That satisfied public radio monotone draped me, a droning net, middlebrow and thickly self-congratulatory. I steered the Volkswagen over the culvert, splashed into the creek. It was rain-swollen, fast. I waded out and tried to hail a cab. None came, so I dried out on the roadside.
The rain was the night before, and the day was dry and warm. I lay down on a black patch of unshaded asphalt. I didn’t know where I ’d have directed the cab anyway. That stunt with the Jetta was the full extent of anything that might have been called a plan.
Yesterday I ’d woken up to a little girl in the body of my dog. He ’d been slit open down the stomach and imperfectly gutted. The child inside was cute and maybe ten. She had her own legs slid into my dog’s hind ones and her arms in his fore. Terry’s head flapped loosely to the side. Both faces had some blood smear, yellow hair. The child was drawing a family in the dirt with Terry’s claw—smiling stick-figures like a minivan decal. I ’d stood in my bedroom window and watched her work.
I ’d buried Terry the day before. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
I made up a tray with hot chocolate and toaster strudel. Surely all that digging would make the child hungry. I tied my robe tightly around me. My wife, away at work, still preferred if I dressed in the morning.
And so I came to be kneeling in the yard, robe rippling in the wind, my hand on the arm of the bloody girl who crouched boldly and sipped cocoa in the eviscerated corpse of our beloved family dog.
You might imagine my wife arriving then, confused and furious. She would be horrified at the sight, at the dog’s thick blood which, I admit, had clumped its way onto my arms and robe. But my wife did not appear. The girl finished her snack and thanked me, politely, then trundled off in Terry’s body.
I sat down with my back against our only tree. An airplane left asemic traces in the sky. My wife still did not return. Late at night she called and told me she would not return again. I remained enrobed and bloody. The clouds and the thunder came, and that night I did not sleep.
Rather than as an event, I saw the child’s visit as a sign. So I took a chance that I calculated to be a serious but not absolute risk to my life. Fifty-fifty, roughly. The car crash. And I did escape death and found myself only soaked on the roadside.
That was when the balloonist descended. I saw the bright nylon set down and deflate behind the tree line. It was about three miles away. Two and half. I’m a good judge of distance, and fast, so I started walking toward the landing site.
The balloonist was still there when I arrived. I approached him while he folded his balloon’s fabric back into its basket. I called out, friendly, and he smiled and waved me over. His name was John. I told him mine, and we started talking. He hadn’t meant to land in this clearing, but the wind was bad and he ’d been blown afield. His real job was as a patent attorney. I pretended to be impressed.
We sat across from each other on a pair of tree stumps in the clearing. John produced a large bottle of beer and two glasses from the balloon basket. We toasted, and he asked why I was wandering the woods.
“I came to find you.”
He looked unsettled.
“Not you specifically. I saw the balloon go down, so I went to see. I’ve been following signs all day.”
“Did they lead you anywhere good?”
“I lost everything I loved, and now I’m here.”
His unsettled look persisted.
“The dog came back wrapped around that child. My wife’s voice came back after her body left for good. Everything goes and then returns diminished. Softening echoes or something like that. I tried to maybe kill myself, and I succeeded in taking that risk. But here I am, unharmed.”
“Maybe you’re a ghost.”
“It would fit.”
“Do you want another drink? A sandwich maybe?”
“What I ’d really like is a ride.”
I gestured toward the balloon. I figured I could benefit from a new perspective.
John smiled gently and turned me down. I nodded and asked him for the sandwich.