That really was the perfect word. Dusty Barrett couldn’t remember where or when he’d heard it before, only that it had to be the very best word to describe it. That certainty of knowledge spooked him a little; he’d felt twinges of strange in the Slipper before, but never anything quite like this.

The balloon bobbed and weaved high above in the rafters, casting shadows on the well-worn dance floor below. The polish of the floor shined in the moonlight, giving the balloon an even more surreal appearance as it danced through the air. Dusty found himself leaning on his battered old mop, staring transfixed as it dipped lower and lower on an invisible current before popping back up to its rightful place on the ceiling.

It hovered, tantalizingly out of reach, mocking him in its careless frolic. He racked his brain, trying to recall the first time he had seen it. One event around here always blended into the next and into the next, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum, amen.

There was no shortage of happily-ever-afters in the Crystal Slipper Wedding Emporium, “the place where dreams are made to fit,” and certainly no lack of balloons. There were two things, however, that made this straggler stand out from its helium-infused brethren. One was the fact that this particular balloon appeared to be quite a hearty survivor, still flying high long after the lesser specimens had deflated, and the second was in its color.

The balloon was enormous, full to bursting and black as ink. So much so that Dusty couldn’t find any trace of light shining through it, the oblivion of a dark winter’s night. It gave him the willies, like someone stepping upon his future grave. Is it a new trend to have giant black balloons at a wedding reception, especially ones like this? Aside from the pierced and tatted-up couples that came in every now and then, he couldn’t recall seeing any. Was this balloon really the “must have” staple of the modern bride?

The balloon made a sudden lunge towards him and Dusty jumped back in shock, dropping his mop with a loud bang that ping-ponged across the empty walls. He guessed there must be a window open somewhere in the facility, something to cause it to bob around like that.

Dusty knew his boss wouldn’t like it if he left a window open at the end of his shift. He’d been working here for over thirty years, but he didn’t dare test her patience. Mai Tran, the latest owner of the Slipper, was a formidable young woman, a no-nonsense daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She already distrusted him a little, his service in the military hanging between them like an invisible barrier. Dusty had served two tours in ‘Nam and had no desire to discover if he’d ever faced her grandfather over a rice paddy, so the elephant in the room remained firmly tucked away.

He was rooting for her success. Out of all the owners of the Crystal Slipper, she was by far the best. Hardworking, driven. Dusty recognized these same qualities in himself from long ago. She would have no qualms about correcting him if she could see him standing there, slack-jawed, staring at a balloon instead of finishing his nightly duties. He wouldn’t blame her, not a bit. He had plans to retire in the next few years with his reputation intact. Dusty had no desire to lose his job at this late date.

No, it would be better to do his rounds and lock up for the night. The balloon would probably be on the floor by morning and he could throw it away, no harm, no foul. He turned back one last time and saw the balloon slowly rising back to the rafters. Quickly turning off the main light switch, he double-timed it back to the lobby, with goose flesh breaking out up and down his tired old spine.



The rapid-fire rained down around his head as he dove down ass-deep into the muck. He knew the grenades were ever-present; they had just swept the perimeter, but there was always the chance that one would be missed. It was 50/50 that he would go home or find his grave amongst the mud and mosquitoes and blood of his fallen brothers.

It was then that he saw him. The new recruit screamed in fear and confusion, rising from the ground in a blind panic. Dusty could feel everything slowing down to a snail’s pace as he jumped up and began to run toward the terrified young man. They went over like a ton of bricks as two bullets bit angrily into Dusty’s back. Luckily, he survived his wounds, having saved the recruit in the process.

They sent him home after he healed, giving him a Purple Heart. Dusty placed it in the hand of a grizzled old homeless vet on the street as he passed by. No more would he be beholden to anyone but himself. From that moment on, Dusty would be free.

He would be unencumbered.



The sound went off like a gunshot, ringing in his ears. Dusty hit the deck, crawling across the dingy old carpet under an invisible tripwire. He could feel the familiar pull of the jungle assaulting his face, the stings of fear and bugs and prickly heat tormenting him as he made his way inch by inch back to the main ballroom. The smell of sulfur and sweat filled the air as Dusty regressed into the posture of a young soldier, the bullets whizzing savagely right above his head. This time, he wouldn’t be so lucky; he was way too old to survive such a deadly barrage.

An explosion rocked the ballroom just as Dusty pushed open the swinging doors and leapt through. He landed on the slick dance floor, sliding halfway across on his belly in an undignified fashion. The lights were flickering, smoke billowing up all around him. Rapid gunfire, detonated landmines, and the whir of a chopper filled his shattered senses until he thought he would explode. There must be something seriously wrong with his mind, for surely none of this could possibly be real. A final fusillade of impossible sounds attacked him from every direction as he flipped over onto all fours and covered his head, waiting for death to claim him.

In an instant, the room went completely silent, causing Dusty to jump up in fright. The sudden absence of sound was worse than the noise. He could still hear the hellish zing of bullets ricocheting around in his brain, but what was even worse than that was the balloon.

It descended slowly, bewitchingly towards Dusty, inflating bigger and bigger as it fell toward him in a deliberate arc. As it got closer, he began to see that it really wasn’t just black after all. There were swirling patterns and constellations dancing across its dark surface.

When it became half the size of the main ballroom, Dusty reached out, mesmerized, as he saw within it his mother’s hands. She was holding her knitting needles as Dusty sat at her feet, a scene he remembered from long, long ago. Deeper still were flashes of color, sunshine-filled days and fireflies on a humid summer’s night; a girl with soulful brown eyes that made his heart flutter; a vision of his buddy Rex bleeding out onto the jungle floor before he died; skinned knees and the perfect jump shot; a kind girl in a Vietnamese brothel, who taught him how to whistle.

The balloon took on the shape of the entire room as it reached Dusty at last, mere inches from his face. Silent tears streamed down the old man’s cheeks as he tentatively reached up and touched it with both hands. A warm, euphoric sensation filled his body, causing him to laugh in sudden surprise. A liquid golden light, brighter than anything Dusty had ever known, filled his vision as the balloon popped, the immense, gargantuan sound of it blotting out all thought before the bottom fell out of the earth.


Mai Tran wiped away a smattering of tears, angry at herself for crying in public. She was taught to keep emotions private, never to show any sign of weakness, but she could perhaps be forgiven on this particular occasion.

The urn sat on a tasteful platform in the main ballroom, what they used at the Slipper to showcase wedding cakes. Mai would never divulge the platform’s current purpose to any future brides, however: it would be very bad for business.

Dusty had no family to speak of; he’d never married, as far as she knew. It made her impossibly sad to think that she was the closest thing to a friend he’d had in this world. She’d found him on the ballroom floor, dead of an apparent heart attack. It was only fitting that his service should be at the Slipper after so many years of faithful service.

Only a few people filled the folding chairs as the priest gave Dusty his final blessing; a couple of drinking buddies from the local Legion Hall, some employees from the Slipper, and Mai herself. It made her tears fall even faster knowing that they’d found a copy of his will in his rundown apartment, addressed to her. It asked for all of his possessions to be left to the local homeless shelter and he wished to be cremated. If she would, he asked Mai Tran to take his ashes and spread them in Vietnam when she went back for a visit. Dusty would rest where he’d lived the most.

Regret coursed through her at the thought that she’d never let him know how much she actually liked him. She was not overly familiar with the employees, but Dusty was a kind man and a good worker. She would fulfill his final wish; it was the very least she could do. As the few meager souls made their way out of the service, Mai Tran picked up the urn, carefully cradling it in her arms. She would bring Dusty home with her for now, until the trip could be arranged.

Everything had been put away, chairs stacked and the ballroom put back exactly the way it was before. No one here would ever share the details of Dusty’s sad fate. The Crystal Slipper Wedding Emporium was a happy place, after all, a place where dreams were made to fit. Mai Tran planned to keep it that way.

As she turned to survey the ballroom one last time and turn out the lights, a sudden movement caught her eye. A large black balloon floated way up in the rafters. Mai frowned. Did someone bring that to the service today? Why on Earth would anyone do such a thing? It seemed completely morbid. The balloon dipped towards Mai on an invisible breeze, unencumbered by gravity, almost taunting her in her somber mood.

Mai Tran sighed and decided to leave it. The balloon’s color gave her a feeling of foreboding and she wasn’t in the mood for any more darkness tonight. She turned and watched as the balloon floated back up to the ceiling, before turning off the lights and bringing Dusty home.