Helium
Kate Wisel

 

Your dad is marrying a woman named Leona. You and your brother James show up to the reception a little buzzed off Coronas from the hotel’s ice bucket. It is polite of you to call her a woman–she is only two years older than James and works as a hostess at your dad’s new restaurant.

The room is filled mostly with Leona’s relatives, and when the photographer waves you together at the table for photos, you want to explain how you don’t know these people, how even their laughter has an accent. You order gin and tonics at the open bar, and after three, you wander over to the vinyl dance floor. It looks like a prom, with a hundred silver balloons bumped up against the ceiling with strings hanging over your head.

You throw up your arm and pull a string down towards your chin so the balloon taps your mouth. You make the balloon a microphone, lip-synching “Let’s Stay Together.” James spots you across the crowd of strangers who dance like a bunch of Sims on coke, then reaches up to pull a string.

He pretends to be Bono, holding the string down with his foot like a mic-stand, all open arms and balloon flapping like wind while he lip-synchs with conviction.

You shake your head and pull down a new string, wrapping the thin ribbon around your neck, silver balloon head floating up as you hold hands over your throat, tongue hanging out as you cross your eyes in a choke.

James dies laughing.

From here you can see Leona cutting steak, your dad’s arm outstretched across the back of her chair.

James whips down a string, pulls it through his legs then giddy-ups, trotting across the dance-floor to the bar, signaling for two more stiff drinks. You pull a string down and hold it to your belly, smirking at James by the bar as he holds a hand over his eyes, sipping out the tiny black straw.

You make like you’re in labor, hiding the balloon under your skirt, the semen-colored head popping out as you wail, make like you’re about to faint as a little crowd gathers around you, shuffling to the beat. They snap their fingers to a Three 6 Mafia song and assume you’re the crazy one.

James takes the balloon baby and cradles it. You bust up laughing, an inaudible cackle against the speakers. He extends his arm above you, fake camera in his hand, and the three of you pose, duck lips out for a photo.

The lighting makes spots against tablecloths. You see your dad kiss Leona on the hand as they get up from their table.

James pulls down a string so he is face to face with his wobbling opponent, like what, what then head-butts the balloon. You gear up both arms like a Bowflex, pulling two balloons down against your chest to show off your new boob job. James mouths Ew! as you release the strings from your fingers, the dance floor turning a soft LED red.

A slow song comes on and everyone turns as Leona lifts her dress then wraps her arms round your dad as he dips her back slowly. Turned upside-down, she is truly beautiful, with milky skin and a Colgate smile. It’s polite of you to call her beautiful, when there are other things you’d like to say.

You pull down the last string.

James is pink-faced, tie swung over his back and staggering with his gin and tonic, waiting to see what you’ll do next.

If your dad looked at you, instead of brushing his nose against Leona’s, he would see you ten-years-old. If you were a photo, he would write on the back of it: Serena, Balloon.

But you bring it to the floor, grinding your heel against the string to keep its head down. You look up at James in a panic, fake screaming, clutching the silver head with both your palms. You give it mouth-to-mouth, cool blasts of helium sucking up your throat as you gasp. By now, most of the couples are clutching each other as they slow-dance, taking turns raising eyebrows at you over rotating shoulders.

You look up at James and mouth help! your voice squeaky with helium.James dives down onto the floor, pumping his palms in CPR, rubber shriveling in your hands. You sound like a chipmunk, falling onto James, laughing because you won’t cry or save its life.

 

Kate Wisel’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Drum, Mad Hatters’ Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Fiction Southeast, and The Altar. She will be an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago in the fall.