It took her ten years to see the fireworks. She had watched them before–watched them so many times that she knew every pop, crack, and whistle by heart. She knew the difference between oohs and ahhs, and how to pick out the best spot on the field no matter how crowded it was. Every year for ten years, it was the same process, the same going through the motions; but for ten years she hadn’t really seen any of it.
On the tenth year, the tenth summer since her younger sister Michelle died, she finally saw.
They used to do this every year on the Fourth of July, the whole laying out on the field thing with a hundred other people and watching the sun set in anticipation for the show. But it was more special to them because their family owned the field. Whenever the sky was clear on the warm summer nights, the two of them would lay under the stars alone.
“Don’t you think it’d be great to fly?” Michelle asked one night.
“What, you wanna go on an airplane?”
“No, I mean, imagine what it would be like to fly without any machines. You could just take off whenever you wanted to and go wherever you wanted to and you could even touch the clouds.”
Michelle was always talking like that. She never got sick of looking at the sky whether night or day. The stars and the clouds captivated her, and even though she and her sister spent a lot of time together, Michelle always seemed to be somewhere else. She envied the birds and the butterflies, and everything else with wings. Michelle would look at her sister and say, “I wish I had wings of my own” as though she could do something about it.
On Michelle’s last Fourth of July, she was more excited about the fireworks than usual, but her sister thought nothing of it. To Michelle, fireworks were the epitome of everything she wanted to achieve. “They shine so brightly and then they turn into clouds,” she said.
“You mean they burn out and turn into smoke.”
“No,” said Michelle calmly. “They shine and then turn into clouds and then they stay in the sky forever.”
This struck her sister as odd. She hadn’t said anything quite like that before.
“I think it’d be great to live like that,” said Michelle. “To shine so brightly that everyone sees you and then to turn into a cloud and stay in the sky.”
That night, as they lay next to each other on the blankets, listening to the murmur of the crowd before the fireworks started, Michelle turned to her sister and said, “I think I’m already doing it.”
“Already doing what?”
“Becoming a cloud. I feel my shine turning into something different.”
“What are you talking about?”
Michelle turned to her and said with a hint of urgency, “Rachel, just remember that I’m not burning out and turning to smoke. I’m shining and becoming a cloud. Please look at it that way.”
Rachel didn’t understand what she was talking about; she noticed that when the fireworks started, there was something different about them. She couldn’t see what Michelle was talking about in the least. In fact, she could only hear her own voice saying that fireworks burned out instead of shone.
She didn’t understand anything after Michelle died either, and every time she watched fireworks, she could only see smoke.
Now, Rachel was out on the same field under the same stars watching the same fireworks, but for the first time in ten years she saw them. She heard Michelle’s voice talking about them instead of her own, and for the first time in ten years she looked at the fireworks with wonder. She saw them shine, turn into clouds, and float away.
It took her ten years to understand a part of her sister that had eluded her for so long.