When unlikely friends are bound together by a common thread, that thread can be composed of anything. In the case of five newly acquainted individuals, it is the thread of love one elderly man holds for his departed wife, and the lengths he is willing to go in order to honor her last wishes. It is the thread of shared hardships, sorrow, and healing, and it all came about by way of a contest, the prize for which was an autumn journey aboard a hot air balloon into the unknown; a journey that cemented friendships to last a lifetime amongst a group of unsuspecting strangers.
The one thing Oscar Metford wished for above all else on his ninety-first birthday was the ability to fulfill his late wife’s last request. That he be able to take her ashes alone, just the two of them, his last expression of his love for her, and deposit them along the Alpine lake the two of them so cherished in their youth. But age and infirmity made the trek into the mountains and up to the lake on foot or even on horseback impossible for his arthritic body. Then a contest drawing for a hot air balloon excursion that would fly over the very location he needed to go in order to honor his late wife’s request gave him an option in fulfilling the obligation. The contest came to his attention in an ad in the local newspaper. The event was an advertisement for a local radio station. But when he made the request to his children that a balloon ride was what he wanted most of all for his ninety-first birthday, they rejected his request as too dangerous for a man of his advanced years and physical condition. That’s when he entered his name in the radio stations drawing on a whim, and won the trip of a lifetime; a balloon ride that gave him more than he bargained for when it came to friendship and adventure.
“Are we in trouble?” Dylan asked, wearing a mask of alarm. Neil didn’t answer as he reached for the parachute cord again. His lips were pursed in a straight line denoting an unmistakably disquieted concern. The balloon swiftly carried them up into a cloud layer above appearing as though fluffs of cotton candy, but suddenly the fluff became thicker, darker, and the balloon’s envelope began forming rivulets of condensation, dripped down upon the occupants of the basket like rain. Neil tugged the parachute cord gently, attempting to drop them down into the lower air currents again, below the layer of clouds, just as it began to rain. Heavy drops cascaded down upon the group and the sudden howl of wind gusted violently across the basket, coaxing the balloon along faster, and faster. Suddenly, with a blinding flash and a simultaneous shuddering clap of thunder, lightning was all around them; the balloon was like a rabbit caught in a snare as the silver threads of electricity sizzled around the basket and balloon to the horror of its occupants. The hair on their bodies stood on end as the very air became electrified.
“Hang on!” Neil shouted above the thunder, while grabbing the side of the basket to prevent himself from being pitched over the side. The basket seemed to have been hit with a fist of wind, rocking them violently from one side to the other. Talons of lightning jabbed outward from the fast moving, billowing blackness surrounding them. One bolt appeared to meld into the balloon, which suddenly glowed as though wearing a thin veiled, net of silver. The occupants of the basket could smell the electricity as it charged the air around them, smelling of acid and singed hair; even the ropes attaching the basket to the envelope took on an eerie, transparent, blue glow.
“I think it’s time for that prayer, Sister,” Neil shouted, turning to pull the cord of the parachute valve again, this time with more force in the hope of dropping them below the fierceness of the thunderstorm. He needn’t have made the request; Sister Mary Agnes already sat with her fingers flying along her rosary, her eyes closed, her lips rapidly moving in a silent prayer for their salvation. Dylan sat poker ridged, his eyes tightly closed, his face pale and ashen. Veronica’s eyes were wide with fright as she gripped the side of the gondola; her gaze fixed on the glowing ropes, her knuckles white, while Oscar sat appearing calm, with a grip of steel on the jewel box resting in his lap; the only signs of worry were deep creases in his weathered brow. It was Delbert who finally spoke.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked, reaching to unbuckle his seat belt with hesitation. With the balloon pitching violently about, he was afraid he might find himself thrown overboard if he tried to get to his feet.
“Nothing short of creating a miracle,” Neil confessed, tugging on the parachute cord again. Suddenly the balloon began to drop at an increasingly rapid speed, and when he glanced up, there was a tear in the balloon where the lightning struck, melting a hole in the nylon fabric of the envelope, creating an opening along an entire gore. Neil quickly reached for the radio secured in its holder.
“Mayday! Mayday!” he keyed and called into the transmitter, but there was nothing; there was no static, no voices, there was no sound at all.