The first lie I remember telling led straight to death.
My sixth grade class had been set a reading challenge: For every ten pages we read, we’d be given a balloon to release. Inside each balloon was the student’s name and address.
I know, right? This would never be done nowadays, but a couple decades ago…
Anyway, the finder of the balloon was encouraged to write the student telling them a little about themselves and where they were located.
That way we’d know how far the balloon went. That way we’d know how far reading took us.
You see it right? The appeal this had to a little girl with a nose for words and big dreams clawing at her gut?
When it came time to fill out that form, I strolled through the school library and found the biggest, fattest spine there. Which happened to belong to…
WAIT FOR IT…
Okay, so I hadn’t read it, but I would. I was sure I would.
Now, I must also tell you that as a writer-type person, I’m not really good at math. Mostly, I just don’t have the time or the inclination to give it a try. This has never been more true than in that moment. Had I been intelligent enough to divide Little Women’s 600+ pages by 10, I’d have realized I was in a bit of trouble.
Needless to say, math was not my first priority. Winning this challenge was. After all, maybe some glittering movie star in the hills of Hollywood would find one of my balloons. Maybe, just maybe, I’d become famous. I was a fuzzy-haired sixth grader with lofty dreams and only the promise of helium and latex to pin them to.
The day came and the balloons were delivered. And, boy, were they. Kids on either side of me got two and three balloons. I was certain I’d get at least five or six. Stupid math.
Of course, I’m the last one to receive my reward and that’s probably because my lie had sucked up all the helium in the universe.
It took several staffers to wrestle my balloons through the door. All 60+ of ’em.
Twenty-something years ago now, and I still remember breaking into a cold sweat. It was June but I was shaking and mortified. Having been swallowed by the balloon bouquet from hell, the upside was no one could see my shame. They could only see my big, fat, multi-colored lie.
And yet… buried beneath the shame was a tiny speck of hope. After all, with sixty balloons heading into the great unknown, I could almost smell the superstardom.
I’d like to say I was talented enough to carry this dream-filled burden out to the field by myself, but the truth is, I needed help. I passed the balloons around, making my classmates complicit in my lie. When, at last, the whistle blew, my lie was released with all the fanfare a public school can muster.
And then… well, then I felt compelled to actually read Little Women. Which, I did. And by the time Beth had died and Amy had married Jo’s man and I’d cried all my sixth grade tears, I received a letter.
One of my balloons had been found!
Was it a red one or a yellow? Was it a green balloon or blue? Who cares! My dreams had come true.
I opened the letter with the fury of a soon-to-be seventh grader praying, praying the lie had been worth it.
Know who found my balloon?
A grave digger.
Know where he found it?
In the cemetery behind the school.
Oh he was a nice man, I’m sure. And I’m sure the Grim Reaper is only doing his job.
But, as a preacher’s brat the consequences of my helium-powered lie were all too clear:
You lie. You die.
I mean, what could be more obvious!?
It took a tattered edition of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece, sixty balloons, and a gravedigger to drive the point home.
Balloons still give me the willies.