Originally published November 2020, by Fusion Fragment
By Thomas Ha
I’ve never gotten used to the sense of urgency of summer afternoons, that feeling of being drenched in the thickness of that still, blanketed heat, and trying to think of anything I’ve missed while checking the outside of the house. I make sure to test the plywood boards over each of the windows, and when I feel one by the kitchen shift an inch, I reach for the hammer tucked into my waistband and a few extra nails in my pocket. The banging of my hammer echoes through the neighborhood, joining others tapping away during the preparation for sundown.
It’s still early, but with every lock to check and entryway to reinforce, the hours evaporate faster than any of us like. It feels like I’ve only just started, and Jean calls from inside the house, telling me that it’s almost four, and that the kids are in their pajamas.
I pick up the false door and lean it against the detached garage, positioning it until it is firmly front and center, then I bolt the side gate and go to the other end of the house. Jean holds the metal dog door up as I crawl back into the kitchen, winking at me as I wriggle onto the tile, and she slides the door down behind me.
The boys are already waiting in the living room, so I scoop the two of them up in my arms and nuzzle them with my sweaty face as they yelp and squirm. I carry them down the basement steps and ask them what I missed. They start telling me about an episode of Power Puggies or Power Piggies, and I nod while looking over at Jean and rolling my eyes. She stifles a laugh and tells me I’m bad.
The night-light in the basement is spinning from its cord, projecting a swirl of star shapes in glowing blue colors across the cement walls. I put Cal down in his bed first, then David, then I sit in my armchair, studying their scrunching little faces while Jean reads them a story. After a few lullabies and wrangling them back under the covers a few times, we kiss them goodnight and head upstairs.
“Goodnight, Cal. Goodnight, Taco.”
“I’m not Taco!”
I hear giggles as I walk up the steps and shut the basement door.
It’s still not even five, so we put the news on in the background while we eat dinner. The county-wide warning is still in effect, and some predict that this week might be the worst of it for our area. There’s a story about the early start of summer, and a study in Europe about whether or not citric acid works as a deterrent; people in Germany are apparently putting lemons in their doorways. The last segment is about someone’s grandmother who went missing after yesterday’s bloom, and Jean recognizes the interviewee as one of her coworkers.
“That’s so terrible,” she says. “Can’t even imagine.”
I nod and finish my meal, then bring our plates to the sink to let them soak. After we sit on the couch for a while, Jean asks me if I want peaches for dessert. I say sure, and she goes to the fridge. I hear her cursing a minute later. The peaches she bought are moldy, and it’ll be weeks before the store gets a supply again. I tell her not to worry about it, but I can tell it’s going to bother her tomorrow.
At half-past-six, sunset starts, and Jean’s ready to join the boys in the basement. She kisses my cheek and tells me not to stay up too late.
“That’s up to Anthony,” I murmur.
We both check that we have our keys before I lock the basement door, and I’m left with the empty upstairs, wondering how long it will be as I lean back at the dining table and listen to a talk show, trying not to nod off entirely. It’s an interview with a doctor, talking about a new theory about the balloons. He claims he’s found caverns in South America where they might have first emerged. He thinks they might be much older than people imagine, not extraterrestrial like some have guessed, and he starts showing diagrams of prehistoric jellyfish.
I turn the program off before they can show anything else, and I rest my eyes.
It’s almost ten o’clock when Anthony gets here, and his light knocking on the metal dog door makes me jump. I realize I must have missed him on the cameras, so I glance at the monitor on the kitchen counter and wait for the next cycle of images until I see him, kneeling outside and waving up at me.
When I pull the screeching door up and hold it, Anthony throws the harpoon gun in first, sending it sliding across the kitchen floor. Then he brings his skinny body through the opening and grins as he gets up on his feet. I’m about to ask him if he’s eaten when I see the wet spot on his pant leg, what I think is blood running down his shin.
“Got nicked,” he says, lifting his t-shirt as well and showing me a red and brown scrape across his side.
I get the first aid kit from the medicine cabinet and start cleaning him up. He sits in his boxers at the counter, his bony ribcage rising as he draws in and holds his breath, and I dab the rubbing alcohol on him.
“That’s new,” I comment, nodding toward the tattoo on his forearm, the long black curve of a spear and rope that stops at his elbow. Just like Anthony to get something so visible and performative, so that everyone knows he’s part of a whaling gang.
Anthony doesn’t respond, just shrugs and puts his clothes back on, and looks over his harpoon gun like he’s checking for damage, moving his fingers over the line plate and trigger. I want to ask if any balloons are swarming close by, but I don’t think I want to know the answer.
“It’s getting crazier out there,” he says when he’s done. “I’ve never seen so many this early in the summer.”
“High temperatures, maybe,” I offer. “Read something about that, I think.” I pour him a glass of water and make him a plate of leftover chicken and rice. The second I put it in front of him, he starts into it, stopping only to catch his breath every so often.
“It’s not all bad,” Anthony says finally, scraping up the remnants of what’s left on the plate. “A lot more people are coming out now. We had at least five whaling gangs downtown, coordinating. Things are changing.”
I nod and grab the empty plate, rinse it off in the sink, and sit back down. Anthony is leaning back and yawning, so I ask him about Mom and Dad. He says they’re the same as ever. Dad is getting soft in his old age, crying at movies on TV and taking unexpected naps throughout the day. Mom is on Anthony’s case about getting a real job after the summer.
“She just wants you safe, is all,” I say.
Anthony chuckles and runs his hands through his unwashed hair. “I’m as safe as can be,” he answers, which is what he always says to the family.
I wonder if now’s the time to bring it up, but Anthony seems to want to keep talking. He goes on about the balloons, how they’re clustering close to the city and behaving in different ways than he remembers.
Every summer seems to bring new problems with them, I remark.
“Not new problems,” he corrects me. “We’re just still learning about them, all the time.”
I hate it when he does that, but I decide to just let him have his moment. His blood’s still pumping from tonight, I’m sure. And I’m proud of what he’s doing, even if he gets annoying about it.
“What about you guys? Jean? The runts?”
I tell him everyone is good, that the early summer took us by surprise, so we’re still getting the house secure, little by little. I mention that we decided the boys were finally old enough, so we explained the balloon season to them, how there was nothing to be afraid of, and that we were just being careful.
“Except they should be afraid,” Anthony snorts.
I remind myself that Anthony doesn’t know what it’s like with kids, and I keep myself from snapping. “That’s true,” is all I say. “But for now, I think we have to keep them calm, you know?”
“They’re going to learn eventually. Remember when Uncle Rick told us that summer, and Dad got so pissed? If they don’t learn it from you, someone’ll tell them. Other kids, probably.”
I tell Anthony that perhaps he’s right, but we’d deal with it when the day comes. He doesn’t seem to pick up on the fact that I’m getting more annoyed with him. Instead, he goes over to the liquor cabinet and pours himself a glass without asking. He asks if I want any, but it’s just a formality. He knows I don’t drink during the summer.
It’s at that point that I think it’s getting late, so I decide to just tell him.
“Jean and I have been talking,” I say, after he’s finished his drink. “You know I have your back, and I’m glad you’re out there doing the right thing, but the blooms have gotten so bad lately.”
Anthony looks puzzled.
“I don’t think we can keep offering this place as a pit stop after dark.”
His eyebrows go up, and he looks genuinely taken aback.
“We’re donating supplies. We’ve been active with our coworkers about getting word out, and we really think this is important, fighting them off the way you are. But it’s too close to our home now. And with the boys…we can’t, with the boys.”
He’s still looking at me, but now he’s frowning.
I ask him what he’s thinking, and he scratches behind his ear, something he always did when we were kids and he got frustrated.
“Just once,” he says. “Just come out with me once, then you’ll get it.”
We usually don’t have this argument until later in the summer, but everything’s coming early this year. I tell him I’ve seen the news, the balloons crowding above the cities and moving across the country, so I know the seriousness of it. I don’t need to step out there to know what’s happening.
But that doesn’t stop Anthony from going through the motions. He tells me again how they need more people after sundown, how the blooms are just going to get worse if we don’t push them back. He’s gotten better at this over the years, more impassioned and insistent.
I tell him I understand, but that I just can’t take that kind of risk.
“Until people like you get out there, nothing’s going to change,” he says. “People with wives and kids and houses with metal doors have to see what’s happening.”
We’ve gone in circles about this before, and he’s not going to change my mind. Besides, the government’s close to finding a way to disperse them, I tell him.
“Come on,” Anthony responds. “They’ve been saying that since Dad was our age. They’re not going to do anything so long as people find a comfortable way to pass the season.”
“You don’t know that,” I say, shaking my head. “Just because you read it in some pamphlet, doesn’t make it true.”
Anthony scratches behind his ear again and gets huffy. “If you don’t accept that it’s your problem, it’s going to fall on Cal and David to pick up a harpoon gun someday. Think about that.”
I don’t like the way he uses my boys to make his point, but he’s done it before, so it doesn’t set me off as much as it used to. I tell him again that I appreciate what he and the whalers do, but I can’t offer my house.
He tells me that it’s not about using our house, though it definitely is.
We could probably keep going like this for another long stretch, but we’re interrupted by a whistling sound that carries through the house despite being muffled by the plywood. It causes Anthony to stop mid-sentence, and, as soon as I hear it, I move around the room and flick off all of the lights.
The sound is still going, up and down in pitch, like a raspy slide whistle.
I manually switch the camera feed until I get to the roof, and even though I expect to see the mass of the balloon appear, it still gives me that falling feeling in my gut when it finally shows up on screen and drifts there, slowly above my home, an orb too massive to view completely via the little monitor.
The balloon’s skin is wet and glistening in the dark, and the strands of its long, black hair wave like it’s moving through the ocean. The sphere of its body turns, and, though it doesn’t have eyes, it feels like it’s looking back at us.
Anthony points to the monitor at the tethers coming out of the balloon, and he holds up two fingers.
There are two anchors on the ground pulling the balloon, he’s telling me.
Outside the windows, I hear rustling and sniffing, and I change over to the camera in the front yard. In the shadows I see an anchor shamble, its silhouette like an armless man, as it pushes against the side of the house, rubbing its moist forehead on the walls. The tether at the back of its neck goes up to the balloon like a dripping marionette string.
I switch through the cameras, but I can’t seem to find the other anchor. Anthony grabs my wrist, then taps his ear. I listen closely until I hear a rattling and a thud. It’s the side gate, I realize, and the other anchor is pressing against it every couple of seconds, methodical and unhurried.
If the anchor gets through the fence, it will check for the doors and windows. And if it gets through those, we’ll have to hope the basement door holds until morning.
I wonder whether we should try to lure it away from Jean and the boys, but I’ve heard the anchors can overtake most people on foot.
I don’t even know what we’ll do if there are more coming up the street.
Meanwhile, Anthony moves steadily toward the dog door, holding up the harpoon gun against his shoulder. The way he stands is straighter and taller than I’m used to seeing, his bony frame almost filling the doorway as he covers it, intent on keeping his eyes trained on what might come through. I watch him as he watches, and the muffled pounding continues.
We stay like that for a long time until, eventually, the thudding simply stops.
I switch the monitor back to the roof camera and see the bobbing shape of the balloon drift toward the street, pulled by the tightened tethers of its anchors further away from the house, until it leaves the frame completely.
Anthony and I watch the screen for another half hour, to make sure we don’t see any other shapes float into view.
When we’re sure that everything is quiet again, I fill a glass of water, realizing that my hands are covered in sweat.
Anthony gives me a funny look, like he’s trying to help me relax and he’s amused by me at the same time. “Man, I’ve never seen you so scared,” he grins.
Something about the way he says it makes me want to slap him across the face. “Just shut up.” I empty the glass and put it in the sink.
“What? It’s okay to be scared, dude! I won’t tell Jean.”
“Shut up already. Shut up,” I say again, and the edge to my voice makes Anthony realize that I’m not kidding. “Just shut the hell up for once and use your friggin’ brain. You think that thing just wandered by out of the blue? It followed you, you idiot. This is exactly what we were worried about. Jesus Christ.”
He narrows his eyes. “Nothing was following me, man. If anything, you’re lucky I was around, and that both of us were awake just in case it got in.”
“No,” I say. “This is exactly it. It’s always like this with you. You charge around and act like you’re special for marching into danger like a friggin’ idiot when no one asked you to do it. And then you just end up messing things up for the rest of us. Making Mom worry, using up our supplies, putting my house up as a target.”
Anthony just rolls his eyes and walks by me instead of getting into it. “No point in even talking when you’re like this,” he says. “Just get it out of your system.” He lies down on the couch and puts his harpoon gun on the ground. I yell at him for another couple minutes, and he pretends to get ready to go to sleep.
“You’re such a selfish dickhead,” I say.
Anthony turns over and shuts his eyes. “Better than a coward.”
“What was that?”
Anthony doesn’t answer me.
For a few seconds, I want to pick him up by the shoulders and yell at him some more. But there’s no point in it. He’ll never listen to me, and anything I say will just convince him that he’s more in the right, like always.
He’s slumped over on the couch, turned on his side and eyes still shut, when I go down into the basement for the night. Even as I lie in bed, watching the boys’ night-light swirling on the cement walls, I think about him on that couch and what else I could say to tell him off the next time I get the chance.
As expected, Anthony’s gone by the time we come back up to the house for breakfast. Because the plywood over the windows darkens everything, we like to bring our food to a picnic table out back. We get some fresh air, and the kids can run around a bit and get out their energy.
It’s cloudy today, but the summer heat is still hanging in the air and getting thicker. Jean and I are finishing our eggs when Cal and David take off and start jumping up and down on a pile of rocks, playing a game or something, I don’t really know. Jean turns to ask me how Anthony took the news. I say about as well as we thought he would.
I go back and forth about it in my head, but I decide to tell her about the balloon too. I keep it brief, just the basics, about how a couple of anchors were feeling out the perimeter but didn’t get through anywhere.
She tries not to show that she’s afraid, but I can see her getting nervous as I describe it. When I tell her that the balloon was just passing by, she calms down a little, and we go back to finishing breakfast.
“Do you think we’re getting too used to this?” I ask her.
“What do you mean?”
“Anthony was going on about how people are finding ways to be comfortable, and how as long as they are, things won’t change.”
Jean shakes her head. “I don’t feel very comfortable, I can tell him that right now.”
“Me neither. And we already do a lot.”
“But he doesn’t think it’s enough.” I watch the boys jumping, and I scratch the stubble at my throat. “It really pisses me off when he says stuff like that. Not because he’s wrong. I’m already thinking it too, if I’m being honest, but I just don’t like it coming from him. He’s always putting on a big act, like he’s figured out the answer when he doesn’t know squat.”
“He’s a showboat for sure.” Jean nods her head. “But he thinks he has to be that way to get your attention.”
“What do you mean?”
Jean smiles at me the way she does when she’s talking to the boys. “Oh, you know.”
We watch the kids run around, chasing each other.
“Yeah,” I admit.
When we’re done with breakfast, I stand up from the table and tell Jean I have to make a run for supplies. I want to get more hardware to reinforce the side gate, and I’ll need to go early if I want to beat traffic. She gives me a kiss on the cheek, and I yell over to the boys that I’m leaving, but they just keep giggling and don’t hear me.
Everything seems so dark under the gray cloud cover when I head out on the road. On my way out of the subdivision, I slow down at a stop sign, and I see a dozen vehicles parked outside of a house across the way—an ambulance, a fire truck, and what I think are military jeeps. When I look closer, I see the broken planks of a fence scattered on the lawn. Someone honks behind me, and I turn onto the next street, peering at the home as I go by. This is far enough from where we live that I don’t know who’s in there, but I hope they’re okay. Part of me wonders whether it was the same balloon from last night that did it.
Things move pretty quickly once I’m finally at the store, going through the aisles and getting everything I know that I need. But when I’m done, I find myself stopping at the harpoon guns on display at the front, looking for a long time.
It somehow feels like I’m admitting fault when I pick one of them up. I touch the line plate and the trigger as a sales clerk asks me if I know how to use it. I tell him that I do, remembering the summer Uncle Rick taught us, and I begin to wonder whether the boys are old enough to start practicing like we did. We’ll have to keep a close eye on them and set up targets in the yard, but that’ll be easy enough to do, assuming that Jean agrees. After a minute, I make a decision, and put one of the guns in my cart. I imagine that Anthony would be giving me that smug smirk of his if he could see me right now.
As I head to the parking lot, I notice a fruit stand outside, and I see that they have some peaches. I stop there for a while, picking them up one by one. They all seem to be slightly bruised, but I know they’ll make Jean happy.
It’s only after I pay that I start to notice that people are hurrying to their cars, leaving the stores and trying to maneuver around each other to get out of the parking lot.
I wonder what’s going on until I turn around and see it: hundreds of balloons spread across the gray horizon. Their shapes blot the morning sky, and it looks like someone’s punched holes out of the clouds just above the buildings. I feel my throat tighten, and I almost drop what I’m holding.
Further down the main avenue, I spot a balloon, much larger and much closer than any I’ve seen out in the open. It’s hard to be sure, but I think there are at least a dozen anchors out on the road, sprinting in this direction and dragging the massive floating sphere behind them.
They’ve never moved in the sunlight like this as far as I know, and I wonder if it’s because of all the clouds.
Several people with harpoon guns are firing, and I can see their spears flying through the air, puncturing a few of the anchors and causing them to collapse face-down into the asphalt. There’s a shrill, whistling noise as the anchors shrivel and bubble, slowly beginning to reinflate themselves.
Those people must know there aren’t enough of them to kill the balloon, but I think they’re trying to slow it down for other folks to get away, and my eyes drift over to my harpoon gun in my shopping bag.
For a brief moment, I imagine that I take the gun and run toward the others, that I yell at them to coordinate their fire to prevent regrowth, just the way Uncle Rick taught us. If everyone fires at the anchor closest to them, and I aim up at the main body, and we do it on one command, we just might have a chance to puncture the septa of the balloon and the nerve clusters in each of the anchors, incapacitating it long enough for someone to bring some gasoline and a flame.
My hands are sweating as I reach down.
But then I hear a scream down the street, just as a tether flings out from the glistening underside of the balloon and sinks into someone’s back. I don’t know if it’s a man or woman who falls to the ground, their body starting to swell, filling with liquid. I’ve seen the videos and know that the body is going to get rounder and rounder until it pops like an over-easy egg, the armless, dripping shape of a parasitic anchor emerging from inside, and I don’t need to stay to watch it happen.
Like everyone else, I start to run now. I throw my bags into the back of my car, letting everything roll around on the floor. Sweat beads around my eyes as I start the engine, and I feel the air conditioner turning on while I signal to pull onto the freeway.
A couple of pickup trucks drive by, each of them painted on the side with a black spear and rope. There are groups of young men in the back of both vehicles, harpoon guns over their shoulders, and I scan their serious faces one by one as they quickly go by.
I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I swear I see Anthony in one of the trucks, staring right back at me.
He knows I’m going in the other direction, and though I can’t read his expression, he doesn’t seem angry with me in those few seconds as he passes.
He seems to realize that I am not who he hoped that I was, and I realize it too.
If only there were time for me to tell him I’m sorry.
There’s more honking behind me, and I’m still craning my neck to look back at the whaling trucks, but they’re too far now. I turn to the highway and keep going, weaving around slower cars who haven’t looked back yet at what’s coming.
I tell myself that I have to go back because of Jean and the kids, and part of me starts to believe it. There’s enough time to reinforce the gate, check the plywood, and get everyone down to the basement, I think to myself.
The rearview mirror rattles as I speed down the bumpy highway, and all I can see in it is the swarm of balloons drifting behind me in the distance. There’s no wind in this dead, summer heat. I know it, but they all still seem to float on and get bigger.
I start pushing the gas harder and hope to God that wherever they’re headed, it’s some other neighborhood in some other town far away, above someone else’s roof and out of my sight.
Anywhere but here, I pray.
© 2020, Thomas Ha
Originally published November 2020 by Fusion Fragment