Outrun the Moon - Stacey Lee
IN MY FIFTEEN YEARS, I HAVE STUCK MY ARM in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.
Tom’s hot air balloon, the Floating Island, hovers above us, a cloud of tofu-colored silk trapped in netting. After scores of solo flights, Tom finally deemed it safe enough to bring me aboard. I run my hands over the inner wall of the bamboo basket, which strains at the stakes pinning it to the ground. Both the balloon and I are itching to take off.
Outside the basket, Tom holds out his tongue to test the wind. The bald spot on his head is growing back, to my relief. He hadn’t wanted the haircut, but I had insisted after he agreed to swipe me a costly chuen pooi bulb from his father’s next shipment.
“Wind’s blowier than I thought,” he mutters, looking askance at the deserted hills of the Presidio Military Reservation. We use English with each other out of habit. At school, they prohibit us from speaking our native Cantonese.
“It’s hardly more than a baby’s breath! You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No.” His smooth “good fortune” forehead wrinkles. Tom has the kind of golden face that stays handsome even when he’s worried or annoyed. “I’m already onto third and fourth.”
I wince at the mention of “four.” Tom glances at me standing motionless. I’ve never told him that I don’t like fours, after a lifelong string of mishaps involving that digit. He knows I normally scoff at my ma’s fortune-telling superstitions. He would just tease me.
But today, I refuse to be outdone by a number. I force a grin. “I didn’t spend two hours pumping the balloon with air to keep my feet on the ground.”
The predawn April chill makes me shiver through my quilted jacket. I can’t deny the light breeze. But we’re only making a quick trip up and down—ten minutes of weightless suspension, tops.
A portable stove with a funnel top directs heat through a hose into the throat of the balloon. It puffs up like a proud mother owl. I fill my own lungs, and my excitement surges once again. Flying!
Crouching, Tom scoops more coal into the stove with his spench, the half-spade half-wrench tool he made himself. He uses the wrench side to lock the stove door. “Stop bouncing. You’ll break my basket.”
“Stop worrying. They use bamboo for tiger cages. I can’t be worse than a tiger.”
“You don’t know yourself very well.”
Hardy-har. “I’ll need to be a tiger if I want to have my own global business.”
“Just don’t bite anyone.” A smile slips out, and my heart jumps. After Ma read our signs last month and pronounced us harmonious, Tom had gone strange on me, rarely smiling.
I grin back, but his gaze slides away. He pulls his newsboy cap over his head and tugs on his gloves, licking the wind one more time. Liftoff is imminent.
He yanks out the first few stakes with the spench. “Be careful near the drag rope, and don’t touch anything. By that I mean, do not make contact between yourself and any part of the Island.”
“Even my feet?”
He groans. The basket jerks as he digs out another stake. Once the last one is removed, he’ll swing over the rim like an acrobat as the balloon floats upward. My skin warms as I imagine the two of us snuggled in this bamboo capsule.
The silk above my head deflates ever so slightly on one side. Maybe the winds are more combatant than I thought. With my hands folded behind my back, I examine the key-shaped valve on the hose that controls airflow into the balloon.
Tom’s teakwood eyes peer evenly at me. “I forgot something. Be back in a second. Don’t touch anything. Remember the kite?”
“You don’t stop mentioning it long enough for me to forget.” Last August, he told me not to let the string run on the peony kite he made me, but I couldn’t resist, and it flew right into the Pacific Ocean.
He hikes back to his cart and is soon hidden by a grove of pine trees. What did he forget? We unloaded everything—tools, ropes, and candied ginger in case of nausea.
The silk caves even more. “Tom? The Island is collapsing!” The breeze eats my words.
I tug at my hair. My arms still ache from holding up the silk as it inflated earlier. If the balloon collapses, we’ll have to come back, and we may