THE BOY IN RED
by Sean J.H. Rubin
The concert took place outside the kindergarten. Blue spruce strove to survive the prolonged dry days of Armenian summer, but the war had not helped. Dawn’s light shone gold on shattered limbs amid the blue needles. Mulberries clotted the sidewalk.
The last summer of the twentieth century.
Hyke alone wore a white claw-hammer coat. After countless forced rehearsals he alone was about to perform Schubert’s Ave Maria. He isolated himself from the other performers and stood in the middle of the stage. Josephine sat in the centre of the second row and had the proudest face a single mother could ever dream of having.
Josy knew Hyke had the worst breathing methods for a singer. One wrong move and her son might be unable to hold the note. Josy was told singing lessons were better than therapy. Besides, she wouldn’t trust a psychiatrist who would have listened to her son’s complaints and turned Hyke against her.
He feels lonely, so what? As long as he’s deeply involved in daily activities he won’t have the time to think about loneliness or anything at all.
The first sound that came out of Hyke was a soft aaa. He started correctly, with the clear voice of a would-be professional, a celebrity who would awaken jealousy wherever he performed.
Her son seemed to notice someone peculiar in the audience. Josy grimaced. She knew her son had seen Arso.
An older lady kept yawning while an older man, presumably her husband, frowned at her so frequently that eventually he started yawning himself. Josy suddenly cleared her throat as if forbidding the couple to get bored.
While singing Hyke tried to find his other friends among the audience, as the kids on the stage could scarcely hold themselves together. His eyes shifted from left to right, filled with panic. There was no one familiar to him except his mum and the boy in red. He didn’t count Sonah, his teacher, as a human considering he had never seen her eating or going to the toilet. But then he was only six years old.
He gave up counting his absent friends and focused on singing:
Pray for us sinners now
And at the hour of our death.
It had happened in the kindergarten’s main hall. Children slept on mats, otherwise stored in a large cupboard in the corridor. On this particular day, Hyke’s mat had been dragged inside the dark cupboard while he slept. He woke in darkness, hitting his head on the wall. Innocent laughter crept in from outside, their voices so pure and oblivious to their own cruelty. Hyke soon started laughing with the others as crying would be too easy for him. He wouldn’t give them what they wanted.
As Hyke was still trapped inside, his voice, louder than usual, couldn’t spread – it was trapped just like him. Hyke heard a loud knock on the door. A nice looking girl had unlocked the door with a sigh of impatience before a teacher could walk in the hall. The joke stuck to Hyke’s mind. I have no proof, he realized, Who will believe me?
The sharp knocks, transmitting from Sonah’s high heeled shoes, stopped when she climbed the steps of the stage and stood beside Hyke, a female giant compared to him. She spoke to the parents with an unusually deep voice.
“The next song will be a reminder of the latest insurrection, the earthquake and the war. As you all know, we live on in thanks to those who do not. After one minute of silence your children will express their sympathies, no matter their maturity or awareness. Today some of the children will bid farewell to me.” Sonah looked at Hyke with a bitter smile. “But know this! Own your childhood as it was saved by those who lost their own. Cherish every second of your lives and don’t try to mature too quickly. When you grow older don’t put behind these moments.” Sonah nodded with her head. “It is best to be a mixture of a child and an adult. Choose both and you will live happily by coexisting… with sadness.”
The women wept salty tears except for Josy, who gave Hyke an admonishing look to leave the stage immediately. For some reason she didn’t like the idea of him singing with the others. Hyke received one last approval from Sonah and heard one last whispering from one of the performers while climbing down the stairs of the stage.
“That’s right, go to your mammy.”
With clear intention in mind, Hyke walked towards the angel figure fountain. If the melody had ended and the pianist played the last cord, he wouldn’t notice.
“Don’t do it. You’ll get wet.”
Hyke looked to the left. Beside him stood the boy in red.
“But I wanted to hold her hand since the day I saw it.” Hyke whispered.
“You aren’t tall enough,” said the boy in red, “Don’t give the others another excuse to laugh at you! Go change your clothes! Your mum is waiting.”
“Are you going to come with me while I change?”
“You want to go alone?”
“I guess not.”
Hyke stepped cautiously into the locker room. He pattered like a turtle across the rare white oak parquet floor which was often wet and slippery. He’d fallen in the past, a jagged scar on his chin his reminder.
“Is something bothering you?” asked the boy in red after Hyke finished dressing.
Maybe I should tell him what they did to me. Back then, where was he when they locked me up? Why didn’t he stop them? No, I shouldn’t ask him anything. It might be my last question. Finding talkers is easier for others, not for me.
“Hyke! Are you done?” Josy entered the room.
“Are you still talking to that boy?”
“Can he come along?”
“Don’t argue with me!”
Josy and Hyke left the boy in the room alone who had the most apologetic smile on his face. They walked out through the iron gates and onto the street.
His last morning in kindergarten.
“Let’s go to the park, shall we?” Josy said with light-hearted voice.
Hyke nodded and placed his small hand in hers. He felt nervous around her.
They reached the avenue and passed many familiar shops. Hyke remembered how he stole two caoutchouc balls once. One white, one black. He lost the white ball to the boy in red in the park they were about to reach and the black one was still in his pocket. Two swans were cleaning their wings when Hyke and Josy came close to the circular pond. One of the birds lacked quite a lot of feathers.
I wish I could save the swan…
Mother and son sat on a bench and surveyed the surrounding green area – the hawthorn tree with its blossoming white and red flowers. An old woman, her left foot longer than the right, hid under the tree’s shadow after failing to open the parasol – her protector against sun. A teenage boy with a top hat stopped reading a book and scratched his eyes.
I wish I could fix her leg. I wish I could fix his eyes. I wish I was needed…
Everything was in constant movement. No natural force could stop it. But now there were signs that suggested otherwise. The first clue that time had stopped was when Hyke noticed his mum’s stone-like stillness, her eyes staring at nothingness, her hand, as cold and white as marble. The elderly woman was holding her half opened umbrella, the reader boy held the page of his book that was nearly turned overleaf, but not quite.
“Come close, child.”
“Who is this?”
“You can see me. I’m in front of you.”
“What is wrong with my mum!?”
“Nothing. She’ll awake soon once I speak with you.”
Hyke came close to the lake. No swimmer was inside the pool. Not on the surface anyway. The pool water looked nothing like ice. It moved and with it moved the only thing that still resembled life beside Hyke; the swan itself.
“The measures I went through to make this happen,” said the swan. “Be grateful, little one!”
“You shouldn’t be talking!”
“And you shouldn’t have let your guard down!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I see. You like being a victim. Blaming others is easier than changing your attitude.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You could have prevented what happened at kindergarten.”
“Who told you?”
“Someone who knows. You can not fix any legs nor any eyes. But you can change your attitude.”
“I won’t! It wasn’t my fault.”
“A child indeed. Shall I propose another option?”
“Aramazdia. A world where you could find a belonging.”
“I can find it here. I have… my mum, my friend…”
“Your friend is from Aramazdia.”
“And he has no trouble accompanying me!”
“What if he leaves you? Will you change your attitude then? Will you want to leave?”
“What do you know about change, swan? When your maiden dies you will die along with her.”
The swan looked to the feathers his partner kept losing.
“You’re smarter beyond your age. I do know a great deal about change. This park was a forest once and a goddess lived here.”
The swan ignored him and drank some water.
“Don’t worry about me, child. The Black Swan won’t let me die.”
“Who is the Black Swan?”
“A noble bird worshiped by the Datranian Legionnaires. But even their faith can not stop the time for much longer. My proposal is yet available. What say you?”
“I will not leave my mum alone! NEVER!”
“Your stubbornness is admirable. Now go and sit back again. You don’t want your mum to look upset when she awakes.”
Hyke couldn’t agree more. He returned to his spot and the swan shacked its wings three times as if casting an incantation. When the world awakened the swan simply honked and joined its partner.
“Mum?” Hyke called to make sure she was fine.
“Sorry, dear. I was spacing out.”
She didn’t notice anything,Hyke thought with a mixture of amazement and realization that he couldn’t tell anyone about his recent encounter.
Hyke couldn’t stay calm longer than five minutes. Josy knew that his patience was limited.
“Let’s go!” Hyke demanded wrinkling his nose.
“Right. Want a chocolate ice-cream?
Hyke’s eyes widened “Yay! Yummy!”
Josy laughed. “We’re not eating yet. Hold your appetite!”
The cafe was called Tishinah meaning silence in Russian. The sign was shaped in cute handwriting fonts of shining gold. The only free table had a single chair. A shy waitress brought the second one. Josy took the menu and chose one glass of chocolate ice cream and one Armenian coffee. Hyke was distracted by the tall columns made of grey marble. Four columns supported the building, while two had a lightning shaped crack. Hyke shook his right hand.
“Yes, dear? Oh, she brought your ice-cream. Enjoy!”
Hyke raised his eyebrows. “No mum! There! Look!”
Josy looked to the spot where Hyke was pointing with his tiny finger.
Four columns and two of them are damaged.Noticed Josy. How familiar…
“What?” said Josy pretentiously.
“Don’t you see it?”
Josy shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t see any cracks. Now, stop talking and eat your ice-cream before it melts.”
Hyke narrowed his lips.
Josy pointed at the ice-cream.
“Hyke! And don’t play with your food. I don’t want any stains on my shirt, like the last time”.
Josy had a point. She always wore light colored dresses, like yellow for today. Hyke took the cup from the table and placed it on his knees. Josy knew it was better this way instead of putting Hyke on her knees, just because he was too short for the table. Only now Hyke noticed the spoon.
“Yes, dear?” Josy was busy rotating her cup.
“Tell her to bring me a metal spoon.”
“Oh, for the love of…” Josy remembered that Hyke liked to spoon the ice cream into his mouth upside down so it landed directly on his tongue.
“Can’t you do with the plastic one?”
“Yeah, but the metal is cold…”
“Oh, God, deliver me…” Josy shook her head.
“What?” Hyke asked.
“Nothing.” Josy ignored him and called the waitress. “Excuse me, do you have a moment?”
The waitress came running to them shaking the flour powder from her black apron at the same time.
“How can I help?”
“Please, bring him a metal spoon?” asked Josy with a forced smile.
The waitress barely looked at Hyke without rotating her head. “Yeah, sure.”
Hyke nodded with joy and emptied his cup soon after. He noticed how Josy put her coffee cup upside down on the saucer.
“You always do that.”
“Yes, dear,” confirmed Josy.
Several minutes later she turned the cup, which struggled at first as if it was clinging to the plate with glue.
Hyke fisted the table. “What is inside? What do you see?”
Josy was focused on the cup. “Nothing. Just a key…”
Key means an answer… thought Josy, No! He’s too young to know… I can’t tell him!
Josy called the waitress.
“Please, our receipt.”
They were walking towards a dark tunnel when Hyke looked to his left and saw an arc bridge surrounded with moss, cedar and poplar trees. Howling street pups trotted after their mother, who guided them. The other half of the bridge was destroyed. A dead end.
Josy smiled. “I used that path to attend the music school when I was fourteen.”
Hyke looked at her. “And what of this lake beside the bridge?”
“Oh, there used to be a boat. I rode on it with my classmates.”
“I don’t see any boat.”
Josy didn’t answer. There was nothing left but a swamp. The beggars who now lived nearby pissed on it.
They entered the tunnel. It smelled of filth and ash. Hyke held Josy’s hand with all his strength. They could hear the cars echoing from the roof. The ceiling lights blinked and made the most intense electrical noises, as if scratching someone’s skin.
A man with bushy facial hair ran in Josy’s direction. At that moment Hyke was looking at the message written on the wall – a poor attempt at graffiti. ‘‘I will always love you’’. When Hyke turned his head in the opposite direction he saw the running man and flinched. Josy drowned in speculations caused by the stranger and his appearance. She said to herself.
If I play “never have I” again, I will say that never have I met a man so peculiar, to say the least and then I’ll drink the whole cup, preferably a red wine.
Time worked against Josy’s interests, as the stranger was running even faster by each second, his beard shaking. She chose to shield her son and forgot to hide her purse out of the stranger’s reach. Grabbing the purple purse from Josy’s right hand, the thief made Josy scream in terror while her forehead veins glowed in the blinking light.
“NO! I WON’T MAKE IT EASY FOR YOU!”
The thief tried to bite her hand when Hyke charged against him with his head forward like a cannonball and crushed his belly. It only made the thief angrier.
“NO!” Josy screamed after the thief kneed Hyke’s left cheek with a patellar jolt. She let go of her purple purse as if she divided her soul in two. The man sprinted out of the tunnel and disappeared with his spoils.
Josy stroked Hyke’s cheek and hugged him. “It’s alright, dear. Calm down. Calm down, it’s not a big deal… Let’s go home.”
She never made it clear what exactly wasn’t a big deal. Her purse or her son’s cheek?
Mother and son stepped forward listening to the faraway foot-sounds of the thief, sprinting onwards with his prize. The noise grew in distance, the fear remained.
If only…,Josy thought,If only you were here too, this wouldn’t have happened.
Another hermitage of garages was built here in the circular yard where they lived. It took some time until they reached the eighth porch of the apartment building. At least nature gave some clue of a garden. Even if most of the platanus trees were cut down. Even if the whole yard was a pile of banana skin, empty milk bottles or chicken bones to which street cats were so partial.
Josy opened the apartment door. She entered and turned on the light. Hyke followed her inside examining the long narrow corridor. The walls still unpainted, the living room was a mountain of bambusa parkets. Four chairs and a three-foot table were located in the corner of the room. A boy the same age as Hyke sat by it and played with the candle fire. He wore a red velvet jeans, a red velvet shirt and a black velvet necktie emblazoned with tiny red gemstones. He had black straight hair which Hyke was always jealous of.
Boys hugged each other. “Hey, man! What’s up with your cheek?
You came to tell me you’re leaving the country, are you, Arso? Going back to Aramazdia, wherever that is? Hyke thought to himself.
Arso smiled after a short pause.
“Dad bought the apartment on the second floor. We’re neighbors again.”
“Arso, you’re kidding, right?” Hyke asked with a tone of uncertainty.
“Nope, moving to this building after a week.”
“I told Dad your address. We were gonna sell our house anyway. The apartment here is great. Daddy checked. I have a larger room now. I’ll show it later.”
Hyke laughed in joy. Josy managed a smile while making a thyme tea. They needed it to keep the fire inside them. She filled the water in a white kettle illustrated with the Hazaraan Bell-Bull. It meant Thousand Feathers in Armenian – a mythic bird who recreates nature in the critical times of world extinction. Josy filled the cups and the aroma spread through the rooms. She went back to the living room.
Hyke took the cup. “Thanks. Arso?
“Thank you, Mrs Josephine.”
After Hyke finished his drink Arso jumped from his chair so unexpectedly as if to save his ass from a needle.
“I’ll meet you tomorrow. Have you chosen your school?”
“Not yet. I have a whole summer to decide.” Hyke stated the obvious.
“Right. Wait for a sec. I want to speak with mum…”
Josy sighed. She glanced at the table. Arso’s tea was getting cold, because there was no Arso.
Shall I tell him the truth about Arso? Josy asked to herself. Will it harm him or help him if I deprive him from his fantasies? He managed to stay the same after all I’ve done to keep him busy! If the ghost makes him smile rather than grieve then why not? After all, Arso would’ve been alive had he survived the war. He would’ve been by his brother’s side.
“How come Arso was inside our house when it was locked?”
Josy hugged him.
Maybe I was too hard on him? On myself too. I was so desperate, so selfish to forget everything. Shall I tell him now?
“What’s going on, mum? Are you crying?”
“I’m not. It’s just… I gave the keys to Arso, you know.”
“You wouldn’t do that. You hate Arso!”
“He’s your brother! How could I hate him?”
“What are you saying?”
“Arso is your brother, dear! It’s the truth!”
“Arso is my… I don’t have a brother!”
“What happened to him? Why haven’t you told me?”
“He died as a soldier along with your father. Just like the cracked columns you showed me!”
“I’m so sorry, dear. I’ve told you enough for now. You’ll know the rest when you grow up.”
“No! You’re lying! This can’t be happening!”
“I wish I was, dear, but this is happening.”
Josy looked to her son, her fingers trembling. She didn’t tell him after all. The images of Hyke’s reaction to the truth, so vivid and realistic, kept repeating in her head like an unrealized memory, like a tree that would only grow if the climate changed.
“Mum, why is Arso calling you mumall of a sudden?” Hyke asked for real this time.
“Please, ask him to never visit you again!”
Hyke delayed his answer.
“Arso is saying he will replace me if you don’t reveal the truth…”
“What do you mean replace you! Tell Arso to leave! Now!”
“He won’t listen! Arso says you live in the past, before I was born… He says you can have him if I make you sad. What is he talking about?”
“I don’t know, but I will never replace you!”
“Are you sure?” asked Hyke determined, but his voice was no different than Arso’s. The boy in red vanished and from that moment he existed in Hyke. Josy widened her eyes. Her next words came out reflexively.
“NO, ARSO! STOP RIGHT NOW!”
“I can’t have my previous form, but my soul will obtain Hyke’s body.”
“GIVE ME BACK MY BOY!”
“Why? You always wish I was alive instead!”
Even though Hyke’s lips were moving it was Arso’s mannerisms and body language twisting his image.
The room lost its colors. Hyke had no relation with his own body. He was gone, as if he stopped existing. His eyes were full of nightmarish boredom – the kind that milks all the joy and leaves the poison. Josy screamed with panic.
“I LOVE HIM! I WOULD NEVER REPLACE HIM!”
“But you don’t love him enough to tell the truth!”
“I CAN’T TELL THE TRUTH UNLESS YOU RELEASE HIM!”
“You’re lying to me and to yourself.”
“I AM DONE LYING!”
Silence fell. For a moment the only things that moved were the trembling shadows of the boy and Josy. Minutes from now, the candle would melt completely. Arso spoke again, but now, his voice was gentler and more tender than before.
“Thank you, mum. This is what I wanted to hear. Bless you!”
Josy noticed how Hyke’s senses had returned while he appeared to be confused.
“Mum, what’s happened? Where is Arso?”
“Arso is no more, dear. Come, I have to tell you the truth.”
Minutes later Josy brought a blue plastic box while blaming herself for being absentminded. She took a piece of cotton from the box, put a small mouthful of medical alcohol on it and gently spread it on Hyke’s cheek. The smell of alcohol spread from his nose into his throat. Hyke looked shocked and composed at the same time. Whatever Josy told him was against Sonah’s wishes, as he matured and instead of asking too many questions he asked only one.
“What was in your purse, mum?”
“The photo of your brother. I don’t have the copy.”
“Maybe that’s for the best.”
Was it?, Josy thought and felt guilt beyond measure. If she was able to relive this moment would she choose to keep Arso instead? She was never sure…