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Meeting the Sky

A Short Story

By A.C. SweetPublished 2 months ago 21 min read
Photo by A.C. Sweet

In the little metal lunchbox were scraps of paper notes, and old movie tickets, and pins, and those smashed pennies from novel places. All that and select photos, and old keys from homes that I once claimed. There is a picture at my grandpa’s breakfast table, with its clutter of breakfast apparatus. The occupied bowls, orange juice filled glasses and plates of bacon, eggs, golden-brown toast all strewn and aligned with the encircling chairs and their smiley occupants: grandpa, mom, and me.

I occasionally revisit that NASA lunchbox. I pull through the contents and swim through its nostalgia but stop at that photograph. That first stay at my grandpa’s was the first I had seen her smile like that. My mom’s smile was big.

She had moved from her home at eighteen and into a one-bedroom in an old brick building somewhere in Los Angeles. I have little recollection of the exact place, but I know it as my first home. She held that apartment up to my kindergarten year.

I had a spot in the corner of the living room with my little mattress and its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sheets. I had her old comforter that was splotched with openings. I could reach my arm in and play with the cottony stuffing. But other than a couch and small folding table, the place was mostly vacant.

My mom’s room was different; always, one wall was a range of peaks, but none were solid, they were cloth. There was a section for shirts, then dresses, skirts, and pants in one, and then seemingly miscellaneous piles proceeding away from the window-side wall.

Other than taking naps and finishing some nights after waking from bad dreams, my time was little spent in her room. Normally I was huddled in the corner with the fifty cent books from the library. ‘We can’t risk borrowing any, we lose too much stuff,’ was her excuse for not having a library card. Luckily, I had the school library. But in kindergarten, I could only borrow one at a time.

So, I would sit under the low lamp that hung precariously from its wobbly stand in between my mattress and the shredded couch. I hated that couch, it was coarse and torn, and clumps of fur would be discovered occasionally. Plus, I rarely got to sit there if more adults were around. I would retreat to the hallway closet and bring my flashlight that Donny had given me for my fifth Christmas.

My hand was diminutive to its big blue waist, and its head was black: the light a nicer, sunnier yellow than the amber lamplight of my corner. I had my comforter and would dive into the small stack of books. I would read Junie B Jones then jump to my favorite: Magic Treehouse. I would flip through the artwork of Seuss or try and find the elusive Waldo. My trips into those beloved pages of early childhood would be rudely interrupted by the crass, rowdy voices from the living room—my room!

Before grandpa’s, her eyes were those sad, distant windows—in looking back—her smiles were contrived. Maybe in a time before my infancy she had smiled, really smiled. But through the stay in Los Angeles and in that little, hazy apartment I hadn’t known a real smile, other than Donny’s…and he hadn’t been around too often before we weren’t there anymore.

He occupied many of my earliest memories—we’d sit on the fire escape and watch the sweating cars and pedestrians inch by below in the late afternoons. I knew it was afternoon because he would bring lunch. We would eat, play some checkers, and then he would sneak me some peanut M&Ms from mom’s room. He taught me to close my eyes and face the sky; to let the sun touch my lids. Sometimes Donny was there at night too. He would spend plenty of time with mom before coming out to see me. He would bring a gaming console and we’d play some soccer game with cartoon characters on quite a small field. I remember knowing the characters but have since lost those details—maybe Nintendo characters.

We would play, then he would sit at the foot of my bed and lean against the jaundiced wall. I would read out loud, and then he would ask for a turn. Those nights she would stay in. I would rarely see her.

I waited with Donny on a bench against a sandstone storefront. We waited for mom. She entered along with others that seemed so much like her. They held folders and wore many of the same skirts, jeans, and tops that resided in those peaks along her wall.

Donny would say, ‘this is it…look at the competition, nothing like her out there’, and he would chuck his opened hand up at the gathering line across the street. I met the ends of his hands’ indication and saw many of her. But he would repeat his assurance as the dwindling day fell into early evening. Amidst his hopeful mutters were jokes, stories of his childhood, and imbuing my young mind with traffic analysis and factoids of myriad variety…most of which I have forgotten. But he was there at least, and so was that bleachy sun that whitens the borders of the memories I draw from my little lunchbox.

My mom would find herself in many lines and held that graying folder. Sometimes I was by her side and heard chattering of voices with lilts and sways that came with pendulum gestures.

But then came the days she didn’t wait. We took little drives to the water, and I flew into the sand and into the waves. Donny carried me on his shoulders up and down the edge of the world, where the sun slid overhead and even over the distant wall at the end of all things.

The stars would come in and light the dark; the proverbial twinkling little stars, mom suggested I was among them.

Suddenly, there were no more lines, no more little drives, or walks in sand, and dives into crashing waves of awfully tasting water…there was my corner only. The next Christmas was lonely. I had my small stack of books, which hadn’t grown in such a time that I had memorized clumps of each story. I received two gifts, a set of matchbox cars, and a new book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I treasured both. I played with the cars after lunch, and read after half-day kindergarten.

I hadn’t seen Donny since those hot days, and only saw my mom in the evenings. I tagged along with my friend next door, Josie. Her grandma would drive us to school. We were lucky enough to have the same teacher and second half of the day. We would take the bus back and walk with Josie’s older cousin Juan. He would bring us to the stoop and leave us to join his friends on their skateboards—I loved those things!

Mom would come out of her room in a shirt and sink into a chair to eat some cereal, or nibble on the chips I got from school, which I never ate (I didn’t like chips, still don’t). She sat at the end of the couch nearest me and would rest her chin on the arm to watch me read or scribble in answers on the little sheets of homework I loved.

I wondered at one point if I remembered her voice, since she almost never spoke. ‘I miss Donny.’ ‘Me too.’

But she would droop down the hall and her door would close.

Kindergarten was paused for winter break. I was sad about that, because other than Josie and her grandma, I wasn’t going to see anyone else for two weeks.

I got home that Friday and my mom was on my mattress, she was in my Where’s Waldo, which I used to entertain myself when I was too tired to read. ‘James?’ ‘Momma?’ ‘I have a surprise for you.’

I set my backpack on the door’s side arm of the couch and locked the door behind me. I joined her, kneeling on the end of the little bed between the couch and wall.

“Want to meet my dad?” She said.

“Your dad?”

“Yes, sweetie.”

“Where at? When?”

“He lives in Eugene…Donny told you about Eugene, remember?”

“I do, when will we go?”

“You’ll go without me, honey.”

“Without you?” My brows sunk.

“Yeah, and you’ll get to be there for the start of the year.”

“Alright, Momma.” I shrugged my shoulders and hugged her. She shook a gentle tremor as she wrapped me up in her arms. “Love you, Momma.”

“…love you, love you, my birdie…my little star…” Her voice shook as she did.

I could tell she had finally let her tears go against my shoulder. My mom’s face would go flat, stretching tight when she held back those works. My chest ached knowing her heart was sad, and all I knew to do was hold her. I squeezed her and then gave her a kiss. She leaned away after and wiped her cheeks clear and sent me a quiet smile, “Thanks sweetie.” She stole some air through her nose and got up from the mattress in my corner.

“You’ll love my dad.”

“I will.” It was so matter-of-fact that I smile returning to the moment, to that questionless love. I nodded then and she returned that quiet smile.

I watched her slug her way around the corner and a moment later heard her door gently click. Sitting still and aimlessly losing my sight into the creamy, gray wall, I felt the wells flood and break. I silently dredged my young sorrows and then fell into the depressed pillow where she had rested. It had daily grown more difficult to do as she did and retain those pangs of the heart. So, I cried to sleep, and woke in the night to the state of the living room unaltered.

Pulling up onto my knees I withdrew from my school clothes and tiptoed to the hallway closet to grab my pajamas. Then I creaked mom’s door open to see the blue of her TV lighting her slumbering form. I blew a kiss at her and closed it again. Soon I had my bottle filled with tap water and had my lamp the only light on. There I read through the majority of a Magic Treehouse where they went back to the Revolution. There they met George, teacher said George was stoic…stoic was to be able to control how your feelings showed up on the outside. Was he ever sad for his mom too? If he was, he wouldn’t have shown it, right?

We finally made it through the forever line to pass the guards and the detectors. Mom bought me a bagel with strawberry cream cheese. We sat in a comfortable chair way too big for me and I ate and watched the planes roll around passed the giant panes. Mom watched the people from inside her hoodie she had pulled over her face. I would throw hugs at her occasionally because she would chuckle at me.

A voice said something relevant, because she dropped her hood back to listen up at the speakers that weren’t there. “Okay, hun, the flight attendants will be there to check on you the whole time, even bring you something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry, my bagel isn’t done yet.” I smiled that uncontrolled smile of a child untrained by the world.

“Well, later you may want to get a bite…you can always wait to eat with Grandpa, of course.”

“I will, Momma.” I hugged her again, maybe I hugged her more than usual that day (through that glass of retrospect, I had been incessant with the hugs).

“I want to say some things, sweetie.” I nodded at her, “I will miss you so, so, so much.” She looked down and grabbed my bare arms to hold her head back up, “You will meet the sky today, the clouds, the blue fields way up there, and it may be frightening—”

“Oh, I am not scared! I am happy to be like a birdie, remember?”

“Then, my little birdie, you will meet that sky fearlessly. I will meet it too, but not as fearlessly.”

“You are meeting the clouds too?”

“I am, just differently…but I will make sure you fly well.”

I was confused at her words. “You will, like a superhero?”

“Like a mom; always a mom, no matter where I am. But I will meet the sky with you.”

Not satisfied with her answer, I was going to ask more, before a lady with big, spinning hair placed her hands on both of our shoulders.

“Hello. Are you little James Sonnet…and Myla?”

My mom blankly affirmed her assumption with a nod. “Well, if you both follow me to the door, I can bring him the rest of the way.”

“Okay, let me say something privately with him.”

The lady with big, spinning hair nodded too, and returned to the podium her coworker and her had been at before.

“James, I will be in here, and here, and will see you always.” She motioned from my heart to my head, then to her eyes.

“Like God?” I tilted my curious head.

“Almost, little birdie.”

At the giant door, nearly as tall as the windows, but much thicker, she knelt and hugged me, practically knocking me over. “I love-I love you so, so, so, so much.” She wasn’t like George; her hurt came running down onto my shoulder again.

“I love you too, Momma.” I fought those tears hard, I wanted her to know I was strong for her.

In the seat, which had a window, I saw those big panes that I had been opposite of recently. Now I tried to see the people like my mom had done. I really searched for her but saw no hoodies.

The trucks and cars had grown small then completely vanished into the broad swathes of gold and brown which gave way to dull greens and then to peaks until I met the clouds, which swallowed it all up and left me with my new acquaintance: the sky.

My eyes soared out the porthole and danced along the cotton shoulders of the species that gazed up and beyond. I was hostage to the serenity of this new plane. A captive to heights unmet prior. I don’t know how long the ride was, but for a hefty serving of it, I was lost. Eventually my shoulder was tapped, and one of the ladies in her blue ascot asked, “Want something to drink, James?”

“I would, ma’am.”

“What would you like?” She revealed some options, which landed me on Sprite.

With my soda, I sipped and was nearly drawn back out, when my mom’s face swam across the front of my mind, has she met the sky now, too?

Looking down now at the stale blue carpet, I lingered on her tight smiles. With that, I then searched around, even stood up on my seat and hopped from one anonymous head of hair to the next. My heart was pumping; my breathing’s pace was tripled, and I felt heat in my chest. I left my row and darted my head around, and my feet took me to the bathroom, where I chanced a look. Then I was at the bow of the sleek airship where the lady found me. She grabbed my shoulders like my mom did and knelt.

I knew my face had betrayed the strength I wanted, and tears streaked. “James? Honey? Is everything okay?”

“No…my mom…” I whimpered and dropped into her arms bawling, “Momma—”

She let me cry, then asked if I wanted to sit near her. Obliging, she sat me next to her spot near a counter. Panels and handles populated the walls, with nothing protruding. I swung my feet under the seat and leaned into a white, kitty pillow. I fell asleep.

I recall someone escorted me to meet my grandpa, who seemed like a thin giant to me. I wrapped up his legs and he laughed patting my head and introduced himself to me. I wish I knew exactly what I said to him, especially with how he took action. He told me years later that I mentioned ‘Mom should have met the sky too. She said she would watch me like God,’ amidst our meeting and greeting. ‘Like God?’ ‘Yep,’ and soon he was back at a counter. I believe he was on the phone for some time, before he had his wallet out and then we were being driven on a buggy to a gate. The endless walk from the plane to him was gone, and we were marching down that bendy hallway to a plane.

He says I didn’t bug him, that I followed along without a word. In my mind I see his frosty hair jiggling as the buggy took corners in the airport, and I saw his graying countenance; his hand petting his chin as he relentlessly shook his head like refusing vegetables. Portions of memory are that clear, sure recall, and others are either absent or untrustworthy. I do clearly see his hair jiggling; I clearly see the buggy, but my words and his words are lost in me. He seemed to retain that, luckily.

The next scene that comes to me is a hospital lobby. I swung my feet like a pendulum under a lightly cushioned chair. There were other faces around, none I know—or knew. And there was a faint flicker to a strip of lights as the lobby turns into the hall beyond the horseshoe desk.

Around the corner, from the flickering light, came Grandpa. He gently touched down in the seat nearby and shifted toward me, “Now James," he yawned a deep, drawn-out yawn—I yawned too, "your mom is okay.”

Horizontally, my head led my eyebrows to twist, “Was she still sad?”

He picked his knee up and grasped it with his fingers laced, “Your mom’s heart was broken.”

“Her heart?”

“Exactly, and the hospital will do what it does.”

“What does it do?” I explored the stark white walls, with the white trim running midway down and along the base.

“It fixes.”

“Like Bob!” I jutted up at the connection to a favorite character of mine.

“Who’s Bob?”

“Bob the builder, he fixes.”

“Then, yes, like Bob.”

“Mom is like God; the hospital is like Bob…what are you like?”

Picking his chin up with one hand, he consulted the ceiling tiles, “I guess I do not know.” He smiled a bright, starry smile—he always did.

Young me thought so too, “A star! You are like a star—bright!”

Grandpa gave a quick wheeze and smiled and breathed, settling back into his knee gripping, he looked into my eyes, “You are a star too, my boy, bright and beautiful.”

“I met stars—other than you.”

“You did?”

“Yes, when we met the sky together, but I already met Sky earlier.”

“Ah, I see, James. We shall again, boy.” Grandpa nodded and let both his feet rest on the tiled floor.

Our stay felt eternal, so I had to distract myself from those flickering lights at the hallway. At one point the lobby was full, no one could sit anywhere anymore. Grandpa gave his seat—and my seat—to a pregnant couple who also had their toddler along with them. So, he and I leaned against those white walls, until he walked me to a little cafeteria where I found that wonderful, nostalgic treasure: Jell-O.

I ate about five Jell-O’s, I'm sure, and I let my spoon dance with each one before slipping them away.

My grandpa smirked as he ate his yogurt, but he occasionally looked at the floor and frowned before returning to his smirks. My gaze searched passed him. Beyond the windows were some stale looking bushes. A vehicle would sporadically cross between the bushes and the windows. I grew fixated on the rounds of the leaves and their inevitable pointy tails. I zoned out and into the motionless progress of the foliage garnishing a coarse, tan wall of cement that barred anymore of a distant gaze.

“James? No more Jell-O?”

Returning from the wall, I saw my plate clean except the one last piece of Jell-O that lay just as the bush in the windless outdoors.

Grandpa slid his emptied yogurt forward and wiped his mouth with the thin napkins that resided in the center of the table.

“I guess, Grandpa.” I tossed the remaining gelatin from where it was on my fork to the opposite side of the tray.

Following Grandpa, we disposed of the trays and food. “Has the hospital fixed mom yet?”

“They are sure working on it.”

“So, we don’t get to see her soon?”

“Soon, in a way.”

“In a way?” I tilted up to him.

“Yes, life ahead is always soon.”

“But it feels like forever.”

“And moments are forever.” He smiled as I smiled at the lifting and falling of his voice.

Gaps proceed, as they always do. From those words that foggily revisit my inner ear, to the hazy hospital lobby and its inhabitants that had joined my grandpa and I that day, there are forever moments soon lost. My mind has torn out the details and replaced them with an elementary furnishing enough to convey the essential memory.

As I pull together the contents of the lunchbox and return them to their home, I fight for more. I want to remember the tchotchkes marching along the counter of the receptionist, and the exact color sequence and route of those bead mazes that capped a row here or there. But those are blurred props.

I returned to swinging my feet and to tales of siblings traveling space and time via their treehouse or walking through enameled crowds of various themes to track a red and white, and capped elusive.

Soon after, I was brought to the streaked door of finished wood, bright and smooth. No window in, just a solid door with medical posters and a room number placard. The handle protruded and then curved back at the door again; grandpa turned the nob.

She was as the bush if her chest wasn’t quietly ebbing. I turned up at Grandpa, he nodded, and I moved towards her. Mom’s eyes were closed.

The roll and hum of the monitor and other devices shouted as my face burned. Mom had a pouch wired into her wrist, and her corded arm slunk passed the bed’s edge. A white carried in from the overcast outside.

I’m glad I remember the lighting. I close the NASA lunchbox and hold my eyes wide, flexing them in hopes of retaining the gathering bittersweetness in my eyes. I leave my room with the door cracked. Following the naked steps down into the living room, I was back watching my inert mom.

“Mom?” The cacophonous beeps and vents fell away in my words, “Momma?”

Her chest continued its tide, her mouth closed like her eyes.

“Mom, the sky was kind.”

Grandpa didn’t shift.

“You were right, momma.” Tears swelled my vision then too. “Grandpa’s the best.” My voice failed the strength I had wished to portray, again. Wavering and then shuddering, the drops routed down my cheeks.

She stirred; the customary ebb of her breathing jutted as she came to. It was slow, but sudden, like someone pressing the pedal too soon then gently adjusting to the appropriate pressure. “James…little bird?”

My eyes melted. My chest inflamed, and a pulse of nerves scattered out from my shoulders and down my back. Despite the obvious accoutrement clinging to Mom, I dove into her arms. This is where I wish I remembered the words. I squeezed her into my clouding memory.

Grandpa helped open the heavy door for me. Stepping out, I saw the orange of the setting sun paint the sky into a purple. The playground equipment was a silhouette, and the sea was glossy. Mom was not with me, but Grandpa was.

I jogged to the monkey bars and hung from my hands to swing and watch the sparkles on the face of the ocean. I heard Grandpa, my star, chuckle breathily somewhere behind me. Another engine noise neared and stopped. I pulled myself up onto the top of the bars and spun to see.

The door to the blue car opened and nearly touched our car's door. I remember loving the car’s blue, and the shape of it, it looked stronger than the borrowed one we had, sturdier. Its shine was mesmerizing. The driver of that car approached my grandpa and they started chatting. Finally, I looked at them and their faces as they turned my way. I tilted my head, rose an eyebrow as I discerned the face of the younger man. They hugged…it was Donny.

“Donny! Donny! Donny!” I belted and just about flew off the top of those monkey bars. I rolled out of my leap and bolted with all the might of my tiny heart. I would have tackled Donny if he hadn’t swept me up and into his arms. I wrapped my arms around his neck and nestled in with tears.

This is that incompletion of memory…I have tried every time I recall this to know what he said. But I am lost in a tunnel of windows, and some have clarity that astound me, and others are opaque, and I can only see blurs. Unfortunately, most of those blur out the words. I wish I could return to that moment.

There was that doubtless love, as a child, the kind no one tries to describe, because it just is love. The memories I return to remind me that once the world was like the proverbial butter to be cut by the hot knife. Despite the poverty and all the loneliness, I was blessed by the ignorance of that age. Even looking back, I refuse to taint those moments with the convoluting context that swirl around them. I was happy to see Donny, just as happy as I had been to see my mom being fixed by the hospital. I was happy, and I will bear that joy relentlessly when searching back through that NASA lunchbox.

I remember meeting the sky as I prepare to do so again. “Kelly, sweetie, want to roll our bags out together?”

“Yes, daddy!” her tiny smile blasts through all the twists of emotion and circumstance and sends fire into a smile on my own face. I pat her head as she pulls her roller bag along with mine. We step out into the dry, windless summer day. Looking up, I send a wave to the clouds crawling along.

I think I knew when Grandpa—my star—and I boarded my second flight, that mom hadn’t met the sky like I had, or maybe even at all. I knew that there was worry and some panic lighting from his chest as he sat still next to me, having given me the window-side seat. But I had a sense that it was alright, not a blind hope…a confident assurance. The clouds said, 'we see her... she is fine.' I thanked them and smiled.

And now I know the look Donny gave me when he held my hand and I pulled him to those yellow monkey bars; my confidence in that came from the blinding smile I see when I look to see my Kelly still there by my side, pulling her little roller bag. Returning to that sky, my eyes see that real smile only my mom could give me.

“Come, my little bird.” Tearfully, I guide her small self into the car, taking her bag from her and placing it in the trunk.

Short Story

About the Creator

A.C. Sweet

Inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and fueled by stories of all kinds since childhood, one of my favorite passions and goals is to connect and understand through the written word.

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