Rex shook on the inside like a mouse who’d realized he was about to become a snake’s lunch. His mom disembarked first and smiled, encouraging him to follow her. Radar jumped down, skidding on the concrete floor. Once Old Fart emerged, they stationed themselves in front of the wing, Dan and Sue flanking Rex and the dog.
Now that Rex could see, three extraordinary things caught his attention: a massive machine with a long articulating gun, robots zooming by … and a pirate.
Yes, a pirate stood with the others, dressed in black, including a swashbuckling coat and an outrageous hat. His plumed tricorn was overshadowed only by a beard that radiated from his chin, twisting into many points so it resembled a wild, upside-down crown. Either the young man left a play still in his acting wardrobe or had special needs, so the older adults let him walk around in his ridiculous getup.
The sea rover cleared his throat.
“Welcome aboard, Bert, Susan, Daniel, and Ann—” He halted then looked to the person on his left. She whispered something into his ear. “Holy catfish! Why wasn’t I informed?” The woman bowed her head as she muttered more words. “Oh, I see. Well, nothing we can do now.” He turned back to the Brights and raised his arm in a flourish. “I am Captain Vance Merriweather.”
Could this day get any stranger? How on Earth did the “captain” know who they were? Clues pointed again to an elaborate reality TV show. Or Rex was at the farm or hadn’t left home, and this was a Dr.-Pepper-and-supreme-pizza-with-jalapeños-induced dream.
Rex quit wrestling with the mental muddle. Be it hallucination or actuality, his brain and muscles ached from permanent freak-out. Plus, if these events were occurring in the real world, his mom would take care of things.
The result liberated him. Rex kicked back, excited to face whatever came next, even if it turned out to be horrible monsters, tap-dancing buccaneers, or complete humiliation in front of a laughing audience. Just don’t call him Bert.
A girl donning a cowboy hat, boots, and a T-shirt portraying a horse with a windswept mane appeared then blended into the background. None of the adults noticed her.
Captain Vance Merriweather carried on with his salutation.
“Welcome to Skyclyffe! I give you a great, hearty greeting. I’m looking forward to getting to know each of you—but, by living thunder, where are my manners? Let me make introductions.” He patted a shoulder of the barrel-chested man on his right. “This is our sheriff, Cleve Bowman, and Noble Berry, our chief Telerayist, is next to him. On my other side,” he turned and bowed to the two ladies, “I have Philomena Ferguson, head of navigation, and Hazel Kiely, our principal doctor.”
Hazel was the vaporizer-wielding incarnate of Rex’s old teacher.
“Well, there’s plenty to do and a young lady waiting to have dinner with me, so it’s no time to lollygag. Daniel, if you please, remove the penknife from your pocket and entrust it to Cleve.” He waited while the transaction took place. “Thank you. Our scans found no other security issues, so everything else is shipshape. My crew will get you settled. It’s fantastic to meet you at last.”
The captain gave a wink, a curt bow, and left with a showy swing of feathered hat and swarthy coat.
What a weirdo.
A cloud rose from below with a girl on it. Not a whole girl … just a tiny face peering up from otherwise vague fluff.
Rex dismissed the vapory vision for a trick at first, his thirteen-year-old brain making up junk. But the elements were there—two eyes, a nose, and a mouth—embedded in the top of a fast-moving cumulus. The pale features stared in his direction while her white hair drifted around as though floating in a pool of water.
He mashed his forehead against the airplane window to gain a better view. This wasn’t like any picture in a cloud he’d seen before, the usual cartoon snails morphing into whales as they skimmed across the upper atmosphere. This was boring brume except for a strange bit in the middle. The fog pimple mesmerized him. If he could reach her, Rex believed he’d touch milky skin and billowy strands.
After a few seconds, instead of scudding away, the celestial being grew larger, sailing right for him. The foremost fringe of the approaching haze met the wing’s metal edge, and the face turned, her gaze locking with his own.
She looked at him.
Was he dreaming? Had he lost his marbles? Rex marveled out the porthole, certain the noxious fumes from Stinky Feet, the shoeless guy seated in front of him, had damaged his optical nerve. He grabbed his mom’s sleeve to say, “There’s a girl in the clouds!” but found her asleep, her dark brown hair covering one temple and spittle gilding her chin.
His mom had to see this. If he told her about it later, she’d assume he was punking her again like when he said he had seen a mountain lion in the backyard. But she’d been awake all night packing their suitcases and mumbling to herself. This on top of how tired she seemed nowadays.
Rex recovered it from behind the book he had brought and an in-flight magazine in the seat pocket then swung back. But Cloud Girl was gone. A regular, innocent-looking cloud sat in her place.