The Day the Sky Split Open

The day the sky split open was the day my mother died, and I couldn’t help but think that it split open because of her, or maybe because of me. Maybe both.

When I walked into the hospital that morning, the sky was fine. Intact but overcast. We went to her room, and we waited for her to do what people often do in hospitals. What we expected her to do in this hospital.

When I walked out, shaking, my cheeks wet with slimy tears, the massive rent stretched from the sun to the horizon. It was like fire, but air. It was like feathers, but light. Everything wore a reddish orange cast that danced like the northern lights. It was something I didn’t just see with my eyes. Could I have assumed anything different than heaven had opened to accept her in?

I was only 10, led by my father’s hand out from the lobby. I wasn’t the hand holding type with him normally, but mom was dead. We stopped in a lane meant for ambulances, stood on peeling diagonal lines. Dad’s jaw slacked. He didn’t believe, but he believed then, whispering “Sweet mother of Christ.” We stood there and stared for I don’t know how long. I think part of us both expected the world to end because the world had just ended.

The next morning was the strangest. How do you wake up in the morning and eat cornflakes when the world was over? But that’s just what we did. The placemats were the same plaid they were the last time we’d eaten on them. There is a sound to the first milk striking the dry cornflakes that you know in your bones, that crunch of the first bite that has yet to accept the decay of absorption.

Afterward, dad lay on the couch and didn’t get up for four days. At the time, it didn’t strike me as odd. I just assumed that’s what people did when their family members died. I tried not to get up either, but I would get hungry and thirsty, and I had to go to the bathroom. Dad went to the bathroom on the couch and the living room stank so horribly. He hardly spoke, but then again, it was really hard to tell if he was asleep or awake.

When my Aunt Liz finally arrived, she broke into gasping sobs in the doorway. I guess my mom had called her on the way into the ER, but Liz hadn’t known mom was gone. She shepherded me out onto the walk, and I gaped at the tear in the sky while she screamed obscenities six or more words deep at my dad. Several things broke. Bottles. Cups. Picture frames. While dad cleaned himself up, Aunt Liz and I cleaned the wreckage. At one point, she pressed her hand to my cheek and told me to remember that I was loved. It would have been really sweet, but a glass pebble was stuck to her palm and it drew blood just past the corner of my lip.

The funeral was a couple days later. A few people came, but no one I knew. We didn’t have much family to begin with, and everyone was busy putting their lives in order because the sky had torn open and feathery filaments had begun to extend outwards from the rift. Folk with high magnification cameras and telescopes said that whenever the filaments wafted, they caught glimpses of wild and glazed eyes behind them. On the news, they said fistfights were breaking out in the offices of attorneys who dealt in last wills and testaments. Churches were busy as the Superbowl. So were bars. Supermarkets shelves cleared within the day. Distant gunshots woke me regularly, but none ever hit my house.

Aunt Liz stayed a couple more days, but she kept stopping and crying, her shoulders jolting with sob in the middle of the hall or on the third step or while reaching up to put away a dish. On the fourth day after the funeral, she left while I was taking a shower. She didn’t leave a note, but she left all the dining chairs on the front porch. I tried to get dad to call her, but he said “No, go to school,” even though school hours were long over and no one was really going to school anyway.

Instead, I sat on one of the dining chairs on the porch and ate some pasta in tomato sauce straight from the can. It was cold and kind of gelatinous. The filaments formed elaborate patterns, and from each extended filaments in miniature versions of those patterns. I had no doubt that the filaments’ filaments would also have the same patterns. The living fractal undulated like a gliding jellyfish, now almost long enough to brush the mountains on the horizon.

That night, Dad and I swiped through the photographs on the tablet one after another. Pictures of me, pictures of him, pictures of mom. Pictures of meals we’d eaten and pictures I’d drawn. We’d stopped at a pet store the week before her stroke and taken a picture of me holding every animal they let me. She’d been thinking of repainting the bathroom, so she took pictures of every single paint swatch in the shore because it was less wasteful than bringing them home.

Dad ran to the bathroom and threw up. He came back brushing his teeth, and he dropped the toothbrush on the floor when he was done. He swallowed the toothpaste I suppose, which makes sense, because it’s not like a little fluoride would matter that much at this point. I wanted to put the tablet down, but dad gave my shoulder such a fierce squeeze when I made to do so that I knew that was not an option.

The next morning, the filaments ripped a mountain from the ground and pulled it into the sky. I was still asleep when it started, but the sound and concussion through the bedrock of the breakage shook everything with earthquake force, taking all the books off my shelves. The trip down my hall was like walking above decks on a schooner in a storm. I made it outside in the cold in my boxers as boulders the size of houses plummeted down on the farmlands outside of town and crushed several families. Dad bellowed for me to go back inside, but it was the kind of thing that you might as well watch because you were getting crushed inside your house or out if it was your time.

After a moment, dad took my hand. I felt like I should say something. This seemed like the time to have an adult conversation. Maybe we should talk about sex. Or why I shouldn’t do drugs or smoke cigarettes. Maybe this was the time to ask dad if he had any secret stash of drugs or cigarettes.

The macro filaments wrapped around the mountain with an ethereal embrace. The smaller filaments burrowed into the surface as gentle as can be, boulders tumbling away from their probes like rain.

“Your mom’s cancer was like that,” Dad whispered. “Burrowed all through her organs, breaking things as it went.”

I nodded though he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes never left that massive tear.

“Why didn’t she ever tell me,” I asked.

“She wanted your last memories with her to be free of it,” he said.

Across the streets a couple kids with stuffed animals came out onto their porch. Marty and June. Marty made shooting sounds and pretended like his plush giraffe was a rifle he could shoot the rift with. June kicked a soccer ball through her father’s garden and let her ladybug pillow watch.

“When she collapsed in the park,” I said, “I wet myself. I didn’t know what to do.”

“No one ever really does,” Dad said. He reached behind the dining chairs and picked up a push broom that had been left against the siding. He began sweeping dirt and dust from the porch planks. “Not in the end, anyway.”

Marty squawked something at June. Marty was staring at dad and I. Marty was six and June eight. I didn’t play with them much because June didn’t like any of the shows I liked and Marty was just too little to be fun for me. All his games were excuses for explosions and to punch the other players in the shoulder. June told Marty to mind his own business.

Marty scowled, walked to June and punched her in the shoulder. June grabbed her shoulder and then decked Marty straight in the forehead. The boy took one step back and then his legs stopped moving while his butt continued. He fell on his butt with a jolt, looking up at June with a dazed expression. Down the street, a car pulled out of a driveway and turned towards the main intersection.

“Should we be driving away from here?” I said, pointing to the sky, where the mountain was disintegrating. Large chunks still fell, the ground vibrating with each of their thuds, but most of them had began to ascend into the rift of their own accord with the same languid drift as the filaments.

“I’m not of the mind that that is something we can escape,” he said. “Mom couldn’t drive away from her cancer either.”

“I don’t think that thing in the sky means anything like that, dad,” I said.

He shrugged and continued cleaning the decking.

“Might as well make it mean something,” he said.

Marty and June started to argue. Pointing at us frequently. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the urgency in their tones was clear. Squinting, it occurred to me that their faces were pretty dirty. Their clothes too.

I stepped down to porch stairs to the walk.

Marty and June froze. Cast nervous glances to their front door.

“Dad,” I said.

Dad stopped his sweeping, looked at me, and then looked at the kids. Then, he tilted the broom against the nearest chair and descended beside me.

“They’re dirty,” I said.

“I see,” Dad said.

Then dad walked down the walk to the street and I followed. Marty and June took a couple steps towards their house. Marty stepped slightly behind June and put one arm around her waist. June’s hands closed into fists. Dad held one hand up in an open wave as he reached the far curb. When he reached the children, neither of whom retreated further, he dropped to one knee.

“Hey there,” Dad said. “Do you remember me?”

June nodded.

“You’re Mr. Wilkins,” she said.

“That’s right,” Dad said. “Is everything okay?”

June looked down at Marty. Marty’s eyes were wide and trembling. I could tell from where I stood behind my dad that they didn’t smell so good. There skin was even dirtier then I’d thought when I first noticed, and they weren’t wearing shoes – their socks weren’t brown like I’d thought, but utterly filthy white.

Somewhere above us, a mountain no longer was and something beyond the sky throbbed as if satiated. Marty sniffed and wiped his eyes on June’s back then blew his nose into her shirt. She scowled but didn’t not rebuke. There were gunshots a couple blocks over but he didn’t flinch. An engine revved followed by the squeal of tires.

“Is your mom and dad home?”

June drew a sharp, short gasp. Marty shuffled a few more inches behind his sister.

“Yes,” she said. “But they’re busy.”

Dad gently laid his hand on June’s shoulder.

“I’d like to talk to them.”

“We need to go inside,” June said.

She pivoted and stepped around her brother towards the front door of her house. Marty didn’t move. He reached out and grabbed the hem of June’s shirt and stopped her with a sharp tug.

“Tell them,” Marty said.

Defiance etched into June’s face so deep it might as well have been burned in with acid.

Then, her lips twitched and her eyes brimmed. Her mouth drew down into a lower case ‘n’. Her lips quivered and parted and she let out a whimper and then a wail.

Dad and I took a step towards her, towards the house. Marty’s eyes kept flicking to the open door. None of the lights were on, and there was trash all over the living room. I stepped up to Marty and sat cross-legged beside him. I patted my lap. He immediately sat down on me, and pressed his cheek to my chest just over my heart. He ran my fingers through his hair in a steady motion, and whispered that he should ‘shh.’

Dad picked up June and held her to his shoulder until the fits of her sobs subsided. She shook and trembled. Then, dad set her down.

“I’m going to go inside your house and see what happened,” he said. “Do you think you could wait here with my son?”

June nodded and fought to compose herself. She kept looking at Marty. She wanted to be strong for him. I turned so that if Marty opened his eyes, he would see big sister while dad stopped in the doorway and took stock. He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm and pulled his shirt over his nose.

There wasn’t any mystery to solve.

I stopped brushing Marty’s hair and said, “Hey Marty.”

Marty didn’t open his eyes, but he gave a grunt that might have asked “hmm?”

“We should go to my place,” I said. “I think I might have a sleeping bag for you with a dinosaur on it.”

His eyes popped open. For a split second, what I already knew was inside his house left his mind. He looked like he was six and full of wonder. Above, the rift withdrew the filaments. I did not know if it would subsequently close. I did not know if feasting on the mountain had been its purpose. It could be a force of nature or an act of god or an aberration – I did not know.

What I knew was that in the next moment, I was walking down my neighbor’s walk with Marty’s right hand in my left and June’s left hand in my right. If the sky was watching us, there’d be no way it saw us as anything but siblings, and maybe if we were allowed to survive long enough, the whole world would see us that way too.

Andrew Najberg is the author of the collection of poems The Goats Have Taken Over the Barracks (Finishing Line Press, 2021) and the chapbook of poems Easy to Lose (Finishing Line Press 2007). His short fiction appeared in Fleas on the Dog, The Wondrous Real, Bookends Review, and Psychopomp Magazine.

Leave a Reply