Wondering what’s next in the After the Cure world? I’ve been writing a new story and even though it’s not quite done baking yet, I can’t resist opening the oven for you a little early so you can catch a glimpse. Here is the first chapter of the upcoming book:
The man shuffling slowly through Kennedy Park had to be who infected him. At least, that’s what he’d believe forever after, though he’d had contact with the contagion many times. It was that instance his mind returned to again and again.
The park was massive and Neil hadn’t been willing to pay the outrageous parking fee to get them closer to the parade muster point. So he and Randi hurried across the lightly wooded west end, the sun barely pinking the sky and plumes of breath puffing from them both. That’s where the man had first spotted them, rising from the bench he’d been sleeping on and flashed Randi a lopsided, snaggletooth smile. Neil instinctively jerked his daughter’s hand, pulling the little girl closer.
“Won’t hurt cha,” the man mumbled, still smiling. His eyes were glassy and he swayed in place. Neil wondered if he were drunk or just still waking up. He glanced at Neil. “Good-mornin’” he offered cautiously.
Neil gave him a tight nod and flushed, embarrassed by his own uneasiness and with an odd sort of guilt that the man had been forced to sleep on a frigid bench.
“Awful cold day for a parade,” said the man, staring at Neil’s gloves. “Good you got her all bundled there.” He pointed toward Randi and Neil thought he meant to close the small distance and touch his daughter’s head. He stepped swiftly sideways, blocking the man’s line of sight with Randi. The homeless man’s smile dropped at the action.
“Sure is,” said Neil. “You have somewhere to go, sir?”
It took the man a few extra seconds to answer and he blinked blearily before saying, “Oh, ayuh. Shelter’ll reopen at three.”
Neil glanced over his shoulder at his daughter. She looked nervously up at him. “It’s so cold. Why’s he got no mittens?” she whispered.
He heaved an internal sigh and turned back to the man, tugging his gloves from his fingers. “Here,” he said, holding them out. “Too cold to wander around all day without.”
“What about you?” asked the man. Neil shrugged.
“I’ve got pockets.”
The man took the gloves and pulled one slowly over his right hand. He tipped a little too far sideways and lost his balance. Neil caught him by the shoulder.
“Whoa there,” he said quietly. He pulled his wallet from his pocket, though he knew it was stupid, risky— the whole thing could have been a con to grab the wallet. But the man only stood there, blinking at him, as if stunned. Neil pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “Go get yourself some breakfast. I think the Homestead’s open. Warm there. They won’t kick you out if you order something. Kill the time before the shelter opens.” Sober you up and stop you touching any of the other little kids going to the parade, Neil thought sourly, but then felt an immediate wave of shame for thinking it.
“Well I— thank you,” said the man. He took the bill with a slight bob of his head. “Happy holidays,” he added.
Neil knew he meant it kindly, but it felt like a slap, comparing what this man’s holidays would likely be to what Neil’s own. “Have a good day,” he said instead.
The man turned back to the path and stumbled sideways again. Neil reached out for him again and the man tumbled right into his chest. “Take it easy,” Neil said quietly, righting him.
“Something’s wrong,” frowned the man.
“You get something bad last night?” asked Neil. “You need me to call an ambulance?”
The man shook his head. “No. No ambulance. No police. Be right in a bit. Get some coffee…” he began wandering off, still muttering. Neil straightened his coat and watched him for a few seconds before turning to check on his daughter.
“What’s wrong Daddy?” Randi asked him, still folded against his legs.
“Not a thing, sweetheart. Just helping someone out.”
Neil’s hand felt itchy where he’d touched the man’s shoulder. He wiped it self-consciously on the side of his coat, knowing it was just a trick of his mind but feeling it anyway. “But you’re scared,” said Randi looking up at him.
Neil patted her shoulder. “It’s just not a good idea to talk to strangers. Some of them turn out— ok. Like that man. Some of them want to hurt though. And you can’t always tell. But it all worked out for the best. Come on now, we don’t want to be late or Mommy will find us before you even see the floats. And Brinybrickle will take off without me,” said Neil, catching Randi’s hand again. He wanted to move them along, get farther away from the homeless man who was still shambling toward the far road and distract his daughter from more questions about the episode. Randi let him lead her toward the parade route, gawking at the large balloons under their thick nets as they passed. The bands were warming up farther on, stamping their feet and blasting the brass horns just to move some warm air around while they waited. Joan found them near the Brinybrickle float, her sad smile already setting him on edge.
“You wait long?” he asked, trying to brush off the irrational spike of annoyance. This was supposed to be a good day. For Randi.
“No, just walked up from the toy store. Harry’s saving us a spot.”
He nodded, his own smile tight. “Good choice. I should be back here by one, that’s what the captains told us. It’s a long time to wait. I can meet you at the restaurant, if you’d rather, pick Randi up there.”
Joan frowned down at her watch. “Here’s probably better. Traffic and all. Our flight to Bermuda is at four and the airport’s going to be awful.”
“Right. Here’s fine then.” Bermuda. Ten years, she never said a word about Bermuda. Guess summer weekends in Popham’s just not the same, he thought but shoved it quickly aside. Be nice. Randi’s day, remember. He bent to give his daughter a hug. “Have fun! And don’t forget, you’re supposed to cheer Brinybrickle this year.”
She laughed. “No Dad, Brinybrickle’s the bad guy. I’m going to boo.” She yanked on his collar to pull his head farther down. “But I’m not booing you. Just a secret cheer,” she whispered.
“Okay,” he agreed. “Secretly cheer then.”
Joan smiled and for once, it was a real one. It made his heart ache more than the sad, polite smile did. He let go of Randi’s hand and waved to Joan as they headed off. His daughter had been too distracted to ask anything more about the homeless man, but now they’d have to stand near the toy store for a while staring at the empty street until the parade started. He didn’t envy Joan having to explain when Randi’s questions inevitably started again. He headed back to the park.
The Brinybrickle balloon snarled out at him from its net, the black reels of its tethers already lying neatly in a large circle around it. A large, too cheerful man in a black and green vest popped up beside Neil.
“I hope you brought gloves,” he said.
Neil glanced down at his hands again, wiped the one that had touched the homeless man’s shoulder against his thigh. “Sorry, Evan. I had them but this guy in the park was freezing…”
Evan shrugged and reached into his pocket. “Someone always forgets. I have spares.” He handed Neil a pair of thin black gloves. “Where’s your balloon buddy?”
“Haven’t seen Mike yet this morning,” said Neil, pulling the gloves on. “But I’m sure he’ll be here.” It was Mike who’d persuaded Neil to do this in the first place. Well— Mike had enlisted Randi to persuade him.
“Get into position, anyway. He can catch up. We’ve got about fifteen minutes before the nets come off and we have to stabilize Brinybrickle.” Evan checked off Neil’s name on his little clipboard and moved away to the next arrival. Neil wandered over to the net, lifting it up slightly to duck beneath and find the cord he’d been assigned to.
He stamped his feet to knock some warmth into his legs and scanned the distant crowd though he knew Joan and Randi were much too far for him to see.
“Fucking traffic,” huffed Mike, yanking up the edge of the net with one hand and sloshing coffee from a cup in the other. “Got here as quick as I could.”
“Uh, Mr. Owens,” called Evan from somewhere nearby “here on the Brinybrickle support team, we need to refrain from colorful language—”
“Sorry, boss,” said Mike, mock saluting. “I thought with him being, you know, an evil elf bent on destroying Santa that a little f-bomb would be in character.”
Neil smothered a laugh. Evan jogged over and lowered his voice.
“This is a family parade, Mr. Owens. It’s an honor to pilot a balloon in the Children’s Parade and one that many others—”
“Ok, ok,” sighed Mike. “Relax Evan. I get it. I’ll watch my mouth.”
Evan looked at him skeptically until he noticed one of the other handlers got a cord tangled with someone else’s and he dashed away. Mike just picked up the cord near Neil’s foot.
“When’s this show getting on the road then?” asked Neil.
“These things are always late,” said Mike. “Besides, we’re like three-quarters of the way back. I think I heard the marshal saying ten minutes until the nets come off though. Is Randi here?”
“Yeah. Joan and Harry have her near the toy store. Randi’s a little upset about cheering for Brinybrickle, though.”
Mike turned halfway around and made a face at the snarling balloon. “Can’t blame her. Look at him. Wouldn’t want to cheer that sourpuss either. Tommy’s down by the far end, near the arcade. Told him to stay put but you know how it is. He and his friends probably won’t even watch until we get there.”
Evan returned, patting other handlers’ shoulders along the way. “All right Mike, finish up that coffee. The marshal’s about to kick things off and we’ve got to stabilize our star.” He winked at Neil who managed an embarrassed smile. “Oh and— cups in the recycling bin please! No one likes a litterbug, not even Brinybrickle.” Evan stumbled for a second as he moved away, Neil caught him and righted him. Evan frowned at the pavement, expecting a crack or divot but shrugged and kept heading toward the front when he saw only smooth tar. At the time, Neil didn’t connect it to the homeless man’s stumbling. There’d been nothing on the news about the December Plague. And there wouldn’t be for several days more. It would take still longer for word to spread to the general public about the subtler symptoms. Longer than Neil had, anyway.
“Littering’s kind of his thing, he throws old broken toys in Santa’s way to slow him down,” muttered Mike under his breath, but he held out the reel to Neil.
“Maybe he doesn’t like the competition,” said Neil. Mike jogged away, looking for the bins. He loved the parade, Neil knew, despite the complaining. The band started up again somewhere ahead, this time falling into a jazzy, well-rehearsed version of Jingle Bells. The parade was beginning. Mike sprinted back, fumbling with the net.
“Relax,” laughed Neil, “We’ve got half the parade before we even start moving.”
Evan made another circuit to check on each handler and then a slow, loud slithering noise dragged by them as the net was pulled from the balloon. Evan tripped over the edge and went down near Brinybrickle’s right shoulder. The normally jovial man started shouting as the handlers closest helped him up. Mike frowned.
“Must have really hurt himself,” he said. “Evan doesn’t yell.”
But the balloon captain subsided and began giving instructions as the balloon shifted one way and then another until the large crew had it hovering and level just above the large pines in Kennedy Park. The world beneath Brinybrickle was a sickly lime green where the sunlight leaked through, wavering and shifting like water. It was still another ten minutes before they started walking the massive balloon toward the road. The band’s music receded, fading little by little until it seemed more memory than sound. The sound of feet ahead replaced it, and the squeak of one of the ground float’s brakes as it rolled slowly forward. By the time it was Brinybrickle’s turn, Neil’s toes were frozen and Mike was bouncing foot to foot to keep some blood moving. It was an odd sort of irritated relief to move forward. Part excitement, part frustration, as if Neil were not in a parade, but a traffic jam, craning to see what the hold up was.
That was just until they hit the crowd. The cold and the frustration vanished as they passed hundreds of overawed kids. The cheers and applause were a little overwhelming for Neil, each section of kids and parents waving and calling as they passed, as if it were a massive swell that grew and receded, taking Brinybrickle and his handlers with it, never quite dying away. Until they came to a quiet section. Frightened kids cringing against their parents.
“Jeez, I know Brinybrickle’s kind of a jerk,” said Mike, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids scared of him.”
“It’s not the kids,” said Neil, raising one hand from the reel to point into the crowd where several people in blue uniforms surrounded something, their backs entirely to the parade. “Fight maybe?”
“F—” Mike caught himself. “Silly drunks,” he amended. “Think that’s the Whaler back there. Didn’t think they were open this early on holidays.”
“I didn’t think so either. Looks dark, but it’s a bar so… Who knows? Maybe it’s a fender bender that got out of hand in the parking lot. Or a domestic. Or just some parents arguing over a prime position.”
Mike frowned. They passed the knot of people quickly and the cheering soon resumed. Neil could hear a massive burst of applause from behind and knew that Santa’s sleigh must have finally entered the road, and with it, the conclusion to the parade. Another forty-five minutes to get to the other side, twenty to let old sourpuss deflate and we can go have lunch somewhere warm with Mike and Tommy, Neil thought. Evan’s gloves were too thin. Barely shielded his hands either from the cold or the biting plastic of the reel as the breeze tugged the massive balloon. Still, better than nothing. He could just see the large, vibrant green of the storefront where Joan and Randi should be. And Harry. He shut off the dangerous line of thought.
“Fans just ahead,” he told Mike. “Out front of Granby’s.”
Mike grinned. “Think she’ll boo us?”
Neil laughed. “I’m not sure. She said she’d be secretly chee—” he broke off as he caught a glimpse of a familiar figure standing at the edge of the road. He was beyond the security barrier, listing unevenly on the dark tar like a lost marcher from somewhere farther up. But his dirty jacket and ragged pants put him squarely outside the norm. Why isn’t security at least putting him back behind the barricade? Neil wondered. Forget security— where are Joan and Randi? Did he follow them? How did he—
“What’s wrong?” asked Mike.
“That guy,” Neil leaned toward Mike’s ear to mutter. “The one just ahead in the street. Ran into him in the park earlier. He tried to talk to Randi.” Neil shook his head as Mike stared at the man. “Probably harmless. Drunk though, for sure. Just creeped me out. Gave him some cash and my gloves and told him to go someplace warm. I’ll feel better when we get to Joan and Randi.”
Mike craned around to look behind them. “All the cops are back at that fistfight or whatever it was.”
“Really, I’m sure he’s fine. He backed off easily enough. Don’t think he wanted to, you know, take her or anything.”
“You sure?” Mike glanced at him. It must have been obvious from his face how Neil really felt, because Mike immediately said, “No, you aren’t sure. And if it’s not Randi, there’s a thousand other little girls in this crowd.” He craned around once more. Then leaned past Neil. “Hey!” he shouted, his voice just another in the sea of music and cheering and feet stamping. “Hey, you!”
“He hasn’t really done anything, Mike. Just a guy down on his luck”
“Maybe. You want to risk it? Looks to me like he was following Randi. Waiting to catch her when you or Joan were distracted.”
Neil couldn’t deny how uncomfortable the man made him. And that he had come so close to Granby’s made it worse. Maybe Mike was right. “I’ll just call parade security,” he said, trying to hold onto the reel with one hand and fumble in his pocket for his phone with the other. Brinybrickle wobbled slightly. “Evan gave us that number if we saw anything bad—”
“Yeah, yeah you do that. I’m going to take care of this so we don’t lose him in the crowd,” said Mike absentmindedly. He let go of the reel and took a few steps toward the homeless man. Brinybrickle bounced and Neil abandoned his search for his cell phone and gripped with both hands. Evan glared over at him, but they were moving into a spinning maneuver and he was too busy directing the handlers to come and correct the problem.
“Mike,” called Neil, following the arcing curve of the other handlers. “Mike, come back!”
But Mike was shouting at the homeless man, trying to catch his attention. The man’s face was utterly blank. Passive. Neil glanced back over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the man’s hands before the path of the balloon became more acute and he had to pay attention to the road in front of him. He’d had only one of Neil’s gloves on. Just the way he had as he’d taken the twenty from Neil’s hand. The other glove dangling between his fingers still. Don’t be ridiculous, Neil told himself, he obviously just took the glove off again a minute ago. That’s all. It disturbed him more than it should have.
Evan was ahead, still directing the balloon but his gaze was obviously elsewhere. On Mike and the homeless man, most likely. Even from the far side of the street, Neil could hear Mike’s voice intermittently between the chatter of the crowd. Brinybrickle stopped to waggle an inflated arm in fury back at Santa’s sleigh and Neil took the opportunity to peer through the web of cords beneath toward the toy store, hoping for some glimpse of Joan. For some signal that she and Randi were okay. Don’t panic, he scolded himself. Of course they’re fine. Just a drunk homeless man who needs a bed. Just wandered downtown. Not hurting anyone. The balloon was moving again, rotating back to its original orientation, ready to continue down the parade route. Neil dutifully marched the slow arc, gripping the plastic reel tighter as a sudden gust slid under the balloon’s belly and began pulling it upward. He concentrated on holding his line level, pressing his weight downward, so he missed a few of the next vital seconds.
It was the collective gasp of the crowd on his right that made him look down from pickle-green pants of Brinybrickle hovering over them. Mike was still in front of the homeless man, who seemed not to have moved an inch, nor focused on Mike in the least, still staring vacantly at something across the road. But Evan had joined Mike now. Neil squinted and saw Mike was holding Evan by the arm. Perhaps “join” was the wrong word. Evan was lunging for the homeless man. His normally placid, friendly face strained and deep red in an open-mouthed howl. Neil had a flash of fear that the balloon pilot was having a heart attack right there on the road before Mike lost his grip and Evan tripped into the homeless man, sending them both careening into the metal barrier. The tumble seemed to shake the other man from his stupor and he grappled with Evan, who had not stopped, his teeth snapping shut on the homeless man’s cheek. The barrier slid with a rumble as they struggled and the crowd pressed instinctively away. There was little space to move, though, and it only created about a foot of space between the people on the edge of the mass and Evan. The homeless man yelped and shoved at Evan’s head. Mike tried to pry his way in between the two men and Neil’s immediate thought was to help, his grip on the tether loosening until the cries from the other handlers stopped him and Brinybrickle wobbled making waves of green light over the entire thing.
“Don’t let go!” the man in front of him turned to shout. “You let go and a lot more people are going to get hur—” He broke off with a surprised grunt as the homeless man plowed into him and knocked him over. His partner on the reel let go to help when the homeless man snarled and clawed at the downed handler. Neil’s reel yanked with the sudden release of one of the cords. Several people had climbed over the barrier to help Mike. Neil didn’t understand what he was seeing. Evan had turned his rage on Mike for some unfathomable reason and had sunk his teeth into Mike’s jacketed arm. He wouldn’t let go despite the group of people trying to separate them and Mike’s own attempt to pull his arm free. Another yank as more tethers were abandoned to help the handlers beneath struggling beneath Brinybrickle. The evil elf tipped toward Neil for a second and then the breeze gusted beneath and the balloon slid rapidly, dragging Neil and the remaining handlers sideways. Almost everyone was watching the fights instead of the balloon. Neil saw enough to know that Mike was bleeding, but not how badly or where the other combatants were, too caught up in trying to remain upright to focus on that. The wind picked up again and he stumbled backward, lifted slightly from his feet by the balloon. He could hear the panicked yells for help from the few handlers who hadn’t let go. His back hit the metal barricade and half a dozen arms shot out to grab onto the tether.
“The reel, hold the reel,” he cried. The hands shifted, helping him to push down on the reel.
“Sit down,” commanded someone behind him. “More stable that way.” Someone pushed his shoulder and Neil obediently buckled onto the freezing tar. A few of the hands resolved into terrified faces as they shoved aside the barrier and joined him. More streamed into the road to help the other handlers, a few darting toward the clumps of fighting instead. The breeze gusted and a crash of breaking glass came from overhead. A few screams from the crowd and then a steady squeal of helium rapidly exiting small holes in Brinybrickle. Neil resisted the urge to look up, expecting an eyeful of glass shards if he did.
“Where the fuck is security,” growled a man across from him. Neil shook his head.
“Saw some two blocks back dealing with a fight, but that shouldn’t be all of them. And this seems a little more—” he broke off as the wind gusted again, yanking on his tired arms. The balloon flapped as it began slackening in the middle. He could hear voices through speakers nearby now, police trying to corral the crowd. A vehicle must have been close by, the strobe of blue lights mixing with the yellow-green of the sunlight through the translucent balloon. It made a strange glow over them all. The balloon collapsed slowly, settling and drooping toward Neil, cutting him off from any view of the crowd and then of the other handlers. It was still full enough that he couldn’t risk releasing the reel. A few of the people sitting with him did, though, standing to hold up the sagging plastic, creating a small tent of air. The crowd sounded distant, muffled by the thick material. Neil had a second of uneasy calm and time to worry whether Joan and Randi were safe. He hoped Randi hadn’t seen any of it. That she was still laughing and pointing at the toymaker float ahead. The balloon shifted again, this time violently and repeatedly.
“Shit,” muttered the woman next to him, pressing down on the reel. “Are they fighting on top of the vinyl?”
The crack of a gunshot burst through the cocoon of plastic as if in answer. And then multiple screams.
“My kids!” cried one of the men holding up the balloon and fumbled toward the edge.
“All our kids,” said another. The wail of a siren slithered through the crowded street.
“Think it’s down enough,” said Neil. “We can let go and stand on top now. At least we’ll be able to see that way.” He released the reel and clutched the plastic above him instead, making his way toward the edge of Brinybrickle’s pant leg. The others followed in a train. He pushed aside the heavy material and began rolling it back, trying to push against it, sending little pockets of helium puffing away toward holes. There were other small lumps on the edges of the balloon where other handlers were still holding on. The elf’s leering head, still bouncing and bulbous, blocked Neil’s view of the spot where Mike had last been standing. A large section of the balloon’s chest was being cut away by officers, near a writhing, shrieking mass that wriggled beneath it. Much of the crowd had been moved back and Neil found himself in a mostly clear space. It changed quickly, officers sprinting toward them. Neil was horrified to see a few with drawn weapons. He held up his hands instinctively. The people who had followed him out did the same.
“Get down!” one of the officers bellowed and Neil dropped on top of Brinybrickle’s foot. A pillow of helium sank beneath him. A flurry of footsteps tramped through the plastic around him and then hands patting his legs, his chest, then retreating.
“Where do you guys think we got a weapon?” muttered a man next to Neil.
“Nobody even needed one to do this,” said Neil.
“Stay down!” yelled an officer above them. Neil pressed the bulge of helium that sat in front of his face, pushing it away so he could see. A large flap had been cut in the chest and was being yanked away. The people beneath were bloody and still struggling. One was lying still a little apart from the others. Neil wondered if it were the person who’d been shot or someone else. And if they were dead. He was ashamed to realize how relieved he was to see that it wasn’t Mike. He watched the police officers try to wrangle the others apart. A few peeled off and were taken somewhere near the head of the balloon, but a tight knot of fighters remained, a tangle of limbs and torn clothing. It took several seconds for Neil to pick out the sound of them from the general chaos. At last, he realized they were growling. Low, rippling grunts without any kind of meaning. The officers shouted more warnings over the noise and then one of the figures jerked and stiffened before falling. Then another. Two more as the officers fired tasers into their backs. Something wriggled under the heavy vinyl a few feet to Neil’s left.
“Hey!” cried the man next to him, “There’s somebody under there.” The man rose to his knees.
“Stay down!” barked the officer who was still hovering over them, nervously pointing a gun at the remaining combatants as the other security continued to subdue them.
“There’s someone under the balloon,” protested the man. “Look! That vinyl is hundreds of pounds without the helium. They’ll suffocate under there.”
Neil looked over his shoulder at the policeman and watched him glance at the writhing lump. “We just have to roll back the vinyl,” offered Neil. “Just a foot or two so they can see where to crawl out. It’s heavy. If it’s a kid who ran in or something—”
The policeman nodded once. It was all the permission Neil needed. He and the man beside him crouched just below the policeman’s raised arm and tugged at the vinyl. The helium pockets made it easier for a few seconds, but they soon slithered away, escaping to other sections of the balloon as they rolled the thick material.
“This way, buddy, come toward us,” called the man. Neil struggled to lift the bulky edge a foot or two so that some light and air would reach the lump which had slowed markedly in the seconds it took them to start trying to reach it. The lump seemed to revive at the sudden rush of air that poofed beneath the fabric and it snaked its way toward them, grunting with the effort. Or— Neil had thought it was a grunt. Years later he’d wonder if it had been a growl instead. He should have recognized his own glove as it emerged from beneath the balloon and reached toward them. But the policeman was shouting again and Neil could hear Mike’s voice groaning somewhere nearby. Some panicked instinct shorted out his rational thought, convincing him it was Mike’s hand reaching toward him, Mike’s glove dripping dark blood, smearing it on the bright green vinyl and Neil reached to grasp the extended hand and haul the lump free. The face that emerged was not Mike’s. It was the homeless man’s from that morning. Gasping and scrabbling at him.
“It’s okay, man, you’re okay. Gonna get you cle—” Neil broke off trying to soothe him as the man lunged up from the street and toppled him to the pavement with a cry. The first bite was on Neil’s sleeve. Hard and bruising but the wool of his coat was too thick for the man’s crumbling teeth and Neil managed to push him off for an instant. The man who had been helping him raise the balloon’s edge cried out in shock and the policeman glanced down. The homeless man clamped down on Neil’s bare hand and his teeth tore into the calloused skin of his palm. Neil shouted at the crushing pain and smacked at the man’s head, just trying to get him to release. The policeman yelled a warning. The other balloon handler cried for the policeman to wait, not to shoot.
Almost irrationally, Neil had thought of Randi as a baby. The way she’d bite Joni while she nursed when her teeth started coming in. How Joni would yelp and instinctively tense. She never slapped. Of course she didn’t. Neil didn’t know how she remembered not to. The need to lash back was almost instinctual. The thought snapped away as the homeless man ground his teeth against the muscle tissue in Neil’s hand and he kicked the man as hard as he could. It worked for an instant, the man grunted and let go. Neil rolled away as the homeless man sat up with a horrendous howl of rage. The policeman yelled for him to stop but the homeless man lunged again and then— it wasn’t the sound. That was almost an afterthought, the crack of the gun, the tingling smell of gunpowder hanging there for a second after. The continued shouts of the police— those were all secondary. It was the feel of the warm, humid spray of blood that struck Neil first. And the panic that it was his own as he instinctively crouched. The homeless man collapsed beside him. It took a few more seconds to really understand that the blood on his face and jacket wasn’t Neil’s. That though he was registering intense pain, it was from the bites in his hand and arm, not from some gaping wound in his chest or his head or— The world returned in pieces. The sounds of the chaos finally filtering through and then someone gripping him by the collar, hauling him up. The policeman yelling into his face.
“Are you injured?”
Neil shook his head but held up his bleeding arm. The wail of more sirens bounced off the storefronts and people around them still scrambled to make way. Santa’s float careened around the end of the block behind them and a line of ambulances and more police cars appeared in its wake.
“Randi,” he muttered to the cop. “My daughter. My wife.”
The cop nodded as if anything Neil was saying made some sort of sense. “We’ll sort it out—”
“No. The man— the— him,” he waved his hand at the body of the homeless man, suddenly distressed that he didn’t know the man’s name. Large drops of blood slithered down his wrist and the cop grabbed his arm, pressed it against Neil’s chest.
“Hold that tight, until the medics get here.”
It burned, but he did as he was directed. “That man, I saw him earlier, with my daughter.”
“We’ll sort it out,” said the cop. “Hold that. There’s other people who need help.”
“But my daughter—” Neil stopped. The cop had already dashed away. Something trickled on his cheek. Neil swiped at it with his shoulder, expecting blood. It took him several seconds to realize it was tears instead. Around him, the combatants were mostly subdued, but the area was still chaotic, panicked people still shoving each other to flee down the street and balloon handlers crouching in the mounds of crumpled vinyl. A window across the street was broken, the curtains in the apartment behind it flapping in little flashes of color that kept drawing Neil’s attention for an instant before his mind deciphered what it was. He heard his name distantly and looked around. Mike stumbled toward him, tripping over the folds of Brinybrickle, clutching his own shoulder.
“You okay?” he shouted. Neil just shook his head. Mike reached him and Neil could see he was shaky and wan. His jacket sleeve was soaked. “Gotta go find Tommy. He’ll get trampled.”
“Okay. I’m coming with you. I need to find Randi too. Joan’s not great at crowds. Harry’s a space shot. He won’t get them out of there in time.”
Mike glanced down and saw the homeless man’s body lying beside them. He leaned heavily against him, closing his eyes. “Just need a second,” he muttered. Neil let go of his injured hand so he could hold his friend upright. “Maybe you should stay here until the paramedics get here. I’ll find Tommy and Randi.”
Mike shook his head. “No, I can do it.” His eyes were still closed. It was a moot point anyway. The ambulances were already pulling to a halt at the edge of the vinyl, their doors flinging open and small knots of people in brightly lettered shirts leaped out and sprinted toward the balloon. A woman knelt near the homeless man and checked his pulse. Another darted past her and pulled Mike and Neil apart. Neil found himself in the hands of a third, even as Mike was protesting.
“Need to go find my kid. I can drive myself to the hospital after—”
“Take it easy, fella,” said one of the EMTs, “Security’s already on it.”
“It’ll be hours before they can find someone in that crowd,” said Neil. “I’ve got a seven-year-old girl out—”
“She with someone?”
“Sure— my ex, but—”
“She’s going to be fine. It was a localized fight. We can hear it over the radio, rest of the parade route is clear.”
The woman who had taken charge of him, pulled his wounded hand gently from his chest to look at it. She replaced it and bent to open a large bag. “Security’s not going to let you go wandering into the crowd anyway. Not after that. I expect you’ll have to at least make a statement. You’ll have to come with us to the hospital until they say you can go.”
“We were attacked— had nothing to do with all this!” cried Mike.
“Still going to want a statement. And it’s going to be a while until more than a handful of police get back here to take it. You need stitches. If you waited until you find your kid, make a statement, get released and then come to the hospital, might need a transfusion, too.” The man treating him helped him over the large lumps of vinyl back toward the ambulance.
“Can we call them, at least?” Neil asked the woman tightly wrapping his hand in gauze.
“Far as we know, you aren’t under arrest,” she said. “My only concern is stopping you bleeding until a doctor can look at you. And then stabilizing the next person and the next until there aren’t any more. Everything else is a very distant second.”
He took that as tacit permission and fished his phone out of his pocket.
“This a bite?” asked the EMT.
“Yeah. From the man your friend wheeled away. Poor guy,” he caught an unexpected sob before it could erupt from him. “There was something wrong with him. Cop shouldn’t have killed him— I didn’t— I never expected him to—”
The woman looked up from his arm. “I’m sure the police did what they thought was necessary—”
“Did they?” he asked. “I’m not— sure.”
“Either way,” she answered, pulling the bandage tighter, “the policeman’s actions were his decision, not yours. You focus on keeping this tight, alright? That’s your job right now. There’ll be people to talk with who know a lot more about all this than me at the hospital. You just keep this bandage tight as you can. You have any other bites?”
“One, farther up my arm. Don’t think he broke the skin though.”
She nodded, pushed up the sleeve of his thick coat and frowned at the swollen crescent on his skin. “It’ll leave a nasty bruise and they’ll have to check you for infection but shouldn’t need any more treatment than the hand. Going to take you to the ambulance now. Kara, my partner, she’ll ask you some questions just so the hospital knows what to do. I’ve got to get to the next patient.”
“I can walk to the ambulance,” he said.
She glanced skeptically at him, but someone groaned near Brinybrickle’s shoulder and she just nodded before scooping up her bag and dashing away. He tried to dial Joan with one hand, frustrated that his fingers were still shaking.
It seemed a year before she answered. “Are you alright?” he asked before she’d even greeted him.
“What’s happened? We’re being told to clear the street. There are police everywhere.”
“It’s— I’m not sure. Should have been just a fist fight but it— I don’t know Joan, I don’t know what happened,” He broke down at the sound of her voice, covering the receiver so she wouldn’t hear the way his breath shook.
“What do you mean? Did you see it? Were you in it? Neil? Neil?”
“Are you somewhere safe?” he asked when he was certain his voice was steady.
“Yeah, sure, we’re almost back to the car. We can come to the park if they’re sending the balloons back there.”
“No, no, I need to— I’m headed to the hospital. I know you need to go— I’ll call you as soon as they release me and come to get Ra—”
“Oh God, are you hurt?”
“Just some stitches, no big deal.”
“It’s— a long story. Not sure I really understand it myself. I’ll tell you the whole thing after you come back from Bermuda. Listen, I need you to see if you can find Tommy. Mike said he was down by the arcade, so he should be pretty well clear of the parade route. I’m sure Mike’s called him but—”
“There’s no getting back to the route. We won’t be able to even get near the arcade. I’ll try his mom, but there are hundreds of people down here. Finding one kid— was he alone?”
“With his friends. I hope they stuck together. When we get to the hospital, I’ll tell Mike to try calling him. If you get a hold of them first— tell them where Mike is, okay? He’s going to be alright, probably going to need some stitches too.”
“Okay,” Joan sighed. The silence hung between them for a few extra seconds.
“Look, I know I’m not supposed to say it anymore—” started Neil.
“Don’t,” she warned him.
“And I don’t mean it in a romantic way, alright? I know— I know that part of our life is over.”
“I just— saw someone die. Maybe more than one. I wanted to tell you that I love you, you and Randi, that I’m— grateful you asked me if I was hurt. After everything. That you still care. Just in case.”
“Jesus, Neil, what happened? I’ll come to the hospital—”
“No, don’t, it’ll be a madhouse. There are a lot of injuries and police, I don’t know if they’ll let you in anyhow. I— gotta go now. Just wanted to make sure you’re safe. I’ll call you when I’m released.” He ended the call and shoved the phone into his pocket so he could swipe at his eyes. Why am I crying like this? Everything’s okay. Joan and Randi are okay. Mike will be okay. I’m okay. Pull it together.
They put him on a bus along with half a dozen others with various injuries and three policemen. The ambulances were for the more seriously wounded. Neil was relieved to see Mike already in the back, his arm tightly slung to his chest. He still looked wiped out, sweaty. Neil wondered how much blood he’d lost. He slid into the seat beside Mike and pulled his phone out again.
“Got Joan,” he said, handing Mike the phone. “Asked her to try Tommy. Thought you might want to.”
“Thanks,” said Mike, giving him a weak half-grin. “Gave mine to Tommy. You know, in case. Not exactly the ‘in case’ I had in mind. Gotta get the kid his own.”
The ride should have been short, but the parade traffic was heavy even with police trying to clear the way. Neil watched the balloons being deflated in the park as they waited for a massive group of pedestrians to cross. Squashed features in oversaturated color made the balloons seem more sinister than they had when he and Randi watched them being inflated the night before. Just balloons, he told himself. She didn’t see it. You don’t have to worry that it’s spoiled for her. She’ll be able to watch parades again. He shut his eyes, trying not to remember the man’s hand wearing his glove stretching out from beneath the thick vinyl.
Mike nudged his leg lightly. Handed him a wrinkled bunch of napkins from his pocket. “You’re covered. Your face. You get hit in the head?”
“Wasn’t me,” he mumbled, taking the napkins. He scrubbed at his face but the napkin couldn’t do much, the blood was long dried. It made his skin itch remembering it was there. “What the hell was that, Mike?”
“I have no idea. The guy— in the beginning, the guy from the park, he just seemed out of it. Wouldn’t even look at me while I stood right in front of him. Like he was— completely zoned out. I just— I just wanted him to go back to the bar or the park or— just not around all those kids. I didn’t know that fucking psycho Evan was going to… how was I supposed to know? Seemed uptight but not in a crazy way. Just an annoying office manager type of way. But when he snapped— you remember that kid from two summers ago? The dishwasher— what was his name? Josh, Jim— whatever. The one who came in high as hell on meth and started whaling on that waitress because she dropped that gravy bowl? When we pulled him off her, the rage in his face— if he’d been bigger, he would have throttled one of us instead. It didn’t matter who he killed, but he was going to kill somebody that day if we hadn’t stopped him. I had the same thought with Evan today.” Mike shook his head, looked out the bus window. “Guess I was right, this time. I think he killed more than one person today. Think he might have succeeded. Just don’t get why.”