The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979
Now, even in middle age, Tommy feels the sting of the news that was delivered twenty years earlier by a babbling stoner he hasn’t seen since. He stares up at the tall oak that grows in the big field behind the building that used to be Saint Greg’s. The naked branches stretch upward, terminating into bony fingers that claw at the stone sky as if trying to scratch through to the heavens.
Tommy decides the only thing that matters anymore is climbing to the top of the oak. He wonders if he’s suicidal, or if it’s the Scotch, or some gray area in between. Eventually, he decides it’s to honor Karen’s memory, and he jumps up and grabs onto the lowest hanging limb. It takes a lot of effort – a Davey Crocket at the Alamo kind of effort – but he manages to pull himself onto the branch.
The compulsion to keep climbing is overwhelming. After a while, he looks down and guesses he’s made it about fifteen feet up. He sees somebody driving toward the tree in a golf cart. The man is yelling something about city property, trespassing, and the fullest extent of the law. He sees the man doesn’t have a gun. It’s just a rent-a-cop. The hell with it, Tommy thinks, I’m gonna keep climbing. It’s maybe another forty feet to the top. He ascends to the next branch before he has to stop and catch his breath.
The security guard looks like a hornet trapped in a jar that was just shaken violently by a malicious child. He gestures wildly. He screams profanities. He jumps up to grab the low branch but comes up short. He’s in even worse shape than Tommy.
The security guard gets back in the golf cart and retreats to a dilapidated looking shed next to the building that used to be Saint Greg’s. Tommy’s arms feel rubbery. The physical exertion leaves him wheezing and light headed. When his vision clears a bit, he sees the golf cart charging back toward the tree. There is an extension ladder strapped to the roof.
“Dammit,” Tommy mutters as he wills himself up to the next branch. The security guard is raising the ladder now. It extends about twenty feet up the tree. The top rung of the ladder is only about a foot and a half below the branch where Tommy is perched.
Now the security guard is halfway up the ladder, but his comb-over has been badly compromised by the wind gusts. The disproportionately long hair that grows from the right side of his head has wrapped around his face like a blindfold. While the security guard wrestles with the seemingly possessed locks, Tommy tries to shake the lactic acid out of his arms.
The wind shifts again, and the security guard’s comb-over unfurls like a flag, restoring his vision. Tommy stretches to grab the next branch. He’s got both hands on it.
The security guard is grabbing at Tommy’s pant legs, but Tommy hooks his ankles over the branch, so he’s suspended upside down like a tree sloth. He sees the top of the security’s guard’s bald head. It’s the color of a boiled lobster. The guard’s outstretched hand strains to grab hold of Tommy’s flannel shirttail.
“You son of a bitch, you can’t hold on forever,” the guard says.
“You’re crazy, man. Don’t you have a bag of donuts to eat?”
“Oh, that’s original. You’re goin’ to jail, buddy.”
“I helped plant this tree. I’m not hurting it. I’m not hurting anyone,” Tommy says.
The guard looks up at Tommy and squints at him through thick glasses. “You’re Tommy Sweeney, aren’t you?”
“Eric? Eric Imarino from Saint Greg’s,” Tommy says. He hasn’t seen Eric since middle school, but he’s absolutely sure it’s his old nemesis.
A sharp crack reports that the load bearing branch has just failed. Tommy is accelerating toward the earth at thirty-two feet per second, per second. He reaches out reflexively and tries to grab something – anything at all. He gets a handful of the security guard’s majestically waving hair.
The security guard lets out a guttural scream as he is snatched from the ladder. He instinctively reaches out and bear hugs Tommy’s torso. They are entangled now, falling as one ponderous octogenarian, instead of two husky-sized middle-aged men. A formidable branch, about as thick as the barrel of a Louisville Slugger, is no match for the mass and momentum of the free-falling monstrosity. It is sheared off, leaving behind a splintery, bone white nub.
They impact the ground that has been hardened by two or three early frosts. Tommy hits first, acting like an airbag for Eric. Twenty seconds later Eric opens his eyes. He is lying next to Tommy. Eric wiggles his fingers and toes. Everything seems to work, so he gropes around for his glasses. One of the lenses has popped out, but the other is serviceable. Eric checks his cell phone, but its screen is badly cracked. It’s inoperable.
Eric crawls over to Tommy’s motionless body and tries to remember what they taught him at that first aid course he had to sit through to get this dead-end job. He checks for a pulse, but he can’t find one. He checks again, but he still can’t find it, and then he remembers the instructor said it’s better to do anything instead of nothing, so he starts chest compressions. He hopes everything will turn out like the video from the first aid class that showed some old guy keeling over in a shopping mall, immediately followed by a good Samaritan rolling up his sleeves and saving the day. But Eric is only about a dozen compressions into it, and he already feels winded.
Tommy is looking down at Eric’s bald spot that is still the color of a boiled lobster. At first, Tommy believes the Earth is sinking away from him, and then he thinks he’s the one who’s floating away from the Earth. It occurs to him the only important thing to know is that the space between him and terra firma is steadily increasing.
Tommy is as high as the oak is tall.
Now the town looks like toy building blocks.
Shapeshifting clouds morph into strange faces as he passes through them.
Now he is in the quiet part of the sky, crossing over from blue to black.
The Earth shrinks. Shades of green and brown diminish with distance. It is dominated by blue and shrouded in white wisps.