This is from a novel in progress, “An Unbreakable Heart.”
“You aren’t who you said you were!”
Dorothy clung to the guide ropes on the hot air balloon as it lurched to and fro, leaning dangerously over the edge of the gondola as it began to rise, screaming at the Old Man who dangled beneath her, his feet just inches above the ground.
“You never were!”
“I’m s-s-sorry!” he cried, gripping the ropes, hoping his weight would keep the balloon tethered to the ground, and the woman tethered to his heart. And that, right there, was the problem. Despite his attempts to keep her to himself, keeping her in Kansas, she had discovered that his heart was incapable of breaking. And Dorothy learned, somehow, that an unbreakable heart was an unworthy heart.
“Let go of the ropes, you nasty old goat!” she called through the spiraling wind, pulling strands of grey hair out of her face. Through the years, the Old Man had visited Dorothy in Kansas from time to time when the wind was right, and she had aged. But he? He had not. In Oz, she discovered, although people might change and grow, they did not grow up. And so, as Dorothy’s hair turned grey and wrinkles surrounded her eyes, the Old Man changed not one iota, physically, or mentally. He still maintained the girth that late middle-age had added to his once trim young torso, a torso and time he barely remembered, the time before he lived in Oz, before he became The Professor. Before he became The Wizard.
“I will n-n-not let go!” he cried, barely able to breathe as he struggled to hold on, his words coming out in pieces. But his middle-aged girth was no match for Mother Nature. The balloon ascended despite his hold on the aircraft, the stiff breeze ripe for a brisk ride to the East and away from the setting sun.
“You’re h-h-heading in the wrong d-d-direction!” he called. “You’ll be carried off sh-sh-shore. The winds are heading to the s-s-sea!” As if sensing this was a command and not just an Old Man’s fear, the balloon darted dramatically to the East, swinging Dorothy unexpectedly from one side of the basket to the other, and swinging the Old Man beneath her like a tetherball ‘round a pole.
“You can’t scare me anymore, Old Man! The ocean’s a thousand miles away!” She attempted to scoff but a strong gust blew the kah right back down her throat.
Still dangling dangerously underneath the balloon, the Old Man mustered as much Professor-y language as possible, hoping to make his point. “Ye-ye-yes, well, this is a g-g-gale!”
Dorothy hadn’t quite heard him, but it sounded to her like he was calling her name. “What? Of course I’m Dorothy Gale!” She thought the altitude was wreaking havoc on the Old Man’s brain.
“N-n-n-no! The w-w-wind is a gale!” he cried, craning his neck upward. “You’re blowing around forty knot-!”
“Not what?” Dorothy peered over the side of the gondola, leaning dangerously over the edge.
“N-n-not not!” he cried. “Knots-s-s!” Oh. “Miles!” He took as deep a breath as he could while being battered about and yelled at Dorothy with a rapid burst of words. “We are blowing at fifty miles an hour and will reach the Atlantic Ocean in about fifteen hours at this rate!”
This, Dorothy heard.
“Well, wind directions change!” she countered. She knew this was true, but she didn’t know how to use the ropes and pulleys to take advantage of the winds should a sensible change in their direction occur. She stood as best she could, holding on for dear life as the basket raced through the sky at the mercy of the currents. She gaped at the ropes and pulleys, which in the hands of the Old Man had once seemed to make sense but looked to her now like a tangled web of disaster.
“Courage,” she said to herself. Courage indeed. Kansans are no more fans of the sea than fishermen are of the vast plains, despite the common belief that the fields of grain resemble amber waves. It is one thing to be lost in space, she thought, where the stars have their home; it is another thing entirely to be lost at sea, flying over a dark uncharted world where danger lurks in the form of sharp-toothed sharks.
Courage. The Lion had courage, more than he realized. And brains? The Scarecrow had a mind like a steel trap. She wished they were both with her now, to help get her out of this mess that the heart of the Tin Man had gotten her into. Tin. The rumors of the Wizard and Dorothy were rampant around Oz and it angered the Tin Man. The Wizard spoke of Dorothy as if she were a trophy, and not the love of his life. The Tin Man wasn’t sure why, but when he thought of Dorothy his heart seemed to beat faster, hotter. So one night when the Wizard was otherwise occupied, Tin ‘borrowed’ the balloon – that’s what he would say if someone asked him – and flew to Kansas to see Dorothy, to tell Dorothy about the Wizard’s unseemly comments about her. She was surprised when the Tin Man blew into her yard after a storm, expecting to see the Professor. “Tin,” she smiled. “What a wonderful surprise!” “Dorothy,” he smiled in return.
He gave her his heart, clipped it right off his chest and said, “It’s yours.” But she was an idiot, blind to his feelings for he, and confused about what Tin had told her about the Professor, the Wizard. Knowing how much his heart meant to the Tin Man, she refused his gift. “No, I couldn’t possibly. It’s yours!” she smiled at him, so naïve. The thought of how that smile must have hurt him made her cringe. It is such an uncomfortable feeling to know one is a fool, she thought now. If she’d only understood then that hearts were made to be shared, to risk being broken. She had placed the heart back in his hand, and then watched as the winds lifted him in the balloon. As he rose, the Tin Man slowly curled his thin metal fingers around his heart, crushing it, almost breaking it in half.
Dorothy broke the Tin Man’s heart.
Dorothy grabbed the nearest pulley and yanked, causing the balloon to veer like a rocket horizontally to the East, tossing the Old Man into the sky, a rope’s length away but level with Dorothy. They stared into each other’s eyes for only the briefest of seconds as he flew beside her, but in that moment she knew. The Professor he had called himself in Kansas, then Wizard in Oz. He was neither. He was an imposter in her heart, taking someone else’s place. All he really was, all he is now to her, is an Old Man, with an unworthy, unbreakable heart.
So with the dangerous potential of heading into the wind and off the shore and over the ocean blue never to be found, she must try to somehow return to Oz. All she knew about where Oz was, however, was that it was up.
“I’m still he-he-here, you know!”
Dorothy had half forgotten that the Old Man was with her on this ride. For a moment, she was actually concerned about how much longer he might be able to hold on to the ropes that dangled under the balloon.
“You won’t make it without me!”
Then again, she was ready to cut the ropes and drop him to the ground.
Just as the sun was in its last burst of daylight, setting brightly in the West, Dorothy noticed the sun’s colors glinting beneath her, highlighting a silver stream. She peered over the edge of the gondola. “The Mississippi,” she said to herself.
The wind seemed to understand, settling the balloon on a slow breeze, causing it to drift lower and lower, slower and slower.
The Old Man felt the change in the wind, too, and he saw the River. He smiled. “Well, then!” he said. “The winds are changing!”
Although he wasn’t the young man he once was, he was still strong enough to climb the ropes, hand over hand. “I’ll come up and guide you!” he said in his most I-know-better-than-you voice. At one time, Dorothy trusted that voice because she hadn’t trusted herself enough. The Professor was worldly, knowledgeable, and she had loved to bask in his light, to wonder that such a man would be interested in her. She realized now, however, that she wasn’t basking in his light. She had been fodder for his fire.
Dorothy looked over the edge of the gondola, following with her eyes the rope he was climbing, following to its end, knotted to the basket. With nimble fingers she started to untie the knot. The rope slipped a few feet.
“Wait!” the Professor cried. “What are you doing?”
“We’re over water, Professor,” she said with just a hint of sarcasm at his title. “If you fall, you can easily swim to shore!” She laughed. “There will be no sharks to eat you!”
She unknotted a bit more of the rope. The Professor slipped farther down.
“No!” he cried. “I promise! I’ll get you to Oz!”
“You might want to watch out for snakes, though” she called, as she was about to get rid of the worst kind of snake she could think of.
“I’m sorry, Professor, but I’m going to have to let you fly!”
And with that, she unknotted the rope and the Professor flew down, down, down, and splashed rather ungracefully into the Mississippi River.
“Goodbye, Old Man,” she said softly. The words tugged at her heart. The Professor was not the person Dorothy thought he was, but he had done his best. So she forgave him. He was a good man, she thought, even if his heart was unbreakable.
The flame under the balloon huffed and groaned, suddenly sending Dorothy straight up into the clouds, into the starry, starry night. She was alone now on this particular adventure, this quest, with no inkling of where she was headed, only that she hoped she was heading to Oz. She knew she had to return to Oz to repair the damage she had done to the Tin Man’s worthy heart. She had to repair the damage done to her own heart as well.