The Hole in the Sky
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“Come on, Shawn. You can do it!” Kaela Neuleaf cheered under her breath as her cousin approached the rope climb.

Shawn squinted towards the ceiling, pushed his glasses up his nose, jumped high and clutched the heavy rope between his hands. He swayed, struggling to secure a grip with his legs, but lost his hold and dropped back to the ground.

“You can do it, Shawn!” Kaela yelled.

He tried again, and successfully clenched the rope between his skinny legs and hands, and slowly began to inch his way up, hand-over-hand.

“What a loser!” Just behind Kaela, Stephanie Rickenbacker, the ultimate popular girl, snickered to her friends. “Just look at him! He’ll never make it.”

Kaela pretended not to hear, and kept her eyes glued on her cousin. She knew he’d been practicing for days and clung to the possibility that this time he’d make it all the way to the ceiling. This time, they would show the other kids they weren’t losers. This time, maybe their luck would change for good. Shawn continued climbing higher, but then stopped halfway up and closed his eyes. His face, pink from the exertion, alarmingly paled to a light shade of green.

“Hey, nerd, what’cha doin’?” Stephanie yelled.

“Nerd, nerd, nerd!” Her followers chorused.

Kaela bit her lip and ignored the irritation churning inside her. She refused to give in to her anger – Shawn needed her. She focused in on her cousin’s closed eyes, willing him to move up higher again.

But instead, Shawn looked down at Kaela, shaking his head.

“Shawn, you’re doing great!” Kaela yelled, giving him the thumbs-up sign. “Come on, just a little farther.”

He glanced up toward the ceiling and, once again, shook his head.

“Come on, Shawn!” Kaela shouted, desperate.

Shawn refused a final time, and then slowly made his way down the rope to the safety of the ground.

“You did great, Shawn!” Kaela cheered again, trying to reassure her cousin.

Stephanie giggled. “Loser,” she hissed, right into Kaela’s ear, and then turned and high-fived the boy next to her.

Flushed with anger, Kaela whirled toward Stephanie. “Just leave him alone,” she demanded, gritting her teeth.

“Just leave him alone,” Stephanie mocked.

“Drop it, Stephanie!” Kaela spun around to face Stephanie, clenching and unclenching her fists.

“Oh, does the poor baby need his mama to protect him?” Stephanie sneered.

A chorus of jeers rose at Kaela’s expense.

“Stop it!” Kaela yelled.

“Oh, poor red-haired mamma. Look, here comes your baby loser.” Stephanie said, loud enough for Shawn to hear. A pained look flashed across his brown eyes.

It was one thing for Stephanie to torture Kaela, but it drove Kaela over the edge when they tormented her cousin. Before Kaela could stop, her hands flew up and she pushed Stephanie. Stephanie shrieked and the gym teacher turned from across the gymnasium just as Stephanie fell. Ms. Halsey, the gym teacher, ran over to them, scowling.

“What is going on with you two? You know we absolutely do not tolerate that kind of behavior in this school. What happened here?” Ms. Halsey asked sharply.

“It’s like, we were just joking around when Kaela, like, comes over and just pushes me for no reason.” Stephanie simpered, forcing a tear down her flawless face. “That hurt.”

“Liar!” Kaela said loudly, trying to speak over Stephanie. “They were teasing Shawn.”

In the background, Kaela heard the din of other kids’ voices, including Shawn, yelling out what they thought had just taken place.
“Stop. Everyone stop.” Ms. Halsey said, putting up her hand. She looked back and forth between Kaela and Stephanie in the sudden quiet. “That’s enough. Stephanie, go stand by the bleachers, and Kaela, I want you to go to my office. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

“But Ms. Halsey…” Kaela tried to explain.

“Kaela – go. Now.” Everyone in the gymnasium stood, gaping at the commotion, until Ms. Halsey spoke again. “Carry on,” she said, firmly. “Get back to your rotations.”

Red-faced and fuming, Kaela turned on her heels and walked away. Certain everyone was still staring at her, Kaela glanced over her shoulder and saw the teacher nodding sympathetically as Stephanie sobbed.

“Why is Stephanie such a monster?” Kaela scowled, retreating to the teacher’s office.

Kaela gazed out the window and, bit-by-bit, her outrage ebbed. Across the soccer field a row of trees dressed in oranges and reds danced in the wind, waving their arms as if beckoning to her. She imagined climbing to the highest branch of the tallest tree, just above the clouds. Maybe if she could poke her finger through the sky…

“So, Kaela…” Ms. Halsey began as she entered the small room.

“Yes, Ms. Halsey?”

“You know I think highly of you. You have so much potential, and I don’t want you to throw it away by losing your temper.”

“But, Ms. Halsey…”

“Please let me finish. I’m only looking out for your own good. I know that you’ve had a hard time…”

Kaela half-listened to the lecture, but the clouds outside drew her attention. They gathered into a dark mass, blocking the sun, chased by the rumbling of thunder. She waited for the downpour to begin, but the clouds parted, and a golden sunray escaped instead.

“Have you heard anything I’ve just said?” Ms. Halsey said with a note of irritation.

“Um, yes,” Kaela stammered. “Um, I think it might rain.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with you. I’m afraid I have no choice – obviously I can’t get through to you. I’m sending you to see the principal. Change your clothes and go to Mr. Jones’ office.”


“Please don’t argue. Just get ready and go.”

Kaela searched Ms. Halsey’s face for some sign of understanding or mercy. Instead, her teacher shook her head and pointed to the door.

After changing back into a t-shirt and jeans, Kaela peered at herself in the mirror. Even though she brushed her long red hair smooth just before class, it had returned to its wild nature, tangling and curling into unruly knots. The mascara she put on earlier no longer accented her blue eyes. Instead, it settled into a black smudge on her lower eyelids.

Kaela pouted her lips, swept her hair back and mocked the voice of an announcer. “And here we have the world famous star, who, like only a small handful before her, needs only one name. The one, the only – Kaela! Trend-setter extraordinaire.” She smacked her lips together and blew an exaggerated kiss, then sighed and dabbed at her eyelids with the corner of her t-shirt.

“Dream on…” she muttered. “I wish something good … something magical would happen in my life.”

Suddenly something flashed behind her in the mirror. She spun around, certain she’d seen a small boy run across the room.

“Hey, hello?” Kaela called. “Is someone there?” But there was no response. Kaela combed the rows of lockers, but didn’t see anyone. “Hello? I’m just trying to help.” Still, no one appeared.

A whiff of a lovely aroma stopped Kaela in her path. It wasn’t the usual locker-room odor of armpits and sweaty feet. Instead, it smelled moist and fresh, like ocean air. What could it be? She turned around, and just behind her something softly gleamed from the cement floor. Kaela knelt down and found a seashell resting on a pile of fine white sand.

Kaela tentatively touched the shell where it lay, then couldn’t resist cradling the spiral that was no bigger than her thumb. With her index finger, she traced the winding ridges around and around the shell. In shape, it resembled a conch shell she once found by the seashore, but in other ways there was something unusual, even otherworldly about it. It sparkled gold, as if set with thousands of tiny jewels, and made the skin on her palm glow with reflected light. Where on earth had it come from? The ocean was at least a thousand miles away.

Kaela held the shell to her ear, closed her eyes, and listened to the sound of waves brushing the sand. Warmth caressed her face like a gentle breeze blowing against her cheek, and a man’s voice whispered, “It is time. It is time.”

“It’s time for you to go to the office,” Ms. Halsey said with her arms crossed, audibly tapping her foot.

Kaela’s eyes popped open, and she jerked her hand away from her head, with the shell safely wrapped in her fist.

“Why are you sitting on the floor? Mr. Jones is waiting for you.”

“I, um, I thought I saw a little kid running through here,” Kaela replied lamely.

“Please, Kaela… Get going.” Ms. Halsey sighed. “I have to get back to the gymnasium.” She walked to the gym entrance and looked back at Kaela. “I better not find you in here…”

“I’m going, I’m going.” Kaela stood to leave, but when her teacher was safely out of sight, she opened her hand again and admired the unusual shell. She carefully placed it in her pocket, grabbed her backpack, and shuffled in the direction of principal’s office. She thought about the unexpected gift. Maybe it was a good omen. Maybe the principal would say, with a kind look in his eyes, “Oh Kaela, we’re so sorry. We’ve been so wrong about you! You are actually the long lost great-granddaughter of the Queen of…”

The door marked ‘Administration’ loomed large in front of Kaela, puncturing her day-dream.

The gray-haired secretary stopped typing when Kaela walked through the door. Eyeing Kaela over her wire-rimmed glasses, she said, “I’ll let Mr. Jones know you’re here. Please have a seat.” The secretary pointed. “He’ll be a few minutes. He’s calling your father.”

Why did the stupid principal have to call her dad? Kaela remembered a recent conversation in which her father told her she needed to pull herself together. Well, once again she had blown it. She hated making her father even sadder.

Things turned out pretty much as expected in the principal’s office. Kaela tried to pay attention by staring in his direction, but his features blurred and morphed into a creature with flaring nostrils and crossed eyes. When he briefly paused to breathe, Kaela opened her mouth to eke out a defense, but Mr. Jones cleared his throat.

“Ahem,” he coughed. “Unfortunately, Kaela, we were unable to contact your father. However, I – er, have this letter that I want you to give him.” His chair squeaked as he abruptly stood. Towering above Kaela, the principal passed her the dreaded envelope.

Mr. Jones opened his lips for a few parting blows just as the final bell blared, so that the alarm seemed to erupt from his open mouth. Kaela fled the office before the bell silenced, and folded the envelope over and over into a tiny rectangle as she went to her locker. Then she shoved it into her pocket.

Kaela joined the throngs of kids bolting out the front door and spotted Shawn, who sat on a bench with his hair blowing in the wind. The dark clouds were gone, banished by an unusually warm breeze that propelled her forward.

Weighed down with a heavy backpack, Shawn hurried to Kaela and apologized.

“I’m sorry,” he began.

“It was that stupid Stephanie,” Kaela interrupted him. “I don’t know why she has to be such a jerk. What should I do now? The principal sent home a letter.” Kaela walked in long strides, eager to get far away from school.

“I’m not sure.” Shawn said, matching her pace. “Do you know what it says?’

“Oh you know, ‘Your daughter is a total loser and should probably be sent away to…’”

“Come on, Kaela. It’s not that bad.” Shawn laughed and patted her half empty backpack, and then frowned. “Maybe you could bring some books home for a change, though.”

“Detention. Military School. Juvenile Prison,” Kaela spat out, imagining the worst. “Forget it. School is a waste of my time. I’m better off in bed, reading.”

“You used to like school, before your mom died.” Shawn pulled gently on Kaela’s arm, slowing her down. “It’s been two years.”

“Shawn, don’t…” She shrugged off his touch. Talking about her mother was off-limits, even with Shawn.

“I’m sorry, Kaela. I didn’t mean… I just want to help.” Shawn gestured, at a loss.

“I know. It’s okay.” Kaela kicked a small pebble along the sidewalk. “I just don’t understand why some kids get everything and the rest of us get nothing.”

“Everyone’s got problems, Kaela.”

“Not Stephanie. She’s mean, but she’s still popular, and her face is perfect and her clothes are perfect.” Kaela imagined Stephanie swelling and puffing up like a Thanksgiving Day balloon and floating away until she was nothing but a dark speck in the sky.

“Kaela, why do you care? You’re way nicer than her,” Shawn said, trying to comfort his cousin.

“Then why aren’t I popular? Why don’t boys want to be with me?”

“I’m a boy. I like being with you.”

“Not like that, Shawn. Geez. You know what I mean. The popular kids are like school royalty, and the rest of us just have to bow down and lick their toes, or get sent home with a letter.”

“Well, there’s good royalty and there’s bad royalty.”

The warm wind intensified and whistled through the trees. Orange and gold leaves fluttered to the ground around them.

“I suppose you’re right.” Kaela stomped on one dried leaf after another, and then looked at her cousin. “Shawn, you know you could have made it all the way. You were doing great.”

“Please, Kaela, don’t.” Shawn’s cheeks flushed. He looked straight ahead, unhappy that Kaela had turned the conversation around.

“I’m just trying to help. I’ve told you again and again, if you don’t want the kids to pick on you, you have to try to fit in.”

“Oh, yeah, and you’re so good at that.” Shawn scoffed, and then saw the look on her face. “Not everyone wants to fit in, you know.”

“Shawn…” Kaela scolded, but it was true. Shawn had his own way of doing things. In fifth grade he decided to read the entire encyclopedia. He made no effort to be “cool”. Instead, he dressed in flannel shirts softened from endless washings, and insisted on cutting his own brown hair in a chopped-up mess, covering the oddly-shaped birthmark on the back of his neck.
Silent for a few minutes, Kaela frowned as she struggled to understand the mishaps of the day. She turned to her cousin. “Maybe I’m cursed or something.”

“Cursed?” Shawn’s eyebrows knitted together, “Like someone put a spell on you?”

“Yes, yes – think about it. Nothing I do ever turns out right.”

“That’s not true. You help me, and other kids too. You stand up to bullies. That seems like a really right thing to do. It just gets you in trouble a lot.”

Comforted by his words, Kaela gave Shawn a small smile. When they reached her house, an old repainted brick building, Shawn stood on the front porch while Kaela reached behind a thick growth of ivy for the key. A colony of crows cawed in the trees around them, sharing tales of their day.

After opening the door, Kaela and Shawn threw their backpacks on the floor by the stairs, kicked off their shoes and marched through the living room toward the kitchen.

When she was younger, Kaela loved to bring kids to her house and watch their eyes widen with wonder at the sight of the bright mural that covered the living room wall. Behind the threadbare velvet couch, her mother had painted a wide, gnarled tree that grew all the way to the upper edge of the wall. The leafy branches arched onto the adjoining walls and covered half of the ceiling. Families of squirrels and birds nestled in the tree’s branches, and one lone white bird painted on the ceiling flew toward the windows that faced the front yard. But, embarrassed by the now shabby room, filled with mismatched furniture and the clutter and dust that were now always present in her home, Kaela preferred to ignore her surroundings.

Though the house had a large formal dining room with an elegant wood table and matching chairs, Kaela and her father always sat at the old pine table in the kitchen at the back of the house. Like the living room, the kitchen was still filled with her mother’s touch. A huge painted sun with yellow and orange rays surrounded the simple ceiling fixture.

Kaela yanked open the refrigerator door and shuffled through box after box of Styrofoam “to-go” containers. “Hey, I’m supposed to throw out the old food. Maybe you can help me while I look for something to eat.”

“Sure, I guess.”

With her head still in the fridge, Kaela passed Shawn a box that exuded a frighteningly pungent odor. “Smell this and tell me if it’s still good,” she said.

“Smell it yourself!” Shawn relented, however, and unfastened the box of Chinese noodles. Instantly a rotten, garlicky odor filled the kitchen. Shawn dumped the box in the trash, wrapped his fingers around his neck and fell to his knees with his tongue dangling from his mouth.

“Ga-a-a!” He cried, “I-I-I’m pois-s-s-o-n-ned!”

Kaela turned around and glanced at her cousin.

“It wasn’t that bad,” she scoffed. She felt around inside the fridge. “Umm... I’m thirsty. Oo! Orange juice.” She plucked the carton from the fridge and leaned her head back with her eyes closed. The sweet juice ran down her throat, all the way to her stomach, in big, satisfying gulps. Unable to resist, Shawn tickled her in the ribs. Orange juice mixed with spit shot from Kaela’s nose and mouth. She coughed and wiped her mouth with a towel, then shoved her cousin. “Oh! Very funny, loser.”

“You had it coming.” Shawn teased.

“Whatever.” Kaela returned to scavenging in the fridge and pulled out a large flat box. “I forgot about this. We can have pizza,”

“Does it have any meat on it?” Shawn asked.

“Jeez, don’t you think I know you’re a vegetarian by now? It’s just cheese and tomato.”

“Okay, okay. Give me a couple of slices, and I’ll heat them up.”

The front door creaked just as the microwave beeped. Kaela grabbed a piece of pizza.

“Who could that be?” She muttered. “Dad always works late on Thursdays.” Kaela stretched the warm mozzarella cheese and tore off a large bite as she walked into the living room, mumbling as she chewed. “Mello? M’anyone home?”

The door stood wide open, but there was no one in the room. Puzzled, Kaela stuck her head outside to look for her father’s car in the driveway. Dry leaves rustled in the breeze, but there was no car. She started to close the door, but then stuck her head back out and sniffed a few times. Moist air filled her nostrils, suffused with the aroma of a humid sea breeze. She shivered involuntarily. “It must have been the wind,” she said to a large crow that perched nearby, watching her with beady eyes. This time, she slammed the door hard and made sure to lock it securely.

When she walked back into the kitchen, the neighbor’s striped orange cat looked up from Shawn’s lap. “Was that your dad?” Shawn asked.

“Nope, no one was there,” Kaela said, looking toward the living room, “But there’s something strange going on…”

“Tiger must have pushed the door open.” Staring into the cat’s eyes, Shawn asked, “Did you do it, Tiger?”

The cat mewed softly and stretched as Shawn stroked his thick fur.

Kaela absentmindedly patted the cat’s head. “Tiger’s not supposed to be in the house.”

“He’s not doing anything wrong.” Shawn snuggled the cat against his chest.

“You know, my dad’s allergies...” Kaela gestured vaguely.

“Tiger, you’re not gonna shed or anything, are you?” Shawn asked the cat.

The cat rolled onto his back, baring his soft white belly, stretching his legs and opening his mouth in a huge yawn.

“Shawn, there’s something weird going on,” Kaela said, choosing to ignore the cat. “The air smelled strange, like when we go to the ocean.”

“Come on,” Shawn scoffed.

“I swear! It smelled just like the beach,” she mused, staring into space as she realized that it was the same aroma that she had sniffed in the locker room. “Wait, I’ve got something to show you, something special.” Excited now, Kaela dug in her pocket, past the letter from her principal. She pulled out the sparkling shell and handed it to her cousin.

“Look at this!” She said proudly.

“It’s beautiful.” Shawn examined the shell, holding it between his thumb and forefinger.

“I know! Hold it up to your ear. Tell me if you hear something.”

“What am I listening for?” Shawn asked.

“Just try.”

Shawn palmed the shell against his ear. “Maybe there is just the quietest whisper, like waves on the beach.”


With the shell pressed against his ear, Shawn closed his eyes for a few seconds, and smiled.

“Give it to me.” Kaela listened again. “I hear the ocean, but I heard something else, before. Promise me you won’t think I’m crazy.”

“I promise, I guess,” Shawn hesitated.

“When I first found it this afternoon, I’m sure I heard a voice in it.”

“Come on, Kaela, that’s just your crazy imagination.” Shawn looked back at Tiger, rubbing under the cat’s chin.

“No, really! It was a beautiful voice, a man’s voice. He said ‘It is time.’” Kaela paused for a moment, remembering.

“Also,” she continued, “just before I found it I’m sure I saw a little kid running through the locker room. The kid disappeared, and then this shell appeared, lying on a pile of sand. I swear it wasn’t there before. I think the kid left it for me. I know this sounds crazy, but I think it’s magic,” Kaela said, speaking quickly so that Shawn wouldn’t interrupt her. “When I hold it to my ear, it’s like I feel something special. Don’t you?” She handed the shell to Shawn again.

“Well, yeah, I guess. I love the sound of the ocean.”

“It’s more than that. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like...”

At that moment, Tiger stood up in Shawn’s lap, and arched his back, hissing. The cat leapt across the table, and raced out of the room, chasing something only he could see.

The Hole in the Sky by Barbara A. Mahler :: Sea Turtle Publishing © 2009 - all rights reserved
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