It was the windiest day of the year, the last day of school. My last day of sixth grade. The entire elementary school burst out the doors of the school to the field between the school and the playground. Everyone was excited—so excited that as much as the grown-ups yelled at us kids to walk, not run, we couldn’t help ourselves. We fast-walked into a skip, a run, and back to a fast-walk to form lines behind a handful of helium tanks. Collectively, at $1.00 for each balloon, the school had raised nearly $5000 for our balloon launch for Save the Children.
“What color balloons would you like?” one of the room parents asked me when I got to the front of the line.
“Purple, please,” I said, handing her my ticket with the number 13 written prominently on the back in black sharpie.
“All of them?” she said as she counted out the strings of thirteen purple balloons.
“As you wish,” she said, handing me 13 strings attached to 13 purple balloons.
“You’re so predictable,” Teddy said, winking at me as he asked the room parent to give him 10 blue balloons and one white one.
“I can’t help it. I’m a purple person. People who love purple LOVE purple,” I said while waiting for him. “Besides, purple is the color of magic.”
“Purple is such a girl color.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing that I’m a girl.”
“Make that nine blue, one white, and one purple,” Teddy said, smiling at me with his Teddy twinkle.
“As you wish,” the room mother said again.
Looking up at my 13 balloons as I waited for Teddy to get his stash, I counted in my head 13 wishes. Six wishes of things I wanted to let go of. Six wishes for things I wanted. And then one wish, the most important one. That one, I didn’t really completely understand.
“What did you wish for?” Teddy asked as we walked towards the sixth grade section by the basketball courts.
“Stupid stuff really,” I said.
“C’mon. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he prodded.
“I wished that junior high turns out to be better than this hellhole,” he laughed.
“This place wasn’t that bad.”
“No, you’re right, it wasn’t. And you’re stalling.”
“Okay, I wished for world peace and an end to all hunger.”
“I’m not lying.”
He rolled his eyes at me.
“I forgot for a second who I was talking to. Of course you did.”
“What else did you wish for?” I asked.
“Honestly,” he said, his tone turning somber, “I wished that Angry Man would stop being so angry.”
“You haven’t talked about Angry Man in a long time.”
“I know. And I’m not talking about him anymore now either. Your turn.”
“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t think it’s stupid.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Hope to die and stick a needle in my eye.”
“Okay.” I took a breath. “I wish for an adventure so big that I get to feel things I’ve never felt before, bigger things, more grown-up things.”
“I don’t think that’s stupid at all,” Teddy said.
“No, it’s deep. And I get it.”
“Can I uncross my heart, hope to live, and take the needle out of my eye now?”
“I suppose so.”
Twenty minutes later, the crowd quieted down as Mr. Burnett, the school principal, stood at the podium holding his hand up on the air, the universal signal for silence. He talked for a little bit about the famine in Ethiopia, and some mumbo jumbo about hope and giving back to those in need.
A gust of wind distracted me when it blew my 13 purple balloons into a sparring match, like a bunch of boxing gloves warming up for a big fight. I almost lost my balance.
Mrs. Evenrude, the school choir teacher, took the podium and directed us in singing We Are the World, as we had practiced in choir class for weeks. Select soloists from each class stepped forward to the mic while the rest of us sung along with the chorus.
About the time Tracey Jones stepped forward in her full Cyndi Lauper costume, I felt someone bump me from behind. When I turned to look, no one was there.
I stopped singing.
That’s when I saw them. Well, I didn’t really SEE them. Rather, I sensed them: two shadowy figures weaving their way through the crowd of children. They were there, but not really, just shadows in my peripheral vision that disappeared when I shifted my focus to try look at them directly. I didn’t dare alert my friends to what I saw. Not even Teddy. They’d think I was crazy. Heck, I thought maybe I was going crazy.
The Shadows worked their way to the edge of the crowd and stopped on either side of Old Mrs. Schmidt, our former kindergarten teacher, who was retiring after 50 years of teaching five-year-olds how to read. If I looked directly at Mrs. Schmidt, the shadows disappeared. But if I adjusted my focus to look at the swings just beyond her, they reappeared. I relaxed my eyes like I was looking at one of those 3-D pictures, hoping the shadows might materialize into a clearer shape or form.
They wore heavy, hooded cloaks, so I couldn’t see their faces very clearly. They were about twice the size of Mrs. Schmidt, maybe 10 feet tall. One of them had heavy chains around his neck. That one placed a hand on Mrs. Schmidt’s shoulder, which came to about the height of his own waist. The other one had turned his back to her and faced the crowd, hands on his hips, as if he were standing guard.
I suspected she sensed them, because she physically winced under the pressure of the Shadow’s hand on her shoulder. She stared up at her balloons with this odd look on her face. While I expected she would look scared, she didn’t. Instead, she looked, well, exhilarated.
I couldn’t tell if she was looking at the Shadow or if she saw right through him to her balloons. The Shadow took her arm by the wrist, the one holding the balloons, and raised it as high above her head as it could go. He fastened one of his shackles to her forearm. And she smiled, this odd smile, like she felt comforted.
Then I got that heebie-jeebie feeling. A cold tingle down my back, starting at the nape of my neck and stopping at the bottom of my shoulder blades. Like someone was watching me.
It was the other Shadow.
He stared right at me.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes with my thumb and middle finger. When I opened them again, he was gone. But as soon as I relaxed my eyes, he appeared again. Only this time, I could see him more clearly, as a sunbeam caught his face just right from under his hood. He had a wrinkled and weathered old man face, scraggly eyebrows, and thin lips. He looked right in my eyes. His lips moved as if he were speaking, but I didn’t hear him. He was too far away. But I felt a warm breathy whisper in my ear and down my neck, as if he were standing right behind me.
Was that the wind? It couldn’t be . . .
Too many things happened all at once.
Mr. Burnett, the school principal, dropped his arms.
Thousands of balloons floated into the cloudless sky.
Everyone squealed in excitement.
The Shadow released Mrs. Schmidt’s arm from his grip.
One of my purple balloons popped.
Mrs. Schmidt collapsed to the ground.
I felt a cold, bony hand on my shoulder. I knew it was his. I didn’t dare look. It was heavy, heavier than I could bear. I fell to my knees, with my purple balloons still clutched in my fist, my fingernails digging into my palm. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Nothing did. Not even air. I choked on my own not-breath.
“It’s almost time . . . for you to know me.”
The Shadow grabbed the strings of my balloons and pulled them out of my fist, releasing them for me.
“I’ll teach you how to let go.”