Meghan E. O’Toole
When I look at the sky over the house, the clouds spell out my name. Gentle hook, the end of an S. The rising slope of A. Two sharp peaks, jagged M.
I first heard it weeks ago, the ringing of a bell in the back of my mind, first when the firework went off just above my head at the lake house on the Fourth of July. How the colors bounded across the water, how the sky drank them back up. The sound in my ears like a high-whine humming.
My brother shot the rocket from the mouth of a Coke bottle. I thought he aimed on purpose, but his hand slipped. The firework, all its light and color vaulted towards me, burst above my head, bang!
Almost blinded, the burn left a pink, raw bald patch.
Mom said that this tender patch of scalp is where angels will pour all of the secrets they want me to share. That’s why it hurts–holy voices burn. But a hole works both ways. Things slip in, things slip out. I can’t remember where I first heard the ringing. It wasn’t this.
Mom had to cut my hair away from the wound. “You look just like your father,” she said and combed it back in place. When she says it I feel Theo’s eyes hot-iron my back.
“Will he be bald forever?” A dart of guilt through Theo’s throat. He always wears a yellow knit hat, even in summer. He pushed it down so it covered his eyes.
Our mother smoothed what remained of my hair. “Maybe,” she said.
“Sucks,” Theo said. “You look messed up, Sam.”
“Theo!” Mom’s voice like a lash. “And whose fault is that? Theo, come back. Apologize.” She followed Theo out, and I sat on the edge of my bed, stared out the window until my vision became small points of color that shifted and rearranged like settling dust.
The whole universe, settling dust.
The ringing in my ears was high and piercing like a tiny voice shouting across open water. Angels. Mom said it was angels, so I strained to understand. Maybe they spoke a different language. Maybe I could learn.
“It’s a voice,” I told Theo the next day as we washed and dried the dishes.
“It’s not.” He squirted dish soap over the stack of plates. Could Theo hear it, I wondered, if he pressed his ear to my skull? I offered to let him try so maybe the angels could talk to him too, but he shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. Anyway, it could be the devil talking to you.”
Summer wore on like a pink eraser. Days and days alone, the two of us trekking through fields or creek-splashing in the shade of the bridge among the littered beer bottles and spray paint cans. “It’s like you steal my whole summer,” Theo said under his breath as we walked.
The whole world talks to me. The sky spells out my name. The wind laughs along.
The next day, Theo left me in the house alone, pulled his hat low and left without a word. I don’t know where he went. Big kid stuff.
I made my own sandwiches, spread peanut butter across bread that tore beneath the smear of the knife. Without Theo, I was bored. I explored dark pockets of the house, opening drawers and flipping through dusty books.
I found a box. In that box were old things, a man’s white shirt packed away in a perfect square, the pearly buttons tasting the first light they’d seen in ages. I unfolded it and smoothed the creases. Beneath, there wasn’t much. Heavy watch, old notebook, handwriting I couldn’t read. I picked up a worn book of matches. Lucky You, the label said in a loud cursive script. I remember Dad would keep these on him. He smoked, and his breath held that fiery smell. Holding my breath, I pinched the head of match and struck. It flared–heat and light. I yelped and dropped it. It fizzled out. When I bend to pinch it from the carpet, I catch a whiff of the shirt, dadsmells, and the angel voice screams.
The ringing in my ears reels it all back. Dad’s starchy white shirt when he came home from work. His big laugh thickened the air like thunder. My ears rung that day, too. I was playing. I was bored and looking through drawers. I remember fitting my small hands around the cold metal of the gun and picking it up from the sock drawer. I sat on the carpet on my knees and held it in my hand. I pointed it at the window and the walls. I glanced at my reflection and pretended to shoot.
Dad walked in. His hand reaching for the gun slowly, and me, just three, tugging back. It was enough to pull the trigger. And then there was Theo, standing over him but staring at me.
The same ringing in my ears.
I ran outside and laid in the grass.
The sky tears itself apart and stitches itself together. I watch under the weight of one atmosphere.
When Theo comes home, he stands over me. His knees are bloody like he fell running. “What are you doing?”
I stare at the clouds. “You’re right. It probably isn’t angels.”
Theo sighs and kneels in the grass. He tugs me up and pulls me close, and he peels his hat off and fits the soft-knit cap over my ears. The ringing fades like movie music.
“Better?” he asks.
I nod. My teeth do not let go of the silence.
The clouds above us are white and moving like ships.
S, A, and M. “The clouds,” I say and shut my eyes. “They’re making shapes. They mean something.”
Theo sighs a little and sinks forward to fix the hat tighter around my head. “They’re just clouds, Sam. That’s just what clouds do.”
Meghan E. O’Toole is from Illinois and is enthusiastic about the sky,
flowers, friendship, and good stories. In 2018, they were awarded LitMag’s
Virginia Woolf Award for short fiction, and they graduated Summa Cum Laude
from Elmhurst College in 2017 with a degree in English and received an MA
in English from Western Illinois University in 2021. Meghan strives to
write from a place of wonder and capture the delight and fascination that
accompanies the experience of being alive.