April 2024

Dr. Curio’s Balloon Stand

Wendy Nikel

Play Audio
read by Meliora Dockery

art by Lan Vo Soffer

Dr. Curio’s Balloon Stand sits at the edge of town, out past the nameless dead end, where the gravel dust turns to dirt. Even weeds refuse to grow there, and anyone over the age of twelve with any sense of decency diverts their eyes as they walk by.

So it’s always the Youngest—those who don’t know better—who bring up the topic of the balloons. They see them there, candyfloss pink, bloated and bobbing, tethered to that great, house-shaped heap, and beg to get closer to see them. To touch them. To have one.

“Trust me, darling, you don’t want those balloons,” the self-respecting grown-ups say, and the next thing you know, they’re promising the Youngest a stop at the shop to buy brighter, better, bigger balloons, balloons shaped like beagles and bananas and boats. The Youngest follow them away to gather their too-easily-won prize, not knowing yet how the shop-bought balloon will leave them feeling peculiar, for it only leads their little mind to meander back to those other balloons tethered on the edge of town, wondering why mum and da and granny don’t marvel at their bright pinkness, wondering why they all want so badly to avoid them.

So the Youngest won’t ask again, but they will watch the balloons bobbing each time they bounce by that dead-weed-dead-end drive. And they will wonder at the secrets those balloons secure in their bloated bowels, at the wonders they might possess if they only had just that one.

And then the day comes when mum and da and granny send the Youngest to the shop, to the library, to the schoolyard alone, and they kick the gravel dust of the dead-weed-dead-end drive and realize that there is no one to stop them. They’re free to frolic forth, following that faded footpath, down to the dilapidated domicile, and there they could finally—now that no one is watching, worrying, warning them “no”—procure a balloon of their own.

The path is always longer than it looks from the lane, the house far more huge and hack-eyed, with sharp bits of rusty metal sticking out here and there, ravens resting in the ridges. There are plenty of opportunities for the Youngest to turn back, but the balloons hover hypnotically before them, whispering promises of mysteries unknown and hidden delights. The Youngest all but stumbles up the front stoop, where the lowest balloon is still just a few fingerbreadths out of reach.

The Youngest considers knocking on the door, but the only money they have are the coins for the shop, and what if this Dr. Curio knows mum and da and granny? What if he tells them that the Youngest was here?

The thought sends a thunder of terror through the Youngest, which almost makes them turn around, makes them pitch themselves from the porch and race to the road, to the shop, to the schoolyard, to home.

But those balloons. So pink. So perfect. Surely there must be something special about them, and the Youngest decides this is something they must know.

The Youngest overturns a bucket and climbs upon it and reaches up as high as they can until the string that secures the balloon to the soffit is in their grasp, secured tight, and—


The moment the balloon is theirs, they speed away, but they’ve no sooner reached the gravel of the dead-weed-dead-end road than they wish they could put it back. They can’t go into town like this, with this balloon of brightness bobbing behind. Someone will see them and tell mum, tell da, tell granny. And oh, then they will know what’s been done.

The balloon hangs, persistent, above them like an unwanted, upside-down shadow.

What can be done?

They could return to the house, could re-tie the string, but when they look back, the door is open and Dr. Curio himself stands on the stoop and he smiles—oh, he smiles—a terrible smile of wicked knowing.

The balloon—so ordinary, so un-marvelous, and yet so awful—slips from the hand of the Youngest. The string leaves a splinter in their skin.


The Youngest never tells a soul, and yet they know that mum and da and granny don’t need to read minds to know.

And so, it comes as no surprise, that when the Youngest is no longer the Youngest and they walk their own Youngest down the road, their eyes avoid that scrapheap house; the sight of the balloons makes them sick.

And when their own Youngest points and asks, there’s nothing that they can say to explain, except to promise them a store-bought one instead. “Trust me, darling, you don’t want those balloons.”

About the Author

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit

About the Reader

Meliora Dockery is an audiobook narrator, actor, and autobiographical storyteller. You can hear her on Audible, at Gotham Writers’ Razor Magazine, and on The Moth Radio Hour. She is also a volunteer narrator for Learning Ally. For more info, please visit

About the Artist

Lan Vo Soffer is a Vietnamese Jewish mother and Brooklyn-based multimedia artist. Born and raised in Vietnam, she started studying art at eight years old and was encouraged very early on to embrace abstract painting. Now, she uses her multidisciplinary skills in textile and pattern design, dying, sewing, storytelling, and watercolor to make pieces that prioritize movement and detail; she encourages viewers to slow down while observing her work. You can learn more at