This is the beginning two chapters of Beth Kephart’s novel CLOUD HOPPER, which follows three good friends and two immigrant cousins in an imagined rural town called Gilbertine.
She’s walking on the clouds. We’re watching down below.
Wyatt and K and me.
In the grass with the ants and the crickets in the dew, after the best meteor show of the season.
“You think she sees us?” K says.
“Grass is so tall,” I say. “And she is so high.”
“Doesn’t mean that she can’t see us,” K says.
“No,” Wyatt says, sticking a spoon into the jar of her blueberry jam. It’s been a good summer for blueberries. “Doesn’t mean it, factually. I’m guessing that she sees us. She’s putting on a show.”
It’s the end of the night and the start of the day in Gilbertine. It’s August, and all the beauty’s got us whipped. There are twenty-six vertical miles of atmosphere, and there our cloud hopper goes, her patchwork balloon rising above her head like a giant thought bubble and her fuel strapped into a pack on her back. Her Doc Martens are a bright and patent-leather pink. Her skirt is a white drip. With her hello hand she works the fuel valve, smears the sky, and rises. Cruises through a bunch of swallows.
Pulls a string. Turns. Does that bouncy thing, touching her boots to the tops of trees, the shingles of roofs, the puffs of clouds. We don’t know who she is or where she’s come from, but she’s ours and so is the show at the start of this day, which is a day when Joseph doesn’t need us, so we’re free.
You ever seen a cloud hopper?
You ever imagine what it’s like to hop the sky?
“Make a wish,” Wyatt says, like she always says, whenever we see her. She takes another scrape of sweet fruit from her jar.
K squeezes his eyes and slaps his hand to his heart. Typical K.
I blink. Three times fast for Grandma Aubrey. Who I wish was out here. Who I wish could see this. Who is always my only wish. Typical me.
“You know where I’ll be when I’m not here anymore?” Grandma Aubrey said, two days ago, when my face was so heavy from crying.
“No,” I said.
“Out there,” she said, pointing through the window. “In the yonder. Where you can see me. I won’t be far, Sophie B.”
“Not good enough,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “It’ll be good enough. Plenty.” And then she had to stop talking because it can be hard for her to breathe and I couldn’t say back, because it would make her too sad, that beauty will never be the same without Grandma Aubrey. Beauty will never be as big.
“What’s your wish?” Wyatt asks now. Like she always does.
“Wishing for diamonds to fall out of the sky,” K says. Like always.
“It’s bad luck,” I remind him, “telling everyone your wish.”
“Bad luck or not,” K says, “I’m wishing for diamonds.”
“You should wish for something else,” Wyatt says. “You’re allowed to wish for anything.”
“Anything better than diamonds?” K says, scratching his thundercloud of hair beneath his Frank Sinatra hat, like that can help him think.
Wyatt starts to laugh, the kind of laugh she has trouble stopping. When Wyatt laughs it sounds like rumble beneath her breath. When Wyatt laughs it’s her way of saying that she would never tell us how she wished.
Telling wouldn’t be Wyatt.
“Look,” I say, because our cloud hopper is making her magic—wobbling and dropping and rising. It’s the strings that she pulls that steer her balloon left or right. It’s the fuel in her pack that she burns. It’s the air of Gilbertine that holds her high as she turns the pink of the dawn into the blue of the day, and now here comes a little puff of gray.
“Storm on the horizon,” K says, holding his little finger up to catch the front-end of the weather.
“That’s no storm,” Wyatt says. “That’s just a cloud putting on a new color.”
Everything could be anything.
Looks can be deceiving.
The planes are starting to rev at the Muni.
The Harleys are coming up the drive.
K came to Gilbertine by way of a lime-green Gremlin and a mother who says that someday she’ll be back. He lost most of his name along the way, so that the K is what’s leftover. He lost a lot of stuff, if you want to know the truth, and he sleeps, when he sleeps, inside the ruins of a Skyhawk down at the Muni, which is short for municipal airport. That’s K, but there’s more to K than what is missing.
Wyatt came by way of a tragedy. We don’t talk about it because she won’t talk about it, because it’s best, she says, forgotten, because she’s like that, like I said, full of secrets, a question asker and not a question answerer. What I know for sure is that she’s as good as adopted by Joseph Bell, who everybody calls the Master of the Muni, because it’s his little airport, his land of planes, his Air Time, which is the big balloon operation he runs out of the east end of the hangar.
I will, when there is time, describe the hangar.
There’s a lot to get to.
I came by way of Grandma Aubrey in a Bonanza pick-up truck we’d packed thick with stuff. I came from five hundred and four miles south and a touch west one solid year ago, almost to this minute. We drove down and up the Blue Ridge, in and out of the Smokies all to get to Gilbertine, a place we found in one of those family scrapbooks that had been tossed in through the short door of Grandma Aubrey’s Little Library. Sky for miles and the sky in circles, someone had written in a caption beneath a crinkling photograph of a beautiful floater. By floater I mean hot-air balloon. By floater I mean what Grandma Aubrey loves, what she drove all this way to see. By floater I mean that big white-silver-white balloon that Joseph runs out of the east end of the Muni.
“I want to wake up to balloons,” Grandma Aubrey said. “Big balloons. I want every day to be a party.” And that’s why we chose Gilbertine, where the air is excellently good for flying. The air of Gilbertine can fly a floater in a circle. It can lift you off and bring you right back to where you started.
Up and down and over we drove, past the hills and around the hills until we got to Gilbertine, where the colors are kale, bread crust, and plum, and there are donkeys in the backyards, goats in circles, girls on roller skates, and I don’t mean rollerblades, either. We crossed the border when the night was coming on—cantaloupe skies and silhouettes of corn stalks. Grandma Aubrey steered the truck off the road into the back end of a farm and turned the key.
I climbed down from my side and then I helped her climb down from her side and we hobbled around to the pick-up’s back end. I gave her a hand up. I gave her a good push. I jumped up and scuttled ahead and moved the books out of the way, the chalkboards, the suitcases, the bags, the frozen pot pies that were unfrozen by all those miles, the stuff we’d decided to lug up north, whatever we could fit. We picked our way to the swan-footed couch and we plopped down and we sat, watching the cantaloupe sky sink and the purple sky rise and the dark go darker.
The stars punching in like peepholes.
The stars like silver freckles.
The quick cruise of the comet dust. Sixty meteors a minute, Grandma Aubrey said.
I pressed my ear against the shoulder of her shirt.
“You okay?” I asked her.
“Could not be better,” she said.
Little loving lies. Because Grandma is doing battle with the big MS by which I mean multiple sclerosis and down south where we used to live, in a Monopoly house on a Monopoly street between the PO and the Parts and Tow, she hadn’t been close to being better and there wasn’t, I’d heard the doctor say, that much time left.
“What’s your best advice?” Grandma Aubrey had asked the doctor while I sat in the waiting room overhearing.
“My best advice is to live,” the doctor said.
“While I can,” she said, finishing his sentence.
“While you can,” he said. “That’s right.”
In Gilbertine on that first night we watched the darkness fall over the grass and the stalks and the cows. We heard the bugs and the birds and the stars crack in. I thought of all the miles we had come and how nobody anywhere would have ever expected that Grandma Aubrey had, inside her muscles and bones and lungs, anything close to the strength of those miles, but she had foot-to-the-pedaled it, I swear she had, and bumped and screeched us all the way here in the Bonanza truck, and this was it, the end of our line.
“This is our big adventure,” she said.
I kicked off my boots I yanked off my socks. I let the damp between my toes.
“What comes next?” I said.
“We find us a house,” she said. “We live.”
Here are some of the things that Grandma Aubrey’s taught me:
Fog is a stratiform cloud dropped to the ground.
Fog is suspended crystals.
By which I mean the Grandma Aubrey is an expert on weather. You have to be when your number one love is the big balloons she calls floaters.
Actually, factually, that’s her number two love.
Her number one love is me, her Sophie B.
Cloud Hopper is published by Penny Candy Books and available here.
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(Photo: Lenny K Photography/flickr.com/ CC BY 2.0)