The clouds were a problem. Hemi tried not to look at them, but they’d changed the whole shape and outlook of the sky. His hands shook. He took a drag on his cigarette, watched the smoke gyre skyward: the wind tore it apart, and it was lost.
He shut his eyes for a moment. The insides of his eyelids were smashed tv screens – dark, showing only static, carved up by a dull network of red capillaries. He didn’t throw up.
He stared down at the dry grass. It still hurt look at, but it wasn’t as monstrous.
“You alright bro?” said Chris. “Tripping out?”
Hemi nodded, then took another deep drag, and coughed at the burnt-plastic taste of filter. He spat it out, then sighed, lay back and stared down the sky.
The clouds had an identity — castles, mansions, comfortable little starter homes. The wind tore at them, but they held their shape. The static didn’t go away; the whole sky was sick with it.
“You need me to do any– “
They lay on the hillside. Hemi smoked another cigarette, and another. Chris didn’t say anything about it.
“You know what’s fucked up?” Hemi said, when he was ready to speak again.
“What’s fucked up?”
“My tipuna told me nobody owned land before the British came. Like, land wasn’t a thing that could be owned any more than the sky, or your heartbeat, or your thoughts. She told me we came from the land like, literally — man emerged from the earth, and the earth is his mother, and cutting somebody off from the earth is like cutting off a limb. You couldn’t say ‘this bit of land is mine’ because it belongs to everybody who came up out of it–
Now it’s the most valuable thing in the country, and we’ll never own any. It’s not even that we were torn away from it, it’s that we never had a connection to begin with. It’s like we’re all born missing a limb and we just have to pretend that it’s normal, because there’s people getting rich selling prosthetics.”
Chris nodded. “That’s super fucked up,” he said. “You wanna do something about it?”
The houses in the clouds would not budge. Hemi’s fingernails were short and ragged.
“Do what?” said Hemi. “I can’t get a job, I don’t qualify for disability. If I did get a job, I’d be sitting in my cubicle all day worrying that my brain is gonna take me somewhere I don’t want to go. Anything could set it off: carpets, wallpaper, clouds. One or two bad choices, and now I’ll be landless forever — cut off from the only holy thing we’ve got left.”
His voice cracked. Something inside him twisted. He spat onto the grass – stained it yellow with saliva and nicotine.
“They cut off my welfare,” he said. “Failed drug test. I was having a panic attack and I smoked a joint to calm down. Two months later, they’re pulling me aside and saying I’m very lucky the cops aren’t involved, and now I’m on my own.”
“How much have you got left?” said Chris. He sat up. His worry was written plain on his face, but Hemi knew that his friend couldn’t afford to help — maybe a floor to sleep on, but money was too tight all over the show. Hemi turned the pack of cigarettes over in his hand.
“Rent went out yesterday and that’s $147, then these are $22. That leaves– “
He pretended to run the numbers for a moment.
“Nothing,” he said. “Less than a dollar.”
“Well, shit,” said Chris. “You can crash on my couch if you want. I think. I’ll have to ask the landlord.”
“Thanks,” said Hemi. There was one cigarette left, stuck backwards in the box: the lucky. He took it, and lit it. A trickle of smoke escaped his mouth, and went skywards. The castles in the clouds didn’t move, not did they get any closer. They floated overhead: implacable, impossible.
The cigarette burnt down, and neither man spoke.