That evening would be Gillian’s first trip inside “the ball,” as people with weaker imaginations usually called it, despite the fact that it clearly resembled a giant microphone. One of her fifth-grade classmates had described the building’s interior a few months before, after attending a party there with her parents, and ever since then Gillian had tumbled over the details in her mind: a room encased by polished glass walls, floor spinning like a slow cloud, waiters whizzing past cupping petal-blue flames. It all sounded kind of—what was that new spelling bee word? “Extraterrestrial”?
As usual, she and her family were running late. And throughout the drive over, 4-year-old Lizzie kept chirping the same handful of off-pitch lyrics in a never-ending loop, ruining the otherwise hushed atmosphere inside their Suburban. I’ll bet she spent the whole afternoon watching The Little Mermaid for the twentieth time and sucking on Goldfish, Gillian thought. How fricking “obsolete.” But her annoyance was soon interrupted by the sight of the huge microphone finally looming nearby. She rested her head against the window and pretended she was moving the car closer to it with her mind.
As they rounded the last corner and pulled up toward the valet stand, her dad suddenly smacked the side of the steering wheel. “I think I left my wallet in my other coat,” he huffed. “Do you guys want to head up there and order me a rum and Pepsi?” He glanced toward his wife in the passenger seat. “I guess I need to run back and grab it.”
“Um, sure,” Gillian’s mom said, smiling in a way that meant she was tired. “Just give us a minute to get our things together.”
Once they’d managed to locate several of Lizzie’s toys, snacks, ponytail holders, and picture books—all of which were now artfully balanced along one of their mom’s arms—the three of them made their way past a row of fancy cars parked by the entrance and into the base of the building. From there, they waited in line for an elevator that would take them up through the long, slender column into the large sphere perched at the top. Gillian followed her mother’s instructions when they got in and pressed a button labeled “GeO-Deck.” It would take her dad a little while to return, so they would spend a few minutes exploring the observation area before heading to the restaurant above.
The moment the two sisters crossed the door’s threshold, gale-force winds pummeled them.
Throughout the long ride up, Lizzie stood with her greasy hands plastered to the elevator’s window, half-yelling “But who caaaares! No big deeeeeaal! I want moooooore!” in a reprisal of her role as a vocally challenged Ariel.
“Disastrous,” Gillian mused, “D-I-S-S-A-S-T-R-O-U-S.”
“Actually,” corrected her mother, “there’s only one ‘S’ at the beginning of disastrous. D-I-S-A-S—and so on.” A bell sounded then, and the elevator doors opened.
As they stepped out, they found themselves in a circular room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows and informational plaques describing the view. Beyond those, another door led to an outdoor observation deck enclosed by a net of steel cables. Lizzie homed in.
“I want to go outsiiiide!” she sang, already bolting toward the exit.
Her mother, who was struggling to keep hold of the jumble of picture books and snack bags, gave Gillian a stern look of exasperation. “Please follow her.”
The moment the two sisters crossed the door’s threshold, gale-force winds pummeled them, whipping and sculpting their hair like spun sugar. Lizzie, although slowed by its resistance, kept pressing toward the railing. It looked like she was running underwater. Gillian tried to call out to her, but the words were swept right off the edge of her lips in a muffled, unintelligible stream. She had no choice but to try to keep up. Then, just as Gillian began making headway, she noticed a strange, clear sound riding on the air. A bit of melody. Was that—her sister’s voice? Each note seemed to float, suspended, around her, resonating pure as crystal. But wait, how on earth—
Gillian became so preoccupied with locating the source of the unusual noise that it took her a moment to realize her sister’s feet were no longer touching the platform. She blinked hard and then tried again. But again, she saw that, as Lizzie continued to flap her legs back and forth in a running type of motion, they seemed to instead be gradually propelling her upward, into the air. She was … swimming?
OK, well, this is not “literally” happening, Gillian reasoned, because no way. She turned and searched through the windows for their mother, who was nowhere to be seen. Frick! Now what?!
By the time she looked back toward her sister again, Lizzie had also disappeared; Gillian, however, soon realized she might be able to follow the ribbons of sound that were apparently emanating from her. She braved the wind and paced the deck’s outer perimeter, scanning her surroundings intently as the melody grew louder. Sure enough, as she reached the opposite side of the so-called “ball,” there was Lizzie, who seemed to have acclimated rather quickly to her new mode of travel. She was frogging her way around gleefully, contained only by the steel cable netting that surrounded the globe, like a fish in a fishbowl.
“How come you can sing louder now?” Gillian hollered up at her. But Lizzie seemed oblivious, lost in her own world.