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The BalloonOn a pale yellow summer afternoon, two armies scampered across well-trimmed lawns.
"Da-da-da-da-da! I got ya!" And a body in shorts and polo shirt collapsed to the ground. Then he peeked and raised his head.
"Stay on the ground 'til I'm gone. You're dead," said the victor.
"Alright, alright," groaned the victim, who dropped his head back onto the turf and watched the clouds drift by overhead. He checked his gun. It needed more water.
A few hours later that very same afternoon a man who also once played the days away fought the rush hour traffic. He was impatient, and excited. A baby was coming. His wife had told him a half-hour ago, calling him at work with the test results. A baby! So he was rushing home, filled with anticipation and love. A happy symbol of his love for her bobbed on the ceiling beside him - a big bright silver-foil helium balloon. Silly, really. Just one of those special secrets couples share. He had given her a silver balloon on their very first date - how many years ago? And it had been his private signature to her ever since. Tonight they would have dinner before the fire - and champagne! Yes, champagne! They would bathe in it! He smiled at the traffic crawling along. A new brightness was coming to their home.
The balloon lived happily in a corner of the kitchen for several days and added its own little sparkle to the room. But eventually it began to droop, and the new mother broached the inevitable.
"Honey, you know how I love your gifts to me, but there comes a time when all good things come to an end. I don't want to pop that balloon, but ... "
"Hey, I have an idea. Why don't we take the balloon outside?"
They walked with the balloon out to the end of the driveway. The balloon tugged and danced against its ribbon, inflated by the warm sun and enticed by some passing breeze. It bobbed back and forth with impatience. They stood together holding the long yellow ribbon; in the balloon they saw their own reflections. Neither of them could quite let it go yet suddenly it sprang away. When they spotted it again, the balloon was already beyond the neighborhood. They stood quietly together watching it, content to follow its flight with their minds' eye even after it was lost to sight. Then they returned to decorating the baby's room.
In the haze of mid-morning, the perfect thing to do is lie in the shade of a sprawling oak and find camels and angels and faces in the clouds. Tommy and Kevin and the kids were stretched on the grass in various angles of repose, with their hands behind their heads and sneakers kicked off their feet. Just another lazy day in an endless summer. Away up against the clouds, Tommy thought something winked at him. There. It happened again. It was real, it was glowing, and it was drifting down towards them.
"Look, look!" He shouted, pointing and jumping up on bare feet. "A UFO! See?!?"
All the kids saw it. A shining globe was coming from the heavens, about to make contact. And why not? They knew aliens would prefer to meet first with Earth's kids. E.T. certainly did.
"It's not a UFO." declared Kathy.
"Could be. They are real, you know." Tommy insisted.
"I know that. But this is a balloon." And she stuck out her tongue at him to drive the point home.
Dragonflies flitted by while the balloon hovered over the neighborhood. As it neared the treetops and warm air, the helium expanded and its descent slowed. It finally slid down to ten feet and paused, a length of yellow ribbon trailing below. The kids stood in a circle below it, silent, all looking up.
"Where did it come from?" Someone asked, speaking for all.
"Don't know. Let's look closer -" Kathy said, reaching for the ribbon.
"Don't touch it!!" They all cried at once. Silently, in the shared empathy of young life, they all agreed: leave the balloon alone.
"Let's just see what happens," Tommy told Kathy.
"Alright," she replied, making a face. "Then get off my lawn. If you want to watch the stupid ol' balloon, do it from the street."
"Kathy!" they groaned. Someone said, "All talk - no action!"
"OK, you can stay if you pay me five cents."
But then, with that amazing timing of mothers everywhere, Kathy's mom called through the screen door, "Lunch time!" The kids fell apart like segments of an orange and scattered to their shady home kitchens and Kool-Aid.
Kids have an amazing ability to stretch a meal into hours; or, as today, they can cram a lunch into five minutes. Kevin was the first back, sucking on a cherry popsicle. He stopped short, his eyes wide. The balloon was in the danger zone -- the street! One by one the kids gathered on both sides of the street, still not daring to step from the curb into the road. The balloon was about six feet off the ground now, and the ribbon brushed the pavement. The gentle breeze of the morning was gone; the air stood heavy and still.
They heard it before they saw it -- a car coming down the block. A car! With one mind the kids swarmed into the street and gathered in front of the balloon. The car slowed in disbelief, then stopped. The kids stared back at the glare on the windshield. The sun baked the street. Silence, broken only by the sound of a rotating sprinkler.
Finally, without a word spoken or a horn blown, the car backed up twenty yards to the corner and turned down the side street. For a full minute there was only the hum and spit of mosquitoes and lawn sprinklers, then the gang suddenly burst into smiles and chatter.
Kathy's face glowed with triumph. One kid muttered, "I hope my Mom doesn't find out."
Their vigil now cemented by victory, the kids stood and guarded the balloon. It drifted lower, but it also drifted towards the far curb, and after a half-hour the balloon -- and the kids -- were safely out of the street. This was Tommy's lawn, and even Kathy didn't have to pay five cents to stay.
The afternoon passed as afternoons somehow manage to pass in the very middle of summertime. Big kids and little kids came and went. They played. They stopped the ice cream man.
And while the afternoon hours crept along the little guardians kept a vigilant eye on the balloon. It floated motionless, yet somehow sank lower and lower.
Fathers came home from work. The sun washed gold on the lawns, the trees, the houses - even the balloon blazed gold and orange. And at pace with the sun, the balloon too settled slowly but steadily towards the ground.
Supper is called. The balloon still floats quietly, now about a soccer ball's width above the lawn. The parents insist. The kids must tear themselves away.
"Meet'cha here after supper!" They laugh and call to each other as they scurry like rabbits to their dens. Alone now, the balloon mirrors the deep scarlet of the dwindling sun; the ribbon lies in a coil below. And like puppies, the kids soon return to play and wrestle with all their energy, before bedtime claims them. As the dark sets in, in pairs and packs, they break off their play and come to rest together around the balloon.
"How much?" "Soon. About a hand away."
"Blow on it - " "Naw! Don't cheat. It's almost there."
The sun hesitates a final moment before leaving, and the kids fall silent, staring at the violet balloon, waiting.
"Tommy!" A familiar voice calls.
"Kathy, come now. I know you hear me." calls another.
One by one, dragging heels and searching for excuses, the kids find themselves drawn towards home. The balloon hangs on a whisper, just a breath away from landing. Finally, only Eric is lying there, measuring again and again with his eye the tiny space between the grass tips and the dark orb floating just above.
"Eric!" Oh, just a little more time. It's almost down!
"Eric, don't make me look for you." Resistance yields. Eric kicks off his sneakers.
"Just a minute, I have to put my shoes on first."
He gives one last look at the deep blue balloon. He sees in it the stars awakening above and black leafy silhouettes waving gently against the stars. With a last look at another summer evening, Eric shuffles for home. The balloon is a deep royal blue now, and filled with twinkling stars. Alone, it touches the earth, and finally comes to rest.
The next morning dawns red and clear. High pitched voices ring through the still morning air, a call for the gathering of the clan. Today the kids are forming a club and this morning the club's first project is to make a map of the neighborhood. Later, someone might think of the balloon, but there won't be much to say. Yesterday, after all, is gone. There are clubs to join and maps to make today!