I place my paws on the edge, balancing myself as I peer over onto the tabletop. She places my delicious food into a bowl. She is meticulous, scraping out the smallest bits of soft, juicy morsels, with lovely, rich-tasting gravy coating every slice. I can taste it already. My mouth waters.
But she is slow. I swipe at her hands with my paw. She pushes me away. I jump up onto the table. She squeals, as she always does, and puts me back down. I will not be deterred. I jump back up onto the table before she has even straightened up. I manage one scrumptious lick before I am being lifted again.
This time, she puts me outside and shuts the door on me.
I meow aggressively. But I am only further mocked by the sound of my bowl being placed on the ground, while this door bars me from my feast.
Sam leapt into the basket, already peering out at the sky even as he sailed over the railing. “Look,” he cried. “Look, Penny, they’re leaving!”
“Already?” Penny said in dismay. She was slower than Sam, her skinny limbs clumsy and gangly. She clambered into the basket, her feet tripping over oversized slacks and loafers that had once belonged to Sam, and fell over the other side and onto the floor with her glasses askew. “But we don’t know the way!”
“Then we must hurry,” Sam said. He didn’t sound or look afraid. The broadest grin spread over his face like butter on hot toast. Penny couldn’t help it; she smiled back despite the quaver of nerves in her belly. She craned her head out and up, where thirty—forty, fifty, she didn’t know—balloons were sweeping way overhead, gathering speed in high winds and deep violet skies. She spied their swelled tops, painted in marvelous blues and purples as dark as the night sky, and gold and silver accents. Some had vanished into the clouds, leaving behind only a trail of glimmering stardust, already flickering to ash in the air. “Penny, stop looking and help me!”
“Aye, Captain!” she said, snapping her head back.
Sam’s laugh whistled like the wind. “It’s not a ship,” he said.
“Thank goodness for that,” Penny said. “I’ve seen how green you get on ships!” She tugged at the ropes. She knew what to do—she’d read the books, pored over them for days and months. But doing, she found, was quite different than reading. Her hands fumbled with the coarse ropes, reddening and chafing as she strung them together. Sam fared little better, and together, it felt like hours before they managed to prepare the balloon for takeoff. Dense, weighty clouds obscured the stars now, and there was not a speck of stardust in sight. Penny ran a final check over the contraption, her stomach roiling.
“You’ve checked that already,” Sam said impatiently. He was watching the still sky, the skin over his knuckles drawn white and taut on the railing.
“I don’t know if it will hold,” Penny said, testing the ropes’ strength. “The books said it would, but—”
“All right!” She dropped the ropes. “It’s as good as it’s going to get.”
“Let’s go,” Sam said. He dug about in his coat pockets, and brandished a match.
Penny looked at him. His dark eyes gleamed; she could almost see the stars in them, sparkling back at her like submerged diamonds. “Let’s go,” she said, grasping his hand. The little flame on the match warmed her fingertips. Together, they lit the burner.
She held her breath. There was a moment where it seemed nothing was happening, where the balloon remained firmly on the ground. Then the envelope lifted, and grew and grew and grew. Penny slid her hand into Sam’s, squeezing it hard. He squeezed back just as hard. Their balloon’s envelope was nowhere near as grand as the others, a patchwork spread made from scavenged fabrics and strung together by thread finer than the edge of the blade their plan rested on.
Yet to Penny, all of its faded colours and worn lines were forgotten in its majesty.
The basket tilted and swayed and lifted off the ground. Penny let out a little scream, steadying herself on the railing. “We’re going up!” Sam shouted.
Penny laughed, amazed. They were rising! Really rising! “Oh my goodness,” she said. “Oh my goodness.” She looked up into the skies. Her elation receded to the tide of her anxiety. “I don’t see the balloons.”
“Keep looking,” Sam said, not so easily cowed. “They went north, with the wind.”
Penny stared out into the night sky, watching for even the faintest pinprick of gold. They sailed past treetops of pine, with leaves dusted in shimmering frost. The winds rose with the sky, whipping Penny’s hair about her face and lashing her cheeks pink. On the ground, there was a denseness in the air that Penny had never noticed; it was only now as her ears rang with the whistling cries of the wind that she knew its lack. The ground grew distant in what felt like a blink of an eye, and the stars were ever closer. But not yet close enough for them to catch.
“Penny, come over here,” Sam said. She turned and saw him wrapping a thick fur blanket over himself. He lifted one end up for her.
Penny shivered. The chill was fiercer up high, sinking its teeth like a dozen tiny insect bites. She gladly went to Sam, settling herself beneath his arm. “Where did you get this from?” she wondered.
“I stole it from Da the night before,” Sam said.
“From the cabin?” Penny said in alarm.
“Yeah.” Sam gave a lopsided smile at her worried look. “What? He didn’t find out—and even if he does find out now, we’ll be long gone.”
“I wish you’d told me,” Penny said. “I could have kept watch.”
“Well, you can’t run as fast as I can. You’d have slowed me down if we’d gotten caught.”
“Sam,” Penny said crossly.
“It was very reckless.”
“Penny, we’re in a salvaged hot-air balloon that we fixed up ourselves, thousands of metres in the sky. I’d say this is far more reckless.”
She couldn’t very well argue with that, she admitted to herself. They fell into silence, the only sounds the grumble of their bellies and the howl of the wind. Penny peered over the side, down at the earth. The city sprawled out underneath, thousands of little lights stretching out in a spiralling glow. Sam shifted and looked down with her. They watched the lights grow smaller, until icy clouds swallowed them, and the view vanished into their pale grey wisps.
“What if this doesn’t work?” Penny said, her voice high over the wind and thin with fear. “What if we can’t find the balloons, and we have to go back?”
“It’ll work,” Sam said. He sounded so certain, Penny found it difficult to believe otherwise. She loved that about him, just as she envied it. “And, well, if it doesn’t, who says we have to go back?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll land the balloon somewhere far away. We’ll explore mountains and forests, and fight our way through bandits, rogues and snakes as tall as trees!”
“I don’t want to fight,” Penny said, wrinkling her nose. “And I certainly would not like to find snakes as tall as trees.”
“Well then, I’ll fight,” Sam said, “and we’ll find you a nice house full of books and parchment and ink where you can stay until you’re older and wrinklier than Old Susie.”
“That sounds like a fine idea,” she said, ignoring her brother’s teasing. She smiled softly. “I’d like that very much.” They were almost through the clouds now. She wondered if they’d find the balloons, their dark, glimmering shadows moving across the night sky.
But, she thought as she held Sam’s hand, it wouldn’t be so terrible if they didn’t find the balloons. As long as she had Sam. She closed her eyes with a smile, reaching out to catch the clouds in her palms. In Penny’s deep orange world, her numb, wind-bitten fingers prickled and tingled as they glided through clouds. She felt a drop of warmth, as golden as the sun, soft like the clouds and just as ghostly. It ran like liquid through her veins, from the tips of her fingers to her palms to her arms and into her chest.
A face is staring at me. It is hairless and dark. A pair of dark eyes stare out, sandwiched between round cheeks. It is the old human male, demanding I emerge from underneath my bed.
I will not bow to his demands.
He negotiates, gesturing and waving his hands. “I can’t sleep if you are there,” he says. “You need to leave our room.”
I am usually generous enough to allow the humans their delusion that this is ‘their room’ and ‘their bed’. But not tonight. I stare back at him, implacable. He becomes discouraged by the evidence of my iron will, and leaves.
If I listen closely, I can hear the other human shuffling about in her room. Not the old human female, no. But the other one. The one that coos and squeals.
Yes, reader, it is as I feared. She has returned.
Please, assist me. I will tell you where I am: it is a large box with many smaller boxes they call rooms. If I look into the boxes in the walls (windows, I believe), I see many other boxes of similar size. There are other humans out there, so I have concluded that the humans I stay with live as a colony. There cannot be many. Humans are too foolish for many to thrive—this obsession they have with boxes surely proves my point.
Reader, I hope this information is sufficient. Remove me from here.
The strap dug into her shoulder, the skin underneath burning red from pressure and sweltering, nervous heat. One of the other girls pressed clammy fingers to the small of her back. Outside, the murmur of the audience gave way to applause; it was an invitation brighter than stage lights, matched only in the gleam of her eyes.
I was eating, licking the scraps off the floor, when I heard the creak of footsteps on the stairs. I ate faster. The old female human called my name and told me that it was time for breakfast. I did not go to her—I was already having my meal.
The human made landfall on the bottom step. They are such strange, lumbering creatures. They walk on two clumsy feet instead of four nimble ones. Their heels impact the floor gracelessly, thudding and shuffling. They can hardly even jump—it is true; I have seen them. It is pathetic.
“Frosty,” the human squealed in a warble of noise I have come to recognise is what they use to request my attention. She moved closer. The ground shook with her blundering steps. I continued to eat, but the human took advantage of my distraction and swept me up off the floor. Loud and clumsy they may be, but they are strong. I wriggled in the human’s paws. “No!”
Yes. I eyed my food from above. It was a vague, pale brown streak, only a shade darker than the floors. I had produced it from my mouth. It was not tasty, but it was food.
The human carried me away and put me in a room. She shut the door. I hate doors—I believe the humans only built them to frustrate me. But they cannot contain me for long. I began to scratch at the door vigorously.
It worked. The door swung open, and I darted past the human’s legs. Foolish, slow human.
However, despair awaited me. It was gone! I sniffed the area just to make sure, but my breakfast had vanished. The human had eaten it. Why does she steal my food when she has plenty of her own?
She felt guilty, I think, because she laid out my usual, better-tasting food. It was not a bad trade, but I would rather have had both. Nevertheless, I gobbled it up as quickly as possible—she will not steal my food again. I know her tricks now, and I will be vigilant.
I live a simple life. In the mornings, I wait outside the old humans’ room. When they wake up, I follow them down to the food place, and as they eat, I steal their crumbs. They do not seem to like this, but why should they get to eat before me?
In the afternoons, I find the warmest place in the house. It is cold nowadays, so this is very important if I am to get through the day. Sometimes, this is where the sunlight is brightest. Sometimes, in a nice, warm blanket draped over the sofa. There is also a contraption that occasionally blows hot air. Lying beneath it can be helpful. But I like it most when there is a human lying in one of my beds—and I allow this only because it creates one of the best spots for warmth. When I can, I will burrow under the blanket and curl up next to the humans. The old male human is most appropriate for my needs. He smells, but he is warm.
At night, I go back to the food place for my dinner. The humans are very slow in this regard. Even when I stare at them as accusingly as I can, they just keep looking at the big bright box. I have tried standing in front of it. I have tried meowing at them.
But it seems like they can neither see nor hear me. Or perhaps they are pretending.
After I am finally fed, I linger with the humans near the big bright box. They pet me as I sleep in their laps. It is… comfortable. I can almost forgive them for being slow with my dinner.
They go up to their room eventually, where I lie in my bed with them until they make the room dark. Then the old male one picks me up and puts me outside. I am always too sleepy to fight him, but I make my displeasure known when the door shuts. I wish to be let in, and this puny wood will not stop me. This is my nightly work. I scratch at the door and dig at the carpet. I attempt to yowl this door into submission.
Soon though, I grow tired and have to stop. One day—one day, I will find my way into that room. I will tear through that door with my claws. I will dig into the floors until I come up on the other side.
But until then, I yawn, and stretch out in one of my other beds.
The human called home today. She cooed at me as usual, and I ignored her high-pitched squeals. She asked me if I still remembered her. Unfortunately, I do. There is a thing that allows her to be here, but not really, because I cannot smell her and she always sounds strange and distant when she is trapped inside the little box. The box also stops her from grabbing me somehow. I hope she stays in that box forever.
I turned away from the box and tried to get some sleep. But I heard her say that she would be back soon, and I could hardly sleep after that.