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I. The Hot Air Balloon

 

If Saguaro had realized she was going to run away, she might have planned her trip more thoroughly. But if there was one thing for which her mother had always admonished her, it was her impulsivity. The balloon stood at the other end of the forest, and Saguaro rushed towards it. Her heart raced, and the cool night air brushed her face. All thoughts were cast aside as she concentrated on finding her balloon. She was just running, running away from it all.

 

Crickets chirped. Her feet crackled against the fallen leaves and acorns as she ran. An owl called, and she nearly tripped on a branch that littered the path. Saguaro looked around, but the coast was clear. No one had heard her.

 

The fresh forest scent enveloped her, the ground beneath her feet damp, softer than usual. Beside the path, a variety of wildflowers rose in a cluster, beyond which swayed grass and ferns. Saguaro lingered on the grasses’ vibrant color, nearly emerald in the moonlight.

 

She had run this path many times before, often angry or upset, but never this close to midnight. She entered a small clearing, where the surrounding treetops almost covered the night sky. Just as Saguaro crossed to the other side, a whispering startled her. It sounded like the call of her name.

 

She searched about. In front of her, nothing crept from the bushes, and she turned around to find emptiness in the clearing. When she looked behind a tree, the whispering murmured again. This time, Saguaro recognized the call as the wind. Relieved, she journeyed on, but the terror did not leave her chest.

 

Distracted, Saguaro tripped on a gnarled root and found herself face down in a bed of rough leaves. A stick dug into her ribcage, and her ankle throbbed.

 

A thought occurred to her, more painful than her still aching ankle. What if she could not walk? She rose and took her hands off the ground, placing her weight on one foot, then the other. Her legs supported her.

 

Still, Saguaro felt nervous, remembering how loud her fall had been. What if someone had heard her? Her ankle still hurt, but she forced herself to move faster, limping towards her hot air balloon.

 

There were not many people in Cascadia. Most likely, it would have been neighbors, their houses only a short distance away. But Saguaro tensed, acknowledging who else it could have been.

 

Her parents.

 

“Truly, she needs to know,” her father had reminded her mother, waking Saguaro up with the familiar argument. “How do you expect her to understand anything if you don’t even give her the basic facts?” But for whatever reason, Saguaro’s mother had not changed her mind. Given the choice, Saguaro would have sided with her father, since she remained completely uninformed about her parents’ pasts. She resented the fact that her parents had not allowed her to decide whether she was ready for the truth.

 

The only thing she knew was that her parents were both from Oz and had moved to Cascadia about a year before she was born. Her mother had a sister, for whose death she continued to blame herself and from whom Saguaro had supposedly inherited her thick, curly, brown hair. Saguaro also suspected that her father had once been human before his mysterious transformation.

 

In some ways, these facts depressed Saguaro even more than knowing nothing. The absolute uselessness of the information frustrated her. She didn’t know the names of their old friends, where in Oz they had grown up, or if her father’s family was still alive. She did not even know her mother’s family name.

 

The only things she had been told were about Winkie Country. When she was seven or eight, her father had told her stories about a rebellious Winkie Prince named Fyre. With grass as tall as she was and stone castles laced with secret passageways, the kingdom fascinated her. Saguaro could not wait to enter Winkie Country, the Land of Oz closest to Cascadia.

 

The path twisted, and she found herself in another familiar clearing. Rippling waves stretched beyond the rocky beach, and angular houses perched above her.

 

She glanced around and was relieved to see no one. Still, Saguaro did not want to draw unnecessary attention, so she slowed her pace. She finally reached the far end of the beach, where another trail began.

 

These woods were smaller and less visited than the ones that bordered her property. The path was crowded by trees and bushes, which made it less visible to the common eye. Saguaro continued jogging until she reached a broad oak tree, behind which the hot air balloon had been hidden.

 

It was just as she had left it. The neatly woven basket, just big enough for her, had been found in someone’s junk pile, its former holes now mended. Dried on the basket was a glue of honey, seaweed, paper, and slime, which she had used to cement a few loose ends. Tucked between the straw lay her parents’ bronze compass, ready to guide her.

 

The worn ropes that tied the balloon to the basket were a discarded set from an old, abandoned sailboat. She heaved a sigh of relief, recognizing the burners she had crafted according to the instructions in a how-to book. She next studied her favorite part of the creation: the balloon itself. It was sewn together from old, discarded dresses, which were sealed by another concoction to hold the air.

 

Anticipation surged through her. She was finally ready to explore the Lands of Oz, finally ready for the truth. She could not believe that she was about to embark on the journey she had dreamed about her entire life. As she tugged the balloon onto the beach, she did not even register its weight.

 

I’m going to do this, Saguaro thought, almost breathless with excitement. She finished pulling the balloon onto the sand. I’m not going to be a stranger in my own family any longer. When I come back, I’ll know the truth!

 

A soft mist sprayed her face and interrupted her daze. She looked up to see the Great Falls crashing into the boulders that led beyond to the open water. The waterfall’s foamy streams seemed to greet her, beckoning like a wave.

 

Cascadia was named after its two waterfalls. The Great Falls were almost twice the size of the Lesser Falls on the opposite side of the island and were more than twice as powerful. She had to strain to hear above the intensity of the crashing water.

 

She crouched next to a still pool and cupped her hands to take a drink. The water felt cool and fresh. But as she drank the water, Saguaro’s gaze locked on something else. Her reflection.

 

Saguaro’s hair was loose and unkempt. Her father’s straight nose and small mole beneath her left eye stared back at her. Mosquito bites marked her face. But none of that concerned her. Filled with repulsion, Saguaro looked past her deep brown eyes and high cheekbones and her narrow face with the dimple on her chin. These traits were clearly her mother’s, but Saguaro had been trying to avoid the feature that most resembled her. Yet the moonlight betrayed her before she could turn away, illuminating her just acquired emerald green skin.

 

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6 Responses to “I. The Hot Air Balloon”


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