In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.
Tom’s hot-air balloon, the Floating Island, hovers above us, a cloud of tofu-colored silk trapped in netting. After scores of solo flights, Tom finally deemed it safe enough to bring me aboard. I run my hands over the inner wall of the bamboo basket, which strains at the stakes pinning it to the ground. Both the balloon and I are itching to take off.
Outside the basket, Tom holds out his tongue to test the wind. The bald spot on his head is growing back, to my relief. He hadn’t wanted the haircut, but I had insisted after he agreed to swipe me a costly chuen pooi
bulb from his father’s next shipment.
“Wind’s blowier than I thought,” he mutters, looking askance at the deserted hills of the Presidio Military Reservation. We use English with each other out of habit. At school, they prohibit us from speaking our native Cantonese.
“It’s hardly more than a baby’s breath! You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No.” His smooth “good fortune” forehead wrinkles. Tom has the kind of golden face that stays handsome even when he’s worried or annoyed. “I’m already onto third and fourth.”
I wince at the mention of “four.” Tom glances at me standing motionless. I’ve never told him that I don’t like fours, after a lifelong string of mishaps involving that digit. He knows I normally scoff at my ma’s fortune-telling superstitions. He would just tease me.
But today, I refuse to be outdone by a number. I force a grin. “I didn’t spend two hours pumping the balloon with air to keep my feet on the ground.”
The predawn April chill makes me shiver through my quilted jacket. I can’t deny the light breeze. But we’re only making a quick trip up and down—ten minutes of weightless suspension, tops.
A portable stove with a funnel top directs heat through a hose into the throat of the balloon. It puffs up like a proud mother owl. I fill my own lungs, and my excitement surges once again. Flying!
Crouching, Tom scoops more coal into the stove with his spench, the half-spade half-wrench tool he made himself. He uses the wrench side to lock the stove door. “Stop bouncing. You’ll break my basket.”
“Stop worrying. They use bamboo for tiger cages. I can’t be worse than a tiger.”
“You don’t know yourself very well.”
Hardy-har. “I’ll need to be a tiger if I want to have my own global business.”
“Just don’t bite anyone.” A smile slips out, and my heart jumps. After Ma read our signs last month and pronounced us harmonious, Tom had gone strange on me, rarely smiling.
I grin back, but his gaze slides away. He pulls his newsboy cap over his head and tugs on his gloves, licking the wind one more time. Liftoff is imminent.
He yanks out the first few stakes with the spench. “Be careful near the drag rope, and don’t touch anything. By that, I mean do not make contact between yourself and any part of the Island.”
“Even my feet?”
He groans. The basket jerks as he digs out a stake. Once the last one is removed, he’ll swing over the rim like an acrobat as the balloon floats upward. My skin warms as I imagine the two of us snuggled in this bamboo capsule.
The silk deflates ever so slightly on one side. Maybe the winds are more combatant than I thought. With my hands folded behind my back, I examine the key-shaped valve on the hose that controls airflow into the balloon.
His teakwood eyes peer evenly at me. “I forgot something. Be back in a second. Don’t touch anything
. Remember the kite?”
“You don’t stop mentioning it long enough for me to forget.” Last August, he told me not to let the string run on the peony kite he made me, but I couldn’t resist, and it flew right into the Pacific Ocean.
He hikes back to his cart and is soon hidden by a grove of pine trees. What did he forget? We unloaded everything—tools, ropes, and candied ginger in case of nausea.
The silk caves even more. “Tom? The Island is collapsing!” The breeze eats my words.
I tug at my hair. My arms still ache from holding up the silk as it inflated earlier. If the balloon collapses, we’ll have to come back, and we may not get another opportunity for weeks. Ba expects me at the laundry at eight, and Tom’s father rarely gives him a day off from the herb shop.
No response. I promised I wouldn’t touch anything, but surely he’d understand.
I finger the key used to regulate hot air flow into the balloon. It’s warm. I slowly twist, and within seconds, the silk becomes plump again. Ha! Easy as catching rain.
The basket suddenly lifts. Too much heat! I try to return the key to its original position, but I’m thrown off-balance as one of only four remaining stakes pops out of the ground. Four
“Oh!” I grab onto the side of the basket, watching in horror as another stake begins to uproot, then another. In desperation, I grab again at the key but somehow pull it straight out of the socket. Heart thundering, I jam it back in, twisting and twisting, but nothing catches. The last stake unplugs like a rotting tooth, and the Island breaks free.
I start to rise, up, up, and away.
I clutch the side of the basket, hanging on for dear life. For a moment, I consider jumping off, but the balloon rises too fast, and soon I’m high enough to see Tom and Winter, his father’s draft horse, over the trees. “Tom!”
Tom tears at his hair when he sees me. He hurries back, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling something, but the wind blows his words away. He shakes his fist. Is he angry? There’s a panicked jerkiness to his movements that I’ve never seen before.
My stomach drops as the balloon tips to one side. I glance down at the shrinking scenery, a hundred feet below me now. Ropes hang from the ring that secures the netting, but I don’t dare tamper with them, as any mistakes this high up could be catastrophic.Ancestors! I’m not ready to join you in the afterlife.
Good-bye, solid Earth. I hope you remember how I always tried to sweep up after myself, and how I did not dig a single unnecessary hole upon your surface. Good-bye, dear Tom. There are few girls in Chinatown, but with your quick mind and warm heart, you will have your choice of any of them—just please do not choose the dainty Ling-Ling, who has held a candle for you since the fifth grade.
A flock of seagulls squawks insults beside the basket, and a cold streak runs through me. They’ll puncture the silk. “Shoo, you flying rats!”
The Island rocks and bobs, and I can barely hang on to the contents of my stomach as the seagulls swoop around me.
I never thought too hard about my convictions and wonder if it’s too late now. Ba is Catholic, but Ma prefers the traditionals—Buddhism and Taoism, sprinkled with a good dose of Confucianism, which is more of a philosophy, anyway. With Eastern religion, no one cares if you pick and choose the ingredients for your particular moral soup, as long as you have some soup, preferably one with lots of ginger and—
I remember the candied ginger in my pocket. As I unwrap the waxy package, I drop most of the candies but manage to hang onto one, and I hurl it as best I can at the seagulls. In a flurry of wings and beaks, they fly off after it.
I nearly sob in relief. That’s one bridge crossed. Now what? My eyes catch on the grappling hook that Tom called the drag rope. Maybe it’s like an anchor? I drop it over the side.
The basket jerks as the hook reaches the end of the line.
Nothing happens at first, but after a good minute, the Island finally stops swinging about. I am not descending, but neither am I ascending. The basket has leveled out about a hundred and fifty feet above the ground and is slowly drifting west. I can make out the blond blocks of St. Clare’s School for Girls in the distance. The irony that I will finally glimpse its inner courtyard just when I’m about to expire leaves a bitter note on my tongue.
A new sun has rinsed the sky pink and yellow. Ma will be stirring the juk
, rice porridge, right about now, believing me to be gathering mushrooms with Tom. My brother, Jack, will be wiping condensation from the windows before leaving for the Oriental Public School.
I must get out of this alive. That chuen pooi
bulb was going to be our ticket to a good life.
“I could’ve bought us out of Chinatown! I had a plan!” I’ve gone stark raving mad. I am talking to a balloon, one hot air bag to another.
A rope hits me in the head, and I grab it to steady myself. When I pull, the silk deflates a little, then the basket falls a notch, and a moment of weightlessness sends a shock through me. Was that why Tom was shaking his fist at me? He was telling me to pull.
I peer into the throat of the balloon and cautiously give the rope another tug. The basket spins, then drops several feet. I fall down in a heap, as dizzy as a fly in a whisk.
The balloon jerks, but I don’t dare peek over the side, afraid of tumbling out. Once my head stops spinning, I stare up into the throat again. There are three ropes hanging. I give one of the others the barest tug, bracing myself, and the balloon begins to rotate in the other direction.
“Mercy, keep your weight on the floor. You’re doing great.” Tom’s voice sounds distant, coming from somewhere under the basket.
I want to sob in relief. “Tom?” I cry.
Not a minute later, he swings a leg over the side and starts expertly manning the ropes inside the basket with me. I stop myself from hugging his ankles.
“You did well. Dropped it enough for me to catch the grapple. See, this pulls the main vent and helps you go straight down.”
In no time, we’re back on the ground, the silk billowing like a cream-colored ocean. Tom helps me up, and I hug him close, trembling. His solid warmth defuses all my fear, replacing it with something giddy and hopeful. If I had known my flight of terror would have ended in Tom’s arms, I might have volunteered for it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should’ve listened.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left you.” For a moment, his eyes look haunted and I dare to hope his concern is more than brotherly.
Then his features harden. He gently pushes me away.
My cheeks brighten at the rebuke. Keeping the injury out of my voice, I ask, “What did you have to go back for?”
He digs into his pocket and holds up an ugly wrinkled bulb.
“It looks like a man’s energy pouch,” I say when I see the chuen pooi
The tips of his ears grow pink, and my laugh rings out like a shovel striking gold.
Our ticket to a good life just blew in.
Copyright © 2017 by Stacey Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.