“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”
She leaned down to answer. “God made the sky blue for the same reason He made your eyes blue: it’s the prettiest color in the whole wide world.”
Little Hale thought about this. “Daddy said it was because all colors are different types of light. Blue is the shortest so it carries the sun’s light farthest.”
Sarah smiled a bit. You couldn’t fool Hale anymore. He was old enough now to realize there was an absolute truth, above Father and above Mother. If the two differed on anything, he knew that this truth was somewhere out in the world, ready to be sought. Alan didn’t mind, but it irked his wife out of her mind to have their son developing a habit of second-guessing his parents. Any question he had about the world, he posed it to each, cross-examining their answers.
“Your father sees things a little differently.”
That seemed to suit him, for the time being at least. He shrugged and skipped off. Later today, he would ask her what clouds were made of. Before she could answer, “The same thing that dreams are made of,” she would catch herself and answer instead, “Ask your father.”
She was growing accustomed to answering “I don’t know” to questions she didn’t know or couldn’t explain properly. She missed the old days of “fairy lies,” as Alan put it. Her husband, on the other hand, loved it. Though an engineer by trade, he was also a writer. He loved being able to take a new, fresh mind and infuse it with his wealth of practical knowledge of the world around them. And he could do it in a way poetic enough that an adult could appreciate something long taken for granted. Or simple enough that, literally, a child could understand.
When he came home that day, he could barely take his coat off before Hale charged him, not with a hug, like the old days, but a question. Alan looked forward to it after a long day at work. He had taken to calling them, “mental hugs.”
“Daddy, what are clouds made of?”
Alan gave an affectionate smirk to his wife. She leaned against the doorjamb to the dining room, and returned it.
“Let’s see… what are clouds made of?” he echoed, retiring his coat and briefcase for the day. “I can show you easier than I can tell you.” He knelt down and hugged his son, then took him by the hand and led him into the kitchen, kissing Sarah on his way past. “Would you like me to take you inside one?”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“If you want to.”
“No fairy lies?”
Sarah rolled her eyes, and Alan chuckled. “No fairy lies. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take you for a walk inside a cloud. But you have to promise me to go right to bed after dinner and fall straight to sleep. Promise?”
He nodded furiously, stuck out his hand, and shook on it.
“Okay, then. Let’s eat.”
Alan stood over the sink, washing the dishes. They had a dishwasher but, for some reason, never used it. Alan had hand-washed his parents’ dishes since he was Hale’s age, and had never owned a dishwasher as a kid living on his own. Now, in their first house, he saw no reason to change his ways. Sarah cooked, he cleaned. It was a simple enough marital arrangement. At the first of every year, his resolution was to learn how to cook more than just tuna, spaghetti, and toast. They would switch roles for a few weeks and the dishwasher would get some wear. By Valentine’s though, it was business as usual, and they ate good meals again the rest of the year.
When he had done his chore, he tiptoed into the living room where the beautiful young mother dozed. He sat on the edge of the cushion, leaned down and kissed her forehead. Then he loosened his tie and unfastened his shoes. She stirred, turned onto her side facing him, and propped up on an elbow.
“How was your day?”
“Not too good.” He stuffed his socks inside his shoes. “We’re down to only two weeks’ backlog. Won’t be long before I’ll have to start sending workers home for the day.” He pulled the tie completely off, folded it neatly, and slid it in his breast pocket. “With the economy the way it is, you know, the manufacturing industry is usually hit the hardest and soonest.” He opened the first three buttons of his shirt. “Jobs are slow to come, and even the ones that do come through, they can’t get credit from the banks to fund the deal.” He unbuckled his belt. “I need more salesmen.”
Sarah pulled herself up and wrapped her arms around his torso, still lying behind him, front pressed against his back. “The industry’s always had its ups and downs. Comes with the turf - running your own business and all. But I know you’d never let Hale and I want for anything. I trust you to take care of us through anything.”
“I know. Hell or high water.”
“I could always go back to teaching.”
He leaned forward a bit, thinking. “I don’t think it’ll reach that pitch.” Sarah hopped up and swung a leg around, straddling him from behind like a piggyback, resting her chin on his shoulder. “We’ve got plenty saved. But we’ll be feeling the pinch these next few months - that’s for sure.” She pulled at his shirt, untucking it and reaching his bare chest beneath. She kissed the sides of his neck.
She stopped. “Do you still want to fly next week?”
“Absolutely. It’s his birthday. He’s so fascinated with flying; I want him to know what it means.”
She unbuttoned her blouse and pressed against his back. Her foot ran up and down his calf. “Are you sure he’s ready for it?”
“I think so.” He turned and looked into his wife’s eyes. “He’s got to face his fears sometime.” He leaned in for a long kiss after a long day. He pulled away and smiled. “Marry me.”
She scrunched up her nose playfully. “Again?”
He turned completely around and picked her up by the rump, as he would carry a toddler to bed. “Again, and again, and again…” She wrapped her arms tight about his shoulders under the shirt, kissing close-mouthed as he chanted, carrying her to bed, “Again, and again, and again…”
Alan shook the boy’s sleeping shoulder. He groaned a bit but didn’t move.
“Hale, wake up.”
It was before sunrise, long before the child was accustomed to getting up.
“Hale, don’t you want to walk inside a cloud?”
He peeled his eyes open in groggy wonderment. “Now?”
“Oh, yes. They only come down at night, when it’s dark and cold and lonely. Then they go back up to the sky when all the people come out.”
Hale overcame great reluctance and rolled out of bed. He yawned and rubbed his eyes and trudged forward, like a robot very slowly powering up. Alan was always impressed by the initiative and self-control his son displayed at such a young age.
He left his son in his pajamas but put him in small galoshes. Alan had thrown on his sweats for the morning jog. But this would be better today. They stepped out the front door, hand in hand, headed out to the street, and walked down its center.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to walk in the middle of the road, Daddy.”
“Oh, it’s okay at this hour. Everyone’s asleep. No cars. See?” he turned around and swept his arms back.
It was a cold wet dark morning, just before five. The eastern half of the sky glowed just the faintest shade of blue against the blackness as the sun made its trip across the Atlantic. Fog swirled around them, blurring the streetlamps into soft balls of light. They could see their breath. The immense silence was pressing. As usual this time of morning, there was not a single sound - no crickets, no wind, no cars or footfalls. Nothing.
“Daddy, where are the clouds?” He didn’t let it show, but Alan knew he was grumpy this morning, having been stirred prematurely.
They walked hand in hand for many minutes. Alan walked slowly, Hale shuffling at half the stride. At the back of the neighborhood, the sidewalk snaked off through the trees, over a wide creek, and across a meadow. On the bridge crossing the water, the fog was always thickest. They came upon it now.
“Shh…” Alan hissed, and pointed at the bridge. His tired, grumpy boy snapped back to life. Leaning down to his ear, he whispered, “It’s hiding - over there - near the water. Come on.”
Hale shuffled along quietly, darting his eyes about, looking for a small, white, marshmallowy creature hiding in the fog. They got halfway across the bridge and stopped. It was perfect. You could barely see one side of the bridge from the other. The slug of cloud bellied up over the water and twisted and kissed the ground and the rail with dew.
“Where is it?” he hissed.
“We’re inside it right now.” Hale looked around. “We’ve been walking through it all the way from the house. It’s even sitting on our house right now. This is only the heart of it. It’s always thicker over cold water. Here - reach out and touch it.”
He did so. Now he understood, in awe. “It’s wet.”
Alan laughed. “It’s just water. No different than what you drink at home, what you take a bath in.”
“Why is it all misty?”
“It’s only in another phase. P-H-A-S-E. There’s mist, water, and ice. Any one of them can turn into another one. What happens when you fill the ice cube tray with water and put it in the freezer?”
“It makes ice cubes.”
“That’s right. And what happens when you leave the ice cubes in your drink too long?”
“See? That’s how water turns to ice, and ice turns to water. When you boil water, what happens?”
“It bubbles and gets hot and steam comes out.”
“The bubbles are little bits of steam trying to get out. And the steam - that’s mist. Watch this…”
Alan swept his hand across the rail and water dripped off. “When the mist touches something cold, it condenses. C-O-N-D-E-N-S-E.” Hale watched the little rivulets of water trickle down the rail. His father knelt down and showed him his wet hand. “And all the oceans and rivers and lakes evaporate (E-V-A-P-O-R-A-T-E), little pieces of mist floating from the top of the water on up into the sky. All this mist gathers way up high, higher than you can jump, higher than the trees grow, higher than your kite flies. The wind blows it around, and we look up and see clouds.” He rested his hands on Hale’s shoulders to keep his mind from reeling. “And when a cloud gets fat and heavy, they get gray and start to thunder and turn to…?”
His eyes illuminated. “Rain?”
“And when it’s very, very cold out, like last week…?”
“Very good. And at night time, it gets cold and the clouds get tired from all that flying. They come down to the ground to sleep, and daddies run in them and cars drive in them, and they make…?” He swept his arm out.
Alan rose triumphantly with a smile. His kid was smart, one of the brightest, and he loved feeding him. “Let’s keep walking.”
Hale jumped up and down with excitement, wrapping his mind around the enormity of it all. They continued down the path, dissecting a whole range of chemical and meteorological phenomena in childlike terms. His son would not be going back to sleep this morning before school. But he would crash the second he came home.
On their way back, they passed a few joggers along the path, all stopping to say hello to the soon to be six-year-old in pajamas and galoshes out for his morning cardio. Alan waved as Ed Parsons approached. He was an older man, perhaps in his late fifties, with thick silvery gray hair. He stopped in front of them and doubled over with healthy exhaustion.
“Good morning, young man,” he greeted Hale. “Out for a jog with Dad, I see?”
Alan answered, “Just walking.”
“We walked through a cloud!” the young man chirped.
“Is that right?” the old man asked encouragingly, not quite getting it. He blew a big puff of air and sighed. “Man, I think my wife’s trying to kill me. Ever since we found out about my cholesterol, she’s not letting up on this exercise regimen. Feels like boot camp all over again.”
Alan faked a chuckle.
“Every morning she says, ‘Eddie, the door stays locked until every inch of that sweater is soaked.’” He was making pretty good progress so far, a wide “V” of sweat traced from shoulders to navel. “She says, ‘If I’ve got to have an old geezer of a husband, I at least want a healthy geezer.’” He let out a good belly laugh for effect.
Alan smiled to himself. Sarah would have to tie him to the bed to keep him from his morning jog. He’d done some kind of routine every morning since twenty.
“So how are you, Ed?” he asked cordially.
“Oh, man, this economy is the shits - excuse me,” he corrected, “the pits.” Hale knew the word anyway - his dad had explained cursing a long time ago, in one of their “mental hugs.” “Coworkers I’ve known for years being laid off. 401k dwindling down to nothing. Kids’ tuition going up every - darn - semester. Medical bills. Would you believe I’m up to twelve pills a day now? It’s a good thing I’ve got twenty years’ seniority at work. If I lost my job at this stage of the game, I don’t know what I’d do. Well, you must know, owning your own business and all. I’ll bet you’re hurting right now, no?”
“Naturally,” he shrugged. “Tide’s just out right now. It always comes back in.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Well, I’ll leave you two. Enjoy the rest of your jog, young man. Enjoy your health while you have it.” The old man laughed and trudged off.
Alan shook his head and sighed. They continued walking.
“I don’t like Mr. Ed,” Hale decided.
“I know, Hale. Neither do I. Mr. Ed is a good man, but Mr. Ed is what we call a downer. Can you spell that?”
“D…uh…O-W?” Alan nodded. “N…E-R?”
“That’s right. Remember how I taught you there’s always good and bad in everything?” Hale nodded. “Well, a downer chooses to see the bad, and it’s very hard for them to see the good. If they do, sometimes they just call it luck.”
“But you’re not a downer, Daddy.”
“No. If you work very hard and focus on the good, you will always be lucky, no matter how many bad things happen. And you’re not a downer either.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, when I woke you up this morning, you were very tired and wanted to stay asleep, right?” Hale nodded. “But you wanted to see a cloud. So what did you choose to do?”
“Get up and see.”
“And I was very proud of you for doing that. Even though you were very tired, you got up anyway. And if you were still asleep right now, what would have happened to the cloud?”
“It would go back up in the sky.”
“So if you focus on the bad, more bad happens. But you got up to see, and what did you get to do?”
“I walked in a cloud!”
“That’s right. So you focused on the good, and more good happened.”
They made it all the way back to the house.
“Son, are you excited about flying to Grandma’s next week?”
Hale nodded furiously.
“Good. It’s going to be a lot of fun. But there are also some things about it that will be scary.”
“We’ll talk more about it tonight. I just want you to know there will be good things and bad things about it. What will you choose to see?”
The morning of the flight came. Son got the window, Dad next to him, and Mom third, across the aisle. Hale was very nervous, sweating, fumbling, and breathing heavily. Sarah cupped a paperback and Alan clip-clapped a story on his laptop (or, as his wife put it, “clap-clopped”). Passengers were boarding now, but they were already settled near the back.
The “sky mothers” walked up and down the aisle, helping everyone to their seats. Dad had called them something else, but somehow Hale had immediately gotten it in his head to call them that - probably a story he’d read. One of them leaned down on their row and beckoned Hale. His dad closed the laptop and helped him out. The other ladies gathered around too. This one was old and smiley, with blonde hair in a little ball.
“I heard it was a very special day for one little boy on this flight,” she said.
Hale beamed. “It’s my birthday!”
She took a breath, and suddenly he noticed everyone on the plane had turned to look at him.
“Happy birthday to you,” they sang in loud unison. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Hale, happy birthday to you!”
Everyone clapped and whooped wildly. His mother leaned over and kissed him.
“How old are you today, young man?”
“I’m six now!”
“Oh, very good. Almost ready to be a man. Well, scurry back to your seat now. We’re going to take off in a few minutes.”
His dad slid the computer into his carry-on and pulled something else out, something small and rectangular with a blue bow and wrapping paper. “Happy birthday, son.”
Hale quickly unwrapped it and looked at the cover. It was a thin book with a dark blue cover, and a picture of a bird on the front.
“Can you read it?”
Hale recited the title. “Jonathan Liv…ing…ston Seagull. What’s it about?”
“It’s about a seagull named Jonathan who discovers that the reason for flying is not to eat, but that the reason for eating is to fly.”
Alan began to read out loud. The plane inched forward ever so slowly, making its long nerve-wracking journey to the runway. All the while, Hale concentrated, listening as intently as possible, butterflies fluttering faster and faster in his stomach. Alan promised to stop reading just before takeoff. They made it all the way from Jonathan’s first few dives until he finally reaches terminal velocity and goes to his elders to share his discovery.
Alan closed the book as the plane aligned itself and came to a full stop. He took Hale’s hand and leaned down. “Remember what I taught you about courage?”
“Courage. C-O-U-R-A-G-E. Not without fear, just going on anyway.”
“And do you know who said that?” Hale shook his head. “The same man who wrote Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain.”
The engines got very loud. The plane started moving, faster than it had before. Hale looked out the window. It sped up. They were going as fast as a car now and still speeding up. Hale’s eyes widened and he could feel his heart thumping. He thought this must be as fast as anything in the world could possibly go, and it went still faster. That was the first fear that took him. That it would never stop. They would just keep speeding up forever and ever, into some deep dark black nothingness beyond the stationary world.
Then, just as this fear crept into his mind, a horrible lurching feeling pulled down on his stomach. He squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his grip on his father’s hand. When this lurch gripped him, another fear took him, that it would grip tighter and tighter until it ripped his stomach completely out. But it stopped. Not entirely, but enough to breathe again.
“Open your eyes,” Father’s voice whispered. He did so hesitantly, and out the window, the ground was far away. He stuck his face against the plexi-glass, startled. Even he realized how silly it was to be surprised at the fact that they were no longer on the ground, but he somehow missed it. It was like an unfinished puzzle. He’d walked on the ground his entire life, and now he was farther above it than any tree he’d ever climbed, higher than any kite he’d ever flown. There was no ladder, no branches, no string, no stairway. Nothing but air beneath them. Thin, clear, invisible nothingness, pushing them higher each second. It was mesmerizing.
Alan unbuckled his seatbelt and slid against his son, leaning over him, to look out the window as well. “Was that fun?” Hale shook his head, and Father laughed. “Look,” he pointed. “See the snow?”
Hale looked at the white paint coating the ground, and nodded. “Look over there.” Father pointed to a particularly white cloud lower than the rest. “See the snow falling from the cloud?” It looked like someone had sneezed in a bowl of flour. Under the cloud was a thinner, powdery cloud slanting to the ground. It took him a minute to realize that the “powder” was actually snowflakes.
“Look.” He pointed up. “Now we’re going to fly through that cloud.” It got closer and closer, from a marshmallowy ball to a white wall and finally, a thick mist covering the window. Just as it had been on their morning jog last week, it swirled slowly, only thicker up here in its proper domain. When it thinned out again and they pulled above it, an ultimate wonderment washed over Hale for the first time. Sarah came across the aisle and took her husband’s seat, squishing them further against the window. She took his hand and rested her chin on the back of his shoulder.
It looked like a vast sea of marshmallows spread before them. The boy could walk on them if he wanted to. Some were huge pillars or mountains arcing over the plane. It was difficult to take in the enormity of it. All this time, he thought, this entire world lived up here all alone. His house, his yard, his neighborhood, his school, the open road in the family car - all that was big enough. All that could fill his mind and his world, and leave him with a dozen questions every day. To think that there were whole countries, and continents and oceans was difficult enough to squeeze in. But this was something new. This added a completely new dimension - literally - to the world of his experience. Over the house, over the yard, over the neighborhood and the school and the car and the countries and the continents and the world, was this. This new, beautiful, complicated landscape all on its own. It was a lonely world, one of birds and planes and sunlight.
Now he understood what his teacher meant when she said “what dreams are made of.” He had asked her about clouds before asking Mother and Father. But this was one fairy lie that he finally understood. This was above and beyond any dream he’d ever dreamed. Higher and bigger and broader than any imagining he’d ever imagined. This was the stuff of dreams. This was where dreams lived. They came down at night and took off again when all the people woke up. They were so real and vivid and beautiful, and then the wind carried them off and they were hard to remember. They covered every corner of every sky of every yard and continent and ocean, uniting everyone. Right now somewhere on the ball of rock and water Father called “Earth,” was a little boy whose thought was floating about right here, out his window. He didn’t know what color the boy was or how old he was or what kind of clothes he wore or what language he spoke, but here was a little piece of his dreams, floating on the breeze, finding a nice dark cold place to land tonight. Another mind to renew.
A lot of what Father had told him started making all the more sense. How truth could be found in fairy lies. How downers were always looking down, while dreamers were always looking up. How mist turned to water turned to ice and back again. How air could move fast enough to pull a hundred people up over the clouds and across countries and oceans. How clouds sank and slept on the cold ground, but arose and awoke to go chasing the sun across the sky. How marshmallows tasted so sweet and water so cold. How we all looked at the same moon and drank the same water. How birds were never lonely at all because they had a whole world of sky to keep them company. How flying and walking and running and driving and working and loving and crying and dying and growing and asking and learning and swimming and hugging and bathing and breathing and skating and talking and singing and sailing was not all the stuff we did in order to eat and live the next day. That eating and living was something we did in order to do all the rest. That the world was such a hugely huge and enormously enormous place and that Hale wanted to see every bit of it.
They landed all too suddenly, and everything seemed a blink of an eye, and all the thoughts and fears and feelings Hale thought and feared and felt dissipated, like a dream upon waking. Those clouds hung on to it and whisked it away to some other little boy somewhere else in the world. But he held on to the main parts. He remembered it like one remembers an old treasure hidden under the floorboards, untouched for years. On their way out, Alan told him to thank the pilot. The man stood straight and tall and regal beside the door, in an impeccable uniform and a crisp hat.
“Thank you, sir.” It was the most sincere thanks he’d ever given in his now six years on earth.
“You know,” Father said, “Richard Bach, the man who wrote that book…” Hale looked up. “He was a pilot.”
Hale felt a dream creeping into his head. For the first time so far in his little life, he had an idea of what he wanted to be. And he remembered what Father had always said about dreams: “When you have a dream, don’t ever let it go, and don’t ever let anyone take it away.”