Joe Baumann

Where Can I Take You When There’s Nowhere to Go

Even though Peter Vanderwaal told us not to bring gifts to his birthday party, we all knew Roddy DeCosta would show up with a box, wrapped in shiny paper, containing one of his clouds.

The party was actually a week after Peter’s eighteenth birthday because his parents were out of town and his stoner cousin Gage could buy a keg and enough Popov for hundreds of Jell-O shots that he and Peter chilled in the refrigerator, moving the milk and cold cuts out onto the front porch where the frigid February Missouri air kept them cool. Peter lived off one of the state highways that wound through the rural capillaries northwest of St. Louis, a thirty-plus minute drive for most of us who lived in Clayton and the Central West End. But we liked Peter’s house, situated on acres of farmland his parents rented out to the neighbors because they had no idea how to manage rows of corn and soybeans. The yard was good for bonfires with a generous fire pit and held a huge net-encased trampoline, an elaborate treehouse that was a good place to hook up, and a small yurt made of canvas and cross-hatched beech, which his younger brother had erected as part of his Eagle Scout project.

Everyone loved Peter, who was the swim team captain. He had the right kind of body for it, lean in the waist but thick in the shoulders. That’s why he went to school with us, so far away from his house when there were plenty of other St. Louis academies and public high schools in between: our coach had a reputation for sending student athletes to the best programs in the country, and had even produced a few Olympians whose photos hung in the natatorium. Peter had been recruited by Texas, Florida, and Cal as early as our freshman year; he’d missed a bunch of school for campus visits in the last two years and had decided to go to Georgia. He always smelled of chlorine, but on him it was like cologne instead of chemical. His hair was flowy and beachy and blond-streaked.

Most of us arrived at eight or nine, even though Peter had told us Gage would arrive with the beer by seven; we had to satiate our parents with family dinner. They didn’t really care what we did, so long as we promised not to drink and drive and that if we did anything besides slosh Smirnoff or Bud Select down our throats that we would use protection or make sure the quantities we smoked or snorted weren’t deadly. We were the children of lawyers and accountants, hedge fund managers who didn’t know what to do with us except set us up with trust funds and easy access to private colleges and universities via large donations for new fine arts buildings or at least renovated dormitory wings.

Roddy DeCosta showed up at 9:15 with his black hair slicked back, a bomber jacket tight around his shoulders, his Vans dirty as usual, the right one’s sole flapping and falling apart. No one could tell if he was trying to appear cool by arriving so late or not. Roddy had a reputation for charging into school after the bell for homeroom had rung, and he was constantly serving detentions for “egregious tardiness,” as our demerit reports said, which went home with us every three months and we all forged our parents’ signatures on. But we knew Roddy’s parents didn’t care. They both worked as phlebotomy techs at Barnes-Jewish and were hardly ever home, leaving Roddy alone in their tiny apartment on Arsenal, where we knew he and his mom and dad lived in a cramped two-bedroom above a Bosnian family that was constantly using the communal grill behind the building to roast cevapi and pljeskavica. Roddy played basketball and was the starting point guard for our team, which wasn’t very good. But Roddy stood out, handling the ball with aplomb, staying low, threading it between his legs, crossing up opposing defenses with his fast feet and surprisingly good shot from distance. He was a scholarship kid; even his uniforms had been donated or paid for by some kind of endowment. He rarely spoke in class, but when he did, people listened. Everyone knew he was smart because of the way he talked about feminist criticism and demonstrated a mastery of Derrida in AP English. He mostly kept to himself, writing stories during study hall in a Moleskine. Rumor was that he’d had a few of them published in literary magazines, and not just our shitty student-run one that Mr. Harker, the faculty adviser, was always trying to get Roddy to contribute to or even run as editor-in-chief. Roddy always said no, for whatever reason. He was a mystery none of us had ever cracked.

*

When Roddy arrived, Peter was already feeling tingly and light thanks to the bowl Gage had made him smoke. He didn’t usually go in for that, using his swim training as an excuse, laughing and mumbling about his lung capacity and endurance. Because of his reputation and the whispers about his upward trajectory, people let it go; as long as he was his smiling, gregarious self, people let Peter do whatever he wanted. When Gage offered to underwrite the party, Peter couldn’t say no. Gage promised not to invite any of his drinking buddies, who were also his drug-using buddies, who were also the kind of people who wouldn’t respect Peter’s embargo on going inside beyond the mudroom off the side of the house. They were the kind of people who would bring more serious stuff than weed to a stranger’s house. Gage was good at keeping his promises, though, so when he said, “Invite list is all you, bro,” Peter believed him.

Peter watched his classmates come stomping up the angled driveway and around the side of the house, girls in skirts way too short or sheer—or both—for the weather, guys bundled up in cardigans and Henleys, some of them with the sleeves rolled to their elbows. All his classmates looked the same, he thought. They all wanted the same things—booze and drugs, and eventually four years at expensive universities that their parents cared about more than they did—and he was, frankly, bored by the thought of a night with them around. Though he would never admit it, he really only cared about seeing Roddy.

*

Roddy first made a name for himself in third grade when, during a unit on clouds, he started creating them. Elbows propped on his desk, hands curled in a bowl like he was cupping them to catch water, he was listening to Ms. Miller’s voice, soft and puffy just like the clouds she was describing. Roddy pictured one of them there in his palms, gathered out of the air to swirl above his fingers, and then suddenly, there it was: a little cumulus the size of a softball. He heard giggling behind him but didn’t turn to look. He let the cloud dissipate, which took no more effort than imagining it crumbling into the air. Then he pictured a cirrus, thready and thin and ethereal, and there it was, too. The laughter grew louder, crescendoing when he made a little cumulonimbus that croaked out a tiny peal of lightning that sounded like a finger-snap and was followed by a little boom of thunder like the noise of a door slammed two rooms away. Ms. Miller looked around and saw Roddy sitting in his seat in the row nearest the window, two desks back, and asked what he was doing. When he blinked and said, “Making clouds,” she looked ready to faint. His parents were called, not understanding what was wrong, and then he was gone for weeks, hauled around to specialists, doctors, even scientists, who all shrugged and confirmed what Roddy had said: he made clouds.

As he got older, the clouds got larger. Classmates made requests. They asked him to summon up storms that would short the electricity on campus so they could get out of class early. They begged for snow the night before big history tests or rain in advance of the compulsory mile runs for Presidential fitness. But Roddy shook his head every time, saying he couldn’t do anything that big. He didn’t really know, but he was afraid to try. After that first cloud, which had felt so light and glorious between his hands, his parents sat down with him and told him: Be careful. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, heels knocking against the frame. His father squatted in front of him, looking tired. His mother, in the chair that sat shoved against his tiny writing desk, looked afraid. He knew how hard they worked, and as they told him he needed to keep the clouds to himself, he stared down at his hands. He frowned, wondering how something that had made him feel so nice—pinpricked with light, breezy with the gauzy wisps that emerged from his fingertips—could be something he had to hide.

*

We stood around with our plastic cups in our hands, our vision swimming, bodies warmed against the night by the alcohol. We watched Roddy scan the dark for Peter, who was finishing a keg stand, his sweater riding up to show off his lean swimmer’s torso. Gage was chanting out Peter’s time, reaching twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. Peter kicked his legs and his teammates Bo Durgle and Mike Partridge lowered him to the ground. Peter wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt, let out a loud belch, received hooted applause, and blinked into the dark.

Gage was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt despite the cold, his left arm covered in tattoos, vague swirls of green and blue and yellow topped along his deltoid, with Chinese characters that he probably thought meant something like “Peace and Knowledge” but probably really translated to something like “Dog fart soup.” Gage had gone to high school with our older brothers and sisters, and despite his shitty grades in the most rudimentary English and history and bio classes he’d scored a 35 on the ACT, and his PSATs were good enough for a National Merit Scholarship, if only he’d had any interest in college. Besides selling pot and shrooms to teenagers, he was on the payroll at his father’s company, which did something with supply chain management, but we were pretty sure Gage wasn’t asked to do anything even close to a nine-to-five job, nothing that involved a desk or a tie. Both of his ears were punched with studs that glinted when they caught the floodlight perched over the back of the garage. He winked at Roddy, who looked down at his hands, still holding the box.

Peter took the gift and Roddy took the beer Gage held out for him.

“Heavier than I’d have thought,” Peter said. Roddy only nodded in response. Then, while Peter peeled back the paper, careful not to tear it, fishing an index finger beneath a loose flap and slowly pulling the adhesive away, Roddy drank. Those of us nearby saw the slight tremor in his hands, the nervy way the surface of the piss-yellow liquid shivered. He took a long, hard gulp, his face pinching in at the shitty, metallic taste. We didn’t see Roddy at many parties. We didn’t know what kind of drinker he was. But he finished that first beer before Peter had shimmied the paper off the box and when he held out the cup for a refill, Gage, grinning like a satyr, happily provided.

*

The box, beneath its wrapping, was plain cardboard. Peter folded the glossy green paper into a neat square and tucked it into his jeans pocket. He licked his lips, tasting the tart beer and the burning shots that his fellow swim team members had plied him with. They’d practically drained a flask down his throat immediately upon their arrival.

He had watched Roddy handling his clouds for years, kids cornering him after school or in the cafeteria, not demanding, exactly, that he make them, but begging, an edge of command in their voices. Roddy always acquiesced, spinning them out of nothing like he was making cotton candy but without the vat of superheated sugar and hot air. Sometimes he would pass them on to whoever had made the request, moving clouds into their cupped hands with the care one might hold a Faberge egg or a Ninfea sculpture. Peter never asked for one, though he felt a hard yearning to feel Roddy’s hands, to know what their folds and lines and fingertips felt like. What magic, he thought, must live there.

The box’s edges were held down by mail tape. Peter looked at Roddy and said, “Help?”

Roddy passed his cup to Gage. He slid his hands under the box. Peter, feeling everyone’s eyes on him, swallowed and tried to hide the nerve tingling through his limbs. He kept one hand on the top of the box as he pulled at the tape, pressing down so nothing escaped. Then, finally, with an approving nod from Roddy, he pried the upper flaps apart, slow and careful, as if a precious kitten might leap from the inside.

Nothing came flying out, nor did any cirrus or stratus dissipate into the air. Peter looked down into the box and frowned.

“Go on,” Roddy said.

Peter dipped his hands in and pulled out what looked like a crystal ball, a little bigger than a softball. Inside was a thick puff of white, like cotton.

“Cumulus,” Roddy said. “I remember you saying it was your favorite.”

Peter turned the glass ball in both hands. He and Roddy had spent little time together, though Peter had caught sight of Roddy at swim meets, sitting by himself at the top of the wooden bleachers that the small cadre of enthusiastic fans liked to stomp on. Peter, as he knifed through the water during the freestyle, could hear the thrumming like he was in the center of an earthquake. His eyes would always flick toward Roddy when he breached the surface after the final touch, ignoring the clapping of his coaches and cheers of his teammates and fans, able to look to where Roddy sat without detection, eyes occluded by the dark tint of his goggles. Roddy was never clapping, but he was always looking right down at Peter, eyes warm and congratulatory, even if his hands were like stones.

He held the globe up to his face.

“I do love cumulus.”

Roddy shrugged. “You mentioned it in grade school.”

“You remembered after all this time.”

“Yeah,” Roddy said. “All this time.”

*

When Peter asked if Roddy would come with him to put the cloud away inside—“For safety’s sake”—Roddy didn’t hesitate to nod yes, but inside his jacket and behind his ribs, his heart was thudding like he’d swallowed a gallon of Red Bull. In the mud room, Roddy kicked off his shoes without being asked, and he caught how this made Peter smile.

“I like your house,” he said.

“Have you ever been inside before?”

“No.”

Peter laughed, but it was kind. He waved for Roddy to follow him through the mud room. The farmhouse was all dark oak and wide archways, a baby grand piano tucked into the corner of the great room whose leather sofa was buttressed by marble-topped tables upon which sat Ellard lamps. The wooly staircase was freshly vacuumed, a smell Roddy loved. He gripped the banister tight, his legs wobbly with alcohol. He watched Peter guzzle beer, upside down, and was in awe of the way he took the stairs two at a time, leaping with the grace of a gazelle. When Peter turned to watch Roddy take the last half of the staircase one step at a time, Roddy felt like he was lit up by a spotlight.

Peter flicked on his bedroom light, contours erupting with shape and color: a clean queen-size bed with a rich chocolate quilted comforter and stark white bed skirt, the combination making it look like he slept on a gargantuan ice cream sandwich; a desk built into the wall beneath three spacious shelves that held his many swimming trophies and medals and ribbons; framed photos arrayed at different heights around the room of Peter in his swimming gear, arms dotted with liquid, his Speedo revealing the cut of his hip bones and the long roll of muscle that scrolled from belly button to ribs; a neat dresser where a photograph of his family sat above a drawer left slightly ajar, the elastic edges of boxer shorts sticking out.

Roddy tried not to look at the photos or the underwear. If Peter felt strange having Roddy in this intimate space, he didn’t show it. Peter was staring at his bureau, one finger pressed to his lips, which were slitted open the width of a coin, his other hand hugging the cloud and its globe to his right hip.

“This is the right spot,” Peter said. He turned. “Don’t you think?”

“I think it should be wherever you want it.”

“That’s sweet.”

Roddy felt his cheeks redden. He sat on the end of the bed. “Your photos are cool.”

“My parents did that.” Peter shook his head. “They pay a photographer to go to my meets. It’s embarrassing.”

“It shows they care, doesn’t it?”

Peter shrugged as he lifted the globe. Roddy remembered putting the cloud in there, how he wasn’t sure if it would work, settling the globe—bought at a craft store for more money than he thought a simple glass ball could cost—in his palms, pushing the cloud to the forefront of his mind. Every time was a little different. Sometimes he felt thirsty after, others like he needed to pee. His head throbbed, or he felt buzzed, or like he had just woken from a long, satisfying sleep. His hands trembled after, tips tingling with ice, other times fire, as if he’d been stung by something. He’d felt a long thrill when the cumulus appeared inside the glass; he’d been sure it wouldn’t work, but there the cottony purl was, bobbing in the globe.

“They care about what it says about them.”

“Sorry?” Roddy looked up from his hands. He felt his cheeks flush.

Peter turned to him and gestured toward the photos. “They’re proud of themselves for what they did to make me.”

“Make you?”

“I hated swimming as a kid.” Peter came and sat down next to Roddy. “But I was so good at it, even from a young age. They made me keep going, convinced me I had a gift.” He looked down at his hands, palms up on his thighs. Roddy followed his gaze. “It was their discipline, not mine, that made me what I am.”

“Oh.”

Peter jolted then, as though he’d been zapped with electricity. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to get heavy.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s a party,” he said. “I shouldn’t ruin the party.”

“You’re not ruining anything.”

“I didn’t even want to throw this stupid thing. I hate parties.”

“You do?”

Peter stood, nodding. “But what can I do? I can’t hide out.”

“We could go for a walk,” Roddy blurted, then immediately regretted it. But then Peter smiled, a real rosiness in his cheeks.

“Yes,” he said. “I’d like that.”

*

As with any party, its purpose evaporated, and instead of worrying about Peter and whether he was enjoying his celebration, we were concerned about keeping our buzzes strong. A cadre of boys started canoe races while the girls filed into the bathroom connected to the mudroom, traveling in small herds to talk and take turns on the toilet. Someone produced a flask, a handful of pills. We didn’t ask what they were before popping them onto our tongues and washing them down with hard, lighter fluid-tasting tequila. Our vision spangled, and someone threw up in the grass. Gage watched, shaking his head and laughing at us.

A few of us wandered inside. The kitchen was sparkling clean and smelled of lemon verbena. When we called out, no one answered. Peter’s bedroom was dark and empty. Someone flicked on the overhead light.

We weren’t sure who picked up the cloud first, but it got passed all around. It landed in each of our hands with a surprising lightness, barely heavier than a beach ball. The glass was cool, the cloud a thick puff of moisture that had left some bits of condensation along the curve. We held it up to our eyes like a telescope, looked at one another through the thick fiber.

“How do you think he does it?” someone said.

“He doesn’t know. No one does.”

“How do you know that?”

“You think no one’s ever asked him?”

“There has to be some explanation.”

“Okay, Einstein. What do you think?”

“I don’t have a fucking clue.”

“Neither do his doctors. I heard he sees doctors all the time.”

“Do you think it hurts him to do it?”

“Why would it hurt?”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“I bet he gets to see doctors cheap because of his parents.”

“What about his parents?”

“Working at the hospital.”

“Please. They’re techs. They’re like the busboys of the hospital.”

“What, and the servers are so important?”

“Doctors are like the managers, dumbass.”

“You think a doctor is like a McDonald’s manager?”

“You guys are idiots.”

Someone tossed the globe up in the air. The cloud flashed in the light.

“Careful with that thing!”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not ours. You could break it.”

“Chill out.”

“Put it back.”

“Jesus. Stop hitting me. I’m putting it back.”

We set the cloud down on the dresser, arguing about where exactly it had sat. Peter noticed these kinds of things. Some of us had tried to surprise him on his sixteenth birthday, decoding his locker combination and stuffing it full of balloons. Instead of opening it to a spill of inflated rubber, Peter paused before spinning the lock and frowned, saying that he always left it on the number one. We scoffed, but he knew we’d done something. When one of the history teachers showed up without her wedding ring on, Peter stayed after class to ask her if she was okay. He didn’t use the word divorce, but word spread quickly. Rumor was that she’d broken down crying in front of Peter, and he’d held out a packet of Kleenex that he kept in his backpack, a gesture that only made her sob more.

Eventually we agreed on the placement of the cloud. We stared at it for one more moment before backing out of the room. We slid outside and asked Gage if he would help us with keg stands. We took turns dangling in the air, beer rushing into our mouths, fighting against gravity as we swallowed. The cold was different with our bodies alight, legs kicked upward, dresses threatening to reveal our panties, t-shirts revealing our slabs of belly. We counted out seconds for one another, our voices crashing across the fields. After each turn we clapped and cheered, even for those of us who could only manage a few seconds. We wiped our mouths with the backs of our hands and laughed at our fresh buzzes, at the way the world tilted and teetered as we regained our bearing.

*

Peter liked walking his rural street at night even though his parents thought it dangerous, as if he wouldn’t see headlights coming and would be run over by some wayward driver swerving onto the shoulder. He snuck out all the time, shuffling along the road, feet kicking at the dust and scutch grass. Peter liked to listen to the zither of katydids, watch the blink of fireflies or feel the crunch of snow beneath his feet. The road tonight was clear, the grass dead and limp.

“Thank you for the cloud,” Peter said.

Roddy nodded.

“How long will it last?”

“Last?”

“In the globe. Won’t it eventually, like, disappear?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You’ve never made one like that before?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Roddy said. “I guess I haven’t had a reason to.”

Peter took in a deep breath. He felt the light of the stars above. The night was cloudless, and he wondered if, somehow, Roddy wasn’t responsible for the dazzling view.

*

When they reached a curve in the road, Peter sighed and said, “Maybe we should go back. I only usually go this far.”

“What’s around the bend?” Roddy said.

“More of the same.”

“I like it out here. It’s quiet.”

“It’s lonely.”

“I guess I could use another beer.”

Peter smiled, his teeth like moonlight. Sometimes Roddy liked to imagine that Peter had a gift beyond his prowess in the pool. Maybe his toes were secretly flippers, transforming only when he was in the water, propelling him to victory as if he were a dolphin shimmying along the lane lines. Maybe he could read minds, or make people love him.

They walked shoulder to shoulder. Roddy didn’t even have a backyard, much less an expanse of endless land to get lost in, and he felt a small jolt of jealousy. He said so, trying to temper the sentiment with a bark of embarrassing laughter.

“It’s not that great,” Peter said. “People only ever want to come out here when I have alcohol.”

“I was joking about the beer,” Roddy said.

“Can I ask you something?” Peter said.

“Anything,” Roddy answered, too fast, meaning it.

“What’s it like, making the clouds?”

“Oh,” Roddy said. He looked down at his hands.

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “You don’t have to explain if you don’t want to.”

“It’s not that. No one’s ever really asked.”

“Really?”

Roddy shook his head, and Peter nodded.

“I get that, actually. Like, no one really cares about the work that goes into swimming. Did you know I haven’t had fried food in, like, years?”

“At least you get to have beer,” Roddy said. Peter smiled but said nothing.

“The stars are nice,” Roddy said. He cringed, looking away. He felt stupid, like he couldn’t say anything right. All the time, on the bleachers, looking down at Peter, he wanted to be close to him, and now here he was, and Roddy was making himself sound like a moron.

But Peter didn’t laugh, or insult him, or say anything at all. He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept walking, taking in a long, deep breath. Roddy tried to do the same, but he was feeling breathless, empty. He stared at his fingers, clenched like claws that he couldn’t relax.

*

We were drunk. Some of us were high. We were cold and tired, even though a fire roared in the firepit, where we made pit stops to improve the circulation in our fingertips. A lot of us were horny. The world was spinning around us, our laughter peals of joy. One girl was crying because her boyfriend broke up with her in the middle of the party, drifting over to join a group of boys who had made a game of standing in a circle and looking down at the ground while one of them threw a heavy stick in the air. The person hit by it had to chug. It was stupid. We were teenagers and we were stupid.

No one had seen Peter or Roddy for a long time. Gage had brought out a tray of Jell-O shots and we were burpy with glucose and vodka. Someone suggested we go on a scavenger hunt for the birthday boy. We called up into the treehouse, but no one called back except for one of the stoners who had failed algebra twice. We marched through the cornfields, screaming Peter’s name. Stalks raked our arms, caught our hair. Some of us dropped our beers and didn’t bother picking them up. A few of us got lost, trapped in the sameness of the withered vines, and started shrieking until others found us and righted us, brought us back to the dim glow of Peter’s house.

And then we tried the yurt.

*

Peter took Roddy to the yurt.

He had spent next to no time inside, and it smelled vaguely of his brother: Mountain Dew and something rancid, the BO of a kid who hasn’t yet figured out that the stink following him around was emanating from his own adolescent armpits.

“Dark in here,” Roddy said.

“There’s a light. Hang on.” Peter rummaged on the ground, felt for the battery-operated lantern his brother kept by the door, and nearly knocked it over with the toe of his shoe. He turned it on, a blast of light that shone over the minimal furnishings: a two-person table, hand-made in the garage, the particle board surface sanded and stained by his brother and father, and a twin-size army cot, the canvas pulled tight.

Roddy sat down. “You come out here a lot?”

Peter shook his head. “My brother. He’s into Scouts and stuff. He spends a lot of time here.”

“Peaceful.”

“It is quiet, I guess.”

“You don’t like it?”

Peter shrugged. He didn’t hate the yurt, but it was a constant reminder of how his parents treated his brother differently: swimming, though it brought Peter popularity, had been an imposition. With Sam, his parents had waited and watched, listening. When Sam asked for a treehouse, his father brought in a contractor to build one. When he wanted to be a Boy Scout, his mother sewed his badges on his sash. When he wanted the yurt, they spent hours researching how best to construct it.

“It’s fine,” Peter said.

He sat down next to Roddy, who pointed toward the far wall, where Sam had pinned a UGA flag to the wall. “You’re going there, right?”

“Yes,” Peter said. His father had wanted him to go to Stanford, but his mother hated the idea of him being so far away; she’d rooted for Tennessee or Mizzou. So Peter picked somewhere neither had wanted. The scholarship was massive, and they couldn’t come up with a good reason to say no.

“Athens, right? Between the hedges?”

“That’s right.”

“You’ll like it, I bet.”

“Have you been there?”

“I’ve never left Missouri.”

“You haven’t?”

“My parents can’t afford it.”

“Oh.” Peter sat down next to Roddy, whose hands were in his lap. “What about college?”

“I’ve applied places.” Roddy shrugged. “Mizzou. UMSL. Wash U, but that’s a joke.”

“Why?”

“Money.”

“What about basketball? Or writing?”

Roddy shook his head. “I don’t know. It feels like I won’t go anywhere.”

“What about your clouds?” Peter said.

Roddy held up his hands. “What about them?”

“Dude,” Peter said. “You could make so much money.”

“How? Being a sideshow freak?”

Peter swallowed a hard breath and felt his cheeks go red. He snatched one of Roddy’s hands in his. The skin was smooth, warm. Tiny calluses dotted the base of his fingers.

“People would pay good money for this magic.”

Roddy said nothing.

“Maybe you could show me,” Peter said, finally. His voice went husky. “You could show me what it’s like. Please.”

So Roddy did.

*

The clouds came fast and easy with Peter’s hand on Roddy’s. The tighter their fingers were intertwined, the quicker they appeared, pluming out like steam.

“Stratus,” Roddy whispered.

They filled the yurt, streaming toward the top and settling in cake-like layers. Roddy kept the look in Peter’s eyes, the doe-like width of his pupils, the wet warmth directed his way, in mind as he worked. But then Peter looked away, watching the clouds rush out of him. He stood, letting go of Roddy, who felt a hard sorrow creep into his chest.

“I’ve never really felt a cloud before,” Peter said. “But I guess you have.”

“I have.”

Peter pushed his fingers through the thickened air. “It’s nice.”

Roddy said nothing, watching as Peter spun in a careful pirouette, threading his body through the clouds. His eyes were shut, and Roddy couldn’t help but wonder if Peter was imagining himself somewhere else. Perhaps Georgia, strumming through the water, surrounded by cheering fans, in a gargantuan natatorium where Roddy would never be. Maybe at the Olympics in some far away country, or at least the national championships, ready to lead his team to victory. Somewhere distant but within reach, the kind of future that wasn’t a flight of fantasy. It wasn’t lost in the clouds.

Roddy felt the air thicken into a dense mist. Rain clouds—cumulonimbus—were the heaviest to let go, drawing something deep from his sternum and the tenderness of his heart.

Peter stopped spinning; Roddy could see that he could see, maybe feel, the difference, how the clouds went from wisp to wet, that a new thickness filled the air.

“Roddy?” Peter said.

But then, a rush of cold: the yurt’s flap opening. And voices. Lots of them.

*

When we shoved in through the door, we felt as though we were on a moor in Yorkshire, England. At first we thought it was smoke, that someone was hotboxing. But we couldn’t smell that earthy, diesel smell.

Someone at the back of our posse swung the door flap open and shut several times, which helped with ventilation, pulling the strings of fog out into the night where they belonged. Slowly, a picture emerged: Roddy looking down at the scuffed dirt floor, Peter staring at him.

Someone should have said something reassuring. Or even laughed, or whistled. Anything to break the silence that engulfed the yurt, the only sound the whispered movement of the clouds, tinkling like a cooling engine.

Before we knew it, Roddy was blowing past us, shouldering his way out of the yurt. We turned to give him room to leave. For a while, Peter just stood there, staring, but then he was out into the yard, calling Roddy’s name, his voice breaking. He finally stopped following and turned to look at us. We stared at Peter, his broad shoulders slumped, his usually vibrant face scrubbed of joy. All we could see behind his eyes was a storm rolling in. We looked past him for Roddy, but he was already gone, disappeared into the dark.

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His first short story collection, The Plagues, will be released by Cornerstone Press in 2023, and his debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.