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How To Catch a Cloud
Some things are never meant to be permanent. Sidewalk chalk. Huge rainbows. Sisters. So when Summer flops on the grass, I already know she won’t stay.
Our reflections wiggle in and out of focus. Same sharp elbows, wild eyebrows. Summer hesitates before pulling out a pink envelope, says that Kayla invited us to her birthday.
Her voice is rough around the edges. I tell her I won’t go, feel her exhale happiness. The sameness scares my sister. The single envelope addressed to both of us makes her uncomfortable. I take off my shoes, and put my feet in the water. Spiky. Clear.
My sister leaves her socks on. She watches, and I can’t tell what’s behind her eyes anymore. The willow tree sheds shafts of sunlight over her our long hair.
Summer floats away. I watch her peripherally through half-closed eyelids. Look up at the clouds, see dragons and dinosaurs and turtles traipsing through the sky. But mostly? I imagine someone finding me under the willow, saying, Clare, what are you doing here? Imagine saying, look up. If we climb all the way to the top of the willow, we can see the sunset….
Mom doesn’t like that I’m not going to the birthday party. She says, what about your friends, Clare? Do you want to hang out with them that night? I scarf down more casserole. She doesn’t understand middle school. There are so many friends, but all of them are taken.
At night mom tells us a story. Summer curls up in mom’s lap, even if her legs are too bendy to fit. I pull the linens closer to my forehead. Sweet scent of dryer in my nose.
“One day there was a unicorn, covered in golden spikes. Every morning he granted wishes, growing the tiny seeds in his wish garden, patiently waiting for them to sprout.” She pauses.
“There was a girl who climbed a trellis into the sky to see him. Every day, she asked if her wish had sprouted. And every day, it was still deep under the soil. She began to grow worried.”
She stops. Checks her tiny watch and sighs.
“What happened to him?” I ask as she tucks Summer into the bunk above me. Tomorrow, Mom whispers. She folds a strand of hair around her fingertip, and yawns. Just wait and see.
The night passes slowly. In the middle, I tiptoe downstairs for a glass of milk. Mom is at the table. Speckles of fudge cover her fingers, and she quickly wipes them on a napkin.
“You two are both dealing with the adjustment to middle school differently” An imaginary Mom whispers when she thinks my twin sister is asleep. I know she’s just pretending, can feel the miniscule movements above my head.
The real Mom tells me to go to bed, her eyes pulling closed as she flips the paper. The real Mom knows that nothing is wrong. That maybe it will be this way forever, and is there anything wrong with that?
Days pass quickly. Dad makes us pimento cheese sandwiches, which we both don’t like but don’t have the heart to tell him. Summer visits the truffle shop after school with her friends. I ask imaginary Summer where she gets the money from and she just shrugs, stares at me with her ghost-eyes. We made them up to scare away villains when we were little. In the mornings when I can’t sleep, I stand on the porch step and watch the sunlight crack through the gaps in the trees. It pours open like sweet lemonade. The cool wind runs around my fingertips, calms my -our- waist length hair.
Some rare moments, Summer comes out there with me. Her face is still baby-fresh from her shower. We laugh.
“What are you doing, freak?” Jake asks, towering over me at the top of the fire pole. I’ve been trying to climb it during recess. We aren’t allowed to climb trees, and I like the pulse in my arms. Freeing.
Before waiting for an answer, Jake slides down the pole. His hands screech against the metal. Dirt falls from the soles of his shoes, and my stomach drops. Woodchips mark my arms red, and I remind myself that pain on the outside doesn’t count because it doesn’t hurt.
It’s then I decide, while watching the bright, bright sky spin above me. I have to escape to the woods. There’s no point staying here and wilting.
Days pass quickly. Mom asks if I know what’s up with my sister. I only shrug. It’s tough knowing so many people. One night, when mom isn’t there, we climb onto the roof. Summer brings a bag of peanut m and ms, and pulls out mom’s notebook.
“The rest of the story,” She whispers.
“And because her wish was a good, truthful wish, he decided he could help her, and defy time just this once.” He removed one of his spikes and poured out the beautiful, golden liquid inside, into the soil. The wishes blossomed. And with each spike, he glowed a little more. Others noticed. They wondered why he looked strange. He didn’t mind. So he kept giving and giving, helping more and more children get their wishes. Soon he had no spikes, but a smile as wide as the moon, a body as bright as a star.”
Typical mom. Someday, I’ll ask her a real story.
“If you could fly, where would you go?” I ask my sister, crunching an m and m. It echoes inside my head. I’m afraid to break the spell. It’s been forever since I could breathe.
“In the clouds, where I’d be invisible.”
After school, everything about Summer is loud. She slams the milk jug down with a clunk, squeezes too much strawberry syrup inside of it. She makes my milk also, and we sit on the couch with our puppy, Baxter, between us. His soft, wet eyes seem to make everything better, quiet the silence between us.
We stroke his ears, and when I put my face to his, he kisses my nose. When I look over, we’re both smiling. Mom picks Summer up, to go to one of her friends’ houses.
When she returns, my breath catches. Her hair is cropped short to frame her heart shaped face. I want to be angry. It’s easier to control than this new feeling bubbling inside of me. Jealousy?
My sister looks adorable.
“I didn’t want to. Kayla made me do it.” Summer blurts, still staring at me. She grabs Baxter. Presses him close to her face.
She runs upstairs, and sadness fills whatever was left. I’m here, pulling Summer in two halves. I promise myself to leave tomorrow morning.
Tonight, I finish my marking a map of the woods. I fill in every large star in the western hemisphere, stay up until my eyes burn. I empty my backpack of school things, fold my star chart into the front pocket. I grab six granola bars, a flashlight, a bottle of water.
I don’t see Summer for the rest of the night. Baxter trots out of our room, his droopy ears almost to the floor. When I give him a goodnight kiss, his fur is slightly damp.
“How did this happen, bud?” I whisper softly, bend down to smooth his fur. The only response I get is a mournful look, like he’d tell me everything if he only could.
I wake quietly. 5:30 am. Pull a sweater overhead. Inhale the clear scent of morning, sling a backpack over my shoulder. I’m about to open the window, when I look back, to see my sister’s face for the last time. I imagine her translucent eyelids, covering her tiny perfect lashes, her new pixie hair, her wide smile.
The bed is rumpled, and I push them away to find emptiness. I flip up the sheet open. She isn’t there.
I crawl up to mom and dad’s room quickly, slide their heavy wooden door.
“Clare?” Dad asks.
“Sleeping?” His voice is still rough.
“Is this another one of your tricks, Clare?”
Dad clunks out of bed. He slides into his slippers, moves heavily into our room. It becomes hard to take in air.
They search the house. They assure me it’s probably just Summer at Kylie’s house, or whatever her name is, but I hear mom on the phone with the police in the other room.
Summer’s hairpin, a small purple butterfly, isn’t on the dresser table. Her yellow coat isn’t in the closet.
They don’t make me go to school today. A man and a woman wearing a blue suit come to our door. They ask me questions in kind voices. When did you last see your sister? Mom’s hands rattle her mug against the table, and her eyes feel gray, infinite bottomless.
“Last night,” I whisper. My eyes burn. If she hadn’t gone, there wouldn’t be the asphyxiating scent of coffee in the room. We’d have stacks of steaming chocolate pancakes, a sloppy lump of butter melting over the top. Our parents wouldn’t be in their pajamas. Everything would be okay. How could she?
When I open my backpack, I notice that my map is gone, and so are a few of the granola bars. So I couldn’t leave? Or so she could?
Mom steps gingerly on the twigs in the forest. She promised she’d come here with me today. It’s been two days since Summer left. I tilt my head towards the sky. Today it’s the kind of gray that the sun illuminates from behind, just bright enough to squint. Mom points out a bird, twittering softly in a branch.
“A goldfinch.” She says loudly.
“Yes,” I say, “so yellow.”
We stare at the sky.
I pull out two pouches from the back of my pocket. They are made of silky fabric, one green, one red. Filled with small pieces of nature.
I nestle the red one inside my mother’s palm. Tell her to sprinkle the pieces over the ground. Make a wish. On this one I’ve painted a small cabin, a fire beside it. The paint is slightly chipped.
Mom’s face freezes.
“Is this where Summer is?” She jabs the packet, her voice growing hoarse. “Do you know where she is? You need to tell us.”
She puts her hands on my shoulders, and I fall into her coffee-ground eyes. Despite myself, I nod.
“Clare! You do?” Finally, the edges of her eyes turn up.
“I’ll show you.” I tell her, ignoring the pit growing hot in my throat. We run all the way home, legs pumping strong, under the bloated yellow sun. So bright. I run and I think that if I wish hard enough maybe Summer will tell me. What I’d do to deserve that, I have no idea.
I take them to the train station. Dad fights his rising voice as he asks, for the third time, if anyone has seen is little girl.
“Come on,” He says, yanking tight around my wrists. I turn around only to see the glaring windows of a train rumbling past. Dad throws his head up towards the sky . Watching the pinpricks.
“She’ll come home” I whisper.
“How do you know?” He whispers, before pausing “Sorry, I mean she will. I know she will. She’s just taking her time, that’s all.” He chokes and then laughs, and then I look up too.
Dad turns the radio up on the car ride home. I get nauseous. We pull over and I puke in the azaleas. Mom rubs my back.
The night turns darker. Sometime in, the doorbell rings. Dad opens it quickly, and it’s Summer’s frame in the doorway, Summer’s shorn hair, Summer’s bottomless blue eyes, bony elbows.
Dad swallows, then says, “Welcome home.”
“I’m sorry Mom. I’m sorry Dad.” She says, before bursting into tears. Her face is unusually pale. They wrap her in a hug, and I can’t make myself go over there. I stand rooted to the spot. Blink back tears. Will it always feel like this on the outside? A beautiful wave of relief envelopes us.
“Mom says I don’t have to go to school tomorrow. Don’t steal all my friends,” Summer whispers while we’re in bed.
“I won’t.” I whisper, holding my pinky up in the air for a promise. I tuck my hands back under the cover. Maybe she has her eyes closed. Maybe there’s still so much work to do. I drift into the softest sleep.
I gulp down my cheerios in the morning, made with orange juice because we don’t have milk. I brush my hair until it shines.
At school, people wonder where Summer is. I tell them she’s sick, and they make colorful cards during recess. The girls offer me gum if I deliver them. I imagine them offering to braid my hair. I imagine them saying, you’re not so bad, Clare. But of course none of this happens. I get smiles from a few girls who have read of Summer in the paper. By noon, everyone knows. But I don’t get invited to play hopscotch. Or four square. Or do origami. Until then, I perch on top of the monkey bars. Close my eyes against the sky, make the backs of my eyelids grow orange. When I get home, Summer is in my bed. She stares paralyzed at the ceiling. When she sees me, she swings her legs over the edge of the bed.
“Everyone knows, don’t they?” She whispers.
“I guess they do.” I swallow, think of the million things I could say. What were you thinking? Aren’t sisters supposed to tell each other things? Did we deserve this?
Outside, gold razors through a thin strip of clouds.
“If we go now, we might catch the sunset.” I say, grabbing her hand. We run, and for a moment I smile because for once we aren’t running away. My hands know every knot of this tree. I’m almost to the second branch when I see my sister, still standing at the base of the tree. Squinting into the sun. I hop down. Pull her up onto the first branch. It sways only slightly. We look all the way up. Blush colors. Soft orange. Bright pink.
Summer grips my hand tighter. I promise not to let go first.