“Excuse me!” I called, waving frantically. “Excuse me, I need to go up in this contraption.”
I could hear elephants trumpeting in the distance, probably upset at the scantily clad ladies dancing across their backs. A Scottish family rushed past me, shouting at their dog to come back. Young women wearing dresses twice as wide as they were flitted about in groups of two or three, exclaiming politely and giggling behind their fans. A short, rat-like man spoke into a megaphone; in my meager French I could tell he was advertising a snack that you could chew, but not swallow. Something I’d have to try later. But right now, my sister was gone.
The young man removed his blue cap, looked me up and down, and, gauging that I was vividly American, said, in a distinct Irish accent, “Certainly. But it’ll cost you.”
“Of course,” I said, fumbling in my wallet for a quarter. “Is this enough?”
“It would be, if it were in francs. We don’t call it the World’s Fair for nothing, son.” He adjusted his cap and tilted his head back as if he was stilled impressed by the grand machine he operated.
If I hadn’t been so panicked, the hot air balloon would really have been the most glorious thing my fourteen year old eyes had ever seen. The balloon, intricately painted with blue and gold suns, rose nearly 60 feet into the air, and the fire inflating it burned with an almost comforting roar. The basket, though it looked rather unbearably precarious, was also decorated beautifully with blue and gold striping. It was tethered to the ground, but it seemed eager to be off again, like a little boy who’s forced to sit through a long church service.
In my momentary fascination with the grand balloon, I forgot that Julia wasn’t by my side. Our parents had only left Julia with me for a minute, and I had wanted so much to prove that I was responsible enough to look after her. I’d only turned to look at a brochure for a freakshow, and then she wasn’t there anymore.
“Do you know what this great machine is called?”
“This, my friend, is a hot air balloon, which, in my opinion, is rather an unimpressive name for such a majestic invention.”
“I suppose. But, sir, my sister’s run off and I really just need to get somewhere high up so I can try to spot her--can you please help me?”
The man laughed. “I know the situation. Of course I’ll help you.”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, offering him my money.
“No charge, my friend. Today you experience Paris for free.”
I climbed into the balloon as directed, nervously tapping my feet. Benches lined the sides of the surprisingly large basket, and rope seatbelts dangled nearly to the floor, their metal buckles occasionally clinking.
“Want a little history of the hot air balloon?” the man asked.
I curled my lip. History had never been my best subject. “No thanks, but can I...help you with anything?”
“No, no, I’m just cutting the ropes and then we’ll be off. It’s a beautiful day, and I think you’ll find Paris quite lovely from the sky,” said the young man. “Bradley Worchester, by the way.”
“Are you in France long?”
“No. We’re only here for the fair, and to visit my mother’s relatives in Cannes.” I fidgeted with my knickerbockers, anxious that Julia had gone back to see the tigers. Though they were caged, the beasts had seemed rowdy, and, more worryingly, hungry. And Julia never refused to give a hungry animal food.
“All right, Charlie, we’re off! Please, keep your hands and head in the balloon at all time, remain seated until I tell you otherwise, and above all, feel free to tip. Up, up, and away!” Bradley whooped.
I tried to join in Bradley’s yelling, but when the basket jolted and flew into the air I lost my enthusiasm. I groped for a seatbelt, and when I was secured, breathed a sigh of relief, but was quickly overcome with nausea. I’d always been a little scared of heights.
“What’s the matter? Airsick?”
“No, I just...yes,” I said feebly.
“Trust me, my friend, the view will rejuvenate you.”
Bradley was right. It was a beautiful afternoon, and as we rose into the champagne golden sky, I realized how beautiful Paris really was. The Seine curled beneath us, and the Eiffel Tower elegantly dominated the skyline. I could see cathedrals, double decker cars (introduced at the fair), and the Avenue of Nicholas. It was breathtaking, and for a moment I forgot how worried I was about my sister.
“How about that?” Bradley said. “It’s more magnificent every time I go up!”
“It’s amazing,” I said. “Are you up here often?”
“Only when I’m paid. Someday I hope to own a balloon; right now I satisfy my airborne hunger by manning this one.”
“Julia would love it up here. She’s never afraid of anything.”
“Do you see her?”
I scanned the endless crowds for my sister and quickly realized it was fruitless. I’d never be able to spot her from a thousand feet above the fair. “Can you take me back down?” I asked, dismayed.
“Certainly.” Bradley steered the balloon toward the field where we’d started from. “How old is your sister?”
“Seven. And she’s just always running off. My parents went to see an exhibition of the telephone, and they left her with me and told us when they were done we’d ride the Ferris wheel, but she didn’t want to, she wanted to ride the carousel....the carousel!”
“I know where she’ll be! Thank you for the ride, but I need to go find my sister!”
As soon as the balloon touched the ground, I dashed away, calling, “Thank you, Bradley! I’ll be back!”
A map of the fair soon set me toward to carousel, and after about five minutes’ running, I had arrived. Sure enough, there she was, staring wistfully at the delighted children riding the animatronic horses.
“Charlie, where were you? Mother and Father said we’d go on the carousel, but they haven’t come back for a long time and neither have you, and I’ve been waiting for a thousand minutes!” Julia stomped her foot, her curls bouncing.
I hugged her.
“You smell bad,” she said.
“I bet I do. I’ve been running to find you,” I said, taking her hand and jogging toward the balloon. “Come on, I’ve got something to show you!”