To say that she noticed it straight off would be to lie. Truth was, she didn’t know for certain when it had begun: all the hovering, the following, the darting out of reach.
She didn’t care, either, not really. Not at this point. If she had to choose between pieces of information, she’d prefer to know “why her,” or—(and always, with this one, a certain amount of dread)—what it wanted.
A week or so after she had cause to notice it, she had of course asked. The sidewalk had been relatively clear, so she’d taken her chances with looking like a fool. More of one, rather, than she did already.
It hadn’t answered. Of course. And as frustrating as that had been, she had to admit that there was a certain relief in that, too. How worse it would be, really, if it could speak.
Bad enough that it showed enough sentience to be able to follow her to and from work each day—and pick up where it left off after the weekends. It knew when to expect her and where. It knew how to keep out of reach; she’d noticed (now that she knew to look, and how) that it would stay well away from children and their eager-to-be-entertained hands.
And that made it rather ominous, to her mind.
“Just like that movie, huh?”
That’s what some random man had remarked as she and he passed, going in opposite directions, on that morning. The first notice. When he’d spoken, he had been looking somewhere in the area above her right shoulder. He hadn’t made a big deal of it, hadn’t even paused or glanced back to catch her reaction. Her confusion, as it was, since she had no idea what he was talking about.
Still wouldn’t, probably, if not for the plate glass window of the building on her left. And so she made her first sighting—the cartoon-bright red roundness of it, floating behind and a little ways above her right shoulder.
She thought of that now as its default position, its preferred spot, out of her sight but for reflections in windows and the side mirrors of parked cars. It didn’t mind being seen by anyone, it seemed, except her. She had tried sudden turns, unexpected reverses, and one desperate, prolonged spin like a tail-chasing dog; but all those maneuvers had got her were more curious stares (when she already got plenty) and, with that last try, dizzy.
It was fast, that inexplicable balloon. Very fast.
She had tried to snap “selfies” with her phone—and even asked strangers to take her picture—but it didn’t cooperate. Not so much as a bit of string ended up in frame.
This was not at all like “that movie” the man had referenced. Oh, sure, it made a similar visual, and the following behavior was…sort of similar. But she wasn’t a little French boy, and this ballon rouge was not the product of a prop department and filmmaking trickery. What it was the product of, she had no idea. The whole thing defied explanation.
People seemed to find it amusing. Other people, including her friends. Not her.
They wouldn’t be amused if it was happening to them, she could promise them that. (And she had, a few times, when she just couldn’t take their chuckling lack of sympathy.) They didn’t get it. Even her so-called best friends couldn’t fathom why she was the least bit unnerved by a balloon.
Sure, the first few days she’d enjoyed the novelty of it. The magic. Would it be there when she left work? When she started out the next day? She looked forward to those moments, and then the challenge of catching sight of it during her walk, of observing its behaviors given different situations, and watching other peoples’ reactions when they saw it moving along behind her.
After two weeks, the novelty wore off and the apprehension set in.
It didn’t interact with her; it wasn’t like a stray cat, playing coy even as it sought attention. No. It wanted no interaction whatsoever. It didn’t even want her to look at it directly.
It played a stalking game of its own design and she was to have no part in it except as…except as a what? An object to follow?
She had considered popping it (although that would be a trick, what with it always being behind and out of reach), but she couldn’t so much as step on an ant at a picnic. To pop the balloon when it hadn’t actually done anything…She didn’t have the heart.
The other problem with trying to—well, to kill it—was that of failure. Chances were high that she would fail, and then what would happen? What would the balloon do then?
She couldn’t risk provoking it.
What, though, could it do? Bop her on the head? Like that would hurt. It was just a balloon.
Only it wasn’t, was it. Balloons were inanimate. Balloons were just colorful sacs of air or water or helium that were completely at the mercy of fate in the form of hands, air currents, popcorn ceilings, and what have you.
This one didn’t seem to be at the mercy of anyone or anything. She felt at the mercy of it. There was no telling what it might do when threatened, or what it was capable of doing.
She didn’t know what it was, exactly, but it was not just a balloon and she had the feeling that it could do anything it wanted.
Maybe she would call in sick. Maybe if she stayed home long enough, it would get bored and go away.
Or maybe it would get angry.
She could put in for her vacation time, take a trip. But—assuming it didn’t follow—she’d have to return eventually.
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