I stared at Lord Blauer, mouth hanging open in shock.
“You’re sending me where?”
“Iowa.” Lord Blauer shuffled some papers on his desk.
“Iowa,” I said, still not believing it.
“I hear they’ve got beautiful sunsets.”
“They’ve also got tornadoes. Tornadoes!” I said, getting more and more frantic with each word I said. “They’re dangerous!”
“Yes, well, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Fine?” I said, realization dawning. “You’re trying to get rid of me, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not.” Lord Blauer looked at me uncomfortably.
“It’s not my fault that can of paint got spilled!”
“The sky was brown for a week, Miss Manier. That merits a demotion. To Iowa.”
“Lord Blauer, please,” I said. “You know I have acrophobia. I can’t stand heights. I need the ground to be closer.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Manier. I’ve decided to send Miss Okoro with you. She should be there already.”
My heart leapt. Ivy was going too!
“Thank you, Lord Blauer. When do I leave?”
“Autumn!” Ivy was upon me. “It’s sooo good to see you!”
I laughed. “Ivy, I saw you three hours ago!”
“That was such a long time, though!” Ivy bounced on her toes. “Come on, let’s get to work!”
I picked up a bucket of paint. Before my brush even touched the sky below, I heard a cracking noise. I straightened up, but saw nothing. Bending over again, I noticed cracks lacing across the sky.
“Hey, Ivy. Come look at this.” She jogged over.
“Watch out!” I pulled her back from the cracked portion of sky.
“Wha- oh.” Ivy stared down at the fractures. “How did you manage that?”
My protests were cut short when a small plant blossomed below me. I frowned, then looked past the sky, battling against the nausea. Far below me, a field contained small plants like the one under my feet. The soybean plant between my feet extended all the way down to the ground below.
“Ivy,” I said, not believing it. “I think we’ve got a Jack-and-the-beanstalk situation here.”
Confirming my suspicions, a small circle of sky tumbled down to the ground, and a boy with dirty clothes stepped out of it.
“Who’re you?” the boy said in a rough voice that reminded me of the street kids from my old New Orleans home. “And… how’re you here?” He gestured around at the sky-scape.
“I’m Autumn,” I said cautiously. “And this is-”
“Ivy!” Ivy said. “What’s your name?”
“The name’s Jayceon. How’re you here?”
“We’re called the Upper Artists. We paint the sky.”
“So,” Jayceon said skeptically. “For my entire life, there’s been a secret group of artists painting the sky? How has no one noticed- like astronauts? Or satellites?”
“Those aren’t real, Jayceon,” Ivy said quietly. “The Recruiters- they implanted memories of the moon landing and the Sputnik launching into everyone’s brains.”
“What?” Jayceon’s eyes grew wild, his breathing became ragged, and he leaned against the soybean-stalk for support. “I don’t understand. How could-?”
Ivy and I looked at him with sympathy. “I felt the same way when I found out,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ivy said pityingly.
“But how did these… these reactors-”
“Right. Recruiters. How did they implant… you know.”
“No one is really sure how they do it,” I said. “The SkyLord is the only one who knows. And the Recruiters themselves, of course.”
“SkyLord?” Jayceon asked.
“No one knows who he is, either. He directs the Upper Artists.” I didn’t want to reveal any more than that, and realized a little too late that we maybe shouldn’t have said all that.
“Let’s get back to the matter at hand,” I said briskly.
“What matter?” Jayceon and Ivy asked in unison.
“This,” I said, pointing at the small round hole in the sky. “This is a problem. If we just leave it be, the whole sky will collapse. If we try to fix it and do the wrong thing, the whole sky will collapse. If the whole sky collapses, the Earth will ignite. It’ll go up in flames!” I started to hyperventilate. I also had pyrophobia, the fear of fire. Even a campfire would set me off. The prospect of Earth exploding made spots dance in front of my eyes.
“Calm down,” Ivy soothed, rubbing my shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Shouldn’t we report this?” Jayceon said uncertainly. “To the government or your SkyLord?”
“No,” I said firmly. “No, we can’t report this to the human government. We should probably at least report it to Lord Blauer or somebody…”
“Isn’t there, I don’t know, someone supervising you painting the sky? Or anyone else here?” Jayceon asked uncertainly.
“We’re the only ones over this specific part of Iowa, a small town called Gilbert-”
“I know where I live,” Jayceon said grumpily.
“There are Supervisors near us, about five miles away in Ames,” Ivy continued pensively. “But I don’t think we should go to them. I think we should go to Morado.”
“Morado?” I was instantly on guard. “I don’t know. The Supervisor is closer than Morado.”
“But Morado is more likely to know how to help,” Ivy argued.
“Who?” Jayceon said.
“He’s an Atmospheric Wizard,” I explained. “He helps with anything and everything magical. He’s the one who made us immortal.”
“Wait. You’re immortal?”
I brushed off Jayceon’s question. “Yes,” I said impatiently. “But why Morado?”
“He’ll be able to fix it,” Ivy said pleadingly. “Come on, we don’t have time for this!”
“I have to agree with her. We need to do something- fast,” Jayceon said.
“All right!” I said loudly, throwing up my hands in exasperation. “All right! We’ll go.”
“Why’re you so against him?” Jayceon asked.
“I just- he was just the first person I met after being recruited. He wasn’t very nice to me. I think he has something against New Orleans. He wasn’t very nice to Jade, either.”
“Unimportant. Ivy, do you remember where Morado lives?”
“Tasmania, I think.” Ivy closed her eye and pursed her lips. “Or maybe Tanzania? No, definitely Tasmania. Over the… Bride- Bridestone- Bridestowe Lavender Estate! That’s it. He lives over the Bridestowe Lavender Estate in Tasmania.”
“I’ve heard of that place,” Jayceon said. “They grow a lotta lavender.”
Well, no dip, Sherlock! I thought.
“Wind!” I said instead. A breeze came up to me instantly, lifting the tips of my auburn hair. “We need you to take us to the-”
“Bridestowe Lavender Estate in Tasmania!” Ivy burst out. “And we need to get there quick.”
The breeze reared back, as if offended.
“Not that we don’t think you’re fast,” I was quick to assure it.
The breeze molded itself into the shape of a pillow, gently sliding under our feet. Soon, Ivy, Jayceon, and I were floating a few inches above the sky. Jayceon wobbled.
“Wait. Where’m I going?” he asked, panic creeping up his face.
“The Bridestowe Lavender Estate in Tasmania.”
“But- but I’m not going. This is your problem.” He pointed a shaking finger at the cracks stretching across the sky. “Not mine.”
“Oh, yes it is your problem!” I shouted, grabbing the back of his shirt as he tried to step off the cushion of wind. “You were the one who caused it! You and your stupid soybean-stalk!”
That may have been a little harsh, but the image of heaven and earth crashing and burning was still fresh in my mind. Jayceon looked startled, but hesitantly stepped back onto the zephyr.
“All right. Let’s go.”
Stepping off of the breeze five minutes later, I got the sense of landing on a giant purple ocean. The sky below me was a mottled gray-blue, but beyond that was a seemingly endless stretch of purple lavender waving in the wind. I looked away before the nausea could get to me.
“There.” Ivy was pointing to a small cottage, past the bewildered Upper Artists looking at us, resting right above a particularly lilac-colored portion of the lavender fields.
We jogged quickly over to it, ignoring the glances and whispers from the Upper Artists as we went. Jade, however, was one thing that couldn’t be ignored.
“Autumn!” Someone grabbed me around the knees, and I toppled over.
“Jumph,” I mumbled. She was sitting on my back. “Ger yoph.”
“What was that?” Jade said cheerfully. I pried my face off of the sky.
“I said, ‘Jade, get off!’” I snarled. She giggled and leapt off.
“Who’s that?” Jayceon asked.
“Well, you might call her my pesky little sister, though she’s not biologically my sister.”
That made me think of Charlotte, my real sister. I wondered how she was doing, if she was even still alive.
“I’m Jade!” Jade bounced up and down happily. “And I’m the youngest Upper Artist ever!”
This was the first thing Jade told people. It might’ve been true, but that didn’t mean she had to tell everyone.
“It’s nice to see you Jade,” Ivy said. “But we’re busy. See you later, okay?”
“’Kay!” Jade bounded off.
“She seems… nice,” Jayceon said.
“That’s one way to put it,” I said, rolling my eyes. I then reached out to knock on the door. Before I could, it flew open. There stood Morado, wearing plum-colored robes and a tall pointed hat. His long white hair and beard streamed down almost to the floor. Oh, and he was only about three feet tall.
“Whaddya want?” Morado said in a squeaky voice.
“We need your help,” Ivy burst out. “You see, Jayceon here is a human who grew a giant soybean-stalk that cracked the sky. Now, if we don’t fix it the entire sky is gonna crash down to Earth and the entire world is gonna explode!”
She sounded way too happy about that.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Morado squeaked. “Slow down. Whaddya need?”
“Long story short, the sky is cracked and the cracks are spreading,” I said. “We need you to fix it.”
“Me? To fix cracks, I need special ingredients. For those ingredients I need you.”
“Us?” Jayceon said in his street-kid drawl. “Why us? Can’t you get someone else?”
“You found- or from what this young lady said, caused- the problem. You get to fix it.”
“Fine,” he grumbled. “What do you need?”
“The bones of an Island Forest Frog, three tail hairs of a Newfoundland Pony, and five sprigs of lavender from here in Tasmania. Got that?”
I stared at him. “All that stuff is down on Earth!” I exclaimed.
“Exactly,” Morado said smugly. “Now off you go!”
With that, he shoved us out the door.
“I assume you know where this stuff is?” I said to Jayceon.
“Island Forest Frogs are found in the Philippines, Newfoundland Ponies are in Canada, and Tasmania is right below us,” Jayceon rattled off.
“How do you know that?” Ivy asked in admiration.
“My dad worked in the Museum of Natural History before he died. I used to read the books in his office.” Jayceon’s face flushed red, and he mumbled, “I used to be really interested in that kind of stuff.”
“Your dad used to work in the Museum of Natural History?” Ivy said. “That’s so cool! I love that museum!”
“You do?” Jayceon said, smiling shyly at her. I realized then that Jayceon had a crush on Ivy. I smiled to myself.
This was going to be interesting.
The lavender was easy. We simply popped down to Earth, picked five sprigs, and came back again. The next ingredient was going to be a little harder.
“We’ll most likely be able to find an Island Forest Frog in the Philippines,” Jayceon said, pointing at the islands on a map. “The hard part’ll be getting its bones. They’re an endangered species, so I’d rather we find a dead or sick one.”
“All right,” Ivy and I chorused. “Let’s go!”
When we got down to Earth, we asked for directions to the nearest forest, where we might find a frog.
“I assume you know what they look like?” I said to Jayceon.
“They’re brownish-green and small-ish. They also have gigantic eyes,” Jayceon said promptly.
“Wow,” Ivy said quietly. “He’s amazing.”
“Stop!” Jayceon whisper-shouted. “Look!”
A brownish-green, small frog sat in front of us. Its eyes were closed, and there was no sign of breath.
“It’s dead,” Ivy whispered.
“Here.” I gently scooped up the frog, then placed it in a bag. “At least we won’t have to kill one.”
“True,” Jayceon said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“Don’t we have to remove the bones?” Ivy looked sick.
“No,” I said. “We’ll make Morado do it.”
“Okay.” Suddenly, Ivy was bubbly again. “Let’s go to Canada!”
We landed in a meadow filled with wild Newfoundland Ponies.
“Whoa,” Jayceon said. “Looks like we found the herd.”
Ivy was mesmerized. “They’re so beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Jayceon sighed. “They are.” But he wasn’t looking at the ponies. He was looking at Ivy.
As Jayceon reached out and grabbed Ivy’s hand, I turned away, busying myself with pluckinging three tail hairs from a nearby pony.
“Come on guys. I’ve got the hairs.”
“In a minute,” Ivy said dreamily. They were holding hands and grinning stupidly.
“Come on.” I grabbed their arms and dragged them away.
With the ingredients in our possession, we hurried to Tasmania.
“You got ’em all?” Morado said. “What’s this? You’re gonna make me remove the bones?!” He was holding up the frog.
“Yup,” I said, then shut the door in his face.
I glued the last crack back together. Standing up, I said, “It still looks cracked to me.”
Morado blew sparkling purple dust over the cracks, muttered an incantation, and waved his. Like magic- well, I guess it was magic- the cracks disappeared, and the sky was smooth again.
“Here.” Morado handed me a piece of paper.
Please join me in my office.
Morado will show you the way.
“The SkyLord?” Jayceon said.
“Guess so. Morado, where are we going?”
“Wind!” Morado cried. “Salt Lake City, Utah.”
We walked into the office, and my mouth dropped open.
“Lord Blauer?!” I said, shocked. “You’re the SkyLord?”
“Mr. SkyLord,” Jayceon blurted out. “Can I become one of your Upper Artists? I want to stay with Ivy- and Autumn.”
“There’ll be no need for that.” The SkyLord sniffed. “I’ll be sending Autumn and Ivy back to Earth.”
“Really?” Ivy squealed.
“Yes,” Lord Blauer said.
I can see Charlotte again, I thought.
“Thank you sir,” I said quietly. Ivy and Jayceon were embracing. I smiled. “Thank you.”
I stood on the doorstep, hands shaking, face pale.
“I can’t do it,” I whispered.
“You’ll be fine,” Ivy said encouragingly.
“I haven’t seen her for 71 years,” I said. “She’ll be old by now. What if she doesn’t recognize me?”
“She’ll recognize you,” Ivy soothed. “You’re her sister. She’ll know you.”
I reached out a shaking finger and rang the doorbell.
An old woman opened the door. A half smile played across her lips. I recognized her instantly.
“Lottie,” I breathed. She stopped smiling.
She doesn’t recognize me.