Only Sky Above and Below
Previously published in (b)OINK
The bounce house cut loose from the earth, long metal stakes zippering from the ground in a staccato of dirt clods. It soared into the space where the sky used to be. Trees dipped in the wind while parents watched silently, balancing clear and dark drinks in their hands. Some of them turned their gaze to the ground. Others stared toward the hollow corona of the sun. Most closed their eyes altogether. One mother raised her hand, and the roar of the wind was so loud that no one heard the ice cubes clinking in her glass.
The bounce house cartwheeled across the pale blue firmament, lustrous red and canary yellow trading places again and again. Inside, many small hands clung to whatever purchase they could find. A young girl smashed her face against the vinyl and felt her eyeglasses crunch against her cheek. The boy next to her looped his foot through the mesh window, big toe poking through a hole in his yellowed sock. Screams crescendoed into silence as their vocal cords hemorrhaged. It was impossible to hear anything except the wind anyway. Each time one of the children slipped into the wide maw of the sky, the bounce house was buoyed and soared higher still.
A chattering of starlings found its hive-mind ballet interrupted. Coyotes looking for the moon ceased howling and tucked their snouts into crossed paws, the scent of chaparral dry and musky in their nostrils. A rabbit dismounted from his mate and scrabbled through a tangle of olallieberry vines, pressing himself flat against the dark loam such that the turning moon shadow missed his body completely. A kettle of hawks, not accustomed to company, found an excuse to part ways and swiveled into the night sky while no one was watching. The starlight was bright and then it was gone, the horizon turning out of darkness.
The bounce house pursued the warm eddies and rode them in a burlesque spiral. It caved to the cold downdrafts and smarmed earthward before rising again. It circled the earth and the sun circled it, inflexible vinyl searing to the touch or brittle with cold. Above and below the thick cumulus clouds, messengers of light beamed across the red and the yellow, across child-colored hands. When, high above Auckland Island, a white-faced heron careened into the side of the bounce house, ice crystals levitated from its surface as though they might drum back down, and were instead whisked into nothing by the wind. Over East Haven, the bounce house dipped so close to a graveyard that the stones jostled inside the earth.
The girl with the crushed glasses found a way to hang on. Eventually, her fingers discovered a dangling thread. She worried at it as light and darkness moved in turn across the tiny space she occupied. She wrapped the thread round and round her index finger until the tip swelled purple, and then she leaned back from the billowing bounce house and let the bright blue sky find her body. The thread tensioned and she was a fish on the line, reel spinning so fast it might burst into flames. The seam opened like a stocking split at the calf, stale air whooshing out to meet clean. The bounce house was a kite. It was a flat scabbard gliding toward the trees. It sunk beneath power lines, red and yellow pooling like a sunset into a field of switchgrass not far from where it first set adrift. The wind dispersed, and quiet fell over the moment. After a time, birds began their tentative calls and grasshoppers rubbed their forewings in the fading heat of the day.
The remaining children stood and stretched, rolling out their shoulders, flexing their frozen fingers. Their faces were sunburnt and raw, lips peeling white. The parents arrived in a swell of dust and sirens and gathered tears. They approached the bounce house with something resembling reverence. When they opened their arms into misshapen vees, the children strode past them, past the flashing lights and the dust and the careful eyeliner, switchgrass bending around their young hips. They walked toward the horizon of shadows like a reckoning, and the parents had no choice but to plod in consonance atop the deflating bounce house until every last sigh had been pressed out into the world.
Jad Josey lives on the central coast of California. In the spring, the wind blows hard enough to set bounce houses adrift. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Passages North, Bird’s Thumb, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. Visit him online at www.jadjosey.com or reach out on Twitter @jadjosey.