The sound of squeaking prickled Iggy’s ears. Still disorientated from the chemical sleep he thought he’d never wake up from, he slowly opened his eyes as the noise continued insistently. The floral curtain covering the window at the edge of the bed was thrown open. Bright, clear light beamed a thick ray into the room. Rebelling against the toxins in his body, his eyes adjusted to the light. Iggy was unsure if he was seeing correctly, so he swung his sore legs over the bed, heading to the window to get a better look.
A red balloon was rubbing repeatedly up and down the glass of the window. A plain red balloon. No words of birthday wishes or new babies, no colorful strings curled at the ends; just a red balloon with thin string hanging down. It must have gotten stuck on the fire escape somehow. Iggy twisted the lock, deciding to open the window before some kid tried to climb up the ladder. A gust of morning wind washed over him like a wave on the sand, giving off a chill before revealing the warmth of the day to come. He breathed in the buzzing air, sticking his head out of the window.
“Hello,” Iggy called down into the alleyway far below. “Did anyone lose a balloon?…Hello?”
“Hola,” a deep, stern male voice greeted from beside his head.
Iggy flinched, throwing his head sideways in surprise. All that swayed back and forth was the red balloon, which he then realized was not stuck on anything. He looked closer.
“Buenos dias. Que tal? Como te llamas?” The voice was coming from none other than the balloon itself.
Iggy said the first thing that came to his mind, “I don’t speak Spanish.”
The balloon sighed exasperatedly, “You, sir, are a poor excuse for a Spaniard!”
“I’m not from Spain.”
“I was born in Ohio, actually,” he couldn’t suppress a smile. Not white enough to be white, not Spanish enough to speak Spanish.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” the balloon’s English was heavily accented. “You are a poor excuse for a Spaniard. Follow me.”
“I don’t know you,” Iggy protested, “I’m not following you anywhere.”
“Shut up and follow me, hombre.” The balloon began gliding up the fire escape stairs.
Iggy hesitated a moment before pulling himself out of the window. Taking the steps two at a time, he caught up to the balloon. Further and further the stairs went up. Past the top of the building, changing into a spiral cast iron staircase gradually on its ascent into the sparse moist clouds. Without ever looking down, Iggy reached the apex. A transparent, cloudy mist brushed past his feet. The sun kissed the tops of the clouds with its warmth, slowly burning it away.
“Grab hold,” the balloon demanded, swaying its string.
“I don’t feel comfortable holding onto another man’s string,” Iggy covered his mouth with a hand to stifle his laughter.
“Silenico! Aren’t you so damn witty.” The balloon whacked him on the cheek with his string. “Hold on tight.”
Iggy chuckled as he took hold, “This might be a bad idea.”
With ease the balloon lifted him off the stairs into the thin atmosphere. Iggy didn’t even feel the burden of his own weight as they soared over the city’s uneven buildings. The wind rippled through his hair, leaving his sight free of obstructions. It almost felt like being on one of those walking escalators at the airport with the landscapes drifting by as the city disappeared into the cookie cutter grid of the suburbs, then the suburbs melting away into the mountainous forest range beyond. The forest was just a scattering of tall trees and blue mountains in every direction. A light cover of clouds drifted above.
“Here is where I leave you, amigo,” the balloon shouted over the rushing wind.
Slowing its pace while descending, it dropped Iggy off on the summit of a sharp cliff overlooking a clearing in the trees. Once he let go of the string, the red balloon started floating away.
“Where are you going?” Iggy called out through his cupped hands. He looked slightly over the edge of the cliff, backing away once the steepness revealed itself.
“Good luck,” the Spanish balloon laughed for the first time. “Hasta luego, hombre.”
“You can’t just leave me here!” Iggy jumped in a pointless attempt to catch the string. “Get back here!”
He heard his name carried over the wind and his heart nearly stopped, a breath caught in his chest.
Iggy gulped, “Fiona?”
“Fiona!” Iggy called out in a panic, pacing side to side. It was her melodious voice echoing through the trees. There was no mistaking it. How could she ever slip his mind, damaged as it was, even for a moment? “Fiona! I’m coming to find you!”
Doing the first thing he could think of to do, Iggy threw his body over the edge of the cliff with the intent to crawl down.
“I’m coming, babe!” he shouted repeatedly, descending roughly two inches.
The face of the cliff was uneven, making small foot and hand holds easy to see, but very steep at the same time. Putting all his weight on the next piece of rock, it cracked under his foot, falling straight to the ground. Iggy swung his leg back up, grasping onto the wall for dear life. His heart became the conductor of an all drum band in his chest. As he clung there momentarily froze by fear, Iggy felt the cliff shake. A sound, almost like a deep grunt, followed right after the shake. It was coming from the forest behind him. The earth shook again. Another grunt sent a flock of birds fluttering from their branches into the sky. It was getting closer.
Iggy scrambled up the short distance back to the summit. Jaw dropped, he watched as two monstrously huge shadow figures emerged from the forest into the clearing. They were dark, but transparent. Two low glowing orbs on each of them blinked. Eyes, but no mouth. He watched as they blinked and grunted at one another.
Fearing that they might be spiritual nemophilist, Iggy called out, “I didn’t mean to break the rock!”
The grunting stopped, their attention now directly on him.
At the speed of a giant–and they were giants, towering effortlessly over the cliff– they moved towards Iggy with outstretched arms.
“I didn’t mean to!” He raised up his arms in defense. “I’ve just got to get down there. My gir–”
He didn’t get to finish. One of the shadow men picked him up, lifting him high into the air.
‘Please don’t drop me,’ Iggy thought to himself, contemplating whether to pee his pants or not, ‘Or crush me.’
The shadows grunted to one another casually, Iggy trembling in terror, before simply placing him gently in the center of the clearing. Kicking up dirt, he ran like he was part cheetah to hide behind the nearest tree. From there he watched the shadows disappear into the pines to the side of the cliff, shaking the earth a little less with each step.
The voice, her voice, was all around him.
“Fiona, where are you?!” Turning in every direction he called to her, “Tell me how to find you.”
His back to the dirt clearing, her voice zeroed in, “Follow my voice.”
And he did. Iggy ran on his sore, limping legs through trees, bushes and dirt like the end of the world was chasing him.
The further Iggy ran, the higher the branches became, until they were the size of what he imagined California Redwoods would be. The trees also spread out, giving more running room then the ones by the clearing. The sun had burned away the low clouds and was illuminating the vibrant earthy hues of the forest.
Stopping to catch his breath, Iggy gazed up in astonishment, his chest heaving. The high branches danced in tune to the breeze, playing around in the light. Two birds darted from branch to branch, their shadows lost before they hit the ground.
Swallowing, he made as if to take off running again, but abruptly stopped in his tracks. There, standing in all radiance before him in the folds of a soft pale green gown, was a smiling Fiona.
The texture of the gown was that of a new rose petals. The grooves softly crinkled against Iggy’s skin when he picked up Fiona, swinging her around in circles. Her blonde hair flying around, cascading over his shoulders.
“I love you! I love you! I love you!” He repeated, giving her kisses all over her neck and face. Her laughter rang in his ear like the chiming of a bell. “Don’t ever leave me. I love you. I love you.”
Setting Fiona down, he fell to his knees, grasping her around the waist, “I can’t live without you.”
“I can’t live without you, either,” she cupped his face in her hands, “I love you so much, Ignacio. No one in this or that world could ever say otherwise.”
“I knew it wasn’t real,” he took in the scent of cherry blossoms and warm sugar coming off of her. “Real my ass.”
She laughed, showing her perfect teeth. “Are you hungry? Do you want some tea? I can tell you haven’t had breakfast yet. You look like you’re running on fumes.”
“How did I ever survive without you?”
Taking his hand, Fiona led him a little ways further to the bottom of the most enormous tree he’d ever seen in his life. A hollowed out section near the roots housed a modest round table with two chairs facing each other. On top of the floral table cloth sat two steaming cups of tea and a plate of berry scones.
“I already put honey in your tea,” her eyes twinkled with her grin.
Iggy kissed the back of her hand and replied, “That’s because you’re amazing. Thanks, babe.”
They sat down across from one another, still hand in hand.
“Iggy,” Fiona began after taking a sip of her tea. The cup clinked in its saucer as she set it down, then continued, “How have you been getting along without me?”
“It was horrible,” he took a bite out of the nearest scone, suddenly feeling the emptiness in his stomach. “Especially yesterday. It was terrible.”
“Why? What happened yesterday?”
“I don’t remember,” Iggy’s mind had gone blank instantly. Whatever he was trying to call back was gone. “My mind’s getting all spotty again,” he admitted, “Weren’t you there?”
“No, I was here,” she looked at him with worried eyes.
“Oh,” Iggy silently tried to rattle his brain for two connecting dots. Stress made the spotting worse, but what was making him so stressed out? He’d figure it out later. Right now all there was was Fiona sitting right in front of him. “Why are you here?”
Fiona took another sip from her cup, almost like she didn’t want to answer the question. “Iggy, I want you to think back almost two weeks ago. Do you remember the night we stayed in because it was raining so hard we thought the city would flood? Do you remember we made spaghetti?”
An image erupted in his brain, jolting him to the side like he’d been slapped. Eyes stinging, he saw the rain pouring over the fire escape and pooling in the ally.
“I—I remember the rain.” Pressing his temples with his free hand, Iggy remembered something else, “I was angry, furious. Why?”
He looked at the goddess sitting across from him for help.
“You were so angry. We fought for hours.”
More slides came to light in his mind. Fought was an understatement. They raged like two fighting volcanoes.
“You asked your stepfather for money,” he sighed. “You asked for money to help pay for rent.”
She squeezed his hand, “You were so mad. I thought you were going to blow out your voice box.”
The words from the argument rang in his heads. “Like I can’t take care of my shit!” “Another poor beggar!” “More reasons to look down on me!”
“And after the argument,” Fiona said, “I asked you to go get me some aspirin from the pharmacy.”
“I brought you back pills…”
“You brought me back pills.”
Tears welled up in the corners of Iggy’s eyes. The same way they did the morning she was buried. “But they weren’t aspirin.”
A sob caught in his throat. He gripped her hand tighter. “No, I couldn’t. It’s not real.”
“Iggy,” Fiona’s peach lips formed every word like they were the most important ones she would ever speak, “You are the only person who ever thought you were less.”
“Ha,” he let out between sniffles, “It’s like comparing grapes to grapefruit.”
“Listen to yourself. They’re both fruit.” She smiled a sad bittersweet smile. “Your own feelings of inferiority were your downfall. No one hated you more than yourself.”
A beeping noise suddenly surrounded them in the forest. It grew louder and louder, silencing the wind and the chirping birds, with each passing second.
“I love you so much, Fiona. I’m so sorry.”
“I love you more.”
Iggy opened his eyes slowly to see he was lying in a hospital bed. The beeping sound came from the heart monitor machine to his left. Two men in baggy, worn suits sat in the plastic chairs to his right. They waited for Iggy to fully wake up before speaking.
“Mr. Ignacio Romero, I’m detective Angelo from the NYPD,” the man closest to him introduced when Iggy sat himself up in the metal bed. “Immediately upon release from the hospital, you are under arrest for the poisoning of one Fiona Whitmore with cyanide pill, resulting in her death.”
Iggy sighed, looking out the blinds covering the window at the white clouds smear across the bright sky. “This isn’t real.”