The Girl Who Disappeared Clouds
by Tom Lassiter
Ashlynn appeared beside the worn couch where her father lay staring at the ceiling. At the spots that had appeared at first plum-sized and spread to resemble large misshapen hearts of reddish purple. He set aside the magazine he had not opened and ran his fingers through the girl’s hair, touched her cheek. He worried for the girl, wondered how one taught a child to live in such times.
“Have a good nap, sweetie?”
The girl nodded, still rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Come on, I’ll rock you a bit.”
Gabriel swung his feet to the floor and stood, arms heavy with the girl. Ashlynn enjoyed a few minutes awakening in the rhythm of the old oak rocker, and the pair settled into the chair, her head resting on his shoulder. The wood dowels strained against their joints, marking time as another squall line rushed overhead, beating fury across the home.
The clouds had arrived well before the rainy season the spring before and continued without mercy into the next season, their store of sorrow seemingly depthless. Hour upon hour, week upon week, by then fifteen months, relentless.
The news brimmed with swollen bodies found bobbing at the edges of streets turned rivers, of homes, lives swept away. The week before the fury had swept another family — mother, father and four young children — from their home. A diver discovered the children’s bodies wedged purple-blue and bloated beneath a long-submerged car. The parents survived, struck blind and mute.
“Any good dreams, sweetie?”
The old rocker spoke, the dowels pulling ‘tick, tick, tick’ on each pass forward, a single squeaking sigh on the back draw.
Gabriel jiggled the girl lightly. “Come on, tell me.”
“I ran out of dreams,” Ashlynn said and turned her face into her father’s shoulder.
“What?” he said and chuckled. “Impossible, young lady.”
Ashlynn squirmed and clenched a fistful of her father’s t-shirt. In the past she had recounted dreams of snatching fish from the ocean with bare hands, of rooms overflowing with favorite toys, of dogs speaking and dolls singing in chorus.
“How about you borrow some of my dreams?” Gabriel said.
Ashlynn fell as still as a summer afternoon before the time of rain.
“I thought so,” her father said.
Ashlynn bolted upright, waiting behind large hazel eyes, Sarah’s eyes, a hazel that shaded to a thin band of amber around the dark pupils. Such a fragile, trusting child, her mother’s daughter.
“Touch your head to mine,” Gabriel said, “and I’ll give you some of my dreams.”
Ashlynn leaned forward, eager for the game that for her was not play. Their foreheads, father’s and daughter’s, touched, eyes wide searching the eyes of the other. Believing, the girl smiled.
* * *
Alone in the darkness that night Gabriel drifts along the inviting edge of sleep, embracing memories of Sarah... touches the damp, soft under-layer of her hair, and the moisture there ignites the earthy scent of lovemaking that lingers on his fingertips... traces the long, slow curving line of her back.
They are walking along the shore, Ashlynn between them, each holding one of her small hands, lifting the girl into the air, her shrieks of delight. “I love you,” Sarah whispers, her breath warm against his ear. “Shhhh, sleep now. I am here.”
Gabriel reaches for Sarah, and in the waking moment of dream, a white shroud rises, revealing Sarah pale upon a cold metal tray drawn from a wall of metal trays. “The rain has taken so many,” the attendant says, lifting the shroud. “Can you identify her?”
Gabriel bolted upright, a beading of sweat across his forehead, dampness clinging to palms and fingertips.
Across the room a figure appeared in the doorway. Ashlynn, sobbing, rubbing her eyes. The girl shuffled to Gabriel’s side of the bed. Outside, the rushing fall of rain resumed.
“Ash?” Gabriel opened his arms to the girl.
“I’m scared,” the girl said.
He pressed his lips to her forehead, testing for fever. “Of what?”
Ashlynn stood at the bedside, rubbing her eyes.
“Come up here, sweetie.” Gabriel patted the covers. “Scared of what?”
The girl settled against him. “A big rock, chasing me.”
He touched her face, hesitating because he knew. “Tiny at first?”
“And it gets bigger and bigger, rolling toward you?” He knew the dream, a boyhood nightmare. “Chasing after you until it—”
Ashlynn’s cry rose above the pounding of the rain.
* * *
In late afternoon two days later, Gabriel rocked Ashlynn as she awoke from her nap. Waves of rain swept the roof, battering, then slowed to a heavy drizzle. A respite before another line swept in. But when the rain lightened, then slackened further and finally disappeared altogether, a deafening silence settled upon the house.
Ashlynn bolted upright in Gabriel’s lap and looked into his eyes. He saw tiny reflections of himself in hers. He rose from the rocker, the girl light in his arms, and crossed to the front door. It opened outward. The clouds appeared suspended, the wind stilled. The two stared into the gray-green heaviness above. The red of a darting cardinal flashed brightly against the clouds.
“Can I go out and play? Please, please.” She slid from Gabriel’s arms and standing beside him, took her father’s hand.
Hesitant, distrustful of the skies, Gabriel did not answer.
“Please,” the girl pressed, tugging on her father’s hand until he bent down to her.
“Here, remember?” she said and pressed her forehead to his, holding him there, her eyes searching his. “Fly. You can remember.”
“Let’s get our rain jackets on first,” he said and smiled. “Like yellow canaries.” The image of canaries had been Ashlynn’s thought the first time they donned the matching raingear.
Outside the girl played in the driveway, circling a large puddle, tracing its outline with a stick. Gabriel, a hammer in hand, climbed a ladder to the roof to search for the source of misshapen hearts. He paused on the top step, looking back at Ashlynn below. He turned, stepped onto the gently sloping tile and began searching, worried the rains would resume without warning.
Gabriel stood and moved to the edge of the roof. Below Ashlynn crouched at the foot of the ladder, yellow rain jacket open, arms rising and falling at her sides as a bird preparing for flight.
“Fly,” she said. “Fly.” She sprang upward, small red sneakers rising off the shiny wet asphalt. Again and again she jumped, arms flapping as Gabriel watched, feeling a joy as rare as blue in the sky.
The girl fell still, only her arms moving. Slowly, deliberately, as if teaching her father how, encouraging him. “Fly, daddy. You remember. The beach. You know.”
The hammer slipped from Gabriel’s hold and clattered against the tile. He recalled the favorite boyhood dream, of standing in sand dunes, arms moving, of rising, soaring out over the ocean, swooping and rising, his arms moving in the great, gulping strokes of a swimmer. Exhilaration. He remembered. The dream that had slipped away water-like into the fissures of age.
“Fly,” Ashlynn shouted from below and took to wing, flapping, running, spiraling, springing upward, throwing bright yellow against the clouds.
Gabriel abandoned his search for the source of misshapen hearts, descended the ladder and stood watching Ashlynn. His arms began to rise and fall, slowly at first, eagerly then. The sound of waves returned to his ears, the fishy, salty smell of the ocean and the taste of it on his tongue, the sand warm beneath his feet, and he took flight. Soared and felt again the pleading press of Ashlynn’s forehead against his at the doorway, her eyes searching his. “Fly.”
Copyright © 2010 by Tom Lassiter