By Brynn MacNab
The clouds look
like steel wool. But they're made of black magic.
That's what my mom says.
scrub you out, you're gone. Mark told me that. "You
touch that rain, you're gone." He lives down
the street. He's older, almost ten. He saw a cat in
this rain. He brags about it. My mom says probably he
needs therapy. But he tells us stuff. Steel wool might
clean dried-on casserole. These clouds take your heart
And when they
rumble, we all run. In the house we watch out windows.
The neighbors are stuck in their car. They wait for
the storm to pass. Maybe it'll be all night. They'll
wait. Nobody walks through this rain.
My dad says the
rain is poisoned. "By pollution," he says. "Years and
years of it. Generations of waste." He talks about
generations a lot.
"This is more
than pollution," Mom says. I am between them at the
window. Mom sighs. "This is something else, Dale."
his name. She used to call him, "Special Agent." She
used to laugh. We used to run screaming through rain.
The screaming meant laughter, too.
stop?" He's exasperated. His voice tilts. "You're
"Someone has to
tell her the truth."
exactly would that be? What's causing this? You have
all the answers?" I stare outside. I don't look at
either of them, so they won't know I hear them.
certainly not acid rain."
next door. She's my age. I don't see her in the car,
but I see her little brother, Kyle. He has his face
against the window.
Dad is glaring.
I don't have to look to know. He pauses to glare,
almost every time they argue. "Did I say it was? All I
said was pollution."
Mom walks away.
"I'll make lunch."
Sandra's dad is
in the driver's seat. Her mom is next to him. They sit
there, not talking. Watching the rain, they don't
are spreading. They had them in Ohio first. Soon
they'll cover America. No one will have good water.
Food will all come by airplane. That's what the news
says. The President is very worried. I'm worried, too.
says aliens sent the clouds to punish us for not
believing. He says they want an apology. On national
TV would be good. They want the President to apologize
personally. I don't know how he knows that.
At night my
parents watch the news. It is still raining outside.
There's a scientist on tonight. He says this rain has
chemicals. He's never seen these chemicals before.
says. "Chemicals, not some voodoo thing."
Mom. "New one's they've never seen, not some
I know what
Sandra's dad would say if he weren't stuck in their
car. "See?" he would say. "Alien chemical warfare."
comes on the news. The government made the clouds, he
thinks. "It's a conspiracy," he says. He says it over
and over again. My dad turns off the TV. He works for
the FBI. He's not really a special agent, but still,
he knows things.
theorists," he says. "I don't know where they get it."
scared," says Mom. "They want someone to blame.
Washington is an easy target."
I don't look
up. I'm playing with a doll. It's not alive and I
don't care about it, but grown-ups think I do. It lets
me listen and not talk, because everyone thinks I'm
busy. That's why I like dolls.
Mom looks at
me. I can see her, from the edge of my eye. She sees
how busy I am. "Maybe it's the end," she whispers.
"What do you
want from me?" says Dad. "How am I supposed to answer
that?" His voice is like a seesaw. "No, Marion, it's
not the end. I have the scientific proof right here,
up my wizard's sleeve."
voice is low, maroon. "I'm going to do the dishes."
leaves, Dad is quiet. I move my doll around. Mom named
her Edna one time. It's a good name: Edna the decoy.
Edna goes to sleep under Dad's chair. Lying
half-under, I tuck her in. I'm right next to Dad's
legs. We're both quiet. Only the rain keeps talking.
In the morning,
the rain has stopped. The world dries off. Sunlight
gets open lines through the clouds. By noon I play in
the driveway. Mom doesn't like me touching the grass
anymore if I can help it. "Stay out of there," she
says, "you'll get cancer."
I don't know
what cancer is, but Mom doesn't want any in the house.
Sandra's dad is
in his garden. He's not worried about cancer. He told
my mom, "They'll cure us after we learn our lesson."
My mom tells my dad.
can cure him," Dad says.
come outside today. Her mom comes out with lemonade
for Sandra's dad. She gives some to me, too. When
she's back in their yard, Sandra's dad points at me.
"What do you think about that kid?" I pretend not to
"I think she's
"Fine, but I
mean, she's strange. She never talks, did you notice
are just shy." Sandra's mom has a teacher voice.
Sandra's dad was probably a bad kid. At least, that's
how her mom talks, like he's a bully or a whiner.
"She could be
telepathic or something," he says. "Or maybe she's an
"I doubt it."
please." It's not a real please. He's annoyed. "This
could be important." I've been drawing flowers and
suns and clouds on the pavement, but I'm done now. I
don't want to listen anymore. I clean up my chalks.
not doing this." Her voice is flat. Like a wall, or a
floor. I want it to be a wall.
On the news,
things are getting worse. The clouds are spreading,
and the newsman calls it "apocalyptic." Afterwards,
Mom tucks me in. "Don't look so worried," she says.
"It'll be all right." She kisses my forehead. "Such a
serious little girl," she says. She isn't looking at
me now. If she were, I would say, "I can talk," and
she would say, "Of course you can talk, Hannah, you
talk beautifully." I talked in school. They made me. I
still can, but it's summer now and I get a break.
looking at me, though, so I keep quiet. She's looking
out the window. It's open just a crack. No rain will
come in, just air. Outside it's getting dark. Our
backyard is always the same but she still looks at it,
not at me. She likes nature.
In the night, I
see Sandra's dad. He's in my room. He's just a dream,
though. Maybe a nightmare. That's mean, but it's true.
I ignore him and dream something else. I see aliens,
with big heads and glowing eyes. They want to take me
apart, to find out how I work. "She might be an empath,"
they say. "An empath." I still don't know what that
means. "She can't talk," they say. I'm afraid they're
going to open me up. "I can talk," I try to say. "I
just don't." But no words come out. The aliens shake
their huge heads. "Such a serious little girl," they
say. "We'll fix her." They reach down to me. Their
fingers are long and thin and they glow, too.
I wake up
"Shh, shh." I
must be at school. A teacher's voice is shushing me.
She hugs me, which isn't allowed. "Shh," she says.
"It's not that bad." I quiet down. I'll be good. I
thought there were aliens. I thought it was summer.
lets go of me. "That's a good girl." But when I look,
she's not a teacher. She's Sandra's mom. I don't
scream again, but almost. We're not at school. We're
in a very little room with metal walls and no windows.
In the corner, Kyle is playing with blocks, but the
room keeps shaking and his blocks keep falling over.
smiles at me. "You'll have fun," she says. I don't
know why she says that. She doesn't believe it. Her
eyes are funny-shaped with tears. "You get to go see
Sandra. Will you tell me how she is?"
It's too cold
here for my pajamas, but Sandra's mom has a suitcase
with some of my clothes. While I change, she keeps
talking. "You'll be very important. You'll make the
clouds go away, and everyone will be glad. Sandra went
already, but she needs help. You be brave, now. Be
good. Your parents will be so proud. Clear skies will
make them so happy. And the trip will be fun. It's an
One of the
walls opens, and I have to step down out of a big van.
It's probably the middle of the day. The clouds make
it a little hard to tell. We're in a field, with cows.
I've never been here before. There are a lot of
people, men in dark glasses and jackets, and Sandra's
dad walks up to us. "What did I tell you?" he says.
"We've contacted the aliens." He steers me by the
shoulder toward a little airplane. Sandra's mom picks
up Kyle and comes with us. "The President doesn't
believe us, but we don't have time to wait."
lifts me into the plane. There's just one seat. "You
said she's got some kind of powers?"
says Sandra's dad. "She definitely does."
"What about the
powers. Don't worry about it. They'll work together."
The man shakes
his head. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"I do." He
sounds like he's the boss.
The other man turns back to me and takes his glasses
off. He has a friendly smile. "Okay, kiddo," he says.
"Now this is all automated. Do you know what that
means? Probably not. Okay, you don't have to do
anything. The plane will do all the work. It's got a
plan already. You're going to see the aliens, right?
So this'll take you there, through a wormhole. Know
what that is? Well, it's the route you're taking. It
goes to the alien world. It won't take long. Don't be
My dad says
aliens don't exist. I should tell this man that, but
he talks too fast.
"The aliens are
friendly," he says. "They'll look weird, but they're
whispers, "You don't know that." She doesn't think I
hear her. Her face is all red.
"So be nice to
them. Listen well and pay attention. We don't know how
they communicate, but--" He looks back at Sandra's
dad. "Well, you'll figure it out." He smiles again and
buckles me in. "Good luck, kiddo." He shuts the
airplane door and slaps its side goodbye. I can see
him through a window. The motor starts, and everyone
steps back. Sandra's mom makes Kyle wave.
I don't wave
back. I shut my eyes. The plane moves, but I keep my
When I look
again, I'm in clouds. Everything outside is thick and
dark, darker in some places than in others. Black
strands run by. The plane is getting cold. I can see
my breath. I should have a coat. Mom will be angry. I
tuck my hands under my armpits.
Then the clouds
are gone and everything is suddenly bright again, so
bright that it hurts my eyes and I close them.
The man said
that the aliens were friendly and nice. But Sandra's
dad said they sent the rain to punish us for not
believing in them. I don't believe in them. What if
they want to punish me?
jerks, and begins to go backward. I open my eyes, and
watch metal walls grow forward around the plane. It's
still in the sky, but not as high up. I can see a
green horizon. Then a big metal door closes in front.
I unbuckle and wait. I can take care of myself. My mom
tells my dad sometimes, "Dale, she can take care of
herself. Stop worrying." They're usually talking about
something else, but I just come up.
The door to the
airplane pops open by itself. The air smells like
lilies and car exhaust, and I feel sick. When no one
comes, I stand to get out and I throw up all over the
controls. I climb down into the metal room, taking
care. My head hurts from the smell. The room is empty
except for me and the plane, and it's getting darker.
And blurry. I'm tired. I sit down to wait for the
Later on, my
eyes are closed. Sandra is singing a song we learned
in school, about a ladybug. Sandra likes anything with
animals, even bugs count.
I must have
moved, because Sandra stops. "Are you awake, Hannah?
Can you get up?"
I open my eyes
and try to sit up. I can, but it makes my head hurt
again. We're in a pink and orange room, and we're not
alone. "It's okay, Hannah," Sandra says. "They're not
hurting us. They're nice." They don't look nice. There
are two, on the other side of a glass wall. They have
eyes all over them.
talk, either," says Sandra.
I talk. I
talked at school, every day. Sandra should know, she
was there. I don't know why she says that.
There's a door
in the glass, but I only notice it when it opens. I
have to pay attention better. The man told me to. I
don't want the aliens to leave me out in the rain.
They're coming in through the door now. They have
long, wobbly arms. They pet Sandra's head, but they
don't touch me.
After a while
they go away. I'm thirsty. Sandra sings some more
When the aliens
come back, they bring a plant that babbles and another
thing on a leash. It has five long legs, and makes
clicking noises when it walks and whining noises from
its mouth. Sandra likes the company. "Come on," she
says. "Come play with me, Hannah. We have to make
That's not what
they told me. They told me to listen and pay
attention. I'm doing that. I don't have to make
creeping me out." Sandra talks almost as much as the
plant, I think. She wants things to be normal, even
here. "Hannah, come on."
I try to be
normal for Sandra. I pet the plant. I run around with
the animal, even though the sound of its feet makes
the hairs on my arms stand up. Sandra seems happier,
but the aliens keep watching us. When Sandra stops
worrying, I go back to watching them too.
When I stand
still, with all those eyes on me, I can notice
something weird. They watch harder than anybody I
know; it's like they're watching into me, like
they're poking around in my thoughts. I think just a
little differently. My thoughts are just a tiny bit
jumbled, like they've been picked up and moved around,
or looked at and put back.
A third alien
brings us water and something like bread. Sandra says,
"We have to eat it. They'll be insulted if we don't."
I don't think that's smart, but I'm still thirsty and
I'm getting hungry too. We drink and eat. It all
tastes strange, but it doesn't seem to hurt us. "See?"
Sandra says. "They're trying to be our friends." She
stands up and tries to talk to them: "We come in
peace." I bet her dad told her to say that. "We
apologize for Earth. Please accept our apology.
America is sorry."
alien wants me to pay attention to it. I can just
tell, but I don't know how. Then, when I look in its
eyes, I know what it's trying to say: Welcome,
it's telling me.
"I like your
dog," Sandra says.
We did not
know about you,
thinks the alien.
I don't know if
it means me or people in general.
know there were any who Spoke on your planet. How many
"Thank you for
the food," Sandra says. "It was delicious." She's
is she lying?
I don't know
how it knows that. But I meant about the food; she
I am sorry.
We tried to replicate the food you remembered.
I realize I'm
being rude, and for once it's not because I'm not
talking but because I'm thinking rude things. I don’t
like them listening to my thoughts, but I have to be
nice so I try again. I think very clearly: No
Problem. It Was Probably Very Healthy.
"This room is
so comfortable, too," says Sandra.
Are you the
only one who speaks on your planet?
No, I Am
Not. Most People Talk A Lot More.
The alien is
laughing at me, silently. Its eyes all wiggle.
"And your plant
The other alien
isn't laughing. Lids drop over all of its eyes at
once. No, it thinks. This is no good.
I think. Maybe You Should Talk to Sandra Instead.
stare at me for a long time. Sandra looks like she's
going to cry.
nice one after a while. You don't understand us.
Not the noises. We mean, does anyone else Speak.
she thinks. We all think.
How many on
your planet think?
there are billions of humans on the earth. He says
there are way too many.
The aliens seem
to agree. They wobble their arms at each other. Then
they both leave. They take their plant and the
scuttling animal with them.
to cry. "I tried everything," she says. "I was so
polite. Why didn't you help me? I even complimented
their crummy food. I don't know what they want. You
should have said something. You could have at least
It's not my
fault. My dad didn't send us here in the first place.
But I'm too tired to want to fight with her. I leave
Sandra alone, and lie down on the other side of the
says, "I'm sorry. I know you can't help it. I
shouldn't have yelled at you."
Sandra. Go to sleep and don't cry anymore,
I think. But I guess only aliens can hear me thinking.
She sniffles some more. But after a while I hear her
One of the aliens is there again. Sandra is lying
nearby, with a blanket on.
I can't tell
which alien it is. But it seems like it's in a hurry.
Pay attention to me. The babblers, how do you know
they think? We have not noticed it.
I rub my eyes.
How do I know? They talk to me. They’re not just
babbling. They're saying their thoughts out loud.
It is not
possible. A being either thinks or talks. Not both.
You think, she talks. That's the way it is. We sent
our clouds to your world because we thought there were
no Speakers there, no thinkers. We have been searching
a long time for a good planet for them, and yours is
so far from anything.
Listen. You can live with us. No one at home
understands you, do they?
don't. I'm weird.
because they do not think. You will stay here with us
and never bother with babbling again.
It would be
like summer forever. No more school.
forever. Yes. Our ways are not difficult. You are
mistaken about the others. There is no one else.
The door opens
again, and there are more aliens, four more of them.
thinks one of the new aliens. We are told that you
Speak and that there are others on your planet who do.
We never would have sent out clouds had we known.
to take the clouds away. It wasn't a punishment, but
they are going to get rid of them. I forgive Sandra
and her dad, even, for being mean. The rain will be
Don't be in
such a hurry. Maybe we can reach a compromise.
And the alien
that was with me thinks, She's the only one. She
was confused. Tell them.
But I won't.
Humans think and talk. We can do both. That's how it
is. Just because people are different doesn't mean
they don't count.
The alien that
woke me up is angry. All its eyes snap away from me at
once. She is a fool. She's lying, or she's stupid.
Maybe she's crazy. No one can talk and Speak.
The other one
wavers. That's true. No one can. We'll keep you
here, and cure you of your confusion.
I can talk
myself! I just don't much. I just...
"No!" I say out loud. I hate the sound of my voice,
echoing in this quiet room. Sandra twitches and sits
up. "You have to take the clouds back."
I say it,
lisping, and I glare at Sandra, waiting for her to
call me a baby. I can't talk right, I know it. But the
aliens don't seem to notice, wobbling their arms at
each other, and Sandra just looks scared.
jabs into my back, a sharp pain like a needle, and
everything goes dark again.
I wake up at
home, outside, in our yard. Sandra's parents are
there, and mine. Mom is holding me. Dad is saying,
"I'll have you arrested, you nutcase!"
isn't it?" says Sandra's dad. He's right. All the
clouds are gone. "And I tell you what. You lay a
finger on me, or call the cops, and all those
clouds'll come back. Rain alien judgment on your
"He can't do
that," I say. Everyone turns to look at me. "He
"Of course he
can't," says my dad. He turns back to Sandra's dad,
and my mom takes me inside our house.
"Did they hurt
you?" I shake my head. "Were you scared?" I nod.
know what to say. She stares at me, but she can't read
me. I like it better that way. I go and get my doll
Edna, so Mom won't ask me any more questions. I play
near the window, and watch Dad yell. Sandra's dad is
in big trouble.
That night, all
the newsmen are confused. "Vanished! All the clouds
have just vanished away!"
They try to be
levelheaded and sound smart. "Of course, there are
many remaining factors. There are a lot of chemicals
that have to be purged. It's not over yet," they say.
But they're wrong.