By Pete Grapentien
There used to be a place that was completely safe at night. This of course was in a time before TVs so people still dreamt and since people still dreamt the moon was much bigger. On any given night it took up no more and no less than one sixth of the nighttime horizon. This made clouds seem smaller, maybe they were, still, on certain nights these cloudlets hugged so tightly against the moon that it seemed impossible for there to be any sky between them.
Under this sky there was a stone road that was woven through an orchard of ripened magnolia and cherry trees. Each night autumn crawled a little closer and the footsteps of a girl, still avoiding cracks in her twenties, echoed coldly between the trees.
One squeaky wheel, too stubborn to spin except when it felt the need, screeched every five or so steps. The girl pushing the cart balked when it would roll properly as it disturbed her pace and increased the possibility of stepping on a crack which, with mild certainty, would break someone’s back. Draped across the side of the cart was a very professionally written sign that read, “Glass Balloons.”
Her father had created the Glass Balloon. Long hours in his basement workshop left him with strong arms and a stomach that rolled over his belt. Glass Balloons were known in every bordering town because of him. He saved money to put her through school and taught her how craft balloons herself. After her modest education, but before the man died, he bought her a cart to sell the balloons and a sign to go with it.
The park was the only place she felt comfortable as a child and naturally it was the first place she began to sell her own balloons. During the night people were sparse, but the popularity of balloons continued to spread not only in her town, but the neighboring towns as well. Sometimes people would specifically come to this path to buy one of her balloons and sit on the highest bridge in the area. The bridge also attracted couples as it arched over an arm of the sea which, as the tide came in, would reflect the massive moon in ripples.
A breeze passed between the balloons and they chimed together lightly. ‘A sign of travelers,’ she thought. Each translucent jellyfish radiated a vibrant color that stretched the girl’s shadow in a dozen different directions. The fish swam quietly in the water held in the Glass Balloons. The Jelly’s collective blue, red, purple, and yellow glow beaconed into the night calling lovers, friends, families, and children who were out past bedtime.
From behind there was the tap tap of leather shoes approaching. She turned around to find a man sobbing as he walked.
“Care for a Glass Balloon?” the man came to a stop and turned toward her, “You can have this one for free,” she held her hand out with two fingers gripping the thin string that tethered the balloon and fish to the ground.
The man reached forward and crabbed three fingers onto the string of the balloon. Upon his touch the jellyfish inside the glass balloon turned from purple to orange. “Lucky!” the girl squealed as her face came to life, “I think that means he likes you.”
The man dried his eyes with the other sleeve of his well tailored suit and looked up at the large glass ball hanging over his head. “How long do these things last?” his voice was nasally from weeping.
“Well once the Jelly’s light is about to go out the top of the balloon pops off and everything floats away, water and all,” a smile crept across her face as she remembered the Midnight Release, a festival at the beginning of every winter season that took place next to the sea. People all over town would release their Jellys while the fish still had light. The jellyfish would swim through the night streaking the sky with reds, blues, yellows, and oranges.
“And what of the glass? It just shatters on my hands then?” he seemed intent on being in a poor mood.
“Once the Jellys are out, the glass is more of a clear fabric, sir. It sloughs off like a shirt thrown on the floor,” her voice was chipper despite his rigid tone.
“I see. Well thank you for it. You’re the first person to ever give me anything absolutely free in decades,” the man looked down as if he was ashamed.
‘A strange sight,’ she thought, ‘a full grown man close to tears holding a balloon.’ She took two steps toward the man and placed her hand on his shoulder. He sniffled and took a prolonged look at the hand on his arm, then at her.
“I don’t think I got your name, sir,” she hoped to take the man’s mind off of whatever was bothering him. She reached her hand out toward him.
“Oh, of course. My name is Edwin Straight,” upon introducing himself all the emotion drained from the man’s face and his back straightened. Edwin gripped her hand firmly, tipped a little at the waist, and looked her directly in the eyes.
Edwin hadn't been to the office in over a month and from the look of it his assistant had stopped showing up soon after he did. With a deep breath in he ran two fingers across the arch of the chair behind his desk. Black leather with mahogany arm rests. Edwin had owned this chair since before he had taken over the firm, before life practically, and it was still as uncomfortable as the day he bought it. The chair was a stiff thing that he didn't quite fit in, but it was expensive and once you've invested in such a thing it's hard to just get rid of it.
Edwin took a deep breath in, “Home sweet home,” he sighed and looked at the papers piled on his desk. “Well, close enough anyway.”
This desk in front of the chair he'd owned forever too. More fitting than the chair, the desk held resentment toward Edwin. It was made from the same mahogany as the chair and shined as though it had never been used. Of course he made use of it daily, but superficially and with empty hands. The desk had never felt the heat of passionate scribbling, or thud of a fist slammed in real emotion. It had only known the bland penning of legal documents, and the chill of professional signatures. For this it resented Edwin.
Despite the condition of his office, and his life, tonight would be his night. He looked at the vile of muscle relaxers in the open side-drawer of his desk, so close to the bottle of grain alcohol in his office bar. "No," he stopped his shadowed thought, "I've been held in by these things for too long. I'm going to do this right. If this is to be my last night, I want to be completely free," Edwin's eyes moved back to the stack of papers, "for just once in this life."
Edwin's window looked out onto the often empty street. There was nothing for him there. The window itself only served as an occasional reminder of the first step in which he realized the sacrifices his path would entail.
It happened when Edwin had just gotten his first real promotion, before taking over the firm. The two candidates, himself and another man (Carl perhaps? Yes! It was Carl.) were interviewed together. Edwin had dominated the interview and was told of his promotion soon after. That was in the middle of the day though and, for hours now, he'd waited for Carl's exit.
He saw Carl's family waiting from his window. Sweating a little, Edwin watched to see the man in defeat. To see Carl's family look at him and know there was a better man. That Edwin was that better man. He patiently waited to see the wife's eyes sink as she would soon realize she had married an inferior.
And there Carl was! Trouncing out to his awaiting wife who, expecting good news, had been standing in the street with their child in her arms. Mother and child both wore smiles, dressed for a celebratory dinner. She would receive none and as Carl walked to his wife and child, Edwin could feel the impending disappointment in his steps.
The long nights in law school, the ninety hour work weeks, Carl and his family could have those days. Right now though, this walk, this moment was Edwin's. He deserved the look on her face. He deserved each step Carl took. He'd earned it.
But then there was nothing. The man greeted his family with a smile. Pinched his child's cheek and kissed it on the forehead. After a quick exchange of words, Carl’s wife hugged him with her free arm and kissed him on the lips for an extended breath. There was no defeat in his eyes, or his family's.
Edwin shut his curtains. His promotion brought with it a gift of expensive whiskey and two glasses and an ice bucket. With a controlled hand he removed the lid of the bucket. Two cubes dropped into a squat glass. He reached for the bottle of whiskey.
Edwin broke his fixation on the window. Although Carl’s name had drifted from his memory for a while, it seemed only fitting that it would wake tonight. Tonight, yes. But how would he do it? This decision may be the most important of his life. Staring at the arch in the headrest of his chair he thought of a bridge, he thought of freedom.
“It’s… nice to meet you Edwin, my name’s Gwen,” she said, taken back by his change in posture and demeanor. “Would you mind if I sat for a moment? Walking all night tires my legs,” Gwen pushed the cart to the side of the path and the two took a seat on one of the park benches that lined the brick road, each bench was accompanied by a street lamp. ‘A strange sight indeed,’ she thought to herself, noticing the man’s close shave and crisp hair under the light. Edwin’s eyes were red, his suit jacket was divided by his dress shirt that held in a stomach which ran over his belt slightly.
“How many of these balloons do you think it would take to hold a man over the sea? You know, if he wanted to cross,” Edwin shifted his weight to face Gwen, he had dark crescents around his eyes.
“Well, I don’t know. I doubt the balloons would last long enough for him to get all the way across,” she tilted her head to the side and crinkled her eyebrows, puzzled as to why a man would want to take a Glass Balloon across the sea.
“Maybe not all the way across. Maybe just halfway across and very high up. How many balloons would that take?” Her father used to talk about a similar thing. A giant aquarium filled with Jellys floating along through the sky. He used to say that at that size even the shiny glass would ripple in the wind. When Edwin spoke, just for a second, she could see it again. The sun splitting into a dozen sabers as the glass carried a small pod of people beneath it, Jellys scrunching through their watery prism.
For a moment she couldn’t answer. With her eyes unfocussed she couldn’t see Edwin. Although the bite of her father’s death had faded, his memory and the hurt never fully left her. And now with the emergence of this stranger, she was sitting with Him again.
They used to walk this bridge and breathe in the orchards of magnolia and cherry trees that the path ran through. To watch their opal petals spiral like schools of fish onto the cobblestone road. It was a living space in bloom where they could feel distant from the soft talon of industry that was slowly molding over their town.
Now that she was alone, whether they were coated white in winter or alive with leaves in summer, the branches always seemed to hang low. They arched downward, and on certain trees the branches touched the ground. In this small blossoming bubble little girls would sit and play games. This was solely their sanctuary, for their youth, and Gwen understood that. Inside of these protected rings was a world of beauty and, since his death, Gwen was the outsider.
And now, although she could feel an occasional dull joy, there was always a thin veil that kept the peak of real happiness from her. Gwen would try to search it out, feel around its edges blindly, but always with inhibition, unable to remove the curtain. Without the hands to fully grasp it she kept to her routine on the gritty road with the cart. The cart! Every night she pushed it, weighted heavy with the memory of the man who gave it to her.
“How many Gwen? How many to get halfway?” Edwin’s tone was a little irritated at being ignored.
Gwen’s lips knotted around the memory of her father, “Well. It would have to be more than I have with me,” she said in a tone that begged no argument. Gwen stood up and began to push the balloon cart quickly, leaving Edwin. The wheel caught the ground and she stepped on a crack.
Edwin gave her a few steps of distance and rose to walk again. Both were making for the bridge. Edwin’s leather shoes tapped along behind Gwen, silently close.
Gwen looked at her feet as she walked. The thought of the man crying minutes earlier mingled with her own voice cracking at him. This guilt stewed in the back of her mind. Abruptly she stopped, “Sometimes,” she turned to face Edwin. “I feel bad for the fish. The balloons aren’t that big and they can only swim in circles.”
Edwin gripped the back of his neck, “You said they eventually get freed right?” he didn’t wait for an answer, “Well, the way I see it, then this is all worth it in the end. Just because right now they’re stuck doesn’t mean it’ll be like that forever,” he stopped walking for a moment and his eyes fell to the left. Edwin caught up to Gwen and the two now walked in stride. The bridge was within sight.
Glass Balloons over the sea. The idea still tugged at Edwin’s mind. Every time the balloons chimed together he thought of giving Gwen a check for all the money he had and holding a handful of balloons to float high up over the sea, even if it was only halfway. If that wasn’t a possibility than he would simply have to stand on the edge of the bridge and tip.
Edwin ran his index finger across his top lip, “Gwen, what would you do with a million dollars?”
“Hmm…” Gwen’s face curled slightly in thought, “I guess I could probably afford better food for the fish.”
The man stared blankly at Gwen waiting for more answers, for cars, for houses, for dresses and jewelry and things of value, things that mattered. “You could buy anything. You could do anything,” he paused, pressed the web of his hand to his forehead and looked down. “and you would buy food for your fish?”
“I couldn’t do anything,” her tone was slightly hurt, “I couldn’t bring people back from the dead.”
There was a small pause. Gwen looked at her balloon cart and Edmund looked at the edge of the bridge.
The Jellys were swimming in their balloons like bellows. Midnight stars reflected off the balloons, but the night was able to seep in. It wafted through the glass and turned each murky puddle into floating bruised ripples. The darkness in the water fought its way in only to be chased away by the light of the Jellys.
"This is an odd question but, I never really took the time to study fish," Edwin looked down immediately. He looked as if he'd just opened a jar of something he didn’t want and couldn’t seal again. His hand cupped around the back of his neck and he began to massage it.
"Well, go ahead. I know a lot about these little guys," Gwen rubbed her hand over the hard surface of the balloon.
Edwin continued to look at the ground until he became fed up with his embarrassment and jerked his head up to Gwen. In a stern voice he proclaimed, "Do they have butts? I don't see their butts."
Gwen snorted and grabbed her mouth. Her nose wrinkled and she bent forward. Edwin followed her eyes down as she doubled over silently. "Oh my God. Are you ok?"
Gwen motioned, ‘Yes’ while still doubled over.
“Thank God,” Edwin murmured as he realized she was laughing. Silently and unhindered.
One of the balloons began to quiver. With a ping! the glass top popped off and fizzled into the air. Water began to float upwards in small beads at first, large puddles rose from the hole in the glass. It rose with the jellyfish now vibrating blue. As the water around it evaporated, the fish lost all color and began to twirl into its last journey through the sky, glazed in its natural ghostly white.
Sloughed off onto the ground was the, now solid, crumpled glass that used to be the balloon. It layered over onto itself from its formally doughy state. Laying on the ground it was ugly, hard, and heavy.
Edwin's hand was firmly clasped around Gwen's, "I've never seen anything like that before," he mumbled looking into the night sky, still in a glassy eyed stupor. Gwen, unsure if the embrace was from surprise or desire, leaned in to him. As he continued to wonder into the night Gwen gently touched her cheek to Edwin's shoulder for a moment before letting their grip go.