They filled a room with balloons the day Elanore died. The trains were running again, or at least one was; Sadie’s ticket came hand-delivered in a crimson envelope so Joy drowned them all in helium and silver plastic.
That morning, when the sun was just a cracked egg on the horizon, the new rail man sat on the light tower platform. He still had more than half the bottle he’d accepted from the general’s man, but this fine whiskey was lagging on the job. Even if he couldn’t see that hole in Bill’s head anymore, he could damn well smell the gun smoke.
Oh. Right. Cigarette. He flicked the ashes down on black metal. Beside the tracks, four crows hopped around a deer gone mostly to bone. Usually the night crew took care of bodies like this so close to the station but they weren’t back on shift yet.
The new rail man poured whiskey onto the deer’s yellow smile. All four crows puffed up like tarred meringues, hopped back but didn’t fly away. One skidded on the rail where his brave and stupid predecessor had smashed the general’s “gift” of olive oil.
The new rail man laughed to himself and the crows and his contraband smokes.
He could respect things that wouldn’t leave when they ought.
When Joy came back with thirteen balloons she said, “I’ll keep them in our room once you’re gone. We can see how long they stay up.”
“Will you tell me?” Sadie wrapped plastic strings around both wrists and let her slender arms float skyward. “When they fall.”
“If they still take letters through.”
“They’ll take yours.” Sadie unwound the balloons. They drifted up until they hit the ceiling beneath Elanore’s bedroom. She and Joy flinched. “I’ll make him write a decree. The general isn’t concerned with you.”
“Why should he be?” Joy went to the stairs and walked up, one hand white-knuckled on the railing. “He got what he wants.”
In the upstairs room, everything smelled of chamomile tea. They’d tried compresses for the sickness, and later for comfort. Sadie knelt by the mattress. Elanore rolled her head around, her face a child’s scrawl, all jagged lines.
“I have to.”
“Don’t let her, Joy.”
“She’s going to get you medicine.” Joy released a balloon from behind her back, big and bright and, with its fellows, worth a canister of salt. “Look how pretty.”
“Expensive. Take the rest of my cards.” Elanore waved her thin fingers to the ration tickets on her bedside table. “When Sadie goes they’ll erase me. You know that. But I’ll be ready for them.”
Joy put her hand on Sadie’s shoulder, thumb smooth and warm on Sadie’s neck. “She’ll come back. He’ll let her come back for us.”
That night the train carried Sadie out. She kept her eyes on the window while the general’s soldiers whispered about the cut of her dress. Her home, Joy, Elanore, all of it peeled away. Some poor creature had nearly made it past the light tower. A blur of bones, now, and broken glass.
At the house they said she didn’t own Joy sat in her room and sucked in helium while her mother slept with one eye open, waiting, and then didn’t anymore.
Two octaves up Joy’s voice sounded more like Sadie’s. “I’ll come back for you.”
Nothing from the balloons. At the light tower, the crows moved on.