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There was once a cloud of paper and stitches.
It had no home, it had no name. Its mother was the earth, and the city that grew from it. Lüm- the land of ghosts. A world far away from this one, yet so close… I can still feel its heartbeat, still listen to its slow, coughing breathes, still taste the blood and ashes spilling through its veins.
Like a child caring for a sick parent, the cloud floated over its mother. People saw it through their windows, hovering in the distance, unreal and unreachable, but a symbol of hope all the same. Some even climbed to their roofs to see it. None could look at it for long- we were trapped in our own fear, and the cloud challenged us in ways that were hard for us to face. It was a gaping hole in our picture-perfect reality, a reminder of how things had once been, and when we looked at it, we saw how faceless and empty we had become.
Then came the day the cloud began to rain. And when it rained, it rained many things. The warm tea of inspiration. The raw juices of a broken heart. The sweat of longing and sacrifice. With every drop, the cloud wept for its mother, and all that had fallen within her. But its tears were life-giving.
People starting coming out of their mansions. They would stand in the streets, letting the rain wash over their pale grey skin, letting it fill their souls with a strange sort of beauty. For a moment, they felt free. Free to dance, free to be themselves. When they danced, they danced like circling planets and flickering stars. When they opened their mouths, the music of the spheres came out, and the whole world was filled with wonder.
There were those, however, who could not share this wonder, and because of this… they sought to crush it. Every time the rain fell, the city’s law enforcement would come marching down the streets. They were once like us, once willing to try- but now they were dead, cocooned in the metal of their own self-made burdens. They were clockwork men- they punished brutally, but their expressions never changed. They forced us back into our houses, barred up the doors, citing various laws of legislation. They rounded us up like sow, and we were powerless to stop them. Long ago, we had hired them, invented them… they had come together from various parts of the city, volunteered, and we had formed metal suits for them of plated armor, armed them and trained them, asking them only to protect us. Now, they were our captors, and we were slave to their golden rule. But there was nothing they could do to stop the rains. The writers had long ago been exterminated, their bodies encased in ice, their organs donated to experimental science. But their souls lived on in the cloud, and it would take much more than a law to stop its beating heart. It was beautiful and rebellious, and when an officer took a look at it, he did so as one completely at loss.
Days passed, and still the officers and officials did nothing. All they could do was frown the frowns of secret desperation, as the single cloud multiplied, became a ghostly horde, a great army of black and white. Ancient words rose to battle from the graves of the art-makers. Storm clouds climbed out of book-burning bonfires with vengeance in their eyes. Frankenstinian angels of thought and dream amassed above the city of Lüm. Soon, the sky was blotted out with white.
I was the one who caught the first paper airplane. I had been at my usual spot, sprawled out in the middle of the street, staring at the sky. No cars anymore. No reason to have cars. No reason to move. The air smelled like nothing. The ground felt like nothing. The sky looked like nothing. Even my cindery rags might as well have been burned long ago. I was nothing. The world was nothing. Then I saw it.
It was coming down slowly, bravely, on wings of white. I stared at it for a moment before recognition hit me, and the memories exploded within me. A paper airplane. I almost cried. I had to have been only a few years old the last time I saw one.
Gracefully it flew, searching for something. It seemed to see me. Our eyes locked. Mine, dark ponds, glass infrastructure pulsing with light. It’s, white and… nonexistent. It came down to me, skidding across the ground to land an inch away from my bare foot. I stared at it for a moment. I reached out slowly, as if it might burn me. It seemed to smile encouragingly. I picked it up, and saw that there was a message contained within.
“RETREAT TO YOUR BASEMENTS”, it said, “WAIT… HOPE…. AND PRAY.
FREEDOM IS COMING.”
The next thing I knew, I was calling out to all the houses, repeating that message, over and over again. Freedom. Freedom. I was volcanic with excitement. Something was about to happen. Everything was going to change. I had been dreaming about this for years.
Soon everyone was huddling together, underground, chewing anxiously on their thoughts. Most of them had never spoken a word to each other their entire lives- after living in their prison houses alone for so long, very few even knew what family meant. But the worry in their lungs and the light in their eyes made them one, and they found a kind of kinship in this. Some tried telling stories, or jokes, to ease the intensity… but most stayed silent and still, listening for the storm. Waiting, hoping, praying.
I stayed above, despite the warnings. The only basement that I could call my own was… at the orphanage. It was the only place I had ever called home, and it was meant to be one… but like all of our buildings, it had become a prison. I had lived there, trapped in safety and relative comfort, for nearly all of my life, unsure of who to be or what to do with myself. Until the day I decided to run away.
Memories flashed before my eyes at the thought. I remembered dancing, scribbling strange pictures and words with sheer frenzied delight, wild-eyed, fingers churning into the orphanage walls. I knew there would be consequences, but for the moment… it didn’t matter. The world was gone. All that remained was me, the charcoal… and the walls.
But reality came afterwards, as it always did, wrapping me in its cold embrace. I had only one friend in that place, Jackham, and he took all the blame. He told them he was the one who had done it. I just stood there, words choked up in my throat, my heart pounding.
I never saw him again.
After that, I had to leave. The guilt that was drowning me… it seemed to flow through the very pipes of the ceiling. I thought that in leaving the place that I might be able to escape it. And I had dreamed of escape my whole life- the only thing that had kept me in place the whole time was the fear of death, the knowledge that the officers would hunt me relentlessly if I chose to be a wanderer. But after that day, I feared nothing. I wanted to die.
In a lot of ways, after years of keeping myself alive, running, hiding, living alone, I still wanted to die. That’s why I didn’t go back. That’s why I stayed above.
It was coming. I could feel it in my muscles. It was that shadowy time between morning and night where nothing was real and everything was arguable. The box-house landscape of the city was now truly the land of ghosts- it was a world of sketches, a frail framework bleeding through the twilight mist, barely discernable, hazy and nocturnal. Stillness descended over every corner of the place, shrouding everything, and I felt it must have stretched across the length of the whole earth. My heart thudded in time with the marching of feet, and my breath flowed with the movement of the wind. Newspaper shreds migrated across the sidewalk in flocks of grey and white. Crows perched themselves on the heads of gargoyles, watching us. All of creation seemed to be anticipating this moment.
The officers waited in the central square, their skeleton-souls black with desperation. They had cannons and fireworks pooled all around them, children’s toys of destruction as far as the eye could see. One of them felt a sudden twinge of hesitation about what he was going to do. I could see it in his eyes. He choked on it for a moment, wrestling with himself, and then shoved it down.
Far above, deep within the sky, the clouds amassed, standing their ground bravely, digging their feet into the earth of the air. They summoned Courage, and Will, and Strength, and Sorrow. They closed their eyes. It was time.
I wondered for a moment, at the vastness of it. The sheer cosmic scope. There were a million clouds for every millionth man, and each one was fueled only by the strength of its cause- never before had the universe known such a conflict, not since the warring of the demons and angels in Paradise. I held my breath as the energies rose, reached their peak.
Then the storm began, and the hail fell.
We watched it come down at first, the officers, the officials, and me. We were frozen in awe, frozen in fear. Each crystal shard encased a story. Nothing could stop it.
The commander opened his pale, porcelain lips to issue something or other… too late. The hail fell upon the guards with a celestial fury, tearing into their skin beautifully, ripping their spirits apart like dolls. Lightning flashed, brilliant and searing. Blood and darkness poured out onto the pavement. The words seeped from the hail-shards into their uncovered souls, exorcising them of their bondage. Demons crawled out of the shells, and into the earth. The ticking stopped.
It all happened in a flash. I stood there, a boy, wide-eyed and mystified, drinking in my own breath, almost hot enough to scorch my throat. I was alive. My body was stuck full of icy blades. It shook from the force of the electricity. But I was alive. The pain was blissful. I could feel the words like sweet poison, coursing through my veins. They reached deep into my heart, making me laugh, cry and fall to my knees.
The world shifted into focus again. I saw that there were still many machine-men still standing, even in the fury of the onslaught. I could see their broken clock hearts still grinding in their chests. They stood for a moment, hating. They raised their hands. I knew what was going to happen.
Within the space of seconds, I struggled with myself. I didn’t want to die anymore. I had realized, in the span of an instant, how precious life is, and how far I would go to keep it. I wanted more than anything to live, to see what this world truly had to offer. To find a family. But I knew that life was never worth keeping if it was not fought for- if people didn’t stand up for what they believed in. And now, I couldn’t think of anything I believed in more than this- that the writers must live on. This one’s for you, Jackham, I thought.
And before I knew it, I found myself hurtling across the concrete void, screaming and waving, throwing myself into the ranks. For a moment, I was free. I was a blur of movement, thoughtless and free, destroying all that I could. I was the child I had once been, charcoaling the walls with fervent madness, bleeding my heart into every movement. I knocked the officer in charge right off his feet, and many others besides. I hit and I kicked and I howled. I even pushed one of the cannons over onto its side, smashing its inner workings. But my efforts weren’t enough.
They spoke the command. The gesture was returned. Nightmares shot from the mouths of cannons, and thunder pierced the air. The sky became a whirlpool of fire, the earth, a sea of hot smog. I ran without thought, a creature of the wind. My feet broke open like eggshells beneath me. I fell. The pavement kissed my lips. Smoke filled my nostrils. I struggled across the ground, blistered with pain, forcing my head up so that I could see.
Faces loomed in the black mist, each one contorting with satisfaction. Even the shattered lips of the corpses seemed twisted into grim smiles.
A wail came from the sky. It was like a baby’s birth cry, sorrowful beyond words. I felt it pierce the men around me, but they didn’t stop. Bomb after deadly neon bomb they hurled into the atmosphere, hungering to destroy what little beauty there was left in this world. If the clouds had wished to, they could have escaped. They could have summoned all the winds of the world to speed their way. But they stayed. They stood their ground for the sins of the earth, even as the fireworks blew them apart. They stood their ground.
Afterwards: The officers stand in victory, alone. A cold wind twists through the ranks. It is over. The writers are finally dead. The music… snuffed out like a candle. Now there is only silence… and stares.
The people climb out of their holes, ragged and beautiful in the morning light. They begin to talk quietly amongst themselves, looking about the wreckage with numb uncertainty. A sudden emotion sweeps through the crowd. Blackened white shreds are falling from the sky, like weeping roses.
I, a child, stand immersed in the concrete, frozen and broken. I stretch out my tongue, catching a piece of the papery ash upon it. My eyes shut softly as it disintegrates. My soul is open, hot, dripping, breathing into the asphalt. The words speak to me from the depths of the void. I feel them wash through my being, warm and reassuring.
IT IS NOT OVER. IT NEVER WILL BE. YOU HAVE BEEN CREATED TO CREATE. NEVER FORGET THAT. -MR. CLOUD
Even in his dying breath, the cloud has given us snow.
The automatic army breaks down now, every one of them. The flakes that fall to them contain messages that matter to them more than anything in the world they have known since childhood. They weep. They kneel. Some flee, throwing themselves screaming off the edge of the world. Others strip themselves madly with their fingernails, ripping off their metal skin, to stand naked and alive amongst the others of their kind. The love around them fills them with awe, and their hearts become wild and pulsing again as they forgiven, and healed.
And for once, I know I what they are feeling. I have never known what it was to be real until now… never known what it was like to have true flesh and blood. Jackham comes out of the crowd and wraps me in a bear hug, and I know that despite all that I have lost, I still have a brother, and that all that matters. But all these people are my family now.
I stand with them, alive. We outstretch our arms, crying to our Maker for healing. The words fill us, awaken us. Our mansions fall to their crumbling knees. The pavement is washed away like sewage. The world is coming alive again. We begin to dance and sing once more, and this time, we do not stop. The clouds are gone, and their authors finally at rest, but it is not finished. As we dance, the words take root within us, and all around us, and from it all springs new life. Green living things, beautiful and bizarre, rise from the ground at the sound of our song. The animals, long ago retreated to hibernate within the bowels of the earth, are awakened once more, coming out to join us.
So many colors. So many lives. The world is itself again.
We are a new people now.
The marks of bondage have long ago faded away from our skin.
We live in houses of earth.
Life is simple. Art keeps us breathing.
The light of our maker, who created us to create, has made us whole.
We are still flawed creatures.
We still struggle with hardship
But we know ourselves. We know who we truly are.
And to us, that is all that matters.