A thin line of sunlight crept across the pews, the only hint that the sky was still there. Stained glass windows bathed the cathedral in light and color as the priest droned on. That one line was the only real, convincing evidence that the world outside was the same as it had ever been.
To Mary, it was not enough.
That line comforted Mary for almost ten minutes. Then the congregation started singing about Heaven, and that just reminded her of the sky. When she looked again, the line had moved and she couldn’t see it. She fidgeted.
Mary slid sideways in her pew to get a better view. A gray-haired woman scowled at her. Yes, the light was still there. The early morning sun shone directly on the double doors of the church, which in this weather had been left cracked open just a little bit. The line was moving fast; it would be gone soon. What then?
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Mary whispered to her mother as the song finished.
Her mother frowned.
“I have to go,” she said a bit louder. “To the bathroom.”
“Mary,” her mother whispered back. “You’re twelve years old. You can hold it.”
But Mary knew this game. She whispered louder, hardly a whisper at all, “I have to pee.”
Ed, her mother’s boyfriend, knew the game as well. Nobody would win. It was the kind of thing that would escalate and ruin the entire day. “Go ahead,” he said, “but come back quick.”
Mary Andersen did not come back quick. She, in fact, did not come back at all.
It wasn’t her fault. As she burst through the double doors at the back of the church, she fully intended to return. Otherwise there would be consequences, and as anyone will tell you, consequences were always bad.
Consequences were also, in her experience, almost always worth it. Mary needed to see the sky.
She couldn’t explain it. She knew not to.
One day, the sky would open. She’d always known it. There was a sense, like the tension on a refrigerator door just before the seal breaks and the door opens. When she was very young she used to cry and cry whenever she was indoors. Her mother, single at the time, had figured out that the crying stopped when they were in the room with the skylight. In Kindergarten, Mary would stare out the window for hours, imagining the sky splitting open in a wash of color.
There had been so many attempts to fix Mary. Discipline didn’t work, and switching schools only served to prevent Mary from making friends. They tried meds, because that’s what is done to kids who don’t pay attention in class. The first medications left her gray and lifeless. Over time it got better, but Mary could hardly remember those foggy years. By seventh grade, as a twelve-year-old, Mary was still a stranger to her classmates, but she didn’t stare out the windows all the time. She didn’t dare because more meds would be worse than anything.
Her mother cried a lot.
Still, Mary always watched the sky. She learned to be sneaky. The sky, whether blue or white or gray, had to be watched constantly. Even at night, she could never sleep without a good view of the sky.
The view from the steps of the church was good. Half the sky spread out from there. It wasn’t enough. Mary walked slowly down the steps, half expecting her mother to come after her. There weren’t any trees in front of the church. Those had all been removed after a tornado had broken them so badly the previous year. People said that it was a miracle that the church survived. Small towns always seemed to get hit so hard by tornadoes. Mary’s house was fine, of course. The sky would never do anything to hurt Mary.
“Think it’ll be today?” The voice startled Mary, but she didn’t look at its source. It was a boy’s voice. An older boy.
She scanned the great blue above. “What?”
“You feel it, too. I can tell.”
“Sky, yeah. It’s like a rope pulled so tight it’s going to break.”
“No,” she said, glancing down at him. He was a high school boy with thick glasses and thin hair. His Captain America t-shirt was stained with grease and his hands were calloused and tough.
“I’m Jack,” he said.
Not listening anymore, her attention drifted upward, and a gentle breeze tickled her face.
“You’re Mary, aren’t you?”
“I’ve heard about you.” He laughed. “Even saw you once. I’ve never met anyone else who can feel it. Anyone who knows it’s coming.”
Jack was standing next to her. She took another step forward, into the street. He followed, but he was taller, so when he got too close she pushed him away so that he wouldn’t block her view.
“What do you suppose is going to happen?” asked Jack, apparently incapable of shutting up. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but I’d really like to hear your theories.”
“It’s going to be beautiful.”
“But what is it?”
“I’ve never really thought about that.”
He stepped back. He was watching the sky as well. “How can you not?”
“They gave me meds.”
“Yeah, me, too.” He pulled out a handful of orange pills from his pocket. “Mine work just fine.”
Mary smiled. “Ed doesn’t think I need them.”
“My mother’s boyfriend. He thinks they’re causing more problems than they solve.”
“Well, he’s right, isn’t he?”
“They let me focus on school and studying and being a good girl.”
“Sounds like problems to me.” He grinned.
“I’m good at math.” Mary looked at Jack. His glasses were dirty, but she could see the reflection of the sky in them. “I’d like to be an astronaut someday.”
“I was going to be a pilot.” There was resignation in his voice, like the dream was one he would never realize. It broke Mary’s heart. She knew what disappointment felt like, and seeing it in another person saddened her.
Jack kicked a slow rhythm on the curb.
“What do you think it is?” he asked after a time.
“I told you, I don’t think about it.”
“Sure you do. What do you spend all your time thinking about, then?”
She furrowed her brow. “Normal stuff.”
“Like what it means for the sky to open up?”
“No, like super hero movies and space ships.”
“Ah, so you think it’s aliens.”
“No, I don’t think it’s anything.”
“Well, you must not think it’s God.” He stuck a thumb out at the church. “I mean, if you thought God himself was coming down you’d have stayed in there.”
“It not like that.”
“What’s it like, then?”
“It’s like breathing. You don’t think about what you breathe, do you?”
“Sure, I do.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Mostly, oxygen.”
“It’s not mostly oxygen. It’s mostly nitrogen, and there’s oxygen and carbon dioxide and loads of other stuff. But most of the time we just breathe it. We don’t have to think about it unless something goes wrong.”
“Is something going wrong with the sky?”
“How should I know?”
“A theory. Just give me a theory.”
Mary didn’t talk for a while. She started walking away from Jack, balancing on the curb as she went. It was difficult to do without looking down at her feet. He followed close behind, but didn’t pester her with questions for almost five minutes. Mary wondered if it was a record for him.
Finally, he said, “Do you think it’s good or bad?”
“It has to be one or the other?”
“Kinda.” He bit his lip. “I mean, good or bad for you. Not good versus evil.”
“I don’t really have any way to know if it’s going to be good or bad. Maybe it’s just the end of everything, and then there’s nothing. All I know is that I want to see it.”
“So there’s something good about seeing it.”
“Don’t you think it’ll be beautiful?”
Mary stopped walking and tried to puzzle through what he’d said. “You mean you never cared about what it might look like or feel like?”
“Not really. Why would I?”
She gave a frustrated snort and started walking faster. By the time they had reached the edge of town, three whole blocks away, Mary had nearly forgotten that he was there. The sky demanded all of her attention and walking along the curb was difficult. This random boy who shared her interest was no interest of hers. Being alone was easier. At the edge of town there weren’t buildings to block the view. Corn was still rows of tiny nubs, so the sky stretched all the way down to touch the black soil of the farthest hills. There wasn’t a cloud marring the great blue, and the sun warmed her skin.
Mary turned to talk to Jack again; to tell him that he’d made her curious about whether it would be good or bad. Would it change everything? Was it God coming back to flood the world, to rid it of sinners? Doubtful, but how could she know? Her heart pounded in her chest.
But Jack wasn’t there.
There was a section of grass between the street and the corn field, and Mary sat. The dew felt good on the palms of her hands, and when she lay back it was cool and refreshing against her skin.
She regretted pushing Jack away. Another day, maybe it would have been different. But no, this day was special. She’d waited her whole life for what was about to happen. The nearness of it prickled her skin. It made her hairs stand on end. She didn’t want to miss a second of it.
The breeze strengthened, then. Smells of damp soil swirled up out of the earth. Cool air sent shivers down her spine, but she didn’t move. This was the perfect place to be.
It started with a dark line that stretched from east to west. The line was perfectly straight, but curved all the same. It was pure black, but full of such color as Mary had never seen. She stared at it in wonder as it widened. The air around it formed rainbows like clear plastic twisting in the sunlight. Color looped away from the dark line as the crack widened. Soon the whole sky was covered in its deep brilliance. They twisted, but the ends of the rainbows always came back to that crack.
Mary wept. It was perfect. Exactly what was supposed to happen. And it was beautiful.
Was this good or bad? Would this be the end of everything? What came next? She was afraid.
That fear froze her. The intensity of the broken sky washed over her. She hardly blinked, for fear of losing even a blink’s worth of beauty. Still, the questions had taken root in her. What was the crack in the sky? Clearly, everything she knew was changing, but how? Why?
Mary needed to know. She stood and stepped forward. As she did, the earth dropped away, giving way to more sky. Her feet moved on their own as she stepped closer and closer to the source of that brilliance. Closer to the darkness.
Then, Jack was there beside her. His face was a mess of tears and his glasses were smudged. Mary took his rough hand in both of hers and squeezed tight. For a moment she looked into his eyes, and he looked back into hers.
“You were right,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
She squeezed his hand again and looked back at the open sky. “I think it’s going to be good,” she said.
Then they walked together, hand in hand, into the sky.
Anthony W. Eichenlaub is the author of the Metal and Men series of novels. His shorter works have appeared in Kobold Quarterly and Kzine, and he has won a Silver Honorary Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing he can be found brewing beer, teaching writing classes, or photographing nature.