A Piece Of The Sky
James was six years old when he first peeled off a piece of the sky.
He was walking with his mother and his aunt on the beach by his family’s summer home. The adults were talking about adult things when James saw a crab scuttle into a shell and run towards a cave. He giggled at the stop-motion movement of the crab – it loosened some of the tension he had from the weight of the words spoken over his head. Playing with a bug that lived in a spindly rock seemed more fun than standing in the middle of a strange conversation. So he grabbed a stick and chased.
He regretted the decision the moment he entered the cave. The crab had disappeared, replaced by shadows and rocks and the sound of something dripping. The air was damp. The sand on the beach was warm and flowing, but here James’ feet sank into cold mud. He decided he didn’t care about the crab any more and wanted to leave. So he turned back towards the opening of the cave.
Outside was a brilliant blue sky. Against it, the rocky edges of the cave wall seemed pitch black. The effect was so strong that James’ eyes tricked him. His perspective flipped and the sky came toward him. Instead of being past the cave entrance it was in front of it, a ripped piece of coloured paper stuck onto a black scrapbook. James knew it was an illusion, but he marvelled at it all the same. He wished he could pull the piece of the sky down and hold it.
The illusion held too long. Soon, the ragged blue edges started slipping off the darkness. It was as though the sky was a sticker whose glue had given out and gravity was now pulling it down. James was amazed at first, but quickly became frightened. This wasn’t how the sky was supposed to work – it stayed up there and other things fell from it or through it. But it was peeling faster now, curling over itself. The side that had been stuck to the black was even blacker itself. Little light remained around James as the back edge of the sky folded over and blocked the blue. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to lift it back up, or if there would be any sky left even if he did. So he ran toward the last sliver he could see and grabbed onto it.
His fingers slipped right through, as though snatching at the air. He pushed his whole arm through, then the other. Curling his arms toward him and pushing hard off the ground, James fell through the sky and tumbled onto the sand with a thud.
He looked around. By the water, his mother and aunt still whispered with furrowed brows. A seagull flew above him and a salty mist stung his nostrils. Everything seemed normal. But when James looked down at his hand, his fingers still gripped what looked like a bright blue crumpled sheet. Spreading it out, he saw the same ripped edge and the same set of clouds that he had seen when the sky had peeled off the world.
“James, stop playing in the sand, you’ll ruin your clothes!”
He quickly balled up the piece of sky and shoved it in his pocket so his mother wouldn’t see. It fit as though it took up no space at all. Thumbing over it felt like flipping through pages of wind, but he could still feel each fold. This was something special, he knew. Not the kind you brag about, but the kind you hide away secret. A piece of the world all your own.
After that day, James peeled off more pieces of the sky. In his room, at school, at the diner on Sundays – anywhere that it was dark enough against the light that he could trick his eyes again. Then he’d be back in the blackness and wait for the glue to give out, grab an edge and fall through same as before. He’d shove the sky-sticker in his pocket and put in a box under his bed for safe keeping. Then, when he was sad or scared or bored, he would take out his collection and stare in wonder at the unique patterns of colours and clouds painted in each one.
But he had to remember, once he had peeled off a piece of the sky from any particular place, never to look up from that spot again. In his room, in the cave, even at the diner – if he looked outside at the same view he had already stolen, nothing would be there. No blue, no sun, no clouds. Only black, waiting to surround him. This time with no way out.