It appeared on the horizon early one morning, at the very far edge of my neighbor Caleb’s field. It was just a blip at first, but as it gently wafted closer to my property, it became large enough to blot out the sun. My son Henry was captivated. He’d never seen a hot air balloon in person before. He watched it drift closer and closer, then ran out on the porch in his dinosaur onesie, and watched it creeping even closer. As I drank my coffee, I could hear the sputters of the fire keeping the colorful thing afloat. It would stop and start periodically, bursting to life in a geyser of flames. My son waved excitedly, but his excitement waned as the hot air balloon drew nearer.
“Mommy, there’s no one in the basket,” he said.
I heard the burner puttering.
“What do you mean, honey?” I asked through the open window.
I stretched down and peered up at the object in the sky. Henry was right; there was no one manning the hot air balloon. Weird, I thought.Must have gotten loose. There hadn’t been much wind that morning, but if whoever the balloon belonged to hadn’t tied it down properly, it could have drifted off on its own. Out of curiosity, I grabbed my keys, buckled my son in the back seat of the truck, and took off after it.
The balloon ran out of fuel and landed on the outskirts of my field, where I finally caught up to it. Caleb was already there, sitting on his four-wheeler and scrutinizing it with a perplexed expression on his face.
“Morning Grace,” he said, never looking away from the object as the envelope slowly lost its circular shape and fanned to the ground like curtains in the breeze.
“Howdy Caleb. Any idea what this straggler’s doing here?” I asked.
I opened the back door to let Henry out. My excitable son jumped out of the truck and bolted towards the hot air balloon. Thankfully, Caleb grabbed him by the shoulders and held him back.
“No, son. It’s not safe. Might catch fire. Best to keep your distance,” He told Henry. His gaze then fell on me. “Mmm, not sure.”
“I reckon it’s a runaway tourist attraction from a few towns over,” I theorized.
He rubbed his bushy chin, “Mmm. Yeah. That’s probably it.”
Henry squirmed in Caleb’s firm grip. “Mom, I wanna go look!”
The last of the fabric fell and draped over a patch of soil.
“Should be safe now,” said Caleb, jerking his head towards my son.
I nodded back, and he let Henry go. My boy squealed and ran towards the basket.
“Careful not to touch the burner, honey. It’s still hot,” I called out, hands on my hips.
Caleb followed him at a much slower pace. “It’s quiet this morning,” he murmured, “Did you notice?”
I shook my head, “It’s never quiet with Henry around.”
I picked up the pace as Henry pulled himself aboard. Though I knew it was impossible, a small part of me was afraid the balloon would inflate and my son would fly off into the sky, never to be seen or heard from again. Just one of the many ridiculous automatic thoughts you get when you’re a parent; everything has the potential to be dangerous, even when it’s not. Thankfully, the hot air balloon stayed right where it was, and Henry ran around in the basket like it was the best toy he’d ever seen.
“Now don’t you break anything Henry,” I said, leaning over the side of the basket.
Caleb knelt down, lifted the fabric, and inspected it curiously. “Everything looks intact. Best not leave it out here, though.”
“Help me put it in the back of my truck. I’ll store it in the barn until its owner shows up,” I answered.
It probably cost a pretty penny. Someone was bound to come claim it sooner or later. Maybe I’d convince them to take us up for a ride as a thank you.
I shooed Henry out of the basket and told him to go sit in the truck while Caleb and I unhooked the fabric, rolled it, and tossed it in the back. We then grabbed the basket and hoisted it up.
“Shit,” I whispered, straining to lift it, “Heavier than it looks.”
Beads of sweat were rolling down Caleb’s face. “Probably because of the burner.”
It wasn’t easy, but we managed to force it in the truck. Caleb helped me tie it down while Henry watched eagerly from the back seat.
“Phew,” I mumbled, wiping my brow.
I was definitely having second thoughts about bringing it into the barn. Maybe I’d just throw a tarp on it once I got home and call it a day.
Caleb wiped his hands on his jeans. “I best be headed back. The wife’ll want to know what all the excitement was about.” He hopped on his four-wheeler and gave me a wave.
“Thanks Caleb. Y’all take care,” I answered.
We both took off in opposite directions. Henry watched as Caleb disappeared on the horizon, and then stared at our rows of corn the rest of the way home.
As we pulled into the driveway, Henry said, “Mr. Scarecrow’s doing a good job today.”
He pointed to the field. “Look.”
I followed his gaze to the scarecrow. For the first time in years, there were no crows cawing around it, or anywhere else on the property. Stupid thing never worked before. Don’t know why it was working now.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
Caleb was right. Without the incessant bird calls, and with most of the animals still asleep, it was rather quiet out. So quiet, in fact, that I could hear a low atmospheric hum droning on in the background. The kind of sound you only notice when everything else goes away. It was neither peaceful nor annoying; it was just a constant, low sound easily drowned out by my son’s babbling.
Spencer, our farm hand, arrived late that morning. I was already washing the dishes from breakfast when I saw him driving up the road. He had a bad habit of being tardy, so I wasn’t exactly surprised when he came running through the door, huffing, puffing, and apologizing.
“Sorry ma’am. This is the last time, I swear,” he said.
I stared at him, unimpressed.
“D’you hear what happened?” he asked.
“The hot air balloon? Yeah. I was there. And I still managed to make it back here on time to feed the livestock.”
He lowered his head in shame. “Sorry ma’am.”
I sighed. “It’s fine. Just get to work, all right?”
He nodded. Just as he was about to step out the door, however, we heard a booming noise off in the distance.
“What in tarnation was that?” he asked, peering out towards the field.
“Transformer exploded?” I suggested.
“Too loud for that,” he replied.
We stepped onto the porch and scanned the area, until we spotted a wisp of smoke in the distance.
“Looks like it’s coming from the Burns’ field,” he said.
“Probably just their tractor. Mr. Burns has been meaning to replace that old thing for years now. Guess the engine finally gave out,” I replied, and then shoved him lightly. “Come on, enough procrastinating. You’ve got work to do.”
His eyes stayed locked on the small column of smoke for a moment, but he eventually nodded. “R-right. Sorry ma’am.”
While Spencer was doing hard labor outside and Henry was watching cartoons in the other room, I got to work pickling vegetables for storage. It was nearing lunch when Spencer finally showed up again. He was covered in dirt.
“Took care of the cattle and everything, ma’am,” he said.
“Good work, Spence. I’ll have lunch ready in a minute. You mind doing one last thing? There’s a tarp in the barn. Be a dear and go get it for me?”
“Sure ma’am. Where exactly?”
“In the storage loft. Can’t miss it.”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he answered.
I watched him walking into the barn while I tended to the hash browns. Then, I waited. Waited for a couple of minutes. Then five. Then ten. What the hell is taking so long? I paced back and forth, irritated. His car was still in the driveway, so I knew he hadn’t slipped away to go flirt with some girl in town. With a grunt, I stomped into the barn, expecting to see him lounging about. I was prepared to chastise him for his laziness.
“Spence?” I asked angrily as the door swung open.
A ladder was propped against the wooden loft, the tarp at its feet. I grabbed the tarp and peered up, trying to find Spencer.
“Spence, what are you playing at?” I called.
“Spence, lunch is ready. Get down from there,” I insisted.
Still nothing. Not even a single creak from the wooden planks. All I could hear was the quiet hum from earlier. This time, slightly louder. If Spencer was up there, he was being perfectly still and quiet, two things he wasn’t too good at. Tarp wedged under my arm, I grabbed the ladder and began climbing the rungs. I was about halfway up when I heard Henry calling.
“Mom I’m hungry!”
Well, I had what I needed. I had the tarp. Spencer could play his stupid games all he wanted, for all I cared. I slid back down and went back inside to serve lunch.
“Where’s Spencer?” asked Henry.
“He’s trying a brand new diet of cold eggs and ham,” I answered.
We finished eating with no sign of Spencer. I was starting to get a little worried. He wasn’t the most reliable guy: he’d often come in late and cut out early, but he’d never run off on me in the middle of the day. And he’d certainly never leave his car behind. I figured I’d go look for him once I was done with the dishes.
Henry was playing with his toys and I was drying off the last of the pots and pans. I probably never would have noticed it, if the sun wasn’t shining at just the right angle, sending a beam of light from floor to ceiling. Dust particles. They were dancing through the room’s air currents. However, about a foot bellow the ceiling, there was a visible decrease in the density. I watched as little flakes swam up and disappeared beyond the invisible border. Weird, I thought, squinting at the empty space. There was something about it that made me feel unnerved. It’s like I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what. I looked outside. Not a bird in sight for miles. I thought of the hot air balloon and how empty it had been. I thought about Spencer up in the barn’s loft.
A bumblebee buzzed by the window, flew up beyond the intangible line, and disappeared. One second it was there, the next, it was just … gone.
“I’m going to get my trucks!” squeaked Henry as he ran towards the stairs.
I grabbed him so quickly that he nearly fell. “Don’t go upstairs,” I warned, my voice a mix of stern conviction and crackling terror.
I gulped down a knot of apprehension. My eyes were locked on the immaculate separation between the dusty and nearly dustless air. In that moment, I could only think of one thing. Something I’d heard on TV: dust is mainly comprised of dead skin cells.
My blood ran cold.
I could see it moving. The separation, I mean. Slowly, like the motion of the sun setting on the horizon. It was subtle, but it was definitely moving down. That’s when I realized that humming sound from this morning was getting even louder.
We need to get to lower ground, I thought. I wasn’t even sure what was going on, but I knew that something bad would happen if we were caught under the unseen ceiling slowly dropping on us. We lived on a plateau surrounded by mountains; the lowest point for miles. There was no “lower ground”, except for the cellar. Ducking my head, I grabbed Henry’s arm and pulled him towards the door.
“Mom what are you doing?” he whined, tugging back.
I didn’t answer: I didn’t know what to say. I closed the door tightly, unsure whether or not it would help keep it –whatever “it” was– out. The mere possibility that it might help was enough to bring me some form of comfort. With my free hand, I nabbed the flashlight I kept on the top step, and climbed down with my son.
It was cold downstairs. Perfect for storage. I had shelves with jars full of pickled vegetables, homemade jams, and sealed meats lining every wall. The concrete room wasn’t very inviting to a 7-year-old, so Henry usually stayed out unless I asked him to fetch me something.
I let out a sigh of relief and took a seat on the bottom of the wooden staircase. I could hear frogs and crickets chirping happily outside.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I went over the facts in my mind. Was I exaggerating? What had compelled me to run and hide? An empty hot-air balloon? A missing farm hand?
“Huh? What, Henry?” I replied.
He bounced around from foot to foot. “What’s going on?”
“There’s,” I paused, thinking it over. What was I supposed to tell the kid? I didn’t even know what was happening. My eyebrows came together. “There’s bad air up there.”
“Like a fart?”
I sighed. “Yeah. Something like that.”
I hung my head and hid my face behind my hands. I was being stupid. At least, that’s what I thought, until the croaks came to a sudden stop, as though all the bullfrogs in the creek out back were suddenly holding their breaths. I found myself holding mine, waiting for the sound to come back, but all I heard were the crickets. 10 minutes later, the crickets went silent. The void from the hush that fell over the room couldn’t even be filled by the pitter-patter of Henry’s feet as he ran in circles, bored out of his mind.
My fear only increased as I spotted the jars of meat sitting on the top shelf of the rack in the corner. They were empty. I pointed the flashlight up and looked at the dust particles in its ray. They were disappearing about two feet from the ceiling, just like they had upstairs. And, just like upstairs, the invisible divide was getting lower. That low hum following suit. All I could do was watch as, over the course of an hour, the separation came closer and closer to my son and I, until it became clear that I couldn’t sit on the stairs anymore. I pulled Henry into my lap and sat on the cold concrete floor, shaking as I watched the invisible ceiling falling on us. From time to time, I had to jiggle the flashlight to get it working again. I rocked my son gently, praying whatever was falling on us would stop and pull back. Praying Henry wouldn’t go rogue on me and run out of my grasp.
As it came closer, I lay down and told my son to do the same. We had to stay as low to the ground as possible.
“Don’t move, honey,” I told him.
“Mom what are you doing?”
“We’re playing dead, honey. If you do good, I’ll bake you your favorite cake,” I promised. “But you gotta be perfectly still, all right?”
“Okay!” he said.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it hurt when it happened? Would we disappear like the people in the hot air balloon? Could we somehow be saved? I held my hand against Henry’s chest, pinning him down like a seatbelt. I could feel him shivering against the cold stone floor. I was terrified he’d squirm and disappear forever. Should have brought a blanket, I thought. No, the blankets were on the second floor. The second floor hadn’t been safe.
There was a rock digging into my thigh, but I couldn’t risk moving. The threshold was closing in on us, making me feel claustrophobic in the wide-open room. I dropped the flashlight, closed my eyes tightly, and held my breath for as long as I could.
I waited, listening to the droning hum getting louder and louder like a bug circling my ear. I could feel Henry’s body heat radiating from his chest. As long as I felt that warmth on my arm, I knew my boy was okay. Even if I disappeared, at least he’d be lower to the ground. Low enough to be safe, I hoped.
We must have been there for at least an hour –maybe two–, before the sound became more distant. Henry had somehow fallen asleep despite the displeasing conditions. I opened my eyes, finally gathering enough courage to reach for the flashlight. I flicked it on and carefully aimed it at the ceiling. The dust wasn’t back, but I couldn’t see a divide anymore. Either we’d been engulfed, or the phenomena had passed. I was afraid to move at first, but I finally raised my arm. Nothing happened. I sat up. Still nothing. I let out a sigh of relief. We’d been spared. Somehow, by some miracle, we’d been spared.
When the hum completely faded, I cautiously climbed up the stairs, keeping my head low. I opened the door and looked around. The sound was gone. The invisible divide, gone with it. It was over.
After waking Henry and warming him up, I headed out to the barn. It was empty. No birds, no livestock, not even a single fly buzzing around the cow manure. Every single animal on my farm had gone missing.
We got in the truck and headed towards town. As we passed the Burns’ farm, I saw their crop duster crashed to pieces in the field. Must have been the explosion Spencer and I heard earlier. I stopped to check, but the plane was empty. I knocked on the Burns’ door, but received no answer. I drove to Caleb’s farm and tried them. No answer. I drove to town. There was no one. Not a single living being. Not even a goddamn squirrel.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m afraid it’s about to happen again. I can hear that hum in the distance. As much as I want to get out of here, I can’t take the risk. I mean, the only path out of here is through the mountains, and I don’t fancy going anywhere too high right now. I’m going to try my luck and hide in the cellar again. If you don’t hear from me, it means we weren’t lucky enough to be spared twice.