"Look Mum! It's a parade!" He yelled excitedly, throwing his backpack across the floor as he took a running leap at the living room couch. Launching himself across it in a way he knew Mom would kick up a fuss about if she caught him. Watching with no small measure of glee as his landing caused the cushions to go airborne. Even Great Auntie Marie's heavy old throw pillows bounced up and outwards in a satisfying explosion of rumpled fabric and lumpy pillow stuffing.
'10 points!' He thought happily, relishing in his victory as he snuggled into the spot beside the armrest. Listening off handedly as Mom's high heel's clicked up the front steps. Hearing her tired sigh and the heavy clunk-clunk as she toed them off, tossing her purse on the hall table as she moved towards the living room. Her bare feet making a light schlick-schlick sound against the warm hardwood as she walked.
Mom never wore socks. Even when she told him he had too.
The television was still on, left on by accident when they'd left in a rush to see Dad at the hospital after he'd gotten home from school. He'd been excited to get there, beating even Mom out the door as he'd chattered on about having over twenty 'Get Well' cards from his class in his backpack, all wishing that Dad would get better soon. Even his teacher had made one!
But Dad hadn't been awake to see them. He was never awake. He didn't understand how someone could sleep so long, but Mom said it was normal for someone who'd gotten shot like Dad had. So he'd set up the cards on the window sill, positioning them just so, so that when he finally opened his eyes, Dad would be able to see them.
He'd raced into the living room ahead of her as soon as they'd gotten home, eager to catch at least a few minutes of cartoons before Mom made him start on his homework. And there it was…a parade on the news! - Even better was that it was downtown! He recognized the toy store just across the street from the Starbucks on 43rd and Earl. They were just in time too; the crowd was just running out of the way, parting at the sides to make way for the musicians, performers, floats, and clowns that must have been making their way down the street just off camera.
At least that's what he thought they were at first. The performers that tumble and somersault at the beginning of those fancy holiday parades. Wearing bright make up and bouncing around the street in colorful costumes and crazy dance routines. Only these performers weren't somersaulting or juggling, they were stumbling. He blinked at the screen, unable to shake the feeling that something was a bit weird about these performers. Perhaps it was a parade for that Mexican holiday his teacher had told them about once?
The sound of Mom's feet pacing down the hallway, scuffed to an uncertain halt as a piercing scream echoed through the speakers. He winced. It was sure a loud parade. In fact he half expected Mom to yell at him to turn it down, only she didn't. Instead the sound of her footsteps turned into a quick walk, thudding across the hardwood with increasing purpose as the sounds melded together in his ears. Turning uncomfortable and jarring even as he turned the volume down on the TV another few notches.
...He wished that the man would stop screaming. He couldn't hear the news woman anymore.
The next time he looked up Mom was standing frozen in the door way. One hand braced against the wall like it was the only thing that was holding her up. Staring at the TV like she had never seen anything quite like it before. Her eyes wide and mouth open.
"She's just practicing for the Frog Prince." Dad would have teased. Eyes dancing with laughter as he imitated the expression until even Mom couldn't help but laugh. Flicking her long brown hair out of her eyes as she shook her head, the two of them collapsing on the couch, dissolving into giggles until they were rolling around the floor, too exhausted to do anything more than listen as Mom banged around in the kitchen making dinner.
"Can we go?" He pressed. Wondering why she wasn't even looking at him after close to two weeks of not even letting him cross the street alone to play with his friend Eric from swim school. Uncle Shane had told him to be patient. Saying it was just because Mom was worried about Dad.
He wasn't exactly sure why though, Dad would get better. Everyone had told him so. Mom had told him so. Even those nice nurses in the hospital had agreed, all careful smiles and colorfully printed uniforms that he couldn't help but stare at as they zipped back and forth across the shiny, overly waxed floors.
Grownups sure were strange sometimes.
But when he looked back at the broadcast something had changed. Somewhere along the line the camera man had done a close up of the people in the parade. And now he could see that their makeup had gone funny, a mess of spurting red and shocking pale grey. Their clothes tugged off and ripped. All ragged edges and strange tears.
He tilted his head, thinking hard.
He wondered if they were raising awareness for cancer. A lot of people had parades to get rid of cancer. He'd seen them. Everyone dressed up in funny costumes and gave out skittles and mars bars to the crowd. He liked the skittles the best though. He always ate the red ones first then made shapes and letters with the rest, eating them one by one until he couldn't make any shapes at all. Now he wished he had asked Mom if they could get some skittles on the ride home from the hospital. They had gotten ice cream at Diary Queen the night before with Uncle Shane, but tonight he hadn't been able to make it, getting called into work early for something called a "riot."
But as he watched he realized that something had gone wrong. Performers and musicians weren't supposed to hurl themselves into the crowd like that. Grabbing and snapping. Even if they were playing pretend. That wasn't what they were supposed to do. He had been to millions of parades and no one had ever done anything like that. Maybe they were filming a movie instead? Maybe this was what Shane had been talking about when he'd mentioned the riot?
It wasn't until a nice looking woman carrying a small, pink little bundle fell down, lynched at her ankles by the rowdy crowd, that the new reporter started yelling into her microphone. Bad words falling from her lips as she yelled at the man filming, hands wind milling in panic as she tried to get his attention.
"Jesus! …Cut away! Don't- Damn it Josh! Cut away!"
But it didn't matter; it was like the camera man couldn't bring himself to turn away. Because the camera captured it all, showing how women hit the pavement face first, as if at loathe to let go of that tiny little bundle for even a moment as she was pushed to the ground by the dirty, angry people. He wondered what was in that pink blanket that was so important…
A small, wounded noise escaped from his mother's lips. But he didn't turn to look. He couldn't. Instead he just watched as performer after performer piled on top of her. More… More… More… He'd never seen so many people in one place. He didn't even know that many people could be in a parade…
He wondered how she could breathe under the press, craning his head as he tried to catch a glimpse of her through the squirming mass of twitching limbs and red stained pant legs. But before he could make her out, Mom was streaking across the carpet. Blocking the screen from view as the screams from the broadcast grew. One sound echoing off the other until they became nothing more then a tangled mess of eerie, base line sounds and off pitch laughter. ...At least it had sounded like laughter.
He hadn't understood that. He just wanted to watch the parade.
Uncle Shane had come over that night. Not even saying so much as hello before crowding Mom into the kitchen. Mom already peppering him with questions that he didn't quite understand as the door swung closed behind them. He hadn't even been able to ask Shane if he'd seen the parade, or why he smelled like burnt gasoline and old sweat. His uniform streaked with dark colors and strange lines, smeared with half formed smudges and a mess of bloody palm prints that stood out like open wounds across the man's tan shirt.
He had played with his video games on low, pretending not to listen as hushed voices and low whispers floated out through the cracked kitchen door. But soon enough his fingers paused on the controls, slowing to a gradual stop as the whispers went rotten. Bad. He grabbed the remote from the couch, turning down the background music as he strained to hear.
Because something was wrong, something more than Dad still being in the hospital. Face a fractured mess of deeply etched lines and too pale skin. Asleep, even after all this time as strange bruises and painful red sores blossomed across the surface of his skin. He still didn't understand how someone could sleep for so long. But whenever he asked, Mom always started to cry. She tried to hide it, turning away so he wouldn't see the tears. But he did.
Eventually, he'd just stopped asking.
He wrinkled his nose, forehead scrunching into a worried frown as his mother's voice rose in pitch. But he stayed put, knowing all too well that if he made even the slightest peep they would remember he was there. Adults never told the real truth about anything. Especially when they knew you could hear. - He still wasn't sure why, especially when he got his dessert taken away for fibbing. But when he asked, Mom and Dad would only say that he'd understand when he got older.
Somehow he doubted that.
Words like: "disease" and "infection" got caught in the air above his head, raining down like the candy that comes out of those Piñatas they have at birthday parties. He wondered what the phrases: "CDC" and "Homeland Security, threat level Severe" meant. Was something wrong with the President? He'd seen the president on TV once. Dad said he was a great man, but Mom had only rolled her eyes. Lips thinning just like they usually did whenever she found out that he hadn't cleaned his room before he went to play.
Mom asked about Dad. But he didn't catch Uncle Shane's reply. He wondered if they were going to visit Dad soon. Mom had only said "later" when he asked when they were going to see him tomorrow. It was always later. He didn't understand. He didn't understand it in the same way he didn't understand why Mom wouldn't let him watch TV alone anymore. Why she kept a chair lodged underneath the door knob when they went to bed at night. Or why Uncle Shane had starting sleeping on the living room couch more nights then not.
Something tightened in his chest as she let out a single, agonized sounding sob. The sound muffled by the soft murmurs of the man beside her. The cry getting stuck somewhere up in the eves, stalling there like an echo that refused to fade. He wondered if Uncle Shane was holding her like Dad did when she was upset. He knew she liked that. It always seemed to make her feel better.
The next time he looked up at the screen, he realized that the game had been over for quite some time. With fake blood oozing off the ends of ugly, red words that flashed "Game Over" across pitch black screen. The villain's voice booming in the background as evil cackles and maniacal laughter echoed in the close space. He slapped a hand across the power button so hard that he heard the casing crack.
…And while he really didn't understand why, he realized that in that moment, he was afraid…
It wasn't long after, that Mom started pulling clothes out of closets, filling shopping bags with food and water before she began ripping their pictures off the walls. Tugging so hard that the nails and screws flew right off, skittering across the floor in a metallic jingle that reminded him a lot of playing the xylophone when he was younger.
She didn't even seem to notice that he was just standing there, watching. Her hair flying around her face, getting stuck and clumped together as tears streamed down her cheeks. She didn't say anything when he started pouncing on each and every nail that flew off the wall either. Working until he had collected the lot of them in his palm, switching them back and forth, from hand to hand like he was playing a game of hot potato. Feeling the sharpness scrape along the length of his skin with every flick of his fingers. It felt like a risk. Like was something that Mom should have been getting mad at him about. Only she didn't. She wouldn't even look at him.
He wondered if they were out of Kleenex.
It was only when she had moved to the next room that he dragged a chair from the dining room, all the way to the den. Standing on his tippy-toes to reach the spaces where the pictures had been, that he realized that the holes no longer fit the nails. Because now they were simply fractures… Empty and hollowed out. Broken. …Ripped too wide for the nails and screws to ever be put back the same way again.
It reminded him of a lesson he'd learned once. Something about when an object is broken, while it can sometimes be mended, glued back together and repainted, it will never look exactly the same as it did before.
And for a long time he simply stood there, watching the wounded plaster trickle down from the wall in tiny, ivory colored streams. Fluttering down to earth in papery tufts until it got caught in the recycled air, spreading ghost like across the floor like a fine mist.
He wondered if that was what loss looked like.
The two days later everything stopped, school, work, swimming lessons, the television. Everything. Mom shut off the lights and closed the blinds. Dialing Uncle Shane's number over and over, her fingers shaking as she jumped at every loud noise and sudden silence.
There were a pile of suitcases and duffel bags stacked beside the bags of food and water at the front door. There was even his suitcase and his racer pack back that he'd filled with toys on a whim. - Mom hadn't asked him to, but if they were going on a trip he didn't want to get bored…
Were they going on some kind of vacation? Somewhere away from the riots that Uncle Shane had been so worried about? What about Dad? Was he coming too?
But before he could catch up, before Mom would tell him what was going on, Uncle Shane was beating down the front door. The door screeching on its hinges as he slammed it shut behind him, uniform splattered with red and eyes blown far too wide for his face as the sounds of muted explosions and barely muffled screams filtered through the air behind him.
The man was a whirl wind of hard hands and jamming toes as he hooked Mom by the scruff of her neck as she came running down the stairs, eyes filled to the brim with an emotion he didn't understand as Shane grabbed his hand and told him to run.
That was when he realized that it hadn't been a parade at all…
His car door slammed shut and locked automatically behind him. The motion so quick that he felt the breeze as Mom threw herself into the front seat with Uncle Shane. He tried counting to ten when he jumped in his seat, frightened by the close sound of another percussive boom. It sounded like one of those canned explosions in his video games, only closer. A lot closer. But he lost count somewhere around six. Or maybe it was eight, he couldn't remember, when Shane served on the road, driving across the Bartlebee's front lawn to avoid a bunch of people playing on the road.
What was happening? He didn't…He didn't-
Then there were people chasing after the car. He could see Eric's mother stumbling along outside the window, her blue night dress ripped and torn at the belly. And through the tears in the fabric he could just make out a mass of small, bloody hand prints that were painted across her skin, smeared rust red and terrible along the length of her hip. He didn't see Eric though. He wondered if he was hiding. Eric had always been the best kid on the block when they had played hide and seek. You could never find him. He hoped Eric was hiding… He hoped that-…
They sped around the corner so fast his stomach lurched. Uncle Shane was swearing now, cussing out a blue streak as the tires screeched across the uneven blacktop. Yanking the steering wheel left and then right, left and then right again as more and more people ran towards to car. He wondered why they were all going in the same direction as them. Were they taking Eric's mom to the hospital?
He asked them what was going on, but neither of them answered. Mom only held tight to his hand. Her shoulders shaking, voice all high pitched and strange as she hunched over in the front seat, hair hanging low at her knees as she screamed at him not to look. But he did anyway. He couldn't help it. They were everywhere.
…Dad had always told him that things like monsters and nightmares weren't real. But he'd been wrong…