—First Five Pages—
A cloud rose from below with a girl on it. Not a whole girl … just a tiny face peering up from otherwise vague fluff.
Rex dismissed the vision for a trick at first, his brain making up junk. But the elements were there—two eyes, a nose, and mouth—embedded in the top of a fast-moving cumulus. The pale features stared in his direction while her white hair drifted around as though floating in a pool of water.
He smashed his forehead against the airplane window to gain a better view. This wasn’t like any picture in a cloud he had seen before, the usual cartoon snails morphing into whales as they skimmed across the upper atmosphere. This was boring brume except for a strange bit in the middle. The deviant fog pimple mesmerized him. If he could reach her, Rex believed he’d touch milky skin and billowy strands.
After a few seconds, instead of scudding away the celestial being grew larger, sailing right for him. In no time, her airy float would tickle the airliner’s belly.
The foremost fringe of approaching haze sliced along the wing’s metal edge. As the woolpack expanded, the face turned, and its gaze locked with his own.
She looked at him.
Was he dreaming? Rex marveled out the porthole, certain the noxious fumes from the shoeless guy seated in front of him had damaged his optical nerve.
He grabbed his mom’s sleeve to say, “There’s a girl in the clouds!” but found her asleep, her dark brown hair covering one temple and spittle gilding her chin. Although they’d land soon, Rex didn’t wish to rouse her. She’d been awake all night packing their suitcases and mumbling to herself. This on top of how tired she seemed nowadays.
My camera. Rex recovered it from behind an in-flight magazine and a vomit bag in the seat pocket.
The point-and-shoot in hand, he swung back, but Cloud Girl was gone. A regular, innocent-looking cloud sat in her place. She had dissipated in nothing flat.
Rex focused hard, hoping to see her again. Ow. A twang, like a snap of a rubber band, jolted his eyeball. He closed his lids, letting the sickening vibration recede before opening them slowly, in case the poor eye had detached and intended to fall out. When it became clear his sight had been spared, Rex continued his desperate search for Cloud Girl’s keen stare.
The Goldfish cracker breath brushed his ear before Rex noticed the juice-stained face of its owner. The toddler spied on him from the space between the plane’s wall and seat.
Busted by a preschooler. Heat crept up Rex’s cheeks as he slouched back in his spot. After all, Cloud Girl had been an illusion.
Rex resumed scouting out the window like a normal person, Cloud Girl’s face haunting his thoughts. He couldn’t shake the awareness that dwelled behind her eyes. Too bad he didn’t get a photo before she slipped away. He had the next best thing though: his notebook. Filled with drawings from the last couple of years, it was the perfect spot to reproduce Cloud Girl and show his mom when she awoke.
The notebook bunked with his gear shoved under the seat in front of him. Before wrangling his backpack, Rex removed his glasses since he wasn’t looking at the patchwork land 15,000 feet below or enchanting sky nymphs anymore.
He leaned forward to seize the carry-on, but the space between him and Stinky Feet’s reclined backrest gave no room to bend over, his body too tall and his arms too short. Wishing he could detach his head, Rex pressed his cheek against the chair fabric, which smelled of old sneakers and pickles. His fingers still ended several inches above the floor.
Few options left, Rex hooked his red Converse through the strap and coaxed the backpack from its hidey-hole.
Rex’s friends never mentioned the discomfort of sitting with the other airline passengers packed in rows, a kernel on an ear of corn. Funny, considering Ethan and Zach flew all the time to warm, fun places for Spring break, Christmas, or just because. But now it was Rex’s turn. Sure, this wasn’t Cancun, Hawaii, or Miami, but when his mom announced this trip to visit Uncle Dan and Aunt Annie, Rex’s heart attempted to thump out of his chest. A real vacation.
The battered red notebook retrieved, Rex flipped through the pages, perusing for free space. He spotted a two-inch square area and sketched Cloud Girl in his normal style. Misty edges proved difficult though. His pencil refused to portray the wispiness of her hair or the luminescence of her skin.
It didn’t matter. Although he’d seen the apparition for only a few seconds, he’d never forget her. And now he had an image to show …
Rex closed the notebook. What was he thinking? Not in a thousand years should he mention his dubious encounter to anyone, even if it qualified as the strangest experience of the day. They’d call him bonkers and lump him in with people who insisted their potato resembled Elvis or Jesus turned up on their grilled cheese … a Cheesus. Besides, mentioning nutty stuff landed him in trouble before. Bullies loved an excuse for a beating.
For the second time, he told himself a girl wasn’t hanging out in the sky, then pushed the weird-shaped cloud from his mind.
Rex sat back in 19F and reflected on what else he would remember from his first trip by air. Like takeoff. The diagonal screech to cruising altitude blew him into his chair like a hurricane. And how the seat cushions lay flat in their centers suggesting invisible people already sat there, a gaggle of ghosts along for the ride. Can specters take vacations? Then there were the creaking and rattling noises. The aircraft consisted of a bunch of plastic and metal pieces muttering constantly they might give up and fly apart at any moment.
Two flight attendants inched down the aisle, collecting garbage. Rex hoped the crew member who smelled like fruit candy would get to him and his mom first. Skittles had been so nice at the beginning of the flight, giving him a pin like what the pilots wore on their lapels. Yes, Rex was way too old for the kiddy wings, but he didn’t care. It came from Skittles.
If the grouchy flight attendant, the one boasting big lipstick lips and nails painted an orange capable of making a neon sign jealous, ended up at their row, who knew what might happen. Rex shuddered to remember how Too Tan Ann opened her red, greasy beak and croaked “Half a can!” when his mom asked her to give him a whole, warm soda. He understood why his mom hadn’t pushed it then, though she usually put up a fight for him. She too must have sensed evil hiding within Too Tan Ann’s sun-dried features.
With another confrontation looming, Rex snatched the cups and peanut snack wrappers from his mom’s tray table and waited. Skittles and Too Tan Ann crisscrossed their way toward him at a snail’s pace.
As soon as Skittles arrived with the bag, Rex handed her the cups. “Thank you!” he said as though she’d aced a test for him. He passed her the wrappers. “Thank you!” shoved its way out of his mouth a second time. He couldn’t stop being an idiot. His relief in getting Skittles instead of Too Tan Ann had commandeered his jaws and made him sound like Winston, the animated kid who got all the school play leads. “Thanks!” There it was again.
His mom slept through the whole thing.
Crisis bypassed, Rex rolled over and rested his brow on the window. Vapor generated from the jet’s wingtip. Without his glasses, Rex wouldn’t see anything more subtle, but his gut told him, whether phantom or figment, no cloud-form curiosities would appear again.
He balanced his arm on the skinny armrest and detected a square piece of metal where his fingers touched. Based on the dent and scrapes, somebody had tried to pry open the little, screwed-shut compartment.
His mom woke up yawning. “It’s an ashtray.”
She chuckled. “Cigarettes. You know … smoking?”
When someone laughed after he spoke, Rex never knew whether they considered him stupid or what he said funny. Even his mom. This was one of those times. “People smoked on the plane?” Rex averted his eyes as he awaited a verdict.
“Back when I was a kid, people smoked everywhere. Weren’t many places they couldn’t. Look.” His mom pointed to the illuminated No Smoking sign next to the flight attendant call button on the panel above them. “The light was on only during takeoff and landing.”
Good thing Fasten Seat Belt wasn’t lit. Rex needed to go. He’d have to hold it for a while though, for several people were waiting to visit the restrooms, well lavatories according to his mom. That’s what you called them on airplanes, which made him wonder what lava had to do with it. Rex kept his eye on the line, weighing the possibility of taking a whizz into a volcano.
“You found your journal.” His mom alluded to the spiral-bound notebook resting on his lap. “I thought someone took it.”
Rex surveyed the red, doodle-filled cover. He zeroed in on the skate store sticker adhered to the upper right-hand corner and thought about what lay beneath. It hid what Connor, the biggest jerk of them all, had written prior to leaving it in a drinking fountain. To his relief, Rex discovered the notebook before the water turned it into mush. Afterward, he scratched out the embarrassing words, then drew Connor’s head over the white spot, strapped with a bomb, face encrusted with zits, and the entire lot encased in a gruesome fart bubble. Oh, and a butt inches from his nose. Pleased with his work, Rex deemed it a huge improvement over Connor’s normal face. His satisfaction dissolved however when he contemplated Connor’s reaction should he spot it. That’s why Rex had covered the graphic with the Bruised Bones Board Shop decal.
Although Rex wanted to lie to his mom, he said, “I’d be fine if I never saw those guys again.”
She smiled while scratching peeling polish from her thumbnail. “You know, someone probably bullied them when they were younger. Not an excuse, I know. It’s a cycle.”
Rex saw Connor’s dad pick him up once when they were in elementary school. Connor released a shrimpy fourth-grader from a headlock and rushed to Mr. Stone Face. “Get your stuff,” the dad said, his mouth barely budging, and Connor ran off to collect his backpack. Rex remembered it because Connor never followed orders the first time nor moved fast. That, plus the way Connor turned white as a sun-bleached bone, spelled a kind of fear beyond anything Rex had known. Having no dad was better than Mr. Stone Face.