The wind blew softly, gently stirring the branches of the trees and sending a slight shiver down her spine. She pulled her knees up to her chest, and tugged her white cotton dress over her legs. She should have brought a sweater, but sometimes she didn't mind the slight nip of the cold, enjoyed it even. How it would crawl from the base of her spine, speedily up to her neck; it made her feel alive.
This spot was not new to the girl. She was well familiar with the plush grass and shade of the tall, old oak. She was familiar with the view, the playground several yards away and the balloon vendor that was a few yards to the right of that. She had been coming here to this same spot since she was a child, and the balloons were by far her favorite part. His cart was painted white, with four, large, light blue carriage wheels, and the words "Nicholas's Balloons" written diagonally along each side in curly, red letters. He used to give her a free balloon every time she came, and she would run gleefully back to the tree. Standing on her tiptoes, she would pull down the lowest branch and tie the ribbon to it. Then she would take out her colored pencils, which were much better than crayons or markers in her opinion, and would draw it, trying her best to capture the way it swayed in the breeze. And always, when she was done trying to catch its essence, she would untie it and carry it out into the middle of the field. Then, her tiny fist would unclench, and she would crane her neck and peer into the sky, watching it float away into the sun. She always wished she could go with it. She desperately wanted to go with it.
But then she would quickly realize how that was not possible, and would return back to the comfort of her tree. She truly believed that the tree was magic, and nothing could touch her there. When she was beginning to run low on paper, and her pencils were almost worn down to the ends, she would arrive to see a tied up parcel of supplies sitting at the base of it's trunk. She attributed it to the magic of the wondrous tree. And in her young, imaginative mind, it was perfectly logical, for she knew that both paper and pencils came from trees. It wasn't until much later that she realized who was truly responsible.
This is where she spent her days, using its large canopy as a safety net. The shade of this ancient oak was her escape, her paradise, her retreat from reality. No matter day or night, summer or winter, it was no difference to her. This is where she went when she didn't want to be at home, which was often. This is where she went when mom and dad were fighting and she could no longer stand their eardrum piercing shouts. This is where she went when dad hit mom, and mom threw things back at him. This is where she went after social services came to their house, which happened on several occasions, and mom and dad would scream at her; of course, not until after convincing the agent that there was nothing to be alarmed about. This is where she went when they had their loud, drunken friends come over, whom she never felt quite safe around. This is where she went to sob gut wrenching cries, when one of those friends got her drunk, and tried to take advantage of her. This is where she went to skip school, because those boys on the bus would make fun of her frumpy, second hand clothing. This is where she went when she decided she would kill herself, where she cut open her wrists, and where she was found with her blood staining the crisp green blades of the grass. And, when they released her from the hospital, she went right back to this very spot.
But this was also where she went after her high school graduation, still clad in her cap and gown. This is where she opened her acceptation letter from that art school in the city. This is where she sat, contemplating whether or not an art gallery was worth the risky investment. And then, when she had her first art show and sold her first paintings, she came here to celebrate. And here she came to daydream about that new guy she met at the coffee shop. A few weeks ago, this is where she returned when that same guy proposed. And then today, this is where she ran to when she discovered she was pregnant.
But she did not return for the nostalgia of the tree. She returned for the man who supplied her with the means to spend her days streaking colors across starch white paper, the man who tried many times to get her out of her wreck of a home life, the man who had found her that dark night and kept her alive. This man who sold balloons, objects of simple joy and happiness filled with small fragments of hope and inspiration, was the only one who had ever looked out for her. This man was solely responsible for the life she was living today. He fostered her creativity, tried to protect her, gave her a second chance, all from afar. She needed him to know how much that meant to her. How she never realized all he had done for her before, but now not a day went by without her reminiscing upon his kindness. She had been avoiding him when returning to the tree, not knowing what words would express how she felt. She didn't want to mess this up.
And with that thought in mind, she approached him for the first time in a long time, wondering whether or not he would remember her. As she got nearer, she could see that he was much older now, his hair beginning to thin and gray and wrinkles around his mouth, most likely caused by his ever present smile. When she was but a few paces away, she caught his eye, and his grin widened in recognition.
Starting at the beginning, she told him her story and how much of a part he played in it, repeatedly apologizing for never truly thanking him. He just grinned, and told her he wished she wouldn't fret over it so much, that any decent human being would do the same. She didn't agree, but smiled, and promised to visit him regularly in the future. For memories sake, he handed her a bright blue balloon, free of charge. Wrapping the ribbon around her finger, she skipped to the middle of the field. On her way over, she decided she would name her son Nicholas, or Nicole perhaps, if it turned out to be a girl.
Reaching the middle of the field, she opened up her hand and allowed the ribbon to unwind from her finger, watching it float away as she had done many times before. Only this time, she felt like she was drifting along with it.