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Cloud Nineby Luanne Rice
Another autumn had come to Fort Cromwell, New York, and Sarah Talbot was there to see it. She sat on the front porch of her small white house, drinking apple cinnamon tea, wondering what to do next. The college kids next door were washing their car. Spray from the hose misted her face. Wrapped in a red plaid blanket, she tilted her face to the sun, and imagined the drops were saltwater and she was home on Elk Island.
A blue sedan drove slowly down the street. It looked municipal, as if it might belong to an undercover police officer or street inspector. FORT CROMWELL VNA was stenciled on the side, and when it parked in Sarah's driveway, a small, trim woman in a white coat climbed out.
Sarah smiled to see her.
"What are you doing here?" Sarah asked.
"That's a fine greeting," the visiting nurse said.
"I thought you were done with me," Sarah said. Holding her blanket with one hand, she used the other to unconsciously ruffle her closely shorn white hair.
"Done with you? My daughter would kill me. Besides, do you think that's how I treat my friends?"
"I'm your patient, Meg," Sarah said, smiling.
"Were, Sarah. Were. We're here to take you for a ride."
"A ride? Where--" Sarah began. Glancing at the car, she noticed Mimi in the backseat.
"Happy birthday, Sarah," Meg said, bending down to hug her.
Sarah reached up. She put her arms around the visiting nurse and smelled her citrus-scented shampoo. Meg's pockets jangled with keys, pens, and a stethoscope. A colorful plastic teddy bear was pinned to her lapel, just above her name tag. Sarah could feel by the new padding between her bones and Meg's skin that she was putting on weight. The hug felt good, and she bit her lip.
"How did you know?" Sarah asked when they pulled apart. Today was her thirty-seventh birthday. She was having a quiet day: no party, no cards or calls from home. In the car's back window Mimi was waving with one hand, trying to paste up a bright pink sign with the other. In silver glitter she had written MANY HAPPY RETURNS OF THE DAY!
"I read your chart," Meg said, grinning. "Come on."
Will Burke stood in the hangar, his head under the hood of the Piper Aztec. Fall was his biggest season. He needed all three of the planes he owned serviced and ready to fly. The lake region was a tourist destination, with all the cider mills and foliage trails. He operated fifteen-minute aerial tours, especially popular during the Fort Cromwell Fair. The end of October brought parents' weekends at two area colleges, with scheduled flights back and forth to New York, shuttling parents to see the big games and visit their kids.
At the sound of tires crunching over the gravel outside, he wiped his socket wrench on a blue rag and placed it on his tall red toolbox. He checked his watch: four o'clock. A friend of his daughter's had booked a quick birthday tour, up and down, a fifteen-minute scenic loop of the lake and mountain. An easy thirty dollars, and he'd be back to the tune-up in no time.
Tucking his work shirt into his jeans, Will walked outside to greet his customers. He didn't really feel like taking a break, but the afternoon was sunny, and the fresh air felt good, so he found himself smiling at the car anyway. He waved as they pulled up.
Meg and Mimi Ferguson got out. Meg was the town visiting nurse, and she yelled hello with cheerful efficiency, making Will smile a little wider. He hung back, wondering which one had the birthday. His daughter sometimes baby-sat for Mimi, and judging from what he remembered, Mimi must be about ten.
But then someone new got out of the car, a woman Will had never seen. She was small and thin, the size of an underfed teenager. Her skin was pale and translucent, like high cloud cover on a fall day, and her head was covered with blond peach fuzz. It was the way she looked at the sky that caught Will's attention: with total rapture, as if she hadn't ever seen it so blue before, or as if she couldn't believe she was about to go up in it.
"Ready to fly?" he asked.
"Which plane, Mr. Burke?" Mimi asked, excited.
"That one," he said, pointing at the two-seater Piper Cub.
"We can't all fit?" Mimi asked, disappointed.
"Now, Mimi--" Meg began.
"Sorry, Mimi," Will said. "The big plane's getting an oil change. If I'd known . . ."
"You know what, Mimi?" the woman said eagerly. "Why don't you go up for me?"
"It's your birthday flight," Mimi said. "It was my idea, and we want you to go."
"Happy birthday," Will said to the woman.
"Thank you." Again, that expression of amazement, as if she had never been so happy. She stared at him directly, and he had that shock he felt when coming upon a person he knew from somewhere, hardly at all, but who has undergone a drastic change of appearance. A weight gain or loss, a different hairstyle, a drop in health. He had seen this woman around town looking quite different. Then, for some strange reason, he pointed at the sky.
"Ready?" he asked.
"I am," she said.
"Let's go," he said. Then, speaking to Mimi in a voice he tried to keep from sounding overly hopeful, he said, "Hey, Susan's in the office. She'd be glad to see you."
Secret's dad had brought her to the airport. Her allergies were out of control, and the school nurse had tried to call her mother, but of course she wasn't home. So Secret had told her to call Burke Aviation and ask for Will: Her father would definitely pick her up. And he had. She'd felt better almost immediately upon reaching the airport, but there was no point in going back to school: the day was almost over. She slouched at his desk, painting her nails. Craning her neck, she could just see the action outside, through the big window. Mimi and her mom and their friend were standing by the landing strip, talking to him.
Of all the kids Secret baby-sat for, Mimi was the best. She was a nice little kid. She listened to her parents, never tried to get Secret to pierce her ears in weird places, and wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. She had Dreams and Goals, she knew there was more to life than Emma Turnley, the only school in this one-horse town, just as Secret herself did.
"Hi, Susan," Mimi said, bursting through the door.
"'Susan'?" Secret said, barely looking up. "There's no one named Susan here."
"That's right, I forgot," Mimi said, grinning. "Secret. You changed your name. What're you doing?"
"October is the month for witchy doings, and since you know I'm a witch, I'm painting my nails accordingly," Secret said patiently, as if she were explaining something terribly obvious to a dim but cherished friend. She wiggled her fingers at Mimi, casting a spell.
"Wow," Mimi said, admiring the artwork. Secret had used India ink and a crow-quill pen to paint delicate spiderwebs on her iridescent pale blue nails. Being right-handed, her left hand was more intricately done, with microscopic spiders clinging to the silken strands.
"You brought that lady here for her plane ride, I see," Secret said, looking out the window again. The airport was tiny, and there wasn't much activity. "Was she surprised?"
"Very surprised," Mimi said. "I'm glad you suggested it."
From the Paperback edition.
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