The exam room had cleared. The doctor had finished talking, finally. All he could hear was the faint hiss of the balloons attached to my body continuing to fill with helium.
“There is no cure,” the doctor repeated. “You are turning into a balloon. Like I said, it’s rare.”
“But what will happen to me?” the air conditioning was causing one of the early protrusions on his body to flap slightly against the human skin that surrounded it.
“As your skin continues to… ah…” the doctor seemed to be searching for the right verb but coming up as short as he did with treatment plans. “Change, for lack of a better term, you’ll see more of these bright colors appear. As your marrow slowly replaces your red blood cells with helium gas over the next four to six weeks, you’ll become more buoyant.”
“But how is that even possible?” he asked.
The doctor offered nothing more than a shake of the head. “That’s not really important, is it? Your buoyancy will allow you to fly. It’s entirely possible that you might be the next step in human evolution.”
“But if I keep floating…” He could already feel himself getting lighter.
“Well,” the doctor said. “Let’s not worry about that right now. There will always be time for that later.”
With no answers beyond a pronounced feeling of undefined dread after his visit to the doctor’s office, he returned to that true font of human wisdom, Google. The internet, with its dearth of pretension to bedside manner, told him everything he needed to know. As balloons rise through the atmosphere, they expand. He would grow large. If he were turning into an industrial balloon, like the ones they use for tracking weather patterns, his flexible skin would just continue to expand, practically without limit. But he knew—he was at least much that in tune with what was happening to him—his flesh wasn’t that strong. He belonged at a children’s party or falling from the ceiling at a political convention. The higher he went the more likely he was to—
Firmly planting himself in the sweet, warm embrace of denial, he initially conducted his life as if nothing had changed. With the judicious use of some concealer, he was able to turn his condition from unrelentingly freakish to something the more polite people in society would make a concerted effort not to stare.
However, after a week of pretending nothing was wrong, he could no longer hide the fact that his insides were lighter than air. While walking to work one morning, he lifted off from the ground and before he could grab onto a light pole or a parking meter, a tree snagged him in the midst of its branches. The fire department untangled him. Even with adding more ball bearings into his pants pockets, continuing work at the fake beard factory would prove impractical.
Floating to what he could only imagine was his doom, he realized that he couldn’t live for whatever time he had remaining on the meager savings he had left. Amazingly, the one group that he thought would gawk, stare, and point—children—were more entranced by his plight than anything else. The opportunity created itself, apparently. In the years to come, children all over the area would remember “THE AMAZING BALLOON MAN™” invading their birthday parties like a half-remembered dream. If it wasn’t some kind of death throe, this new career might have given him a new lease on life.
He had to cut those days of merry entertainment short, as well. The thought of his final children’s party performance ending with him bumping into the stratosphere and an explosion of carnage proved to be too sad for him to bear. Isolation would be the order of his final day. No one needed to see anyone end the way he was destined to.
As he finally drifted away, he came to a realization. He loved balloons. He loved the joy that they brought people. He couldn’t imagine his life before, when they terrified him. He wasn’t even sure why he had been afraid in the first place. Maybe that’s all a second lease on life really is, he wondered, no matter how short it might last. In a world where he could become the thing he feared the most in the world without warning, there really wasn’t that much left to fear in the world. And besides, the sky was so pretty, he was beginning feel like he could stretch far enough to envelop the whole thing.