It was nearly night, and now the silhouettes sprung from the trunks of trees and streetlights inside the park. No moon tonight, no stars, no awes. Clouds coiled, promising a thunderstorm later on, and the breeze concurred.
The park was vacant, yet the cartman still stood behind his wheelbarrow of colorful, floating balloons. He waited patiently for a customer and the balloons kept him company. The cartman would care for them like children, untangling their strings when the winds sharpened and forming a shield with his body against any points and edges. After all, they were fragile beings, skin easily penetrable, gaseous blood ready to expand when popped.
“Quiet out here, isn’t it?” a woman said. She wore joggers, a purple headband snapped tight around her head, and she marched in place, trying to keep her heart-rate racing.
The cartman thought: Yes, silent like a mute child’s cry. His daughter’s face came to mind, her moving lips breathing no sensible words. Her thoughts forever trapped in her mind, imprisoned, banging her skull, pleading to escape. The cartman shook the dream fog away, looking at the woman with his tired eyes, “What can I do for you?”
“One blue please,” she said, handing him a wrinkled dollar bill, damp with sweat.
“Of course,” the cartman plucked one from the cart and tied the string around her wrist. He said, “So it doesn’t float away while you run home.”
The woman thanked him and jogged straight through Main Street, shoes slapping the sidewalk, past TV-lit houses, down to Lover’s Lake, around the body of water, and back home. All the while, the blue balloon floated with her, side by side, its string twined tenderly around her wrist.
And only when the woman closed her front door and shut the blinds did it begin to speak.
“Are you my mother?” it said. Two marble-sized eyes shimmered open, and a mouth gaped, thick-lipped, below them.
The woman jumped, heart pounding faster than on her run. She backed herself into a corner, eyes darting around the dark living room. The only illumination was that of the table-lamp; shadows wrapped behind the couch, out into the hallway, where the light didn’t touch.
“It’s me,” the balloon said. “Up here.”
“Where?” She looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting a ghoul to fall down on her head.
“Here!” The balloon said. It bobbed, yanking at its umbilical-cord-like string.
The woman felt the tug and shrieked. She rushed to the kitchen, balloon bouncing above her, and grabbed a pair of shears.
“Get off me!” She snipped the string. The balloon was released. It rose to the ceiling, wailing, and smacked it.
“That hurt.” It rested between two fan blades, stuck and unmoving.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t turn that fan on and pop you?”
“Because,” the balloon choked out. “I want to live.”
The woman shivered. Her finger was about to flick the switch, but she hesitated. “Why?”
The balloon coughed, then breathed in deeply; its skin expanded, swelling it to the size of a watermelon. “I’m in love. My heart, which I know you cannot see, has become enamored with the Clouds. Their shape and freedom and power over the world is beautiful and I yearn to meet them.”
Its voice was light and genuine, the woman thought, like a young man in love with his future spouse, knee indenting the sand of a beach in Cancun, about to propose. Once upon a time, she acted in similar ways.
“Okay.” The woman sighed. “I’m exhausted now, but tomorrow I’ll take you outside. I need to rest. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the balloon said.
And that was the end of it.
The next morning, the birds woke her, and the woman remembered her promise. She threw on a robe and padded downstairs.
“Are you ready?” The woman asked the balloon.
The balloon whispered. It was too weak to form words. The long hours of night had deflated it, pulling it down to the counter where it lay like a dead fish. The woman had failed to take into consideration the lifespan of its species: Mayflies live barely a day, some sharks hundreds of years. There was a spectrum and balloons were seemingly on the lower end of it.
“I’m so sorry.” She cradled the balloon in her hands. “You can’t float to the clouds like this. I should have released you last night.”
The balloon looked at her, kaleidoscope eyes shifting. Then, it died, deflated completely, save for the air whining out from its mouth.
The woman hurried to the front door and ripped it open, then un-shuttered and lifted every window in her small house.
The balloon’s helium, its life, was blending with her breath, the particles of the room, her home, and she hoped now it would be able to escape out into the sky.
The clouds were up there--eternal love, too.
Nicolas Farrell is a 19-year-old college student from Frederick, Maryland, who currently attends Middlebury College. He has been writing for as long as he can remember and particularly loves horror, science fiction and magical realism. He plans to pursue creative writing in college.
Christopher Paul Brown is known for his exploration of the unconscious and serendipity via his use of alchemy. His first photography sale was to the collection of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, and his video You Define Single File was nominated for the Golden Gate Award at the 47th San Francisco International Film Festival in 2004. Over the past four years his art was exhibited twice in Rome, Italy, in Belgrade, Serbia, and his series of ten photographs, titled Obscure Reveal, were exhibited at a Florida museum in 2017. He earned a BA in Film from Columbia College Chicago in 1980.