Reg purchased a red balloon. The balloon reminded him of a film they used to show in school as it tugged toward the acoustic tile. The interior of the greeting card store in the strip near his apartment complex smelled of cinnamon, nutmeg, roses; the radio played The Beatles, "Good Day Sunshine." Outside a wind scattered the last of the autumn leaves across the parking lot. Reg wrapped the silver length of ribbon around his wrist three times. He picked out a balloon weight -- a yellow plastic disc decorated with a smiley blob. He wanted the balloon to float, not to sink or jump skyward. He wanted the silver ribbon to carry the ring he bought from his hand to his girlfriend's hand without her knowing. Reg knew he couldn't fool Meg.
Reg would have tested the ring in the store, but he didn't want to involve the woman at the cash register. "Someone is going to get a big balloon!" The strands of her brittle blond hair and smile remained fixed. Her smile reminded him of the saying a frown is a smile upside down, only in reverse; a smile is a frown upside down.
In the parking lot, under the sheets of thin rain, Reg took the ring case out of his pocket. A week ago, he spent two months of his salary as specified by the guide he'd read online. He'd been careful about his contact with Meg since then because she would know he was going to do something. She would make up her mind on her own. He looped the silver ribbon through the ring five times, each time tying a knot. Meg would have a hell of a time getting it off, but he couldn't risk the ring's loss. If she said no, he could return the ring at least. At a certain value, money was no longer money but a fragment of life: two months. Two months was nothing if Meg stayed with him for the length of a marriage. His parents had been married for forty years. Even divorced couples stayed married for years. He tied the weight. The balloon carried the whole load and then slowly drifted to the ground. The smiley-face weight landed in a puddle. The reflection of the streetlights scattered. The light sensitive streetlights were on although it was the middle of the day.
Raindrops covered the surface in a film of translucent bumps. Reg stuffed the balloon in the back seat. He wiped the water off with the sleeve of his jacket. The damp balloon squawked.
Reg called Meg from the intersection at the bottom of her hill. The phone rang and rang then went to the answering machine. She didn’t answer although he was already five minutes past the time he told her he would arrive.
For a moment Reg imagined Meg out of the house with someone else. Sometimes she talked on the phone with old boyfriends while Reg drove to the movies. "It's nothing," she said. But with each chortle, he wondered if he was funny enough for her. He had checked out a book of jokes from the library, but they were just jokes with punch lines. Only someone who was already funny could use the book. It didn't teach him how to be funny. Reg had thought about pretending to talk to one of his old girlfriends, but there weren't any. He could attempt to pretend, but if he could succeed at pretending to talk to an imaginary old girlfriend, he could probably be funny. Reg knew he couldn't fool Meg, so he didn't try. His relationship with her wasn't a possession like a jacket. If he lost a jacket, he could always get a new one.
He liked spending time with her just to have her presence near him. The idea of pretty before to him seemed tangential, an unimportant attribute like the color of a car or the species of a tree. A girl was a pretty girl just as a tree was a Douglas Fir. With Meg, however, he enjoyed being in her sphere of pretty. She hummed a delicate melody as she busily fussed with some intricate cosmetic device or thumbed text messages on her phone. Meg always smelled faintly of some herbal compound. Her skin color changed subtly in the light. It changed from a milky glow in the fading light of the afternoon to a faded brown under the movie theater lobby halogen lights. And once he had her attention, she was with him. She was always late, but once she was with him, she always late while being with him. They would miss things that she was supposed to do because she was late because she was spending time with him.
The wind had died down some. The power had been knocked out at an intersection. A policewoman in an orange slicker stood in the intersection flagging cars.
Reg called again. He listened to Meg's chirpy message. "Meg can't talk right now. Talk to you later." She never talked this way to friends, but with the people she worked with at the bank, with store cashiers, and the people at the coffee counter she assumed a kind of sunny ditzy spin in her voice. "I'm almost there. Look forward to seeing you," Reg said. He almost added, "If you could come out when I pull up..." but didn't. He arrived at the house, and parked. The neighborhood she lived in was well lit, but silent except for the sound of water dripping from the gutter and the wincingly pathetic mutter of the pit bull next door. He imagined that the pit bull was most likely housed in a leaking doghouse. Steam lifted from the roof pipes jutting from the roofs down the block. Orange light lit living rooms with the curtains open to the street. He couldn't see anyone sitting in the La-z-boys or couches. Reg called the phone again. He would rather not knock and risk getting embroiled in the ongoing discussion Meg's father had going with Reg about four-wheel drive. Her father was deliberating on purchasing a new car. "Meg can't talk right now. Talk to you later."
He knocked. The hardwood door had been stained a deep rust color the inclement weather wore into the wood. He waited on the stoop.
Meg's father opened the door. "She's gone," he said.
Reg didn’t realize he expected her to be gone.
"Didn't she call you?"
"No," he said. She didn't. He turned to go back to his car. He could see the balloon in the back seat. The wind had picked up again. The rain went kind of sideways.
"Kidding," Meg's father said. "Joking. You are ready to just leave, just like that. Come on. Have a cup of coffee. She's still putting her face on."
"Oh," Reg said. He sat down and drank coffee. Meg's father had moved on from his month's long discussion of four-wheel drive to the topic of anti-locking breaks. He drew a diagram on the back of an envelope at the kitchen table. Reg drank his coffee and muttered. "I had never thought of that," or "Wow."
Meg finally appeared talking on her phone. She said, "We'll be late." Meg wore a heavy coat. They walked outside. The inert branches dripped rivulets of rainwater. The still puddles reflected the roiling clouds. The pit bull, a tire perpetually losing air, hadn't stopped its cry.
"Hey," Reg said. "I got you a present."
He opened the back door and grabbed the balloon. He didn't want to look at her because then she might know more than he wanted her to know. Meg said something into her phone and then put into her pocket. Reg threw the balloon to Meg. It floated, and began to drift to the ground with the weight, and then the yellow smiley face blob came undone. “It’ll get away,” she said.
She reached for the ribbon. "Oh," she said and scuttled forward and fell in into the flowerbed. A streak of mud and clumps of beauty bark coated her leg. Reg didn't know what to do, to help her, to see if she was okay, or grab the balloon. He felt as good as if he had knocked her over. He helped her to her feet. The odor of a precisely calibrated perfume emanated from the bundle of her jacket and sweater.
The red balloon flitted over the lawn. The wind skitted the balloon across the roof tile and to the margin of the lower layer of clouds. Reg tore down the street, kicking his Keds into puddles. Two months salary was quickly a receding speck.
Meg stood in the driveway removing bits of debris from her pant leg.
"We need to get that balloon," he said.
"Who knows where those things go?" Meg said.
Reg got into the car. Meg climbed in beside him. He started to drive. He could still see the balloon. It was a bright red dot against the blush-grey sky. He imagined that it would quickly come down with the weight of the ring in it. He would have to buy her a new ring, if that was the case. Or maybe it was an omen?
"Why did you get a balloon?" Meg said. "It isn't my birthday."
"I need that one," Reg said.
"It's okay. I like flowers more than balloons anyway."
"I needed that balloon."
"What special about that balloon?" she said.
Reg drove as quickly as he could. The balloon traveled in a straight line. Reg on the other hand had to drive through the streets winding streets, avoiding cul-de-sacs and intersections if he knew about them. The wind had knocked out the lights in some of the blocks.
"What would you get me that was special on a day that isn't my birthday."
"I don't like to lose balloons," Reg said.
"Did the it have a note on it?" Meg said.
“Do you see it?” he said.
“No,” she said. Reg stopped and looked in its direction. “I’m sure it is going right into the clouds,” she said. "It's gone. Nobody ever gets them back. What did the note say?"
"It was just a balloon," he said.
Reg spotted it then, a distant red smudge. "There it is." It wasn’t going any higher. But there were other things in the sky there as well. There was another balloon.
"Do you see that other balloon?" Reg said.
"What are the chances?" Meg said. "Do you think it has a note on it, too?"
As they drove the wind led them toward the airport. Reg drove as quickly as he could within the confines of the posted speed limits. He gripped the steering wheel at the intersection where the police officer flagged people through. Reg was not one to pass cars. On the freeway, he passed cars.
“It is amazing,” Meg said. “I think you are catching up to it, or them. There is another one. It must be like a pressure zone or something. Or this is where they all go, all of the lost balloons. It's like that place in the ocean where all of the plastic bottles go to collect in a gigantic floating reef of garbage. But this in the sky.”
Reg could see the three balloons now banking in front of a column of grey and white clouds. The region around the airport was filled with no development zones due to the noise of the planes. The empty lots had slowly filled in as the planes became quieter, but for miles south of the flight path there were just stands of trees, crumbling parking lots, a vast fenced in region with trails, blackberries, a swamp, and a mucky golf course. Planes passed through the bank of clouds.
More balloons floated in the sky. They floated like a flock of multi-colored fat birds. They gathered in a mass in a pocket of air at the edge of the flight path.
“Do you see that?” Meg said. He drove down an access road and across a highway.
The balloons began to sink into the swampy forest beyond a chain link fence. Brambles grew on the other side of the ditch. Cattails and trash filled the culvert. When they arrived at another access road, the balloons had started to rain into the forest.
They parked at a bike trail. It was dusk now. There was just a truck in the parking lot. The forest was in motion. Branches fell from a few trees. Leaves swirled across the asphalt. The entire forest sounded like cracking wood. A mountain bike with a light on the handlebars driven by a guy wearing a helmet and rain gear came out of the forest. Although the guy was short, he was large, and had thick ruddy cheeks. He tipped off his bike helmet revealing a single cowlick of nearly whitish blond hair. He was nearly bald. The man had the head from the baby on the label for baby food. He smiled at them, and stowed his bike into his truck.
“The balloon is in there somewhere,” Meg said.
Reg nearly ran into the forest. Meg remained in her seat. “It’s almost dark,’ she said. "We missed our movie. I can't go anywhere with dirt on me."
The man baked his truck out and gave a jocular wave of his arm out of his open window. The headlights glanced through the jumble of branches and leaves as the truck left. Reg saw a balloon in the dark forest.
"What did the note say?" she said.
There wasn't a note, Reg said. He got out of the car. He took several steps into the forest. He could see then in the trees, in the fading daylight, that there were hundreds of balloons in the forest draped from the boughs. They were deflated, punctured, hanging like the husks of rotting fruit.
Matt Briggs is a writer living near Seattle and the author of eight books including The Remains of River Names and Shoot the Buffalo. Recent stories have appeared in The Chicago Review, Word Riot, BULL, and Monkey Bicycle.