The Last Balloon

I'd wait for him by one of the windows. That was the plan. When ten balloons had been given away and one was left—the one for me—he'd meet me back at the house on Spencer Lane. Our old haunt we used for photo shoots.

Neither of us were photographers, but we pretended to be. I'd wear striped stockings and a bright red beret when Nick wanted to take his camera to the house. Sometimes a colorful umbrella or feathered mask became the centerpiece on those days when I didn't want to put makeup on. There was something perfect about the grunge walls, the brambles that edged them, and the window frames in need of so much more than paint that made us fall in love with it. We had picnics on the porch that creaked with every step or shifted weight, did our studying and collaborated essays under the shade of the cheap roof, shared dreams and sweet pastries against the comfort of the walls, all without ever stepping foot inside. We didn't want to spoil the secrets of the house. Nick said we'd save that for a special day.

Apparently this was that day. February 14th, 2011. A Monday. Others said it was our three year anniversary, but I didn't know. As far as I was concerned we'd been together since grade school, when he'd broken his third pencil on my desk by his awkward angle as he tried to write jokes on my notebook. Since then we'd been like—forgive the cliché—peanut butter and jelly. Stuck on each other and naturally meshing.

We didn't think we were romantic. We never kissed and we barely held hands. Still, people cooed at us a lot when we went out together. His parents fawned over us; cooked huge meals whenever I stopped by their place, and my military dad let us run around town all hours of the night without a chaperone as soon as Nick's license was in effect. I guess he was trustworthy. Maybe being a medical student had something to do with it. Maybe it was just us.

We'd broken into the house by the most nefarious means. I turned the broken knob and he gently pushed on the door with the hand that wasn't holding his Valentine balloons. A little light from the gray afternoon spilled onto the decrepit wood floor. There was a smell like mold and vermin that was somehow enchanting. I saw two walls and maybe the first steps of a stairway. The rest was undefined in the bad light.

I took a deep breath. "I can't do this."

He brought his hand back and stuffed it in the pocket of his jeans. "Me neither. Wanna wait outside?"

I shut the door and turned to follow him around the side, feeling monumentally better for not disturbing the house. To this day, I don't know what's in there, besides a lot of memories that we let lie.

Before he set off, I made him pose for a picture. He was so charming with his over-the-shoulder glance, like the balloons were a flock of birds he had captive on leashes and could urge on with a look. Suddenly I could see why people ogled us the way they did. It was the same expectant half-smile he gave me across the couch during a football game, in the crowded foot court, or before we left a friend's house and I dilly-dallied. It said, "Are you following me?" and it put butterflies in my stomach that danced and tumbled over each other while my cheeks warmed.

I guess we were romantic.

His idea was to walk a balloon to each of the girls who made the biggest impressions on his life, ending up back here at the last. We'd lived all our lives in the same town and I knew quite well all the women he referred to. Jealousy never even crossed my mind.

I situated myself on a flannel blanket under the first window and readied my hot chocolate carafe and mp3 player for the solitary hours ahead. I could picture each of the girls and how he'd fulfill his Valentine's Day mission. As I did, a Swedish dance began tinkling through my ears, an overture to start the quest. I settled in and Nick set off.

The first stop on his circular route would be the bank, to make a deposit of one heart-shaped balloon to the teller Irina who was just back from maternity leave. We'd missed her thickly accented financial advice which in my mind made tagging along to the bank worthwhile. Nick was like a big brother to her first son, and she'd taken the time off to have another boy.

The next was for the manager of his favorite restaurant. Many chip baskets had found their end with all the times he took me there for lunch, and all the waitresses knew us by name. He'd been going to that restaurant ever since he was old enough to get an allowance. Nita would give him something for the road as a thank you for the balloon, I was sure of it. He'd have to learn how to eat a steak burrito with one hand.

Across the street from the restaurant stood the mall where Nick's sister worked. She'd act disinterested at her gift offering, but if I knew anything about Alexis she'd display it right up front with the candles and musical cards.

Then it would be off to the home of our elementary teacher, Mrs. Hux. If she didn't keep him chatting too long about verb confusion, he'd soon cover the short distance between her street and the memorial on his own block; erected the same month of his acceptance into medical school for the girl who died in a hit and run walking home from dance class.

The sixth balloon was for an elderly Mrs. Brannan, the angry trumpet of a neighbor who still held a grudge against Nick and his stray crochet ball. Her balloon he would tie on the mailbox flag and probably walk away fast.

And then it would be back to the hospital to gift four balloons to four very special ladies. One for Mrs. Meadows, our adopted auntie at the gift shop. If he walked fast, he might arrive before her shift had even started. One balloon would go to the little girl recovering from a bad trampoline accident, and two more for her best friends; a bear named Peaches and an elephant with a pink bow and an eye patch.

Mine was the last balloon.

Maybe the idea was cheesy, doing all that circular traveling just to give me something he had for me already, but he said it gave me a present to look forward to when he got back—other than the fancy dinner we reserved at his parents' restaurant. But cheesy as the idea was, I would have been a liar if I'd said I wasn't excited at the prospect. I didn't need to be blown away by extravagant trinkets, and a Mylar balloon from the hospital gift shop was sweet enough for me to outdo a box of chocolate candies in any size.

I had dozed off with Jane Austen's Emma in my lap and an airy Italian tune heralding the end of my playlist. A chill woke me up and I slipped my sweater over the yellow dress I picked out for the occasion. It was overcast that day, and regardless of the cold I wanted more color than the weather was allowing.

I rubbed my eyes, trying to smudge as little makeup as possible, and stretched my stiff limbs.

Nick was coming down the way, curiously empty handed. I tried not to be petty but I was more than a little upset not to see the balloon. It was the only thing he'd promised me for Valentine's Day and he hadn't brought it back. Trying to squelch my disappointment with reminders of our upcoming dinner I received him with a warm smile. There wasn't too much accusation in my tone when I asked, "Where's the last balloon?"

"I gave it away," he admitted.

"Who to?"

"My nana."

"She lives across town." It must have been much later than I thought. How long had I slept? "You walked there?"

"And back. I didn't just give it away, though. She made me swap with her."

I laughed. Nana Doris is a sweetheart, albeit a bit on the odd side. She will not take a gift without giving something in return. If you bring her flowers—or as I did one Christmas, a teapot—don't expect to leave the sitting room before enjoying enough galopita to feed half the town. And the desserts are just the beginning.

Nick was giving me that smile again. Are you following me? I had to smile back, balloon or no. For no reason at all I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and tell him he was amazing.

"What did she give you?"

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a tiny box.

A/N: Another (late) entry to Mara's lovely writing challenge. Why does she insist on picking pictures I am unable to resist?? To see the challenge, visit maranwetelrunya at wordpress dot com and find the Weekly Writing Challenge. To view the picture I drew inspiration from, go to ukmcbo's photo Do Not Leave Me Alone. (flickr dot com slash photos slash ukmcbo slash 3280569600)