Kitty cat with a backpack followed by a bubble-blowing dragon, Anabelle loved watching the clouds roll by. Cool grass surrounded the child as she gazed up through the topiary maze. Spring neared its yearly slumber and the day’s heat attested to that fact, but Anabelle never missed an opportunity to seclude herself in the silence of her garden. She slipped there whenever she spied a glimmer of freedom. In her garden, she never wasted a moment’s thought on her problems. And her problems were plenty.
“Miss Anabelle!” came the familiar call of Dorothea, “Miss Anabelle, you don’t want to be late.”
She sprang to her feet, blew a stray red hair out of her face, and raced through the floral maze. Dorothea’s exasperated expression greeted her. Anabelle realized her hair must look a mess and grass likely stained her pants. She smiled sheepishly through freckled cheeks. Dorothea sighed. Whenever Anabelle’s eyes lit up, all she could do was smile back. She took the child’s hand.
“Come one, we’ve got just enough time to tame that mop of yours and get you into a dress.”
Anabelle entered the stygian dining room. Forced to trade her comfy pants for a frilly dress the color of lemonade, she stood out as the brightest object in the room. She stood painfully still beside her chair at the lengthy, mahogany table. Her older brother, Oliver, stood opposite her dressed in earthy-toned “grown-up” clothes. Once upon a time, he would have made silly faces to raise a giggle from her. Ever since he began his apprenticeship though, he’d made every effort to be the model son their father expected him to be. Finally, their father entered the room and took his seat at the head of the table. The children then followed suit. Anabelle knew that behind her father’s graying, neatly trimmed beard and somber expression, hid a man who loved his children and only wanted the best for them. Even if that meant he worked too much. But he always shared every meal with them. Two women Anabelle barely knew served them lunch. The meal passed in depressing silence. That had become the new normal.
After lunch, the caretaker allowed Anabelle exactly thirty minutes to visit her mother. Cold, grey light bathed her mother’s room. Time seemed to stand still there as if she was already dead. A slight breeze blew the lace curtains as Anabelle took her seat in front of the open window. Tiny fingers picked up the book on the nightstand and Anabelle read aloud. Anabelle acquired the reading skill during her previous year, so she spoke slowly, sounding out the difficult words. She knew it came out rough, but since her mother could no longer read to her, she read to her mother.
The next day blessed Anabelle with another chance to observe the fluffy white clouds that offered her a fairy tale escape. Spires of green led her eyes to a brilliant blue sky. Sunlight peeked through cotton, warming her skin. At that moment, all that existed in her world was good. A tiara-wearing dinosaur of indeterminate species filled her vision as she closed her eyes.
“Miss Anabelle,” a soft voice roused her from an impromptu nap. A haze foretelling rain replaced the sunshine. Anabelle rubbed the step from her eyes as she sat up. Dorothea crouched beside her, eyes red and puffy.
“Miss Anabelle,” she repeated, “I have to tell you some bad news.”
Anabelle ran as fast as her little legs could move. She burst into her mother’s room, her brother and father already there. White cloaked everything from the curtains to the bedsheets. She never understood why hospital rooms and patient rooms, doctors and nurses, all dressed in white. Maybe it was to prepare you for what Anabelle now saw. Her mother’s desaturated features blended in perfectly.
Anabelle tried desperately to climb into the bed, but her father grabbed her away. Kicking and sobbing, he held her firmly in his arms, close to his heart. A single tear trailed down his face. Whether for his lost wife or his daughter’s suffering she never knew, but it was the one time she remembered seeing him show his emotions.
That was the last day she remembered watching the clouds.
Shortly thereafter, Anabelle packed her things and headed to boarding school. Over the years she saw her brother and father less frequently. Dorothea wrote her every week for a time, but eventually, those also stopped. She lived for a long time confined to dull rooms, arduous studies, and everything artificial. Life came for Anabelle on the breakneck current of a wild river. The flow never ceased but it did slow once Anabelle became the curator of a rare and unique books store.
Morning after morning, the smell of old paper greeted her. She met intriguing people and acquired exceptional books. Happy didn’t describe her life, but she settled on content. One year, winter ravaged the small town containing the book store. Each day brought more snow and numbing winds. Business slowed and a cloud fell heavy and dark. Death visited the trees and flowers as surely as it visited more than a few people. Fireplaces worked around the clock, but the chill persisted. Just as Anabelle believed the depressing veil would never lift, signs of spring blossomed.
Snow melted revealing soupy mud that eventually dried and grew green grass. Biting winds wound down leaving warm air in its absence. Slowly, life began to awaken on unsteady feet. On the first day that winter’s grey haze left the sky completely, Anabelle took a long and slow walk home.
She stopped on the brick bridge, the allure of spring inviting her to stay outside longer. So she paused and rested her elbows on the wall relishing the long-forgotten sunshine. Head hung low, she watched the gentle stream below slip by. Clouds rolled into her view, reflected on the glass water, puffy and brilliant white. Little Anabelle, years older and worn down, gasped when amongst the cottony blobs she recognized a kitty cat with a backpack.