Cerulean

by James Woodruff

 

When Elle looked up at the sky she saw a gigantic arm. This did not really surprise her; many strange things had been happening lately. Once she mentioned this observation to her mother at breakfast, but the reply, a distracted, “Yes, dear,” mumbled from behind the morning paper, did not exactly inspire attempts at elaboration. Elle had stared at the upraised newsprint for a moment, a wall hiding her mother’s face from view, and had decided it didn’t matter. She would leave Mom to her more important business. She’d figure it out alone.

Elle didn’t mind. This was a mystery and she loved solving mysteries.

*****

It began one spring morning after Elle retrieved her toy box from the bedroom closet. This was part of her daily routine, just as before bed each night she returned the box to its accustomed spot. And although Elle, aged five, was not much larger than the box itself, she did not find it hard to move. It had wheels; her father had installed them.

As Elle pushed the box across the floor, small shockwaves shot upward along both arms. These sensations were pleasant; they affirmed physical reality, an objective truth lying at the heart of Elle’s imaginative life. It would be wrong to leave the chest in the bedroom overnight, even closed and locked. Without physicality, those little jolts, Elle’s world would lose definition and begin to fade away.

Her mother and father thought she might be spending too much time alone with her toys, but neither of them understood. These were not toys; they were Elle’s friends. She was never alone when she was in her bedroom. The argument that it was somehow unhealthy was ridiculous. It wasn’t as if they weren’t real. Weren’t those shockwaves evidence of objective reality?

Elle maneuvered the toy box to the center of the floor and lifted the lid. It slid noiselessly upward on oiled hinges.

Reaching inside, Elle pulled out one friend after another. Dinosaurs came first, these she placed in orderly rows. As she set them down, she began planning her day. Maybe she’d lead her army down the hall to the living room. From there, maybe she’d take it down into the basement and explore.

Elle brought Horace, a T. rex as tall as her forearm, up and out of the box. She set him at the head of the column without giving him a second glance. He was her best fighter (even with his silly little tyrannosaur hands), a natural leader.

There was a light knock on the bedroom door.

Elle glanced up as the door cracked open and her mother peeked in. “Aren’t you hungry for breakfast, dear?” she asked.

Without acknowledging this interruption, Elle returned her attention to Horace. She studied his belly. It was the wrong color.

The door whispered shut, but Elle did not notice this either. She touched the dinosaur’s stomach. It was yellow.

Horace’s belly was supposed to be blue, as blue as the sky.

Still, that he was Horace, and not some impostor slipped into her toy box by The Skeleton King, was an indisputable fact. There were only two fingers on his right claw, a manufacturing defect Elle’s mother claimed, but Elle knew better. He had lost the third finger in a battle, before coming to live with her.

Elle lifted Horace into a beam of sunlight streaming through the window. No, she had not been mistaken. Horace’s underbelly had gone yellow. She knew he did not like this one bit.

Well, she didn’t like it either. Yellow bellies were signs of cowardice.

And if there was one thing Horace was not it was cowardly. He was fearless, at the head of every battle.

Elle’s father told her a ghost story once. She did not recall the story now, only one startling image: A man’s hair turning white after staying the night in a haunted house. She had checked the mirror every morning for two weeks afterward to make sure this hadn’t happened to her.

Elle considered the implications. Had Horace seen something the night before that scared him, made him change color like the man’s hair in the story? If so, what?

No, she reminded herself. This was Horace she was talking about, not one of her stuffed teddies—or that purple dinosaur on TV (the one with the dumb voice and stupid human teeth). Horace could take that purple phony with both of his tiny claws tied behind his back.

Maybe there’d been a battle and she’d slept through it.

Much as Elle wanted to believe this, or something along these lines, it seemed a stretch. There would’ve been noise. She would’ve heard. She hoisted Horace into the light for a second look. Elle pursed her lips, thinking. Horace’s stomach had been blue yesterday. She touched the plastic surface and wished for proof, a photo, knowing none existed. All she had were memories.

Elle kissed the top of Horace’s flat head before setting him down. Then she went to find her mother. Mom would have the answer.

Elle left her room and sped down the outer hallway, slowing when she reached the kitchen door. It would not do to seem too anxious. Her mother would focus on her, naturally, and then ignore the problem itself. Elle opened the door. “Mom,” she began, keeping her voice level as she stepped into the kitchen.

Her mother, sipping coffee, smiled as she looked up from a magazine. “Ready for breakfast, honey?” She gestured across the table at a bowl of Lucky Charms. Elle ignored the cereal, although with difficulty. Lucky Charms was one of her favorites.

Elle forced her eyes to the window. There she glimpsed a trim front lawn, a white picket fence, and the street beyond. Boring. Her eyes drifted downward. Gingerbread men pranced around the rim of her cereal bowl like children around a maypole. There were marshmallows inside the bowl, of course. Puffy white clouds, blue moons.

Blue like Horace’s belly used to be. Elle grimaced, looking away. “Did you or Daddy hear anything last night?” she asked.

“What did you hear?”

Elle pursed her lips, thinking how to reply. Ambiguity was probably best, at least to start. “I thought I heard something is all.”

Her mother shook her head. “I’d say you had a dream,” she said. “What was it you heard? Can you be a little more specific?”

Elle shrugged. “Scratching at the windows.” This had nothing to do with the problem, but it was best to be circuitous. She couldn’t just start with the truth; her mother would never believe it. “Yes, a scratching at the windows.”

“It was a branch, Ellie. Remember how that bothered you when you were small?”

Elle remembered the branch very well, even though she had barely been three at the time. There was an oak tree in the backyard. One of its branches would tap against a distant window during the winter months—tap, tap, tap—until the noise nearly drove Elle mad with fright. The tapping came from half a house away; she imagined it growing louder, moving towards her room inexorably, like a blind man inching along a sidewalk. Tap, tap, tap. Only this was no blind man. It was a huge disembodied claw, all gnarled and rotten. The claw sensed her. It wanted her.

Elle’s father finally sawed the limb off, and the tapping went away. It was supposed to be over.

Her mother said, “I’ll have your father look at that tree again.”

“I’m too old to be scared by any old tree,” Elle snapped, unprepared for the terror rising in her stomach at the thought of the claw. She hadn’t thought of it in a year, why did it still scare her?

She shoved the image of the monstrous thing away, reminding herself she wasn’t a baby, not anymore, a fact her mom often forgot. “I’m sorry, but it wasn’t a branch,” she said, the anger sifting from her voice. “It was something else.”

“Jeeze, hon,” her mother said, wounded. “I’m only trying to help.”

“I know, Mom. It’s just I don’t know what I heard, but I know it wasn’t a branch. Whatever it was woke me up.”

“Maybe a car backfired in the street.”

“Maybe,” Elle said, knowing there had been no car. She decided on a different approach; this might be better handled visually. “Um, can you come into my room for a minute?”

Her mother looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Sure, baby.”

Elle winced at “baby.” Still, she managed a hearty smile. “Thanks, Mom.”

Setting her magazine down, Elle’s mother stood and followed her daughter out of the kitchen. They headed down the hall together. “What is it?” she asked, not hiding her curiosity.

Feigning nonchalance, Elle said: “Oh, I want to show you something.”

The bedroom door was open. Elle stepped in and crossed to Horace. Picking him up, she handed him expectantly to her mother. “Does he look okay?”

Not knowing what she was supposed to be looking for, her mother turned the plastic toy over in her hands. She then glanced at Elle. “What am I seeing?”

“Does he look, I don’t know, different?” Elle did not want to elaborate and influence her mother’s opinion. She must see without being told.

“I don’t see anything,” the adult said. “Wait, it’s missing a claw.”

“Mom,” Elle said impatiently, “you know he came like that. Anything else?”

The older woman shrugged her shoulders. “Honestly Elle, you get funny ideas sometimes. Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?”

Elle sighed; she hated when Mom acted dense. “Does his tummy look weird?”

“No, it looks fine.” Her mother continued to study Horace. “Yellow as ever.”

Elle pictured a claw tapping at a window. Imagined hair turning white. Irritated, she forced these images away.

Horace’s tummy had been as blue as a beautiful spring sky only yesterday. It had! Mommy should know this. She had gotten him for her, but this memory seemed gone, expunged. Fingers of fear gripped Elle’s heart.

“As ever?” she asked, hoping she had heard wrong.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t. Her mother gave a single nod. “Yes.”

The fingers around Elle’s heart tightened. “What’s his name then?”

“Big Bird,” her mother said, giving Elle a curious look. “You named him after the bird on Sesame Street, thinking it would be funny to name a dinosaur after a goofy bird.”

Not so funny, Elle thought, because she had done no such thing. His name was Horace, not Big Bird. That was ridiculous. Who named a dinosaur after a bird? True, birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that was beside the point. Plus, it was stupid.

“Didn’t you remember, dear?” her mother said.

“Oh, yes,” Elle forced a smile, face reddening. “I wanted to see if you did.” She flapped one hand dismissively toward the door. “You can go now, Mommy.”

“Was that…” she set Horace down, “all you wanted to show me?”

Elle gave a curt nod.

Perplexed by her daughter’s odd behavior, Elle’s mother threw one final look over her shoulder before leaving the room. Elle was staring intently at her toy. The woman shut the door behind her.

Elle heard the door close, then listened to the sound of footsteps receding down the outer hallway.

“You are named Horace,” she told her friend, once again giving him her full attention. She glared at his yellow stomach and touched it with her right index finger. “You are.”

*****

Elle hoped Horace’s stomach would revert back to its rightful color overnight. When she was sick she always got better in a day or two, so why shouldn’t it be the same for her friend? Maybe it was like the flu, a passing condition.

But the next morning, after Elle pushed her toy box into the bedroom and opened it, she made a distressing discovery: the dinosaur’s belly remained a cowardly yellow. Crushed, she picked up her friend and hugged him.

Things were supposed to have returned to normal. The rumble of toy box wheels against wood, the familiar shockwaves traveling along both Elle’s arms—these things signaled a return to normalcy. They were proof!

She cradled Horace in her arms, rocking him back and forth. Maybe tomorrow things would be okay, she told herself, although she didn’t really believe it.

She looked down at Horace, saw his belly, and then looked away.

*****

After that, changes occurred regularly about the house. Sometimes they were small. The brand of toothpaste Elle used, for instance. One day Crest was gone, replaced by Aim. This change was okay; Aim squirted from the tube in three colorful stripes instead of one dreary color. It tasted better too.

Other changes were disconcerting, like the sight of a brand new car pulling out of the garage. This wasn’t toothpaste, or even a dinosaur’s stomach. It was so much bigger than either. It gave Elle quite a start, the biggest since Horace.

The family car was a brown station wagon with faux wooden paneling. Or it was supposed to be. One morning, as Elle watched from the living room window, she saw the garage door open and the wrong car emerge. It was a green Maverick (it looked like a giant lime). The car was bad enough, and ugly besides, but the worst thing was her father’s reaction to it. Or his lack of one. He did not seem to notice he was driving a new car. He drove slowly, elbow cocked on the sill, in case there were children playing out front.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised, her parents never noticed these changes. This obliviousness was sort of funny, Elle had to admit, yet also more than a little scary. There was no one she could talk to about things only she could see, no one she could tell who would believe her. Elle had her friends, of course, but you could not fight an unseen foe with a dinosaur army. It was not as simple, say, as another attack by The Skeleton King. She could handle him easily enough. No, this was different. It was all up to her. Her alone.

*****

Through open drapes a diffuse light entered the bedroom. Elle laid there half asleep, listening to raindrops patter monotonously against the window. A nice sound, she decided groggily, and nothing at all like claws.

Elle’s stomach grumbled, but she did not want to leave her bed, even for a bite to eat. She stayed under her blanket, cuddling her favorite teddy, Harold.

And then her eyelids flew open. A wonderful smell was wafting through the half-open bedroom door. Pancakes. Again her stomach grumbled, more insistent this time.

“Okay, okay,” said Elle, throwing back the sheet. She yawned, got up, and went to the window. Her stomach complained at this unnecessary detour. “Just wanted to check the sky,” she told it. The cloud cover looked low enough to touch. She frowned. Rain rapped the glass like fingertips. It would probably rain all day.

She started to turn away, but there was a flash. She stopped turning. A razor thin cut had appeared above, sun bright. It shot left as Elle watched, slicing through the overcast sky, a white-hot scar in its wake.

Higher up a second line appeared. It went left, running parallel with the first. Elle once saw an air show on TV: Airplanes flying in formation, each trailing a thin stream of exhaust. This was like that, a little.

The brightness intensified. Elle lifted a hand to shield her eyes, but not before she saw something. A gigantic arm straddled the sky where the lines had been a moment before. Breath caught in her throat. There was a shirt cuff with a button attached, as big and round as the moon, thread holes glowing like stars. Elle thought the four holes looked like the big dipper.

There was a hand sticking out of the cuff, larger than the water tower on the outskirts of town. It held something, a pencil maybe, or a crayon. Yes, Elle realized with a jolt, it was a crayon. It was the blue of an untroubled sky. Of Horace’s belly.

The gigantic hand shuddered and moved, crayon jittering left to right on a diagonal slant. Blue quickly replaced gray above. The arm began moving away.

Elle thought of the air show and dismissed it. This went beyond all previous experience. She wasn’t scared, yet she was a little anxious.

Was the arm behind the recent strangeness? Yes, about that she was positive. No doubt there was a body attached to that arm—and a head. She’d speak to that head; get whomever it was to make Horace right. This was her golden opportunity. She might never get a second chance.

Rain ceased tapping the window. The arm receded across the sky, taking the clouds with it.

“Hello?” she called, forgetting there was a window. She reached up and scratched glass. Outside, the overcast sky was nearly gone; the gigantic hand worked fast. Elle did not have much time. Fumbling with the bottom latch, she jerked open the window. It stuck halfway up, where it always got stuck.

It didn’t matter. Elle had enough room to fit her head through, barely. As she did so, she twisted her body to look at the sky. The crayon kept drawing, white clouds now puffing out behind it like heavenly exhaust. She pictured Daddy’s old station wagon, not the lime green Maverick, and giggled.

“Hello!” she cried. “Hello!” Elle stuck her left hand out the window and waved heartily, still shading her eyes with the right. “I’m down here.” Her position was uncomfortable, her neck hurt. “Yoo-hoo, I see you!”

The gigantic hand shuddered in place, the world shuddering right along with it. As the house about Elle began to rattle and lurch, she prayed that the window would not come loose and fall, turning it into a guillotine blade. In the room behind, an object toppled and crashed to the floor with a tinkling of broken glass.

Then, in the sky above, the hand ground to a halt. It was over; the house had stopped shaking.

“Hey, whoever you are, I don’t care about anything else, even the ugly car, but can you change Horace back? He’s not a coward. Yellow doesn’t suit him. Please?”

Elle squinted upward. The sun had come out. It was the button, the glowing cuff button. It had become the sun. Or had it been the button all along? Did it matter? No, Elle supposed, it did not. That it was was enough.

The sun beamed down, stroking the little girl’s face with fingers of warmth. “Pretty please?” she said, smiling.

*****

The girl paused as she drew. She used a blue crayon for the sky because she liked nice days. She liked a few clouds, ones like cotton balls. They did not bring rain.

She paused. There had been a noise from the wintry yard outside. It might have been a voice calling, or maybe a bird singing. She peered through the frosted glass at the naked tree and the tire swing. She saw nothing. An inch of snow had accumulated on the swing.

She glanced at the sheet of paper before her on the desk. She would create a dinosaur, she decided, a dinosaur under a clear blue sky. She did not know where the idea had come from; she never did. Ideas always came out of nowhere. She was not fond of giant reptiles, but she liked this idea, liked it a lot.

Once, long ago, she had drawn a dinosaur. She had seen one in a book and tried to copy it. She was little more than a baby, though, and had done a poor job. She smiled at the recollection. She couldn’t even count back then. The dinosaur had the wrong number of digits on one hand, two if she remembered correctly. Its stomach was blue.

She tore up the drawing and tried again next day. This dinosaur was a little better, although she had colored this one’s belly yellow. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. It hadn’t been. Yellow was okay for flowers and suns, not for dinosaurs.

She would use cerulean, the color of sky and her first dinosaur. “I never liked yellow anyway,” she said, speaking as if there was someone in the room with her, but of course there was not, she was alone. Her parents were watching TV downstairs. The girl looked out the window and then went back to work.

There was a sudden break in the clouds above. A stray sunbeam shot through the window, glancing off the little girl’s polished desk. As she turned slightly to get the light out of her eyes, it caught the brass button of her shirt cuff. It flashed, bright as starshine.

 

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