The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
The Red Balloon
by Stephanie Ayers
Rory accepted the red balloon from the stranger in the park, but before he could clasp the string between his fingers, it floated to the sky.
“What goes up must come down,” his mother always told him, so he followed the balloon into the woods behind the park, not noticing the darkness creeping in. He followed it through the woods until he came to a clearing and the big house that dwelled there. The wind tossed the red balloon back and forth, and the iron spike along the top of the gable grabbed the string and held the balloon captive.
Rory licked his lips and swallowed hard. His eyes wandered from the balloon to the front door, and his feet froze in place. He was in The Forbidden Place. With a backwards glance, Rory wiped his sweaty palms against his jeans and took a small step forward. The balloon still teased him from its lofty perch. He took another step forward. His eyes pinched shut. His hands trembled, and his heart threatened to burst from his chest.
Nothing happened. A sigh of relief disturbed the silence, and he made his way to the door.
“Maybe it’s not haunted like Mom says. Maybe vampires don’t live there like Bobby said,” Rory said aloud.
Another voice entered his head, an unfamiliar yet friendly voice.
“Or maybe they do, but they’re just sleeping. It is daylight, after all. Go on, don’t be shy. Get your balloon.”
Rory searched for the source of the voice and found no one, but that didn’t scare him. He was used to voices in his head. He’d heard many different ones over the past eight years he’d been alive, and this one was comforting. This one understood he needed that balloon.
“Yes,” the voice said again. “You’ve worked so hard and come all this way. Don’t be shy now. Get your balloon.”
A smile broke through the fear on Rory’s face, and he tapped on the door with enthusiasm. No one answered the first time he knocked, so he knocked a little harder. The sound of footfalls echoed through the door, and Rory’s heart raced as he waited for someone to answer.
The door creaked open, and a stale, rancid odor emanated from the house. Rory’s nose crinkled, and he choked.
“Oh, a small boy. You sounded much bigger from your knock.” The voice was gentle but harsh.
Rory recovered by clearing his throat and looked at the speaker for the first time. The old woman was barely taller than he was, and he was short for his age. Her wiry hair was mostly white and stuck out in patches all around her head. She grinned, revealing her yellowed teeth, most of which were missing. A lump rose in Rory’s throat, and he swallowed hard.
The woman cackled. “What’s the matter, boy? Cat got your tongue? Speak up. You knocked, and I ain’t got all day.”
Rory’s eyes left the woman’s face long enough to stare at the balloon still floating above him. The woman followed his gaze and cackled again.
“Oh, I see. You want your balloon.” She held the door open for him. “Come and get it then.” She pointed up the staircase just beyond the door. “Go on.”
Rory hesitated. The nasty smell was gone, but the house was dark, except for a spot of sunlight at the top of the stairs.
The woman’s foot stomped. “Well, do you want it or not? You came all this way. If you want it, you must get it. I ain’t getting it for you. And I ain’t going to wait. I have supper to fix.” She opened the door a little wider and took a step back.
Rory licked his lips again as his eyes studied the balloon. The string slowly slipped through the iron grip, and if he didn’t hurry, it would be gone. He blinked and his feet carried him over the threshold. As he entered, she held her hand out, directing him to the staircase.
“Up you go, first door on the left. The window is easy to open. You ain’t the first to lose your balloon here. You won’t be the last. We keep it oiled. Won’t even squeak as it opens. Just mind the stake and watch your balance. I ain’t cleaning up your bones from my front yard,” she said, a strange smile replacing the friendly one.
Rory breathed hard. His heart thundered as he raced up the stairs with his eyes closed. When he opened them, they gazed into an empty room with a single window—the big window at the front of the house. He could see the string of his balloon at the top edge of it. A sigh of relief led him forward. He slid the window open, but he was too short to reach the string. His heart fell. He really wanted that balloon. He stuck his head out the window and pulled himself up to sit on the sill. He stretched so far his back muscles ached and pinched the bottom of the string between his two longest fingers. A gentle tug set the balloon free, and Rory smiled as he climbed back inside the house with his prize.
The foul stench almost knocked him out as he entered the hallway. The hair along his spine rose, and he cast a glance over his shoulder. Nothing was there, but he couldn’t shake the sudden feeling of doom that devoured him. He stared down the steps. The door was shut, and the foyer was shrouded in shadows. The old woman was nowhere to be seen.
The unfamiliar, friendly voice comforted him.
“She said she had to get supper started. Just go on, back down the steps, and out the door. Easy, peasy. Never mind the smell.”
Rory licked his lips again and clutched his balloon a little tighter as he moved down the steps slowly, one foot at a time. He took a deep sigh as he reached the door and opened it. The stranger who’d given him the balloon stood there, a sick smirk on his face.
“Ma! I brought supper home,” he said as he wrapped the red balloon around Rory’s neck.
Fiction © Copyright Stephanie Ayers
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More from author Stephanie Ayers:
The 13: Tales of Macabre
Can you survive all 12?
Killer watermelons, murderous jewelry boxes, centenarian sea whisperers, creatures of myth/legend, and more…
This supernatural story collection will make you reconsider everything you thought you knew. At night you’ll hover under your covers while looking over your shoulder in the day. Down, down in the depths they fell; bodies in the dark of a liquid hell. Can you survive all 12?
This is the second collection in The 13 series. Will you survive all 13?
With forward by JM Ames and poetry by Stacy Overby.