There are stories in the clouds. My mother used to tell me that.
“That one there,” she’d say, pointing to the sky, “is a spaceship, come to land in the Nevada desert and colonize the Earth.”
We’d lie there for hours, stretched out on a blanket and looking up at the bright blue sky. Her words fascinated me, and I believed every one of them.
“When will it land, mama? Will it land today?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.” She’d smile at me and wink, like I was in on the joke, but I wasn’t. It was never a joke to me, not even then.
“What’s that one, mama?” I’d point, my stubby, seven-year-old index finger angled toward another cloud in the sky, this one fat and rounded.
“That one? Why, that’s a tortoise, one of the great sea turtles that roam the cosmic ocean. You can’t always see them. They’re very private. You have a good eye to have spotted that one.”
Sometimes I knew she was kidding, just telling stories to pass the time and hold my interest, but I also believed there was truth to her stories, even if she didn’t.
Maybe there were no such things as spaceships or cosmic sea turtles that kept to themselves, but there was something up there, and I was determined to find out what it was.
I’d first caught a glimpse of it two years before, on the day of my fifth birthday.
There was an unexpected storm that day, and Mom had to move all the party decorations inside. The cake didn’t quite make it in time, and I remember watching the first drops of rain fall, creating small divots in the blue icing.
They were the reason I looked up at the sky in the first place, those first drops of cool Spring rain. I expected to see clouds, maybe even lightning, but instead what I saw was a great crack in the sky.
It yawned wide, reminding me of the tear in my red nylon coat, a result of last year’s sledding mishap. The edges of the crack stood out against the grey sky, jagged and rimmed with a white light more brilliant than the sun. It was dark in the center, a great chasm of blackness absent of all light, what I imagined the inside of a black hole might look like.
A black hole.
I tore my eyes from the impossible thing in the sky and looked around me. My mother hadn’t noticed my absence yet. She’d rescued the cake from further assault, and I could see her trying to repair it through the kitchen window. I could hear the other kids squealing and laughing in the living room, no doubt playing with the chocolate Lab puppy Dad had brought home for my birthday.
I looked back up at the sky, squinting my eyes against the growing onslaught of rain. The crack had begun to close. I watched with frozen heart as that endless darkness slowly disappeared from the sky, the lightning edges of the crack closing like a trapdoor.
But not before I saw something. It was two hands, their slender and enormous fingers curled over the Southern edge of that horrible crack, and two black eyes peering down at me.
I had a sudden glimpse of myself as an attraction in a tank, like the Manta rays I liked to watch at the aquarium in the city, sleek and silent as they moved in waves through the water.
A shiver began at my toes, crawled slowly up my spine, and lodged in my throat like a poorly-chewed gum ball. I saw the great eyes fix on me, blink once, before the crack closed for good on the whole obscene thing.
I never told anyone what I saw that day. But I never forgot those eyes, either. I listened to my mother talk about stories in the clouds, and I waited for the day when I would be old enough to find out for myself.