What Came in the Cloud
by Jamie Adams
It’s just past lunch when the cloud arrives. Deeks is on his way to the tennis court behind the dining hall when it descends, a languorous, bloated pool of indifferent plum. He looks up and when he looks down, he finds that his steps leave scorched earth behind him and his hands are blackening swiftly.
In the dining hall, Margo and Luke clear their dishes and step outside. The campers come tomorrow and it’s time for a dry run down at the waterfront. When 300 second and third graders fall onto the camp like a hailstorm, there’s no room to not know what you’re doing. They leave the humid dining hall and walk past the tetherball courts in the thick air. They step into the circumference of the cloud.
When Margo’s hands wrap around Luke’s neck, pale against sun-dark skin, she is indifferent to the crack of his neck echoing off the surrounding hills as it snaps.
Evangeline and Hanna miss the cloud at first. It’s 103 with 97% humidity and they’re by the stream at the northern boundary of the camp, stripped to flamingo pink and electric green bikinis. Evangeline’s is striped, Hanna’s is polka-dotted. Both are statements to the boyfriends who broke up with them right before camp because “you like each other more than us and we’re sick of being second.”
“This water is freezing. I think a fish just touched me.” Hanna flips her long, wet hair back, running her hands over it as she stands waist deep in the gurgling water.
“You’re full of complaints today. Wash that chip off your shoulder while you’re in there.” Evangeline crosses her short legs at the ankles and tips her head back to bathe in the sun.
Hanna bolts toward shore with a scream. “Okay, that’s it. We’re done. That was definitely a fish and it definitely touched me. I’m out.”
“Good, you can work on your tan with me.” Evangeline waves her hand over her pale legs, almost painfully bright in the direct sunlight.
Hanna flips her hair and towels the sand off her feet as she steps into her sandals. “I know I’m weirdly unreasonable, but I’m going to have to pass on hanging out with the horseflies and your legs when it’s a billion degrees out here. I want lunch.”
“We ditched lunch for this great experience we’re having.”
“I’m unditching. I want a turkey sandwich with dill pickle chips, and I want it now.”
The woods are cool and full of shadows. A crow screams through the pines. Hanna stubs her toe against the hidden stump of an ancient tree. A branch flips under Evangeline’s foot and opens a scratch down her calf. Both girls leave a trail of careless steps and pinprick blood spots down the needle-laden path. In the slanting green light, the sweat on Evangeline’s face glows a jaundiced yellow. The path is longer than they remember. Flip flops on pine needles make for slow, slippery going and the humidity weaves a fine, damp lace over every inch of their skin. It takes them all the way to the other side of the forest to notice the burnt rubber scent in the air.
Anna takes out the trash after lunch. The dumpster used to be right behind the kitchen but then there was a health code problem and now it’s closer to the edge of the woods. As Anna heaves the bulging black sack over her head into the rusting green dumpster, she realizes she’s leaking. She, not the garbage, leaves a trail of liquid along the sand as she takes three steps back and looks up at the engorged bruise of cloud overhead. Bile and water pool around her faster than the thirsty earth can absorb it.
David and Graham fish Asher out of the lake, howling with laughter. Asher shakes himself like a dog, water flying from the ends of his hair and the tip of his nose. “Not cool. And now revenge is a given. Both of you will have to watch your backs.” He peels a long, molding green string of seaweed off his shoulder.
“I’m not too worried.” David means it when he says it, but the wind shifts slightly and the smell of rot and decay mixes with lake water. He is uneasy.
Graham follows Asher down the dock back to the sand. He looks down the shoreline and freezes. “Oh, what?”
David doesn’t register the sudden stop and knocks into Graham, who stumbles into Asher. Asher lands on his knees in cold damp sand. The palm of his right hand rests beside a severed fish head. He’s a few months from finishing an EMT certification, just counseling at camp for the nostalgia of all the summers he’s worked before. He’s seen blood, guts, bone, but he’s never seen a lake’s worth of fish lying mangled on the shore, bloated and gray in the heat. They are so numerous they’re stacked atop each other like scaled, wet building blocks and every single one has been separated from it’s head. Asher throws up.
Graham, who can mock anyone for anything but still be invited to their birthday parties, turns to David to comment.
David is looking up at the roiling cloud hanging low over the camp. His eyes are bleeding.
Graham wants to run but the lake has taken on a brackish sheen and at the end of the dock, Asher’s head begins to fall forward as the deep line of a fatal cut opens around his neck.
The cloud is growing. Long purple fingers unfurl across the sky, swallowing up the sunlight and sand.
Graham reaches for the sky, though he can’t say why he’d risk it, and is startled to find himself streaked with algae. It spreads, black and molding, down his arms and over his bare chest. It saves his mouth for last.
When Hanna and Evangeline reach the edge of the woods, a breeze picks up. Hanna chokes at the stench, mossy and coppery and freshly rotting. Evangeline’s skin breaks out in goosebumps. She sweeps her hair up on top of her head and secures it into a ballerina’s perfect knot.
The first one they find is Anna, a shriveled husk already crumbling at the edges.
Hanna freezes, desperate to touch, to understand, but even in her shock she can see there’s no helping Anna now. It occurs to her to call for help. Her cell phone chirps impotently, no service. She follows Evangeline numbly, her steps disjointed. Evangeline takes off her shirt and ties it over the lower half of her face as the stench grows stronger. She leads the two of them through the empty camp, past bodies with missing limbs, past mold and scales and fluids. The buildings are aged well past their normal state. Shingles fly from the roofs in gusts of fish-laden wind. The siding of the cabins pulls away, nails popping and boards growing. Loose leaves and pine needles spin together in small whirlwinds. Dust coats their sticky skin.
“I guess we’re done here.” Evangeline gives her shorts a tug up higher around her waist. She pulls the shirt from her face. Her jaw has been reduced to bone. She lifts a hand to push tangled wisps of hair from her temples. Skin blows away like ash, reducing her to an interconnected network of raw white bones and knobby joints.
Hanna shrieks. The sound of it is caught up in the cloud overhead.
“Did you still want that turkey sandwich?”
Hanna can hardly stay on her feet. Her T-shirt blows skintight and translucent against her body. The swimsuit she bought to match Evangeline’s glows beneath. “What are you?”
Evangeline smiles, neat rows of small teeth in the bones of a strong jaw. “Your friend.” She points a skeletal finger. The cloud lowers. The wind dies away. The heavy heat settles wetly on their chilled skin.
“I think I want to skip lunch and go to the stream.” Hanna’s face is gray. Her eyes are glassy. Her foot still bleeds from the injury in the woods, bright and slow.
Evangeline flicks a strip of skin from the bones of her arm. “We can swim first and eat afterwards.”
“I want a turkey sandwich and dill pickle chips.” Hanna runs a hand over her long hair, dull and separated under the weight of the deeply bruised sky.
Evangeline leads the way past the stained sand, over the decaying corpses scattered through the camp. “Whatever you want is fine by me.”
Hanna looks over her shoulder. She does not look dissimilar from the trees around her. “You’re being awfully generous today.”
Evangeline lifts a single finger. The forest blackens, a path of coal and ash leading them back to the stream. “That’s what friends are for,” she says.
About the Author
Jamie is an MG and YA writer, among other things. She has a minor shoe addiction, major coffee addiction, and the ability to read multiple books in a single day if left uninterrupted. Christmas is her favorite holiday: colorful lights, peppermint candy, and sweet, sappy stories included.
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