Sunday, April 6, 2014


The heavy rains from before dawn had left small rivers and lakes in the gutters as Mai made her way to school. Despite being less than half a mile, she enjoyed taking a leisurely, twisting path through various back alleys and side streets.
            On the last stretch, just across from an all but forgotten graveyard, an old man sat on the corner. Crouched a small stool, next to him slept the most ragged, pitiful dog Mai had ever seen. She couldn’t’ even begin to guess it’s breed.
            In his hand he held three balloons tied to short lengths of silvery ribbon.
            “Could I offer you a balloon?” he asked as she approached.
            She stopped, still a good ten feet from him and looked him up and down. She had the feeling he might be homeless, but wasn’t sure.
            Without speaking, Mai just shook her head.
            “Please?” he pleaded, proffering a balloon again.
            “No,” said Mai flatly. “I do not want one.”
            As she said this, the silvery ribbon slipped from his fingers, releasing the balloon into the sky.
            “That is a shame,” he replied as he turned, grabbed his stool, and shuffled away.
            When she looked again she noticed the dog was no longer there.
            Mai told herself the poor thing probably went off to a dumpster somewhere looking for food.

            The next day was a windy one, the kind that ripped the heat from the flesh regardless of how many layers were worn.
            Unlike her usual habit, Mai made a beeline for school.
            Once again, however, she encountered the same old man in the same spot. He got up from his stool at her approach.
            “Could I offer you a balloon?” he asked.
            Mai noticed he only had two balloons this times.
            She shook her head without slowing her pace.
            “That is a shame,” he said.
            Mai looked back just in time to see the silvery thread of the balloon slip through his fingers. She stopped and watched him shuffle away.
            Mai wasn’t sure why, but she couldn’t help but notice he didn’t have his stool with him. Brushing it off, she hurried on to school.

            The following day turned out to be unusually muggy, leaving a thick fog obscuring distant views.
            Nervous about the past two days, Mai left early and took a roundabout way to school, being careful to avoid the intersection where she had encountered the strange old man twice before.
            The school day came and went uneventfully, the heavy fog persisting into the afternoon.
            Distracted by thoughts of an assignment, she headed straight for home.
            “Could I offer you a balloon?” came a voice from the fog.
            Mai let out a small scream and jumped back.
            It was the old man again, holding out a solitary balloon.
            “No!” she screamed. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
            “That is a shame,” he said.
            Once again, Mai watched as the silvery string slipped from his hands. She quickly lost sight of the balloon in the fog.
            When she looked back down he was gone.
            Unnerved, she ran home as fast as she could.
            Despite telling her initially she was overreacting, Mai was able to convince her older brother to walk with her to school before he left for work.
            This day was clear and bright, if not almost unseasonably warm.
            As they rounded the intersection, there was no sign of the old man.
            Instead, a woman who appeared in her thirties crouched in the spot where the old man had been. She had in her hands three balloons.
            As they approached, she realized that the woman was praying.
            “Is that your ‘old man’?” her brother chided.
            “No,” Mai said as she punched him in the arm. “Wait here a sec, kay?”
            “Look, I gotta be at work—” her brother started.
            “Thirty seconds,” she pleaded.
            “Fine, fine,” he relented.
            Mai walked up to the woman who seemed to not notice her.
            “Excuse me, miss . . .” Mai said
            “Oh I’m sorry,” said the woman as she stood. “Am I in your way?”
            “No,” said Mai, “I was just wondering . . .”
            For some reason, she suddenly felt foolish and compelled not to ask further. Shaking it off, Mai continued.
            “I was wondering what you were doing . . .” Mai said as the balloons waved in a gust of wind, “With those balloons. What are they for?”
            The woman smiled the saddest smile Mai had ever seen, then answered.
            “My grandfather used to sit on this corner and offer balloons to children as they came by. He never took any money, nor asked for any. He used to tell me that there was enough sadness in the world and a small thing like a balloon could go a long way to brighten someone’s day.”
            Feeling her fear wanting to swallow her, Mai had to work up the courage to ask the question that was suddenly screaming in her mind.
            “What,” Mai said, “What do you mean ‘used to’?”
            “Someone started spreading rumors that he was secretly up to no good and meant to harm children. Eventually, some parent decided to take things into their own hands. When he went to give out balloons one morning, they were here waiting for him.”
            The woman turned away and looked towards the sky.
            “It was a good thing for dental records,” the woman said, “Because even his own daughter, my mother, wasn’t able to identify the body. There was this old hand-made stool he used to carry around. They used it on him until only splinters were left. Even his old mutt that followed him around wasn’t spared from their wrath.”

            Mai felt herself grow weak as she dropped to her knees, tears already streaming down her face.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Something on your mind? Feel free to share.