The Air Between Us

Kathleen Boland

The cloud arrived on a Tuesday. None of the family was home when it came, the old clapboard house at the end of the drive just empty and waiting for something like a billowing force to fill it, expand in it, and stay. 

The brother returned home first that day. He came from the post office, where he sorted the town’s packages. He liked this job, liked handling all the different boxes and envelopes. He especially liked shaking packages, the game of guessing insides, of knowing without seeing. He knew the people who bought everything online, even groceries. (Once, he shook a box too hard and dried peas burst from the seams.) He also knew the people who got packages from overseas, the boxes with the wild colored stamps and the wet corners, boxes that were always the most interesting outside, but too well wrapped to guess what was inside. It was one of those foreign packages, an excessively padded box shaped like a fat paddle, that the brother spent that Tuesday morning failing to decipher, that inspired him to tell his girlfriend that he’d never go abroad. He was on his lunch break and she had just joined him. They were eating soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the sidewalk outside the post office when he started talking about how traveling was stupid, how he never wanted to leave the country, how all the best things were right here. 

The brother didn’t know this, but the girlfriend had been unhappy with the relationship for a while. He was a lazy communicator, always grunts and silence when she talked, and his kisses were always tongue first. But the girlfriend wanted to travel, had sought out a boyfriend with the intent of traveling with him, because her mother forbade her to travel alone, and what college-aged girl wants to see the world with a mere friend? She dated the brother, brought him PB&J’s with too much J during his lunch breaks, and told him about the Spanish Steps and Machu Picchu. That Tuesday when the brother said abroad was for idiots, the brother was thinking about paddle-shaped packages packaged to withstand vigorous shaking. But the girlfriend could only think: eight months. She’d put up with grunting phone calls and wiggling tongue kisses for eight months. She was never going anywhere with him. She’d have to find another boyfriend now, have to go on awkward dates and hear about awkward childhoods and discover awkward body hair, and she was tired of that, so tired of it all, she wanted to go to Istanbul or New Zealand or maybe just the state park. So when the brother said he hated abroad, the girlfriend saw eight greasy, worthless months, and she threw her sandwich into the street and broke the brother. Specifically, his nose. 

 The brother biked home with his post office polo pressed against his blood-snotted face and tried not to fall, one hand steering and the other keeping light pressure on his nose. He wasn’t quite sure why he got punched, wasn’t quite sure how much blood he lost, but he knew his girlfriend punched him and his nose cracked and he yelped and she said, “It’s over.” He rolled on the sidewalk groaning until he realized a crowd of people had gathered, all holding sealed flat-rate envelopes. He didn’t return to his shift in the post office, couldn’t, dumped and bleeding and all, so he wadded up his shirt, grabbed his bike, and headed home. He never even figured out what was inside that lumpy, paddle-shaped package.

Bloody and dizzy, the brother wobbled his bike toward the clapboard square he’d lived in his whole life. He threw his bike onto the front lawn and beelined to the bathroom. He didn’t notice the cloud. He, of course, was more concerned with his busted nose. In any case, the cloud was still a faint, misty presence, nothing the brother couldn’t blame on the sharp pain and dizziness behind his eyes.

The brother stared into the mirror and tried to gauge just how crooked his nose was: was the left nostril higher now or had it always been like that, no, it was definitely higher, does this mean there was a bone going into his brain, did a nose even have a bone, what was a nose? He spent most of the afternoon like this, staunching the blood, examining his quickly purpling face, trying to decide if he could feel a bone in his nose, if he should go to the hospital. Every few minutes the brother had to wipe the mirror with his bloodied shirt, thinking the fog was perspiration from his frantic mouth-breathing and not the air congealing darkly around him.

The sister was the next to arrive home. She pulled up in her old sedan and yanked a large suitcase out of the trunk. When she caught sight of her brother’s bike in the front yard, she looked around quickly and dragged the suitcase behind the garage. Walking inside the house, the suitcase safely hid, she called out her brother’s name. She was older than her brother, and, unlike him, immediately noticed the cloud. 

“You smoking again?” she yelled. 

“What?” the brother yelled back. 

The sister found her brother lying on the bathroom floor, the sink and tile floor speckled with blood, the brother’s face a splotchy mess of red and purple and blue. 

“The fuck happened to you?” she asked. 

“I got dumped,” he said. 

 The sister waved at the air in front of her face. The cloud bent around her hand. She sniffed. “Pot or tobacco? I can’t tell.” 

“Are there bones in noses?” he asked.

“Mom and Dad are going to kill you.”

“Can you get me an ice pack?” 

“You’re such an idiot.”

The sister left her brother in the bathroom and stomped through the house, opening all the windows. She was used to cleaning up the brother’s messes; it was, after all, what older sisters do best. But the sister also resented this fact, resented that she never had someone to cover for her messes, and she pulled up every window with a scowl. She was going to fix his mess, yes, but she refused to stick around for their parents to get home. The brother was on his own with that, after all he was, what, nineteen? Twenty? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember a lot of things recently. She had her own mess to clean up—a big mess—and her brain couldn’t place small facts anymore. The only facts she could place: the number of dollars in her bank account and how small it was getting, and the daily schedules of her family members, so she could sneak her things back into her old bedroom without them noticing. 

The sister finished opening all the windows, which wouldn’t help with the cloud (it was there to stay), and went back to the bathroom where her brother was still on the floor, still bleeding and broken.

“You look like shit,” she said. 

The brother didn’t respond; his eyes closed. The cloud hung between them, unmoved by the breeze from the windows.  

“I’m leaving,” she said. 

“Can you get me an ice pack?”  he shouted after her. 

The sister left her suitcase hidden behind the garage. It was filled with books (unread hardcover classics with a few dog-eared fantasy series interspersed), and would be too heavy to drag to her bedroom without the brother hearing. She drove back towards town. She thought about how stupid her brother was. She thought about the new girl living in her apartment, who was already splitting groceries with her old best friend, her old roommate. She thought about how stupid they were. She thought about the new teller her old boss had already hired. She thought about how stupid the new teller must be, and then how stupid her old boss was, with his too-tight khakis and performance-standard binders. The sister hated those green three-ringers, remembered how she scowled when he pulled one out from behind his desk, when he said he reviewed the footage and saw what she did. That he was going to need her to sign these papers and never step foot on bank property again. He couldn’t even make eye contact with her.

Which was fine, the sister thought, because she hated him and hated that job. What computer science major, a magna cum laude graduate, works as a bank teller? And what was a few hundred dollars to a bank like that? Nothing, she thought. She hadn’t told her family she needed to move back home. She didn’t even tell them she got fired. What would she say? That she stole money from her job that she never wanted and was too good for because she developed a shopping addiction to avoid remembering a strange, awkward October night after an office happy hour? That, if she were honest, she didn’t regret sleeping with her boss, not for a second, it had been the first time she’d been touched by another human in over a year and she’d relished every minute, but she definitely regretted getting caught stealing money to pay off her credit card and then tight-pants firing her and, surprise, she was now homeless? 

She couldn’t say that. Unlike everyone else, she wasn’t stupid. 

So on that Tuesday, because she couldn’t go to her old apartment, the sister drove to her local bar. It was dollar pitcher night and she figured she’d kill a few beers until her parents got home and her brother got punished. She guessed the house would probably air out by then, too.

But the house wouldn’t air out by then. That’s not how clouds work. They can’t air out because they are, in some way, air. And the cloud that took over the family’s house that Tuesday wasn’t made of your run-of-the-mill water vapor. It was so humid and heavy you could reach out and shake hands with it, and it would grab your hand and shake back. 

While his son was being punched and his daughter packed books into a suitcase, the father was sitting in a church. The father wasn’t religious—none of the family was religious—and, aside from funerals and weddings, hadn’t been to a church since he was a boy. But he felt he had no other option, he was convinced he had the plague. A week or so before that Tuesday, large red welts had appeared all over his body. They were angry, itching pustules that wept with pus. They covered him from his elbows to the skin between his toes, and he lost sleep over them, not just because they felt like prickling fire all over his body, but also because he had no idea what they were. 

The father wasn’t a sickly man. He got chicken pox back when you were supposed to get chicken pox, which, considering his age, was over forty years ago. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sneezed. He ate things other than hamburgers. But right before the first pustule erupted on his ankle, the father was headed toward his quarterly performance review, a meeting he’d been dreading ever since he accidentally realigned one of his models (a sandwich eaten at his computer, an errant mayo glob, a backspace while wiping) and a silica shipment had gotten lost, which the father didn’t even think was possible, that the numbers on his screen could add up to something concrete in the world. It was at that moment, evaluating the likelihood of his continued employment, that the father had caught sight of a rat scurrying out of an elevator in the office park where he worked. And when, later covered in angry fiery eruptions, he tried to understand where the welts were coming from, he thought of that rat. So he went on the internet and searched his symptoms and lo and behold, he discovered the Bubonic Plague. 

Instead of going to work the father went to a church and prayed that Tuesday. He prayed in the way he thought people prayed, saying please and help and forgive a lot. He also went to the church because a large welt appeared on his left eyelid and he couldn’t see straight. Aside from being unable to read the spreadsheets, the father knew showing up at the office disfigured would cause alarm—he’d somehow only gotten a severe reprimanding for the shipment accident, but he’d been anxious ever since, skipping lunch, wearing ties—and he didn’t want to explain to his supervisors how he had the plague, yes, that plague, the Black Plague, the one with the weird masks, yes, it’s very contagious. He needed his job at the cement company. He hoped his son would stop sorting packages at the post office and go to college eventually, started a savings fund just in case. The mother wanted to go on a cruise to Alaska—she suddenly was super interested in whales—so he had to save for that, too. At least, he thought, his daughter was financially independent. 

The father was correct about a few things: the park was infested with rats, and with those rats came fleas, and while the father sat at his desk manning spreadsheets, he was bitten by a hundred tiny bugs. But he was wrong about one thing: the bugs were not fleas. What he didn’t know was that he was allergic to bedbugs, the very insect that had recently infested the office due to a coworker’s misjudged used couch purchase. 

Convinced that he had the flea-carried pestilence, the father sat in a church pew with sunglasses on and itched and begged God and itched some more. He finally left the church when a deacon approached him, told the father there’d be a blessing for the deaf and blind next month, please come back for the service, here sir, take a bulletin. Disturbed, and feeling especially superstitious, the father wondered if blindness was the next stage of the plague. He rushed back to the clapboard house at the end of the drive to ask, who else, the internet. 

The sister had left by the time the father got home, but the brother was still on the floor of the bathroom. The brother was asleep, which wasn’t the best thing to do since he probably had a minor concussion, but he couldn’t help it; he felt so relaxed on the floor, the cloud coalescing around him in the small room, as if he were draped in a tropical hammock. The cloud formed currents of moisture throughout the house, dense waves that traveled through the pantry and the hallway and the pipes, growing darker with every passing hour. The father, still wearing his sunglasses, walked into the house without noticing his son’s bike on the front lawn or the open windows. He didn’t notice the damp fog in the house. With his swollen eye and tinted shades, he didn’t notice much at all.  

The father booted up the desktop in the kitchen, took off his sunglasses, and fumbled through his pockets for his anti-itch cream. The brother lay sleeping on the bathroom floor. The house was quiet, aside from the beeps of the modem and the sticky slapping of cream against abscessed flesh. The cloud churned. The day became evening and the father, squinting at the computer screen, grew more convinced of his mortal sickness. Did the website say terminal or liminal? Was that a picture of a wart or an eyeball? He brought his face back and forth to the screen as he tried to read the online diagnoses, fighting against what he thought was his rapidly declining sight, never once considering the thick soupy haze in which he sat. 

Like the rest of the family, the mother didn’t go to work that Tuesday. But, unlike her husband, it wasn’t because she thought she was dying of a medieval malady. She struggled with a more fundamental ailment. The mother and father had been married for a long time, since they were their son’s age, which, when she watched her son struggle to re-screw the cap of the juice carton one morning, made her realize: they had been children. Neither of them had slept with anyone else before they’d met and wed. The mother stayed at home and raised the kids while the father went to work at the cement company. They did what they thought they were supposed to do. 

She started to work at the spa soon after the daughter left for college. She enjoyed having a job. She earned her own money and had a schedule independent of her children or husband. But, most of all, she was surprised to find just how much she liked the work itself: the pressing and curling of her hands into the backs, legs, shoulders of strangers. The closeness of it, the preciseness of it. How muscles bent and buckled, that she could calculate the exact moment skin would soften. Eventually, she learned how to twist her wrist so a calf muscle released and how to use her knuckles to make a neck wilt. The control of it, having the ability to mold a body with her hands—who wouldn’t love that? 

The mother was never one for body contact, had always preferred something said or a look given. These days, because she knew the exact way to rub out an Achilles tendon, the mother began to realize she’d never gone out of her way to touch someone else because she’d never known how to do so before. All those thousands of moments of casual physical intimacy with her children, her husband: lost. But now, with this job, the mother understood the mechanics of an easy hug, the air kiss, a handshake; she finally knew the relaxed comfort of reaching out confidently toward another human. 

It also made her recognize a deep urge in her, a carnal one, one that children and propriety had long silenced. Unfortunately for the mother, her husband didn’t readily recognize her new need. After so many years, he had resigned himself to his hand during morning showers or the rare date night after they split a bottle of wine. The mother hadn’t been very forthright when she’d begun to feel this craving, that was true, and at first she had only tried lingering touches or longer kisses. The father didn’t know what to do with her new moves, thought maybe her fascination with nature shows had gone to her head (but, he thought, whales? He once bought body chocolate, even offered to find weed, but he would’ve never guessed whales would do it. . .), and so the father reciprocated, but cautiously: a soft kiss, a shoulder squeeze. 

Recent weeks, however, had made the mother’s urge more insistent. The reason: a new client. A young, male client. A willing client. Of course, the client’s arrival coincided with the father’s plague. Out of fear of contagion, the father had taken to sleeping on the couch and refused to touch anyone in the family. When the mother reached out for a hug on the Tuesday morning before the cloud, she found herself high-fiving her husband. In all their years together they had never once high-fived. The gesture sent her into a spiral. What did it mean? Was there no hope for her desire? Had he lost all urges? Were they that old? Was she that old? And so that Tuesday, when she had an appointment with her new, male client, she noticed how relaxed he was, how genuine his sighs, how moldable. 

She went home that day not expecting company. She walked through the front door of the clapboard house and, what was that? Yes, it was a thrill, a smile, a glow that she felt, but what about the guilt? She was guilty, wasn’t she? And when the mother entered the house, entered the cloud, she realized she couldn’t see anything. The cloud had begun to storm at that point, had boiled itself into a frothing darkness, and the mother could barely see her hand in front of her face. And in that blurred din, she realized that she didn’t feel guilty, which was the deepest guilt of all. And she saw the din, felt the din, and cried out.

At the sound of her, the father looked up from his computer. 

“Hello?” he yelled.

The mother, startled, shouted, “Who’s there?”

The brother stirred on the bathroom floor, awakened by the yelling. He rubbed his eyes, which shot pain through his face and the brother quickly remembered his nose, remembered the blood, and thought: the nose bones—they didn’t go into my brain, they went into my eyes! He scrambled on the floor.

The voices startled him, the father had thought he was home alone. He quickly tried to close the plague websites, unsure if he was doing so, unsure if they were even plague websites, the cloud too thick to see the screen clearly.

“I’m in the bathroom,” the brother yelled. 

The mother stood in the living room, the front door still ajar, the windows open, the cloud roiling. She looked blankly into the air and could only think of muscles and skin and high-fives.

The father stumbled from the computer and felt his way toward the bathroom. He was losing his sight, that was a definite, but if there was anything he could do in these last moments, it would have to be for his family, right? His family would want him to help them. It’s what fathers did. He tripped over a rug and the cloud rumbled. He made it to the bathroom, switched on the light, though it did little against the murk of the cloud. 

The brother started to weep. “I think I need to go to the hospital. My nose bone, it . . .” He tried to sniff, but his blood-clotted snot was too thick. 

The father bent down, unsteady, until he felt his son’s body. He found his son’s face, felt the chips of dried blood and clumps of snot on his cheeks. He called out for his wife, told her to hurry.

The mother moved towards them. She did not think of the haze that surrounded her. She couldn’t think of much beyond her hands. But after so many years in the house, she didn’t need to see to know how to get to the bathroom.

At this moment, the sister came home. And the sister was drunk. Very drunk. Singing to herself, she burst through the front door and into the fog. She’d only had a pitcher at the bar, maybe two, and light beer at that, but her eyes wouldn’t focus at all. Stumbling, she tripped over an extension cord, lamp shattering on the ground next to her. There were shouts from down the hall. Her head swam. Was she that far gone? There was another shout, definitely from the bathroom, and the sister pulled herself off the ground. She was fine, she was coming.

Call 911, the father told her when she got to the bathroom, but the daughter was fine, she wasn’t that drunk, let’s chill out. The brother said it wasn’t about her, couldn’t she see that, but she said she couldn’t see anything. You can’t either? The father clutched his chest. You need help, we need to get you help right now. The sister swayed, eyes closed. Yes, she said, yes I do. The father asked for a cellphone, the brother begged for an ice pack. The mother put her hand on the father’s back to calm him down. Don’t touch me, he shrieked, moving away from her. Why would you do that? But I didn’t do anything, the mother cried, I haven’t done anything. The father stood to leave, then crashed into his daughter, who fell into the brother, who punched the mother, all of them yelling.  

“What’s happening?” 

Of course, the most literal response was that the air around them was clotting into a darker and darker fog, heavy and unyielding. Even though this was their home, the place they had lived for years, the place where they became a family, they were no longer sure what lay in front of them. The toilet? The floor? A hand? A door? Pawing the air, they each fell into their own hazy reveries—of packages, of khakis, of plagues, of urges—everything feeling both utterly impossible and yet totally inevitable. 

Later, the family wouldn’t be able to agree about how to describe it. The brother called it a silent mist, the sister said it was a vicious smog, the father thought it more of a thundering mass, while the mother refused to say anything about it at all. But on that Tuesday, huddled in their bathroom, the cloud thick and roiling, the family remained silent, shifting, because none of them, no matter how hard they tried, could find the words to explain.