Elsie looked out the window. Perfect conditions: warm but not hot, no rain overnight, sunny but not too bright due to plenty of puffy clouds in the sky. She zipped up her hoodie, slipped on her shoes and grabbed a blanket from the basket near the couch and marched to the back door. It was the perfect day for cloud watching.
Elsie couldn’t remember exactly how she’d gotten started with cloud watching. She wasn’t even entirely sure why she enjoyed it so much. It was relaxing, sure, but her friends all preferred to scroll TikTok or mess around with Snapchat filters to unwind. Even Leslie, the most new age-esque of her friends, thought cloud watching was boring and preferred yoga in her downtime.
As Elsie spread her blanket out precisely in the middle of her small yard, she heard a faint but distinct snip, snip, snap coming from the other side of the sun-faded wooden fence.
“Hi Mr. Connors,” she called out, announcing her presence so Mr. Connors wouldn’t be startled should he glance over the fence and see her laying in the yard.
“G’morning Elsie,” his return call came. “Good day for cloud watching?”
Elsie’s cloud watching habit was no secret among her family, friends and neighbors. Especially not her science teacher neighbor Mr. Connors. And being a man who taught about the environment, observation and the scientific process, he approved of this tech-free habit for a young teen.
“The perfect day,” Elsie said with confidence, spreading the wrinkles out of her blanket.
Elsie slid her sunglasses up her nose (“Protect those baby blues,” her dad always said) and laid back, her head full of stick-straight brown hair resting in her hands. She breathed in the fresh summer air and breathed out a big sigh, emptying her lungs.
She was barely settled in, getting used to the particular bumps of the ground beneath her and deciding whether to appreciate or tune out Mr. Connors’ snip, snip, snapping yard work when she saw it. Something moving. In the clouds. But that couldn’t be. What could possibly be up in the clouds moving? Something she could see no less?
Elsie closed her eyes. “Reset,” she whispered to herself. “Try again.” She did a slow-count to five and reopened her eyes, trying not to stare at the cloud where there had been movement.
Elsie emptied her mind of everything, identifying thoughts as they popped up and tossing them away as she tried to relax and enjoy the world around her.
I really should start on that summer reading list. Toss.
I told Mom I’d vacuum today. Toss.
What was that in the clouds? Toss.
I wonder what’s for dinner. Toss.
That lifeguard at the pool yesterday was pretty cute. Toss.
I think he smiled at me. Toss. Toss!
But how can there be something in the clouds? Toss.
Birds can’t get that high, right? Toss.
No, not a bird. Toss.
Elsie sighed and closed her eyes again. She couldn’t forget about seeing something moving in the clouds. What if all this time spent cloud watching had been for a reason? What if there’s something up there and she’s meant to see it?
Elsie opened her eyes and her focus was drawn immediately to the edge of the cloud where she’d seen movement. And she saw it again. This time more defined. It had looked like a head. An animal head. A dirty white in color so it blended in with the cloud. But something strange about it, familiar and yet unknown.
Now Elsie watched the exact spot with determination. Mr. Connors’ snip, snip, snapping yard work a rhythm further defining her focus. She tried to blink as little as humanly possible so as not to miss a single thing.
Her persistence paid off. Within a minute, the head slipped back into view. Elsie didn’t move a muscle but focused in on this head. This animal head. This whitish animal head… with a golden horn, glinting in the sun.
It took everything in Elsie’s power not to spring up from her blanket in shock.
“Hey Mr. Connors,” she called, as calmly as possible. “Would you come over here for a sec?”
“Sure thing,” he replied. Elsie could hear him set his pruners down on the walkway as he came toward the gate in the fence. “What’s up? You spot a new variety of pill bug?” Mr. Connors chuckled to himself.
“Not exactly…” Elsie had no idea how she was going to explain this to someone else, let alone a someone who made knowledge about scientific discovery his life’s work.
Mr. Connors closed the gate behind him but didn’t approach Elsie. #MeToo had really done a number on every adult male who worked with kids and teens and Mr. Connors knew what was best for him.
But Elsie needed him to see what she was seeing.
“I need you to lay down and look at the clouds with me,” Elsie said with a hint of nervousness in her voice.
“Elsie,” Mr. Connors sounded a bit annoyed. “I’m really trying to get this yard work done today. Can it wait?”
“Mr. Connors, I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important,” Elsie risked looking away from the clouds to make sunglasses-to-sunglasses eye contact with her neighbor. “Please. There’s something I think you’ll want to see.”
Mr. Connors sighed but it was clear that he was going to look at the clouds with Elsie. He started to sit on the lawn right where he was, near the fence.
“Here,” Elsie said, pointing to the lawn next to her blanket. “I saw something up there and I want to be sure you have the best angle.”
Mr. Connors crammed his hands as deep into his pockets as they could go. He stopped a few feet shy of the blanket and laid down in the grass.
Elsie made a face but didn’t push him.
“What did you see?” Mr. Connors asked gamely.
“You won’t believe me,” Elsie said. “Maybe it’s best if you just see it for yourself first.”
Mr. Connors had been a teacher long enough to know when to fight the fight and when to give in. “Alright then,” he said. “Where am I looking?”
Elsie moved her arm right next to Mr. Connors’ head so she could point to the exact spot from his line of sight. She’d barely gotten back to her own position on the blanket when the animal head peeked out from around the cloud again.
“There!” Elsie whisper shouted, worried that somehow the creature could hear her. “Did you see it?”
“What the…” Mr. Connors stuttered and blinked hard. He found the edge of the cloud again and the creature was still there.
“You see it right?” Elsie said. “Is it… is that… could it be?”
“No, right?” Mr. Connors replied. “I mean, they aren’t real. There’s no way…” he trailed off. Because if what they had seen in the clouds was unbelievable, there was no word to describe what was happening now. An enormous rainbow suddenly unfurled down from the cloud in question, unrolling like a magical red carpet until it draped over the fence and laid in Elsie’s yard.
Then the true action began. The unicorn slid down the rainbow. And not gracefully. Sitting on its rear, legs sprawled, tail and mane fluttering wildly in the wind, it coasted along, looking as if it would go sailing off its rainbow path at the slightest curve.
When the unicorn hit the fence, it was tossed into the air. Its legs scrambled, a look of terror on its face as it launched back into the sky, but as it began its descent, it seemed to find its balance, and its dignity, and somehow landed gently on all fours.
Elsie and Mr. Connors stared at the unicorn in front of them. The unicorn whinnied.