This story is by Sharon Hetherington and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dylan’s baseball ricocheted off the wall above his headboard. The peeling plaster absorbed the hit with a resounding thump, leaving behind a fist-sized dent. Dylan launched himself onto the bed. When the frame struck the wall, loose plaster dust from the ball dent salted his curly black hair.
Moving again! His rage bubbled and erupted like a volcano when his mom said they were leaving California. Dylan threw a fit the size of Los Angeles, blaming her for all their misfortune. He’d mocked her shabby clothes and told her she was stupid. He griped about them not being able to afford normal kid stuff like a bike or team sports.
“Come now little man, get that head of yours out of the clouds” she’d retorted flatly. “Our world is in chaos, and you should know by now, that with chaos, change is inevitable. Best you stop dreaming and learn how to roll with the punches of our reality.”
Our reality? Right. It was his mom’s reality that was chaos. Rose was seventeen when he was born, and the years after were a blur of drifting. They stayed in shelters or when Rose found work, rooming houses. And they had even lived in her rusty old Chevy. Rose landed a full-time waitressing job at the Sun’s Up Cafe in Los Angeles two years ago. They moved into a dingy, one-bedroom apartment in a run-down neighborhood and a tiny seed of hope for a better life sprouted and began to grow.
And then the pandemic knocked the world to its knees. It was followed by a lockdown that crippled small businesses. Only the most resilient survived, and for many, including the Sun’s Up Cafe, the outcome was terminal. Rose was once again, unemployed.
Rose called him her little man, but Dylan hated the nickname. At just eleven years old, he was in no way ready for manhood. Sullen and sour, Dylan got up and stuffed his ball and baseball glove into his backpack. He cracked open his bedroom door. His mom was curled into a ball on the sofa with her back to him. Her thin frame shook as she quietly sobbed. Dylan paused for just a second and then slipped quietly out of the apartment, resolved not to let the lump of guilt in his stomach swell up into his throat and choke him.
He wandered through the garbage-strewn streets of his neighborhood, past makeshift tents, and their haggard squatters. A man preached the gospel to the air around him on the corner, while under a tattered awning, a couple sang the blues to a battered old guitar. Ladies with short skirts and tall shiny boots winked and pouted their ruby lips at Dylan as he hurried past.
Rounding a corner that led to the youth center, Dylan was startled when an old man holding a large balloon bouquet stepped out of a gloomy alleyway. The balloons bounced in vibrant pops of orange, green, yellow, and blue. Hesitant, Dylan approached, and the old man grinned at him, a gap-toothed smile that made Dylan shiver.
“Hey little man, you look like you just lost yer best friend,” croaked the old man. Eyes wide, Dylan sidestepped to pass. The old man stepped in front of him. “Yep, sure as I’m standing here, I’d bet my last balloon that you are carryin’ a heavy burden. But don’t you worry none, cuz ol’ Melvin’s got just the thing to lighten that load, yessirree!”
The old man reached into the center of his bouquet and with a magician’s flair, pulled out a crimson balloon. Dylan stared wide-eyed at the glowing red orb. “Wow, cool” he breathed.
Melvin looked around conspiratorially before saying in a hushed tone “Now, this ain’t no ordinary balloon. It has powerful magic, and if you believe, it will change your life forever.” Pushing a gnarly finger toward Dylan he said, “Now tell me, little man, do you believe?”
Dylan nodded, mesmerized by the crimson glow.
Melvin fastened the balloon string to the strap of Dylan’s backpack, then stepped back. His toothless grin cracked his face from ear to ear. He raised his bony hand and retreating into the shadows with a slow wave said, “Now don’t go losin’ your head in them clouds, little man.”
As Melvin disappeared into the alley, Dylan felt an odd sensation, like he was somehow lighter. He took a step, but then his foot missed the pavement, connecting only with air. He looked down at his feet, but they were no longer on the ground. Alarmed, he teetered, and then straightening back up, saw his reflection in a second-story window. The glowing balloon was pulling him higher and higher into the twilight sky.
Soon, he was level with the third floor, then the fourth, and then found himself looking down onto the rooftops. Dylan yelled for help as the lighted building windows became specks, but no one heard him. Frantic, he waved his arms and kicked his legs. A passing bird looked warily at him as it flew by.
Still floating upward, Dylan could see other glowing red lights in the sky. He squinted into the twilight. Small doll-like shapes were hanging beneath them. What was happening? Were they being kidnapped by aliens? Were they dead and rising to heaven?
The sky misted and swirled around him, and Dylan realized he had reached the clouds. The twilight sky turned silver, and Dylan saw dozens of glowing red balloons with boys and girls dangling beneath them. Dylan called out. Soon, other small voices were calling out too. Children were crying for their parents and pleading to go home. A few kids screamed in rage at their fate, but they continued to float upwards, their voices and bodies trailing into the mist.
Dylan yelled to a boy in a blue ball cap, floating nearby. “Hey kid, do you know why we’re here?”
The boy replied in a shaky voice “No, but an old man gave me this magic balloon and said it would change my life. I just want to go h…home.” And with that, he began to wail.
Nearby, a small cloud transformed into the shape of a fluffy marshmallow bike. Dylan paddled his arms and legs towards it but floated right through it. He grabbed at another cloud that morphed into a baseball bat, but it too dissolved in his fist.
Stupid Melvin had fooled them! This wasn’t a better life at all. Enraged, Dylan screamed into the air at the old man, the balloon, and at his impending fate. His balloon rose upward.
Frightened and confused, Dylan stopped screaming and hung limply in his backpack. His balloon stopped rising. He thought of his mom and the cruel words he had said to her. She was doing her best, and he knew he was wrong to be so ungrateful. Life was hard, but they had survived together. They had each other and Dylan loved his mom more than any stupid kid stuff. He wished he could have one more chance to tell her so.
The lump of guilt in his stomach crawled up into his throat and Dylan opened his mouth to release it. Tears of remorse fell from his cheeks like raindrops as he lamented into the swirling clouds. He bawled his apologies to the universe and pleaded for forgiveness.
Dylan started to sink. His balloon seemed to be losing air. Drifting downward, he passed several other children who were also crying out.
“Mommy, I’m sorry I threw paint on your new carpet” cried the boy in the blue ball cap.
“Daaaad, I’m sorry I shaved Benji with your electric razor” cried a girl wearing pigtails.
One after another, the children cried out in remorse. They too drifted gently down through the swirling mist towards the earth. Dylan wondered if the children floating upwards would seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings before reaching outer space.
The balloons lost most of their glow as the children drifted closer to the earth. Dylan waved as they faded into the night sky. He wanted to believe they would all use their second chance to live happily together with their families.
The bright dots of streetlights came into view. He floated down past rooftops, then rows of window lights. Dylan’s feet finally touched the pavement, and he was elated to see that he had landed right in front of his apartment building. The now shriveled balloon dangled lifelessly from his backpack. He raced up the front steps and then three more flights of stairs.
Gasping for breath, he opened his apartment door and ran straight into his mom’s open arms. Apologies and love spilled out from each one onto the other.
Tucked safely in bed that night, Dylan gazed out the window. He was sure he saw tiny orbs of glowing crimson lights moving upward into the night sky. Turns out old Melvin was right. His life had been changed forever.