Nancy Shreds the Clouds

Edited by Sabrina West

Storm clouds gathered, as they always did, when Nancy fought. Jaundiced thunder-carriers, chaotic with rain: lowering and brutish cumulonimbi spoiling for both combat and ceasefire.

They stacked themselves now over Meadows Elementary as she lashed out at Fiona McCarthy.

She called their leader ‘Crown,’ because that’s what he tried to be. Lord and Savior, bully, sky king. He came with his retinue: wheedling clouds that made plates in the sky, sinister smears of stratocumuli, puffs that looked innocuous yet were just as vicious as the bigger brutes.

“I hate you Nancy Michaelis!” Fiona yelled, because there was nothing left to do, with a face flushed with blood, scrapes on elbows and knees, and smarting patches on her scalp where her hair had been pulled.

Nancy had tried to be kind to her. Offered to connect in VR for a multiplayer game, to paint her nails nylon-pink. Fiona had sneered and called her names. The clouds had been silent about that—and how was that fair? Nancy, alone, was judged.

So she had taken justice into her own hands.

Nancy’s posse filmed the fight on their smartphones, and they sent her the video afterwards as, breathless with adrenaline and cruelty, they went to get boba tea. The clouds followed, rumbling across the sky. Nancy hid her anxiety behind loud laughter, open-maw chomping on tapioca orbs. Only when she was home (running upstairs straight away, knowing she only had about an hour of peace) did she acknowledge the clouds that hung low enough to form a mist outside her window. Some people were gifted with a sensitivity to spirits, a sixth sense, serpentine shivers of insight that allowed them to move with ease through the world.

Nancy’s ‘gift’ was to hear the clouds—and the bastards just wouldn’t mind their own business.

A vaguely equine face drifted beyond the glass, for all the world like a horse beheaded.

“You shouldn’t be bad,” it said, in the glutinous voice that all clouds had.

“Leave me alone,” she replied, looking back to her phone.

The front door slammed. Her parents were back and, as always, her father had had a bad day, and her mother was in a shitty mood. Nancy was sent downstairs to watch a television set to high volume while they swore and swung at each other upstairs: an endless mystery of thuds, and yelps, and even more alarming silences that kept her listening, frozen in powerlessness, for the sounds to resume.

Sounds meant her parents were still alive.

Nancy glared out at the featureless sky.

“Did you want to do anything about that?” she hissed.

Upstairs: the crystalline cacophony of glass breaking. A cartoon duck hollered on the television, beak torn bloodlessly off and replaced with a slab of metal to comical sound effects.

From the clouds: not a word.

* * * 

The clouds were an annoyance, a literal headache that plagued her with their admonitions whenever she did something they disagreed with. And, as the years passed, she did a lot of things they disagreed with. But Nancy had another power: she went through life with the elixir-clear understanding of its injustice and resolved to be entirely happy, anyway.

When she was good she was alone.

When she was kind, and loving, and sincere, her reward was: nothing. Condescension. Misogyny. Being overlooked—by clouds and people alike. There was an awful absence when the sky was silent. No thunder from above, no parental footfalls, no acknowledgement at all. Perversely, she missed it. So she took pleasure from speaking down to baristas, jack-knifing from holiness to rage and back again in boardrooms, on phone calls, online. And of course, the clouds came to judge. Crown came to judge.

In college she chose subjects that would make her money, and everyone loved her. Strong, willful Nancy. Nancy, who tells it like it is. She pushed people to their limit until, until, she could insult them almost explicitly to their faces, propose all sorts of plans and strategies that would actively harm them, and benefit her, only—and still they loved her.

To Nancy, that made perfect sense.

* * *

Crown and his lackeys changed form over the years, like clouds do. Constituting and reconstituting, dropping from sky to the heavens. Piss to troposphere to ocean and back again. All that feeling in fleeting forms: horses, carrion birds, dream-carousels that wheeled dramatically while she slapped her partner for the first time—and then kept doing it until he left. Pressure falling around her head: localized shame. And Nancy’s rage grew, because unlike the little girls in the playground all those years ago she could not fight the clouds.

Until one day she could.

* * *

On her sixtieth birthday Nancy Michaelis ascended to the rooftop of Axiom Tower—an architectural insult to carbon-neutral initiatives—as the factories behind it belched their own clouds up into the sky. Nancy’s entire career had led to this. Now she had her own retinue—and not of cruel, cowardly, powerless girls.


Now she had nitrogen, sulfur, dross particles of water flung upward: uncountable insults to her old nemesis.

Crown came. The biggest he’d ever been: stretching from the horizon line to a dizzying height above her head.

She smiled, holding the champagne flute up to him. Above her, spears of smog surged upward, almost to the sky’s limit. Higher, and higher still, until looking up at them she felt the very smallness of the planet. The sight was infinitely more satisfying than kicking young children in a playground, than screaming at warring loved ones who would not ever stop, held together in a bond so toxic it had taken a lifetime for her to understand.

Crown issued a syllable like thunder in her mind.


Looking up—eye-wide in the sting of smoke—Nancy laughed in triumph as the factories’ emissions made a jag of structure, looking, for all the world, like a diadem, just for her, hundreds of miles up.

And the diadem was its own answer.