The Girl with the Pink Balloon
On the first Saturday of his unemployment, Mark left his apartment and took his usual early morning walk. Four blocks away, he stopped with his hand on the open door of the coffee shop and reconsidered his routine. He stood there for a while, people giving him strange looks as they pushed on by. Thoughts danced and whirled and died in his brain, and after a while, he moved on.
There was nothing for him back at home, so he kept walking. The early fall weather was pleasant and cool. He walked by shuttered banks and empty restaurants, passed darkened stores that sold clothes and toys and shoes, and when he came to a playground, he stopped.
He leaned against the chest-high fence and watched as the dim light and breeze rippled shadows across the abandoned bars and swings and slides. The emptiness felt like a broken promise, a bruise on the heart that he knew he deserved. Mark smiled and lifted the latch on the gate, careful to close it behind him. He sat on the far bench and watched as dry leaves spun through the open spaces. And because he had nowhere to go, he stayed there.
As the morning trickled onwards, the playground filled before him. Mothers and fathers came in with strollers in front and bundled kids in tow. Children ran and played, filling the air with shouts and screams, laughter and cries. A few parents pointed fingers and directed whispers his way, and those who did not still gave him a wide berth. This was all fine. The trees were lightly dressed in red and brown, with small birds hopping from branch to branch. The sun ascended higher into the sky; people came and people left. He felt light, untethered, a feather in the wind. Mark leaned back, closed his eyes, and drifted away.
His return was sudden and unpleasant. A small hand was shaking his knee insistently.
Mark's head swung from side to side, and he fought queasiness as he slowly opened his eyes. He was still in the playground; by the shift in the shadows, some time had passed. A little girl stood before him, looking up. She held a large pink balloon, fingers pressing dimples into its surface. "I said hi, Daddy," she said. Her face was tight; a small wrinkle creased her forehead.
A moment of vertigo, a touch of nausea in the brain. Dark hair, dark eyes, that frown on her face. . . “Claire?” He reached out his hand, the start of a smile on his face.
“I'm not Claire, I'm Sylvia. And you're my new Daddy.”
Mark pressed his lips together as reality flooded back. It had been three and a half years. Claire was eight now, this girl no more than four or five. And Claire lived very far away. "I'm not your dad," he said, voice flat. He craned his neck and looked for the girl's real father, dropping an arm down onto the bench to steady himself.
Sylvia wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and for a moment, the pink balloon covered her entire face. Mark caught himself before he could stop her. The girl's tattered jacket was far too small for her, and she wore thin pants that left her legs exposed. “You weren't yesterday. I didn't have a Daddy yesterday. But I made a wish, see?" She held out her balloon, squeezing it in the middle so that it puffed up at the top and the bottom, looking like an animal trying to wriggle free. Confused, Mark reached out to take it, only to have the girl snatch the balloon back, clutching it as if it was her only friend. "You don't have any kids, right?" she asked.
"I. . ." Mark paused, then picked the most honest answer. "I don't."
"See? My wish worked. You can be my Daddy." She stuck out her hand. "I want to go home now."
Talking to small children was like riding a bike; you could never forget how. "How can I take you home? I don't know where you live. And what would your mom think?"
Sylvia shrugged. "She doesn't care. You talk to me more than she does. All she does is talk to her boyfriends on her phone. And yell." She pointed across the playground. Mark followed her finger and saw a young woman in her mid-twenties leaning against the chain-link fence. She wore a tight white blouse and jeans. Unlike the other parents waiting there, she held a cell phone to her ear. Her other hand rubbed her forehead, back and forth and back again, and by her expression, she was lost somewhere very far away.
"Besides, part of my wish is that she's not my mommy anymore,” Sylvia said. “Are you married?”
The answer came quick this time. "Nope," he replied, and was relieved to find that, unlike the previous question, this one did not hurt.
"That's okay. Before I didn't have a Daddy, now I don't have a Mommy. Come on, let's go."
"Look, I'm sure that your mom cares about you. And even if something's wrong, can't you use your magic balloon to fix things?"
"It can't do that. It can't make all wishes come true. Just one for each person, and just some of them. That's the rules."
Mark laughed despite himself. He stood up, and for the first time since waking, he noticed that the playground was full of shouts and happy cries, children running and sliding and swinging. He raised his arms and stretched. "Well, let's go check with your mom - your old mom - and if she says it's okay, we can go home. Okay?"
Sylvia said nothing. Then she nodded, slowly, as if she had turned to stone. Even though he knew better, Mark reached out, and the little girl took his hand without hesitation. When her fingers squirmed to find a grip he smiled, remembering the way another small hand had once moved against
But that was all gone, he remembered. His smile faded. All gone, and by his own choice.
They walked together across the playground in a small bubble of silence. Mark took small, slow steps, and his stomach cramped when he realized why. He stole a glance at Sylvia, and was startled to see a shine in the corner of her eye. He thought desperately, trying to remember something he had once told Claire. . .
"Why was six afraid of seven?" Mark asked suddenly.
Sylvia blinked. "What?"
"It's a joke. Why was six afraid of seven?"
She thought for a moment. "I don't know, why?"
"Because seven ate nine!"
Sylvia frowned. "I know seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-thirteen-fourteen. . ."
"No, it's a joke. Seven ate nine. You know, like how people eat spaghetti or Cheerios."
"Like. . ." Sylvia screwed up her face, thinking. "Oh, I get it! That's funny!" She laughed, once and then twice, and in that instant Mark knew his life, each past mistake a demon with sharp teeth, each new day a fresh wound that would never heal. He turned away and let go of her hand. They had reached Sylvia's mother.
"Excuse me? Ma'am?"
The woman glanced up at him, then at the little girl, then back. She raised one finger, continuing to listen intently into her phone, and now Mark could see that the mother's eyes were puffy and red rimmed; in them he saw – recognized - withdrawal and a kind of desperate refusal.
He came to a decision.
“Hey,” Mark whispered. Sylvia looked at him. “One wish, right?”
Sylvia nodded and held up the pink balloon. He took it from her and felt his fingers sink into the thin latex. The balloon's air was leaking out; in another day or two, it would be nothing but a shriveled skin. He hesitated for a moment. There was a sudden light in Sylvia's face. He closed his eyes, then looked at her and forced a smile. I'm sorry, but this can't be for you.
Mark rubbed his right palm over the balloon, and made his wish.
This was the first story I wrote after a long hiatus, and the first one I wrote after my daughter was born. It may be lacking in subtlety and missing a certain amount of grace - but it feels honest enough, and I like it for that!