You tell him his dad lives in a balloon now. Makes sense to him, all three of you went into that hospital but only you, he and the balloon came out. Foil stretched taut, shining, bouncing happily along. You tell him Dad is dancing, excited to be coming home.
Balloon follows boy everywhere, gnarled yellow twine gripped in a pudgy paw. Back straight, shoulders high, he skips his dad into story time, bath time, play time. All the times they’d missed before.
It lasts ten days or so before starting to dip and to sag, Get Well Soon crumpling in on itself.
You need to find another.
Searching online, with the furtive fingers of a hacker, you buy a whole load. All the same, all sending pointless well wishes. Then you order helium. Express delivery of course. You aren’t, can’t, won’t be the one to explain that dads don’t last forever.
Sneaking into the boy’s room – shrinking round him every night – you prise his fingers open. In the morning he’ll find a buoyant parent. Inflated, elated to spend another day by his side.
Fifty-four balloons later, it’s his first day of school. Uniform baggy at the knees, sleeves bunched up, frowning at his elbows.
You ask if he’s nervous. No, comes the quiet reply. Dad has joined you both, obviously. Wrinkles show he’s a few days from retirement.
At the gate, the twine is pressed into your palm. The balloon claps in the breeze, a whispered nothing in your ear.
A nod, resolute. ‘I’m a big boy now.’
Tears punch you, salt-fisted and sharp.
You walk the balloon home, holding tight, string twisted through your fingers. Tell yourself it feels the same as holding hands. With your free thumb you place just one more order.
Martha Lane is a writer by the sea. Her flash has appeared in Free Flash Fiction, Perhappened, Bandit, Reflex fiction, Briefly Zine and Ellipsis, among others. Balancing too many projects is her natural state. Tweets at @poor_and_clean