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If you’re expecting brightly colored floating bits of joy… think again…


The Balloons




Tom Hamilton


        Johnny was the one who told me that she was still alive. "But don't go over there." He cautioned, turning his back on me as he walked across the room. When he got to the window he told me that he thought they had all the women they needed. He had even seen two teenaged girls walking down the street unhindered.

        "There aren't too many women left." He said. "That's for sure. But there are even less men. Forget about Anneliese man- She's gone. When things settle down a little bit around here... well you'll have your pick."

        "You gotta be crazy." I told him. I would never or could never forget about Anneliese; Her blonde strands scattering across my memory like strips of sunny light streaming through the joined arms of the dead red trees which grew on the despondent landscape of my nightmares; Her face as fresh and clean as pure water coming back to me through a thicket of soot filled and muddy mind channels. I bluntly asked him to tell me where she was.

        He pleaded and spoke my name, lowering his arms in a gesture which represented calm. "Those women over there are not just as good as dead," He implored. "I think they are dead."

        "Don't say..." I began to shout at him before stopping myself in mid-sentence. He sighed and looked at the floor. "I'm sorry Johnny." I said much lower. "You're a good friend to me and it's good of you to tell me. But you know I'm going to have to go over there."

        He shook his head. "It's been four years a this shit. Wasn't it better when you thought that she was just dead or gone?" He paused but when I didn't answer he said, "I'm only against you seeing something that could make it even more terrible."

        I shook my head. "Nothing could be more terrible than this."

        He scoffed and looked out the window. "I doubt that." He said as I followed his gaze out to the mailbox. One of the balloons- a very small version- floated up to the mailbox. There it birthed a perfectly rectangular slab of tan meat onto the concrete. The patty was smoothly ejected somehow from its silvery surface. Only to land softly on the sidewalk where it sat like a piece of dung on what looked like a plain sheet of tin foil. 

        "Well," Johnny said. "Time for lunch. Better get it before the ants do."

        I contemplated this. "Do you think there are any ants left alive." I said. "Besides, how do you know what they're feedin' ya won't kill ya."

        Johnny shrugged. "It's either that or eat the leaves off the trees." He made a move for the front door. "You should try it." He said. "With a little water it's pretty swell."

        "Johnny?" I grabbed his arm. "Where is she?"

        I could see these printed lines on his face, as if there were black ink leaking from his brain and flooding into his blue eyes until the thought of where she was turned them a dark purple. For a moment I thought that he was going to tell me that I wasn't the only one who's life had been ruined by all this: That no one had been left untouched by the balloons: That he couldn't think of one person who hadn't lost everything. I thought that he was going to tell me that I was acting like a spoiled child. But instead he only shrugged and said,

        "The Municipal Pool."




        As I walked along the barren streets towards downtown, I did not see any girls or women as Johnny had described. I didn't see any men either or persons at all for that matter.   

        Although all of the shops were closed, they had not been boarded up nor had their outsides been desecrated. I guess the merchants hadn't had enough time to gate the doors and windows properly. Consequently, the stores looked as if all someone had to do was spin around the OPEN/CLOSED sign and they would be ready for business once again. Perfectly edible canned goods still lined the shelves inside, but these were known to be off limits.

        It was probably about a two mile walk down to Hill Street. Then twenty five blocks over to Kecksburg Lane and perhaps another half mile to where the Municipal Pool sat on the corner of Flatwoods and Walton.

        The balloons were everywhere and they patrolled the streets endlessly. Since they were in complete control of the city and had selected whomever they pleased to do God knows what with, those of us who were left were allowed to roam the thoroughfares freely, so long as we were on foot. Anyone bold enough to leap behind the wheel of a car or truck may as well have had the grim reaper riding in the passenger seat with them.

        No one knew where the Balloons came from or who's bidding it was that they had manifested onto the town. Some people said they were from Russia, Cuba or outer space but, to my knowledge, these tired cold war theories were never proven or even put to the test. I did not know of one person who had ever communicated with one of the orbs in any fashion. They came in a plethora of shapes and sizes and all the same drab iron gray color. You could not go thirty feet in any direction without seeing one. It was also not known as to why they were feeding what was left of the population. ( Most of the time what they were feeding the population was also a mystery. )

         Not really being able to identify them, everyone just started referring to them as the balloons. Which I think was mainly because of the way that they floated around or suspended; A slow oscillating drift which was similar to the flight of helium balloon's. ( Although our balloons could go up, down, sideways and so on and so forth. ) But I think that what they really were was some sort of pods. They reminded me of a documentary I had seen on TV several years earlier. It was a dramatization about a farmer who had spied several 'pods' as he called them, taking soil samples from his bean field somewhere in Iowa. I myself had once watched a small balloon absorb a rose into its metallic skin. Whether or not it was using this as a sample or for any sort of tests were unclear.

        They did not resemble any drawings or illustrations that I had ever seen of UFOs or flying saucers. Although, as objects, they would certainly have to be classified as unidentified. And, if they had not been identified by now, I didn't see how they ever would be. There were no little green men, grays, or humanoid figures of any type anywhere. At least not that I had ever seen or heard of. Actually, it was only an assumption that they had any connection with or to outer space at all. You could not hear any engines running when they moved nor did they give off any light in the extreme darkness of the neon deprived night. Again, the best way I can think of to describe them is just to say that they looked exactly like balloons.

       Two blocks from Hill Street I came along to the powder blue body of a dead man propped up against a fire hydrant. It was said that somehow the balloons could manipulate the life force of a human being, and since I never really understood or figured out what that meant, that's about as simple as I can put it.

        I can tell you this much; It was cleaner and quicker than a heart attack. People simply dropped dead at the will of the balloons. And for this reason, the gun metal grey anomalies  occupied the metropolitan area without a shot ever being fired.

        All law enforcement officials had been crossed out by the balloons. Although it would have been difficult to confirm whether or not they had been targeted specifically. Since you could use any occupation as an example; A doctor or a lawyer say, and you would be hard pressed to find any of these people alive. In other words, so many human beings were dead that it could have just been random. Although the lack of police presence was not a problem per se. Since anyone noticed causing even the slightest disturbance was summarily executed by the balloons. And, since you could not go outside ( Or in some instances even inside, ) without seeing one of the orbs, crime rates dropped to an all time low right along side the population.    

        As I turned onto Hill Street, on of the bigger balloons was floating down the street about three stories up. Another smaller one was following close behind. It was like a nightmarish farce of the Macy's day parade. On some of the larger balloons, long spindly sticks jutted out from their sides like the thin legs of arachnids. These legs appeared to push the balloons away from the buildings, thereby preventing them from scraping against the bricks or hard corners. Whether or not there were any beings inside the big balloons, or whether they were some type of creatures themselves, was also unclear.

        A horrid gray rain began to cascade down from the metallic clouds, loaning a sheen to the excessive number of balloons Which filled the shallow sky. The streets were slick, but there was no longer any rush hour or worry of automobile accidents to contend with. Wet garbage clogged the curbs and drains. A traffic light which was stuck on red, or rather, stuck on stop, blinked like a winking crimson eye squinting from the drizzle.

        As I came to Kecksburg Lane I picked up on a flash of motion and color on the other side of the intersection. In a never ending wall of blackish glass, which had once been the window of the Oldsmobile showroom, I saw the reflection of a disheveled and bedraggled girl. Before her actual figure came into view from behind the decaying frame of a furniture truck. She was wearing a long, furry brown coat over a stained and dingy party dress. She looked like she'd been living outside for weeks.

        When she saw me, she immediately began walking towards me, and that's when I noticed that there were three little balloons following behind here like puppy dogs on an invisible  leash.

        "Hey Sir!?" She said, hair in tatters, wild as an unkept field. "Hey Sir?! Do you have any food?" When she stopped, her balloons stopped. I shook my head no.

        She lowered the coat down off of her shoulders and began unbuttoning the dress. I raised my hand to object but this did not stop her. Soon she was showing me her red chest, which was  housed in a slash of black bra. "Now do you have any food?" She said, swaying seductively. I looked at her coldly and then glanced down at the ominous balloons. "OH don't mind them." She said. "They like to watch."

        I told her that, if I had any food, I would readily give it to her and ask nothing in return. "Besides." I wondered aloud. I couldn't understand why she needed food since the balloons were supplying it to everyone. ( Although their motive for this was murky at best).

        "Maybe I don't like the cuisine." She quipped, pulling the coat back up onto her shoulders and sticking her nose in the air. With that she walked away, the balloons bobbing behind her like a banner being pulled by a plane.

        As I negotiated the final blocks I felt like my stomach was full of salt water and the muscles in my legs began to harden and spasm. I hadn't been getting very much exercise lately; lying in bed under waves of blankets, watching the incessant shadows of circles on the wall. The scent of Anneliese's skin cream on the deserted sheets. The stolen specter of feminine powders and perfumes saturating the pillow cases. Sinking under the waterline into a paranoid sleep. Balloons in the room, bouncing off the ceiling, trying to escape as if they really were trapped or full of helium. But they would never just drift away in the sky... drift away in the sky.

        My knees were heated like half coconut shells baking on a tropical island and my buttocks felt equally as greasy as I came to my destination. The Municipal Pool came into view looking as ordinary as any YWCA. As I got closer the frame of a young man who was standing at the front door came into focus. He was clean cut, shaven, well nourished, privileged. He was holding what looked like a long stick in his hand and, as I got closer, I could see that it was a shotgun. He barley acknowledged me.

        "I'm looking for a woman." I queried. "I think you may have her inside there?"

        He looked me up and down, the shotgun pointed at the sky. "Yeah," He began. "We got lots a women in there. Ya got any money?"

        I looked down at the concrete and shook my head. "Let me ask you a question." I said pointedly. "What good does money do you or anybody else now?" Even as I said this, I realized that I still had a whole wallet full of twenties that I just could not bring myself to throw away.

        He whistled a sigh, his patience seemed to be evaporating. "Do you have any money or not?!"

        "YEAH.!" I growled. "I got money."

        "Go through there," He began a little nicer, like he just wanted to get rid of me and an argument would only prolong my standing there. "Talk to the guy behind the desk."

        I walked through the clear glass doors, then through a brief breezeway, before quickly locating the 'desk' which was really just a white card table. The fellow who was sitting behind it must have thought that he was some sort of art type, for he was wearing an impeccably shaved goatee and a tam. There was a metal strong box sitting in front of him. A row of plastic slats rose from inside it to support a bevy of assorted bills.

        "Hi." He said with surprising friendliness.

        I nodded.

        "Have you been here before?" He asked through the beard.  

        I shook my head no.

        "For five dollars admission; You can select any girl from the pool area for one on one time in a private enclave, one dollar per minute with a minimum of twenty minutes. Got it?"

        I indicated that I did before pulling the rumpled notes out of my disintegrating billfold. Past my permanently expired driver's license, credit cards, social security. I had hundreds of dollars in there. I hadn't spent a penny in over a year. I handed over a twenty and a rumpled Lincoln which, I guess, were not so worthless after all. He put it in the strong box. "Have a good time." He said.

        I had been swimming here on one occasion many years ago. But the pool area was now drastically different then it had been at that time. No one had bothered to mop in a while and, what looked like, black drag marks intersected on various points of the tile floor. All the deck chairs and lawn furniture had been removed save for one crooked umbrella shading a plain grey folding chair. Where a second man, also wielding a shotgun, sat grimly. The setting sun, its light the hue of a black rose, tried to strain past some sinking clouds to peer through the high rectangular windows. 

        I could not imagine why these men figured that they needed shotguns? Weapons certainly were not required to control the remaining population. The balloons had already established that dominance without so much as a shot ever being fired. Or, if these men were against the balloons, which it was obvious from their actions that they were not, their guns would have been totally useless against such a powerful and enigmatic force as the orbs anyway.   

        One of the biggest balloons I had ever seen was either attached to or scraping against the high ceiling. It was rotating slowly, like the hand which measures seconds on a clock. Dozens of spindly legs sprouted out from it at various angles and degrees like the limbs of some mystery arachnid. These apparatuses curved and dropped down from the body like long steam hoses. There, they were somehow fashioned to the backs of scores of women. The females milled through the waist deep septic water. The pool had been partially drained and what was left of the aqua was browned and rancid. Most of them were stripped naked with their pale breasts sagging. Their eyes were the eyes of taxidermy animals, as if their gaze had been laminated, covered over by a coat of plastic. They shuffled around slowly in an uninspired circle, goaded along by the tentacles of the pod, mechanical as carousel ponies.         

        Mirroring their bitter sleepwalk I shuffled to the edge of the pool and stared in at them in disbelief. Of all the many unfortunate ladies sifting through this cesspool broth, I did not see Anneliese anywhere among them.

        "See anything ya like?"

        The man with the shotgun had gotten up from the plain grey folding chair to stand with me by the side of the pool. He was very muscular and his head looked like a concrete block with black sideburns. The rifle was down at his side like he was about to run through a 'taps' routine. I resisted an overpowering impulse to try and drive my fist through his nose. Because I knew that if I did that, I would either be killed, which I didn't really have any aversion to, or that I would never see Anneliese again, which I could not bear the thought of.

        "Um," I tried to play ball. "I have a favorite you see, a blonde girl about five foot five, five foot six she..."

        "Look friend," He interrupted me. "They all look the same to me."

        Hurt and confused, I babbled on. "Yeah well, is this everyone? I mean, are there more? Are they all here?"

        His brow zigzagged. He was starting to get annoyed with my questions. "A few of the girls are tied up right now," He gestured with his hand towards nowhere. "But you can't stay in here. Why don't you just pick another one out for today?"

        My eyebrows arched. I could feel the sadness collapsing in my mind like a flash flood sweeping towards a rickety dam. Near tears, I shook my head. "No," I pleaded. "I really can't see anyone else but her."

        Noticing the hint of spray in my eyes must have alerted him to my true mission. For he raised the rifle to his chest like a karate pole and pushed it towards me. "Move out asshole!" He said meanly.

        I put up my hands. Not really resisting, yet not really retreating. "I said MOVE OUT!" He looked like he was about to swing the butt at my jaw until a new man stopped him by putting his hand on the barrel.

        "It's o.k. Eric," The new man said. "Go have a smoke, I'll sort this out." Eric smiled at the second man. Gave me a final dire stare then walked out of the pool area.

        The second man was very young and unusually handsome. He was tall with blonde streaks through his long rocker's hairdo and tan like a surfer dude. Though I doubt that he or anyone else had been riding the waves lately.

        "What do you want?" He said harshly, but his eyes were kinder.

        "I want a girl," I said. "What else?"

        "Cut the crap." He barked back. "I should have let Eric waste you. Why don't you get the hell out of here?"

        "I paid my money." I claimed. "Just like everybody else."

        "Look man," His voice dropped down and lost its curtness. "I'm just trying to tell you for your own good. If you've got an old lady or a daughter or somethin' in here... just let it go man. This place is a bad scene."

        "Thanks for the advice." I quipped rudely. "But if it's such a bad scene what are all you assholes doin' in here? I mean how the hell can you be sucking the ass a these monsters just for clean clothes and a haircut?"

        He bit his lip and shook his head. "O.K. asshole," He began. 'You think you know about everything there is to know huh? Why don't you come with me?" He walked across the browned tiles and I followed. He ushered me into a side room lounge where a drab and faded plaid couch was flanked by two loud orange chairs. "Sit right here." He said. "The rest of the girls will be rinsing off any time now." With that he ducked out of the lounge. As I sat down on the couch, a musty moth born stink  bubbled out from the dusty cushions. As if the furniture had been sitting in an abandoned lot or a junk covered field. When I was sure he was gone, I put my face in my hands and began to weep.

        After about a minute of miserable heaving I un-tucked my T-shirt and dried my eyes with it. After that I just stared blankly at the block wall until the blonde fellow came back in. His kinder side had won out. "Look," He began. "Why don't you just go on home man? Even if you have someone here... I can promise you that they're no longer anyone you want to see."

        I looked at him frankly, my lips trembling. But before I could even say anything yet another unseen voice from behind the door said, "What are you a fuckin' guidance councilor? If the asshole wants to see some bitch let him see here." It was the horridly scratchy voice of a wretchedly thin and wrinkled woman. Her nose hooked through the doorway, curious and vicious like some predator bird. She stood in the open threshold with her hands on her hips and tapped her foot at the young man like an impatient girlfriend trying to extract a boozing fiancee from a bar. The blonde boy looked at me almost sadly and said, "All the girls are back now, if you'd like to go have a look? If you don't see your favorite in there now, I don't know what to tell you." Acting like he'd washed his hands of the situation the aryan haired boy walked out. I followed him and the evil woman out into the pool area. Somewhere outside, the sound of a train snaked through the comatose city and I couldn't imagine who might be driving it or why?

        But this time, and almost as soon as I walked through the door, I could see Anneliese's luminous and original blonde hair sticking out among the crowd like a golden coin in a pile of grimy pennies.

        "That one," I said, finally as cold as them. "The blonde."

        Neither of my hosts answered, but almost as soon as the words left my mouth, the spindly silver appendage pulled Anneliese's naked body from the putrid water. Her hairy legs, which had not been shaved in weeks, shined and dripped the brownish liquid. Her head lolled groggily and rolled on her shoulders to one side. Just from that fleeting glance it looked as if she'd gained a little weight. Then she was out of view, pulled by the pod's tentacle over a block wall and into a separate room. Evidently, the top rows of the blocks had been removed to accommodate the awe inspiring pod.

        "Go through there." The horrid woman said. I quickly obliged, almost slipping on the slimy tiles. As I hurried past the pool a second girl was troweled out. Her dark skin looking almost purple in the dusky light which continued, duller now, to streak through the high windows. Thick varicose veins were noticeable on her legs as she also went over the wall.

        The door to this new room had been removed and upon entering I spied a sentry; An aging man with graying sideburns sitting on a bar stool around a high table. Blurry tattoos of a long defeated and disbanded navy were sketched onto his forearms. The shotgun was lying across that stand next to a half empty pint of Jim Beam. Thick cigar smoke was slowly escaping from the doorway. He looked at me without much interest, exhaled a smoky mouthful of his pungent cuban, nodded and said,

        "Fourth stall."

        I looked to my right down a long hallway. Where freckles of light sprinkled onto the partially busted tiles. Evidently this was where the shower or changing room had once been located. As I got to the first stall, I could now see that a spotted and stained mattress had been dumped over the shower's drain. A naked girl was laying on top of it, her eyes looked empty, as if she had a bullet lodged in her brain. A second girl, who was fully clothed in a long over coat, lay on the mattress with her, hugging her, tears streaming from both their eyes. She looked enough like the naked girl to be her sister. I paused momentarily, lifting my hand as if to help them or say something. But before I could, I felt the butt of the rifle in the small of my back. It was the grizzled guard ushering me along. "Stall four." He said, his casual tone and countenance replaced by a meaner demeanor.

        The second stall was empty, with only a blackened mattress laying sideways under a torn shower curtain.

        The third stall had no shower curtain and I could see the wide back of a rotund man. Thick doodles of dark hair were scribbled all over his shoulder blades. He was bent over the woman from the pool, the one with the varicose veins. He looked up as I past, a beard which had similar circular whiskers as the ones growing from his back covered his puffy face. Spit flew from his mouth as he addressed me.

        "She used to be a stuck up bitch." He rationalized. "I used to see her every day at First National... She wouldn't even say hi to me." I said nothing as I walked past. A dried condom was splotched onto the wall. 

        Anneliese was in the fourth stall, laying half in and half out of the shower. They must have ran out of mattresses, since her legs were curled under her limp body and her blonde hair lolled wet against the raised step at the entrance to the stall. I slowly got around behind her and cradled her head in my lap. The strands of her locks felt waxy or coated over, like sludge or seaweed. Her mindless eyes had thick purple crescents  underneath them and her lips were slit with miniscule cuts and small pin head sized cold sores. She was still soaked and the septic water from the pool seeped onto my pants and shirt. These girls and woman had been conditioned somehow and she could not talk. A sizzle of slobber ran from the slack corner of her mouth.

        I closed my eyes and tried to take in her scent. But I could not overcome the fecal reek of the Municipal Pool. A white fire like loud static spread across my brain like windy flames across dry grass. My mind nearly exploded from the sadness and I prayed that I would go mad so I could abandon all rational thought. In my grief my eyes ran down over Anneliese's violated body. That's when I noticed just a hint of mint green branching out from underneath her arm pits. Her nipples were... crooked almost, one higher than the other, like a shirt which had been put on inside out. Her fingers were thicker, not as dainty as I remembered. The toes on her feet were more rectangular, her biceps more muscular. Her legs were obviously shorter then I recalled and that's when I realized; It was Anneliese's head and face but it was not her body.

        "Ohhh Ohhh," I said and stared high up at the block walls, salty tears stunning my lips. I reached into the side pocket of my pants and pulled out the knife. The Confederate Generals stared at me from its commemorative handle. Without thinking another thought I plunged the blade into the chest of whoever's body that it was. Anneliese's face groaned weakly and, for a diced instant, I thought that I could see a gleam. A glimpse of some recognition either of or by her: The real Anneliese. Then the eyes waxed over again and half closed while all the air escaped through the hole I had made in her transplanted chest. Like all of the air scuttling out from the inside of a balloon.