By Michael O'Neill

It was my sister’s first helium balloon. A small thing, a simple thing, but no-one apart from me and her realised that she’d never had one before. And for a little time, she loved it. She took it round the house with her, an increasingly scratty bracelet of cheap ribbon hooped around her wrist. She tied it to her bed at night. She refused to go outside for its safety. She played with it in the lounge, trying to balance the buoyancy perfectly with little weights of plastic jewellery and paper. If she got it wrong and it floated to the ceiling, she would scramble up the couch to claw it back.

My parents were on holiday and our grandparents had come to look after us. Perhaps I gave an impression of mischief. I had learned in school that a day had twenty-four hours in it, and didn’t quite believe it. As a test I set the microwave to run for 24:00, resolving to check back tomorrow. I was told off for that, and of course a brother should be scolded for popping his sister’s balloon. Except I didn’t do it.

I was in the room, yes. I saw it happen, yes. Heard the pop, the silence, and the wail which only the truly heartbroken can summon. I went over to comfort her. We fought all the time, but there wasn’t much true ill-will in that; siblings just fight. My grandma came in then, seeing the poor popped husk, the crying girl, and her son’s son who had set the microwave going for hours. Perhaps she had made her conclusion already, but then through the blubbering: “He b-b-burst my balloon.”

It was, I think, the first lie that hurt me. Not because I was sent to my room, or because my grandma and then parents thought I did it. It was because, that time, I was trying to help. Perhaps she thought I did pop it, or just wanted this senseless sadness to be someone’s fault. I asked her about it last Christmas, eighteen years after the fact. “Oh yeah – sorry. Don’t know why I said that.”