Bethany stands with her hands straight down at her sides and watches as the man puts his fingers to his mouth and blows. The balloon grows long so fast it seems like he’s creating it with the wave of his hand. He quickly twists it into another balloon until it looks like an elephant and Bethany is mesmerized at the magic of it.
“There you go, Ashley,” he says, handing it to the child in front of her. The girl giggles and runs off with it, her colorful flipflops smacking happily behind her.
The man turns to Bethany. “What’s your name?” he asks, his hands on his knees.
A tightness grips her chest and she can’t speak.
“No name, huh? How ‘bout if I call you Blue Shirt, then?” he says. “What can I make for you, Blue Shirt? A pussycat, maybe?”
Elephant, Bethany thinks. I want an elephant, just like she has. But the thought of saying it out loud makes her eyes water in fear.
“I bet I know,” the man says. “I bet you’d like a French poodle. How does that sound, huh?” He puts a yellow balloon to his mouth and it grows just like the last one. He does the same thing with another balloon and twirls them together. He holds the finished product out to Bethany.
She stands, frozen.
“Don’t you like it?” the man asks.
Bethany swallows hard, and it feels like a fist is caught in her throat. Someone’s mom behind her says, “I think it’s lovely,” then rests her hand gently on Bethany’s shoulder. Her fingertips are soft and cool, and Bethany closes her eyes. She feels her own hands rise toward the balloon animal as if floating. She pulls it to her chest, cradling it softly. It’s better than an elephant. Her head falls forward and she cries.
“Funny kid,” she hears the man say to the woman.
Bethany walks away slowly, taking small light steps down the path like she is carrying something so delicate the slightest movement could turn it to ash.
Eventually, her careful footsteps lead Bethany to the picnic area where her mother sits on top of a table with a group of friends. She is lighting a cigarette and doesn’t look up.
“Hey, Tiffany,” someone says, “ain’t that your kid?”
Bethany’s mother looks up. “Hello alien,” she says, dragging on her cigarette. “What you got there?”
Bethany covers it with her arms.
“I’m not gonna take it from you, bonehead. I just wanna know what it is.”
Bethany shakes her head no. The man next to her mother jumps down from the table and rushes to the girl, a cigarette dangling from his lips. She tries to run, but he catches her by the arm and grabs the balloon animal, holding it up high above her head.
“Hey, it’s a dog!” he says. “A fucking flying dog!” He moves it back and forth through the air.
“Lemme see it,” Tiffany says.
“You want it? Here.” He walks back to Tiffany with the balloon animal, but just before she can grab it, he sticks his cigarette into one balloon and then another, laughing as the thing pops.
“You stupid shit,” Tiffany says. “Now I’m gonna have to listen to her bawl all day.”
But Bethany doesn’t cry. She turns and walks to an empty picnic table and sits down on a bench, her back to the group, imagining the feel of cool fingertips on her shoulder.
About the author:
Ellen Meister lives and writes in the suburbs of New York, where she has recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yankee Pot Roast, SmokeLong Quarterly, Light, Pindeldyboz, Amarillo Bay, and Haypenny. Her fiction has been nominated for a best-of-the-web award anthology.
© 2011 Word Riot