Written by Gwendolyn Lopez
Art by Ylanite Koppens
There’s this friend that visits you, sometimes—when the afternoons hang heavy with loneliness and you can’t shake the feeling of being watched. It’s on days like these, when school’s out and there’s nothing left to do, that you wait. You sit and stare out the window as the clouds mark the approach of a storm and the muted sun paints the hills golden green. You sit, listening to the bubbling of the tea kettle, hoping that this friend of yours likes earl grey.
The kettle whistles, and you take it off the stove, carefully putting it back on the tray with its matching tea cups. You’re quite fond of this particular tea set—the flower pattern is pretty, even if some cups have been broken and mended a few too many times. You heft up the tray and head outside.
The wind is vicious, batting down everything in sight. The daffodil garden you planted three years ago sways and buckles, scattering yellow petals all over the grass. You set down the tea set on the wobbly wooden table beside the garden, and take a seat. Thick steam escapes from the top of the kettle. The sky smells like late autumn. Your feet barely skim the ground.
“Jamie!” you call out into the gray-blue sky. “Come on out, I’ve brought some tea for us!”
Slowly, the wind begins to pick up. You hold down the wobbly table to prevent it from being flung aside. And in a few moments, you find that you are not alone. There’s a boy sitting across from you, with wind-tossed gray hair and a smile as bright as the sky.
“Hi,” says Jamie, except that isn’t his name, and never has been. Children of the sky don’t have real names, after all. Only make-believe ones, given by humans who are a bit too attached to identity. But nonetheless, your face breaks out in a grin at the sight of him—Jamie, the one you’ll share this tea with. Your friend.
“What’s all this?” he says with a laugh, gesturing at the porcelain tea cups and the still-steaming kettle.
“What, they don’t have tea up there in the heavens?” You lift the kettle and pour some tea, careful to not spill any wayward drops.
“Tea?” Jamie frowns.
“You know, it’s… a drink? Water and nice-tasting leaves.” Jamie doesn’t look convinced by your description. You put some sugar and milk in the cup, stir it with a small spoon, and offer it to him. “Come on, give it a taste, yeah? I promise it’s not that bad.”
Jamie stares at the cup. The tea inside is a milky beige. He takes a tentative sip, and you wonder how it tastes for someone like him. You wonder if he can feel the heat through the porcelain of the cup, or if those clouds he’s made up of can’t feel anything at all.
Jamie takes another sip. “It tastes… new,” he says, fumbling for words.
“Right?” You prepare your own tea, watching the dark liquid lighten as you mix in the milk. “Makes you feel all fancy, doesn’t it? Like a princess! Er—or a prince, I guess.”
“Ah, silly me—I keep forgetting you don’t know these things. Princesses are like, fancy people, you get me? They’re rich and pretty and wear big puffy dresses, like this—” you stretch out your arms for emphasis. Jamie’s eyes widen. You sigh, leaning back on your chair. “If I were a princess, I’d eat all the pastries I want, and I’d have tea time five times a day and curtsy and smile and say ‘How do you do, sir?’ Stuff like that.”
“‘How do you do, sir?’” Jamie repeats under his breath.
“Yeah! Then we take up our cups like this, and… yes, clink them together just like that! And we both sip our tea and pretend to be incredibly civilized.”
You close your eyes and drain half your cup. The tea warms you up—it almost feels like a hug. When you open your eyes, Jamie’s still sitting there with his cup midair, looking quite uncertain indeed.
“What’s wrong?” you ask. “We were both supposed to drink at the same time.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie says, with an expression that looks like the sky after it’s been split in half by lightning. “This is all very nice, Poppy, but I can’t stay here anymore.”
Your face falls. “What?”
“I can’t,” Jamie repeats firmly. He’s clutching the tea cup so tightly you’re afraid it might shatter. “I have… duties. Up there in the sky. I can’t come down here anymore, it’s… well, it’s dragging me away.”
You’re angry now. Betrayed. What “duties” could possibly be more important than your time here together? Why didn’t Jamie tell you earlier? Why do a few words have the capacity to hurt you so much?
“You can’t!” you cry out. “You promised me. That if I called out your name to the clouds, you’d come out and say hello.”
Jamie looks away. “That was… before.” He looks back at you, and you’re surprised to find that he doesn’t look sad, or mad, or even disappointed. Instead, the expression on his face is one of pure envy—something so intense that you let out a gasp. And then you realize that Jamie, the boy from the clouds, the boy straight out of a fairy tale, wants everything he can never have.
You wish you could say something to make him feel better. You wish you could convince him to stay. But when you open your mouth, only one little whisper comes out. “I’ll miss you.”
Jamie looks ready to dissolve into rain. “I’ll miss you too, my friend,” he says.
Then he’s gone, turned into an autumn breeze, carried off into the atmosphere.
You’re not sure how long you keep sitting out there. A few hours, maybe? Caught between reality and daydream, you replay that final conversation in your mind. You imagine yourself along with the boy of clouds, racing down a grand palace staircase, trying on royal outfits that are much too extravagant for either of you. You think of what you could have said and you say it out loud, even if it doesn’t matter anymore. You look up at the graying sky and try not to squint, even if it hurts your eyes. The tea goes cold.
Before sunset, your mother goes outside and finds you, still sitting at the table. She looks at the tea set and at the singular cup in front of you, and smiles. “Having tea for one, are you, Poppy dear?”
You look across the table, at the empty space where your friend once sat. “Yes,” you say quietly. “Tea for one.”