The Cloud Catcher – Chapter two
Warm water gushed over their heads and streamed down their bodies soaking their clothes as the girl clung to Fran, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Fran was acutely aware of the other girl’s chest heaving against hers. The same confused mixture of desire and dread drove a wedge through her. What was she playing at? If her classmates were to see her… Gently prising the girl’s fingers apart, Fran loosened her grip and pushed away, reaching for the soap.
Lathering the cake of soap in her fingers, she took hold of the girl’s hand and began rubbing soap into the palm. She then placed the cake of soap in the girl’s hand, but the girl made no move to wash herself. Taking back the soap, Fran began rubbing it down her arms, hoping the example would help the girl understand. When she handed her the soap again, the girl just stood there unmoving.
Reluctantly Fran took the soap and began lathering the girl’s arms and legs, paying particular attention to her filthy feet. She tried to adopt a clinical attitude as if it were a scientific experiment in which she wasn’t really involved. She knew she should wash the rest of the girl, but baulked at the thought. For once the girl took the initiative, struggling with her dripping nightdress, she pulled it up and over her head and dropped it at her feet.
Fran sucked in a watery breath and turned the girl round. Starting with her back seemed the safest option. The girl was so skinny there was almost nothing between Fran’s soapy fingers and the girl’s bones. Touching such a starved body sparked a mixture of disgust and anger and pity that made her stomach churn. Reaching the small of the girl’s back, Fran had no difficulty convincing herself she didn’t need to be thorough, so she skipped washing her backside. Straightening up, she was alarmed to see the girl turn, as if expecting her to wash the front too.
When Fran moved to turn the water off, the girl grabbed her wrists and placed Fran’s hands on her chest. Lack of food must have stunted her growth, because she had very little in the way of breasts compared to Fran. Standing there with her wet hands unmoving on the girl’s chest, Fran sensed a strange feeling of detachment creep over her. She wondered how much longer they would have warm water. The boiler would soon be empty. It would take ages to warm up again.
The girl had relaxed her hold so Fran was able to free her hands and turn the water off. Reaching for a towel, she handed it to the girl and, taking a second one, she wrapped it round her shoulders. With the girl not reacting to words, Fran mimed how the girl should dry her hair and skin. Despite her efforts, the girl stood unmoving, dripping on the bathroom floor. “Enough!” Fran said, and loosely wrapping the towel around the girl’s shoulders, she gave up on miming and went in search of clothes.
To her dismay, the girl trotted after her threatening to soak the carpet. Having shooed the girl back into the bathroom, Fran hastily closed the door and, making the most of being alone, she pulled off her wet underclothes. Drying herself as best she could, she hurriedly pulled on her nightdress then rummaged through her drawers in search of a second nightdress. She found an old one buried under her pants and bras. It would be too large, but she had nothing else.
Sucking in a calming breath, she opened the bathroom door, the nightdress clasped in her hands. She steeled herself at the thought of finding the girl standing there, dripping like a bedraggled duck. But she found no one. The bathroom was empty. The girl had flitted back to where ever she came from, taking the towel with her.
Disappointment rivalled with relief as Fran sank onto the bed, her fingers still tingling from lathering the girl’s skin, her heart racing. She lay back, dazed, and stared up at the ceiling, her mind blank. From time to time she furtively glanced around the room to make sure the girl hadn’t returned. But she was alone and, for once in her life, she didn’t relish the prospect.
Tomorrow would be a busy day. With her parents absent, she had a lot of additional chores and would need to get up even earlier. She should go to bed, but she was too perturbed to contemplate sleep. On a normal day, if she couldn’t sleep she’d go down to the kitchen for a quick snack. It generally did the trick. Although she had to careful to dodge her father’s groping paws.
But the thought of making her way through the dark, empty house spooked her. Damn it! The girl could move through solid walls. However did you keep her out? Or in, a wicked little voice whispered as she drifted off to sleep.
Ah, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. It was the girl, but it was not the girl. Gone we’re the hollow cheeks and the gaunt figure. Gone were the spindly arms and legs. Her complexion was no longer pale and sickly, but rosy pink. She looked strong and healthy. And happy too, if her smile was any indication.
She was wearing a pretty floral dress that flared out from her waist but was so short as to be more of a smock. It was made of no material Fran had ever seen. It had a metallic sheen to it, mirroring the lights around, yet it moved like silk over the girl’s body.
But the most striking thing about her was her hair, or rather the lack of it. She was completely bald. As if to accentuate the fact, her scalp had been oiled making it shine in the light. The sight of that smooth surface had Fran yearning to run her hands over it. The thought had her shivering.
The girl’s ears, which struck Fran as abnormally small, were adorned with a coiling band of silver that snaked round her ear and disappeared into its depth. No wonder she had difficulties hearing.
I’m glad you came, the girl said.
So she could talk. But in that strange place it wasn’t really talking. Her lips didn’t move. Maybe that was because it was a dream. At least, Fran hoped it was. How else could she explain what was happening? She’d been nearly naked in the shower with the girl and felt how thin her body was. This smiling nymph couldn’t possibly be the same person. Maybe her wish to see the girl healthy was colouring her dreams.
I’m Xristy, by the way.
Fran wanted to tell Xristy how glad she was to see her well, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t say a word. She knew she used to be able to, but it was as if she’d forgotten how. The dream had turned the tables. Now she was the one struck dumb. But at least she could hear … of sorts.
Let me show you round, Xristy said, grabbing Fran’s hand, her touch warm and inviting as she pulled her forward. A section of the wall slid open with a meaningful hiss and let them through. They stepped into a vast, well-lit atrium filled with a great variety of plants and bushes, most of which she didn’t recognise. Above a giant glass dome suspended from a latticework of girders covered the whole space. Beyond she could just make out a swirling mass of clouds.
We can’t live outside. The atmosphere is too hostile, Xristy explained. So we grow everything we need inside.
Fran wanted to ask why the atmosphere had become unbreathable, but she couldn’t pronounce a single word. It was so frustrating she wanted to stamp her feet. Only the thought of appearing childish stopped her.
Xristy led her across the atrium, weaving a path between various cordoned off areas each with a different mixture of plants. It reminded her of allotments except these were round, not square. The colours of the flowers were violently vivid. Looking at them was like being punched in the gut. But it was the scents that were the most striking. The fragrances were so potent her head began to spin as they burrowed deep into her being. The world blurred and she wistfully wondered if the dream was over as she began to fall.
If Xristy hadn’t caught her, she would have flattened one of the plant patches. I fainted, she wanted to say by way of apology, but was condemned to silence, her head lolling to one side as Xristy jogged along the path. It was then, in Xristy’s arms, as she felt a breeze about her thighs, that Fran realised to her dismay that she was wearing only her nightdress.
Still feeling woozy, Fran closed her eyes and let herself be cradled by Xristy. She heard the whoosh of another door opening and, as it closed, the overpowering scent of flowers diminished.
I guess it was the flowers, Xristy said. I imagine they’re overpowering if you’re not used to them.
Where the hell did you pick her up? a girl asked. Despite the antagonism, her voice was even more melodious than Xristy’s. You do realise she can’t stay.
I know, Xristy admitted with a sigh.
Fran cracked open her eyes, curious to know who Xristy was talking to. The beauty she saw took Fran completely by surprise. Despite being bald like Xristy, the girl literally made Fran’s mouth water. Hopefully she wasn’t drooling. Sure. She was surrounded by girls at school. Not surprising, it was an all-girls school. But she’d never been attracted to any of them. Not like she felt drawn now. Come to that, she hadn’t been much interested in boys either. But then, she knew so few of them. And her twisted ties to her father had soured any desire to be with boys.
I’ve no idea where she was. All I saw was that they venture outside and get around on large four-legged animals. They live alone in large boxes and have so much running water they stand for hours under it. Oh, yes. And they can’t talk and I don’t think they can hear either. I tried several times to communicate with her, but she didn’t react.
Fran was flabbergasted at this warped vision. She wanted to set Xristy right and would have done so had she been able to. As for communicating, that was a lie. The girl had never tried. It was the other way round. Fired by indignation, she opened her eyes wide. They were in a small cubicle and, protruding from one wall, was a bed on which she was lying. A glass-fronted cupboard was set in the opposite wall containing shelves on which sat a wide assortment of little bottles and flasks. A doctor’s surgery, she guessed.
The two hadn’t noticed she was awake. They pursued their discussion as if she weren’t there, presumably thinking she couldn’t hear. You shouldn’t give her that potion, the girl was saying.
True, Xristy replied, although she didn’t sound so sure. Who knows what effect it might have on someone from another world, she mused.
Is she a good kisser? the other girl asked, some of her antagonism giving way to curiosity.
No idea. I didn’t get a chance.
Who were these people? They were so strange. Did they go around judging a girl by how well she kissed? She had to giggle. She imagined having examinations in kissing at school. An all-girls school at that. Her giggling, however, had attracted the attention of the two girls who stopped talking and came to lean over her. For one terrible moment she was afraid they were going to try her skills at kissing. Instead they continue talking about her.
Her ears are so big, the other girl said. They’re quite ugly, don’t you think? The girl leaned closer, inserted her little finger in Fran’s ear and squealed. There’s a hole, she blurted out. She’s got a hole in her head.
Suddenly it dawned on Fran. They had no ears. Well they did, but ones that didn’t work, not like hers. That was why they couldn’t hear. But they communicated all the same, having developed some kind of talking between minds. For some reason she could hear their thoughts, but she couldn’t project her own.
She burst out laughing causing both girls to look at her in alarm. Presumably they couldn’t hear her laughter but they could see the expression on her face. It was at that moment she felt a strange tugging on her mind and wondered if she was finally going to be able to communicate. But everything went black. When she could see again, she was back in her room.
Read: Chapter One