PseudoPod 592: Free Balloons for All Good Children
“This story came about because the balloon described in it drifted past my window at work.
Because a balloon floating five feet off the ground on a grey day in early October is so unlikely, my first thought was naturally that it was something horrible up to no good at all. It went away… eventually, after hanging around near a bus stop for far longer than seemed quite right. I don’t know what it was actually up to, but I’d like to thank the mystery balloon for the inspiration it provided.
The story was also an attempt to exorcise a vapour I developed about seven years ago– what if I become incapacitated while I’m the only parent on hand for my tender tot? I’m sorry to report that the exorcism has not really worked.”
Free Balloons for All Good Children
by Dirck de Lint
Tom gave the stroller a little nudge to turn Danny out of the sun. Danny responded by wriggling around under the straps to put himself as much in the sun as possible. Tom smiled at this, and found that he couldn’t really blame his son. The day was a little chilly for so late in May, and if he was enjoying the warmth of the sun it stood to reason that Danny would, too. He was very close to just putting the stroller back the way it had been. There was some uncertainty in his heart, though, about how far Danny could be trusted to look out for his own safety even now that he was above a year old. When, he wondered, did they stop staring right at the sun if given a chance?
Danny underlined the thought by pulling his hat off and flinging it toward the grass next to the park bench.
“C’mon, kid,” Tom said, leaning over to reach for the hat. “Daddy wants to enjoy his lunch, too.”
Tom had fed Danny before they left; diced carrots and chicken, and their inevitable fallout, were best dealt with at home. Now Tom could enjoy a sandwich in the open air, while Danny waved at flowers and sang in his own secret language. When the sandwich was done, Tom’s plan was that he and Danny would finish their walk to the park’s playground, where he would push The Best Son In The World on the swings until either the boy or his diaper had had enough.
“Da!” Danny leaned forward in his stroller, arms outstretched, and Tom followed his line of sight to see what was so interesting. There was a balloon drifting toward them, the cool breeze urging it slowly along. “Da! Gib!”
The consonant was not quite there, but Tom recognized the command. He sat a moment longer, considering the balloon while he chewed the current mouthful. It was the basic round sort of balloon, a medium blue with pale five-pointed stars on it which had probably been silver before inflation. It trailed a salmon-coloured ribbon from its stem, the curled end hanging about the height of his own waist above the park’s grass.
It was an odd thing to see, Tom thought, a balloon scudding along at a constant altitude. He had never seen an untethered helium balloon which had not raced up and away. One of his own earliest memories was of a red balloon his grandmother had given him, receding upward to become a mere dot against a bright summer sky. Perhaps the coolness of the day was affecting the buoyancy of this one, or perhaps it was an old balloon near the end of its wandering, interior pressure low.
“Gib! Gib me! Gib!” Tom looked at his son, the little face radiant with glee and innocent desire. The stroller was ballasted by a diaper bag crammed with toddler requisites, virtually eliminating any chance of it tipping as Danny reached out, so Tom watched and waited. It seemed that the balloon might come right to Danny’s hand as it sloped along across the grass, almost as if it were tacking on the breeze to obey the child’s summons.
The moment before it was close enough for Danny to grab, there was a little gust which shoved it to the far side of the stroller. Danny strained for it so vigorously that Tom put a hand on the nearer arm-rest to steady it, while the curling ribbon rotated so that it was very nearly grazed by the questing little fingers before it was swept past.
“Da! Da! Gib!” Danny was twisting in the seat, a note of desperation entering his voice. Tom rose, setting his sandwich down on its wax paper, next to the thermos.
“Hang on, buddy. Daddy will get it.” He gave the stroller a little turn, so that Danny could better witness his father’s heroics. It took only a couple of steps and he could stretch out his left hand to snatch the ribbon. Smiling, he turned to hand the oddly literal windfall to his son, who clapped in delight and laughed the purely joyful laugh of his age.
Tom found his turn suddenly arrested, his left arm wrenched backward. But no, not backward… upward. He looked up at the balloon, saw no apparent change in it except that its ribbon was twanging taut as it somehow lifted with enough force to make him uncertain in his footing. His feet slipping a little on the ground, he released his grip more by instinct than thought.
His hand did not open. His thumb came away from the top of his index finger, but the fingers remained closed, sticking to the ribbon like a tongue on an icy pole. Almost immediately, when he was no longer actively gripping the ribbon, he felt the skin of his palm and fingers slide across the flesh underneath and he heard a tiny velvet rip from inside his unwilling fist. He screamed at the pain that ran down his arm ahead of the tiny trickle of blood.
It was instinct again that sent his right hand to reach up, to try and pull himself free. Thought raced after instinct this time, stopping him just before he grabbed the ribbon, freezing him with the sudden realization that he would then have both hands stuck fast to this monstrous trap. In that moment of hesitation, with both arms upraised, he saw the end of the ribbon hanging below his bloody fist, the part that had not touched skin but only the cuff of his jacket, begin groping sideways, almost beckoning the free hand. He snatched his right arm down.
He looked around the park. Toward the lot where he had left the car, there was no one. In the other direction, a hedge made all the parents in the playground indistinct. No one there would hear him calling for help over the sounds of their own children playing. He hesitated to move, fearful that he might manage to launch himself. Beside him was Danny, who was still looking up at the balloon in gleeful anticipation, his little teeth gleaming in a delighted smile, his little hands both raised to take the treat from his father.
The pain in Tom’s hand and arm was all but extinguished by the thought of what would have happened but for the flirt of wind which kept those tiny, tender hands from clapping onto the drifting ribbon. Tom was a tall man and overweight with it, and the thing was almost able to lift him.
That thought cutting through the pain allowed other thoughts in its wake. He remembered the Swiss army knife he carried, along with his keys, in his pocket. His right-hand pocket, a realization which brought such relief that he uttered a single sob as he fished it out.
Danny began shouting “Gib! Gib!” with increasing urgency. Tom took a careful step away from the stroller, trying one-handed to open the big blade on the knife. It tumbled from his grasp, falling end-on to the walkway, leaving shards of red plastic on the pavement as it bounced into the short grass under the bench.
He slowly dropped to his knees, the act of dragging the balloon down after him bringing new waves of agony to his palm and making his breath come short and quick. He scrabbled for the knife, peering through the slats of the bench, blinking away tears. He almost knocked it further back, to where he would have to bend even lower or crawl to the back of the bench to get it, but got a finger on it and pinned it where he could, with a small stretch, get his hand around it.
Danny was starting to whine, working up to crying. He was struggling to get loose from the stroller again, alternately pushing against it and reaching out toward the balloon. Now that Tom was kneeling, the ribbon was at a convenient height for Danny, and he strove to reach it with all his might.
Tom braced the knife against the leg of the bench, and managed to lever the blade out. He found he had cut his index finger on its second joint at some point in the process, a deep cut which bled freely and which he could hardly feel at all over the greater pain in the other hand. Gritting his teeth, he hauled down on the ribbon, bending his arm at the elbow so he could reach to cut the ribbon without the ribbon reaching him.
He had a momentary thought of pulling down far enough that he could stab the balloon. That was followed by dark imaginings and flashes of awful prescience. His face would touch the ribbon. He would slip, fall sideways, and tangle Danny in it. The balloon would pop at the touch of the knife to shower him and Danny with something unspeakable. He shook off the notion, and began to slice at the rigid salmon line above his hand.
The ribbon was tough, and the trailing end was definitely trying for his right hand as he worried at it with the knife. Danny was shrieking now, words forgotten, his face contorted with frustrated rage. The wheels of the stroller left the ground, left side then right, as the child jerked against the belts that held him.
At last the ribbon parted, a thick dribble of something warm and looking like greenish mustard running onto the blade and the fingers of Tom’s right hand. The stub above his fist fell onto the backs of his fingers where it stuck instantly, and he held his arm out to the side as the trailing end coiled and writhed. The balloon shot upward, a dark replay of his childhood memory. Danny howled, no longer reaching up, merely watching the object of his desire escape.
Tom looked at his left hand. Blood seeped from under his fingers, forming fat slow drops that fell onto the pavement or rolled to join the stain on his cuff. He could not slow his breathing. His whole arm felt raw. The quivering of pain and exhaustion still animated the remaining loose curl of ribbon, but it seemed to no longer move on its own.
He lurched behind the stroller, grabbing one handle with the stained hand which still held the knife, looping his left thumb onto the other. He trotted toward the car, wanting to get into the shelter it offered, wanting to use its hands-free features to call for help; his phone was in his left hip pocket, and he could not think of any way to reach it.
As he went, he glanced back at the bench. Beyond it, the air was thick with balloons, all slowly drifting toward the playground. His screams blended with Danny’s as his trot became a dash.
About the Author
Dirck de Lint
Dirck de Lint lives in Saskatchewan with his wife, his son, and a dwindling supply of cats. In addition to writing and dealing with demands of a low-level office job, he is a hemi-demi-professional repairer of vintage fountain pens. He spent most of 2017 battering away at Impossible Bodies, a supernatural detective novel (with no vampires or werewolves in it), which may well be done before the sun swells into a red giant. Dirck’s writing has appeared previously online in issue seven of Trigger Warning: Short Fiction with Pictures, and can be found in plenty at his own site, dirckwrites.wordpress.com.
About the Narrator
Rish Outfield is a writer, voice actor, and audiobook narrator. He got his start co-hosting The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine and That Gets My Goat podcasts, where he and Big Anklevich attempt to waste time entertainingly. He also features his own stories on the Rish Outcast podcast. He once got a job because of his Sean Connery impersonation . . . but has lost two due to his Samuel L. Jackson impression.