Hel(l)ium

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


You know how clowns are creepy to some people, thanks to Stephen King? I wanted to do the same here in this story but for Mylar balloons. After you read this story, you just might get a jolt in
your gut trying to figure out how your kid's Happy Birthday balloon got from one room to the next...even though the doors were closed.



Please feel free to leave genuine comments. If the story sucks, I want to know. If you like the story but the writing is terrible, try to explain that, too. There are no bad comments! Unless, of
course all you say is, "This is dumb!" but don't explain why...you get it.



Thanks, alot! A.E. Scott

Submitted: October 10, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: October 10, 2017

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After a series of murders that have had investigators baffled, the police say they finally have a lead on a killer dubbed "The Strangler" but unwilling to release any information to the public at this time.

“We are close to an arrest and it would be counter-productive to give any details so as to not compromise this ongoing investigation."

That was Police Chief, Donald Mayberry earlier today…

 #

Calissa clicked off the tiny radio that sat on the roller belt of the cash register she was closing down.

"Hey, Athena. I've got to run the the ladies." Calissa looked at her watch. "Do you mind locking up if I don't make it back in time?"

Athena was knelt over an extension cord that had been unwound and was slowly, methodically folding it into eight-inch lengths, one over another until she could easily slip a small zip tie around it.

"Uh, huh," Athena nodded, never taking her eyes off the cord.

Calissa always thought Athena to be an odd girl. Her movements were typically slow and she spoke mostly in mumbles. But she shrugged. Who do you expect to get for a minimum wage job at the $1 Dollar Buck Barn? Calissa hurried to the restroom as another thought entered her mind, "She's just the kind of homely, defenseless girls killers go after." Calissa shoved open the ladies room door, slid into a stall and quickly dropped her jeans.

At the front of the store, a tiny bell rang as the front door opened. Athena looked up in alarm. She and Calissa were the only ones left in the store and thought it odd someone would come in this close to closing.

The man at the door turned his head left and right, scanning the store.

"Can I help you?" Athena asked. "We're closing soon."

The man's head snapped in her direction. A crooked smile lit his face and he walked closer to her.

"Yes," he said in a slow drawling voice. Athena hated drawling voices. "I'm late for my niece's birthday party and was asked to pick up one of those Mylar helium balloons. You wouldn't happen to have any, would you?"

"Oh, of course," she answered. "Right this way."

Athena walked the man toward an area where the balloons had already been inflated and corralled into a mesh cage attached to the ceiling. The man followed her across the front of store, looking to his right, down each aisle as they passed.

"Here we are," Athena said cheerfully, though there was a catch in her voice. "Do you have a preference."

The man took a quick look and watched Athena move a hand through the cascade of hanging ribbons tied to the balloons. His eyes were drawn to the front windows, black outside except for the glow of a few headlights. Some were in the parking lot and some passed by on the street beyond.

"Just one the says 'Happy Birthday' will do, I guess."

Athena nodded then she looked up, exposing her neck. The man's eyes traced an invisible line that ran from her chin down her neck to the hollow between the clavicle bones just above her chest. He swallowed hard then turned around, scanning the expanse of the store.

Athena had found what she was looking for. A silver Mylar balloon, round, shiny on one side and 'Happy Birthday' printed on the other side in cheerful orange and blue text. A long red ribbon curled beneath it. She carefully coiled the end of the ribbon around her left hand and pulled down on the balloon, the ribbon sliding through the hollow of her right hand. She watched the man directly in front of her, his eyes scrutinizing the store. As the balloon met her right hand, her left hand pulled the ribbon taut.

"Here you are," Athena sang. Before the man could turn around, Athena threw the ribbon over his head and with the quickness of a snake, looped it around his neck and pulled on both ends.

The man clawed at the ribbon with both hands but it dug into his neck so tight it was impossible to grip. He tried to inhale but his throat was blocked. His eyes went wide with panic and he tried to squirm around. Athena took a step back and brought the man off balance. He dug his nails into his neck to get at the ribbon as rivulets of blood seeped from beneath it. His struggling seemed to give Athena more strength as she pulled ever harder.

There was a ring at the front door as someone else entered the store, but Athena took no notice. She was in ecstasy. She was in control. Who lived. Who died. It was within her power to send them on to the next life. No fear. She was granting their salvation, controlling their destiny, sending them to a better place. That was her mercy to them and it thrilled her.

The man heard the bell, too. Was he saved? His mind reeled in pain, the oxygen gone. His eyes watery, streaming tears and blurry. He could already sense the darkness coming, the blackening on the edges of his vision. His hands dropped and sagged at his sides. This must be how it ends, he thought.

Calissa was just coming out of the ladies room when she heard the bell to the door again. "Don't these fuckin' people know we're closed. We have lives, too!" she mumbled to herself. "Oh!"

She looked up the aisle and saw 'tall, dark, and handsome' in a blue uniform. She checked herself, straightening her blouse. When she looked up, she saw another officer enter behind the first. They instantly drew their guns. The first one crouched, two hands on his gun and circled around the front registers. The second held his gun out with both hands and moved forward with purposeful steps. Two conflicting thoughts entered Calissa's head, 'Damn, they're hot!!' and 'What the fuck is going on!'

"Release him, NOW!" The cop's voice boomed. "Release him or I WILL shoot you!"

Athena slowly turned her head and looked at the cop with a glazed look. She didn't see him. She didn't hear him. With a last effort, the muscles in her back and shoulders tightened for one last pull.

Like she had done many times before over the years--injured or stray animals at first, then family pets, and then baby brother when she was 8 years old. No one ever suspected little Athena, or little Anthony, as he was called then. She saw their suffering and released them. She was their savior.

The first bullet grazed her right side and cut a line across her back before embedding into a wall stud to the office. The second bullet pierced her side, entered her body just beneath her shoulder and lodged in a rib on her left side. The force spun Athena to her right and, releasing her right hand, the man she was strangling began to fall. The last bullet ripped through her neck just below the Adam's apple and disintegrated the C7 vertebrae as it passed out of the back of her neck, a shower of blood on the shelves behind her.

She saw the world in slow-motion as she dropped to her knees, the ribbon uncoiling from her left hand. Her lips moved but only a deep, gurgling sound escaped. 'Now, I am released,' she thought. She looked upward, life leaving her body, and watched the 'Happy Birthday' balloon, with its cheerful orange and blue text, as it floated gently, silently upward.

Days passed, then a week. Two weeks and the balloon waited. It hung over everyone, watching day after day; adults and children, courtesy and customers--all passing by beneath it, all ignoring it. Other balloons were taken. But not this one. No one wanted this balloon. Why?! Why doesn't anyone want it?!

Wait! A child. A child is looking up, his arm stretched, reaching. The child is reaching for the balloon! But, no! It's too far. So, the balloon moves closer. It becomes limp and drops. It dangles its curly red ribbon to the boy. He reaches. His fingertips touch it. It is finally leaving this place!

"Danny! Get over here."

A woman jerks on the boy's little arm and drags him away. The balloon drifts upward. The boy drops on the floor. The woman stops as the boy starts his wailing sobs.

"My balloon!" he cries.

"Stop it," the woman yells. "It's not your birthday." She yanks him up. "Now let's go."

The balloon watches its one chance slip away. It bobs up and down, pressure inside the balloon billows, stretching tight and then it's loose and limp. In and out, in and out. Like it's breathing. Like it's angry. Like it hates the woman.

The woman gets in line at the checkout while Danny continues to whimper. But something catches Danny's eye.

The cashier scans the woman's items: BEEP $1 dollar, BEEP $1 dollar, BEEP $1 dollar. "Did you want to pay for the balloon, Ma'am?"

The balloon is there. The woman looks confused. She turns her head and the balloon covers her face. She quickly slaps it away.

Danny holds onto the ribbon of the balloon; the round one, shiny on one side, 'Happy Birthday' printed in cheerful yellow, orange and blue text on the other. He smiles.

"Fine," the woman says, annoyed, the balloon spinning lazily in front of her face.

Danny crawled into the backseat of the old Volkswagen Jetta, the smell of the mildew mingled with that of McNuggets and french fries no longer noticeable. Danny worked himself into a comfortable position. His balloon hung outside the door a second too long. Danny's mom slapped it inside and slammed the back door.

"Buckle up!" she barked through the open rear window.

Danny's mom climbed in the driver's side, throwing the $1 Dollar Buck Barn Bag into the neighboring bucket seat and untangled the purse hung around her neck. Just then, Carrie Underwood began singing from the bottom of her purse: "I dug my key into the side..." She dug through her purse, past the cigarettes, a trial-size hairspray can and a couple of tampons, and pulled out the phone. "...carved my name into his leather seeeeeats..."

Danny's mom touched 'speakerphone' and started the Jetta. "What do you want?"

"I want to know if you're going to let me see Danny tomorrow?" came a tinny male voice.

"Is that Daddy?" shouted Danny.

"Shut up, Danny!" his mom said.

"Hey, Danny Boy," came the tinny voice of Danny's father. "And don't talk to him that way, Teresa!"

"I'll talk to him anyway I want until you start paying me more child support!" she responded as she backed out of the parking space. A Toyota Forerunner honked at her after she cut him off. She flipped him a middle finger in response.

"I pay you $1500 a month; enough for that shitty apartment he has to live in and food for a month, or shoes or clothes. What are you doing with it all!"

"Savin' it for his college!"

"My ASS, you are! If you don't let me see him this weekend, I'm getting a court order to have you audited. They'll be curious to know how you bought a 52-inch TV with food stamps!"

"Fine!" she hung up.

"Is Daddy coming over, Mommy?"

The balloon edged closer, behind Teresa's head. Its ribbon released from Danny's hand and slid like a ribbon snake up the back of the seat.

Teresa looked at Danny through the rear view mirror as she lit a cigarette.

The balloon puckered slightly and drifted back, it's ribbon sagging limply.

#

The aforementioned "shitty apartment" was on the first floor of a brown, two-story building built in the 1960's. It was adjoined to another shitty apartment located directly across from it. A common light fixture split the wall in between the two apartments but never worked. Trash and dirt collected in the corners and the cobwebs were so dense they appeared to hold the place together.

Danny followed his mom, his new balloon tethered to his hand and trailing behind him. Teresa struggled to get the key in the door, switching her purse from one hand to the other then finally turning the lock. No sooner had the door swung open that a white cat streaked by and into the house. Danny ran in behind it, his balloon slapping Teresa in the face as it went by.

The cat, Danny found, was by its bowl, meowing. He unraveled the balloon from his hand and snagged the bag of cat food under the cabinet. The cat's eyes locked onto the balloon. She crouched, mesmerized by the long dangling, red ribbon that swayed back and forth, taunting her. She tucked her feet up under herself, padding at the floor, muscles tensed.

Danny dumped food into the cat's bowl, some in, some out but the cat stayed focused on the balloon. As it moved slowly towards Danny, the cat's eyes followed.

"CAT! EAT!" Danny commanded and the cat jerked back, looking at him. She looked at his bowl and started to eat.

Danny snagged the balloon and ran down the hallway and into his room, leaving the balloon in the hall, floating, head height and turning gently. Teresa came out of the bathroom and stood at the end of the hall lighting another cigarette. She took a long drag and breathed deep. Motion caught her eye. The balloon hung there at the end of the hall. She stared at it, the strangeness of it. Its shape. It was full and tight, then limp, then tight again. It looked like it was breathing. She blinked. At the moment she opened her eyes, the balloon was on her! It collapsed into her face. The ribbon snaked around her neck and she felt it draw tight. She screamed.

Danny ran out of his room and looked down the hall at his mother. "Mommy!"

Teresa leaned forward, hands at her throat gasping and coughing, smoke coming from her lungs, the cigarette on the floor. She looked up at Danny at the other end of the hall The balloon was floating lazily next to him.

"The balloon..." she croaked.

"Mommy?"

"It's okay, Danny. Just choked," she said, looking at the balloon. "Take that in your room. I'll call you when dinner's ready."

Danny grabbed his balloon and went back in his room. Teresa picked up her cigarette from the floor, rubbed out the glowing fibers of carpet and walked to the kitchen. She stopped to look at herself in the mirror. "I must be crazy," she said, until she noticed the thin red bands circling her neck.

Almost an hour had past when Teresa looked at the clock on her phone. "I shoulda called Domino's," she slurred to herself, took the brown bottle from the table in front of her, replaced the lid and stowed it in her purse. Next to her was an unopened box of Mac and Cheese, she decided was more effort than it was worth and ordered pizza. She shuffled to the kitchen with the box in her hands when a knock that sounded like the beat to The Terminator came from the door.

She opened the door to find a girl, about her age, she decided, wearing a red visor, a red blouse with a red name tag that read 'Joz' holding a puffy red bag in her hand.

"$19.50," she said.

"Oh...hold on," Teresa said and turned around to see the $20 dollar bill on the table. She didn't see 'Joz' roll her eyes.

Teresa returned with the twenty and handed it to her.

"Keep the change."

"Thanks," Joz said, pocketing the money, swiftly de-bagged the pizza and handed it to Teresa.

"Happy Birthday," Joz said and spun away.

Teresa frowned at such an odd comment and closed the door. However, in a reflection cast on the glass of the front window she saw it. A shadowy image of the balloon, contracting and expanding, coming closer. She spun around, her back to the door. It was not there. Her heart raced as her eyes searched the front room but there was no sign of the balloon anywhere.

Danny sat on the couch next to his mother, a T.V. remote in one hand, a slice of 'extra pepperoni' in the other. He took a bite from his pizza and watched the T.V. flash from channel to channel at the push of a thumb. His mom sat at the opposite end of the couch, eyes locked on the flashing screen, the brown bottle in her hand. The flashing stopped.

"Mom, can I watch 'Mr. Pickles' - it's a cartoon?" Danny asked.

His mom grunted what he considered to be approval, blinked once, then stowed the bottle back in her purse. She resumed her stare failing to notice the balloon bobbing lazily, spinning slowly, moving in her direction.

Danny jumped when he heard a loud hissing and the sound of claws digging into the back of the couch. He turned to see the cat gnawing at the coils of ribbon dangling inches from his mother's shoulder.

"Ha, ha!" Danny laughed and reached for the ribbon. "You wanna play with the balloon, China?" He teased the ribbon in front of the cat who joyfully nipped and clawed at it until the end was shredded, a syrupy red liquid staining the alabaster colored upholstery.

From the television, Mr. Pickles chanted:

'Satan, I call upon your power this night, May evil spread without a fight, And blood flow until the dawn of light.'

Danny laughed and flung the balloon unceremoniously into the middle of the room. The cat watched it drift to a stop and float toward the ceiling. Then, China darted after it and lunged into the air, hanging a claw on the ribbon and jerking the balloon to the floor. She chewed at the ribbon, grinding it until the white fur around her face became blotched with red.

The balloon, expanded tight to the point of bursting and appeared to struggle, floating left and right, its ribbon taut like it was attempting to free itself. It turned, the shiny side catching the light from a lamp and reflecting it back into the cat's wild eyes. China squinted , allowing the ribbon to slip. The balloon drifted upward again.

But China hadn't given up. She leaped into the air, snatching the balloon in her front paws and both of them tumbling back to the floor. China let go but the damage had been done.

Tiny holes from needle-sharp claws bled helium from the balloon. It tried to rise but managed only a few inches off the floor. This was too much temptation for the truculent tabby. China went for the kill. Her teeth gnawed and gnashed at the balloon. She rolled onto her back and issued a flurry of slashes with her hind legs, then sprang up. Her back paws and belly matted with the red, blood-like liquid.

The balloon lay, deflated on the carpet. China walked over to it and flipped casually at the edge with her front paw. Satisfied, she stepped on it, the balloon crinkling beneath her paws, and cruised into the kitchen. Danny sat on the couch watching Mr. Pickles chew the head off a live chicken.

#

By the time 'Samurai Jack' came on , the pizza box set nearly empty on the coffee table, Teresa sat with her neck bent at an extreme angle toward a drool soaked right shoulder, Danny curled at the other end of the couch with China napping on his left hip. Her ears pricked at the toward a soft swishing sound and the crinkle of plastic. She looked up, though of no concern to her, the balloon was gone.

China stood up on Danny's hip, hopped onto the back of the couch and stretched into the Yoga pose appropriately called 'Bidalasana', Cat pose. She alighted gracefully onto the floor, meandered to her bowl in the kitchen and scooped a few pieces of food into her mouth, emitting a cracking crunch with each laborious bite.

Without warning or reason the cat sprang instinctively straight up into the air. She turned but it was too late. The limp and tattered balloon was upon her. It enveloped her nose and mouth while the snake-like ribbon coiled around her neck. The cat scratched and pawed without a hope. The balloon expanded and rose gently into the air. The cat dangled from her neck at the end of the ribbon, twisting and twirling only to have the ribbon cut into her neck leaving no doubt. The red stain seeping from beneath her fur was her own blood. The balloon held China suspended until the paw of her hind leg twitched for the last time.

#

"Where am I?"

A woman's whisper echoes in the darkness. She takes a cautious step forward, hands out in front of her, eyes blind to her surroundings. Her footfalls echo off narrow walls, she is in a hallway. Her pulse quickens, her breathing comes in shallow breaths then she stops. The slow, deep "rowl" of an angry cat freezes her.

"China?" she says, uneasy. She realizes she has her purse and takes out her phone.

The cat cowers at the sudden appearance of light. It considers running but is unsure.

"China. What's wrong?"

The cat's mouth opens in a hiss, fangs on display. A warning. Her white fur matted and thick with blood. Then she leaps.

Teresa wakes with a jolt. Sitting upright, the pain of a stiff neck stabbing into her. She rubs her neck and thinks she sees something cross in front of the light of the T.V. The balloon stops and slowly turns as if to face her. A coldness grips her spine and rattles it. She reaches for the bottle in her purse and puts two pills into her mouth but they taste funny; they feel funny.

The pills start to move, to crawl inside her mouth, sharp legs scratch her tongue, her gums, inside her cheeks. She spits into her hand and sees they're not pills at all - they're spiders! She looks at the bottle in time to see hundreds of tiny spiders skittering out, crawling down, covering her hand like a wool glove come alive! She tries to shake them off. They're all over her. She looks up to scream but it catches in her throat. There's a bright, shimmering surface shining light in her eyes. It's the balloon, an inch from her face!

She wakes up.

Teresa is blanketed in a damp cold. She rubs on her hands and arms, her skin still crawling. Pushing herself off the couch, she made her way through the darkness to the kitchen. She flipped on the light and sees the balloon, floating, lurking. She gasped then, gaining control of herself, growled her frustration. She grabbed the balloon by the ribbon and dragged it to the hall closet and stuffs it in. She closed the door tight.

In the kitchen, the dishes have piled up. Plates, glasses and pizza boxes on the counter. Pots and silverware taking up the sink, some left on the stove. Teresa found a small glass on the counter then opened the cupboard door. Mac and cheese, tuna fish, generic sweet pops cereal. She moved to a drawer and opened it. A wrench, a screwdriver, some chewing gum, a tiny plastic bottle. She grabbed the bottle, twisted the cap, breaking its protective seal and brought it to her lips. The burn it made in her throat warmed her entire body. She closed her eyes and sighed. Something then brushed lightly across her wrist. A short scream escaped her lips as she spun around.

"Mommy, I'm thirsty."

Teresa breathed. She nodded to Danny and chose a thick plastic cup sitting on the counter, filled it from the kitchen faucet and handed it to him. He drank in big gulps and handed it back.

"Now go to bed," she said as she took the cup from him.

Danny turned and walked out of the kitchen. She followed him down the hall until he went into his room. When she turned to go into her own room it felt as if the temperature had dropped thirty degrees. The door to the hall closet was open.

She backed away slowly toward Danny's room, her eyes never losing sight of the closet. "Danny?" she called over her shoulder. "Did you open the hall closet?"

He didn't answer.

"Danny!"

Still no answer.

She stole a look into Danny's room and flipped on the light. Danny was on his bed asleep already. She went to his bed and shook him. "Danny!"

He stirred. "Wha' momma?"

"Did you open the hall closet?"

"No." He rolled over.

Teresa's eyes darted around the room. She got up from the bed and went to the door, flipped off the light and looked down the hallway. The hall closet door hung open a crack. She slowly walked to it, touched the door and drug it fully open. The balloon had gotten out!

After a quick look behind her, Teresa tip-toed warily back into the living room, checking in all the shadows, but there was no sign of the balloon. She paused to consider then couldn't help but laugh at herself. When the laugh died out of her she stood in the silence of the mostly darkened apartment and the dimly lit hallway. Then, to no one in particular, she said, "I need a smoke."

She slumped onto the couch in the living room and dug into her purse, took out a pack of Winston's and the free book of matches that came with it. She lit up a cigarette, tossed the matchbook and cigarette pack onto the coffee table, leaned back and took a good, long drag. She blew it out, a smile growing on her face. "Ridiculous," she said.

Moments later, she smashed the half-smoked fag into the ashtray, turned out all the lights and headed to her room. Pushing the door open, she heard it, the soft crinkle of Mylar. She saw its reflective, silver surface--even in the dark. She froze for a second, but then grabbed the balloon by its ribbon and hauled it into the hallway. She went back into her room and shut the door.

Teresa had taken a step toward her bed when she heard the bottom edge of the door brush over the polyester fibers of cheap carpet. She spun around instantly to see the balloon floating in the doorway, a coil of its ribbon sliding from the knob. Teresa touched her neck, the raised welts still puffy beneath her fingertips. She backed away. The balloon swayed gently, back and forth, wafting its way closer to her.

Her leg bumped the end of the bed, stopping her, her balance faltering. She glanced backward and placed a hand to prevent her from falling then looked up. The balloon was on her, just as before. "It moved so fast!" she thought. "How?!" All registered in her brain in an instant. In that same instant, she took a breath to scream. She never got that breath.

She sucked in the balloon that sealed her mouth and nose, wrapping around her face like Cling wrap. Her terror was acidic. The panic was on her shoulders like a vicious monkey. She jerked backwards and fell onto the bed, unable to breath, the crinkling in her ears. It was moving, changing, ALIVE!

Her lungs burned with the acid of her terror, unable to take a breath, no one to help. Her hands went to her face, clawing at the balloon, now molded to the contours of her face. She pulled and felt it give. A crack opened near the corner of her mouth and she felt the cool air seep in, entering her lungs. She pulled harder, her muscles tight, then felt something tickle her as it crossed over the backs of her hands - once, twice.

The balloon's ribbon wrapped around Teresa's hands and head. It pulled with impossible strength, pressing hands to her face. Her chest heaved in an effort to get more air.

But there was none.

She fought. Kicking madly, rolling side to side, the bed knocked into the night stand and pitched a lamp over the edge. A lighter, an empty cigarette pack both fell onto the floor. But the balloon and its snakelike ribbon held firm with demonic strength.

Her head throbbed unbearably from the lack of oxygen. Her strength waned, her lungs quivered and tears burned her eyes with the knowledge of impending death. In her mind she heard a tiny voice, a whisper not her own. "I release you."

Her mind spun, conjuring a forgotten memory of her as a little girl on a swing. She had sat in the flexible saddle and twisted and twirled the chain to as tight as she could get it, then let go. She spun so fast that the world streamed past her in blurry lines of color and light. She laughed and laughed for a full minute until she ground her feet to a stop, her head, however, kept spinning. That's how it felt now. Except now, she wasn't laughing. She wasn't breathing. Finally, all she saw was black.

#

Danny covered his face. The light in his eyes was blinding, even though they were closed. He turned over in his bed, away from the window and the daybreak shining in. He heard a muffled voice. It was shouting, calling him.

"Danny! Open up," came the muffled voice.

Danny's breath caught in his chest and he became excited.

"Daddy!"

Danny bounded to the front door, spun the deadbolt and flung the door open. He smiled broadly.

"Danny Boy!" The big man picked him up and hugged him. "Where's your mom? I've been knocking."

Danny pulled away and shrugged.

Thomas McGovern had always felt guilty for Teresa's addictive behaviors though he continued to deny it long after he finished the fire academy, long after the shifts he spent away from her, and long after the affair that ended their marriage. He made all the excuses men make. This is for us; It's only until I've proved myself to them; We didn't do anything; and It's because you changed. None of it was true.

The divorce happened at the worse time. It came during a suspension over an issue that nearly cost him his job with the fire department. He was at his lowest while she put up a good front. The courts were always lenient towards the mother. But this time, their decision had been wrong.

Though Thomas had proved to the investigation committee that his actions were just and all the accusations and suspicions had been dropped, it was too late. Teresa got Danny and he got a bill for child support every month. A bill he gladly paid if only Danny was the one to benefit from it.

He wasn't.

Teresa became addicted to prescription drugs and Thomas noticed she was getting worse. It was becoming more and more difficult to see Danny while he watched Teresa spiral into what he'd already seen too many times in his line of work - oblivion. Standing at the door of Teresa's and Danny's apartment, he felt fear scratching at him from inside his stomach. He put Danny down.

"Wait here, Danny," he said, firmly and rushed down the hall.

When Thomas opened the door to Teresa's room he knew it was bad. The blankets from the bed had been shoved onto the floor. A lamp with no visible shade had been knocked over and hung upside down by its cord over a nightstand. A brown bottle with four or five pills spilling out of it lay on the floor.

Teresa lie half-on, half-off the bed, one arm extended out over the edge, her head lulled in the opposite direction. She looked pale and she wasn't breathing. A shiny balloon floated ominously in the shadows of a far corner.

Thomas rushed to her side, moving her arm to her side and straightening her head, he put an ear next to her mouth and listened for breathing. Knowingly, he heard nothing.

He gave her a slap on the cheek and shouted her name.

"Teresa!"

He felt for a pulse. It was slow and faint. Thomas put a hand under her neck and with his other hand on her forehead he pushed down. Her chin jutted upward. He then pinched her nose, placed his mouth to hers and blew, watching her chest rise as he did.

He pulled away and the air that had just filled her lungs escaped in a long slow gasp. He put his mouth to hers and blew again. Her chest rose again, he pulled away, she gasped. He slapped her hard.

"Come on!" he shouted, then blew into her again.

"Daddy?" Danny stood in the doorway. Thomas shot him a look.

"Danny--," Thomas's voice trailed off. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his smart phone, snapped it on, traced a 'lucky' seven on the screen and showed it to Danny.

"Do you know how to use this?"

Danny nodded. "Mommy showed me in case she fell asleep and didn't wake up."

"Shit!" Thomas muttered. She knew this would happen, had enough sense to teach him what to do but...Jesus! he thought.

"Call 9-1-1." He tossed the phone to Danny and breathed into her again.

Danny held the phone in his little hands but his eyes caught sight of his balloon. It was drifting from the corner toward him. He looked at his mommy lying on the bed. Her chest rising with each breath from his daddy. His eyes blurred and turned glassy. He wasn't sure why but he felt the pain in his chest and a sick in his tummy. He dialed the three digits his mother had taught him and pressed send. It was only now that he understood why.

Danny handed the phone back to his father. Thomas hit the speakerphone just as the dispatcher answered the call.

"9-1-1, what is your emergency?"

"My name is Fire Tech Thomas McGovern, station 15. I am off duty. Is this Randall?

"Randall. Yes, it is! What's going on Mac?"

"I'm with a woman, age 27, unconscious, possible drug overdose. Is Engine 61 available?"

"Lemme check." The line went silent for a moment. Thomas checked Teresa's pulse, but he couldn't find one.

"Randall?! I've lost a pulse and starting compressions." Thomas began pushing down on Teresa's chest.

"Yes. Engine 61 is a available. Where are you?"

"My ex-wife's place. Jack knows the way."

Danny stood in one spot grimacing as his dad pushed down on his mom's chest.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5," he counted in his head, lips moving. Then Daddy kissed her but somehow he knew it wasn't a regular kiss. Mommy's chest rose twice, once for each kiss. Then Daddy pushed on her chest again, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5."

The balloon edged around the corner of the bed, drifting slowly along an imperceptible eddy of air. Danny turned his head and watched it, wary of its intentions.

"Damn," his father cried. "Teresa!" he screamed at her. "Don't you dare give up! Don't you leave Danny!" Thomas checked her pulse. Nothing. "C'mon, Jack," he muttered and started breathing for her again. A moment later, he looked around the room and his eyes locked on the lamp dangling from its cord over the edge of the nightstand.

"Danny?"

Danny's eyes snapped from the balloon to his father and watched him stand up. "Are the towels still in the hall?"

Danny nodded and his father raced past him into the hallway. Danny shot a glance back to the balloon. It moved toward the bed.

Thomas yanked open the hall door, grabbed two dish towels then took two long strides into the bathroom, turned on the sink and soaked both towels. He gave them a quick squeeze.

"NO!" Danny shouted from the bedroom.

Thomas entered seconds later but saw nothing. Only a 'Happy Birthday' balloon with morbidly cheerful orange and blue text hanging in the air directly above Teresa. Thomas slapped it away.

"Danny, cover your eyes."

Danny did what he was told and covered his face with both hands. But from the side of one hand, he watched the balloon.

Thomas ripped open Teresa's shirt exposing her bare breasts. He placed a towel, still dripping, on each side of her chest and yanked a leatherman tool from a case attached to his belt. He reached over, gripped the lamp and yanked the cord from the wall. With the leatherman, he snipped the cord free and tossed the lamp on the floor behind him. Then he grasped the cut end of the cord with his fingertips and pulled it apart, splitting the cord down the middle into two single wires.

Thomas put the end of one wire into his mouth and stripped two inches of the protective casing off with his teeth exposing the copper strands inside. He quickly twisted the strands, binding them together and repeated the process with the other wire. Holding one wire in one hand and letting the other hang freely, he took a deep breath and stuffed the plug back into the outlet with his other hand.

Thomas knew that if he touched the ends of the bare wires together they would throw a breaker and likely fuse together with searing electrical heat. He also knew from his fire academy training that the human body could act as one big organic resistor - which is the basis for why a defibrillator can work without blowing up.

The wet towels on Teresa's chest act as both conductors - because of the water, allowing the electricity to flow across her body and hopefully jump start her heart and human electrical system, and also a protective barrier for her skin. He had never tried this. He might get one or two tries before throwing a breaker and it was dangerous but he had no other option. He looked back, checking that Danny was clear, then hit her with the wires.

110 volts of electricity crossed Teresa's body. Not near as much as a bolt of lightning, some have even survived that. However, more people have died from household electricity (since there was household electricity, that is) than lightning. That fact he knew. Teresa's body went rigid, her eyes even shot open. The spots where the wires connected with the towels blackened and smoked.

A low buzz tickled Danny's ears and the acrid smell of smoke burned his nose. He shut his eyes tight. The bed creaked violently from the jolt to his mother and then it was quiet. Danny allowed his eyes to open, instinctively moving them toward the crease of light at the side of his hand. Where he expected to see the balloon hanging docile in the air was nothing but empty space.

There was a loud click behind a metal panel in the wall over the bed and Thomas knew that he had just used up his only shot. Thomas tossed the wires backward knowing they were now useless and looked for any sign of life from Teresa. But his attention was drawn away by Danny's cries.

"Not my Daddy, too," he whimpered.

Thomas glanced at him unaware of the shiny balloon expanding and contracting behind his head, its red ribbon sliding over his shoulder like a snake prepared to strike.

Thomas had grown upon the streets of Harlem, one of few 'crackers' who could say they did. His size was enough to prevent most beatdowns, already 5'11" and 135lbs. In the summer between seventh and eighth grade. He was also good at making friends. Color had nothing to do with violence, he knew. It was poverty and when you're poor, you do whatever it takes to provide for yourself and family. It was a way of life--just how it was in Harlem.

But the danger was there, still. He had been jumped a few times, regardless of his size. Once over a girl, another over his Nikes. Scrappin was a way of life--just how it was in Harlem.

He was even held up at knife point leaving a 7-11 after dark. A desperate man drug him by the back of his collar into a nearby alleyway then tossed him, head first, into a dumpster. Thomas scrambled up but stopped when he saw the rays of a street lamp reflecting off the blade held point first four inches from his neck.

The man had wild eyes and tattered clothes. Homeless, maybe, but Thomas doubted. He guessed it was more like this guy had just gotten out of county and needed another fix. It was a Friday and his lucky day. Thomas calmly pulled from his front pocket the $34 dollars and change he had made sweeping up sugar from the plant up on Pike Street. He handed to the guy who quickly snatched it away, looked around wildly then ran away. Thomas just shook it off, happy all he lost was $34 bucks-- 's just how it was in Harlem.

His life there taught him that struggle was real. You do what you can for yourself and, if there's anything left, you do what you can for someone else. He learned about family and community, something most people don't realize exists there, living on the 'outs'. But it was also a jungle that taught about life and death, survival and using your instincts. Danny's cries had set off all kinds of alarms.

Thomas couldn't explain it but his instincts at that moment told him to protect himself and his hands shot up. One hand caught the red ribbon mid-strike as it wrapped a noose around his neck. His knuckles forced into his neck as the ribbon tightened on him. With his other hand he reached back for his assailant, reached for an ear, his eyes, some hair. But there was nothing. His free hand waved frantically behind his head while his other was being sliced into by the ribbon.

He rolled to the floor trying to loose himself but felt himself being drug upward by some force he could not reach. He dug his fingers of his free hand under the ribbon and yanked, trying to break it from his neck. To his astonishment it held and cut deeper into his hands now slick with warm blood. He strained to look around and saw the leatherman at the end of the bed. He grabbed it with one bloody hand but it slipped and fell to the floor. The ribbon seemed to sense its advantage and became tighter. Thomas gagged and reached blindly for the leatherman but came up with handfuls of carpet.

Danny watched in horror as his balloon wrapped its ribbon around his Daddy's neck. The balloon whipping back and forth like it was caught in a storm gust or wind dragging the grown man with it.

Danny cheered, "Get 'im, Daddy!" when Thomas locked his hand around the metal leatherman tool. But his heart sank when he saw them drop to the floor and get kicked under the bed.

As the ribbon got tighter, Thomas had no choice but to use both hands just to keep from being strangled. He stood, aided by the pull of the balloon, tripped over a blanket and crashed into the window, shattering the glass. A summer wind billowed through the curtains, jagged bits of glass protruding lie the teeth of a hungry shark in a blood frenzy. Thomas thought, if he could only grab a piece of glass to--

Almost as if the balloon had read his mind, it jerked Thomas away crossing in front of the mirror and, for the first time, Thomas realized in disbelief what he was fighting. He strength waned, body faint at this impossible situation. The balloon, feeling his victim weaken, swung in a circle around Thomas's head and flung him at the window, glass teeth hungry for the taste of warm flesh.

Thomas threw out an arm to break his fall and felt the burn of broken glass slicing into his wrist, forearm and elbow. The pain paralyzing his thoughts , he released the ribbon with his other hand to push him off the glass.

With the same demonic strength, the balloon's ribbon tightened securely around Thomas's neck and the balloon pulled. He felt his windpipe close and the air locked out of his lungs. His eyes rolled back in his head, hands flailing out in front of his body. Then, like a release, fell flat on his back, air gushing back into his lungs. He was breathing again!

He rolled over in time to see the short red coils of ribbon flutter to the floor, the balloon shoot towards the ceiling and Danny standing with the leatherman in his hand.

"Danny," Thomas croaked.

Danny dropped the leatherman and looked at his Daddy, the tears welling in his eyes. But the balloon, fully expanded shot at him like a dodgeball and slammed him in the face knocking him to the floor. It went for another strike but stopped and cowered. It puckered and backed away.

Danny and Thomas heard it before they knew what made it. A whooshing, pressurized sound like a high wind over a campfire came from behind Danny. Teresa was on her knees. A trial size can of hairspray from the $1 Dollar Buck Barn and a lighter in the other. A puffing stream of flame jetting from the can directed straight at the balloon.

The balloon crinkled and squirmed as it backed away. The bursts of flame getting closer as Teresa moved toward it. The balloon backed against the curtains of the broken window. Its cheerful orange and blue text expanding and contracting like the breath of a cornered animal. Teresa hit the spray again, a blood curdling scream exiting her throat and lunged at the balloon with the flame. But a just of wind parted the curtains and the balloon slipped out the window and into the sky, leaving only a smear of syrupy blood red liquid on the point of one of the glass teeth located at the top of the window.

Thomas rushed to the window but the only sign of the balloon was a glittering speck floating a mile in the sky. The warbling sound of a siren cut the air and seconds later there was a crash through the front door. Teresa jumped at the noise then dropped to her hands and knees, exhausted. Her head spun as she felt her body shut itself down and she fainted.

#

Two paramedics exited the front door with Teresa passed out on a gurney and an IV of fresh saline draining into a vein on her right arm.

Jack and Thomas were speaking together, Danny in tow by the hand, following the gurney. At the front door, Thomas felt Danny pull to a stop.

"Danny, let's go."

"Where's China, Daddy?" Danny said looking back into the apartment. "Where's China?"

Jack looked puzzled by the question, especially after all that had happened. "China?" he asked.

"The cat," Thomas filled in. "He's looking for the cat."

"Oh."

"I'm sure China's fine, Danny." Thomas assured him. "We must take care of Mommy, now."

Danny was still turned the other way and being drawn out by the arm. "Okay," he said, facing front again, following his dad out the door and closing it behind them.

Inside, the balloon drifted from the hallway and floated to the window behind the TV as the gurney, two men and Danny walked by. It stayed there until they left, swishing its long red ribbon slowly, left and right, the tip of it brushing lightly over the bloodied fur of a dead white cat formerly known as China.

END


© Copyright 2018 A.E. Scott. All rights reserved.

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