The wind came so strongly one day that it hoisted Nel’s house into the sky. She was watering plants in her little room when the floors began to tremble. Couldn’t be more important than a wilting vine, she tried to tell herself, but the windchimes sure were making a nasty racket against the window.
Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, cooking breakfast and shouting. They didn’t notice their juniper shrub hurtling past the kitchen window. “But you!” they cried. Piles of bacon sizzled and screamed from the skillet. “Of all the dirty, rotten!” The back door bulged under the pressure of such preposterous weather.
Nel knew this day would come, strange as that may sound. But as far as she could tell, ignoring a problem meant it wasn’t a problem anymore. So she continued sprinkling the last of her watering can over her ferns like it were any other day. However, this was not any other day. The bitter wind burst through the door and ripped Dad from his barstool. Mom got tossed in the air like a teddy bear, and the two of them tumbled out the door in a flurry of coffee and bacon and newspaper. Nel clung to her bedpost as the foundation broke loose, and with terrifying force and unbearable noise, her house was peeled from the earth, and sent spinning off and away.
Nel had five seconds to collect herself before Nadeen barged into the room.
“Sound the alarm!” she shrieked. “We’re under attack! Sound the flipping alarm!” Her hair was bonkers.
“What alarm, Nadeen?” Nel said as calmly as she could, but Nadeen was not to be derailed.
“Alls I know is one minute I was playing with my Powder Rangers and the next minute the whole house was like WHOOSH and I’m on my freaking head!”
“Not my problem,” Nel said. “Go cry to Mom and Dad about it.” She had given up correcting Nadeen about the names of her action figures long ago.
“I already ran around the whole house looking for them. They’re totally gone!” Nadeen said. “Then I find you sitting around like you’re some kinda monk or something. Didn’t you feel the WHOOSH?”
Nel most certainly felt the whoosh. The floor was littered with clothes and picture frames and coloring books. Her beautiful plants were smeared across the carpet in piles of gooey dirt. The only thing she wanted was for Nadeen to disappear so she could pretend none of this strange business was happening. Instead, Nadeen ran directly to the window and flung back the curtains.
“Holy flip, I think we’re flying through the air or something!” Nadeen rubbed her greasy hands all over the window while peering through the glass—squeak, squeak. “How am I gonna get to softball practice tonight?”—squeeeeeeeak.
“Our house is not flying through the air, dummy,” Nel said. “How does that make any sense?”
“Come look for yourself and see who’s the fricking dummy!” Nadeen squealed, motioning to the naked window. “What’re you scared or something?”
Nel backed herself snuggly against the wall as Nadeen crept forward, beckoning.
Of course she wasn’t scared. She’s eleven, which was almost like being an adult. And when you’re an adult the only things you’re allowed to be afraid of are great white sharks and brain tumors. However, if she looked out the window there was a possibility she’d have to acknowledge certain aspects of their situation. And Nel wasn’t willing to run that risk.
“Stop it, Nadeen! I’m not going to look!”
“Aw, come on,” Nadeen said. But as she approached, Nadeen stepped on a big, purple Dahlia lying on the floor between them, providing Nel with the perfect out.
“That’s it, I’m telling!” Nel shouted as she took off running toward her parents’ last known location. Surely they would be able to talk some smarts into Nadeen over this baloney about a house being blown into the sky.
“Mom, Dad! Nadeen is stepping on my stuff!”
But no one was in the kitchen to hear her. Scattered silverware, broken plates and puddles of orange juice were all that remained of whatever terrible thing had taken place.
“Told ya,” said Nadeen. “Told ya they were gone.”
One night when Nel was seven, she woke up wanting a midnight cookie. As she crept out to the kitchen, she heard something odd coming from the garage. She opened the door and poked her head in. The light was on. The air was sweaty. She heard a voice. “Oh Jesus!” It was her mom. She sounded like she was in pain. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
The family car sat sheepishly in the center of the garage. The whole vehicle was rocking in short, clumsy jolts. “Oh God!” she heard her mother say.
“Mom?” Nel sent the word hesitantly out into the room. The rocking continued, so she said it louder. “Mom!” A head bobbed to the surface from the backseat. It was a man. He was covering his face, but through the little slit between his fingers Nel saw the bright blue eyes of their neighbor. The one with the barky dog.
“Nel!” Mom’s head had surfaced as well. “Get your little ass back to bed, you bad girl!” she screamed. Her face was shiny, ugly. Greasy hair hung in front of her dark eyes and clung to her jaw and neck. “Go!”
Nel ran as fast as she could back to her room. Only a weak smattering of moonlight peeked through the window slats, but she wanted to see nothing. Pure black. She dug into the back of her closet—through the board games, and the clean clothes that fell from their hangers, and the dirty ones that smelled like spoiled yogurt—until she found the little elf-sized door. It creaked as she opened it. Nel sat in this closet crevice frustrated that there were still things in this world that could surprise and confuse her.
Nel’s cubby hole is where she goes when she wants to cut ties with the world. Where she doesn’t have to answer questions about how school went. Where she doesn’t have to say “excuse me” when she burps, unless she wants to. It’s where she keeps her biplane radio, where her little Jonathan lives, and where she doesn’t have to look at anybody’s greasy, ugly face. So on that fateful windy day three years later when Nel found only broken dishes and spilled breakfast and not a single remaining parent to tattle to, her cubby hole was where she ran. She sat in the darkness once again, wondering if such a thing could actually happen. A house sailing through the sky.
She touched her face, her arms, her toes. She pinched her nostrils closed and blew until her ears popped. She burped and said, “excuse me.” Then something touched her. Something cold. The cold something giggled. It was Yurt.
When her mother was pregnant for the third time, Nel liked to touch her belly a lot. She was too little to care when Nadeen was inside her mom’s tummy, but with Yurt she was just the right age to care the most.
Mom was reading People magazine on the sofa when Nel sprung out from behind it. “This one,” Nel said, pointing to her mother’s swollen midsection, “is mine.” She grinned like a leopard.
“Considering it’s in my belly, I’m not so sure that’s true,” Mom said. “And besides, you’re a bit young to have a baby, don’t you think?”
“You already have me and Nadeen,” Nel said. “You’re expanding world population!”
“Nel, we are not talking about this again,” said her mother, and yanked her magazine back open in a crinkly fit. “Isn’t Jonathan your baby already?”
“I’m going to name her Yurt,” Nel continued, unfazed. “I will brush her hair all day long, and make all her bullies cry, and feed her juicy T-bone steaks.”
“She’s going to be your sister,” Mom’s eyes said over the top of the magazine. “I never got to have a sister myself, so consider yourself a lucky duck.”
But Nel knew she was full of it. Nel already had a sister, and she was the pits. Her daughter, on the other hand, was going to be a superstar.
Mom brought the baby home from the hospital on a cold, rainy evening. Nel told her maybe she should have put Yurt in a Ziploc to keep her dry.
“Her name isn’t Yurt,” Mom said sternly. “You need to call your sister by her real name.”
Dad walked in wearing his gray trench coat and matching hat. When Mom saw him, she left the room in a huff. Nel imagined he was a gray gargoyle that swooped down from the top of a creepy stone church to scare her away.
“Were you good for Grandma?” Dad asked the girls.
“I guess. Can we play with the baby?” Nadeen asked. She was bouncing on her heels in excitement.
“She isn’t so good for playing quite yet, sweetheart, but why don’t you come have a seat in your daddy’s lap and we can have a look at her.” They scrambled onto his wet legs and inspected the little newcomer from top to bottom.
“Where do babies come from anyway?” asked Nadeen.
Dad’s shoulder tensed, and he turned to look at the grandfather clock in the corner, but the clock didn’t give him any answers. Nel stared at the baby’s swollen blue eyes and wished she herself had gotten so lucky. She resented having to share the same dark eyes as everyone else in her family.
“Even I don’t know where this one came from,” their father said, finally. “Could have dropped out of the sky for all I know.”
Something might have happened, Yurt. Something terrible,” Nel said, speaking in the recesses of her cubby hole. “Mom and Dad are gone, and I have no idea how any of us are going to go to school or get good jobs.” Yurt was the only person who knew about Nel’s secret cubby. She was her daughter, after all.
“But don’t worry, I bet they have police dogs sniffing on our dirty socks right this very moment,” she continued. “We just gotta be happy clams till they get here.”
To this end, Nel’s searching fingertips identified the shape of a miniature WWI-era biplane—her radio receiver. She twisted the little pilot’s head and the propeller started spinning. The sound of static coursed through the blackness. She rolled the tuner over a violin concerto and a deodorant commercial, then finally found that throaty voice that carried her and Yurt through every afternoon. It was George Oliverstraaten.
“Good afternoon, dear listeners, and welcome to the George Oliverstraaten Show. I hope all of you are having another wonderful day in this bizarre world of ours.”
Nel had been teaching Yurt the ways of George since before she even knew how to listen. It didn’t matter if they were sad, or tired, or gassy, or sunburnt—she always made sure George was babbling away at them every afternoon.
He was just settling down to tell a story. They could tell because he was clearing his throat ferociously. Nel reached over and let Jonathan out of his box. Each of his eight hairy legs tickled as they tapped excitedly up her arm.
“There existed a knight,” George began, then harrumphed a bit more. “He seemed a bit of a dud, as far as knights go. Never slaying any dragons, saving not a single starry-eyed damsel. But he had a huge, huge sword that he lifted high above his head in a mighty pose. His harsh, brassy laugh shot shivers down the spines of the skittish peasants.”
George was going at this one full-force. They could hear the phlegm rolling off the walls of his sinuses. George Oliverstraaten was possibly the most congested storyteller of all time, and it played perfectly to his performance style. For instance, if he was conveying a heart-wrenching scene of unrequited love, mucus boiled under his uvula like a cauldron, accentuating the bubbling pain of rejection. If he was telling a rip-roaring sailor tale, boogers tore from his nostrils like a buzz saw, pushing listeners to the edge of their seats.
“The Queen adored this knight,” George continued, “but they were not true lovers, nor would they ever be, for the knight vowed never to remove his sacred armor. Not even so much as a lift of the mask. Even so, the Queen spent many an evening down in the garden, riding piggyback atop her fair knight’s shining steel shoulders, while the King slept soundly in his tower.”
Jonathan had crawled from Nel’s shoulder to Yurt’s and was building a hair nest on her head. She giggled loudly, and Nel shushed her so that George could continue.
“Speaking of His Majesty, the ruler of this particular kingdom was known as the Dream King. Each night, the King’s soul melted into a glistening pool of harmony and love. Waves of profound wisdom pulsed over his spirit, healing it from the wounds inflicted by the wickedness of earthly living. So powerful were these divine revelations that each morning he was nearly propelled onto his throne by a desperate need to spread prosperity and oneness across every corner of his domain. This went on for decades, and it seemed that nothing would ever bring the Dream King down from the glorious cloud of enlightenment from which he ruled. But then it was—”
George sounded like he might have been getting a little choked up, but maybe he was just breaking through a phlegm barricade.
“But then it was, that one morning the royal couple appeared in the courtyard to find that the knight had not arrived for duty that day. They hoped he was simply in the midst of some valiant act or fulfilling a noble duty, despite never being known to do such things in the past. However, he did not return the next day, nor the next beyond that. Weeks went by, and then months. The knight’s homestead eventually fell to dereliction, and his horse lay dead in the yard.
“The Queen was heartbroken. The King, on the other hand, was eager to see what a more proactive knight could do for the kingdom, and appointed a young soldier who took up the position seamlessly. Things were different. It was a small shift at first—almost imperceptible—but a slow trickling of sorrow began leaking into the King’s head. Each night it dribbled forth a little stronger, until a basin of grief collected in his chest. He brushed it off at first. Simply a metaphysical bump in the road! he thought.
“If only that were the case…” George teased.
“Where has the knight gone?” he gasped in his best cliffhanger voice. “What will happen to the Queen now that her beloved has vanished? And the King—will his dreams return to the harmonious splendor that brought peace over his kingdom for so many years, or will this mark the beginning of an era of nightmares? Tune in this evening at eight o’clock Eastern for part two of The Dream King.”
Nel couldn’t see in the darkness of the cubby, but she could tell her daughter was sleeping by how heavily she pressed against her side, and how silently her stinky breath rushed from her mouth. Even just thinking about what might be to come had Nel utterly exhausted, so she closed her eyes as well.
Nadeen and Yurt were raiding the cupboards from atop the kitchen counters when Nel hobbled out, blurry and sore—standard side effects of a midday nap.
“Let’s eat all the chocolate chips!” Nadeen declared. It was a good idea, so Nel helped her stomp on the bag until it popped, and they ate all the chocolate that blew across the floor.
“Let’s eat all the marshmallows!”
They piled them on bowls of melting ice cream, and then drowned them in swirls of chocolate and caramel syrup.
“Who needs parents anyhow?” Nel said through a mouthful of sugary goo. “We should have blown them away a long time ago!”
Nadeen stopped gobbing on her huge mouthful of candy. “Don’t phay dat,” she managed to get out. “I miph dem.” A single tear formed in the corner of her eye and trickled down her cheek.
Nel didn’t know why she said such a thing. She missed her mother and father badly, but rather than dwell on such feelings, Nel found it more suitable to launch a spoonful of pudding straight into Nadeen’s cheek.
“What the—!” yelped Nadeen. Just like that, her sorrow vanished. “Take thiph!” she said, squeezing arcs of black and tan syrups over the island counter. Nel ducked into the pantry and tossed handfuls of flour across the room. Nadeen countered with a volley of eggs. Yurt dumped strawberry jam on herself. They giggled and smeared food on each other until they couldn’t go on.
After the air had cleared, Nel slinked across the grimy linoleum. Nadeen was slumped over a barstool. Yurt was curled up under the dining table. Broad streams of platinum light rocketed through the window. Nel stepped closer to the windowpane. It hummed with energy. She could feel it in her hairs. A vacuum materialized between her and the glass, pulling her forward. She struggled briefly, but in her heart she knew the time had come. Nel put her face to the window.
It was so blue, the sky. Its size, unimaginable. Nel wanted to pull away, but the gravity of its colossal existence held on to her spirit. Tugged it, stretched it, and finally sucked it through the glass and out into its domain. Nel drifted, hypnotized by the vastness of her surroundings. She spotted a lonely cloud floating not far off. She felt herself standing on it, her bare feet sinking into its doughy flesh. The feeling beneath her feet snapped her from her trance and she confronted her captor.
“You greedy thing!” Nel growled at the sky. “Did you ever once think about what you were doing?” She was met with astounding silence. “We live here. This is our home!” she continued. “How could you be so careless with someone’s home?”
She tried to say more, but her voice became more of a beep than a yell. The sky ate her words, one by one, leaving only the empty sounds of her vocal cords with no language behind them. The beeping grew louder. Nel cupped her ears, but it grew so loud that her spirit recoiled all the way back to the window where it snapped into her body, and she fell onto her butt in a pile of flour. Nel couldn’t deny it any longer—her life was at the mercy of the elements.
“Nel?” Nadeen lifted up her head and red jelly dripped off the tip of her nose. “What are we going to do when the Sky People get here?”
Shortly after Yurt was born, Grandma showed up one day without warning and herded the two older girls out the door “on vacation.” And believe it or not, she warned Nel all of this would happen.
“God is an angry little man, Nelly,” she said. “If you aren’t a good girl he might just pluck your little house up from the earth and send it packing.”
Grandma liked to talk about God a lot.
“God loves little girls, but only the ones that mind their P’s and Q’s,” she said while shooting a zombie in the face. They were at the arcade.
Nel spent most of the time playing Whac-A-Mole because she could cheat by using two hands and get twice as many tickets. You had to trade in two hundred and fifty of them if you wanted to get a Magic 8-Ball.
“Let’s get a barrel o’ monkeys!” Nadeen chirped, her hair flung out in messy tails.
“No, Nadeen. We need the Magic 8-Ball so we can tell the future,” Nel reminded her. She had recently become very concerned with the future, especially where it pertained to when her parents might stop yelling so much, even if that ended up meaning less vacations with Grandma.
“But I want my own toy! You can get something else with your half!” Nadeen pleaded.
Grandma told them they were a couple of firecrackers that wouldn’t get anything if they weren’t gonna get along, but when she was in the bathroom Nel grabbed all the tickets out of her purse and traded them in for the 8-Ball.
Ask it where Mom and Dad are!”
“That won’t work, Nadeen.”
“Then why did we get this stupid thing? Ask it!”
“No, Nadeen. You have to ask yes-or-no questions.”
Nadeen reached out with her syrupy hand, swiped the black orb from Nel’s grasp, and shook it wildly. Nel had an anchor of marshmallows in her gut that kept her from striking back.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” she yelled as if the ball were hard of hearing. Her pupils shrunk as the message materialized.
“It says, ‘Better not tell you now,’” she announced. “Uh oh. That doesn’t sound so good.”
Nel kept quiet while wiping peanut butter off the back of her neck with a dry washcloth.
“When are the Sky People coming?” Nadeen yelled again while shaking the ball.
“For the last time, there is no such thing as ‘Sky People,’” Nel said, but she peered down into the 8-Ball’s circular window anyway, and watched the bobber come to rest in the blueish solution: WITHOUT A DOUBT.
Nadeen slapped her hands to her forehead. “Oh no, no, no!” she cried.
“Nadeen, that answer doesn’t even make sense,” Nel said. “You asked when.”
Nadeen paced around the dining room table, stopping occasionally to moan or rearrange her nutty hair. “There are too Sky People, Nel,” she said. “Grandma told me about them! They live in the clouds.”
“And just how did they get there exactly, know-it-all?” Nel asked.
Nadeen sighed like she was showing her how to tie her shoe for the fortieth time. “When God made the Earth he filled all his creatures up with water so that we would stay put and not bother him. Understand?”
Nel stared blankly, hoping it’d be over soon.
“He thought the angels would be all he needed for company,” Nadeen continued, “But they were really, really boring. So, God started filling people up with air so that they could live in the clouds and entertain him with all the dumb stuff we do.”
“So they are exactly like us, except they live in the sky?” Nel asked.
“Yes… oh! Except they hate us,” Nadeen said. “And have black unicorn horns on their heads.”
“Yes, and turtle shells… made of dry ketchup.”
“Oh jeez, and Grandma told you all this?” Nel was used to hearing Nadeen’s pinhead theories, but this was really something else.
“Yup, she did. And she’s an adult!” Nadeen said with a smug grin.
“But where is Grandma now, Nadeen?” Nel asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “In the looney bin!”
“Nuh-uh, she’s in the old people’s home.”
They locked squinty, brown eyes for an instant, then Nadeen resumed pacing even faster.
“Whenever there is a plane crash, it was Sky People who did it,” she went on. “Lightning strikes? Freaking tornadoes? —Sky People. The Sky People would like nothing better than to murder every single person on Earth with their Sky Magic. But don’t worry, they always knock before coming in. So if you hear knocking, better hide your butt quick!”
Nel had heard about enough and hurried off to find Yurt. Her blissful noiselessness was badly needed.
“How do we get back to Earth?” she heard Nadeen holler in the background. “Aww, man. ‘Don’t count on it,’” she groaned.
Nel watched the living room walls shift from yellow, to orange, to red. Black was next. Usually she was relieved when night arrived, but in the Sky House everything felt different. She lit every candle she could find and placed them in a circle around her. Since it was just about eight, she had her biplane radio standing by, ready to take off into the world of AM radio. Listening to George outside of her cubby was generally against Nel’s principles, but her hope was that some of his snorts would draw Yurt out from wherever she was hiding.
“How wonderful you’ve managed to make it back, dear listener,” George croaked. “You must have been every bit as enthralled with today’s tale as I, so let’s not keep each other waiting a moment longer.” He blew his nose into the microphone vigorously.
“Last we heard,” he gasped through his handkerchief, “the knight had vanished under mysterious circumstances, causing a commotion in the kingdom. The Queen mourned his loss each and every day, but for the King, it was at night that things changed. You’re listening to the George Oliverstraaten Show, and this is The Dream King, continued.”
Nel turned it up.
“The King bore no deep connection to the knight, yet only a few short months after his disappearance, the magical worlds that once accompanied the lord’s slumber had all but collapsed into ruin. Gone were the vast meadows of truth and beauty. Instead, bogs of despair opened beneath his feet and sucked him down into meaningless filth. He called out to the gentle animals that once populated his dreamland, but they had been replaced by swarms of biting flies that filled his veins with concoctions of hopelessness and rage, apathy and disgust. The ragged King stumbled across the haunted hellscapes night after night, determined to outlast the horrible curse, but each morning he owned a little less of his mind than the one before.
“The people became alarmed at what they observed of their leader, their hero. The King’s voice had deteriorated into a shrill shriek. His eyes, overgrown with prickly red veins, darted nervously about, even amongst his most trusted company. Worst of all, the once proud King no longer marched through the castle with his head held high, but instead crawled on his fists, dragging his lower half behind him in a miserable display. Court physicians hung the shriveled monarch by his ankles and basted him head to toe with olive oil to purge him of the demons that occupied his soul, but his condition only grew more desperate.
“Shortly before the King’s troubles began, a newcomer had nestled his way into the village. His name was Gregory Chester Wilhelmson. He was a goldsmith by trade and was welcomed into the community with open arms. ‘Sure picked a dandy time to settle in!’ his customers joked, but Gregory was unfazed by all this royal drama. He hammered the days away at his anvil, pounding and polishing sheets of gold until they beamed like the sun. But in spite of his seemingly ordinary existence, each night Gregory ran an errand. A very odd errand, indeed.
“On these nights Gregory walked soundlessly through the town, stopping only to crouch in a shadow if someone came near. He scaled the castle wall with nothing but an old rope and a gardening claw, flexing his brawny muscles as he pulled his way to the top. Then, after ascending the tower and slinking through the King’s quarters, Gregory bent over His Royal Highness’s sleeping ear.
“‘To the east there is stone, to the west there is wood,’ whispered the strange townsman, ‘but cast behind is where the children stood.’”
Nel very nearly fell over backward. What was that? The door? She leaped behind the furniture. Hideous images of her sisters skewered on the horn of a howling Sky Person dripped down her brain. A shadow crawled across the wall in the flickering light. A hairy, monstrous shadow—one which she recognized instantly.
“Jonathan!” she yelled. He scurried off the bookshelf and hid behind the black 8-Ball—the very thing he had just pushed off the shelf onto the hardwood floor.
Nel quickly set up shop in her secret cubby, lighting an armful of candles one by one. Each candle peeled back more of the darkness that had filled the space for so long.
“Such a naughty Jonathan!” Nel scolded him as she put him back in his box. He stared at her very apologetically, she thought.
The bare wood walls looked warm and cozy behind the shifting orange glow. Nel had never seen her cubby before, only felt it. It was smaller this way, somehow. She turned her radio on, hoping dearly that she hadn’t missed the end.
“The King died in his sleep several months later,” George sighed, “his face frozen in a mask of terror. A glorious funeral was held, and cries could be heard across the land as every soul in the kingdom wept for their beloved Dream King. Every soul, that is, except Gregory Chester Wilhelmson. Gregory had vanished just as suddenly as he had appeared, a fact that was discovered, oddly enough, right around the very moment the King had passed. But perhaps the biggest shock of all was who did make it to the procession. Standing over the King’s broken body, holding his enormous sword over his head like an antenna to God, was the long-lost knight. The crowd roared with shivery approval. The Queen, bound and shackled, was carried off to the dungeon, and the Dream King lay in his golden coffin, beaming like the sun.”
George attempted to bid goodnight to his listeners through the gaps of a sneezing fit that had overtaken him, but Nel was distracted by another knocking sound she heard from the other side of the house. She figured it was just Nadeen. The kook had spent the whole afternoon barricading the place up. Chairs against doorknobs, toy chests against chairs, coffee tables against toy chests. Nel didn’t know what had gotten into her. She was always a dingbat, sure, but a spunky one. This bout of paranoia was not like her. As for Yurt, Nel still hadn’t seen any sign of her for hours. Hopefully Nadeen wasn’t using her as a weight in the toy chest.
Before the wind had stolen them away, Mom and Dad used to come into Nel’s room each night, separately, and wish her a good sleep. Mom rushed in with a cloud of citrusy perfume clinging to her dress and gobbled kisses down her cheek. Then she backed out in exactly the same way she entered, like somebody hit reverse on a videotape. Dad took longer because he’s a slowpoke. Nel slapped halfheartedly at his scruffy sticker-face and then everything crossed into itself and vanished.
She no longer had anyone to tuck her in, but she slept anyway. She curled up in her ugly cubby with no blanket and no nothing. She dreamt anyway.
Nel was in her parents’ room watering plants. She wanted it to look nice when they got back, but the room was unkept and dusty, like it hadn’t been used in years. She tried to dump her watering can over a gloomy fern, but the dust tickled her nose and she sneezed. The can tumbled across the floor and made a puddle. When she tried to fetch it, she sneezed some more and went head-over into the dunes of dust.
“You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” someone said. A tiny figure stepped through the swirling brown-gray clouds.
“Yurt, you’re back!” Nel coughed. “Where’ve you been?”
“My name is Christina,” she said.
“Oh, well sure, that’s what Mom calls you. But you’re my daughter. My daughter, Yurt. Right?”
Yurt stared at her like a doll. “I’m your sister, Christina.”
Nel was dumbfounded. Yurt had never acted this way toward her before. She racked her brain for something that might get Yurt back on her side. “I might have a way to get us out of here,” she whispered, unsure of where Nadeen might be lurking. “Then maybe I could be your mother again?”
“Show me,” Yurt said.
It was quite a relief to hear her daughter still needed her. “The biplane radio,” Nel whispered. “It has two seats. We can fly it out the window.”
“Good,” Yurt said, pleased. “Glad it will be used for something other than listening to that old man hack up a lung.”
“George?” Nel was horrified. “But he’s your favorite!”
“Who decided that, exactly?” Yurt asked.
Nel didn’t know what to say. She was crushed, and to make matters worse, the last person Nel wanted to see came strolling around the corner at that very moment.
“You brainiacs figure out how to get us the heck outta here or what?” Nadeen asked merrily.
“You’re not coming with us, Nadeen,” Nel said. “You’re the reason we’re here in the first place!”
Nadeen tried her best to keep up her big, dopey smile, but it faltered as Nel stepped forward.
“Mom and Dad left us,” Nel snarled, “because of you.”
“It isn’t my fault, Nel,” Nadeen said pathetically.
“Yes it is!” Nel screamed. “You get crummy grades in school, and your hair is always a mess, and your voice is annoying, and you’re too stupid to use a Magic 8-Ball, and you like all the gross flavors of ice cream, and nobody wants you back on Earth anyway, so you might as well just stay here forever!”
Nel took the opportunity to peek behind her and saw that Yurt was already at the wheel of the biplane, propeller spinning, looking positively adorable with a pair of flight goggles on her head. It was finally time to go.
“Look, Nadeen. I really do hope,” Nel said, straining for words, “you live the best life you can up here.” It wasn’t much, but it was all she could find to say. Her sister had never been anything but blundering, careless, obscene—everything in this world that Nel rejected. The sky was where Nadeen belonged. Nel belonged on Earth with the ladybugs and trampolines and movie theater popcorn. Even her Sunday needlepoint lessons with Grandma sounded fun right then. But when she turned to make her exit, Nel found the airplane gone. Curtains flapped mockingly from around the open window. Yurt had left her mother behind.
“It’s your fault Mommy and Daddy are gone, Nel.”
Nel turned to face Nadeen. The girl’s cheeks were hard and tight.
“You told Daddy you saw Mommy kissing the neighbor man,” she said.
“Wha—what?” Nel stammered. “No, y-you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The one with the barky dog,” Nadeen added with a smirk. “And the blue eyes.”
Nel’s voice barbed her throat. “H-how did you—?”
“You hate everyone, so God blew our parents away,” Nadeen said. “Maybe you should lock yourself away in that hole of yours and never come out.”
“Nadeen!” Nel gasped.
It felt so true. If only she had been a good girl and minded her P’s and Q’s her family might still be together, in the same house, attached securely to the ground. Nel opened her mouth to speak, but a horrible, thunderous KNOCK rocked the house. It shook Nel off her feet and she tumbled into a mass of vines, overgrown from one of her neglected pots.
“I’ll get it!” squealed Nadeen, chipper once more, and she rushed out of the room.
“No, Nadeen! Don’t answer it!” Nel yelled, but she was too tangled in vines to get to her feet. “It’s the Sky People, Nadeen! They’ll kill us!”
It was no use. The door creaked open, and she heard their big, crusty shells scraping the doorways as they piled into the house. “Don’t hurt my sister!” Nel pleaded, but the more she struggled, the more the plants swallowed her up, until all she could see was black.
After a time, a light gleamed across the floor, and Nel saw that she was on a stage. It was red and shiny. A gurgling voice spoke. “Well, hello there!”
Hearty applause surrounded her, and she looked over to see a man sitting on a barrel in the middle of the spotlight. She had never seen George Oliverstraaten before, but she was sure it was him by how noisily he was shuffling his sinuses around.
“Welcome to my show, young lady. Why don’t you tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to recently?” George suggested.
“I’m trying to find my sister,” Nel said. “She was kidnapped.”
The whole audience cracked up and spilled their expensive drinks all over the place. Nel looked out over the seats. Hundreds of people were watching.
“She is very good at future-telling,” Nel said defensively. “She knew about the Sky People. It was my fault for not believing her.”
George snorted violently and spat a meatball-sized loogie onto the stage. “Well, what about you? What are you good for?”
“I’m good at taking care of plants,” she said.
“Plants? Don’t those things grow all over the place anyhow?” George asked, which brought even more laughter. Nel even had to laugh a little herself. Growing plants did seem a tad silly the way George talked about it.
“So, where do you live?” he asked earnestly.
“Well, right now I live in the sky.”
“Oh, that’s just grand! The sky is an excellent place to grow up. You must love it there!”
“No. I don’t like it,” Nel said meekly. “I’d rather be on Earth.”
“No, no, no. You don’t want to be on Earth, silly girl. Earth! Ha!” A strand of snot dropped out of his left nostril and tapped him on the knee. “Earth has rodents and criminals. You don’t like criminals, do you?”
“Well no, but—”
“Where are your parents, Nel?” George barked suddenly. He was standing now, and looked angry.
“I-I don’t know. They might be… dead,” she said, and the audience shattered into laughter. They tugged at each other’s hair, drool pouring out their bubbling lips.
“They left with the bacon. I miss them,” Nel tried to explain, but she could barely speak, and no one was listening.
“Why don’t you just grow some new ones?” George cawed. The audience loved it. His whole mouth was shiny with mucous. It bubbled from his nostrils, lacquering his white beard. “Just stick that ol’ green thumb of yours in the dirt and grow a new daddy!” Audience members were nearly choking on their laughter. Nel was crying. She didn’t want to be on the show anymore. She crawled around on the slick wood floor looking for her cubby hole.
“I think it’s time that I told you all a story,” George said. “This is going to be a very special story, because it’s about our guest. It’s the story of Nel the Plant Lover.”
She found the latch to her cubby poking out the side of the stage and opened it.
“There once was a little girl named Nel. She wasn’t all that pretty, she wasn’t particularly smart. But! She loved the world’s flora with such conviction that the Plant King himself invited her to share his company over a meal.”
She burrowed into the hole, crawling hand over hand into the dark tunnel. She had forgotten how deep it was. George’s voice trailed behind her like sewer sludge.
“The Plant King told Nel that as a reward for being the world’s biggest plant supporter, he would tell her a secret. A secret that only the plants knew. A secret so powerful and sacred, the fate of the entire plant world rested on it. Though his plant ministers begged him to stop, the Plant King whispered every last detail to young Nel over a delicious dinner of cow manure and decomposing vermin—”
She crawled back, back, back. George’s voice was nothing but a thick tremble in the back of her skull then.
“—but she told everyone. And the plants, well… they all wretched and died.”
Nel lay in the cold darkness of her secret cubby, shivering. Bugs crawled out of the woodwork and onto her. They hummed and vibrated all over her body. Nadeen appeared then. Nel was so glad to see her and didn’t even mind when she roughly flopped down onto her belly. One by one, the little insects lit up like happy Christmas lights.
“How did you find my cubby?” Nel asked her. She could feel Nadeen’s chest inflating then shriveling with hers.
“I always knew,” Nadeen said. “I just didn’t think you wanted me in here.” The bugs chirped very sweetly. “It’s not anyone’s fault, Nel. It was the wind.” Her words were soft and wide. “Can’t blame anybody for how the wind blows, y’know?”
Jonathan peeked his fuzzy head over Nadeen’s shoulder, and started wrapping the girls in silk, stopping intermittently to munch a glowing snack. Nel felt safe. The light from the bugs grew brighter and brighter. So bright she could barely see. So bright it made her cough.
Nel opened her crusty eyes. Her throat was dry. She coughed some more. She was still in her cubby, only now she was awake. But anxious to make sure, she crawled over and pushed open the cubby door.
Nel stood in front of the window and folded one curtain back, then the other. She saw the sun emerging from its blanket of clouds. There was no yard. No fences or trees or grass. Only the wide, open air as far as she could see. Nel had hoped that maybe this whole ordeal had been a dream. That the wind could never have actually been that cruel. But the rusty morning skyline seemed welcoming to her then, and she opened the window to let in the breeze. The 8-Ball sat on the windowsill. It felt like a cheap plastic toy, but she spoke to it anyway.
“Are Mom and Dad okay?” Nel shook the ball gently. ASK AGAIN LATER.
She shook it again. “Are we ever going to land?” CANNOT PREDICT NOW. She decided it might be best to leave the future-telling to Nadeen.
Nel pushed open her sister’s door with one finger, curious if she was awake yet. There were some things Nel felt like she needed to say, though she wasn’t sure how many of them would actually come out. As she peeked into the room, she saw something that jumped her heart. Nadeen looked miserable in her skinny bed, shaking and wrapping her sheets around her legs like casts. She had a grimace on her face that made Nel feel sick. Nel wanted to wake her sister, to save her from herself, so she moved fully into the room, which then made three of them. Because next to Nadeen, crouched and still, was Yurt. The little girl’s face was pressed to Nadeen’s ear, whispering eagerly. Her blue eyes shone shamelessly in the morning light. There wasn’t a single cloud in them.