The Predecessor

I haven’t had much inspiration today nor time to attempt to throw a decent post together.  Therefore, I will be sharing the short story I wrote for my Gateway to English Studies class.  For my novel writing month, I was planning on recycling some of the elements in this story — although really I don’t have very many ideas.  Also, note that this short story spurred the creation of the title of this blog.

Before you start reading it, just be forewarned: it’s a long short story, just over 3000 words.  I warned you so you can stop here if you want.  I won’t be offended and would understand if you don’t have the time nor the motivation to finish.  That being said, here it is:

One Red Balloon

                 It was a very grey day, a day where even the sky was shrouded in a charcoal cloak, a mellow day when even the lumbering clouds hung low and yet were too lazy to release the rain that churned within them.  Lazy was the wrong word – it was as if they were waiting for something to happen, the addition of one drop that caused the pitcher to run over, a moment when the balance swayed and the scales tipped just enough to send the contents of the heavens tumbling down.

The doctor shook her head to clear her mind of the cobwebs that clung to her thoughts.  There was nothing dangerous about a rainstorm in March, simply part of the routine of the month.  Routine was the foundation upon which Dr. Sybil Eisenberg built her life.  Every morning she arose precisely at 6 and stepped into the shower at 6:07.  Afterwards, she dressed in her uniform grey trousers and white blouse before pulling her silvery hair into a smooth, tight ponytail.  Every part of her appearance was immaculate, not a string or hair out of place.  At 6:32, she ate her one piece of whole wheat toast – no butter – and drank her French roast, black coffee.  Her tongue was still tinged with its bitter flavor as she pulled into work at exactly 6:57.  This routine had been the same everyday for the past 27 years that she had worked at Sunny Days Psychiatric Center.

Only one patient filled her schedule for today: Serefina Baines.  Dr. Eisenberg had earned her medical reputation by focusing all her attention on one patient until she had reached a breakthrough.  Although her “smothering” strategy often came under considerable heat in the medical community, her pride was founded in her perfect success rate – in fact, only one of her cases had ever rebounded and even that one had been minor enough to be corrected with a few more months of counseling.  Dr. Eisenberg believed that each person could be remolded – refined if you will – under a certain amount of pressure.  Push a person to their breaking point and they will fold under fire like molten steel and the impurities could easily be hammered out.

The manila file in Dr. Eisenberg’s hand was thin, containing only the patient’s personal information and admittance notes.  The secretary who had previously handed it to her also held a legal notepad, a black ballpoint pen, and a blank expression that rivaled the ones plastered on the faces of the victims housed among the white walls.

“Inmate 451 is waiting for you in room 118, Doctor,” the secretary intoned as the two of them exchanged the contents of their hands.  Dr. Eisenberg responded with a curt nod and strode to the room purposefully.

Every door in the hospital had a horizontal, four-inch slot by which one could slide back an iron bar in order to look into the room to check up on every patient; this room was no different.  The screech of the iron against the door went unnoticed by Inmate 451.  Dr. Eisenberg’s steely eyes analyzed the girl as her hand hesitated on the handle.

Eighteen-year-old Serefina Baines was perched on a chair by the only window in the room.  She gazed out it and displayed a sharp profile with cheekbones so sharp that they nearly sliced through the porcelain skin.  Her claw-like hands were folded demurely in her lap amidst the folds of the white hospital gown.  She looked sickly and colorless except for the mane of red waves that cascaded down her back.  Having gathered as much information as she could from mere appearances, Dr. Eisenberg stepped into the chilly room.

Serefina’s head swiveled towards her.  The look that emanated from those cinereal eyes was enough to send shivers down the usually stoic and unaffected doctor’s spine.  The doctor had seen many empty eyes before in her career, but none so hollow as these charcoal spheres which seemed to swirl with meandering thoughts.  Those thoughts, however, were locked from the inside, for those eyes were so self-contained that the doctor swore she could almost see the double padlocked bars that kept them hostage.  There was so much held within but there was a chasm, a desolate void so deep that it bordered the edge of Hell, that separated Serefina from the reality of her life.  The doctor cleared her throat.  Why was she plagued with so many foreboding thoughts this melancholy morning?  It was most inconvenient on this of all days, when she had to deal with a particularly curious case.

“Ms. Baines, I am Dr. Eisenberg,” she introduced matter-of-factly as she sat on the chair across from Inmate 451.  Crossing her legs and flipping to a clean sheet of paper, she clicked her pen to begin the day’s session.

Serefina nodded her head politely but made no verbal response.

“You have been sent here because you have hallucinations, is that correct?”

Another silent nod.

“I saw in your file that you resisted admittance, yes?”

Yet another nod.

“May I ask why?” the doctor inquired, irritation edging her voice.

Serefina stared blankly and turned back to the window.

Dr. Eisenberg pursed her lips to keep from losing all of her patience.  “Ms. Baines, I realize that you do not wish to be here, but you must answer my questions.  The sooner you answer me, the sooner you can return to your natural state of health, and the sooner you may leave here.  Now, I will ask again,” she finished, her voice dangerously low.  “Why did you resist admittance?”

Unperturbed by her speech, Serefina spoke softly, “Dear doctor, I do not mean to irritate you.  But I cannot answer your question.”

Dr. Eisenberg raised her thin eyebrows.  “Why not?”

They made eye contact.  “Because I don’t know the answer,” Serefina murmured before lowering her eyes to her folded hands.

The doctor scribbled down   “uestion.”tate you. ittance?”ur natural state of health, and the sooner you may leave here. o swirl with a few words down.  a few words down.  “I see.  Can you describe your hallucinations to me then?  Even you don’t know, at least try.”

Serefina smiled patronizingly.  “Dear doctor, you will not understand.”

Dr. Eisenberg refrained from rolling her eyes.  “Ms. Baines, I am not here to understand your illusions.  I am here to fix you,” she responded drily, managing a tight smile as she folded her hands together.

Serefina tilted her head thoughtfully.  “Very well, doctor.  My hallucinations are something like this…” her voice faded as her stormy eyes churned with stories yet untold and gazed into nothing, summoning forth ghosts from the very air she breathed…

~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

A copper-haired maiden perched on her stool within the confines of a tall stone tower whose turrets scraped the sky.  She lived completely alone.  Her father, the King, had once offended a nymph – one of the many daughters of the sun.  As his punishment, his only daughter was to be taken to a tower in the sky where she would live out her days between worlds.  Never would her feet touch the earth, nor would her face soak up the warmth of the sun.  

There was only one window in her home and, as the sun god had promised, his golden rays had never once warmed her milky skin.  Her only companions were the tapestry loom that stretched the length of the floor and the gilded mirror that covered the height of the wall.  The only world she lived in was the one that she saw reflected in that mirror.  She counted the seasons by the planting and the harvest and she learned what love looked like from the country lovers who happened to stroll by and steal kisses in the dirt lane that her mirror faced.   She wasted her days away weaving the scenes in her mirror into the tapestry on her loom and at the end of every day by the glimmer of the moon she would pull out her day’s work in order to have enough room for tomorrow. 

                She continued this semblance of a life, until one day she saw a young man in her mirror.  This was not unusual.  However, this one was far more handsome than any other lad she had laid upon; indeed the mirror could hardly do him justice.  Her hands trembled as she wove his likeness into the cloth.  Having finished within the hour, she compared her work to the reflection’s depiction.  The brightly colored threads paled in comparison to his youthful glow.  As she set aside her craft, she noticed he had stopped to water his horse and to rest upon his journey.  He, too, was alone. 

                Her heart skipped a beat as she memorized the sharp plane of his cheekbones peppered with ebony stubble, the gentle swell of his muscles beneath the smoldering tan skin, those robin’s egg blue eyes that shone clear as the summer sky that very day.  Her hands left sweaty prints against the glass as she leaned ever closer, perusing every shadow upon his face, every glint of sweat from the day’s travel.  Finally she could stand it no longer.  Whirling around, she threw herself against the window’s edge, craving the sight of him with her own two eyes.  Just as her eyes focused to the light they began to burn as if doused in acid and even her eyelids scabbed over as she tried to close them.  The sunlight scorched her delicate skin, peeling it back from the bone in painful, blistering layers.  Her screech was silenced by the sun’s grip on her throat, the tender flesh of her tongue flaking off in dry chunks and choking her as she tried to swallow.  Her salty tears etched a trail of fire on her face as she crumpled to the ground. The acrid stench of her own smoking hair consumed her nose.  Her last thought, “I didn’t even get to see him,” echoed in her mind with the crackling of the flames that consumed her… 

                                ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

“Do you understand, dear doctor?” Serefina finished.  Her voice altered dramatically from the direct story-telling of the hallucination’s narrator to the gentle murmur of the patient before her doctor.

The doctor raised her eyebrows as she lifted her eyes from her notes, answering in a bored tone, “As I said before Ms. Baines, I’m not here to understand you; merely, to fix you.”

Serefina sighed and picked at a loose thread of her gown.  “I pity you all the more then.”

Rather taken aback, the doctor was shocked.  “Pity me?” she asked incredulously. “Whatever do you mean?”

Serefina smiled slyly, biting her lower lip as if she had a secret that burned on her lips.  “Dear doctor,” sarcasm edging her words. “Surely you cannot imagine that I wish to be in your seat right now, scribbling meaningless notes, listening to the illusions of Inmate 451,” she spat with disgust as sparks of fury lit her eyes.

Dr. Eisenberg smiled and tapped her pen on the notepad.  “Ms. Baines, I do not expect you to understand.”

An inane giggle bubbled from Inmate 451.  “Oh of course not, doctor.  I’m not here to understand…” her sentence dangling like a dead man on the gallows whose feet still twitched from the dance of death.  The anger in her eyes dissipated into phantoms of her imagination that swayed in rhythm to the thumping of her heart…

~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

Amy thudded down the dark oaken staircase into the main hall of the funeral home that housed her and her father.  While the other kids entertained themselves with basketballs and jump ropes, Amy brought the “fun into funeral” and made her playroom where they displayed the caskets.  Caskets and corpses don’t exactly encourage friend-making; in fact, Amy’s best friend was dead.  His name was Keith.  The local taxidermist and her father were good friends; as a result, when Amy’s beloved cat died, Mr. Blake did her a favor.  Keith now sat immobilized on her father’s desk and observed the entire preservation process with a watchful eye.  Amy often joined him.

                The only reason Amy watched her father prepare the dead – besides to spend quality time with Keith – was to search for the souls that she thought would float into the air as they attempted to escape the formaldehyde infused into the tissues.  When her father was distracted by scalpel selection or by mixing the right amount of chemicals to inject into the cold blue veins, Amy would often peel back the eyelids to reveal the glassy stare of those who had seen their last.  Peering into the emptiness, she often saw her own pupils flashing in the reflection, a calm light burning within.  It was for that light that she looked.  This light was not present in the eyes of any person that she had examined so far.  Nevertheless, Amy was determined that each person should not lose their soul into the noisy ventilator shafts above and that each inner flame should be protected.

                This night, Amy sat on her father’s overstuffed office chair at the desk, absentmindedly petting the worn spot on Keith’s right paw.  There was a single yellow candle on the desk.  The formaldehyde stench was so strong that her father had tried scented candles awhile ago, although he had now switched to plug-in air fresheners.  However, Amy had always preferred the candles and her father had always left one for her.  She watched the flame flicker back and forth, beckoning the shadows closer.  It waved as the ventilators kicked on and jerked around as if the breeze had tickled it. 

                “It’s like you’re a little soul,” Amy crooned, gazing at the candle’s movements. 

                But what if it was a soul?  What if the light that shone within her eyes was the same that dwelt in the flame of this little vanilla-scented candle? What did Keith think?

                As she looked to her cat to contemplate such matters of life and death, she was struck by the glint in his green eyes.  Puzzled, she leaned closer.  No, she hadn’t mistaken it.  It was there.  The little glimmer of a soul had hidden itself away in Keith’s eyes.  A sudden whoosh of air burst forth as the ventilator shut off and suffocated the little candle; Amy hardly bothered to glance over at the burned wick.  Keith’s eyes burned brighter still and a smile crept onto Amy’s lips. Could it be?  By acknowledging its existence, had she really, actually, truly done it?

                “I saved you,” she murmured, caressing the cat’s head with her fingers. 

                Keith said nothing but the glow within his emerald eyes flickered as if to give an affirmative wink.

~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

“Ms. Baines, I would appreciate it if you could speak to me without succumbing to these illusions of yours.  Could you please share what you are thinking without telling a story?”

“I suppose I could speak to you outside the frame of a story, dear doctor, but you wouldn’t ever pinpoint the source of my troubles in the first place,” Serefina admitted, picking at a hangnail.

“And what troubles you?” the doctor inquired suddenly, excitedly anticipating a new angle.        Serefina smiled demurely as a bead of blood welled up on her thumb.  “I could tell you.  You would hear but you wouldn’t listen.  You would cast away my story and in doing do, throw away what you are trying to find.”

The doctor pursed her lips and fixed a steely glare on her patient.  “Ms. Baines, as your medical professional, I insist that you tell me what bothers you,” she commanded with an air that suggested she was used to being obeyed and that all the previous stories had tried her patience to its limits.

Serefina bit her lip to keep from grinning.  “Very well,” she consented, her eyes drifting away into a sea of clouds that filled the horizon of her mind as Dr. Eisenberg’s shouts were absorbed into the grey atmosphere…

~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

                The whole dirt yard crawled with neighborhood kids as broken Spanish pierced the air intermingled with shouts and constant laughter.  It was Sofia’s ninth birthday and her father had just hung a rainbow-colored piñata on the lowest branch of the avocado tree in their front yard.  Excitement bristled as everyone pushed closer than the sardines that Sofia’s father canned in the factory downtown.  The promise of candy and little toys held everyone in hushed anticipation as Sofia was handed a two foot stick.  Her father’s old blue bandanna was tied tight around her eyes and frantic hands spun her in a few lopsided circles before unleashing her to crush the papier-mâché animal and allow its entrails to spill on the ground to be scooped up by anxious little fingers. 

Sofia reared back and thrust a might swing into the air.  Miss!  A second time, Sofia whirled the stick into the vicinity of the beast and hit nothing. Miss again!  The cries of the restless children spurred on her on to victory.  This third time, Sofia tensed as she let the power build – and then released the stick with so much force that it punched the animal wide open and its contents showered the hovering kids.  Grinning madly, Sofia ripped off her blindfold and cast aside her stick to discover that the candy had been greedily shoved into mouths or pockets for later consumption.  The only remnants were a crushed lollipop and a half-melted mini chocolate bar. 

Despair filled the little girl’s heart and a childish wail bubbled in her chest.  Just as tears began to burn, she heard her father’s voice behind her. 

“Está bien, chica.  Tengo algo para ti,” he chuckled, bopping her nose with his finger when he turned around.  He whipped the hand out from behind his back to reveal red balloon. 

“¡Ay, Papá!” she exclaimed, reaching for the string and grabbing it with her grubby fingers.  She twirled in a circle, watching the red blur follow her.  Faster and faster, little Sofia and her balloon spun until one misstep caused her to trip and tumble into the dirt.  As she fell, her fingers lost her grip on her precious gift and as her nose smashed into the dust, her dear balloon floated into the air.  Pushing herself up, Sofia just caught a glimpse of her balloon as it flew higher and higher.  Tears slipped down her grimy cheeks as the red balloon freckled the blue sky and floated out of her sight.

~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~             ~

The doctor sighed.  “Ms. Baines, I see that we will get no farther today.  We will continue our session tomorrow.  I would like you to think about the possibility of offering some actual answers to my questions next time,” she snapped, abruptly slapping the pen against the notepad.  Standing and slamming the door close, Dr. Eisenberg huffed her way down the hall.  She scanned her notes, muttering under her breath, “Extreme hallucinations…disturbed reality…resistant to questioning…medication highly recommended.”  With a curt nod, Dr. Eisenberg placed the notes in the secretary’s hand and smiled to herself, content with the confidence that she could fix this problem.

Serefina was left in the white room by herself and with her thoughts.  That poor dear doctor, she would never understand it; until she did, she would never be able to fix it.  With a pitying smile, she turned to face the window and the grey day on the other side of the pane.  The charcoal sky had lifted its cloak just enough to reveal one ray of sunshine.  The March wind shifted the clouds and one swirled towards the sun with every intention of snuffing its soft light.  Just before it could do so, the playful sun dodged out of the way and slipped behind another cloud into a never-ending game of hide-and-seek.  If only Serefina had let her eyes linger on the charcoal horizon for an instant longer, she would have noticed it.  But as she turned her face away and her auburn curls flashed before the window sill, she was entirely oblivious.  Just for a moment, one could’ve seen one tiny crimson dot, the freckle in the sky, like a cardinal soaring away to endless bounds of freedom and answerable to no one.  Even if Serefina had been looking, she would’ve missed it had she blinked.  But there it was, just on the horizon.

One red balloon.

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