The Balloonman's Secret
His real name was Bob but everyone called him the Balloonman.
He owned a shop at the corner of Main and Wetzel downtown. It was an innocuous building located at the end of a whole row of shop fronts. The facade was drab and brown, the balloons lining the awning the only splash of color to liven the place up. Not many people actually entered the Balloonman’s establishment. Most of his business was done over the phone. One would think
it might be difficult to make a business thrive through the sale of balloons but this was not the case for the Balloonman.
Everyone agreed his balloons were, indeed, the best balloons in the tri-state
region. They didn’t know what it was that made his balloons so much better than the ones that could be obtained in a regular store. Perhaps it was the quality of the latex—maybe it was a little stronger, a little more durable than the latex of your average balloon. Or maybe it was the helium. The Balloonman’s balloons certainly seemed to last a lot longer than other balloons. They seemed to float a lot longer.
Once the quality of his balloons had been proven sufficient, the Balloonman found people needed them for almost every occasion—birthday parties, weddings, graduations—all of the standard celebrations. But the need did not stop there. The Balloonman had supplied balloons for a divorce party and, once, he had delivered two-hundred black balloons for a funeral. Not to mention the regulars—the car lot off the Interstate ordered five hundred balloons each week. That alone would have been enough to keep the Balloonman in business. He had always kept the overhead low.
As brisk as business was for the Balloonman, his shop had seemed drab and lonely until today. Today, everything was going to change.
The morning was gray and chilly when the Balloonman awoke and went down to his shop. He usually stayed on the lower floor during business hours even though there really wasn’t much of a reason to. He went about with his usual routine for a Monday morning—dusting, vacuuming the virtually unused welcome mat, filling that week’s orders.
It was interesting he became a balloon salesman because he so resembled a balloon himself. It was very likely, had he never sold a single balloon, some malicious person in town would have taken to calling him the Balloonman based solely on his balloonlike appearance.
He was a round man. And, although he was heavy, he moved with a sort of airy weightlessness admirable for a man of his girth. His skin, shiny and rubbery, stretched tightly over his face, giving him a deceitfully jovial expression. The resemblance was such that one would be tempted to rub a finger down his cheek to see if it made that annoyingly screechy sound balloons made. To his great relief, no one had yet attempted this. It would have undoubtedly tested his otherwise mild disposition.
On the morning of the day his life would change the Balloonman finished his chores early and was, by noon, sitting behind the counter reading the newspaper. All of the balloons had been blown and were now en route to their designated destinations. None of his patrons really knew how the balloons were delivered. The balloons simply appeared where they wanted them to appear. One minute their mailbox was naked and the next it was covered in a multicolor display of balloons intended to alert people to the location of their family reunion or auction.
Looking out the window, the Balloonman sighed heavily. The day was just as gray and heavy-looking as ever. This seemed a direct contrast to the light and airy nature of his festive stock. It wasn’t until he was ready to close up just before six o’clock, a few minutes early, having only seen three customers that day, his life changed.
June First came charging in the door, her face flushed and her ponytail in disarray. The Balloonman, living in the center of town, knew more about the residents than many people. He knew June First came from a poor family. He also knew she was a gifted scholar, the valedictorian of her class, and would be attending a wonderful college in the East on a full scholarship after she graduated later this year.
She slammed the door behind her, panting, breathing in the heavy latex smell of the Balloonman’s shop.
“You have to help me,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” the Balloonman asked.
“It’s Derek Gloom,” June said. “He’s after me.”
“Why is he after you?”
“He wants me to marry him. He says he wants to take me away tonight.”
The Balloonman knew who Derek Gloom was. Everyone knew who Derek Gloom was. He was the son of Cecil Gloom, the fireworks tycoon. Cecil owned a large fireworks factory at the edge of town that employed many of the residents and he wielded his power over the town just as Derek wielded his father’s power over the high school.
Derek was a threatening figure. He was very tall and very pale. Rumors said that Cecil used his children to try out new and fantastic fireworks. Consequently, they weren’t exposed to a lot of sunlight because the fireworks were best viewed in the dark and Derek only had three fingers on each hand, the other four assumedly blown off by ultrapowerful firecrackers. Of the remaining fingers, he let the nails grow to sturdy points. He always smelled like gunpowder and threatened the younger kids with Roman candles and bottle rockets. If they didn’t do what he asked, he nailed them. And his father’s lawyers would exonerate Derek even if his last victim were left with a massive burn or without an eye.
“I don’t want to go away with Derek. I don’t want to go anywhere with Derek.”
The Balloonman did not know how to react. He was not a policeman. He was not a protector. He sold balloons. Not only that, the second June First had pounded into his shop he had nearly forgotten how to breathe. The Balloonman was very nervous around girls. He had never so much as held hands with a girl and, if it didn’t involve the decorative placement of balloons, he didn’t really know what to say to them. So now he was in two situations that made him very uncomfortable.
“I need to hide or something,” she said. “They were right behind me.”
The Balloonman came out from behind the counter, smoothing his tight suit over his ample stomach, and said, “Go on upstairs. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, uh, Balloonman,” June said, running up the stairs behind the counter.
The Balloonman walked over to the door and stared out at the gray afternoon. Derek Gloom and some of his friends approached the shop. The Balloonman turned the sign that said “Open” to where it said “Closed.”
Derek stopped just on the other side of the glass, raising a gnarled hand and knocking ominously on the door.
“Send her out, Balloonman. I know she’s in there,” he growled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Balloonman said.
“I saw her go in.”
“No you didn’t.”
This blatant lie seemed to stump Derek for just a second before he regained his train of questioning and said, “Yes she is. I was just down the block when I saw her come in.”
“Go away before I call Sheriff Badge.”
“Oh, like he’s going to do anything to me. My father has him in his pocket.”
The Balloonman pulled down the white Roman blind in the doorway and turned to go up the stairs.
His heart did a double hammer in his chest. Now he had a girl upstairs in his apartment and that... that had never happened before.
June sat in an overstuffed orange chair that smelled like a balloon, pulled just far enough away from the window that she couldn’t be seen.
“Well, I think I got rid of them,” the Balloonman said with a bit more bravura than he had intended.
June shook her head, looking so scared sitting in the chair that seemed to eat her up. “There is no getting rid of Derek Gloom,” she said. “I need to get out of this town.”
As if to punctuate this statement, a large rocket shattered the window, crashed into the far wall and exploded, sparks flying around the room. Both June and the Balloonman jerked spasmodically.
“How did you get mixed up with someone like Gloom?” the Balloonman asked. Maybe, the Balloonman wondered, it was the extremity of the situation allowing him to actually speak with June.
“I don’t know,” June said.
A whole package of firecrackers flew through the window and exploded loudly on the floor, leaving a large black stain on the boards. June jumped up, leaping out of the chair, screaming this time. Ever attentive, she tried to give the Balloonman a satisfactory answer. “I just thought... well, his father owns that big factory and I thought it would be nice not to be so poor.”
“You were going to... marry Derek Gloom?”
“I considered it... but I said no. And now this.”
This time, a multitude of fireworks poured through the window, popping and exploding, a continuous stream. The fireworks hit June and the Balloonman, exploding and stinging their skin before they could gather their bearings. Finally, the Balloonman said, “Come into the bathroom with me. I think I’ve just thought of something.”
The Balloonman led her into the bathroom. “Now,” he said. “I’ve never tried this before so I don’t know how well it will work.”
Then he leaned down as if to kiss her. June wrinkled up her face and pushed him away. “You dirty old man,” she said. “This is not what I came here for.”
“No,” the Balloonman said. “You’re mistaken.”
“I might as well just go back to Derek,” she said, retreating into the main room.
The Balloonman followed her. “No, it wasn’t what it seemed.”
A bottle rocket bounced off her head and Derek shouted, “You better get out here, June, or the whole place is going up!”
While she was distracted, patting out a smoldering flame in her hair, the Balloonman grabbed her around the forearms and gruffly pulled her towards him. Then he leaned down his head and planted a kiss on her lips. Startled, she opened her mouth and the Balloonman exhaled. June felt the air go through her body, expanding it. She felt light. Lighter than air.
“Come on,” the Balloonman said after exhaling his lungs and breaking the kiss. It was hard to keep her from floating to the ceiling before they reached the window in the bathroom. He grabbed her arm and led her to the window, stuffing her out of it.
“Thank you,” she said.
Outside, she floated high up into the gray sky, her bright yellow dress billowing up around her.
Derek and his gang turned away from the Balloonman’s loft and began shooting their fireworks towards her but, from that distance, their aim was not as good and they all missed, exploding around June, drawing attention to the girl floating through the sky. The Balloonman stared from the window sill and watched as she floated away, hoping she would make it all the way to her prized college in the East.
After the kiss, things turned tragic for the Balloonman.
His balloons were no longer what they used to be. Whereas, before, they stayed afloat for weeks, now they were lucky to stay afloat for a couple of hours. The people of the town could no longer take it. More and more people began coming to his shop. Only, this time, they came to complain. They came to yell at the Balloonman, the once plump proprietor of quality balloons, now a gaunt and wasted wreck of a crook.
Then his luck changed. One day, after his balloons had ruined Derek Gloom’s wedding, the bride-to-be came into the shop.
She was stunning. Not as stunning as June First, but stunning in a different way. She had gathered all the limp balloons up and dumped them on the Balloonman’s counter.
“I would just like to say thank you for ruining my wedding,” she said.
“It certainly was not my intention to ruin your wedding,” the Balloonman said.
“I couldn’t even go through with it.”
“You couldn’t get married because the balloons went flat?”
“No, I most certainly couldn’t. And that marriage could have made me the richest woman in town.”
“But, maybe,” the Balloonman said. “If something silly like balloons would keep you from getting married, then you shouldn’t have married this person anyway.”
The beautiful woman looked at the Balloonman and he saw something sharp, like glass, break inside of her.
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “He was a fool anyway.”
Then the Balloonman thought she looked at him with renewed interest.
“How long have you worked here?”
“I’ve always worked here.”
“No, the Balloonman is a little more... puffy.”
“I used to only want to make balloons. Now I want something else.”
“I guess we all want something else.”
“And I guess you’re wanting a refund?”
“No, I didn’t pay for the balloons anyway. So what are you going to do now that your balloons are about as good as used condoms?”
The Balloonman wrinkled his nose at the simile. “Maybe I’ll travel.”
“Would you like a companion? I bet you made a killing off this place in its heyday.”
The Balloonman looked at the woman, saw whatever it was that had broken in her before harden again, and shook his head.
“No, I think I’m just going to go east.” He thought about June, floating away from him in her yellow dress. He thought about the way she had tasted. He thought about her fleshy arms in the palms of his hands. He figured she was probably where she needed to be now and wondered if she needed deflating. He thought he would know how to do that.
The woman huffed and turned towards the door, marching out on heels made of ice.
Behind her, he flipped the sign to the "Closed Side" and walked to the back of the store. He opened the circuit breaker box and flipped all of the switches off. He opened the back door and stepped out onto the loading dock. He locked the door behind him. Crouching down, he began untying his shoes. Untying his shoes was not nearly the core it once was. He hoped he had enough float left. Once his shoes were untied, he placed the toes of the right against the heel of the left and slid the shoe off. Already, he felt himself lift. He repeated the process with the right shoe and, slowly, he was off the ground.
He looked to the East, to the future, and floated a little higher, looking down at the pair of empty, steel-lined shoes behind the back door of his abandoned shop.
Andersen Prunty's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Space and Time, The Dream People, The Edge, Wicked Hollow, Word Riot, The City Morgue, Sinisteria, Horror Carousel and other publications. His novel, The Tormenteds, was recently accepted by Naked Snake Press and is scheduled to be released in March, 2007.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Andersen Prunty. All rights reserved.