by Eric Raglin
I watch him clock in at the quarry office and immediately know he’ll be a floater. It’s that puffiness in his cheeks, too pronounced to come from some late-night bender. I could shoot him right there in reception just to get the hideous act over with, but the law calls that murder. It’s not until people are skyborne that I’m allowed to pull the trigger, so I’ll have to keep an eye on this guy all day.
The last time I let a floater get away—some quarry manager drifting up past the clouds to God knows where, my harpoon missing him—Mr. Laurent warned me not to fuck up again. If I didn’t need the money, I would’ve loved for him to fire me right then, his French accent thick with disappointment: “Miz Torres, I am afraid you muszt turn in your badge and gun. You are releaszed from duty.” But I can tell by his frequent not-so-subtle glances down my blouse that he’d forgive a second mistake, probably a third, without issuing a pink slip. Most workers at the quarry are men with greasy faces and balding heads. The only other woman who worked here was Mr. Laurent’s secretary, but she floated two days back. I shot her down myself—harpooned her in the gut and used the rope to reel her back to Earth. Mr. Laurent wept, probably because he was in love with her, his wife at home be damned. At least the life insurance check soothed his pain. See, he takes out policies for all of his employees, but the only way he can collect is if there’s a body to prove they actually died. Every floater I down is another $50K in his pocket, and if that isn’t a reason to keep me on the payroll, I don’t know what is.
Can’t lie, though, I’ve been drinking a lot more since I started this job six months ago. I know the government says people are dead the second they float, but the ones I down still haunt my dreams. I see their faces puffed up like balloons, their eyes bulging like deep-sea fish suffering from the bends. My tinnitus makes it worse, sounding like floaters deflating—a steady hiss in the background, always a reminder of what I’ve done.
My dad says I’m doing the floaters a favor by putting them out of their misery. “Just like putting a sick dog to sleep.” He works at a veterinary clinic and has never been a people person, so how he thinks is no surprise. There’s some truth to it, though. Scientists say all floaters have one thing in common: deteriorating mental health in the months leading up to their ascension. Ten years ago, before anyone started floating, those same folks might’ve put a gun in their mouth or swallowed too many pills. Still, the numbers are off; there are way more floaters today than suicides a decade back.
I digress. Going down these rabbit holes is easy when you’re a harpooner. My job is an awful lot like being in the military: boredom ninety percent of the time and fast-paced, traumatizing violence the other ten. Here I am now, standing in the limestone quarry, slogging my way through that ninety percent. My skin is the darkest it’s ever been in this blistering sun, and the clatter of metal against rock aggravates my tinnitus. My feet ache from standing so long, even though I should be used to the pain by now. I’ve kept my eye on the future floater for the past four hours, but if I’m being honest, my focus has been on my wristwatch. Four hours until I can go home and drink on the couch. Eight hours until I can have nightmares again. Haven’t had a night without them in six months.
A loud bell signals lunch time. The workers shut down their machines, wipe their sweaty brows, and hustle to the cafeteria. It’s my job to watch the men while they eat, my harpoon gun at the ready in case the puffy guy floats away from the table. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. I can only imagine how the men would scream seeing me harpoon their bloated co-worker to death while blood sprays all over their sack lunches.
I follow the crew toward the cafeteria but take my sweet time. They file in without me, and it’s nice being left outside in relative silence: no grinding machinery, no trucks beeping as they reverse, and no men howling at Mr. Laurent’s misogynistic jokes. I’d rather hear my tinnitus than that shit any day. Instead of going inside, I take another lap around the building. It’ll give the crew some time to enjoy their meals without the chilling presence of a harpooner. I might be neglecting my duties, but there’s no denying I’m considerate.
Rocks crunch under my boots as I circle the building. I unhook the pocket knife from my belt and twirl it to entertain myself. Overhead, clouds have covered the sun, and the first cool breeze in hours blows through my hair. I close my eyes and soak in the feeling. It’s rare I get a moment like this on the job—nature’s little joys intruding on this diesel-smelling, scarred-up quarry. I smile for the first time in months.
My smile fades when Mr. Laurent calls from his personal office building a football field away.
“Miz Torres,” he cries. “Why are you just standing around?”
I sigh and wave my hand in lieu of an apology. I can’t bear to say sorry to the man. Not anymore.
But when I start toward the cafeteria door, something is off. My feet don’t crunch the gravel. They make no sound at all. Each step gets me nowhere. Something pinches the back of my neck like a cat lifting its kitten by the scruff. That tight, painful feeling spreads to my cheeks, arms, and gut. I look down. I’m floating. My body climbs a few inches higher every second. When I’m eye-level with the building’s roof, I grip the gutter, as if clinging to Earth has ever kept any floater from drifting skyward. A forceful pull peels my fingers loose, and I’m no longer rooted. I keep floating. This is it. My life over before I could make anything of it.
Mr. Laurent screams, “Miz Torres, Miz Torres! Use the gun. Please, use it!”
The harpoon gun is strapped to my shoulder. Despite the bloat in my arms, I could probably reach around and grab it. Mr. Laurent is running in my direction, and by the time he’s under me, I’m as high as a three-story house and moments away from puking.
“Use the gun!” he shouts again, pointing a finger at his head.
I know he wants me to harpoon myself so I’ll fall to Earth along with that fat life insurance check, but I deliberately misinterpret him. He pointed the finger gun at his own head, after all. I should do as the boss says. My bloated arms feel tight as overripe melons, but I manage to pull the gun into place. Swallowing my nausea, I point the gun down at Mr. Laurent. Perhaps he can’t see what I’m doing because he stands still, cranes his neck, and shields his eyes from the sun. I have only one harpoon, and I’ll probably have to drop the gun after I shoot Mr. Laurent, but it’ll be worth it. I’ll figure out what to do with myself afterward.
I pull the trigger. The harpoon plunges straight between Mr. Laurent’s eyes. His body falls and tugs the gun out of my hands. Even from this height, I can see his blood pooling on the yellow rocks below. The crew runs out of the cafeteria, gathers around the corpse, and looks up at me. Wouldn’t expect the harpooner to be the floater, but here I am—a tiny, human blip rising into the low gray clouds.
I can’t help but laugh. Moments before floating into oblivion, I did the right thing, ended that asshole’s life. For the first time in months, I’m happy.
But floaters aren’t supposed to be happy. Those wispy clouds aren’t getting any closer. In fact, they’re getting farther away. My skin loosens and no longer feels like it’ll split at any second as my spherical body gradually reverts to its original shape. I’m drifting back to Earth, back to reality, too joyful for the clouds.
Below, the sirens are already screaming. Three cop cars and an ambulance speed down the dusty road, then screech into the employee parking lot. No one’s ever seen a floater make it back down alive, but I’ll be the first to do it. When my feet touch the ground, they’ll be waiting for me with handcuffs, tasers, and pistols—the works. Life was miserable enough before I floated away, and it’s about to get worse if I don’t do something. Yet what is there to do? There are six cops and only one of me. I won’t let them take me alive.
The pocket knife. I unhook it from my belt and, in my hurry, nearly drop it. It bounces from one clumsy inflated hand to the other before I grab it securely. I take a deep breath and look down. There’s still a skyscraper of space between me and the ground. If I wait, my feet will touch down in ten minutes. But that’s not the plan. I unfold the knife and point it at my swollen belly. Bile rises in my throat, and I puke all over my shirt. Soiled clothes won’t matter anyway. I press the tip of the knife to my navel, shivering at the cold metal, then plunge it in. The air inside me blows out in a violent burst, spewing blood into the wind. The stab wound brings agony, but the deflation brings relief. As I deflate, my descent quickens. I’m no longer a helium balloon. I’m a meteor hurtling toward Earth.
I laugh in the face of death.
Eric Raglin (he/him) is a Nebraskan speculative fiction writer, horror literature teacher, and podcaster for Cursed Morsels. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. His work has been published in Novel Noctule, Dread Stone Press, and Shiver. Find him at ericraglin.com or on Twitter @ericraglin1992.