through her skull when he swallows, the way she feels protected laying on top of him. Before she awoke in her (their) bed, she saw:
Confined in black. Not swimming, not moving, simply there. Feet planted in a nothing ground. From the black, a hand extends, gives her a bouquet of day-glo yellow daisies. The arm connected to the hand is sheathed in the same black and disappears off into nowhere. There is no face to the figure, no form. She presses her nose into the middle of the bouquet, feels the petals tickle her nose and cheeks, rubs them across her lips and feels their color melt on her face. Pollen colored lipstick drips down her chin. She looks up. The flowers are gone, the black nothing has been replaced. A once verdant valley stretches out for miles, now the color of brown burn and blackened char. She walks, feeling dead, flaky petals turn to ash beneath her arches, feeling the ash cake between her toes like thickening leather thongs. The ash becomes grey mud, sticks and dries to the top of her feet, hardens and cracks, becomes a thin layer of varying shades of blue scales that climb up her legs, her torso, her breasts, her neck, her face. She is a myriad blue, except for her lips, which remain yellow, though she doesn’t know how she knows this. The ground beneath her opens up, sucks her down into the slickery of ash-mud, begins to pile itself on top of her, the sludge slipping into the gaps between each blue tinted scale, covering her yellow lips and filling her mouth, her throat, her lungs.
When she wakes, she sits upright, breathless, gasping, alone in her (their) bed. She remembers flecks of moments spread across her memory. She cannot remember it all, but she is distraught, heavy, weighed down by a something she cannot put a name to, cannot wrap her brain around tight enough to squeeze out meaning.
She doesn’t know how to explain it better than that.
Things that happened to others:
Herman Effen saw himself mirrored in the side of the cloud in his front yard. His reflection danced and laughed. He put two shotgun shells into the side of the fluffy interloper, but the reflection continued to dance.
Rita Jackson-Danforth was gardening when hers fell. It shamed and excited her, made her tingle beneath her sundress. She said it smelled like fresh laundry when she grinds her body against it like “a teenager again in the back of a car with some boy.”
James Ritter and his friends climbed on top of the one that fell in the forest near his home, turned it into a club house, a meeting place for their neighborhood “gang.” They imagined themselves as pirates and cutthroats before fighting and disbanding over ownership rights. James Ritter is, ultimately, brained with a rock by young Joel Martin from down the street.
Ethel Madison was crushed by one she could not escape from fast enough. It fell on her, around her, suffocated her within its ivory fluff. As she struggled to breathe, she felt the decades of dry twist in her bones dissipate.
Bethany Pilatas found herself unable to stop tearing off tufts of cloud and stuffing them down her mouth, not bothering to chew. She did this for an entire afternoon and swelled up, puffed out grotesquely. Her parents found her when they returned home from work, a fat smile played across her lips.
Roger Matthison cut large swathes of cloud off, replaced his mattress with the stuff. He fell asleep inhaling deeply the new surface. He woke up inhaling deeply the new surface. He spent a week doing nothing but inhaling deeply the new surface. He quickly withered into a shriveled version of himself and became folded deeply into the new surface.
The residents of the Oak Valley apartment complex found themselves crushed beneath the weight of a hundred clouds, all bearing down on the roof, which came crashing down on upper floor apartments, which crashed down on mid-floor apartments, which crashed down onto those living in the basement.
We hear the noise of exploration across the city, me and Katherine. We hear the excited screams of children having preconceived notions shattered and parents turning into children themselves. We hear the thunder of clouds falling and resting upon buildings and people, jostling birds and scaring the stars into submission.
We take an entire day of watching the clouds dissolve like cotton being slowly pulled apart, wispy curls frayed and stretching out as if begging to be put back together. It is a cotton-candy bombardment against which we have no defense. Katherine is mesmerized and I hear her questions through a muffled haze, a buffer. Her words are warped by the atmospheric spell cast upon me.
I turn to smile at her, to acknowledge her even if I can’t hear what she is saying. Her body is light, not weightless, but glowing faintly. Her veins are lit up with a pulsing white and her skin is translucent, melting into and becoming one with the cloud as I struggle to speak. Her face is wide with smile, her hair wafts below inside the clouded bed already. She is sinking into the ether of this thing and I am powerless to stop her descent.
I see it in her eyes; this is not bliss, but frightened improbability, impossibility. She fights the smile as I thrust my hand down into the cloud to scoop her out, to save her, to fly her back to the last few hours. My hand passes through her body as easily as it went through the cloud. She is ghostly now, pale and untouchable. Intangible and unreachable. Her hand reaches up and out, touches my chest.
My hand rests on hers. I can feel her heartbeat thrumming through her. Or maybe it is my heart I feel thumping through her hand and our arrhythmias match.
A breeze wafts over me, blows unshowered hair across my face, and she is gone. There is no face, no body, inside the cloud below. She has disappeared. I do not know how to explain it better than that.