Penelope gripped the string so hard that her knuckles went white. It felt so insignificant, even in her little hand, and she was terrified that it would snap and send her balloon floating off into space.
She’d only had the balloon half an hour, and already she knew it would change her life forever. Because what the grown ups didn’t know, what she was determined they would never find out, was that the balloon was magic.
She’d known it from the moment she’d seen it on the stall. It was tethered to a dozen other balloons, but it stood out, and called to her. It had something special to tell her, and only her, and it had only taken a minimal amount of pestering to persuade her Dad to buy it.
And when she had first held it in her hand, and looked up at its bright, bobbing form, everything she’d suspected about it had been confirmed. It was like her fears and misery were being sucked up through the string, and used to keep the balloon inflated.
The balloon lasted for months, without anyone else noticing.
She hung it from the foot of her bed, and every time she felt low, or scared, or small, or silly, or worthless, all she had to do was grip the string for a moment, and the balloon would take it all away.
It should be a shrivelled mass of dull latex by now, but it wasn’t. If anything, it was brighter, and more swollen than ever.
The balloon moved from bed to bed as Penelope moved from town to town, growing older, and wiser, and taller. No-one asked about it, no-one else really saw it.
She was so frightened that one day it would burst from all of the negative energy it was drawing out of her, and yet she made no effort to stop using its powers. Whenever she was down, she would refuel it, and smile as it glowed a wonderful colour.
The balloon even came with her to the retirement home. That’s when it was used the most. Almost daily in fact. And every time she used it, she knew it might be the last. Not because she was on her last legs, but because it might just decide to burst, even after all these years.
As she lay in her bed, ready to close her eyes for the very last time, no-one sat by her side. No-one held her hand. She had no-one to pass the balloon on to, no-one to give a wonderful gift to. All she had was the balloon.
Her eyes closed, and her grip released from the balloon. It lifted from her dead hand and gently rose to the ceiling, where it bobbed. For a moment it looked brighter than ever, and seemed to tip its head to the woman below. Then it withered to nothing and turned to dust.