Small Atoms, Brian Mihok
This story was originally published in Cluster Magazine.
Three purple balloons floated in the winter air. They sometimes bumped into each other and said excuse me like they didn't mean it. One of them named Pete was looking forward to the hour in which enough helium would leak out that he would drift down to the pavement. He felt stranded in the air like a water skier pulled behind a cruise liner. He loved the ground even though he had never been there. Where he was made, from the moment he could remember, just flashes of stretching or color, he knew there was a ground and it was mysterious. He went from machine to bag to hand to spigot to air. Never a moment where someone slipped or the wind gusted and took his flaccid body to the ground. But the ground was inevitable, he knew, and it was exciting in a kind of secret devilish way. Like he shouldn't find it so mysterious or ever wish to go there. He wasn't anything like Dot or William who were from the same factory and acted like it.
Watch out, Dot often said to William.
You watch out, William said.
I am watching out, Dot said.
Pete leaned away from them, into the breeze. His string was taught but ultimately tied together with Dot and William's to a wrought iron bench in front of a candy store. He wondered if he had a death wish but he thought if he had a death wish he would feel sad or tired or like everything should just go away. Really he felt curious and sometimes tickled by things he saw. Deflation wasn't death anyway, he figured. It was probably more like the end of one thing and the start of another. He wasn't like William who was petrified of deflating. William didn't even like to talk about it. Dot was tougher to figure out. She seemed to think several things that didn't all agree, but that also seemed to shed light on some other truth for her that she never talked about.
William raged and flung himself into the wind. He missed Dot and slammed against Pete. The three of them bobbed against each other for a while. Pete wasn't above bickering. He just didn't like to. It might rain, Dot said a little later.
They all hoped it would before they deflated. Something else to have experienced or done. Try to catch as many drops as possible. Try to dodge them. Feel the droplets roll down and drip off to the sidewalk. Try to drink them without a mouth.
The wind was from the lake on the edge of the city. Pete was manufactured in one of the factories along the lake but on the other side, in Michigan. Sometimes he fantasized about somehow ending up back in the same factory. He liked to wonder and wondered if William wondered. Or Dot. She probably did, he thought.
You know what you need? An adventure, Dot said while William bull rushed the sky.
If you could get someone to cut your string, that would do it, she said.
How do I do that? Pete said.
Don't look at me, she said. I'm just an idea woman.
It would be great to see a river or mountains or just the city from high up, Pete thought. The sun was setting behind a building down the street.
Why does everything go down, William said out of breath. Then he said, I don't feel so hot.
They were star-shaped balloons but didn't have any concept of real stars. One time a man walked by with a spherical balloon and the three of them gawked until it was out of sight. Air or helium, Dot said.
Air. Look at how sluggish he is, William said. He'll probably deflate within the hour.
What's an hour, Pete said.
Shut up, William said. Balloons didn't all have the same understanding of things, which made them fight a lot but was ultimately good because it gave them things to talk about.
I'd like to stretch out, Dot said meaning on a bed or couch.
There was a tree not far from the iron bench, planted in the sidewalk to beautify the city. The balloons were afraid of the tree mostly because it was big and looked like a set of scary hands reaching in all directions. The hands looked sharp and of course the balloons were afraid of anything sharp. When the wind blew and they were not fixated on each other but instead on a fluttering piece of paper or plastic bag that would ultimately get caught in the branches, the balloons glanced up and froze seeing the tree before them as if it had sneaked up when they weren't looking.
The sky faded from pink to night blue and somewhere in between was the purple of their bodies. Seeing their color in nature put them at ease as if it justified them. As if they looked at themselves, having floated up so high that they became permanent in the universe.
A car drove by with music playing on the inside. The passengers remarked that the balloons looked to be dancing. And though the balloons did know how to dance or do what they thought was dancing—sometimes one of them would sing while the other two bobbed around—they were not, however at this moment the car drove by, dancing.
The bricks that outlined the face of the building behind the balloons served no structural purpose. Pete would follow them around the edge of the outer walls and down to the ground like they were a path in some maze that had only one way to follow. The bricks ran across the top fascia, far above them. When he was bored or in a trance he liked to look at them.
They're decorative, Dot said one time.
What's decorative, Pete said.
It means they are just there, she said
Beneath the row of second floor windows was a ledge. The ledge looked higher than it normally did. Pete tried to stretch up to see it from where he used to but he couldn't stretch far enough. He thought something was wrong but really there wasn't. He floated quietly a minute with that knowledge.
Is this it? Dot said when she noticed.
You're still alive if that's what you mean, William said.
When is the moment we won't know anything anymore, Pete said.
You don't get dumber, William said.
No he means when we're all deflated or just mostly deflated, Dot said.
William looked at the ground, his rubber body bowing down.
William, Dot said. William couldn't seem to lift himself back up. He was lower than the other two. Pete let the wind take him forward. He turned sharply so that he wrapped around William, his string able to prop them up. Dot pushed against them both.
The temperature was the lowest it would get before dawn. As they huddled they talked about anything, like the smell in the air, how it was bread or maybe cereal from the grain elevators and factories in the First Ward. They talked about children they had seen look up at them and laugh, pointing with crooked fingers. They talked about the lake and how it was probably beautiful.
They didn't share all of their thoughts. Pete started to get a little afraid and wished that the knot at the bottom of every balloon was too tight to let the helium back out. He wished he was smart enough to know how to wiggle his body right to tighten it. The truth is that not all balloons are rubber and some are better at keeping their helium. Some are made of mylar. Another truth is that helium atoms are small and rubber is not built to keep in small atoms so the helium escapes not only from the hole in the knot but from the rubber itself.
Even though he had been excited to know what deflation brought, Pete was now dreading it a little. Dot was trying not to think about it. Those kids were so funny, she kept saying. William was tired and had never laid down but thought it might be nice. He couldn't think straight for too long.
Balloons never sleep but all three fell into a state of stillness, aware of each other but lulled by the rhythms of worry and hope. The sun was not yet up but the sky to the east was lighter. Pete kept thinking to himself so that he would keep thinking at all. He could see the ground now. It was gray and there were tiny grooves in it that looked to go on forever in each direction. He wanted to follow them up the street but he couldn't lift himself so he looked back down. He breathed quickly and Dot did too. William fell what seemed like asleep and the other two wanted to call for him but they were scared. Dot closed her eyes and tried to hold her breath as if to wait it out.
Pete kept looking at the grooves in the cement, where William now rested. Pete's thoughts had been in words but he didn't realize that after a while his thoughts were not language anymore. More like dull impulses. A feeling to move. A feeling to look up. To imagine the day. The sun rising above the buildings and the people that would pass by. He was not conscious of words at all now, nor of wonder or fear. He was of no mind, knowing only what his eyes could focus on, as if hypnotized by the very existence of things.
Brian Mihok is a writer, editor, and filmmaker. His work has appeared in Fast Company, The Disconnect, Vol 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. His novel, The Quantum Manual of Style, was released from Aqueous Books in 2013. He currently edits matchbook, an online literary magazine, and is associate editor at sunnyoutside. Find him at brianmihok.com.