Third Place Winner, 2020 Green Stories Competition
How to Re-Fill an Invisible Balloon
by Matt Kendrick
by Matt Kendrick
No one apart from Dean can see the balloons. Translucent smudges of colour bobbing along in mid-air. Everyone has one. Adults, children, babies. His mum’s red balloon has shriveled like a sun-dried tomato and is hanging limply by her left ankle.
At the supermarket, Dean pretends he is a charioteer, feet on the trolley struts, using the push bar to veer round the corners of the aisles. Normally, his mum yanks him off and tells him to behave. Today, she picks up a vacuum-wrapped cauliflower and stares at it as if it were from another planet.
There’s a beach by their house where they take the dog for walks. Dean chases the dog along the sand and his balloon trails in his wake. He runs at the waves, laughs as the foam tickles his toes. When they get home, his balloon is big as a space hopper. His mum took a bin bag and has picked up half the beach.
Mrs Mitchell sets them a school project on oceans. She asks what you might find in the sea. Goldfish, dolphins, crabs, sharks. Seaweed? Coral? And shells. And polar bears. And boats. And messages in bottles. Dean says there’s always plastic bags drifting in the surf.
They go to a new shop where you scoop food into containers you’ve brought from home. Dean cascades white rice into a Tupperware box and slides the box onto the scales. They go to another shop for vegetables and another for shampoo pumped into a glass jar. His mum decants everything into the cupboards at home and her balloon is back bobbing above her head–for a little while at least.
She talks to their neighbor about the re-fill shop and the neighbor says it’s like stepping back in time. His mum says everything was better in the past. Dean thinks that must mean before he was born. He looks up to see his balloon has shrunk to an apple-sized sphere.
Saturday, they walk on the beach again. Dean tries to take his mum’s hand like he used to when he was little but she is busy snatching at a crisp packet with her litter picker’s claw. Dean crouches down because he has spotted some six-pack rings half-buried in the sand. When he tries to grab them, his mum yells at him like she does when he’s being a supermarket charioteer.
He asks her at bed time if she was happier before.
She hugs him tight and asks how he could think that. He explains and she hugs him again. As he drifts off to sleep, his balloon catches the trickle of moonlight seeping through the blinds.
Next time they go to the re-fill shop, Dean asks the woman on the counter if there’s re-fills for everything.
‘Most things,’ she says. ‘What is it you’re after?’
He bites his lip and looks back at his mum. ‘Have you got anything to re-fill balloons?’