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.
“Penny,” Sam whispered. “Look.”
For Sadje’s What Do You See Challenge #45. Thanks for hosting, and the lovely prompt.