I remember it so clearly.
The bright lights, the concrete miles beneath my feet.
Walking and walking, side by side with her. Her hand clasped securely around mine, the rough feel of her raincoat rubbing against my cheek.
She said we were going somewhere to make me better. To make the cough come out.
Like a balloon, drifting away and out of my life. Then I'd be happy, she said.
I didn't know what happy was. Just the cough and the gunfire we heard.
Always there. Rat a tat, rat a tat, RAT A TAT. Drifting too and fro, just like a balloon.
It lived inside me. She said the balloon was in my lungs. But the nice people in white would take it out.
We walked for what felt like hours, passing by the same scenes of sadness that was the whole countryside. She always told me to look up at the sky and imagine that I was a balloon, drifitng away from this sad place.
I liked to believe that when I was a balloon, I would play amongst the clouds. I'd be so high up that nothing could ever hurt me. I'd be invincible. Neverending.
We came to the building, tucked away behind layers of sand sacks and dark netting. She said that it was to dress up the building. To make it look pretty, so that the good spirits would come inside and make everyone better. To get rid of all the balloons.
There were so many balloons now.
She told me to hum that one song my mother used to sing at night. The sweet one, the one about the ducks. Mother's balloon had popped.
I hummed the song as she hurried me through hallways full of people waiting for their balloons to leave. Some have big spots of red on them, some cough the spots up like me. All our balloons are red, like she said. So many balloons.
She brought me to a lady dressed in white with red dots all over it. The balloon would go away soon, the lady said.
I sat down in a chair, humming Mother's song. Outside, the sudden rat a tat started again.
The lady with red dots said something to her, something fast that I couldn't hear. She came to me and pressed her hands against my face. She told me to hold my breath as long as I could. Just like we used to do at the swimming hole in the summer. Just hold my breath.
She said no matter what, don't cough. Don't let the balloon out just yet. It has to be careful coming out. Just hold my breath.
But, I said, I can't hold my breath. The balloon wants out. She hushed me and then left. Stay where I was and hold my breath.
Rat a tat.
I hold my breath, biting into my dirty sleeve. It smells like the rat a tats outside. People are quiet now.
Rat a tat.
My balloon squirms inside me. It hurts, so I take a deep breath. My balloon tries to slip out, but I push it back down. I hold my breath again. She won't know. It'll be okay. Mother used to say that.
Rat a tat.
I look up to the doorway to look for her, to call out to her. The rat a tats are getting louder, and I'm worried. But I don't see her.
I hear something loud, like a big glass hitting the ground. There are no more rat a tats, just the sound. Like jumping into deep water too fast; I don't know which way is up and I'm dizzy.
I shut my eyes, but I still see a bright light just like the sun.
I can't hold my breath anymore.
When I open my eyes again, everything is different.
The room is just like the sad scenes we see on the way to the white building. The walls are gone now, and everything is gray.
I call out to her, but I hear no answer. Where is she? I get out of my chair, still holding my breath. My balloon doesn't hurt anymore.
I can't see anything. There is no lady with red dots or her or anyone else. All the walls are gone and there is stuff in the hallway. Mother does not like messes, so she wouldn't like this place now.
Where is she?
I call out to her again, but I hear nothing. I don't want to look at the ground anymore. Too many sad scenes.
I want to look up at the sky and be a balloon, but there is still part of the ceiling. The sky is gray anyway, I know it.
I call out one more time and start to cry. Why won't she answer me?
I see a little light in the crowded hallway, like a little firefly. What is it?
I move towards it, trying to stop crying. Mother always told me not to cry, that it would bring back my cough. I try to hold my breath but I am tired.
In the corner of the hallway behind a desk, I see a couple of kids her age, holding little sticks of light. They look scared to see me.
Where is she, I ask them. But they only scream and run away.
I am confused and even more scared now. Where is she? She said she would always be there for me, but she is not here now. What if those kids knew where she was?
I wander around the building, checking each sad, sad scene for her. I see people sleeping all over the place on the ground and in silly positions, but I don't see her. Where did she go?
Sometimes I see more kids with sticks of light, looking for something. Maybe they are looking for her too? I know she had a lot of friends. She said she was my friend after Mother's balloon went away. That she would always be there to protect me.
I am angry now. I yell at the kids to help me find her or to get out. They will scare off the good spirits with all their screaming!
They run off like the others, and I am sad. I did not mean to yell. Mother said yelling was mean. I cry in the hallways as I keep looking for her. Sometimes I wonder if I am walking the hallways again over and over again. I can't tell anymore.
The sleeping people start to get smaller and turn white. So many balloons.
Some more kids come with their weird sticks, calling out names. None of them are mine. The words they say sound funny. I am looking for her still. Maybe she fell asleep like the others.
The kids calling out things go away after a while, but I keep looking. I will not give up until I find her.
The floor gets dusty, little plants pop up out of the floor, and I see little animals sometimes. The sleeping people have all turned white now. I don't think I'll find her now. But I keep looking.
Now when I see the kids-sometimes grownups now-I follow them around. I am sad and there is no one to talk to in this building. They are all sleeping and I am supposed to hold my breath. Do they know where she is? She said she'd be right back. I am so sad and I just want a friend.
When they see me though, they all get scared. Always run away. I never see them again. They make me angry! They do not have balloons, so why are they here? My balloon is gone somehow. Maybe the good spirits took it away and it is drifting.
No, I am drifting. I am still trying to find her, but it seems impossible. The sleeping people have now fallen to the ground and are nothing. Their balloons are long gone by now. The building really does get rid of balloons.
I sit on the ground finally and start to cry. I will never find her. My balloon is gone. I guess I will stay here until I can finally see the sky and drift away to dance with the clouds.
There are no balloons now.