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Above Us Only Sky

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“An ice cream cone,” she said, pointing at the brilliant white clouds drifting above their heads.

Arnie navigated his attention in the direction of Ellie’s finger and squinted until deep ridges formed between his brows. As the cloud carried on at a leisurely pace, its overall structure remained immutable—a puffy cluster of water particles tapered at one end and billowing at the other—but no matter how hard he tried to reconfigure his mental imagery he could only visualise the cloud as an erlenmeyer flask bubbling away until poof! Its chemical components exploded into a puff of (hopefully benign) powdery reagent. If he tilted his head askew, then it became, not a piece of scientific glassware, but an alabaster mushroom cloud. None of these three interpretations looked anything similar to one another, but Arnie would brand himself a liar if he claimed to prefer chemistry equipment and noxious symbols of war over a creamy scoop of soft serve.

No, the cloud was most certainly the personification of summertime splendour.

“In vanilla, of course,” Arnie replied. “With a cherry on top for good measure.”

“And plenty of chocolate syrup and whipped cream,” Ellie said, tracing a series of concentric circles on his chest with her index finger.

An ice cream sundae with all the fixings sounded absolutely divine despite the cherry, in this case, referring to Ellie’s scarlet nails that she had lovingly slaved over the previous evening after work and not a sweet, seedless topping. Chipped varnish was her Achilles’ heel. The moment a sliver of paint peeled off her nail there was a metaphorical mad dash to her stash of twenty-or-so vials of polish. Every shade imaginable was in her caddy, each emblazoned with a faceless woman’s name on the glass.

Ellie never felt it necessary to visit one of the salons around town. She had nothing against the establishments, but found it more appealing to soak her own cuticles and skillfully glue French tips herself. “Manicures are an art,” she’d say. “It’s the closest I can get to calling myself a painter.”

Whether it was on canvas or nails, art was nowhere near Arnie’s wheelhouse. He couldn’t care less about the technique of applying applique or the differences between acrylic and gel. What tickled him was the cost-effectiveness of doing mani-pedis at home instead of shelling out how many pounds for someone to do, what appeared to be, the most basic of cosmetology.

It was then, as Ellie was hunched over the living room coffee table dabbing polish remover on her violet-tipped fingers, when Arnie broached an idea that had been mulling in his head for days.

“A picnic?” she repeated, and looked at her friend with a rather scrunched face. He simply shrugged in return and rested his back against the window.

“We’re both free from work tomorrow,” he said. “And when’s the last time we’ve done something as innocent as that?”

Ellie laughed under her breath. “Y’know, I can’t remember,” she said. Arnie was used to her fits of mildly contemptuous-sounding amusement when he’d propose an idea out of the blue, but this wasn’t something as objectively quirky as celebrating the one-year anniversary of Euro Disneyland during his weather broadcasts—it was a simple, old-fashioned picnic between two lovers who needed a casual getaway from the daily grind. To his relief, she agreed without any further discussion.

“Where’d you have in mind?”

Arnie crossed his arms, “It’s been a while since we’ve strolled down the riverside. Secluded with a beautiful view; it’s the most likely spot. I’m sure our favourite woodlark would be glad to see us again.”

Ellie shook her head, “Oh gosh, don’t speak of that darn bird. I hope it’s been eaten by a fox.”

“Now, now,” Arnie tutted. “Don’t be naughty.”

They shot each other suggestive little smirks and Ellie carefully blotted more polish remover on her cotton ball. The delicate wisps of attraction forming between them fell like a lead balloon, overtaken by the pungent mephitis of acetone. Arnie exhaled a small sigh of repugnance and yanked the beaded cord of their ceiling fan. How anyone could bear to work in a nail salon for eight hours a day was beyond him. Thank goodness for the Great Outdoors.

~~~~

The sun was on full display the following day, positioned high in the sky before a swathe of light blue. But Arnie, having been declared a chartered meteorologist by the Royal Met some decades ago, was privy to the forecast since clocking in on Monday morning. There was no need to be concerned about the time they chose to leave. The sun promised to peck their cheeks and there was an intermittent breeze that blew in before any perspiration could speckle their brows. It was a lovely afternoon to pack a basket of homemade turkey paninis, Grecian salad, and chilled Sauvignon Blanc; and loll by the river without a care in the world.

From the moment they parked the old sedan, Arnie and Ellie’s attraction to one another was palpable. They had reverted to two heart-eyed schoolchildren, swinging their interweaved hands and stealing kisses here and there. They had become acquaintances from working in the same news station but, due to an eventual failed relationship on Ellie’s part, two years passed before Arnie could express his feelings. Not a soul in the office expected his wish to be granted. He was the epitome of the taped-spectacles sort who spent his leisure time reading Sagan and Dawkins while she was the girl whose clique slipped phony love letters into his desk.

But, to everyone’s surprise, his sentiments were reciprocated with genuine intrigue and they quickly became the talk of the town. A handful of colleagues thought them to be replaced with children on stilts playing dress-up, as it was impossible for the two to withhold a bout of flirting if they did so much as pass each other in the hall. Their love was overt and colourful, but no one expected otherwise from the man who had zero shame in presenting the forecast in mouse ears and falsetto.

Upon reaching the grassy shore, they spread out their factory-made Persian picnic blanket and dished out their meals. They ate, drank, and talked up a storm until the last crumb was devoured and the last drop of wine had been quaffed (the bottle was already open, mind you). The one thing left to do was lay sprawled on their magic carpet and watch the clouds glide across the firmament.

“Y’know,” Arnie said, wrapping his arm around Ellie to pull her in close. “We’ve been together for a little over a year, yet I’ve never once asked you about your favourite cloud.”

“What kind of question is that?” she asked.

“A non-rhetorical one.”

“Why would I have a favourite cloud, of all things?”

“Because everyone has one?”

Ellie peered up at him and scoffed, “Come on, Arnold, you know most people don’t care. I doubt anyone gives the sky a second look unless a dark shadow starts looming overhead. How many times have you ranted about how ill-prepared people are for the day’s weather?”

Arnie clicked his teeth. She did have a point. “Is this another way of saying that you, Miss Elenya, only admire the sky when you fear the wrath of the heavens is imminent?”

“The sky looks pretty blue to me.”

“Ha ha,” Arnie monotoned. “It’s my fault I’ve been slacking in teaching you about meteorological phenomena.”

Ellie turned to the side and plucked a tiny, white flower from the dirt before resuming her erstwhile position. “Now when I think about it, you sound like someone I went to school with. As soon as we learned about cumulo-this and stratus-that he was hellbent on getting everyone to tell him their favourite cloud. He carried around a stenographer notebook to tally the nonexistent results.”

Subtle disappointment coursed through his veins. Or, perhaps, it was his arm beginning to succumb to exhaustion. Either way, his mouth downturned into an affected pout and his voice dropped to sotto. “I can’t believe I’m not the first guy to pose the question...”

She poked the tip of his nose, “‘Fraid not!”

“So?”

“So what?”

“What was your response?”

Ellie began to ceremoniously tear at the petals, “I dunno—cumulus? Pretty much the standard answer for anyone who’s not a storm chasing fanatic.” The wind carried the floral feathers somewhere into the distance, and when the stem was bare she chucked it aside.

“Good girls prefer cumulus and bad boys nimbus.” His words sounded almost proverbial.

“Since you’re neither, where does that place you?”

Arnie held his breath for a moment, then jolted upwards and sneezed into the crook of his arm. “Whew. Excuse me,” he sniffed. “My favourite cloud...either a noctilucent or an undulatus asperatus, although the latter has yet to be officially classified by the WMO.”

“Nocturnal asparagus,” she said in her best mocking impression of him. “Leave it to you to say two clouds no one’s ever heard of. What’s wrong with cirrus? Too common?”

“Hardly,” he folded his legs and turned to face her head-on. “But pretend I was an etymologist. ‘What’s your favourite bug’ you ask, and I reply with a brusque ‘Moths’. An unrealistic answer for someone who considers themselves a steward of the insect realm. Instead I would say...well, I’m not familiar with moths, but I am with clouds.”

Ellie perched her head on her hand and smiled. It was a coy smile, but instead of being accompanied by fluttering lashes or lascivious whispers, it evoked an unspoken “Do go on” which Arnie heard loud and clear. She was the first girl he’d dated who didn’t mind his erudite ramblings—in fact, she seemed to relish in them (then again, he was far from being a man who had scores of women eager to run into his arms at a moment’s notice). “I like the sound of your voice,” was her reasoning. A stark contrast to the hordes who weren’t afraid to confess the opposite.

“There are five main genera of clouds,” he began. “Stratiform, cirriform, stratocumuliform, cumuliform, and cumulonimbiform—”

“And uniform, outperform…”

“Inform, reform...we can go on for days!” he chuckled. “Anyhoo, within those five genera there are distinct species which can be further subdivided into varieties. Undulatus asperatus has a cumuliform structure and a stratiformis species. In other words, tufts of clouds spread into a sheet. Now imagine those clouds being, as the name suggests, undulated, as if you were shaking out this blanket. They would take on the appearance of ripples, sound waves, what have you, and when you look up...you feel as though you’ve been transported beneath a turbulent sea.”

“Huh, that’s interesting,” Ellie said. “I think I can visualise that.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I left my thunderbolt at home.”

“What about the other one? The—”

She was interrupted by an increasing cacophony of chatter—a group of young adults who were hankering for a swim by the look of their rolled chinos and bathing suit tops. “Damn,” Arnie thought. First the lark and now a bunch of rambunctious first-year university students. Their secret hideaway had been infiltrated.

Ellie turned around, glanced at the coterie, then, lying supine, propped herself on both forearms. Arnie was playful, but also easy to annoy. His glare never strayed from the students despite them paying no mind in return. Their exuberant voices constantly layering over one another soon faded as they passed by. When quietude returned, Ellie resumed her question without a hint of perturbation.

“Gosh, I already forgot its name. The other cloud?”

“Noctilucent,” Arnie said.

“Noctilucent. I’m guessing that’s some aurora borealis-looking thing?”

His shoulders relaxed, “If the charged particles were static cirrus clouds, that would make a decent comparison. Coincidentally, they’re also the highest cloud—residing in the mesopause penthouse—and are usually seen in higher altitudes.”

Ellie extended a hand, which Arnie gently pulled to help her sit to attention. “I’ve always wanted to see the northern lights.” Her voice was soft and wistful. “But I can’t imagine travelling to Iceland or any country where the only season is winter. I can’t stand the cold.”

“That’s no surprise,” he said. “You’ve barely any blubber on you. The slightest nip in the air and you’re bundled in a parka made of mammoth fur.”

She smiled wryly and leaned forward to kiss him, “You know what?” she said. “I’ve changed my mind.”

The sudden tangent caught him off guard. Considering it was an unexpected twist that he’d be utterly daft to complain about, a smirk naturally spread across his face. “Oh? About?”

She pretended to slide in for another velveteen kiss. Instead, she held a scarlet-tipped finger to his lips, “You do talk too much.”

“And you enjoy every minute of it.”

They sat for a moment in unfettered silence, speaking only through impassioned stares. Arnie couldn’t help but replay the mental recording of how beautiful she was; paying respect to whomever led her to apply for a job at the news station; how he was the luckiest man on this side of the galaxy. If the cassette were in his hands, it would be a tatty mess of tape.

It was Ellie who was the first to break contact. Her attention moved to the sky. Arnie wondered what she was thinking, what she was making of these new shapes.

“Vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top,” was her response.

He followed her gaze east north-east. Between the malleable blobs was a cloud with a pillow shape to it—also known as a square. How uninspiring. He never claimed to be the creative one in the relationship.

“We must live under two different skies,” he said.

Ellie turned to him with her head cocked. “What?”

“Where on Earth are you seeing these things? Ice cream, flowers, castles guarded by ferocious dragons? My goodness, did you sprinkle something illicit in your wine or are you becoming a lightweight?”

“That’s what happens when your nose is too deep in those science journals,” she joked. “But seriously, since you said that earlier I can’t stop thinking about ice cream. I’m debating on whether or not we should get some on the drive home.”

While he had shared the same penchant for dessert earlier, a new idea had since sprouted in his thoughts. One that was just as sweet and required nothing in the way of transportation or currency. Still, they hadn’t packed a proper treat and a request for soft serve wasn’t a proposition he’d decline. “With chocolate sauce and whipped cream?” he purred, and planted a deep smooch of his own upon her lips. “I know just the place…”