Isla carefully shut the battered red book and hurried out of the classroom. Its cover was still slightly damp from where she’d found it lying in the snow, but she’d managed to dry the pages off well enough. The book was her treasure. All she had to do was open it and flip through the pages, and she could live another life. A happier one, in a place far, far away from her dull, grey classroom.
The walk home was a long one, but she knew it by heart. So she flipped the book open and read as she walked, losing herself in another world.
The book was about a boy who used balloons to fly to an island in a beautiful, crystalline sea. The island was green and sandy, and all kinds of creatures lived there- parrots and lemurs and sloths and ocelots. Creatures that Isla had only ever seen in picture books at her school, and sometimes in the grungy zoo near her house (the one that her mother used to take her to, back when she had money and time to spend).
It was the island that Isla loved. Quiet and secluded and, most of all, happy. There were people there whose mothers didn’t have to work three jobs just to have a place to live. People whose fathers stayed around with their family no matter what. Happy people and happy families.
Isla looked up from her book when her heel slipped on the icy curb. The tattered red book almost flew from her grip, but she managed to recover.
There was a balloon man up ahead of her. Isla smiled gleefully.
The boy in the book, her best and only friend, had flown to the island using balloons. Maybe she could too.
“Mister balloon man!” she cried, running up to him.
He looked up from his cart. “Yes? Would you like to buy a balloon?”
Isla looked up at the colorful bubbles in the sky. Only a tether was holding them back from freedom, keeping them trapped in this lonely, grey city. “Yes, please. Could I buy all of them?”
The man hesitated. “Yes. But do you have the money for all of those?”
Isla bit her lip and rummaged in her pocket, eventually coming up with a handful of wrinkled dollar bills. Her mother had told her to save them for a rainy day, but Isla wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Every day here was rainy.
The balloon man shook his head. “I’m sorry, but that’s not enough.”
Isla looked up at him and her lower lip trembled. She didn’t like to cry. Usually, she didn’t. But she needed to go to the island. He didn’t understand. She needed to leave this place.
“I’m sorry.” he said again, turning back to his wares.
“I have a friend.” Isla said desperately. “He lives on an island far away, and he used balloons to fly there. I need to visit him. Please. Can I just try?”
The man turned back to the girl on the street.
He’d been like her one day. Full of hope and whimsy and imagination. Maybe, when he was a little boy, he might have wanted to fly away to a magical island as well. But he’d never been brave enough to try.
“Alright.” he said reluctantly. One side of him repeated that this was futile and hopeless, and that flying away with a handful of balloons was impossible. But the other side said that maybe, even if it didn’t work for him, that it might work for this little girl. That he needed to let her try.
He untied the balloons, his freezing gloved fingers clumsy. Isla watched impatiently. She couldn’t wait. She was going to see her friend soon, and they would live together on that island forever.
The man handed Isla a handful of balloons. She took them in one hand. He gave her another handful, and she took them in her other hand.
Nothing happened. She stayed firmly on the ground, rooted in her prison.
“Where are the rest?” Isla demanded.
“There aren’t any.”