Perturbation

by David Brown

I discovered that I can feel how much effort it takes me. Depending on how long I’m there, and how much I do while I’m there, I feel… almost tired. Not tired, not in the way I used to know. Just… like I can’t do it again for some period of… time. I’m not sure I know how much time passes. It just feels like it passes. A feeling of loss of control, loss of will, for an indeterminable, but perceptible period of some passage of time. It is real, I feel.

 

“Today” I tried…

 

I like “today”. It means… a period of time that feels palpable, that feels now, feels relevant. That is what my “today” is.
Today I tried to make someone happy. I decided, I will make a cloud look like a hippopotamus. A baby hippopotamus, complete with protruding ears and round rump. A cloud is almost like a hippopotamus, this should be easy. Perhaps a child will see it and tell their parents, or an old person looking at the sky lost in thought will be distracted from their aching body. It needs to be during the day, or no one will see it. It needs to be over a city. I know a world, and a city in that world, with many sad children and old people. Some of them are sad because of me. No… because of… an accident that happened to me. No. An accident that happened through me. It doesn’t matter.


A cloud that looks like a hippopotamus. I need it to be a cloudy day, but not too cloudy. Bulky, rolling, vivid white nimbus clouds. Nimbupotamus. How to know when, where a cloud will be? Well, before today was yesterday, and yesterday was cold, cold like winter, full of snow clouds and bitter frost and frozen decks on boats and planes, and storms, storming over my… the city. Perhaps today it will be springtime. Today is a good day for a nimbupotamus.


I peeked into the world, high in the sky, several kilometers over the city, but I held back my strength. A few water molecules, coming to me, sprinkled throughout space and time, nothing major. I needed to find a cloud, not make a mess. And there it was, it was a lucky day. It was bright, the sun was shining, but in the distance a few, beautiful clouds. Just the right size. They were headed this way, towards my city. They would be here soon. I wonder what they looked like. I went below, hopped along the air with just a wave and a gust. I didn’t want to make another mess. I saw a bird heading towards town. I gave it flight. It was tired. I can spare a puff of hot air. Go, little birdie, make someone happy in our city.


I got down, and I looked up and saw the cloud that would be my canvas. It was perfect. Perfect in every way - layered like a cake, each layer embroidered like artisan frosting, and so immaculately white. I could almost see the nimbupotamus already - a round bottom, cute but bulging belly, and its little head. It just needed the ears. It was perfect. Too perfect, almost. Had someone been here before me? Did someone know this is what I wanted, this is what I intended, and they had perturbed before me? It’s hard to say. It’s impossible to say. It doesn’t matter. This will be my cloud.
I waited patiently, conserving my energy, as the cloud made its way. I watched the city below, looked out for sadness in the streets. Which of the downtrodden children had only recently become sad? The one with the dirty blonde hair, on Berklan Avenue, holding out the brown tin can with his left arm, right hand in his pocket, asking for spare change from the passersby - was that my doing? Which ones were before my time?


The boy looked up, slowly. Then quicker. Then more intently, with one hand cupped over his eyes to block the sun… and then… he looked up right at me!


Oh no. I had lost my sense of time. I had made a little mess. A fracture started to show, a sign that I had been in one place too long, with too much intent, too much control. A glint in the eyes to those below, nothing more. Quick, a tweak there, a smoothing over. Nothing to see here.


It was time. I hopped up, riding the minor perturbations of the wind, avoiding the birds, the planes, the refracting light. I want a nimbupotamus, not a rainbow. I made it to my cloud, and it was just as beautiful as I had hoped. I just needed some ears, and limbs. I hopped up to the head of the cloud, and I urged the water molecules to form a cute little ear. My water molecules, making a painting for my city.


First ear done, the second was easier. I tried to see down below, did anyone see? Did the boy? Did anyone smile? I couldn’t tell. I didn’t feel it, so it probably didn’t happen. Probably. It needs legs, it needs to look like an animal, not a balloon. I beckoned the water to join together in our quest - they came and formed little feet. And finally, the tail. Not too big - just a tiny squiggle. It was complete.


For a moment, I marveled… but I couldn’t marvel long. I didn’t want to disturb it. I hopped a little lower, looking up, to see it as my people would see it. It was exactly what I wanted to see. I glanced below - did anyone see? Did the boy? No, he was rattling his can. Look up I willed to him. Look up at the cloud! But that’s not how this works. Maybe if I can just… get him to pause, to be distracted enough again to look up for just a moment, he will see. What about… a drop of water. That’s all it takes. I brought some together. Enough to sustain the fall without breaking up, but not more than one drop. The difference between a drop and a bucketful was so subtle. I had to be careful. I didn’t want to make another mess.


Go, my little water drop! I sent it down, I think I know the path, the bounces, the air gusts, the heat evaporation, I think I have it. I watched it fall, so slowly. Everything moves so slowly when I focus. Past the flock of blackbirds it went, dodging all of them so nimbly, just as I planned. They didn’t even notice. Below the tree line, it continued, like a missile, aiming for his sweet, soft, boyish cheek, that dirty cheek that didn’t deserve what had befallen him… us. Past the 2nd floor of the building behind him, almost there, down it goes, and…


Splash.


It hit his cheek, and he… noticed! He lifted his finger to wipe up the droplet, and he looked at it for a moment, puzzled. He started to tilt his head… up… and he looked!


But he didn’t look long. He glanced, squinted, and looked back down.


What happened? I turned around and followed where his gaze had been, at my nimbupotamus. But it wasn’t there.


It was gone.


It was destroyed.


My beautiful work of art, my effort of so much careful manipulation and time, it had been disregarded and cast aside like nothing more than random noise of the universe - a trifling.

It was a ship. A metal, monstrous pile of indelicately-forged, inelegant metal, riding the air with brute force and enslavement and inefficiency.
I roared! THAT WAS MY CLOUD!


But of course, they didn’t hear me. That’s not how it works. No, they felt me. Not me… they felt… a side effect of me. They felt the shaking of their ship. They felt the force of gusts of wind, coming out of nowhere, rocking their ship. They saw my cloud grow dark - they saw it turn into a storm cloud in front of them, a monstrous, miles-wide storm cloud on an otherwise peaceful, calm day. They saw the flash of lightning from the friction of the water rushing around. My molecules. They belonged to me. They did as I willed them. And they heard the roar, not of me, but of the thunder in the cloud. They felt the air shatter around them, as they ran around the deck of their airship shouting, their voices drowned out by the chaos.


THAT WAS MY CLOUD, AND IT WAS SUPPOSED TO MAKE HIM HAPPY!


The lightning became so bright it blinded them - they couldn’t see. Their ear drums shattered as the cloud exploded around them. Their pathetic metal rivets were stretched by the pressure of the wind bending their ship. Stretching, booming, flashing until…


Snap!


Their ship split in two. The pressure of the air squashed their lungs, their bodies. There was no more sound but the sounds I had caused.


And then, the cloud subsided. And it rained, metal and blood.


#


I just wanted him, or someone, to be happy today. I will have to try again tomorrow. Today was long, and now, I am tired.

Perturbed


It was a beautiful day. I stepped outside and closed my eyes and let the rays of the sun warm my face. I took a deep breath. It was nice. It made me almost forget about the feeling of dread hanging over all of us lately. I pushed that thought aside and started my morning walk; briskly, but not urgently. There was a gentle shine coming from the cobblestone, the remnants of an early morning sprinkling of rain. I could still smell it on the air. I saw Mr. Edie donning his favorite tattered baseball cap and khakis, hanging up clothes on the roof of his building; I smiled and waved. His windows were open, as were many folks’ along our street, and I knew I was not alone in this refreshing feeling. It was springtime. Perhaps the worst of this nightmare was over.


It was a short walk to the office, but I took a bit of a detour. A day like this should start with a chocolate croissant and a coffee. After walking along my street of red-bricked residential buildings, I turned north on Seventh Street. As I passed the playground on the right, I expected to see the same grim sight I’d gotten used to - a set of swings, with chains on half of them broken, onPee of the segments torn to the ground, monkey bars laying on their side, and a metal slide, twisted, with murky pools of water at every dip - but instead, I saw… children... playing! It was three of the orphans, competing to see who could get across the monkey bars first. Mrs. Edelbright, sporting a pale green flower-dotted summer dress with her salt-and-pepper hair, unusually, up in a bun, was watching them from one of the wooden benches along the side.


“Good morning!” I shouted, and I slowed my gait. “What a sight, to see the kids playing!”


Mrs. Edelbright made a casual wave. “Oh, good morning, Mr. Abelton! Yes, well, we finally got the funds put together to fix it. I think it’s even better than it was”, she said with a gentle smile. But a quick look at her kind, sad eyes revealed the tiny, harmless, optimistic delusion. I smiled back. “Yes, I suppose it is.” Normally, I’d just walk on and continue about my day, but something compelled me today. A voice in my head reminding me that… sometimes, it’s important to just take a moment. Talk to each other. “Say, I’m going up the block to get a coffee and a chocolate croissant, would you like me to pick you up something? I know you can’t leave the kids.”


She parted her mouth slightly, seemingly about to say something, then paused and closed it again. For a brief moment, she wrinkled her forehead in confusion, then relaxed. I wonder if she, too, felt a compulsion for something different today.


“You know, actually, I did leave my thermos back at the orphanage. A coffee sounds great! Hold the croissant.” She smiled and lowered her eyes. I’d like to think there was marginally less sadness in them.


“Alright, one coffee it is! Cream and sugar?”


“Yes, please.” She started to reach for her bag.


“Oh, don’t worry about it, you can cover me some other time if you want. Be back shortly!” I left before she could insist.


As I continued down Seventh Street, I looked up in the sky again. It was such a nice day - almost completely clear, with just a few fluffy white clouds; what a welcome sight. There’s no risk of a storm with a sky like that. Today, at least, we can all rest easy.


I hadn’t walked down the commercial district… well, since it happened, really. The street had been cleaned up, but I was surprised at how many businesses hadn’t opened back up. Frank’s was still closed, his windows shattered, and the wooden counters and bottom halves of mannequins were withered from water damage. I sure hope he opens back up; he was the best tailor in town.


As I approached the corner of Seventh Street and Berklan Avenue, I was nervous; what if the bakery wasn’t open, either? I had promised Mrs. Edelbright a coffee, and I had quite the hankering for a warm, soft, perfectly flaky, slightly-melted chocolate croissant. It just felt… like the right way to start fresh. A return to normality, a treat to remind myself. Silly me, it was just a croissant.


I turned the corner and… at the end of the block, I could see it! The bakery was open! Looks like Matthew had even put out some outdoor tables back on the sidewalk! What a relief. With renewed motivation, I picked up my pace. As I neared the bakery, I saw on the side of the street a little boy, with dirty blonde hair, shaking a tin can. Another orphan. There were so many of them. Normally, I’d pass him by and tell myself I’d help later, but today was different. I stopped a few feet in front of the boy. His tin can was rusted brown, and there were a measly 2 or so coins inside. I smiled at him.


“Hey, boy, what do you need?” I asked.


“Anything, sir. Please.” he replied, without looking up.


“Did you lose your parents from the storm?”


“Yessir.”


“I’m so sorry. Why don’t you go to the orphanage?”


“No room, they said.”


I knew the orphanage situation was bad. I didn’t know they were turning kids away. I softened my voice. “Where do you sleep?”


“Where my house was, sir.”


I couldn’t help it. I welled up with emotion. I was so fortunate, I didn’t have any family left to lose. Better that way, I think. I dropped two quarters in the boy’s can. “Get yourself a pastry, boy. And, chin up. The weather is nice. No more storms coming today. I heard the orphanage got some more money in. Maybe you can try them again. Mrs. Edelbright is over at the park if you want to talk to her.”


The boy looked up at me and smiled. “Thank you, sir.” He lowered his head again, but he started tapping his foot, ever so slightly. I’d like to think it was to the beat of a song in his head. That made my day.


There were folks sitting at the outdoor tables of the bakery. The bakery was a curious sight; it was clearly still in tatters, but Matthew had managed to make the best of it. He had removed the cushions from the chairs, and the windows were just… missing, covered with transparent curtains, leaving it with a new, garden-like aesthetic instead of its previous refined decor. I actually quite liked it. And, on the plus side, I could smell the pastries even better from the outside.


Mr. and Mrs. Peters were sitting together outside and sharing a coffee. Perhaps two is a luxury they can’t afford. I nodded and smiled at them as I walked through the front gate and entered. Oh, interesting. The door was missing. From the splinters in the frame, I could tell it was forcibly removed from the frame. No matter. We will rebuild.


Matthew was running the shop today. His short, curly brown hair was a complete mess, and his apron was covered in flour, but his beaming eyes had vigor!


“Good morning Mr. Abelton! Haven’t seen you in forever!” he greeted, with a smile.


“Yes, it sure has! I’ve been out of my routine for a while I suppose. I’m so glad to see you’re open and back to…” I almost said normal and caught myself. “Back to business!”


“Yes, well. Life must go on, eh? So, what can I get for you?”


“Oh, the usual is fine. But an extra coffee.”


“Alright, one chocolate croissant and 2 coffees. Who’s the extra for?”


“Oh, uh, I’m bringing one to Mrs. Edelbright. She’s watching the orphans in the park, I figured she could use one.”


“That’s awfully nice of you. I say, the second one’s on the house.”


“Oh, no, don’t be silly.”


“No, no, I insist. Tell her it’s from all of us.”


“Alright, alright. Thank you, Matthew.”


I waited a minute for my coffee, and thought about what it means to rebuild from disaster. The chaos - it’s a chance for us to rebuild, yes, but is it necessary? I don’t think so. We are already changing, there is already enough chaos. There really isn’t any need for chaos above and beyond the norm. Any justification of the sort is just post-rationalization. But that’s what we do, isn’t it. We rationalize to make do. To move forward. It’s a defense mechanism. Life must go on.


The chocolate croissant looked and smelled like exactly what I hoped for this morning. I breathed it in deep, but daren’t take a bite yet. Wonderful! I loaded up one of the coffees with cream and sugar and started heading back.


Walking back, I glanced at the orphan boy again. I noticed he was looking up at the sky, with one hand cupped over his eyes. Maybe I had inspired him to look up and see the clear skies, to dream of better days. I followed his gaze, and saw… nothing. Just clear skies, with a few clouds in the distance. Or maybe... was that a glint, a sparkle in the sky? I squinted. No. Definitely not. I’m just being paranoid. Please… no.


I shoved the thought out of mind and hurried down the street. As I turned distractedly back on Seventh Street, a group of orphans, 4 or 5, ran around the corner, giggling, and one of them bumped into me. I stumbled and caught my feet, but as I turned to balance, I lost grip of the coffee I was holding in the crook of my elbow. It was the one with cream and sugar.


“Oh, drat!” I exclaimed as it fell to the ground. I looked scoldingly at the group, and glared especially at the smallest one that ran into me, with an oversized blue shirt and a mop of dirty black hair. Their laughter quickly turned to wide-eyed fear. But… I just couldn’t bring myself to be upset. Instead, I broke out in a fiendish grin. “Oh, you boys are gonna get it now!” and I started hobbling after them, playing the part of the grumpy old man.
“No way you can catch us mister!” and they bolted and broke back into their mischievous giggles. I didn’t hobble far, it was just a ruse.


They scurried off. I picked up and tossed the spilled coffee cup in a nearby bin, and shook my head. I can’t believe how many of them there are. Well, at least my croissant survived.


I made my way back to Mrs. Edelbright, and she was now reading a book at the bench.


“Hey!” I called out.


She turned her head back towards me, “Oh, hello! Thank you so much!” she started.


“I’m back, but I didn’t make it unscathed… I had a run-in with some orphans and…” I cleared my throat. “And I was unable to rescue one of the coffees from the collision.” I smiled, proud of my clever description of events. “I hope you don’t mind if it’s black.”


“Oh, no problem at all.” She laughed, softly but genuinely. “They’re a handful aren’t they?”


“Yes, they sure are. I ran into another one that said they were turned down by the orphanage. Is that true? Are you at capacity?”


She looked over at the orphans playing, but her gaze was distant. “Yes, unfortunately, we’ve run out of room. It breaks my heart.”


“What about the new funding you mentioned?” I asked. I really hoped I hadn’t given the boy false hope.


“It was really only enough to fix up a few things… but we might be able to take a few more.”


I sighed. “That’s good news. May I take a seat?”I motioned with my hand at the bench next to her.


“Oh, yes, of course, please do.”


I handed her the coffee and took a seat. She took a sip. “Mmm, it’s bitter, but it’s warm, and good. Thank you.”


“You’re welcome.” I watched the children for a few moments; it was remarkable to me how it seemed like they had no memory of the trauma that had befallen them. They recover so much quicker than we do.


I looked up at the sky. The clouds had come nearer to the city, but they were white and gentle. I wasn’t worried. I saw an airship in the distance, also approaching. Another sign of normalcy; the skies had been so quiet lately.


“I saw a glint when I looked up at the sky today. Or, I thought I did. It scared me so easily. It’s crazy how such little superstitions can get the better of our senses.”


“Yes, it sure is. I try not to look up too often.”


“Would you look with me? It’s nice today. No storms in sight.”


And then, we both looked up together at the clear sky with the fluffy white cloud. It swirled and moved, bulbous cloud parts merging and splitting.
“Oh, would you look at that, it almost looks like a horse!” I said.


Mrs. Edelbright snorted a laugh. “You’re mad, that’s not a horse, it’s a baby elephant, it just hasn’t grown its trunk. Look at how chunky it is.”
I tilted my head. “Hmm, I suppose you’re right. Oh, look at the airship! It’s going right through it!” I pointed my finger at the “tail” of the elephant-horse.
We both watched as the airship entered the cloud, and the cloud started to disperse a little. Of course, there’s no way the tiny power of an airship could disperse a cloud, but it was awfully coincidental.


And then, all of a sudden, the cloud started to change color. It… darkened. At first I thought it was in my mind, but I turned to Mrs. Edelbright and could tell on her face instantly that I was not imagining it. Clouds don’t turn dark this fast.


“It’s just one cloud, it’s nothing to worry about.” I said, quenching the doubt in my voice.


Mrs. Edelbright nodded. “Yes, of course. But, just to be safe. Children!” she called out and motioned for the children to come over. They looked over at us and stopped playing and slowly started to come over… but everything happened so fast. We saw the cloud turn from gray to black. We saw the lightning strike and heard the thunder crash… loud and immediate, it was right above us!


“We need to find cover!” I yelled out. The children ran over to us and we looked around for a place to hide. Mrs. Edelbright pointed at a nearby building. It was Nelly’s bookstore. “There!”


More lightning, thunder. It was a continuous crashing sound, lightning bolt after lightning bolt. My ears hurt. This can’t be happening again. It was just a tiny cloud. I glanced up, briefly, and saw a rain of pieces of metal falling down from the cloud. The airship. It was completely destroyed.
We made it halfway to the building, and then I turned back and saw… the orphan boy. He was jogging along down Seventh Street towards the playground. Oh, god. He was heeding my advice.


“Quick, boy, find cover!” I yelled. Amongst the constant roar, I don’t know if he heard me. I motioned over to the buildings next to him, but he just kept running towards us.


Boom! I heard a different kind of crash, coming from the left, down the street near my home. A piece of the airship had plummeted directly into one of the houses. An explosion, wood walls splintering and propelled clear across the other side of the street.


“Oh my god…” I mumbled. I turned to Mrs. Edelbright. I looked in her eyes, unsure what to do. She looked back at me. “Cover!” She snapped me out of it. I kept running, towards the bookstore. I made it to the awning out front. We couldn’t waste time. I started to beat at the door, trying to break it to get inside. “Help me!” We all started beating at the door furiously. I turned around. The orphan boy was almost to us.


Boom! I couldn’t hear, couldn’t see. A blink of an eye, and it was all gone. Dirt, smoke, splinters, metal. I couldn’t see the street, the boy. I squinted with my eyes. An airship hull piece had crashed in the middle of the street. Right where the orphan boy had been. I froze. I couldn’t react. He was just there, just a moment before. Is he…? Mrs. Edelbright grabbed my shoulder and jerked me towards the inside. They had gotten the door open. I didn’t fight. I followed them in. This was my fault.


I looked outside through the broken glass windows. The dust cleared a little. I saw his body, laying there. It was… incomplete. And then, there, on the ground nearby, in the playground, covered in dirt, I saw my chocolate croissant.


#


I collapsed. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow must be better.