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I wake up at 4:30 with sleep sticking to me like cobwebs. I roll over, trapped between dreams and waking, and glance at the sky through the blinds. It is a smooth, creamy navy blue tinged with the promise of dawn. Mom and Dad move through the house, knocking on doors, laughing quietly, shaking the creases out of clothes. I drag myself up, peeling myself out of my dreams. I wander through the house, excited, expectant.
Thirty-seven minutes later, we are in the car. The sky is rimmed gold and pink-orange clouds scud across it. We munch on hard, plastic breakfast bars while listening to the grainy sound of the radio.
At last, we get there. The park is shadowy and quiet, the grass gleams with dew. Trucks are parked on the golf course, like solemn little soldiers. Mosquitoes feast on my bare ankles.
There is something straining in the air. That excitement again. The sun peers lazily through the treetops.
Dad helps his friend from work, Gary, take a basket out of the trailer. It’s tall – up to my stomach. They start putting pieces together. There are three other trailers, three other baskets.
Someone lets a black balloon go. We watch it drift, until it’s nothing but a speck. Watching the wind, and I can’t help but think:
Baby’s black balloon makes her fly, I almost fell into that hole in your life …
There is a bag: maroon, and big. While Dad and his friend work on the basket, we work on pulling the balloon out of the bag. A real hot air balloon! How can it all fit in there, a mess of canvas and tangled rope?
The balloon is long and thin, a sad heap of fabric that stretches on forever. Once Dad is done with the basket, I help him untangle the ropes. Gary tips over the basket while his wife fastens more cords and wires.
Dad and I hold up the balloon’s opening, and Gary turns on a big, metal fan. Cold air flaps against my fingers and blows into the balloon. The fabric billows and unfurls, and slowly but surely it inflates. I peer inside and see a massive cavern of color. A house could easily fold in there.
Red, white and green. The Italian flag. I think that’s funny, because Gary and his wife are British.
Gary turns on the burner, and a huge blaze of fire fills the balloon with hot air. A powerful roar drums in my ears, and the fire is so hot that I’m sure the hair has been burned from my fingers. My face stings with the heat. I can feel my lips crack.
Like magic, the balloon rises and the basket tips upright.
There are three other balloons, just as regal and impressive. One is decorated with patterns of mountains and trees, while another is patterned with a kaleidoscope of color. The third is yellow and blue. These balloons, they fill up the sky.
Gary invites Mom to ride. She’s afraid, I can see, and I’m thinking I would be, too. Dad urges her on, but I still see the shake in her hands and the wobble in her walk. She clambers into the basket.
“And you?” Gary asks, meeting my eyes. My heart skips in my throat and fear pumps ice through my veins. Somehow, I climb in anyways, though my teeth are clacking. The worst part is watching my little sisters cry. They want to come, too, but there’s no room.
Gary shouts something and suddenly we float up. I watch the faces grow smaller and smaller, and I realize there’s no ground beneath us.
Oh, gosh. We’re flying, we’re flying. We’re really flying. There’s no way back.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to fall from so far up.
The air is fresh and clear and warm with cheerful morning sunlight. Cars zoom beneath us, people jog and dogs run. We are so close to the houses that I could count the shingles if I wanted to. I see winding, muddy brown creeks and bumpy green tree tops. From this angle, the world looks alien. Mom and Gary talk, but my eyes are starving for the world. My vocal cords don’t feel much like talking.
Our little red car – the Battleship – cruises behind us like a shadow. Once Dad parks and they all tumble out to wave at us.
“Hello down there!” I shout, cupping my hands around my mouth.
“How is it?” they ask. Their voices shimmer with the distance. But there are no words to answer.
There is a peace, floating so high and watching the world go on below. I feel detached, but whole. It is strange and wonderful and beautiful. I feel the balloon rise and fall and sway with the wind. People look at us and wave, smiles on their faces. We wave back.
Sometimes, we see the other balloons behind us, islands of calm just like our own.
After an age, it becomes time to land. We pass bumpy farm fields and bare streets. Gary picks out a tiny square of green grass in a nameless neighborhood. We carefully take aim, marking up with it as we descend. Our basket skims the rooftops, so close I could touch them. We dip to the street, barely missing a curb.
“Remember,” Gary recites, “When I say bump, hold onto the side of the basket. Crouch. Prepare for impact…here we go…any second now…bump.”
The impact doesn’t come. It is as smooth as landing in water. We skip across the grass like a vast, multicolored pebble. Gary’s wife parks her truck and runs for us, throwing her weight onto the basket and anchoring us firmly to the ground.
The sky, once so close, is now out of reach. It's another dimension once more.
There are ten or twelve people gathered on the street, a few children among them, smiling and laughing.
“A real hot air balloon!” a little boy shouts.
“I woke up and saw it from my window, and Daddy came, and we ran outside!” his older brother says, hopping up and down.
These people are the best part, which makes the sky travel all worthwhile. Even the adults are filled with happiness and possibility. It’s like a story, waking up and seeing a hot air balloon land across the street, unimaginably graceful. And for the first time in my life, I belong in that story.
There’s something about hot air balloons that brings happiness to people. They are wonderful, mysterious and exciting. And our landing has obviously made the days of these strangers. I like to think we brought a bit of the sky to their doorsteps.
I climb out of the basket. The balloon deflates; we unhook it, and stuff it back into the bag. The bag goes in the trailer, and so does the basket. This balloon has become my dream, my adventure, my story, and I carefully take it apart piece by piece. My dreams go are folded up forever. The people slowly leave. Even Gary and his wife soon depart, with their balloon in tow.
And it’s over.
It is strange seeing the world like normal again. I don’t mind, though my head is still in the clouds. The balloon might be gone, but I am still full of sky.
I would like to go to that balloon festival in New Mexico someday. It would be inspiring to see a sky so full of color, unity and joy. There is a certain peace and possibility in the sky that you can never find on the ground.
I think I am in love. With the sky. The world. Everything.
Today, I am really, truly alive.
Today, I am infinite.