Clarissa needed a hot air balloon ride. The balloons filled the skies above the city with explosions of color, each one pure and unblemished, color in platonic form; red, a perfect pool of blood that dappled the sky until it floated away and was nothing but a pin-drop; blue, the ocean in a fairy tale; yellow, daisies growing in her imagination. She had never seen a daisy, nor had she ever seen the ocean. They were faraway objects that lived only in stories. Her city was a smearing of the colors above, a dull brown that seemed duller and browner if she looked at the sky. Her eagle-faced mother told her to keep her eyes on the dirt and not get any funny ideas. Her blood was in the dirt.
It cost a two-dollar bill to take a trip. Not two dollars, a two-dollar bill. Clarissa’s mother didn’t have two wooden nickels to rub together, and laughed whenever she heard the words “balloon” or “two-dollar bill”.
“That sky,” her mother would say, after catching her breath, “is not for you.” She’d point at the unpolished silverware in front of them. “This is for you.”
Clarissa was not the kind of girl who got to take hot air balloon rides; no, she was the kind of girl who needed to shut up about balloons and help her mother finish polishing Mrs. Galen’s silverware. Mrs. Galen and her husband were the kind of people who got to take hot air balloon rides. Mr. Galen was the kind of man who wore starchy cotton shirts with silver bolo ties. Sometimes, Clarissa wondered what they dreamed about—was it more or less than she?
Each day was the same. She helped her mother polish silverware while her father was off looking for work. Her father was a faraway man, with a glazed look in his right eye. He did not care for children. His looking for work often looked a bit like sitting outside the cantina and drinking from a dusty, unlabeled bottle of dandelion wine.
When one spends as much time polishing silverware as Clarissa does, the details of the material spring forth. The scroll work inlaid in the knives, spoons, and forks keep the light moving, even when still. Silver is never quite capable of trapping the sun, no matter how ornate. Her reflection warped into a jowled monstrosity in the concavity of the spoons. When her mother wasn’t around, she would play games as she polished, imagining herself as a mighty swashbuckler swinging the knives, as the greatest spoon-thief in the land, as a cultured chef eating the finest delicacies with the forks.
In the late afternoon, she helped her mother carry the heavy boxes of silverware through the market, delivering them to the back entries of the large houses in time for supper. They would return to collect the boxes in the morning for another day of work. Mysterious hands always delivered their payment, which was always wooden nickels. Clarissa wasn’t sure she’d recognize a two-dollar bill if it fell from the sky, landed at her feet, and exploded. The axis of her world rotated around beaten nickels and worn coppers, the currency of her community.
The market was always whispering. That was the way deals were made. Fools spoke in raised voices, where anyone could hear what you were saying, what prices your goods were going for in comparison to those around you. Puddings of men loomed behind their stalls of fruit and household goods and bargained with cinnamon sticks of women rubbing coppers between their fingers. Featureless women moved in and out of alleyways, hocking smoked meats and dumplings.
The skullface man lived in the corner of her eye when she walked the dusty streets of the market. It was not a matter of ignoring him. He was as much a part of the market as the dusty stalls that sold beaten brown bananas. She acknowledged that he was there, as everyone did, but kept focused on her heavy boxes of silverware. He whispered too, but his whispering was a quiet little buzzing above the sounds of the marketplace. It often lingered when she left. She knew that it was only for her, and it sent shivers of terror and a strange pleasure down her spine. When she asked her mother about the man, her mother avoided her eyes and told her to not fall behind.
One day, her mother was very sick, and left her with the boxes. She shouted from her bed with strict instructions to return them. When Clarissa asked if she needed medicine, she laughed, coughing. Wherever would the money come from? She told Clarissa not to make any deals she couldn’t keep.
The boxes were heavy, but her arms were strong, and she returned them all but one and collected the money owed from the hands behind doors. For her last box she had to walk down a side street, to a small door at the side of a colossal house that stretched from the end of one street to another. She knew that the skullface man was there, and that he would catch her. A small part of her wanted him to. Her mother wasn’t around to help, to hurry her through the side streets.
She felt the tap on her shoulder and knew who it was.
What is in a face? There are dimples, freckles, pockmarks. Evidence of vulnerable flesh slowly deteriorating. If you get too close, it becomes organic color patterns, the aliveness of the face becomes apparent. Everything is moving, jumping, twisting, squirming. An eye, perfect green, highlighted by a forest on the rim, becomes only color, light information, green and black smears.
The skullface man’s face was not like that. It was nothing but vectors the closer you get. Was it painted? Yes, black and white, with deep hollows for the eyes. Yet, it didn’t make sense. It was without a referent. Paint that was not paint.
“Little girl,” he said, the words rolling off his tongue like unfiltered motor oil, “I have a two-dollar bill for you.”
At that moment, Clarissa thought about the tags on the inside of shoes. How did the designers decide where to put those tags? She supposed that you could put them on the inside of the tongue, which was common, but that often ruined the aesthetic of a beautiful tongue stuck out into the air, floating like a seal floats on glassy arctic water. The tag could go on the bottom of the shoe, stamped there into the rubber, but that bespoke too much of mass production. It could go in the insole, but the heel of whoever was wearing the shoe would erase it over time. Really, it wasn’t important. She had never owned a pair of shoes without a frayed tag or a worn away rubber stamp.
Clarissa’s mind returned to her current predicament. No more thinking about shoes. Why was she thinking about shoes at all? The skullface man’s face reminded her of shoe rubber. Maybe that was it. She readjusted her weight, the silverware making a clattering sound as she did. She undid one of the clasps on the bottom of the drawer and removed a razor sharp steak knife.
“There’s always a price,” she said.
“Only your future and a kiss,” he said, the words leaking from his mouth.
Clarissa was not stupid. She knew that her future was not bright, was not worth the two-dollars it took to ride a hot air balloon. She saw this in varicose veins that came to life on her mother’s ankles, saw it in the days when they would hide from the landlord. She saw it in the unmarked graves where people like her were buried. She saw it in the empty eyes of the skullface man. His eyes made the future very clear.
His hand was held out for tribute. His eyes were like the tongues of cheap sneakers. Clarissa knew that this was like the tags, in that she didn’t have any choice, that her life was cheap, that she must choose to give him what he asked for. Skull-faced men had propositioned young girls for kisses before, and she knew what happened after that. She nodded, and shook his hand. He leaned down, and kissed her on the lips. It tasted like the breath of a dog, not pleasant, but not disgusting either.
He reached into the folds of his long brown coat, and handed her the two-dollar bill. He winked and turned. The turn felt like a sharp inhalation, and everything became a slurry of color. There was nothing where he had been standing. She was so excited that the strangeness of the skullface man’s method of departure hardly fazed her. She returned the silverware in a daze, and then set out for the lines. To reach them, she had to leave the marketplace far behind, and walk to the eastern edge of the city. Her parents would not notice that she was gone. She didn’t take a thing with her but the knife. Never could be too careful.
At the edge of the city, the great tent waited. It was square and flat and looked newer than anything she’d ever seen. How was it that it kept so clean? It had been around for so long. Inside, everything was just as impossibly clean. There were winding queues without a single person waiting in them, queues that wandered out the other side of the tent to the balloons. It was odd, surely, but not enough to keep her from her balloon ride. She supposed that the shortness of the lines was due to a two-dollar bill shortage.
Outside the tent, pushed up against a hill, the queues ended. Seven balloons around the square, each one unique. Clarissa liked three of them. One had a basket of wicker, and had a red-and-yellow pattern like the sweater her grandmother had knitted her before she died. She still had it, but it was faded and torn and the dyes had blended to form a dull brown. This one brought back the joy of new things, of care. Another had a large steel bucket, the balloon green and robin’s egg blue, striped like a bee. The steel was polished so clearly she could see her face in it, undistorted. The third had a wooden box, with a butcher block patterned wood, and its balloon was pure purple. Purple was Clarissa’s favorite color.
How do you make the most important decision of your life?
After a minute of thought, she decided to take the purple one. There was no attendant, only a slot cleverly concealed on the front side of the basket. She slipped her bill inside, and climbed into the box. The balloon came free of its tether with a sigh, and lifted from the ground. It was automatic, the gas igniting and creating blasts of heat that carried the balloon upward. She watched the city shrink below her, faster than she thought was possible, and the balloon continued to rise, higher and higher. It looked like one of the train sets she would see in shop windows around Christmas time, an intricate impossibility, tiny little cars and trains and people moving about their lives. She looked for the skullface man, for her mother, for her father, but she could not see them.
She wondered how her ride could be so steady. The box didn’t sway at all, except when pushed by a strong wind, and then only a little. The balloon seemed to know its path by itself, and she saw that it was drifting towards the great mountains that bordered the city. The view was without compare. Clarissa saw these mountains every day, but from up here, there was depth to them, like they were living slabs of volcanic rock that reached out toward her in her balloon. Great stabbing peaks crusted with snow, jagged and harsh and windy, though inside her basket, it was still pleasantly cool.
She thought of her promise, and what was to happen to her when she landed. What would it be like to have no future? She started to wonder if she knew what that was like. It was probably terrible. Was it like death?
She felt the weight of the knife in her back pocket. The balloon was close to the mountains now. Why not? What did she have to lose? Her future? She had already given that away.
She took the knife out and began sawing at one of the ropes holding the basket up. It was difficult. The heavy knotted cord didn’t want to part, but her knife was sharp, and she gritted her teeth and sawed hard. Soon, there were only a few fibers remaining. She braced herself to hold on, hoping that the sudden imbalance of the basket would draw the balloon towards the mountains. She would survive the crash, live in a cave. Only a few fibers left. She brought her arm back, and with a quick motion, she slashed the remaining rope.
Nothing happened. The basket stayed exactly level, where it had been before, the balloon continuing on its journey. The rope she had cut hung in space, without succumbing to gravity. Clarissa jumped up and down, trying to shake the basket, but it stayed level. She looked up at the pot containing the fuel that heated the balloon. She touched it. It was cool. She stuck her hand into the flame. Nothing happened. She stared at her hand a moment. Peering over the edge of the basket, saw the world floating by. For a moment, she did nothing, and then, taking a deep breath, jumped out into space.
And landed a half-second later, banging her knees on a hard, smooth surface. The floor was some sort of glass, and it continued to move, the world moving dizzyingly about below her. It was like a giant television, far bigger than any television she had ever seen, and it curved to make a sphere. Now that she was no longer in the basket, she wondered how she hadn’t seen the artifice of it before, like a giant snow globe. She looked at the balloon that was right above her, swaying, touched by a breeze that wasn’t real.
A voice spoke, in a language she didn’t understand, a language of numbers and signs, and the images and the balloon disappeared. She was in a sphere with black walls, a black ceiling, and a black floor. It smelled like burning hair and darkness. There was a hissing sound, and a square of light appeared, opening into a doorway. It wasn’t safe to go through that door. Who knew what was on the other side?
Clarissa moved through it.
Black walls, no longer spherical, but square and rectangular, crosscut with tiny red veins of light that pulsed as she walked. When she didn’t move, they glowed a harsh red. She fingered the knife that was resting in her pocket. There was no sound but the sound of her feet and the whispering of passing air.
She followed the path for what seemed an impossibly long time until it forked in two directions: a path to the left and a path to the right. For a moment, she paused, and her terror caught up with her. It had been following her for a while, but she had outpaced it until this moment. Where was she? What was she going to do? Thoughts crowded her mind, paralyzing. Then, her mother’s sharp voice shook her out of her fear, telling her to quit being a stupid girl, and polish faster. Stop being afraid of the dark and go to bed. Leave me alone, I have a headache. She smiled and took the path to the right. It led into an enormous room.
The room was full of rectangular stone coffins. They might just be black boxes, containing wires, or all manner of machinery, but Clarissa knew that they were coffins. Red light spidered out of the short side of each coffin, and then flowed into the wall, joining the other streams of light. It reminded her of the circulatory system, of blood being pumped. Clarissa didn’t want to see what was inside the coffins, but her curiosity was much stronger than her fear now. Her mother had seen to that.
She padded over to one of the coffins (there must have been hundreds), and she noticed a seam running along the top, exactly like the lid of a coffin. She forced her fingers into the crack and lifted, the lid surprisingly light. Not wanting it to clatter to the floor, she only slid it a little way to see what was inside.
A woman’s face. An old woman’s face, eyes closed, sleeping. Clarissa tried to wake her up with a whisper, touch her shoulder, but the woman did not stir. She was odd. The face was that of an old woman, but an old woman who has not lived her years. Her skin was smooth, each wrinkle loose and sagging rather than weathered, tattered and dry, the way that age weathers. Her hair was light and soft as if it was gently washed and gently patted dry without any sort of exposure to the sun. Clarissa thought of her short, coarse black hair, and how it never looked like that.
This must be where he takes their future, she thought. He puts them to sleep forever in these coffins. He’s going to find me, and do it to me too. She wasn’t going to allow any such thing happen to her. If she could live in snowy mountains, she could survive something like this too. There was no way out of this room, so she returned to the path from before, and took the other fork.
It led to a chamber where the skullface man was waiting for her. He was leaning against a wall, barefoot, sucking from a small leathery tube that came from the wall and dribbled a red liquid. He saw her and did not look surprised. He placed the tube back in the wall.
“It’s delicious, a future unlived,” he said, looking at her with his shoe eyes, the red liquid dribbling from his chin, contorting his face into bloody burnt meat. “My people left me here. It is the only pleasure available to me.” He said it like it was an apology, but it was like the apologies her father gave her mother when he came home drunk. Behind him, there was another hallway, and Clarissa knew that it was the way out. Cornered animals always know the way out.
She thought of balloons, and how wonderful it was to fly.
Clarissa did not always think of flight, of happy things. Sometimes, she thought of darkness, of death, of the end of all things. Sometimes, she thought of explosions, the kind that the cheap movies have, always exploding in the exact same way. She herself was an explosion, she thought, as the skullface man moved towards her to grab and pull her away to some coffin of her own where she would age without aging, and never again think of flight. Her future was an explosion, a fiery gout of belching smoke and debris. It was powerful enough to blow the top off a mountain, and burn all the balloons there ever were. Nothing would escape it.
A future so red, might as well be blood. Ducking under the reaching arms of the skullface man, she slipped the knife from her pocket and cut her hand, blood running through it, and she slammed it against the wall. The logic of blood is stronger than most.
Nothing happened for a moment, and then the skullface man’s head exploded in a shower of sparks and smoke. It made a metallic clanging as he smashed to the floor, no longer a man at all.
There was a great explosion that could be seen from the city, an explosion in the hills. Everyone noticed that, and the disappearance of the circus and the balloons, but nobody noticed a girl with a bleeding hand making her way through the city home.
Thomas Wells is a writer who has had altogether too many jobs. He spent some time writing about stories as a graduate student, but found that he enjoys writing stories more. He is currently bicycling across the United States while working on a novel about magic and memory. His website is therealthomaswells.com and you can follow him on twitter @thomastalketh.