They waited to tell him about the balloon until he was sitting in the backseat and buckled.
John listened as his family told him the story, sitting on all his adventures from camp. He wasn’t going to tell them about the bonfire, yet. He wasn’t going to say about getting lost in the woods. He was going to wait to tell them the names of his friends and about his first kiss on the last night, when he and Shelly pulled away from each other and saw a deer, watching them, seemingly frozen in time.
He had heard his mother crying, the night before he left. He had heard her arguing with his father.
“It isn’t fair,” she had said.
“It ain’t fair that the kids get...that he gets to just go off and leave me and--”
“What didn’t we give him? Are we...is this not enough? Why does he want to leave?”
You learn to tell stories through the myths about your parents’ lives. In the mythology of John’s mother’s childhood, her family was poor, a condition that worsened when her father got sick. They couldn’t afford to send her to camp and, even when they could, they kept her at home to help out as a sort-of nurse for her father, who spent the next decade waiting to die--a decade John’s mother spent saying No to dates, skipping parties, and not attending college, to care for him.
“It isn’t fair.”
It slowly settled in, that he would have to be careful how he told the stories of his own adventures--the first things in John’s life that really felt like adventures--when he got to the car. John felt his newfound color fade as he walked toward his family and put his duffel bag in the trunk and got into the backseat and buckled in.
“So your dad and I were just in our bedroom--your dad was napping,” his mother said, turning around in her seat to face John. “I had to wake him up when it happened: I was just sitting there, going through my coupons, when the whole bedroom filled with this rainbow light.”
John couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her so happy.
“I mean: absolutely filled. The ceiling and the walls and everything: all rainbow.”
He fingered the arrowhead in his pocket that Shelly gave him when they said goodbye. His mother continued:
“So I got up--I rushed to the window--and outside, on our front lawn, a hot air balloon had landed.”
John’s fingers froze, still touching the arrowhead.
“I woke up your dad and got your sisters and we all ran outside and this--I tell you: you think you know how big they are, but they’re massive, John. Massive.”
John felt his cheeks start to burn.
“We all went out and we talked to the guy who had operated it and he said they landed early, by mistake--that they’d descended much faster than they meant to and all of a sudden they were in our neighborhood. He said they picked our yard because ours was the only one that was big enough.”
And then the burning in his cheeks became a kind of sadness, and John didn’t understand. His feelings shifted, like some person with a rabbit in his hat snapped his fingers or something.
“I’m telling you, John: it came out of nowhere. One minute, I’m in bed, cutting my coupons on just a regular Saturday and, the next, the whole room’s full of colorful, fantastic light.”
The sadness felt heavy and cold.
“It was like magic.”
His mother talked about the balloon for the entire ride home. She told John all about the man who was operating it--how he grew up in Xenia--and about the couple who were riding in it with him, and about how they got the balloon out of their yard. She told him the part about the sudden burst of light, about the cascading rainbow, crashing into her world, at least three more times--each time, acting more and more amazed by the memory. The whole time she was talking, John just sat there, fingers on the stone, only listening--slowly making the decision not to tell her any stories: slowly deciding to keep his adventures to himself.
His mother talked, the entire ride home. Not once did she ask about camp.
© Toni Kochensparger