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As Safe as Houses

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May would not leave the blindfold be, her hand continually drifting up to her face to touch and twiddle with it, so I stopped walking, and she stopped with me. I could see her trying to pick up clues from the sounds of the empty fairground around us. It was early yet, so there wasn’t much to hear: workers calling to each other, the repeated thump of a sledgehammer, the whuffing breath of a horse. It could be any worksite just starting for the day, with hardly nothing to betray to the ear that in a few hours, there would be an entire circus standing here, crowds and barkers and trick riders and all.

I put down my picnic hamper and gunny and touched May’s wrist. She left off fiddling with the kerchief around her eyes and took my hand instead.

“You trust me, May?” I asked.

Her face lit up in that wondrous smile of hers. Even half-hidden behind the blindfold, it warmed me. “You know I do, Morgan Finn.”

“Then just a little farther. Won’t let no harm come to you, I promise.”

“Of course you won’t,” she said, and I shouldered my load once more and led her forward again, careful to not let her trip on any guy ropes. She moved uncertainly—there’s only so far trust goes, when a body can’t see—but she came willingly enough, and she didn’t touch the blindfold no more.

It didn’t take much longer to get to where we were going, and I drew her into a spot where we wouldn’t be run over by circus folk. She was frowning, trying to identify the hiss of the gas. I lined her up carefully—although at this distance, she could hardly miss what I had brought her to see—then I stepped behind her and undid the blindfold.

It took a moment, and I couldn’t see her face, standing behind her like I was. But then she inhaled, long and slow, and reached back for me, staring at the half-inflated balloon stretched along the ground before us. “Oh, Morgan…!”

I took her hand and came up beside her. She couldn’t look away from the balloon, and I couldn’t look away from her.

“You didn’t didn’t bring me just to see it, neither,” she finally said. She glanced at me for the barest instant, before her eyes were drawn back to that big old green and gold balloon again. “I saw you put our winter coats in that bag, and we don’t need those for a summer picnic.”

She had always been quick like that. She had known we would fit together, natural-like, long before I ever did.

“Now you know I don’t have much money, May,” I said, not wanting her to get her hopes up, “so it won’t be going nowhere. Well, nowhere but up, that is. But I saw it, and I spoke to the man what runs it, and he’s willing to take us up with him for the day, and I figured it might do as a wedding present. Just for now, and we can still do it again proper-like someday.”

I was wringing my hat brim in my hand, hoping she wouldn’t be too disappointed that it was just up and down, and no trip around the world or through darkest Africa. She had been mighty taken with that Jules Verne book when it come out, after all.

I needn’t’ve worried. May turned and kissed me good and proper. Or good and improper, as it were.

“Always a pleasure to see two people in love!” a voice rang like a trumpet, and I broke off kissing May. You would never know a voice like that came from a man hardly bigger than me.

“This is Mr. Diggs,” I said to May. “He owns the balloon. And this is my wife, Mrs. May Finn,” I added. It pleased me greatly to have occasion to say it.

“Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs at your service, madam,” the balloonist said, with a deep bow. He wore a green-and-gold striped tailcoat that matched his balloon, and was shiny all over, from his slicked-back hair right down to his white spats. If anything, he was a touch younger than May and me. I wondered, perhaps with less charity than I ought, how many of those names were actually his. From what I could tell from the day before, he was all showman and show-off, right straight through to his bones, but there seemed no real harm in him, neither.

“Mr. Diggs,” May said, putting out her hand for him to shake. I tried not to bristle that he kissed it, instead. But it pleased May, anyway, and she could do with more people treating her like a lady. I did my best, but it didn’t count as much coming from me.

May and I found ourselves a place to sit out of the way, where we could watch the balloon inflate. I spread out one of the blankets I had in the gunny and laid out our breakfast for her, but I made sure I kept the champagne hid, so it would still be a surprise, later. She reclined against me as we ate, warm in the early sun. The fabric of the balloon luffed and flapped in the morning breeze.

“It’s like a great, lazy, old dragon,” she whispered to me.

“And it’ll fly, soon enough,” I allowed. I had been slow to warm to May’s taste for adventure, my nature being more cautious than hers, but I was looking forward to going up in that balloon nearly as much as she was. It might take us a few years, but I figured we'd manage to get at least as far as South America someday.

I wasn’t at all nervous when it came time to hand May into the basket, but when Diggs’ crew let loose the tethering ropes and the ground dropped away, I had to swallow hard. Other than that first, gentle lift from the ground, it didn’t feel like the basket was moving at all. As soon as we cleared the tents, there wasn’t a breath of breeze to be felt, and that wide Wichita horizon didn’t move one whit. It felt like we were fixed in place and the ground itself was drawing away out from under us, the entire landscape hollowing out like a great big bowl with us suspended in the center.

I held fast onto the rim of the wicker basket, which seemed to me to be growing flimsier by the second.

May was leaning right over the edge to see better, and when I put my arm around her waist to make sure she stayed on the right side of the wicker, she looked back over her shoulder at me. Her expression changed from delight to a kind of shocked surprise.

“Why, Morgan Finn,” she said, putting her feet back down solid on the basket floor. She scooched in close and put her hand over mine.

“I’m not no coward,” I told her, because I wanted that to be clear. I was still having trouble looking down.

“I know you’re not,” she said. “A body don’t have to know you much at all, to know that. And I’ll fight anyone who calls you one.”

That made me laugh. It pleases her and me both to treat her like she’s fine and fragile—seems to me that after Janestown, she deserves at least that much—but we both know she’s as tough as they come.

“Hold on tight,” Mr. Diggs called, “this next part can be a touch—”

The entire basket shuddered, the floor tilting under our feet, and May and I both staggered hard to the right. The entire machine swayed, and the harness ropes on the balloon above us creaked ominously. The balloon bobbed, long and slow, before steadying out again. A stiff wind came up from nowhere.

“—of a jolt,” he grinned. “That’s the end of our tether.” With a flamboyant twirl, he jumped up onto the rim of the basket, unconcerned about the height and openness. He reached up into the harness ropes with one hand and leaned far out over the basket perimeter, a megaphone in his free hand.

It wasn’t peaceful up there in that balloon, what with the balloon’s harness whining in the wind and Mr. Diggs baying into his megaphone, drumming up business for his circus. But something about the tension between wind and ground, with the tether and basket and balloon all strung out taut in a line, made the whole rig feel solid again, and soon I was able to join May in her examination of the landscape below us.

“Look at that,” May said. “Like toys. You’d hardly know there was any suffering at all down there, to look at it. Think this is what angels see?”

“Dunno about angels,” I said. The clouds were still a good ways off above us. “Bluebirds, maybe.”

“Well, may be that’s why bluebirds are so happy,” she said, leaning out over the basket edge again. I kept one hand firm on her back.

The wind had been fitful all morning, and every once in a while the basket gave a sickening lurch. May and I showed appropriate caution, but Mr. Diggs’ only concession to the changing wind was to remove his shoes, so that he had a better grip when climbing from basket to rigging and back again. One hard jolt knocked him loose of the basket altogether, sending him swinging free out into the air from the arm he had tangled in the rigging above him. May and I both shouted—echoed by a larger chorus of voices on the ground below us—and we rushed to drag him back in. He just laughed, however, swinging himself around in a long, lazy circle until his feet were solid on the basket edge again. Despite our urging, he showed no inclination to come back inside the basket.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” I shouted up at him over the wind, my heart still hammering in my chest.

“Safe as houses!” he called, then walked his feet up over his head until he hung by his knees from the rigging, his coat tails flapping about his head. “As safe as houses!” he repeated. He put his megaphone back to his mouth, heckling the crowd below, and I made myself stand back, reckoning that the man knew his own business.

I waited until May’s first delight started to wear down—nearly two hours, by my count—before I broke out the champagne. It took some doing to find the glasses: Mr. Diggs had promised me a long day in the balloon, and so I had packed the hamper as full as it would go. When I finally found them, I offered one to Mr. Diggs, too.

“Mighty kind of you,” he acknowledged, untangling himself from the rigging and dropping into the basket proper.

It was as well he had, because the wind changed direction entirely just then, and with no warning. The entire rig went slack, and basket and balloon revolved in place, slowly at first, then picking up speed. I reached for May and the wicker rail both, shutting my eyes against the way the horizon slid and tilted beyond the basket rim. It seemed to me balloon and basket swung through a slow circle before slamming to a stop, the entire rig shuddering. The harness above us groaned.

The basket didn’t feel right: the rigging on one side was taut, but on the other it was slack, and the basket rocked freely as I shifted my weight: its movement was loose and sloppy, like it tilted on a hinge.

Mr. Diggs leaned over the edge to look down. May and I looked, too. The tethering ropes had twisted around each other; some were taut, and others slack.

“Is that going to be a problem?” May asked.

“It may be an inconvenience when it’s time to winch us down, Mrs. Finn,” Mr. Diggs allowed, “but there is also plenty of time between now and then to—”

The wind changed again.

Once again the balloon twisted and spun, and I pinned May tight between me and the basket wall, making it that much harder for her to fall out, but also making sure anything loose in the basket hit me before it hit her. I put my face in her shoulder, unable to look at the horizon as it swung. The basket finally jerked to a sudden stop again, more violently than the time before. This time it tilted even more severely, and when Mr. Diggs leaned out to look over the edge, the basket careened dangerously. I pulled May with me to the uphill side of the basket, counterbalancing Mr. Diggs’ weight with ours.

“Well?” I asked, when he finally pulled himself back inside.

Under his showman’s smile, his expression was more strained than I liked to see. “There is no reason to be concerned,” he assured us, taking up his megaphone. “It’s simply a matter of—”

We never heard what he meant to say next, because in the next gust there was a sound like a gunshot below us, and the entire basket slipped abruptly straight to the side. I reached to grab May down into the bottom of the basket with me, only to find that she was already there, reaching up for me. We hunkered there together while the basket twisted violently side-to-side, like it was being shook by a terrier. I could hear the crowd screaming below us. There was a hissing sound beside and above us, and I looked up to see a length of rope snaking high into the air, recoiling from the tension it had held in it when it broke. That rope had only just begun to fall again when there were two more gunshots, in quick succession, and the basket was lurching and twisting again. When it finally shuddered to a standstill, it was Mr. Diggs’ side of the basket that was high and loose. The entire contraption—basket through balloon—was quivering under an unseen strain.

Then the quivering gradually died away, quiet-like, and the wind died with it. The basket swayed gently, and evened out under our feet.

With a wondering glance at me, May stood up to look, and I joined her.

The fields below us scrolled past at an alarming rate. I couldn’t feel any motion at all.

“We’re flying,” she said, and reached for my hand.

I turned to look at Mr. Diggs. “I presume you know how to land this.” I wouldn’t cut May’s first balloon flight short for the world, but it looked like we were climbing higher, and it seemed the kind of thing that needed asking. Perhaps I should have asked it before I had bought May a ride in the thing.

“Ah,” Mr. Diggs said, a distinctly uncomfortable look about him. “Not as such. At least not by any means I would like to try. It was made to be winched down in order to conserve the gas; to the best of my knowledge there was never a gas valve installed on it.”

“To the best of your knowledge,” I repeated, to make sure I had heard right.

He grimaced. “See, that’s the thing. I’m not, strictly speaking, what one might call an aeronaut. More of an... aerialist.”

“Aerialist,” I repeated again, jaw tight, in order to avoid saying something that I might regret later.

“And an accomplished ventriloquist,” he added, as if that would be helpful at all to our predicament. Perhaps he imagined it was. “However, sir, madam, there’s no need to worry!” he hastened to add, that showman assurance returning. “There’s nothing but land for nine hundred miles in any direction. We’re bound to come down somewhere!”

“Can’t fault his logic,” May said, and I turned to look at her, momentarily distracted from the question of who was to blame more for our situation, him or me. She looked nearly amused to be stuck in a runaway balloon. It took me a minute, but I figured that if she wasn’t bothered by it, I wouldn’t be, either. We hadn’t been headed nowhere in particular when we landed up in Wichita, after all, and didn’t have much to leave behind there, either. Anyway, it didn’t look like there was anything to be done but ride it out. Even with three of us, there was food and water enough in the hamper to last us a few days, as long as we were willing to scrimp.

And May and I had seen worse. We had seen considerable worse.

“Seems you get your trip around the world after all,” I told her, rueful. “Not sure we’ll get ourselves all the way to China, but we can try.”

“I reckon the newspapers will be happy enough to pay, depending on how the story comes out,” she said.

“I reckon,” I agreed.

“It’s an adventure,” she said with a conspiratorial smile, and nudged me with her shoulder. It startled a laugh from me. “And ain’t even anyone shooting flaming arrows at us yet, neither.”

“Does that happen much to you?” Mr. Diggs asked. He gave the balloon above us a nervous glance.

“Not all that much,” I said back to him, and grinned to see him swallow.

“Morgan Finn,” May reproved me. She turned to Mr. Diggs. “Only the one time. Mostly it’s just explosions.” Butter wouldn’t have melted in her mouth, and I had to smother my laugh.

Somehow, that damn champagne bottle was still in my hand. It had mostly spilled or gone to foam, but there was still some liquid in the bottom. Mr. Diggs had gone pale from May’s teasing, and I took pity on him. He was young, and foolish, but that wasn’t no crime, or oughtn’t be. I chased down the two surviving glasses in the bottom of the basket—the virtue of not being able to afford crystal—and poured out a measure for each of them, keeping the last swallow in the bottle for myself.

“Here’s to hoping we don’t have to cut this damn balloon out of the sky in three days’ time,” I toasted. I didn’t like the look of that rigging, but I’d climb it, if it came to it.

“If you can supply the knife, Mr. Finn, I can do the cutting,” Mr. Diggs said grandly.

I didn’t understand a man who didn’t carry at least a pocketknife, but he could climb that rigging like a monkey and it sounded a fair enough deal to me.

When we finished our toasts and what little champagne there was, May and I turned back to the view again: few enough got to see this, and having the chance, we might as well. I was distracted, though, and kept stealing glances at her, trying to figure if she really was as content as she seemed.

She caught me at it. “I didn’t have this much when I washed up in Janestown,” she said.

I nodded, although a blanket, a winter coat, and a picnic hamper—plus whatever each of us was carrying—seemed a mite slim to be going on with to me.

“I mean you, Morgan Finn,” she said, leaning in to speak directly into my ear. She threaded her fingers in mine, and squeezed tight. “I mean you.”

I looked at her, and what I saw in her face made me duck my head. I counted my good fortune once again that she had seen me proper, back when I was still too caught up in another to see her at all. And not only seen me, but been persistent enough to make me see, too.

When I could, I looked up at her again. “And I, you,” I said, suddenly hoarse. Her smile said I wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. Like I said, she always had been quick.

She looked out at the horizon then, smiling. I did, too, as I held her hand and waited to see what would come up on the other side of it.