No one remembers what life was like before the Cloud. Mary, my oldest, claims she can still remember the day it came: a fast-moving blanket of gray that unfurled across the wide Texas sky. She sat on the porch in her mother’s wicker chair and my mud-splattered boots and watched until the last blade of light had been devoured.
My memory is different: I remember jerking awake, a balled fist of panic banging in my chest. I remember following Mary’s frightened voice like breadcrumbs through the dark, tripping over the laundry basket, folding her in my arms the way I had when the doctor first handed her to me, afraid to let go. For weeks after, I ran into everything—doorjambs, counters, the corner of chairs—but I don’t do that anymore. Mary also claims she can remember the way dew looks in the morning, the screen door studded with gold.
Sometime after the Cloud descended, the horses got skittish. They broke through the fence, galloping blindly, thinking maybe in their animal way that they could escape the Cloud if they ran far enough. But there’s no escape; least as far as I can tell. Our cell phones are all but useless; the TV channels are empty and the radio is all static. It’s like living in the pioneer days, not that I mind.
The first time I heard my dead wife’s voice, I was standing at the kitchen sink, sipping my coffee and picturing the way the wind used to ripple the wheat behind the horse barn on an autumn afternoon.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’ve come home,” she said.
After that, the house began to fill with an eclectic collection of grandparents, aunts and uncles—mostly from Doreen’s side—and Ron Johnson, who had leukemia and died when we were in the third grade. It got to the point that you couldn’t walk into a room without having to ask who was in it first.
Doreen found me in the basement the next morning at my workbench.
“I have someone who wants to see you,” she said. “Go on, honey. Don’t be shy.”
I felt a jagged seam rip down my chest. “H—hey, buddy. How’re you doin’? Tell me something: How old are you now?”
There was a pause, as if he were looking at his mother, consulting her. “I’m five.”
The seam nearly reached my belly. “Do you remember it? The accident?”
Mary’s almost nine now. She says we can start being a family again now that Roger and Mom are back, and she loves having all the company in the house. I admit it’s nice, too. Doreen has started spending the nights with me, and Roger is in Mary’s room again. Mary says she and Roger stay up all night talking. They have a lot to catch up on. But when I roll over, half-drunk with sleep, and reach for Doreen, her side of the bed is still empty, just like before.
Last night, as I was getting ready to put the kids to bed, Mary stopped me in the doorway. “Dad, if we can’t see the sun, does that mean it’s still there?”
Before the Cloud, the answer would have been obvious.
Now I’m not so sure.
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