If our home is the wicker basket, then Iggy, Sonja, and I are the three balloons keeping this makeshift dwelling airborne. The fourth was Auntie Bern, but she popped. Now her corner sags, and we three puff our chests up to compensate. Her corner is where her brother Marlon likes to crouch. Marlon is ballast. Where are we now, girls? Oh, right. Those are the Laguna Mountains. Iggs preferred the slow flat patchwork collage, keeps telling Marlon she wants to go back. I hope she isn’t next.
It’s cold and the air is thin. With only three of us it’s difficult enough to maintain altitude—Auntie Bern was cornerstone to our shaky stasis. Corner blue. You see, Marlon likes to untie us from time to time and inhale our oxygen bounties. He likes to think he doesn’t like to do it. Were we to finally crash, for example, he might say Oh, girls! How could this happen? as we went into our final spiral.
“It’s not right,” Auntie Bern used to say. “Your girls are too clever, Marlon.” “Oh, so it’s all my fault again, is that it?” “Marlon—” “—dad—” “—no, no. Bernie is just like her sister Anna, isn’t she. It’s fine. I’ll shut up.” Auntie Bern never let him get away with it, insisted that sucking air out of balloons is unnatural. So one morning her brother removed a safety pin from behind his ear and did a magic trick. The bluebird flew away.
It’s an odd sensation, to have someone suck the air out of you but not all of it. Iggy doesn’t fight it, unless Marlon draws too much. He did it over Colorado, just after we cleared a range of jagged snowcaps, and Iggy went into a panicked sobbing rage, a yellow inflatable blubbering about, halfway deflated. Sonja shows no signs of deprivation, takes no part in it. Marlon draws most from her—her passivity enrages him. “Oh, so I’m getting the treatment again? You see, girls, Sonja never wanted to go. Sonja blames daddy for the winds and the weather and the movement of the tides.” Sonja remains deadpan, a red latex tube quietly bobbing and weaving in the tropospheric winds. When he does it to me I get a little lightheaded, confused, as if I never quite know if the air is truly gone. Am I in trouble, or am I not? Did I bring this on myself?
It’s an odd sensation, to have someone suck the air out of you but not all of it.
Sonja tells me my color is green.
Sometimes a few huffs are all Marlon needs—he sees our silent depletion and becomes cheerful. He chooses to ignore our mutual destruction until it’s too late. “Forgive me,” he’ll say. “I didn’t mean it—it’s just how I am!” Other times he wallows in it, takes us too low, sulks in the corner as the three of us struggle to regain altitude. Above Des Moines, we dipped low enough to fly within view of a Motel 6 parking lot, where a band of drunken garbage pail kids shouted nonsense and hurled empty green bottles. Over Flagstaff, Iggy nearly lost consciousness. “Breathe in!” we called to her. Delirious, she called to a bear leading two cubs into a dense wood, claimed the forest was aflame. We nearly swooped in front of a speeding semi-truck. Marlon refuses to recall either episode.
Am I in trouble, or am I not? Did I bring this on myself?
In the end it was Sonja who coaxed Marlon in, a page out of his own book. She brought up mommy. “Tell your girls why Anna is gone,” she said one day as we drifted into Los Angeles County. Marlon took out his safety pin. “Go on. Tell us so Iggy and Nika will know what I know—what Bernadette knew.” A shift in the wind caused Marlon to lose his footing. The pin was gone. “Blame daddy,” he said as he struggled back to his feet. “That’s what your sister likes to do. Blame daddy for everything.” He untied Sonja and drew deeply, deeper than he ever had before, a hit that promptly took his consciousness. He fell heavily. Sonja slowly drifted down to the basket floor.
The basket dipped, nearly spilling Marlon out into the valley. We began descending rapidly. “Sonja!” yelled Iggy. Our strings were critically taut. A mess of freeway was rushing up to meet us. “Pull!” whispered Sonja. Marlon was holding on to her. “Pull, goddamnit!” We looked at each other before straining all we had toward the heavens. Our strings both snapped, Iggy’s and mine.
Free of the weight, one yellow balloon and one green balloon shot up into the jet stream like two stray crows from a murder, the latter watching as one red balloon, one basket, and an erstwhile remora became nothing but cloudless sky.
Anthony Martin's work is published or forthcoming in Whiskey Island, The Radvocate, and Clarion.
Illustration by Meghan Murphy