Craig whistled cheerfully as he untied the next to last cable. It was a fine spring morning, clear and cool, with a promise of genuine warmth later in the day.
He paused, looking up from his task. Some noise over the background carnival sounds had caught his attention. He looked around. Nothing appeared amiss. A woman’s voice lifted over the background hum, calling, “Kenny! Bobby!” Maybe that’s what he’d heard; a mother looking for her kids, presumably. Not here; he was alone on the field.
He checked the balloon. The basket was still brushing the grass, even with all but one of the grounding cables freed. He nodded in satisfaction — he had tied enough sand bags to the ballast rope to assure its stability — and let his gaze roam up over the multi-colored balloon (which his sister had dubbed “Rainbow”) itself. It stood full and round, straining gently to be off.
In a moment, he promised it as he strode to the last tie-down. Later he would be taking paying customers up, but this ride was just for him. A short ride, just enough to check everything, basically up a hundred feet or so, then spill air and use the guidance motor to get back to the field. Not long enough to his taste. Ah, well. It was the customers who paid for his hobby.
As he stood up from releasing the last cable, three things happened at once: two small heads popped up from inside the basket, a small hand grabbed the loose end of the ballast rope, and a woman screamed right behind him.
“Kenny! Bobby! Come here right now!” Her voice was directed at the basket.
The cluster of sandbags dropped as the ballast rope came untied. Freed from earth, Rainbow lunged up toward its proper domain. Craig grabbed the tie-down cable as it drifted past his ear and managed to hang on for a whole ten seconds as he was lifted off the ground.
“Damn!” he exclaimed as the damp cable slipped free from his hands.
The woman’s screams were now continuous and wordless.
Craig picked himself up and began to run after the balloon. He triggered his mobile headset and called his sister in the truck. “Follow the balloon,” he panted. “There’re kids in it!”
“What?” came back in astonished tones, but he heard the engine start.
Rainbow drifted over the carnival, dangling its ropes just over the heads of the crowd. The kids hadn’t released any more ballast, then. Craig followed, eyes fixed on the balloon.
He caromed off something yielding. It screeched as it fell away. Craig shouted “Sorry!” over his shoulder, just in time to encounter another carnival-goer. They both went down, Craig scrambling the whole time to regain his feet and continue the chase.
Some sort of structure appeared in his peripheral vision. He tried to dodge, but it was too late; he crashed through the flimsy back wall of a game booth and he and the barker burst out over the counter in a shower of prizes and pieces of the wall. Craig staggered to his feet, looking upward for the balloon as erstwhile gamesters began grabbing prizes.
Oh, no! It was drifting toward the rides. If one of the dangling cables caught on the Ferris wheel or, worse, the Loop-de-Loop …
He ran, losing awareness of his surroundings, only vaguely hearing shouts and yells, only a sort of automatic pilot keeping him from knocking down the crowd like so many human bowling pins.
Another structure loomed in his sight just before he hit it. A concession stand. He missed the popcorn popper itself, fortunately, but ended up rolling through a storm of crunchy, buttery morsels. He picked himself up amidst the angry shouts of the proprietor and the delighted cries of popcorn lovers, located the balloon, and resumed the case, leaving a trail of crushed popcorn as bits fell from his clothing.
“Out of the way!” he hollered, crashing through a line of people. More screams and shouts followed, and one of the fallen managed to flip his soda into the air so it landed solidly on Craig’s head.
Wet, sticky, covered with popcorn and dirt, Craig paused again, searching the sky for the balloon. A handful of small objects in midair were rapidly becoming larger as they fell: sandbags. One of the kids had had the presence of mind to release more ballast. He followed their line of flight upward. Rainbow was now at least fifteen feet higher in the air, and drifting over the town. Out of danger from the rides, yes, but Rainbow would be that much harder to catch now.
He forced his way through the crowd at the gate, shouting, “Let me through! I’ve got to follow that balloon!” (Occasionally, he even shouted, “I’m chasing Rainbow,” which garnered some very strange looks.) People either shoved back, knocking him into other customers, or shoved other attendees trying to avoid this sticky madman, which caused even more chaos.
Outside, the streets and sidewalks were even more crowded: cars trying to park, security guards trying to minimize confusion, children running, everybody trying to get into the carnival. It took an eternal ten minutes to extricate himself from the dense crowd. He located Rainbow, drifting majestically over downtown, and resumed running.
Free of the carnival didn’t mean free of crowds; there were plenty of people out on the sidewalks this fine spring day. Craig barreled through a cluster of women, who screeched and snatched their babies out of his path; a baby carriage rolled toward the street with the infant’s mother screaming after it. He bounced off a mail carrier extracting letters from a drop box, leaving a snow-field of envelopes behind.
A grocer observed his progress through the eddies and waves of the crowd and snatched up a baseball bat to defend his property. Craig dodged left, then right, left again, then ducked right as the bat swooshed over his head. The fruit display was the victim this time: Craig caromed off a set of boxes, which flew into the air, showering the grocer and the passersby with apples and oranges.
Craig focused on Rainbow, now dawdling by the courthouse dome, and continued the chase. He wasn’t aware of the glaziers until the big white “X” of tape materialized in front of him; he tried to stop, skidding, but his momentum took him right through the window pane. He was left draped with tape and shards of glass while the two men shouted angrily. He pointed to the balloon up ahead, gabbled something incoherent and ran, panting desperately.
As he stumbled around the corner onto the street that let up to the courthouse, a familiar pickup rattled up beside him. He grabbed the mirror as his sister slowed, stepped up onto the running board, and breathlessly waved her on. The old truck groaned all the way up the hill and died with a dramatic cough of smoke just as they reached the roundabout in front of the courthouse. There, in the center of the roundabout, stood a statue of the Colonel, the town’s founder, one hand raised triumphantly. And there, miraculously, his stone fist had snagged one of the balloon’s tie-down cables, so that Rainbow floated serenely in mid-air above the Colonel while sirens began to scream their way up the hill.
© 2011 BJ Hill