We have a parade that runs through the heart of my neighborhood every summer. For some, it’s a source of joy. For others, not so much. I got caught in it a few years ago and made the comment “Hell is a parade,” and a friend who is much smarter than me said I should write that story.
So I did. It is short. It is brutal. It is the meanest thing I’ve ever written.
And since that parade descends upon my neighborhood again this evening, it seemed only fitting to share it with the world.
Warning for language and violence. So kiddies, have your parents read it first.
Hell is a Parade
She knew it was a corrupt system when she put on the rose pink tulle.
No one went to that extreme to present the veneer of physical beauty and icy civility unless they were covering up something truly ugly. But Lisa Patterson had done too much to turn back now.
A row of convertibles waited on the cracked asphalt of Greenwood Avenue. Each was polished until it sparkled, with Junior Miss Greenwood signs hung from the doors. Eight eager young women armed with dainty, well-practiced waves and razor smiles took their positions on top of the back seat beneath the gray July sky. The fix was in. All that was left was the show.
Lisa clenched her left hand into a fist against the top of the corvette’s leather seat. The white satin glove stretched, snagged ever-so-slightly on fingertip callouses. She was not the most popular, nor the most talented in any classical sense. With her reluctance to wear makeup, she was certainly not the prettiest though her confidence gave her plain features an alluring intensity. April once told Lisa it was something in her eyes, a dangerous spark that dared people to look away.
Lisa’s parade escort, some senior on the track team, Mark or Mike or something, put his hand on her knee. It was the second time he’d tried the same stunt. The first had been met with a brusque removal of the offending appendage. This time, she turned dangerous eyes in his direction and removed his hand more forcefully. “That’s two,” she hissed. “One more time and I cut both your hamstrings. Got that, speedy?”
Mark—that was it—his slight northwest tan paled considerably, wondering if she’d really do it. His smile fell in stages as Lisa’s eyes burned into him. He crossed his hands in his lap and looked straight ahead.
From out of sight at the front, a whistle pierced the still air, and the long, slumbering beast stirred in a languid wave from front to back. The crowd that had been building on sidewalks for the past few hours stirred, tiny flags at the ready. Marching bands snapped to attention. Engines revved. Floats creaked with anticipation. Clowns did whatever the fuck clowns did when they weren’t being creepy assholes. The parade was awake.
Hell is a parade.
The way Lisa saw it, she had three real competitors. Tiffany, with the perfect teeth, aggressive cleavage, and stimulating dance routine was dumb as a sack of hammers, but it was a classic combination, and the judges did love their classics. Amber had flawless, creamy skin, a gorgeous cascade of chestnut hair, and an impressive voice, and was, as anyone who knew Amber would testify, meaner than a sack of wet weasels which made her a ruthless competitor. And Becky was generically pretty, like Sears catalog pretty, but she was also a total fucking psycho who would do anything to win, including sucking off two of the three grandfatherly judges.
The other four, well, fuck the other four, Lisa figured. They had waltzed their way into the top eight and were content with that. None of them had the iron to go the distance.
The way she read the roster, Becky was the most dangerous. Not only had her unofficial talent entry swayed 2/3 of the judging committee, she was also the most likely to go rogue once shit started doing down. Lisa didn’t want to risk that.
A cry went up in the crowd, a collective gasp that turned to screams as a guy in a rubber bunny mask charged the second car in the procession of presumptive princesses and smashed in Becky’s face with a bat. He was off and sprinting through the crowd, mask and identifying jacket cast off like a cicada’s husk by the time he hit the parking lot behind the Chinese restaurant. Becky’s powder-blue T-bird convertible pulled to the side to allow the other cars to pass. As she rolled past, Lisa watched the blood-splattered escort try to overcome his shock and horror to hold the ruins of Becky’s face together.
It was the best $100 Lisa ever spent.
The parade was an abomination, an infernal hydra, and the loss of one car did not slow it down. The column contracted to swallow the gap the departing car had left. The parade’s progress was inevitable as the tides, and within minutes, Becky’s ruination fell behind. Amber was riding one car up from Lisa in a midnight black mustang. She turned around on her perch to narrow her eyes accusingly. Just for a second. Not long enough to ruin her smile. Not long enough to show fear.
Lisa blew her a kiss.
All those times she had been made to feel inferior. All those times she had been mocked for being common. For being different, more interested in putting together an engine block than an outfit for the Homecoming dance. All those times April had been there with the most generous heart, ready to lift Lisa back up, get her back on her feet. If only the jackals had let it be, she wouldn’t have to be here ruining their dog and pony show. She wouldn’t have to teach them a lesson by taking something which meant nothing to her but everything to them.
Lisa could take the abuse. She’d been taking it all her life.
But when the casual cruelty turned on April, her defenses were not as strong. Her skin not as thick. And Lisa was not as good at giving comfort. She could only give pain.
Game on, bitch.
There was no way Lisa could hear the timer under the mustang’s hood, but she imagined its metallic click as the engine of the muscular black car erupted into flame. Fresh screams now as the car disgorged its passengers before anyone was too badly burned. Amber’s dress was not so lucky. The seafoam green tulle ignited like flash paper. This wasn’t her first pageant or parade, and she stopped, dropped, and rolled like a seasoned pro. But it wasn’t quick enough to save the dress.
Amber found her feet again, and hurled herself against Lisa’s car like a barbed-wire hurricane. “You’re a monster,” she screamed, balled up fists flailing with fear and rage but lacking precision. “She was too good for you!”
A murderous impulse took control of Lisa. Her hand shot out and grabbed a fist-full of smoky, chestnut hair. “I was going to let you keep this. Not anymore,” Lisa growled, yanking savagely until she felt a section of hair tear free from the scalp.
As Amber sank to her knees behind the car, Lisa was shaken by how much the felled beauty queen’s anguish sounded like April’s. Her gloved hands trembled as she tucked the chestnut trophy into the satin belt around her waist.
“I thought Tiffany was lying,” her escort said, “But you’re fucking insane.”
Lisa turned towards him, surprised to see a lock-blade knife in Mark’s right hand. “Did Tiffany put you up to this?” she asked, indicating the knife with a perfect smile, the polite princess wave to the crowd with her left hand.
“Maybe,” he said. “Are you going to do something to her, too?”
“Maybe,” Lisa gauged him. How far was he willing to go for someone else? “What’s it matter to you?”
“She’s my sister.”
Well, that answers that, I guess.
“I don’t suppose you’ll lose the knife if I let you get to second base?”
“No!” he somehow managed to look appalled that she would ask. “What are you doing to do to Tiffany?”
“Already did it,” Lisa said, tracking the knife in her peripheral vision. “She took three breath mints laced with LSD. She’s tripping balls by now.”
Mark faltered, attention turned for just a second to where his sister was riding several cars back. It was the only chance Lisa was going to get, and she drove an elbow into his throat. He choked for air, toppled off the back of the convertible. The knife clattered down the street behind them.
They drew within sight of the judge’s platform. The path to victory was clear despite the tears of joy in her eyes. “I did it, April. I won it for you. Now everyone will finally see what you always saw in me.”
A white-hot pain tore through her left side, and she reached down instinctively to feel her rose pink gown already soaked through with blood. Her gloves came away sticky and red.
Mother fucking Becky, Lisa thought as she looked into the red ruin of a face on the girl pacing the car beside her. Never give the truly crazy ones a chance to stand back up. I mean, if it was true for me, why wouldn’t it be true for Becky?
She knew immediately what had happened as the knife plunged into her side again, and she tasted hot pennies in her mouth. Mark’s knife. It fell behind them and Becky, who had been looking for a chance, jumped at it. She’d never win. Not with her broken face. But she’d goddamned make sure Lisa didn’t win either.
The sounds of shitty marching band mangling “Feeling Good” echoed down the street, seemed to be coming from miles away. The twisted, shouting faces of the buffoonish crowd packed shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks dissolved into shadow and sparkles.
“Fucking parades,” she mumbled around a mouthful of blood. Lisa slid down into the back seat, tried to hold in the blood that pumped in hot waves through her satin-gloved fingers.
And the parade marched on.