We were in the balloon, the twelfth time in as many years. Dad kept us steady with the clouds. Below, fields of dead crops passed by in Tetris pieces, not fast enough, then all of a sudden.
“See that?” Dad asked. “Craters.”
“How?” I asked.
“The sky, maybe comets.”
“But they’re all together.”
“Right in a row,” Dad said, pointing. “Like bed bug bites.”
We passed through the morning’s lone cloud, a big cumulus explosion. Inside all I could see was Dad, half-erased, the background cotton-wrapped around his shoulders. We looked aside for anything else but us.
At the other end of the cloud you could see the fires, stripping the ground for everything it was worth.
“They need help down there,” he said.
The smoke died below us, but hit our noses. Dad let out some gas for distance.
“Who’s going to pick us up?” I asked.
“Someone who can meet us in the ash,” he said. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I said.
“See that one?” he asked.
I looked over. Another perfect square of dry, jaundiced rot.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Mm. When I was young, these teenagers got into those crops and drew some tits.”
He saw my smile and repeated it.
“Boobies,” he continued. “Boobies you could see from the sky. They did it at night, through to the morning. When the sun came out, they took one of their uncle’s crop dusters to see their work. They were pretty fun in the head by that point, having been out all night, and their uncle never kept much gas in the plane, believing what he left in the tank would evaporate, like water.
“Well, the boys got high enough to see their work and cheer, but instead of landing they tried for an encore—that was when it all clicked off.
“Your grandpa and I were the first to see them. We were up early in the balloon. They passed so close you could hear their conversation. Grandpa cussed ‘em out for not minding their distance, and kept on till they landed the wrong way.
He asked how my eyes were. I said, ‘still bad,’ and we kept on, quiet, till the gas whistled us to the ground.
“When the papers came out, they tried to make it nice, saying the boys wrote a big “W,” the first letter of one of their names, but I knew better. I saw it at the funeral, in the smirks of peers who had no business being there, but had to be. I owe those boys something, but I’m not sure what. That was the first time I saw a girl with her shirt off.”
The boxes of dead crops stacked and departed. On the road that cut through them, a red car, the one that had been following us the whole way, took a U-turn away from the fires.
“Another fun birthday,” Dad said.
Photo by Jill Catley