The Balloon or the Ballerina

by Scott Broker

20 April 1998

Mom was floating against the living room ceiling when I came home from school, so I dragged a chair from the kitchen and pulled her down.

“Crazy old lady,” I said, attaching her ankle to the rope we keep wrapped beneath the kitchen table. “Can’t you stay put?”

Her left hand moved through my hair and got caught halfway since the stuff is pretty long and curly now. I pulled it out and kissed her palm. “Just stay put,” I said again, setting each word on a different lifeline.


When he gets back from work, Dad will strap her into her chair because he says he doesn’t like when even part of her is still floating. He says it gives him the creeps when she’s unmoored, hovering all phantom-like.

I don’t mind as much. Like now, for example, her left foot is stationed against the tile but her arms are way up high, reaching toward the ceiling. Her body curves strangely leftward at the waist and I know that Dad would hate this posture, thinking it too strange. Sometimes he sticks a baseball cap on her when she’s all strapped in to keep even the ends of her hair from lifting up. I think it can be pretty—and not just the hair, but all of it, really. Mom’s a ballerina, I’ll pretend. Or Mom’s a birthday balloon. Floating on and on, either way.

I’ve been dreaming of floating myself, recently, and so I’m thinking of sneaking over to 7-Eleven after dinner to get a Cherry Coke and Pop Rocks. Three months ago, I discovered that mixing those two things with one of Mom’s blue pills makes me dream myself into the air, letting me see what she sees for a few hours. I’ve only done it four times, since Mom used to say it was those exact blue pills that made her mind all dizzy, but I believe that letting yourself go dizzy can be a good thing now and then.

21 April 1998

Dad started digging the house down into a hole today. He got it three feet down in three hours, or so he told me when I came out front this morning.

Midway into a shovel scoop, he said that if I were a boy he’d ask me to help and so to spite him I started heaving earth away with my hands and got the whole thing down another six inches. We worked beneath a golden sun, the yard’s frost shimmering like scattered crystals.

“You’re going to be late for school,” he said when stopped to catch his breath.

“Here’s to hoping,” I told him, and he tossed a handful of dirt my way as I ran toward the bus stop.


At school, we learned about evaporation, lighting a small flame beneath a flask of water and waiting until it boiled and turned to steam. I got in trouble when I ran my fingertips through the yellow part of the fire and when Sister Lansing pulled me aside she said: “You don’t want to be like one of the boys, do you?”

This again? I thought. I wish I’d told her that Nicky and Stephen would have been too chicken to put fingers in the fire and they’re boys so what does that mean? but I didn’t have the guts. I also wish I’d told her about those six inches but didn’t, even though the dirt from the morning was still buried beneath my nails.


22 April 1998

It didn’t stop raining from the time I got to school until the time I got home. Because of this, two things happened: recess was cancelled and the house sank even deeper.

When recess is cancelled, it means we sit inside and play Heads-Up, Seven-Up or card games or just have quiet reading time. I said I had to go to the bathroom but then wandered around the schoolyard, stomping against the puddles and pushing my hands against the softened lawn. I noticed someone was sitting beneath the big oak in the middle of the field and when I ran out there I found Gillian from the other class. She had tears streaked all down her face and when I asked her why she was sad, she shrugged.

“Is it because recess is cancelled?” I asked.

She shrugged again.

“Are you hurt?”

She seemed to consider nodding and then didn’t.

“Well what’s wrong?”

“Blood. It’s flowing out of me.”


“No, flowing,” she said. And then she lifted up her school uniform to show me that her underwear was red. She started crying again, asking, “Am I dying?” over and over. I didn’t answer because I had no clue.

When one of the Sisters found us sitting out there, she brought us in and called Gillian’s mother. I asked her what was happening but she just put her hand on my neck and said, “Ask your mom.” I wanted to say that Mom doesn’t speak, she just floats, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me and so I stayed quiet.


Dad had managed to get the house down almost 15 feet when I came home, so I had to slide down to the front door on my butt.

“Did you go to work?” I asked.

“Day off. Self-prescribed.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Healing,” he said, digging.

“Healing how?”

“By adding some weight to this house.”

When I laughed, he told me to get inside. “It looks like you spilled your beans,” he said, pointing toward my muddy pants. I thought to ask him about spilling blood but instead went inside and pushed Mom’s body around the house for a while.

23 April 1998

Last night, I dreamt of Gillian up in the air with Mom. The two of them were laughing and whispering to tell secrets and I kept trying to grab a hold of Gillian so I could bring her back down to earth. I didn’t want to ground her, really, but just to get her away from Mom. If my dreams weren’t letting me float, why should she get to? When I woke up, my sheets were wrapped in a knot around my belly and I had to unstitch myself. I ran into the living room and found Mom tied to her chair, alone.

“Almost lost you, crazy lady,” I said, kissing her cheek. Then I realized that the dirt was spilling in the windows from outside. Dad had been digging all night.


Our usual Saturday routine is to go out for brunch, Dad and me, and then come back to the house so that he can do chores for a while and I can keep Mom company. In the evening we go for pizza and to the video store to rent a gangster film if it’s Dad’s week, a horror film if it’s my week, and a chick movie—Dad’s term—if it’s Mom’s week. It’s not even that Mom loves chick movies; it’s just that that’s what Dad guesses she would want to watch. He and I both hate the things so we only let it be her week once every two months or so.

This Saturday, though, I went out the front door and found that the house was almost 100 yards below the surface. Dad, emerging after I called, was covered completely in mud.

“Talk about spilling beans,” I said.

“Grab a shovel,” he said, and I did. We dug through brunch, through the afternoon, and until the circle above us went from blue to grey and then grey to black.

“Should we go inside?” I asked.

“You can,” he told me. “I can’t do it anymore.”

“The digging?”

“No, I could dig forever. It’s the floating that’s killing me.”


After going in, I drew a bath and turned the water black. I tried to stay on the surface but inevitably touched down with a hand or foot and, after a while, gave up.

Downstairs, I searched through our home video collection and came up with Titanic, which drives Dad crazy but which is one of the chick movies I can’t help but like. Dad came in toward the end.

“This crap?” he asked.

I’ll never let go, Jack,” the screen said.

“But she just did,” Dad said, pointing as Jack sinks down. Then he turned away, his muddy skin making him vanish against the walls.

24 April 1998

I woke up early today and climbed out of our hole to see the sun rising. By the time I got to the top, the front of my flower dress was completely dirtied. I thought it was a good thing that Mom doesn’t care about cleaning anymore, considering how dirty Dad and I have been recently. A few years ago, she would have yelled if I brought in some dirt on my shoes, but now I pass her with the stuff in my hair and she just floats on.

By the time the sun filled the hole, Dad came walking down the street with a bag of bagels in his hand.
“What are you doing up here?” he asked.

“I wanted to feel light again,” I told him.

He tossed me a poppy seed and sat himself with his legs dangling over the edge.

“Do you ever wonder why Mom floats?” I asked.

“I don’t wonder; I know.”

“Then why is it?”

“She thinks she should be somewhere else.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Who knows?” he said. “We’ve just got to keep her grounded long enough and she’ll come around.”


All day, I wandered the house, lifting up the dirt that had collected beneath the windows with a dustpan. Dad had been so busy with his digging that when I came into the den, I found Mom up in the corner, unstrapped, her face pressed against the ceiling and her body pushed weirdly against the walls. I grabbed a chair to pull her down but when I got a hold, I stopped and ended up standing with my hand on her dress for a while. Then I spun her around and watched the blue of her skirt swirl.

“You’re pretty up here, old lady,” I said when she settled again. I moved her so that she was standing in front of me and it was funny because I realized for the first time that I was almost as tall as her now. “You know, I think I know why Dad hates Titanic so much,” I said.

Outside, I could hear him digging again. Inside, Mom’s hair and arms were floating northward. “I think he doesn’t get that Rose doesn’t really let go.”


Later in the afternoon, I was on my way to 7-Eleven to get more Cherry Coke and Pop Rocks and I was pretty sure I could see Mom way up in the sky, floating against the stratosphere. I was happy since I’d been worried she would get caught in a tree or a telephone wire on her way out, but she didn’t. And she did look just like a balloon when I sent her out the front door, a balloon spiraling up and off toward the sky.

I don’t know why Mom wanted to leave but I like imagining it’s because someplace else needed her more than we did. Mom’s not a normal girl just like I’m not a normal girl and so I’m sure she could do just about whatever was needed of her. A secret mission. A month-long stakeout. Or maybe she just needed a break from being here. This is okay, too. I know she’ll always be Mom, even when she can’t be.

At this point, I trust in what she wants. I just hope that when Dad stops digging, he’ll finally look up and see the balloon, too. He will lift his eyes, squint against the sun, and notice something out there. It might take him a while to distinguish the shape—maybe a minute, maybe a month—but it will come. The balloon or the ballerina. Something good, in either case.

Scott Broker is a fiction writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, WA. His work has or will soon appear in Sonora Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Orphans, and Scribendi, among others. Recently, two of his short stories were nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.