Naoko lay on her back in the grass, listening to the traffic on the highway below. From this distance it was a rushing white noise that ebbed and flowed, reminding her of the ocean. Standing, the October wind had chilled her, but here at ground level the air was still and the sunlight warmed her skin. She watched the wind flail at the trees, occasionally tugging a golden leaf free and sending it spinning to the ground in restless spirals.
Dragonflies zipped erratically above her head, pursuing their own inscrutable insect trajectories. Farther above, and similar in shape and opacity of motive, a dark-colored helicopter cut across her field of vision. Clouds scudded rapidly across the sky. In the first sunlight after a number of overcast days, the clouds were painfully white, the sky painfully blue. Naoko closed her eyes.
In the orange brightness beneath her eyelids, she invented a superstitious game: the shape of the first cloud she saw would foretell her future. She tried to clear her mind, but wondered what she might see -- a cloud in the shape of an animal, or someone’s face, or the state of Pennsylvania?
The shape that hung directly above her head was none of these things. It was large and round, and loomed, its edges feathering and roiling in constant turmoil. She squinted at it, her eyes watering from the brightness. After a moment she realized, with disappointment, that it didn’t look like anything at all. No matter how much she tried to imagine otherwise, it stubbornly remained an ordinary, boring, cloud-shaped cloud.
Suddenly, Naoko noticed that the feathered edges were beginning to break up, spinning out into the blue and vanishing. The white bulk, so uniform a moment ago, became clumpy and uneven, allowing the sky to show through in ever-growing patches. Within a few seconds, the cloud had been teased apart into a hundred wispy fragments, and as she watched, those fragments curled away and dissolved until the sky was a solid, unbroken blue.
Naoko stared into the blue, her vision blurring. Far above, a seagull glided into view, its white wings spread wide to catch the wind. She sat up to watch it fly toward the river, following it with her eyes until it was nothing more than a dark speck, slowly vanishing above the trees.