That same June night, our parents bought us ice cream and balloons on the promenade of Buckingham Fountain. (Dad claims it was August, but I prefer to remember it my way, with the whole summer ahead of us.) We were greedy, ravenous: three boys fighting for the first scoop, catching elbows in our ribs. Every surface in the city bleeding heat into the sky. I grabbed the first cone but, to my mother’s surprise, refused a balloon—I’d just turned eight after all, balloons were for babies—but she pressed a bright yellow one into my hand.
“For me,” she said.
After the day we’d had, the need in her voice threatened to loose a rockslide within me, so I accepted the balloon without further complaint. It strained toward the sky, a dog trying to slip its leash. I figured five, maybe ten minutes until I could set it free without hurting my mother’s feelings. Naturally, I doubled its string around my fist and bounced it off my five-year-old brother’s head. He flinched and dropped his ice cream.
We all remember the scoop tumbling down Danny’s shirt—the chocolate stain it lithographed in its wake—and especially our mother’s bright, bursting laugh, louder than the rest of our laughs combined, a gut-buster that shattered into coughing. My father laid a hand on her back and looked from Danny to me, his face a swollen thundercloud. Danny gulped in a huge breath as his eyes brimmed, his ice cream dashed on the bricks, but he did not cry. Our older brother Tim, lost in his Walkman, cheerfully devoured his own cone. Beneath our father’s hand, the thin cotton of my mother’s shirt pulled tight against her ribs with every cough, outlining the boxy profile of her new pump and the coil of crazy-straw tubing that snaked into her abdomen.
“I’m sorry, Danny,” she said when she caught her wind.
Brave little Danny. No tears, just a stoic nod. I heaved a theatrical sigh and made a big show of giving him my ice cream, which he accepted with great suspicion. At that, the muscles in Dad’s jaw unclenched. Tightening my grip on the balloon, I took my mother’s hand and pulled her away from Dad and Danny and Tim, into the envelope of the fountain’s cooling spray. The box feeding her miracle poison thrummed with a pure and terrifying energy, like a tuning fork resonating at the threshold of human hearing. Her hand was shrunken but strong, and I wanted her all to myself, if only for a moment.
Beyond the fountain’s perimeter fence, submerged basin lights threw rich ochres and reds into the stream, which arced as high as a castle before disintegrating into the mist that drifted over my bare face and arms. Young couples and families strolled the promenade, stopping to pose for pictures. A wild thought seized me: I could vault the fence and jump right in. Who could stop me? So long as I didn’t mind a knuckle rap on the skull afterwards. The idea punctured some hidden, pressurized chamber in my chest, and filled me with a great unearned confidence, which is, as everyone knows, the best kind.
“Did you know this is actually a landfill?” I said with a sweep of my arm, indicating the fountain, the promenade, and the surrounding acres of lush, flower-filled greenery.
“I had no idea,” said my mother, affecting surprise in a tone I use often with my own son and daughters. “Tell me more.”
“Well, after the Great Fire the city pushed all the burned-up rubble into the lake. And then—”
“Brain freeze!” Tim bellowed, just over my shoulder.
Startled, I released the balloon. It sailed up and away. My stomach dropped as I pawed the air, frantic.
Here’s what I alone remember:
My mother’s coiled crouch, the mousetrap speed of her jump, the waffled lozenge pattern on the soles of her shoes. She leapt impossibly high, caught the balloon, and brought it back to me.
“Brendan,” Dad says, exasperation tempered with a gentleness he’d come into long after I was grown, “It was in her lungs by then.”
Now, Dad admits his back was turned. Danny was too young to remember, and Tim says he didn’t see. Maybe our mother, sick as she was, couldn’t have leapt the height of a man. But why, then, do I feel it happened—must have happened—could not have happened otherwise?
Kevin Leahy’s fiction has appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, Slice, Opium, and The Chicago Reader. He lives in Chicago.