The double moonlit world vanished.
I collapsed in spiky grass. Later, I woke gummy mouth’d, covered in dew.
A lemon sun blinked strange through the trees. Everything was colored-in sloppy with fluorescent markers. My familiar chalky dullness, gone.
I smacked my head. This new world remained.
A cloud, a hundred cotton balls clinging together, hung above, smiling and changing with the nectar-heavy breeze. First, the cloud smiled in the shape of a tiger shark; then, it became a 1973 Dodge Dart, and finally Texas.
I stood too fast and got sick in the dandelions, my hands pressed flat in the cover. A love letter I’d torn up beneath wobbly starlight, lay scattered in the field. I wiped my mouth, and walked.
The bicycle still lay sideways in the creek. Even with its bent wheel, it could navigate me home.
The smiling cloud followed as I peddled, morphing into a rabbit, a skull, a dirt bike. The wind blew a hundred other clouds away. This one stayed.
Becky’s things were gone. The place had a funny echo now. I shouted “FE FI FO FUM!” then sat on the front porch, contemplating sinister doings. The cloud became an eagle.
“Hey there, cloud,” I said, appreciating the distraction.
The eagle’s wings folded inward; it transformed into a puffy heart, with a slight pulse.
In the mailbox, I found a letter without an envelope.
I could make a list of a hundred reasons why it didn’t work. That would help nobody. I will say, watch out who you consider a friend. Some real raw things went on. I couldn’t get through a week without someone trying to undermine us. And then the explosion … I’m going to an undisclosed location, consider it paradise. My advice: seek the daylight.
Yours No Longer,
Yes, no longer. Also, there was no longer a kitchen table, a bed or a couch. I slept on the slanted floor, and dreamt of an orbit beyond this void, in a rickety commercial shuttle, buzzing with unloved music. Fact: a man can drown in cryogenic sleep—from his own drool. I will not be buried here though. That’s a promise. They kept me here. A friend. A lover. But my forged papers are now in order, a stolen jetpack fully fueled.
Arlo stuck his head in the door at nine o’clock. “Jack? You there?” I groaned. I’d missed a lot of time. He was paranoid that he’d have to take over my position if I never returned.
“Going to work?” His voice was bright. “I’ll drive you. Come on, get dressed. Get off the floor. Where were you last night? They made me hammer your pins in.”
“I’m in no condition.” I was still angry at him, but silently, inwardly. I’d once found one of his green argyle socks on Becky’s side of the bed, but had never mentioned it.
Reasons why I never mentioned it: we’d known each other since t-ball; we’d been recruits, serving in two distant wars—Titan and Venus; I moved here, (on his advice) and he took a light shuttle away from the beet farm, choosing hardship here in this alien clay; after a bad breakup (a painter who refused to paint me), I’d crashed my hover, drunk, and cut my jugular going through the windshield. He’d stopped the blood with his handy-dandy wrist watch (a five year gift from the factory.) I considered him my family, though we are a different species.
“You gotta get out of here,” he said, “it’ll be good for you. It’s a beautiful night.”
I closed my eyes, “Beautiful elsewhere, but in the factory?”
“Alright,” he said. “Suit yourself.”
“Shit, hang on. I’m coming.”
“Good, I got you that job, don’t wanna rob it out from under you, buddy.”
As he drove, Arlo smoked a cigarette, flicking the ashes into an empty can of green beans, a hold over from our rations days on the front.
“You’re quiet tonight,” he said.
“I’m thinking about the last thing Becky said to me …”
“That I don’t see the good in anything,” I said.
“That’s harsh. I think you’re okay.”
I craned my neck out the window. The heart cloud was still up there. “Cloud’s been following me since this morning.”
“Feeling alright?” Arlo said.
“Best I’ve felt in a long time.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Arlo and I worked third shift, assembling harpoon guns. The guns were handheld, hydraulically powered by a small battery pack—a marvel of engineering.
My small task was to set precision pins with a ball peen hammer, over and over. They liked to see 1000 pins installed per shift.
Arlo screwed in hair triggers. Others down the line snapped in scopes, popped guide clamps, tightened set screws, pumped grease, etc. etc. Completed guns disappeared down the conveyor, to the packaging department.
Every ten minutes, Doug loaded another pallet of harpoon guns on the rear of a waiting tractor bed with a forklift.
The factory at one point was much larger, but the wing that made jet packs exploded, a small error on Becky’s part. In the crater, we took extended smoke breaks beneath two blurry moons, Phobos and Deimos.
In the crater, Arlo blew smoke rings upwards. I noticed the cloud above. It was still a heart. I gritted my teeth.
Arlo said, “I could tell you something about Becky that might make you feel better about losing her.”
I kept staring at the cloud.
“She came onto me once. Pretty heavy.”
“Oh?” I said, distracted, distant. Once I’d found hair in the bathroom sink. Someone shaving in my own bathroom for goddsakes.
“Yeah, but I didn’t do anything about it. I wanted to, but I didn’t. She knocked on my window, middle of the night. I wouldn’t let her in.”
“You’re a good friend, I guess.”
“Want some advice?”
“Don’t hold back, they don’t like it when you hold back.”
I said, “Story of my life.”
When the shift ended, dawn broke against the red cliffs, the sun slouched up. I declined a ride home from Arlo, saying, “I’d like to walk. Don’t take it the wrong way or anything.”
“Why would I, bro?”
It was a ten-mile walk back to my house, but I liked it. I’d decided at dawn to forcefully end my personal slump, to take charge of my own life. Everything had derailed after my crash.
The scar across my throat looks like they sewed a new head on an old worn down body.
Outside the factory, this new day was fluorescent, too. The cloud loomed above, changing into a duck, a rose, a diamond, a doughnut, and the letter A. Whistling, I swung my arms and cleared my mind of malevolence.
I cut through the woods, enjoying the shade—the birds singing, their deranged Martian chirping, the mustard pollen descending, the sweet stink of the jack pine sap, the wild flowers trembling as if burning. I slipped my steel toe safety shoes off to enjoy the feel of the spongy moss beneath my feet. I walked with eyes closed, envisioning a walk across the soft guts of Venus, the feathers of Valhalla, a baseball stadium back on Earth III built in the heart of the violet, misty jungle.
I opened my eyes, thinking I should eat all the crawler lichen off the hard bark. I should gather electrified mushrooms and feral dandelions. I should leave the weapons factory and the so-called friends and the soft prison of the house. I could escape like Becky had.
I emerged from the canopy of trees to see the blue sky had overtaken all. The thin atmosphere was no match for the sky, it’d smothered all. The cloud hung unstoppable, shapeless, a cotton ball.
Something fell out.
I flinched, stepping to the side.
A rope ladder! The cloud changed back to a heart. I ran back into the woods, darting through crimson mud. Back on the road, my thumb was out. I hitched a ride from an old man driving a rack body truck full of milk crates. In the rearview, I saw the cloud following. The rope ladder had retracted. The cloud got dark.
“Can you go any faster?”
The driver looked nervously in the mirror but didn’t understand the rush.
“Don’t wanna burst the milk.”
I’ve never gotten used to it being orange.
The dark cloud loomed all afternoon. I sat on my porch, looking up. It no longer changed for me; it was shapeless and doomed. And where I walked, it drifted—a venomous shadow.
The phone rang.
“What are you up to?” Arlo said. “Want to come play horseshoes? Getting a tournament going in my back yard.”
“Not feeling up to it,” I said. “Something strange happened with my cloud.”
“Oh, more about this cloud, huh?”
“It dropped a ladder.”
“You don’t say.”
“For me to climb up.”
“What’d you do?”
“You ran? Ha! You’re nuts. Where’s your cloud now?”
“I’m looking at it.”
“Alright, well … horseshoes?”
That night there was a knock on my window. Arlo stood on the lawn, calling my name in a high-pitched voice, mimicking his Becky experience.
“Bil-leeeeee, open up, Bil-leeeeee. I want you!”
“What the hell do you want?” I said through the screen.
Arlo was trashed, nearly falling over. “The horseshoes were a success,” he said. “I won. Interesting development, Forklift Doug showed up to the barbecue. I got a surprise for you. Wait right there.”
I was in my new bed, and wasn’t going anywhere. Arlo came back carrying a harpoon gun.
Don’t point that at me!” I yelled.
“You’re no fun anymore. Remember the fun we used to have?”
“Doug gave everybody at the barbecue a harpoon gun! They fell off the back of a truck. Funny shit. Come on out here, let’s go harpoon some stuff. The night is young!”
“Not feeling it, man.”
Arlo set the harpoon gun on the ground and stumbled off, laughing and singing. He stole my bike that was leaning on the oak tree, and peddled off, dipping wildly.
The dark cloud began to lighten, Phobus shone through it again, making it glow. The cloud changed shape for Arlo, and I felt slighted. As my friend rode off, the cloud floated in his direction, following.
I flicked the light off.
Monday night: Arlo didn’t stop to give me a lift. I walked to the road and hitched a ride to the factory. The punk wasn’t there at work, and I had to do his hair pin trigger work in addition to my own pin setting. After the shift, I walked to his house. His hover was there, he was not. No answer at the door. I crept inside and made eggs. In his top dresser drawer, I found a secret portrait of him, that an old flame of mine, Gloria had painted.
A week went by, still no sign of my pal.
The shift foreman alerted the authorities. I was worried I’d be a suspect, again.
To my non-surprise, a soldier showed up and interrogated me on my porch, his visor down. I knew he was running diagnostics on my heat, heartbeat and whatever else, to detect a lie. I blocked the door with my body, the harpoon gun was hidden under the new couch, Gloria’s portrait of Arlo was hanging behind my kitchen table.
The soldier was impatient with me. But I knew my rights.
Over the trees, the cloud appeared, bright and fluffy again, slowly changing shapes, smiling. The soldier tapped on a pad. “When exactly was the last time you saw Arlo Gunderson?”
The rope ladder uncoiled, plopping into the branches of the pine trees. I felt sick.
Arlo climbed down the ladder, stopping just a few rungs from the base of the cloud. He waved, Jack on. Come! Let’s go! I froze. The cop waited for an answer. I had none.
“Last chance, fucker!” Arlo yelled, the officer didn’t hear it.
Finally, annoyed and cold, Arlo ascended the ladder, disappearing into his cloud.
“… the time you saw Arlo Gunderson?” he repeated.
“A week ago,” I said, “I saw him, then. He was drunk, it was past midnight. He came here. I last saw him stumbling towards the river, singing, and whistling. That’s all I know.”
“Thank you for your time.”
The cloud remained in the distance now. It did not follow me. It did not follow anyone. It was bright and slowly shifting, present always, but never interacting.
Behind the closed door, I recalled the previous line of questioning, “When was the last time you saw Rebecca Harper?”
The answer for that had been similar.
At the factory, I now had two permanent tasks, and was forced to work at a feverish pace. I set precision pins with the ball peen hammer and I screwed in Arlo’s hair triggers. The supervisor had not replaced him. And it looked like he never would.
My sleep was unrewarding, my entire body sore. I was less at peace than I’d ever been. Becky loomed in my thoughts. I fantasized about confronting her. At eleven a.m., I had a zen moment, where I quit my job at the factory and refused the re-sign bonus, despite all. I didn’t let anyone know. I assume the shift supervisor himself had to hammer the pins and set the triggers, that night and then forever.
I walked into the yard and whistled. The cloud drifted over.
“Hey! What the fuck gives?”
Slowly the cloud changed into a perfect square, but nothing else happened. The sprinklers came on, I didn’t notice my pant legs getting soaked.
I stomped inside the house, retrieving the harpoon gun from beneath the couch, and went up on the roof. Bracing myself, I shot the harpoon into the center of the puffy white square.
Instant sheets of rain washed down. I engaged the hydraulic winch. The metal cable attached to the harpoon retracted. The cloud came down.
As it got closer, the cloud began to thin. Soon, I could see through it, blue sky behind. Closer and closer, just over the trees now, thinning. The winch groaned. The cloud dissipated farther.
In a whoosh, it scattered into vapor, pulled away by wind. The harpoon dislodged, falling missile-like, becoming lodged upright in the center of the street.
Arlo’s flannel shirt drifted down, slapping on the lawn.
In the top pocket was a note. It said: “Bill, I’m embarrassed about the way this all worked out. I hope you still consider me a friend. Love is the weirdest of all things and can be explained to no one. There is good in all. Seek the daylight. Much Respect, Arlo.”
His jeans fell the following evening, covered in blue frost, stiff as concrete. Her purple scarf ran through the loops as a make-shift belt.
Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey. His books are the novels Tollbooth; F-250; the short story collection Or Something Like That; and the poetry collection Everything Neon. He lives with his wife in New York City, between a hospital and a bridge. budsmithwrites.com.