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“I was at the park early with Alexander,” said Kimberly-Ann. Alexander was her six-year-old brother. “We were the first ones except for the joggers and the dogs. Two pickup trucks turned off Cross Point Bridge and drove along the grass down to the middle of the park. I knew what was happening because the trucks had gigantic baskets in back. The baskets were for the balloons.”

Kimberly-Ann’s face was pushing at the screen. “Why are you staying at your grandmother’s house this time?” she asked.

“Cleaning out the garage,” said Michael.

“Are you gonna come out here?”

In one long, long gulp, Michael drank the grapefruit juice. The aftertaste was horrible. No wonder his father added vodka and tabasco: grapefruit juice by itself was a nightmare of wretchedness. Even his eyes burned, and his lips bunched into a sour frown.

“Jesus Christ!” said Kimberly-Ann. “What the hell are you drinking, Michael?”

Grandmother Booth whirled around to the door. Her face was flushed a violent red. She tried to smack the tip of Kimberly-Ann’s nose, which was still pressed up against the screen. Kimberly-Ann stepped back in enough time that Grandmother Booth’s fingers merely strummed the wire mesh.

“Maybe you talk that way at home,” said Grandmother Booth, her voice trembling with anger. “Maybe you talk that way around your father, who would as soon pray to the rocks and the trees, and who cares not a whit for the unborn babies in this country. But while you’re in my house — ”

“I’m not in your house,” said Kimberly-Ann. She was sitting on the porch steps, her head bowed.

“ — while you’re on my property,” Grandmother Booth continued, without losing a beat, “you’ll not use that language.”

In the silence that followed, Grandmother Booth busied herself at the sink, drawing water, and adding soap to the basin. One by one, she submerged dishes beneath the bubbles. Michael stood by the door. High above the trees, and seemingly stationary in the sky, were two hot-air balloons, luminous in the sunlight. Grandmother Booth poured a cup of coffee. She opened the refrigerator and removed a plate of fudge brownies that Michael had spied the night before. “Take one for yourself,” she said. “And one for Kimberly-Ann.”

Michael hurriedly piled one brownie on top of the other and pushed his way outside.

“Don’t let the door slam,” said his grandmother.

Kimberly-Ann was standing in the yard and motioning to Grandmother Booth. “You should see the balloons from here, Mrs. Booth,” she said, the enthusiasm returning to her voice in an apparent ploy for redemption.

Michael handed a brownie over to Kimberly-Ann, while at the same time elbowing her in the ribs. “Don’t tell my grandma to come outside,” he whispered sternly. “She’s practically in her underwear. How come you didn’t show up and get me earlier?”

“Screw you, Michael Booth,” said Kimberly-Ann, assaying the same tone and volume as Michael. “Do you even live in this neighborhood? You love to pretend you’re a friendly kid, but you blow in and out of your grandma’s house like some kind of Surf Ninja.”

“Call me the devil bat!” he hissed, in an off-the-cuff Bela Lugosi impersonation. “See my teeth?” He exhibited an open mouth of brownie slush.

Grandmother Booth walked out into the sunlight. Michael could see the silhouette of her spindly legs through the silk fabric of her robe (patterned with orange, yellow, and red chrysanthemums). Her slippers clacked on the porch floorboards like drumsticks methodically marking time. She stopped at the railing and reached up to gently arrange the blooms of a potted fuschia hanging in the shade.

“Alexander asked one of the truck drivers how you learn to fly a balloon,” said Kimberly-Ann. “The man said that you have to go to balloon school.”

Grandmother Booth rolled her eyes. “I think the fellow was making a joke, Kimberly-Ann.”

“The man said balloon school, and I think I believe him.”

“Nonsense,” said Grandmother Booth. She set her coffee cup on the steps.

“How do they blow up those balloons?” asked Michael.