Elle saw out the window a balloon floating past and up. It was shiny blue, with some characters that she couldn’t make out. Three floors below, on the sidewalk, a small girl in a loose hospital gown watched it get further out of reach. It hit a branch of a large oak tree and steadied itself there. Elle tapped the window and motioned to the girl, saying, though she wouldn’t hear, “Stay right there, I’ll help.” She held her mother’s warm hand, “I’ll be back in a minute,” and left the room full of beeps and wheezes to find the elevator.
The girl was waiting for her. “I don’t think anyone can get it.”
Elle could see she was from the pediatric cancer ward. She wasn’t sure how old, seven at the most, just a tiny thing with tufts for hair. “Should you be out here?”
“I couldn’t eat. My tummy hurts.”
Elle inched toward the tree, keeping an eye on the branch – way up there – that held the balloon. The girl followed her. Elle squared her shoulders and grabbed hold of a knot in the trunk. Her flats slid a little but she hoisted herself to the first crevice and took a deep breath. She looked up; there was a lot more tree to cover.
“What’s your name?” She asked the girl without looking down.
“Kate. That’s my first name. Are you a doctor?”
Elle felt a cool bead of sweat move down her face as she put her foot onto the first branch and reached up. “No, I’m visiting my mom.” It must have been the hours in a room filled only with beeps and wheezes, but she felt like talking. “I’m waiting for my brother to show up but I really don’t want him to.”
“You don’t like him?”
Elle hesitated before moving up to the second branch. “I like him fine. But when he gets here, decisions have to be made. Hard decisions. And papers have to be signed. And then…” She was up on the second branch and she straddled it. Her heart sank. She looked up, two more branches. She couldn’t move. Why the hell was she up here?
“Kate,” she breathed. She could no longer look up or down. She just stared at the branch she was sitting on. “I’m sorry, I can’t get that balloon.”
“I told you no one could get it.”
“I should’ve listened to you.” She thought she might throw up. “I have a hard time listening to people. And now I’m stuck.”
“You can’t move?”
“No. I mean, physically I could move. But, I’m afraid of heights and I know that about myself. I should not be up here. But I wanted to get your balloon for you.”
“It’s okay,” there was a catch in Kate’s voice and Elle heard her sniffle back tears. Kate’s voice was much smaller now. “I’m scared too,” she said.
Elle looked down and saw the panic in Kate’s small face, panic that probably never faded. Elle took a deep breath and stood up on shaky legs. She moved as fast as she could. Up that tree she went, not knowing how she would ever get down. She made the third branch and didn’t stop. She was up there, higher than she’d gone in a long time. She grabbed the balloon and saw the cartoon cat printed on it, with the words “Wishing you a purr-fect day.” Kate jumped up and down, clapping.
“Elle?” she heard her brother. “Elizabeth? Is that you? You are the last person I expected to see in a tree.”
She dared to look down at him. She wobbled and quickly sat, bear-hugging the branch. Her pulse raged at every point in her body. “Sean, I can’t get down.” She knew she was moments away from a full-on panic attack.
“It’s okay, Elle. Stay right there. It’s okay.”
He took off his suit jacket. He took off his shoes and his socks and with great ease he moved up the tree toward her. Elle heard Kate screech with delight. When he reached her, he turned around and patted his back. “Climb on,” he said.
“You aren’t serious. Isn’t that just more dangerous?”
“Yes, but if you won’t come down, there’s no other way. This is how dad used to get you.”
“Only when I was dumb enough to follow you.”
He laughed and patted his back again. “You hang onto that balloon and hang onto me.”
She wrapped herself around him so tight she thought she might break his bones but he carried her down. And though she thought she might pass out, there wasn’t a moment she felt that he would drop her.
“I’ll be right in,” she told Sean as he collected his clothes from the ground. He smiled and shook his head at her.
“That was funny,” Kate said.
“Oh that,” Elle said with a wave. “That was nothing. We do lots of tricks like that.”
Kate laughed and reached for her balloon. Elle gave it to her and held her little hand for a moment. “Do you need me to walk you back to your room?”
Kate shook her head. “No, my mom will come find me in a minute. She comes after work. I’m going to tell her all about you in the tree.”
Elle walked back into the hospital, her heart starting to slow in time with the beep, wheeze.
Desiree Wilkins lives near Philadelphia with her husband and their son. Her fiction has appeared in the print literary magazines Happy and Donut Factory and online at First Stop Fiction, Cleaver Magazine, and Every Day Fiction.