“Official rain warnings have now been issued for all of Suffolk, Essex, and Kent counties,” the reporter's voice blared from the TV. “Public transportation stopped at midnight last night and police will begin issuing lock-violation tickets from half-ten this morning. The rain-lock is expected to last into --”
The reporter's voice was cut off abruptly as Mum muted the TV, shooting a worried look at the radar map on the screen before returning to the kitchen. As she walked by Otis she leaned down and kissed the top of his head, the way she always did. Otis considered telling her that he was getting too big for kisses, but Mum looked so sad he decided to tell her next time.
Otis hated rain-locks. Mum was in a terrible mood for days leading up to them, obsessively checking and re-checking the house shields and dragging him on trips to the store, where everyone else’s mum was also frenetically stocking up on beans and tinned tomatoes. Afterwards, he wasn't allowed outside for days during clean-up, even after the official lock ended. Mum was much stricter about this than all his friend's parents. Last time he had missed the best mud-football match of the year. His friends had spent an entire week of lunch breaks reliving it play-by-play.
But Otis had high hopes for this rain-lock. He was going to make the best of it, one way or the other.
“Mum,” Otis called into the kitchen, where Mum was furiously chopping onions for soup. She always made too much soup during rain-lock. “Can we watch the rain through the shield?”
Jessica looked up from her phone and threw her slipper at him, missing. Jessica had terrible aim. The slipper hit the wall with a soft thud.
“Don’t be daft, Oatey, you don’t want to see all the missing hands and feet wandering around the streets on their own.”
She swung her hands back and forth limply from her wrists, as if they had been cut off. Otis shuddered, even though he knew that sort of accident rarely happened now that all public and private buildings had shields.
“Don’t call me Oatey,” Otis whined. “I'm not a dog. And I wasn’t asking you, anyway.”
Jessica pulled a face, then stuck out her tongue and slipped her headphones back over her ears, bopping her head to whatever song she had blasting into her ears. Her face looked blue from the screen-glow of her phone. Jessica only ever did three things - looked at her phone, made fun of Otis, and made out with Christopher.
"Mum?" Otis repeated. "Can we?"
"Hmmm?" his mum asked, looking up from the cutting board. "Sorry Oatey, what did you want?"
"Sorry, sorry, Otis."
"Can we watch the rain through the shield today?"
Mum huffed, exasperated. "Otis, how many times have you asked me that? You know I don't want you watching the rain. Things go wrong all the time during rain-lock."
Otis sighed. He supposed now he would have to resort to Plan B. He had been hoping to save Plan B until the next rain-lock, once he had gotten a chance to observe the rain up close. Plan B did have the merit of being significantly more exciting than just watching the rain. But it was also a little frightening. Then again, lots of kids got to watch the rain, and he was quite sure no one in school had ever been out in it. Every time he started to waver on Plan B he imagined sitting in the lunch room surrounded by the whole class, regaling them with the story of his great adventure. It was a very appealing image.
Jessica pulled her headphones off again.
"Muuuuum," Jessica called, stretching her vowels out like she always did when she wanted something. "Can Christopher pleeeease come stay for the rain-lock? There's still two hours before the streets close and he only lives a ten-minute walk from here. He asked his mother and she said it's fine."
Mum slapped the knife down flat on the cutting board, fingers clenched on the counter on either side of the massive pile of diced onions and carrots. She looked like a rubber band stretched very, very tight.
"Jessica, I told you no five times already. You and Christopher will be quite alright not seeing each other for a few days."
"But, mum! We won't even be able to talk --"
"Jessica, that's enough!" Mum yelled. "Why can't the both of you understand that rain-locks are not something to be celebrated!" Then she burst into tears and abandoned the onions, disappearing into her bedroom.
The teary outburst was also standard practice before a rain-lock, and Otis took it as his cue to retreat to his own room.
Otis sat on his bed, watching the seconds on his watch flash forwards. There were only 24 minutes before the shields came down, and he had to time his exit carefully. Too soon and Mum would notice and run after him. Too late and he'd miss the time she spent priming the alarms in the control room. By his estimate, there was a three-minute window in approximately 16 minutes that would do very well. He passed the time by eating a packet of crisps and reading the latest Nightwing.
Eating the crisps and reading the comic only took about 7 minutes, after which he returned to watching his watch and thinking about Plan B. Otis had done his research. There were only three places with rain warnings today, an unusually low number, and they were all within 500 kilometers of home. He had stashed two chocolate bars, a can of Pepsi, five pounds, and his copy of "A Pocket Guide to the World" in his knapsack, along with a sweater and a clean pair of socks, just in case he didn't bounce back home at the end. If that happened, he would just take the bus.
Otis looked around his room, checking to see if he had forgotten anything else useful. He didn't think so. But seeing the picture of his mum on the desk did make him think he should leave a note, so she wouldn't worry about him too much while he was out. He grabbed a crayon and a notecard from the drawer and wrote:
Dear Mum (and Jessica),
I've gone for an adventure in the rain. Don't worry - I am very prepared. I can't wait to tell you about all the places I see.
He paused, feeling he might be forgetting to say something important. But he couldn't remember, so he closed with:
I might be hungry after my adventure. Can we have yorkshire puddings?
Otis reviewed the note. Satisfied, he tucked it under the mini globe on his desk. His watch now read 10:51AM. Time to go. He laced up his trainers, put on his knapsack, and turned off the light.
Slipping out of the house was easier than he had imagined. No one was in the hall. Mum was in the control room, like he'd planned. And Jessica was in her bedroom with the door closed, talking on the phone. Probably to Christopher. So Otis just walked to the front door and let himself out, latching it softly behind him.
The streets were completely empty, and very quiet. The sky was dark gray and the air had a heavy, wet feeling, the way the bathroom felt after Jessica took a really long shower. Otis had never been out this close to a rainstorm, but he could feel it coming, as if there were an energy in the air chanting at him rain, rain, rain.
Otis ran across the empty street to the park. He was going to hide out under the old bus shelter there. The route hadn’t run for years, and now the shelter was covered in graffiti and overgrown with climbing ivy. No one was going to see him. He climbed inside and up onto the bench, tucking his knees up to his chest and scooting behind a curtain of hanging ivy to stay out of sight. About every 15 minutes a police cruiser drove slowly down the deserted street in front of the park, the megaphone on top playing the same message each time: Attention, rain-lock has begun. All citizens must stay in their homes until the lock has been lifted.
Eventually, the police car stopped driving by. Otis supposed even the police had to be inside somewhere safe during the rain. The sky was even grayer and heavier now, like a big sponge about to be wrung out. And then he heard it - a big, fat drop of water on top of the bus shelter. Then another. And another. And in just a few seconds there were raindrops hammering all around him, thumping the bus shelter like a drum.
Otis watched in awe, his heart beating almost as fast as the raindrops fell. Water poured from the sky, gathering almost immediately in puddles and sluicing down the street in tiny rivers. There was no shield to separate him from the rain, only the walls of the bus shelter and the curtain of ivy, which already had water trickling down it, dripping from the pointy leaves. The rain had a sort of shimmery quality that didn't come across in the movies. It was inviting, tantalizing. Otis couldn't believe what he was about to do, but now that he was out here, seeing the rain so close, he couldn't imagine not doing it either. Rain-lust, they called it in the books. The feeling that had pulled so many un-prepared people into bounces that wreaked havoc on their lives. But Otis was prepared, and this was his moment.
He was going to run out into it, Otis decided, not tiptoe out. Then it would hit him all at once. He checked that his shoelaces were tied and that his knapsack was zipped. He took a deep breath, let it out, and then he did it - he ran out from the bus shelter, into the rain.
Immediately he got picked up by a raindrop. He didn't even have time to feel wet. The start of the bounce was a strange feeling, a bit like he imagined getting sucked up by a vacuum might be. There was a slight pressure, a whooshing noise in his ears, and his vision went a bit blurry. For half a second he was both inside and outside the raindrop at once, his entire being in a state of transition.
And then the transition was over, and he was part of the rain. It was beautiful inside the raindrop, just like the stories of all the most famous bouncers said it would be. Time moved slower and slower as he became smaller and smaller, disappearing inside the raindrop. They hurtled toward the ground in slow motion. Just before they hit the earth he saw a burst of shiny color, like the outside of a bubble, only all around him, almost inside him. He felt the edges of the drop give way to the pressure of the ground, and it was frightening and wonderful and exhilarating all at once to feel his edges disappear like that, and he thought that perhaps even if the bounce failed, even if this was his last moment it would have been worth it…
Everything shifted. Otis was whole again, and the raindrop was intact. The bounce had worked, he felt it all throughout his being before he could fully form the thought. He was in a new drop, a new place, bounced from one raindrop to another. Everything around this drop was gray. Gray and soft-looking, with no definition at all. And he wasn’t falling, not yet, although he still felt a gentle downward tug.
A cloud, Otis realized. I'm inside a cloud. He'd read about this too. But the reality was different, unlike anything he could have imagined. He could feel the pull of the other drops, not quite formed, all jostling one another as the cloud shifted and breathed and then suddenly he was falling, his edges were crisp, and the world below him was coming fast. One moment he could see the whole city, the next it was just rows and rows of slate rooftops and brick houses, and before he knew it the rooftops were rushing up to meet him and he and his raindrop knocked into a shield, dissolving into a thousand smaller bits…
Another bounce, another cloud. This one darker, and colder. He fell toward a lake that looked to be halfway up a steep slope. His raindrop rushed toward the lake. Otis felt its urgency, its longing to join its brothers below, careening closer and closer until…
Bounce. He slanted sideways as he fell, flattening against the window of a shop just down the road from his house.
Bounce. A field lined by stone walls, splattering on top of a cheerful red barn.
Bounce. A country road, winding between the hedges, splashing joyfully into one of the muddy puddles collecting in the divots.
Bounce. A town he'd been to once for a football match, plummeting towards the steeple of the pretty white church, coming just close enough to feel the vibration of the other drops pinging against the bell.
The bounces went on for hours, or days, or maybe minutes. It didn’t matter. Inside the rain, each trip towards the earth was its own lifetime. With each drop Otis was 100 years old, then a child again. It was more wonderful than anyone had described, and more wonderful than Otis would be able to describe. He would be happy here forever.
And then the bounces ended. Otis sat on the ground, stunned, breathing hard. The world slowly came back into focus as Otis shook off the last raindrop. Only it wasn’t any part of the world he’d seen before. He was in a wood, that much was clear. The trees were huge and smooth, with big glossy leaves and thick vines snaking around them. Water dripped off the leaves all around him, residual raindrops sliding to their final resting places. It was dark here, and loud. It sounded a bit like the crickets when they went to the countryside, but ten times louder and ten times closer.
A brightly colored something caught Otis' eye as it leapt from a tree branch above Otis, disappearing into the foliage with a loud squawk. For a moment, Otis felt fear gnawing at his belly. He was pretty sure this wasn't one of the places that was 500 kilometers from home. It was too hot, too loud, too different. But the exhilaration of the past few minutes, hours, however long he has been inside those raindrops came rushing back to him. He had bounced! He was one of the great adventurers of his time, like the explorers they read about in history class! When he got home, Otis was going to be the most famous boy in school. Perhaps in the whole country. He wouldn't be surprised if they put him on TV for an interview. Besides, he was prepared. Fortified by this thought, he unwrapped one of the chocolate bars from his pack and took a satisfying bite.
“Off you go then, Sir Otis,” he said to himself with a smile, and set off into the darkening jungle.