- Prompt: Write a short story of 650 words or fewer based on the photo prompt above. You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
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It was in there, waiting for me.
“Give me 10 minutes,” I said to the police lieutenant, “Then dynamite the building and pave it over. That should buy you some time.”
He nodded. He had just seen three of his men die, and the night was still young. “Everybody get back” he shouted to the assembled officers. They looked nervous. I wanted to throw up, to leave, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to go in.
It all started far away from here, at a car dealership in Florida. Crazy Floyd’s, I think the name was. A little girl was crushed by a self-driving car. People had speculated she had been trying to get to the balloons placed as decorations inside the car as part of the dealership’s anniversary celebration.
The car injured a few other people, then drove off like a bat out of hell. Newspaper headlines made Stephen King references. Kids played a game on the playground called “killer car”. Some wannabe comedians made sick jokes about it on Twitter.
But little Becca Thomasson was just its first victim. There was Tyrone Simpson, and Wanda Waverly, and the Zogby family, and so many others. From coast to coast, there were reports from cities across the country of a car filled with balloons running over pedestrians.
The jokes stopped. Production of self-driving cars halted. Congress talked about making them illegal. Owners of self-driving cars reported having their tires slashed or their windows broken. Some people swore they wouldn’t leave their house until the devil car was stopped.
Now it was here, in my city. It had crushed an old lady trying to get to the drug store. The police had fired a few dozen rounds, and that didn’t even slow it down. They only sent me in because they had run out of options. I was certainly an unorthodox choice, but as the mayor told me, I was their only hope
I found it on the second floor of the parking garage, blood dripping from its chassis.
“This ends with one of us dead,” I said to it. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my crucifix.
The newspapers assumed it was a self-driving car killing people. It wasn’t. That’s why the cops called a priest.
The car’s engine screamed in agony as I tossed holy water on the hood and began the rite of exorcism.
I heard the crunch of stones and broken asphalt as the car pulled in. I was really hoping my father would have a loaf of bread to have with dinner; one that he obtained legally. I sighed, getting up to walk down the stairs. The unfinished essay remained; it was not a great night to work on it but I had no choice. It was due tomorrow and I made a commitment. I just couldn’t let myself down again.
The tea was brewing in my grandmother’s kettle. All the bottles were emptied and disposed of. The pasta was done and covered. No meatballs or sauce as we couldn’t afford it but I had managed to save a stick of butter so the pasta would not be dry. My distant Italian ancestors would not be impressed in the slightest.
The door finally opened and my father motioned for me to come outside, as he lit a cigarette. I followed him to the car cursing as I tripped on the huge split in the driveway. When I looked back up, all I could see were many colorful enclosed circles. I wondered if the quick snack I had to tide me over was laced?
He opened the passenger door for me and I could barely get in. There were some pops happening that I am sure someone would be calling on.
“Now listen,” he demanded like a drill instructor with the cigarette now hanging out of the side of his mouth. “These here balloons cost me a few bags so here’s what’s going to happen.”
For years my father dictated how things would happen. He said it was structure; I called it bullying. There was never any use to try to present a different position. He was master and I was just a mere peasant.
“There is a piece of paper in each balloon and we will do what it states. However, you can only pop eleven” I looked at him in disbelief. I wasn’t prepared for feeling like a recruit.
He handed me the cigarette and nodded. I popped the first one and a piece of paper fell on my lap. I opened the paper and it said Respect. My face crinkled and accidently gave him the side eye. He just nodded and I popped another one. Listen. Still not knowing what to think, I popped the rest.
Wait, don’t you usually get things in a dozen? I was not getting smarter by the minute and the cigarette was just about gone anyway. My father took it and threw it out the window and looked at me. For the first time ever, I saw his eyes tear up.
“I saw you emptying your bottles early this morning before I left for my...appointment.” He cleared his throat. “I heard you on the phone and realized then how bad things are and it got me thinking.”
He got out and came over to my side. He took my hand and helped me out. We walked into the chilly house, to the paper plates and paper cups set for dinner.
He went over to the closet and came out with that twelfth balloon. He put it as the center piece on the wobbly table and weighing it down was a loaf of bread. He took my hand from across the table and said that he would be with me on this journey.
“I know this isn’t quite the birthday cake you had in mind...” but I didn’t let him finish as I popped the balloon with a butter knife and saw what it said.
But this paper was handwritten, unlike the others that were typed. It was my father’s handwriting. I didn’t have anything in his handwriting until now.
My 12-step essay was done.
The Great Balloon Shortage
My Pop had a talent for making others laugh. He was, after all, a professional clown. A popular one, too. Birthday parties, festivals, and parades were all part of a day’s work. But years of embellishing smiles on his white cheeks, and gluing synthetic yellow rope onto his balding scalp failed to mask the disappointment he felt when he discovered I could never become a professional clown.
“I only lost two toes in Vietnam,” he often reminded me, “but my greatest misfortune was learning you were allergic to balloons.” Itchy hives, scaling skin, and going into anaphylactic shock for touching latex would perhaps be a travesty for any professional clown—especially one who wanted his son to follow in the family business. “What did I do to deserve this horrible luck?” he’d add to his lament, as if it were his arms and legs burning with lesions at the slightest fondle of a cute balloon animal. Despite his misfortune with my inconvenient skin condition, Pop made peace with the matter and begrudgingly sent me away to college.
When I returned home one year later, he greeted me in panic.
“There’s a balloon shortage,” he said.
I squinted at him with that same confused look teenagers often give when they suspect their parents have become idiots.
“I can’t believe I would live to see the great balloon shortage of 1988,” he said, waving his hands in the air. “Children will be disappointed.”
Pop’s catastrophizing sadness was palpable. Although he had an aptitude for dramatic exaggeration, he truly hated disappointing children. I later discovered there was no balloon shortage, and rather his distributor simply went out of business. The next closest retailer who sold party balloons was some seventy-five miles away, and Pop refused my offer to drive.
“The drive will take too long,” he insisted.
“It’ll only be for an afternoon,” I said.
“I can’t spend that kind of money on gas. It’s insane.”
“Then buy balloons in bulk and pinch a few cents.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed. “Why would I do that?”
Although often agreeable, clowns can be stubborn at times. Pop, on the other hand, was stubborn all the time and never agreeable. I suppose balloons from across the state floated differently in his mind. I thought it best not to press the issue, until I discovered him sneaking into the driveway with a car full of balloons late one evening.
“Where’ve you been?” I shouted.
Pop hit his head against the car’s hatch. “Nowhere.”
“Hmm,” I signaled my suspicion. “Were those balloons I saw in your car?”
“The ones you’ve been sneaking out of your car every night this week.”
“Those are just—,” he paused, “locally sourced balloons.”
I squinted at him in the dark.
Pop evaded the remainder of my questions that evening. Several nights later the local balloon source phoned the house at 1:32AM.
“Is this Ted Shepherd, Jr.?” a man’s voice asked.
“I’m Officer Ralph Jean, calling from Brookfield Park Zoo’s security office.”
“Ok. But why?” I asked.
“We apprehended your father hiding behind the donkey sanctuary. After the park closed. He was trying to abscond with the zoo’s balloon inventory.”
“We need you to retrieve him,” Officer Ralph Jean added.
“Can you just keep him? He’d make a wonderful addition to the donkeys.”
Officer Ralph Jean wasn’t amused.
Pop squirmed with embarrassment and shame when I arrived, unable to look at me. The zoo did not press charges, but banned Pop from ever getting near the vicinity. I wanted to yell and berate Pop during the car ride home, but instead I remained silent.
Silence was always the most uncomfortable sound for a clown.
“Wanna hear a joke about a helium balloon?” he asked.
“No, not really,” I said, clutching the wheel tighter.
“It’s okay,” Pop said looking out the car window. “It blew away from me.”
I dragged my feet along the ground preoccupied with the '71 Mustang I had been given the opportunity to restore. With pale faces smiling, horns blowing over the sound of children laughing in the distance, the usual pleasant and energizing campus seemed to take what little energy I had left for the day.
A squeak chirped behind me. "Good morning Claude," I turned to see my best friend Mac, or as he prefers to go by now, Blammo, "my class nose came in! Have you ordered yours yet?"
The truth was, no. I hadn't and had 0 intentions of doing so. I didn't even want to be in college anymore. I had no ambition to write jokes, hair was flat, the shoes that my parents gifted me on my high school graduation had faded from candy to brick, the flower on my chest had never even had water in it, I could never be bothered with makeup I just…
"I'm dropping out." The words found ears before I realized I even said them. Bammo looked at me confused and hurt.
Being great entertainers had been our dream since we met at camp in seventh grade. Bammo and Clammo LP Productions. Over the past few years we had formulated an extraordinary type of latex for balloons that was extremely promising in terms of safety and fun. An unpoppable balloon could shake the entire culture. We'd be revered as grandparents to a new era. And I hated to admit that I couldn't keep my focus on the Laugh Professionals any longer.
He drew a breath to question me, but quickly decided against it. We both knew it wasn't up for debate. He'd noticed my withdrawal sometime ago.
That goodbye was difficult. We parted a month before graduation, leaving Bammo with all my knick-knacks and collection of giant sunglasses. I moved up north for a job working on cars and began climbing up the ladder, even learning to make jokes again eventually.
Last year I received a call from Mac's mom, saying he'd been in an accident. Faulty airbags.
My heart fell from my chest. This goodbye was worse.
I looked at the blueprints I had abandoned, almost hidden on my bulletin board covered by projects prioritized over them. So I sat down, revised, edited and finalized.
While it may not have been the industry we wanted to shatter, I think he would be proud. So the groundbreaking advances of the automotive industry as far as airbags are concerned can be credited to my friend, partner, and lover, Mac "Bammo" Johnson.