I stood dumbfounded as my two-year-old daughter, Mason, floated up and away into the wide-open blue of the summer sky. It was not my finest moment as a father; when the chance came for me to prove myself, I...just stood there. Watching sweet, cherubic, little Mason growing smaller and smaller as her red balloon pulled her higher and farther from me.
"Hang on," I said, hating myself as soon as the words left my lips; that was all I could think to say? Really? "Just...hang on!"
It was my first time watching Mason on my own since Andy and I had adopted her, so I guess I should have expected everything to go wrong. And then Andy showed up, pulling our mint-green Hyundai into the parking space in front of our townhouse, back early from the grocery store. The driver door swung open and I tried to figure out what I could say. Andy got to his feet, dressed in jeans and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, his short hair in perfect, gelled disarray. He gave me a lop-sided smile, like he was trying to understand why I was out here on my own, without Mason, when his eyes moved up and he saw her.
"What the hell, Michael?" he said, swinging his one hand up to point at Mason while the other was beseeching me, the sun glinting off the car keys in his palm.
I jumped forward, snatched the keys, and pushed past him to slide into the driver's seat.
Andy stood staring slackjawed at our daughter. "How—"
I started the engine. "I don't know, okay? Get in."
I slammed the door shut and pulled the gear into Reverse. Andy hopped in the passenger seat and buckled himself in.
"Why isn't there a warning about this kind of thing on the balloon?" I said, stepping on the gas. "It really should come with a warning!"
The engine growled, tires squealed, and we were bounding down the road through the neighborhood.
"What did you think the age suggestion on the tag was for?" Andy said. "Show?"
I turned left on Wilson's Creek, left again on Linville Ferry. Within seconds we were speeding toward the intersection of Heathcote and Matheson.
In the sky the red balloon sauntered and pirouetted in the breeze, our tiny black dot daughter, our whole world, strung along helplessly. She was so high up. All I could think about was Mason losing her grip and falling, falling to—
The light at the intersection turned red and I stamped both feet on the brake. The car screeched to a halt. I lost control of myself, punching the dashboard over and over and over again, swearing and spitting against the windshield. I couldn't tell if my T-shirt was wet from tears or spit or both.
Mason was going to fall any minute, now, plummet to Earth, all alone without her daddies to catch her. Like good dads were supposed to. The horrific image played in my mind on repeat and my heart felt like it was doing jumping jacks in my chest. I felt lightheaded.
"Just go ahead and say it," I said, accelerating as soon as the light even thought about turning green.
"Say what?" Andy asked. I hated him, then. How could he be so calm? So in control of his emotions. I'd married a robot.
"I'm a terrible dad."
"Where is this coming from?"
"Are you kidding me?" I pointed in the direction of Mason and the balloon, two tiny specks silhouetted against the sky. I pushed the car lightyears past the speed limit.
"It was a mistake," I said. The words slipped off my tongue and out my mouth and bounced off the windshield. We shot through a red light, weaving in and around oncoming traffic. Andy grabbed the dashboard with one hand and squeezed the door handle with the other.
"I wasn't ready," I said, and I realized it was true as I said it. Realized I'd never shared the truth with my husband. "I wasn't ready! How could I be a good father, huh? You know how my dad was. Why did we do this? Now our daughter's hanging from a balloon hundreds of feet above the ground and we may never—"
"Michael," Andy said.
"It was a mistake. Such a big mistake. I wasn't ready. I wasn't—"
"I wasn't ready, either," Andy said.
"Don't patronize me."
"I promise, I'm not," Andy said. "I don't think anyone's ever ready. And if they say they are, they're lying. How can you prepare for something like this?"
He motioned to Mason. "But that doesn't matter. What matters is how we navigate it, how we—
"How the hell do we navigate something like our daughter splatting—"
I took a breath, swerving around a dump-truck, praying Mason's little hands had enough strength to keep her from slipping.
"You really think I'm a good dad? Even after this?"
"Yeah, I do," Andy said.
No hesitation. I don't know that I've loved him more.
"But what if," I said. I couldn't get the image out of my head. "What if—"
"We're not gonna let that happen," Andy said.
He was right. Andy was always (usually) right. He was so calm under pressure, so confident. Sure where I was unsure.
I spared a glance at my partner, saw him quietly wipe away tears. I liked to think that I'd helped him learn to let his guard down, since I was the more emotional of the two of us.
Andy bent forward over the dashboard, twisting his neck to look up at something. "You see that?"
"See what?" I hunched my shoulders and strained my neck to get a look.
Several other dots—multi-colored balloons carrying small bundles—had appeared in the sky around Mason's balloon, floating in the same direction.
"Take this!" Andy said.
I careened into the right-hand exit lane just as we were about to miss it. I merged off the ramp and into the right lane. A worn road sign said Loughlin Park was only a half-mile down the road. The balloons were heading toward the park.
A tan minivan cut directly in front of us as we turned onto the exit for Loughlin Park, tires screeching at such a frequency the sound seemed to harmonize with the van's blaring horn.
"Shit!" I said, braking and throwing Andy against the dashboard. "Sorry!"
I stepped on the gas and tailed the van into the parking lot.
"Oh God," Andy said.
We pulled up to the closest soccer field. Several other cars were parked as haphazardly as we were, their owners crowding the field, grasping at their children as the balloons descended.
We watched as a harried mother and father took a tear-filled selfie with their safely-returned son; cringed as another pair of mothers screamed and swore at each other while their daughter clung sobbing to her yellow balloon; marveled as a diverse group of parents, clutching their kids tight, laughed as they recounted their ordeal with wild gestures.
Then I saw her.
"Mason!" I cried, my heart feeling like it was trying to claw its way up my throat to escape and make it to our daughter's side before we could.
We didn't let her little Velcro-strapped shoes touch the ground before we scooped her up in our arms. We huddled together as a family, sobbing as Andy and I ran our hands across Mason's tiny frame, searching for any sign of harm. We cried harder when we realized she was perfectly fine.
Mason wailed, tears wetting her wind-reddened checks, her little fingers gouging into our arms with the same desperate strength that had kept her attached to the balloon's string for so many miles.
When we had collected ourselves—my arms wrapped around Mason, and Andy's wrapped around me—we navigated our way to the car through other reunited families and more parents looking skyward, waiting eagerly for their own children.
I got Mason situated in her car seat and asked Andy to drive.
"How about a Happy Meal?" Andy suggested as we exited the park.
"Okay," Mason chirped brightly between sniffles.
"Okay," Andy and I said together, smiling as several balloons, now passenger-less, returned to the sky and flowed along the winds to wherever lonely, lost balloons go.
When he's not writing, Austin Shirey
is probably reading or enjoying time with his wife, Sarah, and their daughters and cats in Northern Virginia. His fiction has appeared in (or is forthcoming in) The Saturday Evening Post, The Dread Machine, Orca, All Worlds Wayfarer
and in select anthologies from Eerie River Publishing. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. In addition to his website (linked) you can follow him on Twitter @tashirey87