I grew up without knowledge of clouds, my grandparents refusing to recall such imperfections. My home town had been pacified under the clear blue sky. People moved about the place as ghosts, passing their serenity onto me with an implicit warning; I felt it when I talked with my friends past curfew, or when my clothes outshone the muted wooden buildings. After school I would tear off into the forest like a mangy little squirrel just to get my energy out. Now that I had graduated I didn’t find myself needing to, if only because there had been one too many spiders picked out of my hair or shoes covered in deer poop. I never saw many people anymore, houses were spread thin along the outermost edge of town. The center was for the special events and adults only meetings, which were the only human contact we got after we left school. I hadn’t heard so much as a whisper from anyone but the trees over the past few months. Then Jess showed up out of the blue. We were never close, but now she looked up in fear from my doorstep as if we were the last two people on earth. She was disheveled and small, in an overworn hoodie despite the August heat. The fear in her burrowed through to me as though we were siblings.
She spoke slowly like a smoldering candle buffeted by wind. The two words took their time stretching out.
“Is something up, Jess? You look really tired.”
She tensed up in preparation to speak again.
“Can you… just. I need someone to talk to about something. You don’t have to, like, care.”
I leaned against the hardwood to my left and exhaled. She looked like she were going to collapse whether I said yes or not.
“Yeah. You want something to drink.”
She stuttered out a response.
“Water. Or anything’s fine.”
I turned and held the door as she took her first cautious steps past me and into my kitchen, the stool she collapsed onto wobbling timidly. The walls were cluttered with orderly and pristine implements of all kinds, the counters empty of all but dust, all of the cupboards closed neatly and the dish drying rack next to the sink, empty. By the time I poured a glass of water she was drenched in sweat.
"Are you too hot or something? I can take your hoodie and put it up-"
"No. Can you please just… sorry."
I could hear the restraint in her voice wavering. Sitting down across from her, I passed over the water slowly. She grasped it with both hands, in a race to gulp liquid down and get this over with.
"It's fine. Take your time."
The glass clattered to the table as she hastened to clear her throat and begin speaking. Her words clambered over my warning like a sand castle.
“So 3 days ago, right, I was on a walk out back at around 10 or 11 at night. I know it’s bear season or whatever, I’m a fucking idiot yeah. It’s just nice being in the woods when it’s too dark to see it’s like you can just listen to it breath. This isn’t about bears… anyway sorry…”
I shrugged and took the glass back to the sink to refill it. Any word I spoke risked making her feel even more precarious.
“Uh, I heard some weird shuddering from the trees, like there was something passing overhead. The leaves were shaking loose in clouds but there wasn’t any sound. No, like, helicopter blades and it was moving too slowly to be a plane. My stomach started to feel all twisted up in knots about it."
The rhythm of speech brought a calmer pace to her breathing. Words came flowing to me from her concrete shell.
“I could see moonlight splitting open lines between branches in front of me so I figured there was a clearing and I’d go check whatever was happening from there. I guess I shoulda gone home or something but I wasn’t thinking about that, I kept seeing light that didn’t match up with where the moon was, even though I saw it in front of me. Like someone was holding a mirror up to the sky and it was bouncing everywhere.”
The awe in her tone spilled over, filling up the confined space. I sat back down and handed over another glass as her story shook memories loose in my skull.
“I went up to the clearing and at first there wasn’t much. The grass was about up to my waist and the trees started up again 10 or so feet in front of me. The wind picked up so the field was twirling around and tickling at my stomach. It was nice for a little.”
Her head tilted up to the ceiling as if she were trying to bore through with her eyes. She paused for a moment for the first time, forcing something burdensome to the tip of her tongue.
“I don't remember much after that. The sky snapped open like you popped a hole in the lid of an airtight jar. There was something, um, flattening the stars and pulling up the grass in clumps. Like a hovering magnet reflecting my face back at me, but there was so much pressure coming off it threw me back and I hit my head. I think I went up with the dirt. I think there’s something wrong with me.”
The more she spoke the harder she gripped the table, her knuckles bloodless and white.
“Just listen okay. Okay? There’s this scar on my belly but I didn’t just trip or something and I’m not going back out there to check around again, the wind comes so much faster now. Everything is too big and it's looking down on me.”
Her words turned exasperated and piled up in droves. They came faster than she could speak them, colliding in a traffic jam.
“I just don’t trust the sky no more. When I opened my eyes the next morning I was still in the clearing and the light felt like it was interrogating me. I went out the trees back to my house like a scared raccoon. It was about… mid morning so I saw my dad watching tv through the window. Half my shirt got bit open in this ragged checkerboard pattern and somebodies blood was smudged all up my side so what the fuck was i gonna say to him? I don’t wanna bring up what I saw, I look stupid. I talk to like three people in general, I just needed somebody… my age. I don’t know, sorry I bothered you. I think I’ll curl up on some dirt and turn into a bug."
I put my hand on hers reassuringly. I could feel a tremor roll up my arm. It was the first time I’d felt comfortable to touch someone my age, and my insides rolled over in protest.
"I got back to my room and I started to feel this itching all over. My shirt was clinging on my back, so were my pants and my socks and everything just felt smothering until I threw up. I’m not gonna feel like this the rest of my life am I?”
Her eyes moved back to rest against mine.
“There were all these people talking on the way here, I think they were looking at me or they noticed me or something. I could feel this searing pain on my neck and my back and my big ass forehead. The sun and their eyes twisted together and stabbed me over and over. I’m only feeling more and more every second. I don’t wanna get used to how this is, I just wanna… I can’t think anymore. I wish I could go back to not thinking at all. Like a baby or a sea urchin or a rock.”
She shuddered to a stop, her mouth hanging open in a grimace betraying the empty hole where fear once was. I wasn’t sure how I could fill that. She was dumbfounded by what she had just spoken into reality. I squeezed her hand, bringing her back to my mellow kitchen.
“Jess you're going to be fine.”
Her eyes tore into mine for something reassuring. After a moment she swallowed.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean… I’m probably just crazy is all.”
“I know you’re not crazy. I know your dad would believe you if you told him too. I’m sure he could take care of you better than I could.”
I felt bad telling half truths like that and the discomfort cracked a hole in my presentation of resolve.
“Are you… are you sure? I can just leave if you’re-”
I quickly shut down that worry.
“If he can’t tell you’re genuinely upset and this is serious, he’s an idiot.”
I stood up and walked to her side of the table, keeping my hand on hers.
“And you can stay over tonight if you’re not ready to talk to him yet. I just know it’s not gonna be fun trying to hide that you’re… something’s changed.”
I shuffled through every word I could think of before stopping on something vague.
A slight smile pulled at the corner of her lips as sun beams pooled on the table between us. The gray wood felt a little warmer. For a moment, wrinkles of stress and age disappeared in the light. Again I felt a twinge of guilt, but quickly turned to the door before she could notice. A knot began to form in my stomach.
"Give me a moment, I need to go to the bathroom."
"Oh, sorry, of course."
I stepped quickly out of the kitchen and caught a glimpse of my sunken eyes in the mirror; without someone to look after, they appeared empty. I lifted my shirt and looked at the scar tissue, disappearing back into normalcy with each passing day. The look on her father’s face would be the same as my father when I told him, or my mother when he explained to her what had finally happened. I was growing into purity, as they had described the process at the town hall meeting. I couldn’t explain to Jess why this had happened, because I still felt shame creep up on me when I thought of people seeing that my scar had yet to fade. I was imperfect. The rest of the world was full of people who had never been cut open, and none of them understand the way we think. They seem unaware of the size of the woods, of the weakness of the people, of the frailty of our bodies. It can be scary at first but it’s worth being born here, Jess, I promise. That’s what I figured someone else would tell her. Until then I couldn’t hold still. I collapsed, squirming on the bathroom floor, holding my stomach.