L. Niall Murphy
By means of majority vote, and not an insignificant amount of parley (I had voted against), Lukas, Kismet, and I (there were just the three of us), elected to travel by hot air from Kismet’s mother’s garage to the abandoned horse racing track an easy twenty miles to the south. The envelope was my design and was basically just a bunch of old windbreaker jackets fastened together and affixed to the basket (Lukas’s reluctant contribution) which was barely big enough for three people—even three children—unless those people didn’t mind becoming fairly intimate fairly quickly. I didn’t mind that part at all, and I strategically marked off the places we would stand with an ink pen so Kismet would end up pressed into me for the duration of the trip, and I thought myself quite damnably clever for that one.
“You know the principles of a Montgolfier envelope,” said Lukas in that way he had. It wasn’t exactly a question, but we knew we were supposed to answer him. “Heating the air changes its density, of course. You know. Of course, that’s the simple bit. Buoyed up like a life jacket in the sea. We’ll pop up to our altitude ceiling in moments. If my reasoning holds.” If his reasoning holds. Lukas was also damnably clever, and he was older than both Kismet and me by two full years, which naturally put him in charge of the whole mission. We looked up to him like you look up to the salesman at a car lot, but I’m damned if he wasn’t smart. In his own way. Kismet thought so too, but she also called him “that boy” when she thought he couldn’t hear her.
“I learned in science today from Mr. Banon that if you heat a gas to a sufficient temperature—under the correct conditions, of course—” of course “—it will behave in strange and useful ways. Mr. Banon told us that you’d need a heat source with enough output to sustain itself over long periods and variations in wind current and air pressure. I’ve assisted Kismet in devising such a heat source, portable of course, which I will retrieve presently,” Lukas said, and went into Kismet’s mother’s garage which had acted as our staging ground since we decided to pursue this operation in the first place. Kismet volunteered her own house, and sometimes her mother brought us watery lemonade made from that instant powder you can buy, and Lukas didn’t even pretend to be thankful for it, and Kismet’s mom started to call him “that boy” too. When Lukas was gone, I cleared my throat.
“Happy birthday, Kismet.” Wholly unprofessional. Kismet’s older sister was sitting on their front lawn babysitting us, and from time to time she would giggle at things we said, doing coos and making faces that people make at newborns when they hiccup, and ruffling Lukas’s crew-cut hair (which he hated), and telling me just how adorable a couple Kismet and I would make someday when we grew up (which I hated), and sunning herself in a lawn chair and bikini. I imagined Kismet might look like that someday: the curves and the too-large-for-her-face designer sunglasses and the adoration of all the high school seniors, sometimes turning herself over to sun her back and fixing her swimsuit that kept riding up high on her hips, but Kismet was looking at me peculiarly and waved her hand in front of my face.
“Hello?” she said. “My birthday is next Tuesday.”
“I said my birthday is Tuesday. Hello?” She tapped on my forehead with two fingers.
There was a great commotion from the garage and Lukas shouted, “I have the charts,” and “Of course you’ve heard of the first flight of the Aerostatic Globe. Of course you have.”
Kismet gripped my shoulder and leaned down to level her eyes with mine, and, looking around suspiciously, as if deaf to Lukas and blind to her sister Cassidy, eyes shifting like a pair of needles in liquid compasses moving too quickly ever to settle which direction is truly north or which is an artifact of the hand’s shivering motion, told me, “Carlisle, I may have discovered lower dimensions. Don’t tell Lukas.”
Again, from the garage, “I have the charts. Please stand by.”
“Lower dimensions. You know all that talk of higher dimensions in sci-fi, like maybe we’ll find a door or a window into someone else’s universe. Well I did that, but with lower ones.” Kismet leaned in even closer. “They’re in the balloon.”
“In the balloon, yes. Don’t tell Lukas.”
Back he came with rolls of architect’s papers and meter sticks and builder’s pencils and no fewer than three protractors, a level, two plastic grocery bags filled with canned food, his school backpack half-zipped and leaking stationery onto the driveway, and three headlamps dangling from his neck, all of them switched on and swaying as he walked toward us, a veritable River Styx boatman of doomed garage flotsam. “Of course,” Lukas began, almost mantra-like, “we may need to make more trips to the hardware store, Kismet. You should inform our jailer over there that she should be ready to drive us into town.” He tilted his head at Cassidy, who did a nose laugh at him and pulled her sunglasses down onto her face again.
“We’ll be fine, Lukas, I promise. Look,” Kismet said, pointing, “I may have found a technical speed bump in your plans.”
“Nonsense,” he said. He stopped in front of the balloon basket and dumped his armload into the drive, where it rolled around until it either fell into the yard or slid into the cul-de-sac, but he had already turned his attention elsewhere. “I assure you, you’re wrong.”
From my place just behind her, I saw Kismet’s hand go white with strain, and I could almost make out the word boy mouthed silently before she took a deep and controlling breath, released her clenched fist, and checked the time on one of her four plastic watches, each of a different neon hue than the last, riding up her left forearm like the bangles on a peregrine princess. “Give me those bags,” she said, deflecting.
“Would someone remind me what I was bloody talking about before you two interrupted?” Lukas was decidedly not British but somehow had determined that sounding like he was would make him more distinguished. Cassidy loved him for it, and always said “pip, pip” to him like some weird pop-culture nanny when he arrived at the house after school each day, and Lukas would ruffle, ignore her, and go on to whatever he was doing before. “Wait, don’t tell me. The Aerostatic Globe! The brothers Montgolfier! Of course, of course! It’s all so disgustingly French, of course—” of course “—their relationship with the Devil King Louis XVI, the construction of their airship, et cetera et cetera and et cetera. The whole exercise was a scientific marvel pro forma, but so much potential squandered. That’s where we come in, Chums! Just take what they learned and apply it to…”
He’d started referring to our “crew” as the Chums, despite the majority vote to the contrary. His reasoning was that, despite no official ratification of his movement, he was free to call us whatever he wished unofficially, and so he did, and has, and will continue to, of course. Kismet yawned.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Lukas. “Am I being dreadfully boring, Miss Kismet? Shall I take my accoutrements and technical adroitness elsewhere and build a balloon of my own?”
Cassidy sat up in her chair, repositioned her sunglasses to the top of her flaxen head, and said, “Did that boy just say ‘accoutrements’ over there? That is literally the most adorable fucking thing. I’m writing that down.” And she wrote it down, and Lukas sighed dramatically, complete with rolling shoulders and craning neck.
“Can we please get back to the bloody science?”
Only half-serious, I replied, “Of course.”
Lukas estimated our altitude at just over two hundred meters, but it seemed much more than that. For a change of pace, I looked up instead of down, and inspected what was probably the least safe mode of transport ever devised by a human mind. The envelope was holding, a hashed-together oblong something using thrift store jackets, ladies’ swimwear, scuba gear, winter coats designed for dogs, those slick dress socks you only see on old people, several spandex guitar cases Lukas had acquired through a series of legal loopholes and shrewd bargaining, Kismet’s old doll clothes, and, finally, parachute cord I had scavenged from my father’s camping gear stash in the basement of our house. Kismet claimed our balloon was proof of the existence of a benevolent God, but I argued it only proved that God no longer paid attention.
“I mean bloody hell, there are jacket sleeves dangling off all over the place up there,” said Lukas. And there were. Hot air was escaping only marginally slower than it was fed back in by Kismet’s jury-rigged kerosene burner, and as the air passed out through the loose shirt sleeves, they sung like a cloth church organ. “This wouldn’t have happened if Carlisle hadn’t been allowed to be in charge of the envelope, of course.”
We were passing over farmland. The wind was directing us south by southwest, by design, billowing through the gap between envelope and basket, taking Kismet’s hair and doing wild things with it. It flapped the ears of Lukas’s leather flight cap as he stood there, one foot planted on the railing, eye pressed into his monocular, barking orders to no one in particular. There was more room than I had anticipated, almost as if the basket had grown with increased altitude, until each of us had a full arm’s length of personal space, though my corner of the basket was shared with the fuel canisters and the lunch Cassidy had packed for us: peanut butter on whole wheat. “I propose a vote,” I said, holding the sandwiches aloft. “No sandwich for Lukas.”
“Now hold on a moment…”
Kismet had raised her hand before Lukas had finished his sentence. “Sorry,” she said, took the third sandwich, and chucked it over the side of the basket.
“Look here, now!” Lukas shouted above the wind. He took the other two sandwiches from Kismet, jabbed a finger into her chest, and grimaced.
There was this moment then, a moment of total otherness, when Kismet turned to me and suddenly appeared ten years older. This inexplicable, unanswerable, unfettered, inaccessible, indecipherable, unknowable moment – the moment when Kismet says “Watch this, Carlisle” and the sandwiches turn to black holes in their bags.
Sometimes, in physics, an object can shift itself from one state to another under certain energy constraints. And if you watch very closely, that object might be altered even further simply because you are observing it. This is not what happened in the balloon.
In the span of perhaps ten seconds, a number of events occurred. Most importantly, time became less a river than permafrost. Lukas was still there, finger sticking out dendritically at the air where Kismet had stood only a breath ago, holding a baggie which seemed to contain a scientific impossibility, and maintaining a haughty look on his face not dissimilar to the sort you might find on a pet which has just urinated in the refrigerator. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Second, Kismet was sitting legs crossed on the railing of the basket, kicking her heels against the side and looking out over what was now infinite ocean rather than suburban wasteland. Third, and this was the big one, I had a sudden but indisputable urge to kiss her.
“It’s called a pocket dimension,” said Kismet. Confidence. Like she expected me to know exactly what she was on about. Like suddenly a thousand years of scientific advancement was just doodles on napkins. “It lives under the other ones. It’s in Lukas’s sandwich there.”
What the sandwich bag now held was something I childishly thought of as a dark matter Frisbee, but what was actually closer to a sub-spatial doorknob. “Right,” I said, but I had no idea. “So now we use this to colonize other planets, or end world hunger or something?”
She laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that. Mostly I just wanted to do this.” She took a pen from her pocket and uncapped it, twirled it stylishly between her fingers, and scribbled the word DUNCE on Lukas’s forehead. “That’s all, really. Want a sandwich?”
Since he (Lukas) saw the world not as a specific location per se but as a particular spiraling set of possible atomic interactions, any and all conversations with him inevitably ended with him apologizing. Long lectures about the illusion of choice, the motion of quantum tricksters forcing free will on those who barely know the meaning of the phrase, these sorts of topics. Isn’t it beautiful in a strange and offputting way, he’d say at the end. Or, more likely, is anyone even listening to what I’m saying?
“What was that, Lukas?” Kismet’s voice from somewhere behind and to my right. Then she started laughing in the way you do when you’re suddenly and shockingly leapt at from behind a plant or curtain.
Strange how objects appear from height. The fields were green rectangles outlined in darker green and shaded along the contours of their hills and depressions, the mud rivers flanking the backstretch of the track which fill with storm runoff when a front comes in on its path eastward, along with my line of sight, eastward, toward Kismet. “Well,” I said, fixing my grip on a pair of ballast bags akimbo, “happy birthday all the same.”
We would not be landing soon, and to pass the time I pretended we were surveying from orbit a world a thousand times larger than it should be, with behemoth trees and livestock grazing on grass blades the size of office blocks, but from that height indistinguishable from a normally-sized Earth viewed from only a few hundred meters. Such as it was. Or even a molecular world as seen through a microscoping lens, defying Lukas’s laws of the cosmos, Kismet’s rules of dimensionality, which she swore she understood but who could understand something like that.
Lukas had finished his sandwich. Grew quiet then. And Kismet. She was pointing at something down there, tiny people like the ones in a model village on someone’s mantelpiece. The sun caught Kismet’s hair and she sighed. Maybe time stopped again, and I elected to stand very still and quiet just in case it had, just another wooden figurine that chose to look down at those other ones on their little Earth. A toy planet trod upon by toymakers. And the world spun a mile if it spun an inch.
L. Niall Murphy is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee’s MFA program, with plans to move to China to teach English. He has always been enthralled by narratives of escape, the fictions that bring movement into form, and the characters that come along with them. His work has previously appeared in Corvus Magazine and Phoenix.