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I'll get you Balloon Boy, if it's the last thing I do!

So said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden, more or less, at a press conference on Sunday, in a chilling aftermath to a tale filled with horror, strange twists and, ultimately, the kind of entertainment suitable only to a mental patient crammed full of Aripiprazole 9 or any other third-generation anti-psychotic.

It was a balloon floating slowly over a blue Colorado sky! Yet the strange case of the Balloon Boy still rages. Alderden intends to press charges, and researcher Robert Thomas has come forward to say he helped the balloon's inventor carry out the hoax.

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The inventor, Richard Heene, and his wife Mayumi have appeared on the show Wife Swap ; their six-year-old son Falcon was believed to be inside the balloon that stopped air traffic, had rescuers out in anxious droves and had most of us pressed to our TVs, computers and phones.

Save Balloon Boy! ran the Twitter topic that day, with panicky, slower Facebook posters asking what was happening. We feared for and envied the child - it was all so Spielberg-dreamy and scary. As the craft slowly fell to earth, we lunged with the rescuers and stepped back when they did, in shock, to discover it was empty.

Then we were angry. And we still are. Evidence? Well, the pending criminal charges. And that the story, which should be cold by now, is still raging.

That is, the story broke last Thursday - almost a week ago - which means it has long, freaky legs. The wan balloon floated by Seth Meyer's Saturday Night Live news desk this weekend; on Glenn Beck's show, a news report broke about two kittens named Crackers and Croutons trapped in a box-kite, reminding us that this little caper is bigger than ever.

When most of us were children, we could have built a Mylar spaceship, launched it off the roof, gotten it tangled in a tree and been attacked by wild dogs before limping home with a broken limb, and no one would have noticed.

But ever since little Jessica McClure fell into a Texas well in 1987 and CNN, a green, ambitious news channel, followed every second of this drama, we have been looking at each other differently.

Not the way we look at each other on the street, or in a mall or at work, but the way we look at people on the street, or in a mall or at work if they were holding a transparent square over themselves.

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After the McClure incident, the philosophical essence of that old Warhol canard changed: It is not that people, as the artist would have liked, are increasingly deserving of fame. It is that the nature of fame changed the moment we all, tacitly, decided that fame involves only watching and being watched. What used to be the purview of the Peeping Tom and stalker is now our very large terrain, as we stare, scrutinize and survey each other like CIA operatives.

As to our close, anxious scrutiny of the well and its fragile contents, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan remarked that "everybody in America became godfathers and godmothers of Jessica while this was going on."

And this was a sweet thought. Watching what we assumed was Balloon Boy drift perilously along, our hearts wrenched with a kind of parental concern, and the public's reaction felt pure-hearted.

Still, it was creepy as well.

One easily forgets, while tracking down the house of a former lover, scanning his tweets for clues to his whereabouts, combing through his photographs dragged out of Facebook, that watching so often leads to obsession.

If the Balloon Boy story is merely the story of a cruel hoax (cruel to the child, hiding in a box in his family attic; cruel to our so-rarely hopeful hearts), it is also an object lesson in how quickly the world can now seize on an incident and stream it through stationary and mobile devices so quickly, we may as well be travelling through time and space.

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What if the Balloon Boy had been inside? What if we got to see him get mangled in the turbine of a plane or fall to the earth and smash his life apart?

What will we do when CNN starts showing snuff films?

What will we do when someone is killed by someone else, because she or he is famous? Famous enough to stand by their house, or post their plans online, or use a trackable cellphone or have an attractive photograph online?

Can't we leave the business of being famous to those stars with teams of Rottweilers, an arsenal, bodyguards and a complex alarm system?

The Heenes, desperate enough to be "reality TV" famous, appear to have used their child as a target for international attention: Can't they be arrested for that?

In the future, everyone will stare at a total stranger for 15 minutes as the stranger, excitedly, watches back.

I still owe the SVU acronym pervert a fiver: please send address. Also, "Flipflops," I'm watching you. Finally. Next week: LiLo: A Love Story.

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