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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

He tried to be good; if this was punishment for something he had done the day before, it wasn’t proportional.

Lost in a Parade

The sound of a heavy motor drifted from the street to Cait Connery’s ear.  The poorly tuned engine of her husband’s Ford, the rattle of its frame, were distinct and easily picked out of the city night.  Cait listened for the slam of the car’s door, for her husband’s footsteps up the stairwell, and for the eventual key twisting into the front door bolt.

“Why are you late?” she asked her husband as he entered the bedroom.

Dary Connery answered in a whisper.  “Drove the route.  One last time.  I think I have it memorized.”  Dary fumbled off his heavy shoes and took a seat on the bed, which shook with his weight.  He was twice the size of her, but that made her feel safe, not small.

Once she could feel his thick arms folding over her, she reminded him of the time.  “It’s two in the morning.  Better get some sleep or you’ll be in a bad mood.”

“I’m already in a bad mood.”

“I know,” she said softly, without critical inflection.  “Are we still going?”

Dary considered an answer.  “Of course,” he soothed. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

The next morning they found their son, Gunner Connery – eight years, sandy-haired – rolled in his blankets and sniffling.  He had a cold.  Cait had given him a teaspoon of medicine before bedtime, but it had long worn off.  A crust had formed around each of his nostrils.  Going to the bathroom, she wet a hand towel with warm water and brought it back into the second bedroom.  She didn’t want to wake him, but her touch made Gunner start to twitch.  “The parade!” he shouted when he knew his surroundings.  The boy sprang out of bed, uncontained.

Dary slept late.  He showered and belted his trousers and met them near the hat rack.  “You’re nervous,” said his wife.  The man was sweating and had buttoned wrong.  Cait undid her husband’s shirt to the middle of his chest, exposing the heavy hair that she found so attractive, then fixed his order.  “Big man like you,” she said with a kiss and wink, “we’ll have no troubles.”  Her husband gave a nervous, forced laugh.  He appreciated her good nature at a time like this, but couldn’t consider much as funny.  “We’ll bring umbrellas,” she said with her face to the windows, and scooped two from the pot in front of the door, one for her, one for Dary.

Out on the street, the rain looked like it might pass.  The September sun hid behind gray clouds, thick as milk above their heads.  The city parade would start at ten o’clock.  They had time.

“We should turn around,” Dary said at Main Street, his shoulders brushed by two pedestrians on the crowded walkway.

“Don’t,” said his wife, close into his ear, “we’re almost there.”  She tugged him along and noticed Dary’s hand turning red as it held onto Gunner’s.

“Dad!” said the boy and shook his hand away.

“Hold your father’s hand at all times,” instructed his mother.

“He’s squeezing!”

“Don’t squeeze,” Cait said softly as she tucked her folded umbrella under one arm and, with the free hand, wrapped the shoulder of Gunner’ shirt in her fingers.

They passed balloon men, an organ grinder, stands erected with tin and wood along the parade route, each selling the same souvenirs, hawking loudly.  Dary met the eyes of every vendor he could.  I’m watching you, projected his thoughts, and, with each attempt to reach the minds of the men, he grew weaker.  Too many, and I have no special powers, he lamented.  He had to concentrate on his grip – his hand enveloping his son’s.

Cait was very aware of her husband’s body.  His neck had a vein exposed; he was too tense.

As the crowd became thicker and the grandstands nearer, traffic trickled to nothing.  The narrow aisle of onlookers was fenced-in by blue police barricades.

Cait absorbed Dary’s instincts.  Closer and closer to the parade she, too, became racked with fear.  To this, she surrendered, nearly shouting, “We can go home, you know.  We don’t have to –” Her husband stopped with her.  Gunner’s mouth dropped open.  “We can leave,” she said flatly, “There’ll be another parade someday soon.  This one’s too popular.  A small parade in a neighborhood might be better for your first, Gunner, don’t you think?”

Her son stamped his feet and several people looked their way.  “No!” he said, defiant, but also tinged with desperation, “This is the best parade of the whole year!  Everyone at school says so!  And you promised.”  Gunner shook his finger at them.

His father reached out and lowered the point.

The boy became embarrassed.  Fussing wasn’t his natural defense; he was his father’s son: quiet, used to getting his way through sheer presence.

Above the Connerys, the clouds grew darker, only for a second.  The three were jostled in their positions as a group of boy scouts ran past, late for their place in line.

Dary met his son’s eyes.  “We promised,” he said, and drifted to Cait.  “We promised,” he repeated.  “Why did we promise again?”  Cait didn’t answer.  Dary knelt to the height of his son and spoke in a voice that was his most calming.  “You know, Gunner, I was lost in a parade once.  When I was your age.  Maybe younger.  This very parade.”  Dary rested his chin on the curved handle of his umbrella, hands across the top, and straightened the collar of his son’s tan jacket.  “My father and mother took the train to the city.  We stood on the sidewalk, just like we’re doin’ today.  Only it wasn’t this black out.  The sun, it had poked through the clouds and shined, just on the parade route.  A great big parade passed by with floats, and marching bands, and clowns on bicycles.  And even the mayor was there in a black carriage.  But I don’t remember that day because of the parade.  I remember it,” he said to his son, “because I got lost.”

Gunner fidgeted.  Music could be heard in the distance.  He had the feeling he would miss the whole thing if his father didn’t stop talking and help him get to the grandstands.

But his father wouldn’t let him look away.  “Gunner,” he said, “I want you to hold my hand or your mother’s hand at all times.”  Standing upright, stretching his back and reaching out, Dary took hold of his son and laced their fingers together mathematically.  “Don’t let go,” he said, and they started walking once more.

Dary knew that his paranoid actions of the past week had wrecked his wife’s intelligence, her reasonableness.  She would never back away from a promise if he hadn’t infected her.  His speech to his son was his attempt to demonstrate clarity.

“Thank you,” Cait said quietly to both of them as they moved along.

From a vendor, Dary purchased his son a bright yellow balloon, although this turned out to be a mistake.  To hold the string, Gunner had to drop his grip.  Cait kept hold, but it was half the measure.  Wisely, Cait saw the problem and spent a moment tying the string to the boy’s waist.  They resumed as before until touching the edge of the grandstands, the closest spot reached without violence.

Gunner could see nothing.  In rows three deep were adults, several feet taller.  The announcer in his box, visible only from the chin up, adjusted his wide silver microphone to cover his face.

He began to address the crowd.

It was ten o’clock exactly.

“Good morning and welcome to the annual city parade!” boomed the deep voice which rattled the nerves of everyone next to the public address system’s speakers, stashed under the tin framing of the grandstands and high on poles.

Such a small man in the box, such a low, reedy sound from his throat.  The voice reminded Gunner of his father’s, so big, so deep, and he turned and smiled.  “He sounds like you, Dad.”  His father nodded.

The man in the box adjusted his hat.  A woman standing beside laid a stack of papers in front of the announcer.  A third person climbed the short ladder of the box with an air-horn in hand.  At the blast, the ticker tape fell and the paper banner that stretched from the far grandstands to the Connerys’ side of the street was torn through by the first ranks of a brass band.  People cheered and whistled.

Cait looked at her husband, who held a finger to his ear.  She began to smile but then realized the sounds, the accumulation of noises, hit, not inside her husband’s eardrums, but in a place of his memory.  “Your parents didn’t mean to leave you!” she shouted into his uncovered ear, but he didn’t hear her.  “They didn’t abandon you!” she said louder as a man beside them whistled with two fingers at his eyeteeth.  Her third try, the words “I love you, Dary,” also missed the mark.  Her affirmations would have to wait.  Instead, she chose to put her cheek onto her husband’s shoulder, and rub Gunner’s blonde hair.

Gunner went forward into the crowd.  Dary felt a pull on his arm and Cait missed a last pat on his head.  “I can’t see,” the boy said, and went up on his toes.  “I can’t see,” he repeated, this time with more sadness.  It was true, the boy couldn’t see; people were stuffed into each other.

“Let’s move,” suggested Cait, but it was too late.  The boy had pressed himself between two old women and they helped his escape, guiding him to the front.  Dary’s hand slipped from his son’s, but the boy, rather than let it fall, snagged one of his father’s fingers and pulled his big shape into the backs of the two women.  “I’m sorry,” Cait apologized on behalf of her men, “this is my son’s first parade.”

The two women gave a look of surprise, then wonder, as one pointed down at Gunner and offered, “He can wiggle up in front of us, through those two there, and then he can see everything.”  Cait’s eyes tested her husband’s face.  Dary’s lips were tight ropes.  “We don’t mind,” said the two old ladies together, both leaning on their umbrellas, forming a passageway for the boy.

Dary bent at the knees and could see the spot.  The women were right: through their umbrellas, past the legs of two strangers, was a holy spot, a parade spot, a view of the action on the street.  Closing his eyes for a second, Dary Connery nodded and, at only the slightest tilt of his chin, the boy was off.  He let go of the hands of his parents and planted himself on the curbstone, just as a clown passed by and dropped a piece of hard candy into the boy’s waiting palm.  Gunner tore the wrapper from the piece and shoved it into this mouth, licked the caramel chew with his tongue, and then peeled the sugar from his teeth with his fingernail.

“You can come up here with him,” said another stranger, a mother herself, hands dropped on the shoulders of her own girl, age fifteen with dark bangs and a white prairie-patterned dress.

Cait turned her body to the side and inserted herself between the mother and the two old ladies.  Soon she was uncomfortably behind her son, and giving a short signal to her husband that everything was all right.  “Come on, Dary,” she said in a soothing, coaxing voice.

Dary thought about the space needed.  He would never fit.  He didn’t want to be a nuisance.  Cutting in line at film shows, or concerts, or at the night-office cafeteria of City Electric, was not something he liked to do.  Maybe it was his courtesy, learned from the nuns who raised him after he was found crying near a peanut seller, hours after the streets had been cleared of all parade debris.  What’s your name?  Dary Connery.  How old are you?  These many.  Eight.  Where are your parents?  I was lost.  They’re here. Don’t worry.  We’ll find them.  Telephone calls went out, most likely, a routine for the policemen – so concerned! – as young Dary sat still in a room the size of a closet and drew pictures.

He tried to be good; if this was punishment for something he had done the day before, it wasn’t proportional.  He was a boy – he broke rules, he dirtied clothes, he lost money, he skipped school, he had cavities, but this erasure of his family couldn’t compare. Surrounded by strangers and given warm milk and cheese, little Dary kept hush.  They’re not in the book, said the rail thin woman with the sides of her hair in a permanent wave, covering the berry-red burn scars on her ears.  They’re not in the book.  What did that mean to a boy?  The phone directory.  Your address.  You’ve got it wrong.  All children should have it memorized, but you’ve forgotten a piece.  No Connerys in that flat.  I’m sorry, son.  He supposed a search had gone on for months.  The authorities had protocols.  But he was shuffled from tiny room to tiny room, from burned overseer to the fire station to baker’s helper to electrician Frank.  Frank.  He was good.  It took years to find him.  Frank was more real that those who had vanished at the parade, his natural parents.

Dary came back into the moment because of the smell of horses.  A cavalry unit rode past in formation, each stallion mounted by athletic-looking soldiers wearing hats with chinstraps.  None of the riders smiled.

The yellow balloon tied to Gunner’s waist hung above the heads of the crowd.  He had lost sight of his wife and son, reshuffled in the coagulated flux of the crowd.

Dary bent at the knees.  “Can you see them?”  he asked one of the old women with a tap on her shoulder.

She turned and tipped her eyeglasses to her nose.  “Who?” she asked dumbly.

“My kid,” he said, “My Wife,” and pointed over the old woman’s shoulder, and down.

Just then, the balloon broke free.  Dary’s head snapped up with the rise.  The round yellow dot and string floated above the parade and was momentarily caught in a crosswind between buildings, before being swept away into the gray sky.

The clouds opened.  A downpour, just then.

Dary took a hit in the eye.   A raindrop ran down the side of his brow.  As he lowered his face to the old woman,  umbrellas opened around him.  Along the route, there were hundreds, all black, popping open every two people as if they were launching crows.

“Can you see them?” he asked again, but no one turned.  “Tell me, can you see them?”  No one responded, not even with a glance or a tick or a twitch.  He shouted this time at their backs, then turned and shouted it to their faces before bursting through the line into the street.  “I can’t see them!”

From his second story office, Jasper Grace cleared the window glass with the sleeve of his white shirt.  On rainy days, it was difficult to see outside.  The man’s shouting had raised him from his desk, where minutes earlier he had sat, adding columns of numbers, a Saturday overtime assignment.  In the street below, a big man in a heavy coat, umbrella closed, was nearly clipped by a car as he ran back and forth across the dividing line.  The empty sidewalks clogged with puddles, the half-light, and rain, made Jasper Grace’s eyes slow to take in the scene.

The man continued to shout.

“Have you seen them?  Can you see them?”

The soaked body received the honk of a car horn, and one driver had to ease the wheel to avoid connecting with the man’s hip.

Quickly, Grace pulled the blinds down and let the cuff smack the baseboard.  He turned back to his desk, his numbers.  Distant, he could still hear the man.  “Can you see them?” said his voice, and vanished.


Darren Callahan lives in Chicago.  His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.


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