The Balloon Retriever builds a Balloon Girl in secret. During her lunch breaks, she works in a shed at the edge of the Balloon Park, where there’s a breeze and the mild smell of latex. Today she uses leftover balloons from the Jungle Cats exhibit to make a pair of Mary Janes.
The Park frowns upon balloon people because they tend to look more like clowns. Real people don’t enjoy seeing themselves that way, freakish and monster-like. They want to seem stronger, or kinder, or more attractive than they are. But if the Balloon Girl resembles a real one, the Head Curators might change their minds. They might bring the Balloon Retriever on for an exhibit or two. Perhaps they would stop calling her the Balloon Retriever.
When the town began issuing fines for every balloon that escaped the park, the Balloon Retriever became a fulltime employee and was given a red pickup with balloon animal decals on the sides. It’s the first fulltime job she’s had since getting kicked out of high school for being pregnant, even though it didn’t stick. That was four years ago. Her official role is Groundskeeper, but everyone knows her as the Balloon Retriever. She doesn’t care for the nickname. It’s not as if she’s one of those alpine mountain rescuers who digs survivors out of the snow after an avalanche. Most of the time, a balloon ends up in a tree on the park grounds.
Among the permanent exhibits, there’s the Rose Garden, Jungle Cats, Antarctic Life, and Barn Animals. The newest exhibit is a fairytale-style Candy Cottage. Guests used to be able to walk through it, until one too many kids tried to eat a balloon gumdrop off the doorframe. Now the house sits empty.
The Balloon Retriever knows a thing or two about emptiness. She doesn’t plan to work at the Balloon Park forever, cleaning up after everyone else. She dreams of creating something in this life, of making her own messes.
With her shoes on, the Balloon Girl is complete. The Balloon Retriever brings her outside in the sunlight, tying one foot to the door handle for safe measure. In the wind, it looks like the girl is twirling herself around in her blue dress.
Before her next shift, the Balloon Retriever will seat the girl atop the slide next to the Candy Cottage, looking out over the park like the Balloon Retriever from her ladder.
Using her extendable grabber, the Balloon Retriever plucks a runaway penguin from the branches of a red oak. Following protocol, she makes small punctures just above the knots and releases the air slowly, so as not to startle the park guests.
The Head Curators were not pleased with her stunt. That was the word they used when they found the Balloon Girl. They were, however, impressed with the Balloon Girl’s likeness and granted her a trial period. If a week goes by without a single negative comment from a guest, they said, the Balloon Girl can stay, and they could discuss adding a sister. Every day this week, the Balloon Retriever has eaten her lunch on the bench across from the Candy Cottage, listening for a child’s squeal of delight at the sight of the Balloon Girl.
While she waits for the penguin to deflate, her radio beeps. A little boy tried to climb up the slide, causing the Balloon Girl to come untethered. She’s now gliding over the park toward the highway.
The Balloon Retriever cuts through the field in her pickup and barrels out the park entrance to try to head off the Balloon Girl. Swerving into the left lane, she floors it down the highway.
She is entranced by her airborne creation. She has never seen a balloon drift so impossibly far. The Balloon Girl will not survive the climb, she knows this. When the Balloon Girl gains enough altitude, the helium will expand until the pressure is so great, she pops. The prospect of losing her pains the Balloon Retriever, like watching a part of herself float away.
Yet in her final moments, the Balloon Girl will be the only balloon child to have reached such heights. A real child couldn’t do what her Balloon Girl can. A real child didn’t bring the Balloon Retriever such joy.
The Balloon Retriever collects herself and presses on. Eyes on the sky and grabber at the ready, she will recover the Balloon Girl, wherever she lands.
Alexandra M. Matthews is a teacher and writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her flash fiction appears in Jellyfish Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Barren Magazine, Atlas and Alice, and Fractured Lit.