Oxford

          Hovering around 800 feet, the balloon started descending. “We’ve got to land this thing — now!” Sarah cried out.

          “I’m on it!” Tom leaned over and scouted for a safe place.

          Sarah pointed to a nearby city, its tall towers and majestic buildings dominating the skyline. “What’s over there?”

          Tom hunted through his map and pinpointed the location. “It’s Oxford.”

          “Let’s aim for that open field on the outskirts,” she said frantically, her voice filled with nervous tension.

          “I’ll do my best.”

The University of Oxford

is located in Oxford, England. Founded in 1176 and made up of thirty-eight independent colleges, Oxford is Britain’s oldest university. It is hailed as one of the world’s greatest bastions of knowledge. The name of the town evolved from its position on the river meaning “a ford for oxen.” Oxford grew rapidly when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled northeast to Cambridge. All the thirty-eight colleges are self-governing institutions that are part of the University, each controlling its own membership and with its own internal structure and activities. Being a city university, all the buildings and facilities are scattered throughout the metropolitan center.

     Tom tried to steer

          the balloon and safely guide it to the ground. He switched the burner lever back and forth, giving one blast of heat up and another one out, hoping to navigate toward their target. The flame became weaker and weaker.

          “It’s really starting to fall,” said Sarah despondently, dashing from one side to the other.

          Working feverishly, Tom aimed for a farm with animal stalls and a large stone barn. As the last bit of propane sputtered out and the air inside the canvas cooled, the balloon was at the mercy of the winds and weather. The cold sky coupled with the lack of warm propane exacerbated the problem, pushing the balloon downward.

          Raising his gun, Vinogradov shouted, “STOP — VIGHT — DARE!”

          The balloon came crashing through the trees and right toward Vinogradov. His face exploded with surprise. “STOP!” he squealed.

          Hovering above the ground, the basket smacked Vinogradov off his feet and sent him flying into the air. He landed with a loud wallop and skidded across the field covered in dirt. He was out cold — his moment of glory over.

          “Sorry,” hollered Sarah, a perplexed look on her face.

          The basket hit the ground and slid toward the stone barn, plowing up the pasture: fifty feet — twenty-five feet — fifteen feet . . .

     The impact

          of hitting the ground had thrown Tom down and knocked the wind out of him. Sarah rushed to his side, kneeling over and rubbing his forehead.

          “Tom . . . wake up! Get up!” she pleaded frantically, giving his body a gentle shake.
No answer.

          “This can’t be happening. Not to you!”

          For a moment Sarah felt the pain of losing her best friend. She shook his body again, but he still didn’t move.

          Determined, she opened the storage bin and grabbed the jug of water, dumping its entire contents on his face.

          “What the . . . who . . . stop!” he yelled out, shocked by the sting. “What — are — you — doing?”
          “I’m —”
          “Are you out of your mind?”
          “Oh, Tom,” she said sweetly, dropping the jug. “You’re alive!”
          “Of course I am,” he grumbled, feeling somewhat dazed.
          Sarah hugged him tightly.
          “What’d you do that for?” he complained, shaking free from her grasp.
          She smiled nonchalantly. “No reason.”
          “Whatever,” he said indifferently, not knowing what he had done to warrant such attention.

          Tom wearily got up and wiped his face. He wobbled a bit, still dizzy from his fall.

          They grabbed a hammer, rope and two stakes from the storage bench and leaped over the side.

          This was the first time their feet had touched solid ground in almost fifteen hours. The initial sensation was unsettling but soon felt wonderful. Sarah marveled at their journey and how she had overcome her fear of heights.

          They worked rapidly, pounding in the stakes and firmly securing the ropes. Just as Tom threw the hammer in the basket, a group of policemen arrived.

          “Hey, you two!” shouted an officer. “Don’t move!”

          Tom and Sarah instantly bolted in the opposite direction, sprinting around the barn and down a dirt road. The policemen quickly pursued.

          After navigating through a forest of shrubbery and across an open field, Tom and Sarah stumbled onto Magdalen College.

“I still have ten pounds,”

replied Tom, pulling out his money. “I’m sure there’s a train station nearby. Maybe we could buy a couple of tickets and get to London.”

          “Don’t you think they’ll be looking for us there — just like last time?”

          “Probably,” he answered tentatively, “but we’ve got to risk it. We have nowhere to stay tonight. We’ll just be extra careful. Scout the area first and look for any police.”

          “All right,” she agreed apprehensively, unaware of other options.

          They wandered past Porter’s Lodge and out onto High Street, a busy avenue congested with traffic.

          Known as “The High,” the road formed a gentle curve through the center of Oxford. Christmas wreaths were attached to lampposts, and colorful lights hung from one side to the other. Students hurried along the walkways carrying heavy backpacks and holiday presents. Nestled among the numerous shops and pubs were Waterfield’s Books and Shepherd & Woodward, two well-known landmarks. Other prestigious colleges fronted the street, their grand facades towering over the sidewalks.

* * * *

Tom and Sarah

rushed by Queen’s College and down the block. A red double-decker bus screeched to a stop, loading and unloading passengers. As Tom and Sarah crossed the street, they noticed a policeman walking along the adjacent sidewalk. Fifty feet behind him were two other officers peeking in windows and cafés.

          “Here, quick,” Tom whispered, grabbing Sarah’s hand and ducking into University College, Oxford’s oldest school.

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