The red balloon

A scarlet Toyota Corolla speeds down the road towards the small town of Methven. Elliot fidgets in the front seat; they don’t want to be late. Clutched in his hand is a red envelope with a small balloon stamped on the back. Ruby glances at the GPS and drums her fingers rhythmically on the steering wheel. 

A few scattered building lights appear in the distance and Elliot checks his watch. Six-thirty. They need to be there by a quarter to seven. 

“Can you speed up a little?” He asks eagerly. 

“I’m going the speed limit,” Ruby replies. 

Elliot runs his thumb over the corner of the envelope and exhales. Ruby looks over at him and raises an eyebrow. She checks the GPS again. Eight minutes to the destination. 

“Don’t worry, we’ll get there on time,” she reassures him. 

A few minutes later Ruby steers the Toyota into a gravel carpark in front of a stout building. The sign in the window reads, “HOT AIR ENDEAVOURS”. 

Ruby has barely unbuckled her seatbelt before Elliot shoots out the door, his jacket flapping behind him. Ruby grins, shakes her head and shuts off the ignition. Elliot twists and glances back over his shoulder. When he sees Ruby isn’t following, he motions with his hands for her to hurry. 

Ruby gets out of the car and stands for a moment to stretch her legs. A brisk wind whips her hair around her face and she zips up her jacket against the chill before following Elliot inside. 

“Just the two of you then,” Ruby hears a man say as she pushes open the door. 

“Yup,” Elliot responds, “our friends all chipped in for it.” 

Ruby moves in beside Elliot, slides her arm around his waist and smiles at the man behind the counter. The man has broad shoulders and a thick beard. His black t-shirt has the name “Rowan” embroidered over the heart. 

“I need to get me some friends like that!” Rowan laughs, running a hand through his auburn hair, “Let’s get moving, the weather turns South later today.”

The trio bundle into Rowan’s truck to take a short ride to a nearby paddock. The air is crisp and blustery as it moves across the Canterbury Plains. Ruby gazes out at a few tawny cows munching lazily in the early morning light. She can make out the Southern Alps, standing jagged against the brightening sky and she notices a korowai of snow is draped over Mt Hutt’s shoulders. 

Elliot gasps. He squeezes Ruby’s hand, bringing her attention back to the truck. She turns towards him and catches sight of what he’s looking at: a giant red hot air balloon. 

It stands towering in the paddock, like an upside down blood-drop. The shiny balloon bobs as it tugs strongly on a guy-rope pegged into the ground. Its woven wicker basket is perched, patiently waiting to elevate its next set of passengers. 

Rowan parks the truck and the three of them hop out. Another gust of wind whips across the plains and Ruby ties her hair back as Elliot moves closer to the balloon. Ruby follows behind him and slides her arms around his tummy. She leans into him and whispers in his ear, “Here’s to the start of the rest of our lives.” 

Rowan moves around the balloon, checking the ropes and burner. The ropes slap in the wind and he motions Elliot over to him. 

“Give me a hand,” he says, “Can you hold the basket steady for a minute while I grab the picnic from the truck?”

Elliot nods enthusiastically, moves over and places his hands on the edge of the basket. He tilts his head all the way back and looks up at the swollen balloon. It sways back and forth in the wind like a pendulum. He can feel the basket lifting under his hands and he has to push it back down to the ground.

“Are you ok?” Ruby asks.

Another gust of wind rushes past and the basket shifts, pulling the guy-ropes taut. 

“I’m fine!” Elliot laughs, strains his arms and drives the basket down again. 

The truck door slams and Rowan starts to make his way back across the paddock. The small picnic basket is draped over one arm and he’s holding a bottle of bubbles. He squints against the morning sunlight and scans the paddock. The wind grabs at his jacket and he quickens his pace. 

Ruby sees the basket come up again and Elliot jumps onto the side of it. Using his body weight to hold it down, his legs kick out behind him and his toes barely touch the ground. 

“Hey, be careful!” Rowan shouts and starts to jog towards the balloon. 

Ruby moves closer, she can tell Elliot isn’t strong enough to hold it down on his own. She reaches the basket just as more wind shoves the balloon upward. The guy-rope is yanked hard and comes loose from the ground. The basket wobbles and the balloon takes off with Elliot still hanging off the side. 

A screech escapes Ruby’s lips and the balloon rises higher. 

“Let go!” Rowan yells, dropping the bottle of champagne, “Let go now!”

Elliot, not realising the balloon has taken flight, glances over his shoulder. His eyes widen as he sees the ground disappearing from under him. The balloon swirls in the wind and Elliot clutches tighter at the basket. 

“You need to let go!” Rowan’s voice comes up from below. 

Elliot grits his teeth. “I can’t!” he screams, “I’ll fall!”

“Yes you can, let go Elliot,” Rowan urges him.

Elliot’s arms start to ache, he can see his feet dangling in the air. Ruby and Rowan are getting smaller as the balloon lifts higher. The wind jerks the balloon again and the basket sways. Elliot feels his fingers start to slip. 

Ruby screams and grabs Rowan by the arm, yelling, “Do something!”

Rowan runs towards the balloon and tries calling out to Elliot again. 

“If you want to live, you have to let go!” 

“I can’t, I can’t,” Elliot whimpers. 

The red balloon swirls, sending the basket swinging. A ray of morning sunlight flashes into Elliot’s eyes, blinding him. He squeezes them shut and sees a shower of red sunspots. His arms burn and he can’t hold on much longer. With a panicked breath, Elliot’s fingers slip and suddenly they are only grasping at air.

The balloon rises. Elliot falls, and Ruby screams. 

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