He’d been coming there for a long time. Sometimes he just stared up at the clouds. Sometimes he cried. Katie hated to see him upset. Sometimes it made her cry too.
Sometimes, they had great, long talks about what they saw and did that day. Sometimes they talked about climbing up the hill together when they were younger.
When she was much, MUCH younger, she’d wait at the front window, leaning over the back of the sofa waiting for him to come from school, nose against the glass. On rainy days, they’d stay in and she’d watch him do his homework. He was a lot older than she was and just seeing the letters or numbers on the page fascinated her. On sunny days, he’d go off to the park to play with his friends, but on certain types of cloudy days, special cloudy days, they’d go up to the hill to go cloudbusting.
She’d see the big, cotton-ball clouds overhead as she waited for his bike to come around the corner and come up the driveway, and she’d start bouncing on the couch. As she got older and could tell time better, she’d run to her room and get out her picture books. Donnie always had such great stories and she wanted to find a story that would make him laugh.
When she heard him slam the kitchen door, she’d come running out, either from the window in the living room, or, dropping her book, from her bedroom in the back of the house. “Is it time?” she’d ask.
He’d wait to answer. Sometimes he’d dramatically stroke his beard (she couldn’t see one, but he assured her you started growing them at twelve) and say he’d have to check the weather report. He’d pull a piece of paper of his backpack and scrunch his eyebrows together. If it was the right kind of weather (as in, he didn’t have too much homework,) he’d nod gravely and say, “Looks like we need to get out there. Too many clouds.”
They’d grab a blanket, run up the hill in back of their house, and flop down to work on their strategy. Their job was to blow up the clouds so that they could have good weather. The only way they could do that, though, was if one of them distracted the clouds with a story, while the other concentrated hard and blew them apart. Sometimes the clouds took a while to blow apart in the wind, but he assured her it was because the other clouds were sending out force fields to fight his invisible cloud laser.
When she was little, it was REALLY hard, because she wasn’t properly trained. Donnie knew all about it because he went to school. She was supposed to go to school but she wasn’t allowed out much because she was sick. Sometimes, when Donnie was at school, she got lonely.
She spent most of her time visiting the doctor’s office, going to treatment, and playing by herself at home. Sometimes when she was home in bed, she’d think about stories she could have told the clouds they’d seen before, better stories. She didn’t tell Donnie, but sometimes, after she was done telling a story, she’d concentrate really, really hard and feel herself breaking clouds apart. That was one part of the job.
When they first started cloudbusting, Donnie had to do both parts, telling the story, and then, when the clouds (and Katie) were distracted by the tale, he’d try to break one of the clouds apart to make it sunnier outside. As she got older, he taught her how to catch the attention of certain clouds, and then, once she caught them in a story, he’d take care of their target with his cloud laser.
Donnie took her training seriously. Clouds liked to hear about themselves, he’d tell her. They’d gather over a story that described them and their friends having wild and crazy adventures.
“How do they know you’re talking to them? Which ones are friends?” she’d once asked as she laid on her back beside her brother, pressing the thick blades of tall grass into the ground. The grass would always spring back up when they were done, as though the children had never been there.
“See that one?” he pointed at the nearest cloud. “See how it looks like a bunny? It’s got the ears flopping back, and it’s kind of sitting down. Next to it is a cupcake, with a single candle on top. The cupcake cloud and the bunny cloud are friends, and they’re putting on a play. They’re remembering the bunny-cloud’s first birthday. What do you think happened at the bunny-cloud’s first birthday?”
If she guessed the story correctly, the clouds would collect and swirl around overhead to hear her story. As she started to tell the story of bunny-cloud’s birthday, the clouds started to spread out into wisps. She started to sniffle, frustrated that she was doing it wrong. “No, it’s OK,” Donnie would say. “That was me spreading them around. I was ‘busting the cupcake cloud. It was time for the bunny to blow out the candle and eat his cupcake.”
“Ouch! Will it hurt Cupcake Cloud?”
“Clouds don’t feel pain.”
“Then why do they cry?”
“Sometimes, when we feel a lot of pain down here, they try to tell us a story to cheer us up. They see us crying and it makes them cry too. That’s how they get our attention. When you hear it thunder, that’s them clearing their throat. That’s how you know the story is coming. Lightning is like when you turn on a flashlight to read under the covers.”
This made sense to her, and Donnie had more training than she did. He said they learned all about it in school. He said someday, when she got better and went to school, she’d learn all about it too.
Over time, Katie began to realize that not everything Donnie said about clouds was true.
For one thing, when she tried to bust clouds, she didn’t feel like she had a laser. She felt like she was scrunching her face up hard and making herself as flat against the ground as she could.
She’d keep her eyes closed and try to make herself as flat as she could so the clouds wouldn’t see her there, sneaking up on them. Then she’d focus her thoughts at the cloud until she felt cold and fluffy inside. She’d keep her eyes clasped tightly shut, her nose wrinkled, biting her lips, hoping Donnie didn’t see her trying so hard.
Sometimes she thought he might have noticed, but he never said anything.
The last time they went cloudbusting together, she closed her eyes, and knew something was happening this time. Although her skin and fingers and toes felt light and cold, her belly and heart felt hot and tight. She knew this time she was doing it right. She knew Donnie was wrong about why clouds came together and separated.
She was scared when she began to hear Donnie yell out. She opened her eyes, and Donnie was small and far away. He was screaming her name, Katie, Katie, but it seemed to be coming from all around her, through her. She began to sense that she was mingled with other tingling, fluffy, cold sensations that were vibrating her brother’s voice up to her. She could tell he was scared so she yelled back, and saw him jump.
Her voice came from all around the hill and reverberated like thunder. Donnie was very, very scared. He kept asking where she went, and where she was, and she kept answering that she didn’t know.
She wasn’t sure how long ago that was. Time was different. She just knew that since that day, they’d been visiting with each other whenever the weather was right for a long time.
Donnie got old, older than Daddy, so she wasn’t sure how long. Donnie was the only one who visited her.
Everyone thought she’d somehow gotten lost and swept away by the creek. No one believed Donnie’s story about the clouds, not even Mommy and Daddy. She could hear people in town talking about her. They all thought Donnie was making it up to cope with losing his sick baby sister.
The women in town lowed their voices when they said, “She was going to die from cancer soon anyway. Drowning in the creek may have been a more merciful way to go.” Neighbors would shake their heads, look down at the ground and say, shame about them never finding the body. Katie didn’t see what the point of a body was, though. It seemed heavy and gross now that she’d ever had one. She felt like she’d always been Cloud.
Donnie was wrong: clouds didn’t want to hear about themselves. Clouds gathered around anything interesting or different from Cloud. They loved bright colors, deep, roaring noises, and the sounds of laughter.
Katie liked wandering the world as a cloud. She saw the things she couldn’t see when she was sick. She was never lonely, intermingling with all the other parts and beings and sameness of Cloud. It was like being in a family, except you could squish all together into one being, and then split into pieces and float around the world apart.
When her brother left to go to other schools, she’d check in on him, but they only spoke to each other up on the hill.
He quit cloudbusting the same day she mastered it. (She’d begun to suspect cloud-“busting” wasn’t the right word anyway. They didn’t blast into pieces after all. The clouds were just moving to humor him.) When he first began to visit, he wouldn’t talk to her. He’d just weep with his head in his hands. After a while, he’d talk to her.
He got used to her not having a body, and it didn’t scare him when she talked back. She’d tell him stories about her day traveling around.
Sometimes she could tell he was still sad, but he never cried around her anymore. He didn’t want to upset her.
He hated to make her rain.