Pictures in the Sky

Author’s Note: I recall feeling like there was some intrinsic connection between the names of the protagonist and his girlfriend in this one. I’m generally terrible at choosing character names, so I was happy to have found a pair that fit so well together, for whatever reason. It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me. But I don’t want to ruin the story with my weird mental (mis)connections, so I’ll just leave it to the reader to puzzle out, if they want to.

            Frank was driving south on Highway 27, somewhere just below the I-4 overpass, headed home from a meeting with his publisher. Something to do with a distribution problem in Boise, or Bainbridge, or some other town he had absolutely no desire to ever visit. Evidently, the distribution warehouse was somewhere in the boonies and the hellacious blizzards that had been pounding the area had simply snowed them in.

            It wasn’t anything that couldn’t have been handled over the phone, but Frank liked his publisher, and he thought the feeling was mutual, so they periodically set up meetings — lunches and brunches mostly — to talk about even the most trivial matters. Besides, Peter Dixon had hand picked Frank out of a college photography show that had literally had thousands of exhibits and had guided him all the way through his first published collection of work, which had hit the market just two weeks ago. So even if Frank loathed the guy, he owed him a few indulgent lunch meetings, at the very least.

            The book, “Pictures in the Sky” by Franklin Jones, had met with no negative criticism to speak of and had, in fact, received a couple of very positive reviews — which was unusual for an unknown artist, and which had elevated Frank to an uncharacteristically giddy state of mind. At this point, it wouldn’t have mattered in the least if his book had never been released outside of his own area code — he’d been published, his first and probably greatest hurdle had been cleared, and nothing could stop him now. The sun’s gravity couldn’t pull him off the cloud he was on. Besides, Boise was small potatoes.

             Smiling, Frank turned up Aerosmith’s latest release on the local rock station and eyed the road in front of him — and the racy black storm clouds that lay ahead, darkening the road in the distance with shadows and rain.

            The majority of the last week had been rainy, so the endless blanket of angry looking storm clouds above was nothing new. On the contrary, it was getting a little old — even to Frank, who considered himself a lover of clouds and rain and all things related. After all, they had been the subject of his first published collection. And, in all honesty, the past week’s nearly non-stop storms had allowed him to get quite a few impressive shots, if he didn’t say so himself — but dammit, he hated driving in the rain, and that’s all he’d been doing since he’d left Orlando almost an hour ago. In fact, the only time he’d turned off his wipers since he got in his car for the return trip had been mere minutes before — and from the looks of the road ahead, they’d be on again all too soon.

            But hey, what the hell, he’d left the relatively foreign roadways of Orlando far behind and was reentering the more familiar stomping grounds of his youth. Actually, he wasn’t very far from home — another thirty or forty minutes and he could pop open a cold beer, turn on the game, and see if the Bucs could pull off a win for once. Plus, the scenery was pretty cool. In fact, he’d been picking out shapes from the thunderheads above ever since he broke out of that last downpour — after twenty-odd years of cloud watching, it was almost an involuntary response to do so.

            But as his eyes flitted between his rear and side view mirrors, the road ahead and the sky above, he found his gaze continually being drawn to one cloud in particular. It seemed to be entirely independent of the small, rapidly moving clouds around it, moving its relatively large bulk slowly and deliberately, if at all. To his pattern-seeking eye, the pitch-black goliath looked like a submarine, and the smaller, quicker clouds like the ghostly impressions of deep-sea fish, barely glimpsed as they darted in and out of the massive invader’s alien floodlights. Though these images struck him from an outside observer’s point of view, he almost felt as if he were on that mighty vessel trying to make sense of the parade of half-seen creatures outside the port window.

            “Shit”, he exclaimed as he returned his attention to the road, swerving just in time to avoid becoming a permanent extension of the car in front of him.

            “Pay attention to the road, Frank”, he scolded himself. “Jessi’d be really pissed if you killed yourself now. She didn’t put four years of effort into you for nothing”.

             At the thought of Jessi he smiled, thinking about how she’d always encouraged him to pursue his photographic career — even when he wanted nothing more than to shove his cameras down some hot-shot publishing executive’s throat as retribution for his pathetically ignorant reason why his company couldn’t publish such “trite pictorials” by such an unknown artist.

            She was literally the only thing that had kept him going at times — and the only person, to his knowledge, that had had any faith in his talent and his ability to escape the Winn-Dixie warehouse at which he’d been forced to slave, full-time, until just last week. She was also the only person that had ever sacrificed anything for him without expecting something in return. But this Friday, on their fourth anniversary, he was going to do his best to repay her for her faith and love. This Friday, with the ring he’d put a down payment on with a sizable chunk of his modest book advance, he was going to ask her to marry him.

            As she continued to tease his mind, he smiled at the thought that Jessi’s more romantic mind would have seen something far more beautiful in his submarine cloud. His rigid observation tower would, no doubt, have been her sleek dorsal fin; his mighty ship of war and destruction would have been her majestic dolphin.

            More often than not, such differences in view sparked playfully heated debates about the proper interpretation of Frank’s photos. In fact, if he didn’t have to confirm their Friday night dinner reservations as soon as he got home — and if it hadn’t just begun to rain again, he thought, as he turned on his wipers — he’d stop and get a picture of his sub just to see where he could take the inevitable debate about what was actually there. Besides, he wanted to make it home to catch the second half of the game, at the very least, which meant he didn’t have time to screw around. Anyway, there would be other submarines — one of the wonderful things about cloud watching was that you could conjure up just about any image out of just about any cloud.

            Despite this resolution, however, Frank once again found his eyes being drawn away from their rhythmic oscillation between the road and the side- and rear-view mirrors, and up to the curiously independent titan cloud. As he peered through the drizzling rain that spattered against his windshield, he was astonished by the vividly realistic form that his submarine cloud had taken on. His amazement was so overwhelming that the sad sound of his nearly departed engine, along with the monotonous lullaby of the rain on his roof and the blaring radio, which was now playing a vaguely familiar tune that Frank couldn’t begin to guess the name or singer of, simply faded from his ears. As if being compelled through this soundless world, this world in which only he and the mighty cloud-form existed, Frank guided his beat-up Mazda to the shoulder of the highway, stopped and instinctively reached behind the seat to get his Nikon, never taking his eyes off the inconceivably massive hand that now hovered in the turbulent sky ahead.

            Even as he opened his door and stepped into the unusually icy-cold rain, his eyes remained riveted on the gargantuan, pitch-black hand. They traced its sidelong profile, from the huge wrist that only moments before had been the observation tower of his submarine and the dorsal fin of Jessi’s dolphin, to the tip of the middle finger peeking out from behind the fully extended index finger, which should have been Frank’s forward hull or Jessi’s hydro-dynamic bottle-shaped nose. The hand’s entire form was an impossibly absolute black that caused Frank’s desperate eyes to ache as they searched frantically, pleadingly for some glimmer of light, some variance, in the nothingness above. Nevertheless, the hand was somehow intricately detailed, the masterwork of a divinely inspired sculptor, carved out of the airy fluidity of the cloud.

            “Jesus, you can even see the fingernails,” he muttered to himself, though his every sense was either completely focused on the specter above or utterly dead.

            Despite his catatonically awe-struck state, Frank began to raise his camera to his eye, intending on some instinctive level to preserve for posterity what his rational mind assured him was just an amazing anomaly. Even as he lifted the camera, though, he felt a deep-seated, almost primal sureness that even if he did capture this phenomenon on film, the shot would end up developing into nothing more than a mockingly blank sheet of photo paper.

            Still, instinctively, Frank sighted the hand through his eyepiece — and saw the totally incredible become the utterly impossible. Yanking the camera away from his face, Frank mouthed a desperate, disbelieving, yet soundless “Oh, my God” as his naked eye confirmed the reality of what he’d seen in the miniature world of his eyepiece.

            The hand was falling from the sky.

            Standing there, in the now pouring rain, Frank watched, mesmerized, as the bottom of the cloud, the palm of the hand, lost its definition and dissolved into a rain that he somehow knew would not just splatter the ground, but would impact into it like a billion drops of lead.

            This thought had no more than taken form, though, when the dwindling chunk of sky between the hand and the ground exploded with the blinding flash of a thousand twisting, intermingling bolts of phosphorescent lightning that, despite their atomic brightness, failed to penetrate the blackness of the rapidly disintegrating hand.

            Then, before Frank could even blink his eyes against this awesome visual assault, the silent world into which he’d fallen was shattered by a crash of thunder that engulfed him with unexpectedly physical force, crushing his body from every direction at once and throwing him to his knees with a terrified scream.

            The hand continued downward toward the doomed earth beneath it, becoming less and less distinct as it fell, and though he looked up from his where he now knelt only as the last semblances of the wrathful hand dissolved away into wisps of cloud and rain on its way back to the heavens, Frank knew that everything that had had the misfortune of being under that incalculable force had simply ceased to exist. No debris, no flattened homes, no corpses would greet the inevitable flood of scientists and reporters and onlookers that would soon follow in the wake of this horrific tragedy. All that had been, was just gone — erased from the universe forever.

            As these revelations invaded his mind, forcing themselves to be heard, Frank found himself monotonously chanting the chorus of the previously unrecognized song that still flowed from the speakers in his car.

“Every generation’s got its own disease,

And I’ve got mine,

So help me please…”

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