When the town was still small, Fred made a hot air balloon. He made the balloon from vinyl canvas and the basket from woven straw. When he was done, he put a sign out on the field of daisies. It read:
HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE
MUST BE 5’ TALL TO RIDE
He reasoned fifteen was a fair price and that young kids shouldn’t ride the balloon because people are much sadder about early deaths. He didn’t do anything to let the people in the small town know that the air balloon was there but they came anyway, people with all kinds of stories.
Fred shook hands with the first person who rode the balloon. He was a world traveler, yet he had not ridden in a balloon. When he went up into the cloudless sky with Fred, looking at the small patch of land and the long emptiness, he teared up. It reminded him of his daughter who had neglected to talk to him for years. He asked Fred if he had any kids. Fred said no, his kid was the air balloon. The man was paying to stand inside it. When the air balloon landed in the field, the man and Fred shook hands. The man adjusted his explorer’s hat and went on his way.
The next day, a couple with a young child wanted to ride the balloon. Fred said that he was uncomfortable with letting the kid ride the balloon, even with parental supervision.
“It’s too early to see the world, kid,” he said to the little boy, “for what it is.”
The parents were upset with Fred and declined his offer to ride the balloon. Yet many more came that day, from word of mouth. The explorer told all his friends about the experience that moved him to tears. His friends lined up to ride the balloon. They were both male and female, of various ages and sizes. They were poor, they were rich. Fred would let two riders into the balloon at a time. Often they hugged while in the balloon. Sometimes they did this because they were just scared and needed someone to hold onto. Often Fred couldn’t tell. Fred gently smiled while guiding the balloon with the strings he had wrought. Fred couldn’t remember a time without the balloon.
But one day the engine went kaput and the fire wouldn’t start. It was midday and the skies were still clear. Fred gathered all the people and told them the predicament. A middle-aged woman with early wrinkling said they should look in town for supplies to restart the engine. A middle-aged man told everyone he was an engineer, and could ensure whether fuel was the issue. The daughter of the engineer gathered the people into teams: one for inspection, the other for fuel gathering. Fred was very grateful to the residents of the town helping him in his time of need, even though he had inconvenienced them. He couldn’t have asked for better friends.
The day got old and the sun went down. Hours passed before the fuel party came back with fuel. The inspection team was unsure if fuel was actually the issue. Members of the inspection team unscrewed the screw to the tank, and members of the fuel team poured the fuel in. Yet when Fred tried it again it still wouldn’t work. This made him very sad and it was getting late, so the residents of the town went home to their families, or with them. That day vanished, just like that.
Fewer people were there the next day to watch the balloon die of its inexplicable illness. Perhaps it just gave up, they wondered. Perhaps we used it too much, they thought quietly. Whatever the reason, the people trickled down in number. The people fell away until they were all gone.
Fred was left alone with the sunset in front of him. He closed his eyes, wishing the air balloon had not been built at all. That was when the explorer put his hand on his shoulder. He asked Fred, “Do you want to go with me?” And Fred was unsure. He liked the closed circuit of the balloon rides, this old way of thinking. Fred stared at the sunset—was it the same as before? He wondered. The rays of the sun come from the same source, are swallowed back into the source, and are expressed anew. Fred was unsure if he felt like that about traveling the world. But he told the explorer to wait a while. He told him he needed to think about it. Because there just may be more hearts out there to mend before he goes.