By the time Sierra Flynn grabbed her backpack and headed to the garage, she was sweating through her skiing gloves and heavy boots. She squeezed into the torn-up middle seat of her oldest brother Charlie’s beat up truck and inhaled the lingering smell of dust and oil. They waited until Mike, moving slow in the early morning hours, arrived lugging a mountain of sweaters that spilled over onto her lap.
The old truck rumbled to life, grumpy at being woken up before sunrise. It was only fifteen minutes to the fairgrounds where the ballooning competition would be, and Charlie hadn’t been able to turn the heat on without having exhaust gas pour into the cab for years, so they shivered as the truck rumbled over cracked asphalt. Her brothers talked about Mike’s upcoming football game, but Sierra barely heard them. Her oatmeal threatened to make a second appearance.
They reached the field before their parents’ gray Pathfinder arrived and set to unloading the truck. Mike went to check them in. Sierra’s teeth were already chattering when she climbed out of the truck. Her breath wasn’t quite visible, but she knew it would be soon as the autumn months stretched into winter. She turned into the sun and closed her eyes. There wasn’t a single breath of wind brushing the acres of short grass.
“Want to help me launch the pie ball?” Charlie asked, shaking out the short wave of loose, cocoa brown hair that they had both inherited from their father. She nodded and went to dig for the stopwatch in her backpack as he filled a tiny purple party balloon with helium until it was the size of a kid’s soccer ball.
“Ready?” she asked, sniffling slightly in the cold. “Alright…go.” She clicked the start button, and he let go. Their eyes followed the balloon as it fluttered upwards, dancing and twirling through the air. “There’s a thousand feet,” Sierra noted. The balloon hadn’t moved an inch to either side, but ten seconds later and it suddenly began to drift eastward. It wasn’t much, but then it gradually moved the other way. Sierra could barely see it anymore.
Charlie grinned. “Are you excited, Princess? First solo competition?”
“I wish you would stop calling me that.” When she was little and heard her parents talking about the “crown” of the balloon, she had decided the balloon was a princess and proudly announced it to everyone she met for the next week. “Princess” was long gone now – sold to another upstart touring company – but the picture of Sierra, dressed in a purple tutu and sparkly top and tights, holding a sign saying “We love you, Princess!” as they inflated the blue and gold balloon for the last time, still graced the fireplace mantel and probably always would.
“Here,” said Mike. He slid a steaming cup into her hands. “Hot cocoa from the registration table. And you’re number 24.”
“Thanks.” She removed the lid and balanced the cup on the truck bed and took the roll of heavy white plastic from under his arm. She unfurled it and studied the black nylon letters. 24. That would be the number she would remember forever.
“Someone want to help me with the tent?” Charlie called. Tall and wiry, he was more useful at reaching top shelves than picking up anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Sierra was about to move when their parents arrived, towing the trailer that held her favorite balloon.
“Hey, 24, that was my first number,” her dad said, grinning warmly. “Must run in the family.”
“Let’s hope so, Ethan,” her mom muttered through her usual frown as they hung the banner on their booth declaring them to be “Echo Foxtrot Ballooning.” The crackle of smoker’s lung edged her voice and made her sound like a blown speaker. She was short and squat and had the figure of a snowman.
Sierra nursed the burning hot cocoa. It set her mouth on fire but helped settle her stomach. “How far out do we have to start for the marker drop?” she questioned.
“Five miles,” Mike replied. He sipped at a cup of coffee from the community tankard their parents had brought and ran a hand through his short, red curls. “What did the winds look like?”
“Dead calm up to a thousand feet, eastward at maybe 1200 to 1500, then westward after that,” Charlie replied.
“Let’s head out to the park west of here, then,” their mother said decidedly.
“I think Sierra should decide since she’ll be the pilot,” Charlie insisted. “What do you think, Sierra?”
Sierra felt her mother’s distaste at being challenged and shrunk down into her shoulders like a turtle hiding in its shell. “The park is fine,” she agreed softly. She was glad her mother would be staying behind to run the booth. They loaded the number banner into the SUV and drove to the park to unpack and launch.
“Remember your first navigation contest, Dad?” Charlie asked.
“Oh, how could I forget?” He chuckled and brushed one hand over his graying, closely-cropped hair. “I should’ve caught on to the fact that everyone else was setting up their balloons on the other side of the field. I ended up so far away that my chase crew almost couldn’t find me.”
Sierra managed a weak smile. She hoped they had picked a good spot.
They started by laying out the wide tarps on the flattest part of the field. Several other teams were setting up as well, and they saw more and more cars and trucks arriving. The air was cool and still over the grass.
“Alright, one, two, three!”
Mike and their father carefully hoisted the enormous red bag out of the trailer. Sierra helped unzip it and removed the thick outer canvas shell, then opened up the thinner bag inside. It was about the size of an oversized bean bag chair and easily weighed more than two of her. She reached in with both arms and grabbed as much of the slippery balloon fabric as she could. She trailed behind them as they walked and helped ease the roll of folded-up yellow, orange, and white nylon out of the bag, careful not to step on the delicate material. They removed the Velcro straps from the length of the envelope and carefully stretched out the fabric across the tarps until it looked like a huge, wrinkled shirt that had been left to dry in the sun.
They heaved the wicker basket out of the trailer next. “I’ll connect the cords,” Sierra offered as Mike unzipped the basket’s protective bag. She tugged off her gloves, exposing her nimble fingers to the cold, and began hooking up the tangled mess of cords from the envelope to the basket while her dad unpacked the burner system. Mike easily carried the two propane tanks over to them; he wasn’t as tall or skinny as Charlie, but years of sports gave him enough muscle to carry almost anything.
They hooked up the tanks and burners, then gently tipped the basket so it lay flat on the ground, lined up with the balloon. “Do you want to test the burners, kiddo?” her dad asked. She shook her head; it was always better to be one of the people warming their hands on the welcome fire. He settled into a seated position and aimed the burners upwards. “Alright. Fire in the hole!”
A bright burst of peach flame shot into the air and thawed her face and fingers for a second before it vanished. Charlie and Mike were holding their hands out as well, as if they were all huddled around a campfire. Their father tested the other burner and then turned the gas off.
“Looks good,” Sierra commented as she slipped her gloves back on.
“Let’s get the fan going,” her father agreed. They had a tired shop fan with a bottomless bucket crudely roped to it. Mike gassed it up, and it roared to life and blasted them with cold air. Sierra helped her dad hold the mouth of the balloon open while Charlie aimed the fan at the inside. The air rippled into the fabric and lifted it off the ground until it was almost halfway inflated and stood high above their heads. Mike circled around to the top of the balloon and clipped the opening closed.
“Okay, that should do it,” their father yelled over the roar of the fan. Charlie moved it out of the way and shut it off while their father moved back into position behind the burners and aimed them straight forward into the balloon’s gaping mouth. Sierra held her breath. This was the best part.
Flames stretched from the left burner and held for four or five seconds, then paused for two, and then burned again. Sierra could see the bubble of heated air traveling up to the highest point on the envelope, pulling the skin taut and smooth. The cords squeaked and stretched tight in her hands as she tugged on them to keep the mouth open. Every blast from the burners was like a dragon’s fire breathing life into the creature. The envelope had lifted fully off the ground now and was trying to tilt the basket upright.
“Get ready for weight on,” her dad warned the three of them.
Mike pulled on the rope that kept the balloon from twisting to one side as it rose and inflated further still. The balloon towered to its full height as the basket tumbled backwards with their father inside.
“Weight on!” he cried. The three of them piled on to the edges of the basket to hold it firmly to the ground. Sierra felt the basket struggling against her arms, trying to float away. “Alright, Sierra, grab your number and get in.”
She waited until the basket sunk back firmly against the tarp and slowly eased her weight away from the basket, then jogged to the SUV and pulled her number out of the back seat. Charlie deftly attached it with zip ties as she climbed into the basket. Her father delivered one final short burst of flame to keep the balloon upright while she got settled.
“Okay, now find your equilibrium,” he said as he carefully climbed out, keeping his hands firmly planted on the basket’s smooth leather rim.
“I know, dad.” Sierra glanced at the thermometer connected to the top of the balloon. It read 130° - cold, but since she was the only one in the balloon, it was probably enough to keep the balloon from either rising or deflating while on the ground. She looked up into the expanse of fabric to make sure it wasn’t wrinkled and squeezed the metal handle. One, two, three, four, off. One, two, three, four, on.
Charlie dropped her backpack into the basket. “I set up your radio already,” he told her. She took a deep breath and stood on her toes. The balloon seemed fairly stable now. The sun shone down through the vibrant spirals of color, casting a fire-like glow on her face.
“Oh, and you’ll need this,” Mike added, pressing a small square weight into her hand. “I almost forgot it.”
She turned it over and looked at the matching number on the back, then closed her gloved fingers over it. “Thanks, guys.”
She motioned for each of them to step back from the basket in turn. The basket wiggled beneath her feet. Sundance wanted to fly as much as she did. She gave her dad one last smile and let the flame go.
The balloon floated gently into the air, stable under her feet again now that they were really flying. Sundance soared upward over the park, surrounded by dozens of other balloons of all colors. Rainbows, checkerboards, red-and-white stripes – but none of them compared to Sundance. Orange, yellow, and white bands spiraled up from the bottom almost all the way to the top. The upper quarter of the balloon was a simple red that made it easier to spot.
She still remembered one of her first competitions with her dad, climbing into the basket of Big Blue with him at the helm, soaring over the field. Her dad had done the navigating, had planned everything, but she was the one who reached out and grabbed the golden key from the tall pole set up in the center of the field, winning the grand prize of a brand new competition balloon. She was the one who soloed in it first. Sundance was as much hers as it was her family’s.
She focused on keeping her altitude around a thousand feet above the ground. The breeze carried her slowly but surely towards the target just a short few miles away. Another pilot waved to her and called out, “Aren’t you a little young to be all the way up here by yourself?”
She could tell he was being good-natured and replied, “I can fly just as great as anyone else here!”
Her radio crackled in the background. She picked it up and raised the volume, careful to monitor her burn times at the same time. “Sierra, get ready to start descending,” came her father’s voice crackling through the speaker. She looked down, searching for the SUV that should be following her, and spotted it almost directly below.
“Got it,” she answered. She pulled her knitted hat from her head and shook out her hair, welcoming the cold air against her sweaty scalp.
She let more time elapse between burns, gradually losing altitude as the target came into view ahead. A large red X marked the center of the fairgrounds, and she could already see dozens of multicolored markers littering its surface. Some of them were near the outer limbs of the X, and many were in the grass, but several were close to the center as well. She knew full well that even in amateur competitions people sometimes managed to drop their markers within inches of each other. She clenched her hand around the weight, then made a last-minute decision to remove her gloves. It was almost warm now, anyway, with the sun fully above the horizon and the sunrise melted away into memory.
Sundance descended ever lower as they neared the target. She glanced around at the other balloons. She had a decent chance.
Panic suddenly gripped her as she saw five or six balloons up ahead get drastically blown off course. Her hand tightened around the handle instinctively as she gave the balloon full gas. She had no way of knowing if the air above the sudden breeze was any better – in fact, if the earlier winds had been any indication, she would soon be going back toward the park – but she knew that if she didn’t do something soon, she would have no chance. She cringed when she saw the vertical speed instrument show that she was skyrocketing upwards; the balloon could only climb or descend so fast. She said a silent apology to Sundance, and another to her parents, since she was about to lose out on a chance at ten thousand dollars.
She leveled out at 1,800 feet above the ground, nearly twice the altitude where she had planned to fly. The winds must have changed, because she was still traveling steadily toward the target while her competitors ahead were blown hopelessly away. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that many others had caught on and were now climbing to her altitude. It had only bought her a slight advantage.
A rough, frustrated sigh escaped Sierra’s lungs when she admitted to herself that she was much too high to aim decently anymore. Add another ‘learning experience’ to the list, Dad, she thought to herself. He tried so hard to be positive about everything; no matter how bad her flight had gone, he would say it was just another chance to learn something, and maybe it was, but winning was pretty nice, too. She gently pulled on the vent rope to let some of the hot air out, knowing it wouldn’t get her low enough in time.
She took one more look at the target and aimed the best that she could, then took a deep breath and released the marker. She didn’t even look to see where it landed.
“I’m too high to make the field,” she said into the walkie talkie. “I’m going to climb and see if I can’t go back the other way.” She knew that even through the worn handheld radio, the disappointment in her voice was audible.
“Better luck next time, Princess,” Charlie responded. “Do you want to trade out for the fly over?”
She squeezed the burner handle for a few seconds before she answered. “I’ll let you know.”
Some days she wished she had just stayed in bed. As she reached 2,500 feet, Sundance started retreating back the way they had come, high above the rest of the balloons. Sierra dug in her backpack and found the sandwich that Charlie always packed for her. It was banana, peanut butter, and chocolate chip – the “Elvis Supreme,” he called it, and even though it was a guaranteed heart attack, it always kept her going through the toughest flights. She switched arms for the burner and snacked as she searched for a good landing spot.
She was almost passing the park again at about a thousand feet off the ground. Sundance was barely moving anywhere but down, aiming right for the softball field. She hated the thought of staining her balloon’s fabric in the red dirt and put her sandwich down to concentrate better on holding the balloon in a hover until her family showed up with the tarps.
“I’m setting down in the softball field,” she said into the radio.
By the time she was about to land, she saw the Pathfinder parking in the nearby lot. Mike had already hopped out and was jogging over, hauling their smallest tarp under one arm. She kept the balloon hovering about ten feet off the ground until Mike spread the tarp out below her. She let Sundance settle to the ground and sighed when she saw her father and Charlie approaching.
“How do you think you did?” asked her father.
“I don’t even want to think about it.” She traded places with Mike and dejectedly plodded over to the Pathfinder.
“Don’t count yourself out yet,” her father said, trying to reassure her. “It’s not over until all the markers have been counted.”
“But I was almost twice as high as everyone else,” she lamented.
He placed another cup of hot cocoa into her hands, although by now it had become warm enough outside that she was ready to start shedding layers. “I’ve had much worse luck in competitions before.”
She sipped at the muddy drink with a scowl. “I guess I was just hoping my first real competition would go better.”
“You should still do the big fly over,” he insisted.
Sierra knew she should, but moping in the corner of their booth sounded more appealing. “Let Mike do it,” she replied firmly.
Despite her mother’s protests about using extra propane, Mike held the balloon in a hover so they could guide it out of the field and over to the grass, where they spread the tarps again to pack the balloon away. Charlie and Mike rapidly pulled on the rope attached to the top that snapped all the clips open, leaving the bubble of hot air free to escape. Sierra shut off the propane and disconnected the burners while their father wrangled the balloon’s crown as it deflated sadly and its massive sides caved in. They squeezed the air out and gathered the great swaths of fabric into a long tube shape, bound it with the straps, and folded it back into its bag like a giant caterpillar.
Sierra used to love helping everyone sit on the bag to squish the air out, almost more than she liked being the first one to upset the pile of raked leaves in fall. This time she waited in the Pathfinder. She couldn’t stop thinking about the one gust of wind that had just ruined her whole day. She hadn’t really been expecting to win out of so many people, but she had hoped to place at least in the top ten.
They finished packing up the balloon and headed back to the fairgrounds. Sierra was surprised to see her mother sprinting to meet them at the gate, flailing her arms as if to flag them down. Her father rolled down the window. “Helen, what’s wrong?”
“Sierra got third!” she yelled breathlessly, panting. “In the marker drop!”
Sierra’s heart accelerated wildly. Third! She instantly decided it had to be a mistake. There was no way she could have beaten all those seasoned balloonists out with sheer dumb luck. She hopped out of the Pathfinder and followed her mother to the AeroStripe tent, walking so fast she was practically running. They were the biggest sponsor of the competition every year, and she had lost track of how many free t-shirts she had gotten from them. Even now, the bright yellow shirt she was wearing that announced the same event from years ago had their logo emblazoned on the back, the puffy clouds spread across her back like wings with the company’s name on a horizontal stripe cutting through them.
They had set up a stage next to the tent where they announced the events, and they had brought racks full of merchandise to sell. Sierra spotted a fancy tote bag made of balloon fabric that she liked. It occurred to her that she hadn’t even bothered to find out what this year’s prizes were, having assumed there was no way she could win anything. The prizes for most of the top ten placings had already been picked up, judging by the sheet of signatures at the desk. A curvy blond in stilettos stood next to the desk, smiling and offering free luggage tags made of AeroStripe’s signature tear-proof material and emblazoned with their logo. Sierra assumed she was just another gimmicky bimbo until she realized the woman’s nametag said Laney Peterson, Sales Department Head.
“Hi there.” Her voice was warmer and more assertive than her appearance let on. Sierra realized she had misjudged the woman. “Are you picking up a prize for someone?”
“For herself,” her mother declared proudly. “Sierra Flynn, number twenty-four.”
“Excellent, if I could just see your ID…”
Sierra held her license for the woman to check. Her heart was fluttering behind her ribs. What could she have won?
“Looks good, just sign here real quick while I go get it. Honestly, I would take your prize over the one for first place… Who cares about Barry Manilow tickets, anyway?”
Sierra stifled a laugh. The prize committee only ever knew how to pick prizes and gift bags for the older crowd, as she had often learned when her parents came home from an event with golf coupons and spa packages. Laney ducked behind a panel displaying travel mugs and reappeared a moment later with a bag just like the one Sierra had been eyeing, only it was stuffed full.
Her eyes brightened when she saw the matte black box with neat neon blue letters sticking up from the middle of the bag.
“Here you go.”
“Is that…a tablet?” Sierra breathed.
“Brand new from our friends at Krystos,” Laney announced. “The one they just announced last month, the Constellation X5 – it hasn’t even hit the market yet. They gave a handful to their corporate buddies.”
Sierra squealed in excitement and delicately removed the box, handing it to her mother so she could see what else was in the bag. Lots of corporate goodies from the other sponsors – TechFlite, Morningstar, Garmin. She happened upon an envelope with her name on it and looked up at Laney curiously.
“That’s your prize money,” the saleswoman replied. “Three thousand dollars, if I remember right.”
Sierra nearly fainted. That would be enough to finally buy herself her own car, or a new phone – maybe both. She could get Tara a great present for her birthday next week, or maybe some flags to put on Sundance’s sides, like she had always dreamed.
“Honey, this is so great!” Her mother was busy reading the back of the Constellation’s box. Up until now, Sierra had assumed her mom wouldn’t even know what it did. “We can finally have something to track reservations and financial stuff! God, I’ve been saving it all on that crappy computer for years. And that’s enough money to get a new trailer, and maybe even some bigger banners, or some better ad space…”
Sierra wasn’t listening anymore. The color had drained out of her, leaving her as joyless and deflated as the balloon after a long flight. She could see Laney’s shock and knew the woman was about to say something that would undoubtedly set Helen Flynn into a fury, so she quickly plastered on a fake smile and gave the most enthusiastic thank you she could muster.
“Before you go,” Laney added, “we’re collecting pictures of all the winners. Would you be interested?”
Sierra hated hearing the pity in the woman’s tone. “Absolutely,” she said hurriedly, jumping at the chance to distance herself from her mother. As she posed in front of the AeroStripe logo, watching her mom holding the tablet and the check, she had to wonder how genuinely her smile was coming across. At least she had gotten the bag.
Sierra made a point of avoiding the seminars that afternoon since her parents planned to attend. Instead, she spent her time in the booth, cradling the new piece of technology that she would probably never use.
Mike was sitting next to her, playing on his phone. “You don’t look like someone who just won a huge competition,” he commented.
“I don’t feel like it, either.” She sighed. “I know it’s not about the prizes, but… You should’ve seen her face, Mikey.” Sierra felt a pull in her throat that threatened to become a sob. “It was like I wasn’t even there. Like she wasn’t even proud of me, just the fact that I won stuff for the business.”
He ruffled her deep brown hair. “I know it sucks, but we do need that stuff,” he admitted reluctantly. “Maybe next time. And I bet Dad would let you keep some of the money.”
“That’s not the point.” Sierra shoved the tablet back into the bag and turned to her backpack to look for her logbook.
A Chinese family overflowing with kids wandered over while she was filling in all the information about the day’s flight. “Are you a pilot?” the mother asked Mike in a polite, tiny voice.
He gave a warm smile. “Yes, ma’am. So is my sister Sierra here.” He motioned to her. “She won third place in the marker drop today.”
Sierra managed a weak twitch of her mouth and tried to pretend she was busily searching for something in her logbook.
“I didn’t know they let girls fly,” a definitively teenage voice sneered. Sierra looked up from her chair and felt her face flush in anger. Jason Shen, possibly her least favorite person on the planet, grinned snidely down at her.
She gritted her teeth and forced a big smile, reaching for the tablet. “Well, I must have done something right, since I won one of these.”
Her smile became genuine when she saw his expression turn sour. His father owned a slew of electronics stores down the road in Spokane, and that he obviously didn’t have his own Constellation yet infuriated him. His mother softly chided him for his tone, but the baby in her arms began wailing and drew her away. Sierra wished Jason would go away, too.
“Why did you come over here?”
“Just looking for a company to host my sister’s wedding.” His jealous scowl morphed into a smirk again. “But I think we’ll go for something a little more…reputable.” He trailed after his mother, dragging a younger boy behind him in a tight grip. The boy looked over his shoulder and tried to wave at Sierra, but Jason smacked his hand and glared at her again. She just gave a small smile and held the tablet up in defiance.
“Does that guy ever give you trouble in school?” Mike’s heavy square jaw was set hard, and his muscles bulged. Sierra almost said yes just to see how fast it would take him to send Jason to the hospital, but she thought better of it.
“He’s a loser. I don’t have to prove anything to him.” Sierra heard their father’s voice growing louder as he neared them.
“…interesting what they said about single burners, but I’d always rather have the backup. Hey, there’s my champion!” He worked his way around the edge of the table and wrapped her in a hug that smelled like propane. “What all did you win?”
She tried not to think of it as surrendering the bag when she passed it to him. His eyes widened when he saw the tablet, and her stomach sank. There was no way she was keeping it now. He pulled out the envelope, puzzled. “It’s the money,” she said halfheartedly. “Three grand.”
“Shoot, you could get yourself anything you wanted with that!” a delighted elderly voice cried from behind him.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Izzy.”
Sierra perked up a little. Izzy Ferguson was one of her favorite pilots. She was seventy-two and flew better than pretty much everyone. Her white hair fell just beneath her chin.
She enthusiastically shook Sierra’s hand with a surprisingly strong grip. “Nice to see you again, hon. You know, if I hadn’t watched you climb up over the top of that breeze like that, I would have hit it and I never would have won! Instinct like that means you’ve got pilot’s blood in you.”
Sierra grinned through the woman’s blazingly fast words. She wanted to grow up to be just like Izzy.
“Where’s your mom? I haven’t seen her since last year. She doesn’t smoke anymore, does she? You know, I had a friend that smoked…”
Sierra put her things into her backpack and slipped it on, then thought for a moment and grabbed the Aero Stripe bag and put it over her shoulder. “I’m gonna go find Charlie,” she announced to no one in particular. Mike gave her a small wave.
She knew Charlie would be at the classic car display, drooling on the engines. He was easy to find since he stood almost a head taller than the average person, unlike Mike, who barely reached above their mother’s height.
She tapped him on the elbow, and he grinned. “Hey, I heard you did pretty well. Is this the spoils of victory?” He picked up the bag and sifted through it. “Wow, a new Constellation! Sweet!”
“Mom is keeping it,” Sierra blurted out. “And my prize money.”
Charlie looked devastated. “She can’t do that.”
“Well, she is.”
She felt the pull burning in her throat again. Charlie tugged her away from the stately blue Mustang and the crowd surrounding it. He held tightly to her shoulders and trapped her stare in his. “You can’t let her do that, Sierra. She doesn’t deserve it.”
Her posture drooped. “Yeah, but we need them for the business-”
“No, we don’t,” he interrupted. “We’ve made it just fine without a tablet, and you earned that money. You can’t let her take that away from you, or she always will.”
For a fraction of a moment, she saw something in Charlie that she hadn’t seen before, a resistance he had clearly been hiding for years. His bony face was rarely so serious.
Sierra sighed hopelessly. “It’ll be okay, Charlie. I’m sure she wouldn’t go through with it.”
She hated lying to her brother.
That afternoon, just as the sun started its slow descent behind the Cascades, they unpacked Sundance again. Charlie took the burners this time and had the balloon fully inflated and standing in less time than most of the teams around them. Dozens of other balloons came to life around them, illuminated by tall licks of flame and lighting up the night sky like a hundred different bulbs.
Sierra climbed into the basket and motioned for Mike to follow her, but he shook his head. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch it next time.”
Sierra wrapped a jacket around herself and gathered the tether line into the basket. She looked up into the dark expanse of the balloon as Charlie squeezed the handle. Fire burst forth and made the fabric’s colors come alive. Seconds later the balloon carried them up, rising with the kaleidoscope of light around them.
“You’ll have to stand up to her.” Charlie spoke out of nowhere. Sierra looked up at him as he let a burn go, the firelight dancing on his gaunt features before he released the switch and plunged them both into darkness.
“She did it to me, too, you know. Took all the money I won and just told me we needed it for the business.” He squeezed the handle again, revealing a pained expression. “I was going to run track for Texas A&M. I got offers from all over, but they were my favorite. I had a whole career planned out.” He paused to release another burn. “They made me feel like a traitor for even applying. Mom said I was ruining the business, but she meant I was ruining the family.”
Sierra was stunned. She had never heard any of that before. She didn’t even know Charlie had applied to any schools more than a few miles away. Maybe down the road in Spokane, but all the way out in Texas? She wondered what it might have been like, visiting the enormous campus with him, watching his eyes glow upon seeing the gym and track area, pulling on a maroon and white shirt every time he had a meet… It all seemed so distant and impossible.
“Promise me you’ll follow your own dreams, Princess. Not theirs.” Charlie’s eyes gleamed wide and serious through the next burn. Sierra thought vaguely that they resembled marbles, dark and shiny like the ones they used to play with together. “That’s all I want for you.”
Sierra turned away from the burner and faced the cold world outside the balloon. Other balloons blinked on and off like the twinkle lights their dad hung on the Christmas tree every year. The hisses of other burners echoed across the black expanse of land spread out beneath them. She took a deep, slow, sharp breath of the clean air as a light breeze playfully tossed her hair around her face. She pulled her knitted hat from her pocket and tugged it down over her head, but wisps of cocoa brown still tickled her nose.
“Promise me you won’t give up either, then,” she replied. She finally turned around to look at him. She caught the barest hint of a sad smile just before the flame disappeared and their world went dark again.
“Sorry, Princess. I did already. A long time ago.
“Make sure you take care of all your schoolwork before Thursday.” Helen Flynn’s face was flushed red as she finished stuffing rolled up shirts into her suitcase. Sweat beaded on her forehead even though her bushy Irish curls were pulled taut against her scalp and away from her face.
“We know, Mom,” Charlie responded with a roll of his eyes. “I think the college can get along without Mike and me for a week.”
“Mom, I need you to write me a note saying why we’re going to be gone.” Sierra tried to press a form labeled Planned Absence from Class into her mother’s hand, but Helen waved her away.
“Put it on the counter. I’ll deal with it later.” She hurried through the kitchen into the garage and nearly slammed the door in the process.
“Don’t forget!” Sierra called. She recognized a corner of black matte cardboard poking out from under one of her mom’s sweaters and felt a rock in her stomach. She had been hoping to at least take it on the plane to Albuquerque. She pictured herself taking the box and hiding it in her room, watching movies in her seat as mountains and clouds glided by below them. She also pictured the screaming match that would ensue when her mother realized she had taken it, and she decided the better course of action was to leave it alone.
Her dad already had a small duffel bag neatly packed and trimly stuffed into the Pathfinder; he was busy double checking that the balloon was tightly secured. He kicked the tire of the sturdy old trailer and stood back a few feet to admire his work. Sierra stood silently, debating whether to mention the tablet. Certainly he would understand why she wanted to keep it. And maybe the money, too.
But her mom was moving between the garage and the house too frequently to give her a chance to say anything, so she let out a small sigh and kept it to herself.
“We’ll see you in a few days,” her dad said as he closed the back door of the Pathfinder. Camping gear was packed in so tightly that their sleeping bags were squished up against the windows. Norma meowed miserably in her carrier, releasing low yowls every few seconds, knowing from experience that she would be spending a week in a pet hotel.
“Enjoy the soundtrack,” Sierra said flatly. She was glad she and her brothers always flew down instead of driving; it meant she and Charlie could stay up late watching movies and eating ice cream for dinner, and Mike would help them build an elaborate pillow fort out of the dining room chairs.
She hugged each of her parents, pushed a few salmon-flavored cat treats into Norma’s carrier to keep her quiet, and then waved goodbye as they disappeared around the corner.
“So, do you want to play with this now, or should we wait for the flight?”
Sierra whipped around at the sound of Charlie’s smug voice. He held the black box in one hand like a trophy and grinned like a triumphant wolf.
“What? It’s yours. You earned it, and you should get to keep it.”
She just huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Mom is going to kill you.”
Charlie waved her away. “Yeah, yeah. You should get to school or she’ll kill you first.”
Sierra changed into her favorite skinny jeans and a flowy top with a light jacket. She checked the time on her phone (7:25) and slung her messenger bag across her body on her way out the door. Her phone lit up and chimed. Tara had sent her a text.
‘Fall formal mtg @ 3:30.’
She smiled to herself and replied. She liked ballooning, but it would be nice to take a break and spend time with her friends for a change instead of running straight home to race through her homework before helping set up for the evening balloon tour. She met up with Tara by the fountain in front of the main office, the one the seniors always filled with commercial grade laundry soap as a prank every year. Tara always joked that it was such a nice way to repay the CEO who had paid to build their library and donated the fountain to commemorate the occasion.
“Are your parents gone yet?” Tara inquired, hugging an English textbook and its matching workbook close to her chest. Her thick black braid bounced between her shoulder blades as she walked, setting off her deep brown skin. Sierra sometimes felt envious of her friend’s ability to wear some of the colors that usually made her look washed out and faded.
“Left this morning.” Sierra stopped by her locker for her morning books. “I told you I got third in the thing on Saturday, right?”
“Awesome!” Tara glowed when she smiled. “Did you get any good loot?”
Sierra pressed her lips into a thin, stiff line and bit her tongue so hard it almost bled. “Just a nylon bag, some stuff with logos, a few bucks.” She tried to shrug it off. “Nothing special.”
“Aww, suckage. I loved that huge to-go cup you won that looked like a balloon. It had a little lid and everything.”
Sierra paused long enough that Tara stopped walking.
“What’s wrong, Sie? You look...sick.”
“You ever think maybe I should try to do something different?” Sierra looked shyly at her shoes. Charlie’s words reverberated through her head. She wondered if her parents would do the same things to her that they had done to him.
“Why? I thought you loved flying balloons.”
“I do, I do. Really.” Her voice was tense, like a rubber band about to snap. “Maybe I just need a break.”
Tara gave her one of her famously reassuring smiles. “Sierra, I think it’s really cool that you found something you love. You probably just need to be reminded how much you love it.”
Sierra barely smiled back. “You’re right. The fiesta will be good for me.” She closed her eyes for a moment. Just imagining that flight alone with Sundance at the competition, feeling the breeze on her back and the heat from the burner on her face, made her feel better.
“I’ll see you at lunch, okay?” Tara leapt at her and crushed her in a hug.
“See you later,” she answered lamely. It finally hit her that her mother had never written her a note, and she groaned audibly. If Ms. Reid was the one working at the front desk, she would have to suffer yet another lecture about skipping school and its effect on her “academic future” and whatnot. She hastily grabbed a new form from the rack outside the office and headed off to Chemistry.
She tried to concentrate, but after only a few minutes she found her mind drifting through the clouds. Balloon fiesta was always fun. She loved seeing the hundreds of balloons float across the sky, their huge lopsided shapes blotting out the sun like multicolored clouds, their burners blinking on and off. Even so, her thoughts kept orbiting around the look on her mother’s face as she marveled at the tablet and rambled on about how great it was. She lazily scribbled in her notebook and continually bit the skin of her bottom lip between her teeth.
“For the homework, you should be able to do problems one through four and six.” Her teacher’s voice broke through her thoughts, and she hastily scrawled down the assignment. “Don’t worry about five yet; we’ll cover it next class, and you can hand it in next Tuesday.”
The bell chimed lazily, signaling the end of class. Sierra closed her notebook and shoved it into her bag, hauling it onto her shoulder as she hurried to the front of the room with the form in hand. “Mr. Mendoza, I’m not going to be here next week,” she told him.
“Ah, that time of year again?” he questioned.
She nodded. “Yep. I won’t be back until the eighth.”
He wrote “see me” on the form and neatly signed his initials. “Just come to my office when you get back. If you can turn the homework in ahead of time, go for it, but don’t worry about it, either.”
“Thanks. I’ll have it to you by tomorrow.”
She stuffed the piece of paper into her bag and left for Calculus. Her math teacher, Mrs. Jefferson, told her the same thing, and her computer science teacher told her not to even bother.
She found Tara at their usual table and gave a small wave as she headed over.
“I’m so excited to start planning the dance today.” Tara shook a packet of raspberry vinaigrette dressing and emptied it over her salad. “I got Matt and Bethy to help, too. Matt’s brother is a DJ and said he would do the music for way cheaper than last year. And Bethy is so great with color palettes; I just know she’ll come up with a great one for our theme.”
The theme was A Night at the Oscars, to be exact. Sierra had barely even thought about what she would wear. Buying a new dress was out of the question (although images of expensive ads in the terminal at Spokane International with pictures of Big Blue and words like ‘Echo Foxtrot Ballooning - See beautiful Washington like you never have before!’ bloomed in her mind) so she would have to either make something else work or steal from Tara.
“I think I’ll dress up like Priti Rai,” Tara said dreamily. “She’s so gorgeous.” Priti Rai was Tara’s favorite Bollywood starlet, a model-tall, striking woman who usually played princesses on screen. Sierra knew it wouldn’t be hard for Tara. She had plenty of traditional, insanely bright outfits to wear.
“I don’t think I could get away with something like that,” Sierra lamented. “And I don’t even think I have a good dress to wear. I’ll probably just have to reuse the one from prom last year.” She reached for her turkey and provolone sandwich and took a bite, chewing it for far too long so she could avoid the conversation.
Tara frowned. “Didn’t you say you won some money at that balloon thing? What was it, like, at least a hundred bucks, right? I’m sure we could find you something cute at Nordstrom Rack for that.”
Sierra wanted so badly to tell her about the money, but she refrained. Tara was so outspoken about everything; she would think Sierra was a wuss for not demanding the money back. Tara barely got along with her own mother, let alone anyone else’s. Maybe she would say something later, when there weren’t so many people around, or after the dance had passed, when it didn’t matter anymore.
“Let’s head down to Spokane after school,” Tara insisted. “We can get some quality shopping therapy done. Maybe see a movie or something.”
“Yeah, let’s. I just need to text Charlie real quick. Be right back.” She slid out of the table and headed for the bathroom with her phone hidden in her pocket. Some of the teachers were such sticklers about students using their phones, even during lunch. She stood next to the paper towel dispenser and slid her phone’s keyboard open.
‘Tara wants to take me shopping for formal. Not sure what to do about money.’
She hit send and waited. The response arrived barely two minutes later.
‘I’ll put some in your acct. Have fun Princess.’
Sierra sent him a thank you and heaved a sigh. When she returned to the table, Bethy had arrived, along with Lennox, who was loudly complaining about a test in History.
“And then Mr. Davis said he wouldn’t curve the grades, even though we all got C’s and the highest grade was only an 80! I can’t stand him!” She purposely dropped her history book on the tile with a slam. “I’m doomed to failure now.”
“Ugh, the man is insane,” Tara agreed. Her face brightened when Sierra returned. “Oh, oh! By the way, after the meeting, we’re all taking Sie to Spokane for some emergency shopping.”
“I don’t know if I qualify as an emergency, Tara,” Sierra replied flatly, though a smile played at the corners of her mouth.
Lennox pulled Sierra’s hair back and piled it on top of her head. She adopted a dramatic voice. “Simply marvelous, don’t you think?”
Sierra swatted Lennox’s hand away and smoothed her hair back down. Tara and Bethy were laughing. Sierra tried to fight a growing smile, but soon she was laughing along with them. By the time the bell announced the end of lunch, her sides hurt and tears dotted the corners of her eyes. She packed the remainder of her sandwich away for later and headed to her last class, feeling better already. When the day was finally over, she found Tara waiting for her outside the classroom door.
“The meeting shouldn’t take long,” she said. “Want to run over to Ethel’s and get some snacks?”
“Definitely.” They worked their way through the mass of students milling around the hall. When they passed the science lab, Sierra glanced inside and saw Bethy talking animatedly to the teacher. She looked unhappy about something, but Tara pulled her along, and soon they were on their way to the shop up the road.
“Sierra, is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Huh?” Sierra was surprised for a moment.
“I don’t know, it just seems like something’s bothering you.”
She sighed. Tara always knew. “Alright, but you have to swear you won’t freak.”
“Is it something worth freaking over?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
She spilled everything, almost literally. The words started out choppy and halting, but soon they spilled from her mouth too fast for her to stop them, like water flowing over stones. Tara stopped her in the shadow of the old church just opposite the corner of the shop.
“Why does she want the money and stuff so bad?”
“I don’t know,” Sierra confessed. “She wants a better way to run the tours, I guess, and buy ad space and crap like that. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
She left out the part where Charlie had told her about going through the same thing. Somehow, it seemed too private to share, even with Tara. She expected her friend to be mad, or at least annoyed about being kept in the dark, but instead Tara just hugged her.
“Well, first of all, and it goes without saying, but you know you can always talk to me about anything,” Tara started. Sierra just nodded. “And secondly, you really do need to stand up to her.”
“I wish everyone would stop saying that.” Sierra started walking again. “She’s my mom. She’s not some kid on the playground beating me up for my lunch money.”
They crossed the street and went into the tiny store. Bethy’s grandmother owned it, and she sold all the berries from their farm, plus fresh flowers, wildflower honey, and homemade cookies and fudge. The shop had once been the old farmhouse. Ethel greeted them kindly, wiped her hands on a pink apron, and then returned to stocking flats of strawberries against a wall. They waved hello and made their selections from the self-serve case.
“She kind of is,” Tara said abruptly.
Sierra looked at her. “What?”
“Your mom. She kind of is a bully stealing your lunch money. It just looks different on the outside.”
A corner of Sierra’s mouth turned down. “I don’t know, Ter… I’m sure we must need it or she wouldn’t ask. Ballooning doesn’t actually equate to a ton of money after you split it five ways.”
Four ways, she corrected herself. She shook her head and corrected herself again; her parents did everything for her, everything to make sure she had a place to live and school supplies and food to eat. Besides, until she turned 18 and got her commercial license, none of the money could be hers, anyway.
They returned to the school with bags of cookies for the rest of the committee. They all gushed over the treats and prattled on about color schemes and playlists and food trays. Sierra only commented every few minutes with a plain, useless agreement. She acted like she was busy nursing tiny bites of a triple chocolate cookie that sat warm on a napkin spread across her lap.
Normally she would have been excited to be on the dance planning committee, but Tara’s words nipped at her elbows. It wasn’t like her mom would do anything malicious on purpose; she just didn’t realize what she was doing.
When the meeting was over, they met Lennox in the parking lot next to Tara’s car. Lennox was already there, smoothing her platinum waves in the reflection of the right side mirror. “Bethy has to do some stupid project all by herself since her partner bailed,” she called as they approached. “She said to bring her back a mall pretzel.”
Sierra slid into the back seat and dropped her bag on the floor. Tara started the car and Lennox picked her favorite track on the pop CD, belting it out in her theater star voice. Sierra leaned her head against the window and looked up at the sky. Clouds lazily drifted by in ragged lumps, turned smoke gray and pale pink by the early setting sun.
She zoned out as the car hummed along the road to Spokane. Her thoughts swirled uncomfortably in her head. She couldn’t concentrate on planning for the dance or focus on anything in class for more than a few minutes. Lennox would say she had ADHD.
They slowly plodded their way around the mall, trying on dresses they could never afford and pretending to shop for expensive jewelry. It seemed like Tara and Lennox had been planning their costume ideas as long as Bethy had been planning her wedding. Tara already had everything fit for a Bollywood princess, and Lennox would, obviously, be dressing up as Elle Woods, using her costume from their school’s showing of Legally Blonde the Musical last year, but no one could think of anything for Sierra that was easy to figure out, so they settled on searching for a formal dress.
They finally settled on a champagne and rose gold one with a poofy tulle skirt. Sierra complained that she looked more like a ballerina than a movie star.
“Just carry around envelopes and tell people they’ve been nominated for something,” Tara joked. A look of wonder suddenly exploded across her face. “No, wait, we all should! And we can get little trophies to hand out, and we should make goodie bags- oh my God, I have to call Bethy.”
Lennox just rolled her eyes and continued texting as Tara whipped out her phone and excitedly babbled her ideas into the microphone. Sierra studied herself in the mirror for several moments. It was alright, but she still couldn’t seem to care that much. She brushed it off; the dance was never really all that exciting until the morning of, anyway. She changed back into her clothes and went to pay for the dress.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” she said with a wave as she hopped out of the car. She opened the front door of the house and instantly smelled the fragrant aroma that meant Mike was cooking.
“Hey, Princess is home,” Charlie called into the kitchen. He was sprawled out on the couch watching the Seahawks play. Mike yelled something back that was inaudible over the loud sizzling of something hitting a blistering hot skillet.
“I wish he would make spaghetti more often,” Sierra said as she collapsed on the couch next to Charlie. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and messed up her hair.
“Did you find something for the dance?”
“Yeah, even though it makes me look like a wedding cake.” Both of them laughed. “Thanks for the money, Charles.”
“Hey, don’t mention it.”
Mike walked in from the kitchen, mopping his forehead with a towel. “Peppers and tomatoes are working now; sauce shouldn’t take too long.”
“Can I help roll out the pasta?” Sierra asked excitedly. When Mike rolled his eyes – meaning yes – she leaped away from Charlie and bounded into the kitchen. She saw two lumps of neatly kneaded dough on the counter and grabbed one. It was loose and elastic in her hands. She was about to pull it into smaller pieces to feed it through the pasta roller when Mike caught up to her.
“Hey, use the cutter, like I showed you,” he chided. “You’ll stretch it all wrong if you just pull it like that.”
“Ugh, fine.” She swiped the big, square cutter from him and chopped the dough into four misshapen chunks. She fed the first one through the roller, trying to catch it on the other side. It rolled off of either side of her hand. Mike picked it up instead and easily guided it to the countertop. Sierra stuck her tongue out at him, so he dabbed his fingers in the flour and flicked it at her face.
“Hey!” She shoved her hand into the soft flour and swung at him. A huge streak of white covered his shirt and face.
“Alright, that’s it.”
By the time Charlie walked into the kitchen to see what all the squealing was about, Mike had Sierra pinned to the floor and was tickling her mercilessly.
“Some of us would like to eat before the Seahawks finish losing,” he said casually.
Mike resigned, still laughing, and went back to cooking. Sierra was too giddy to help, so she just grabbed a root beer out of the fridge and waited. Charlie grabbed a regular beer and joined her as Mike brought over a heaping bowl of noodles and rich sauce.
“Oh, waiter, could I get some freshly grated parmesan?” Charlie called mockingly, holding his finger up as if getting Mike’s attention.
“Certainly, sir,” Mike replied in the same voice. “Would you like that on your pasta, or on your head?”
Sierra was still laughing when Mike returned with two bowls of cheese grated as fine as snowflakes. A basket of garlic bread was already on the table, and she gleefully stole the end piece of the French bread. She used to watch Charlie take that piece and scoop out the insides, then fill the crusty shell with pasta and eat it like a sandwich; now they fought over who got to do it.
They had just barely started working on their plates when Charlie’s cell buzzed on the counter. He sighed and stood up. “Probably Mom asking where they should have dinner in BFE Utah.” The look on his face confirmed that it was their mother, so he shook his head knowingly and answered it.
“What’s up, Mom, we’re having dinner- ...Yeah, it’s here at home, in my room.” His expression went serious, almost sour. “Because it’s not yours, that’s why.”
Sierra felt her heart trying to explode from her chest. Her mom was mad about the tablet, just like she’d thought. She tried to tell herself it was a stupid thing to be mad about, but she knew the real problem. Her mother hated to have her authority undermined. Charlie’s face grew dark as he slipped into the other room.
“It’ll be fine,” Mike assured her. “C’mon, eat more. I know you didn’t get breakfast this morning.”
She chewed on the deliciously fragrant pasta, but it had turned to glue in her mouth. Her mind raced. What could Charlie possibly tell their mother? It wasn’t like the Constellation had just been left out and carelessly forgotten. No, Charlie had taken something away from her, and judging by his aggravated tone in the other room, the conversation was not going well.
It seemed like ages before he returned to the dinner table. He seemed calm enough, but both Sierra and Mike knew he was displeased. Only certain things set Charlie off. His mother was frequently one of them.
“Everything cool, Charlie?” Mike questioned.
“Everything would be cool if Sierra hadn’t stolen my garlic bread.”
The chill seemed to lift from the room again as their conversation and laughter returned. Sierra marveled at her oldest brother’s ability to snap back from everything, as if nothing could really bother him for long. She wished she could snap her brain back to the way it was supposed to be. It would make getting through the week so much easier.