Lily knelt and listened intently. She’d never seen anyone around the building and felt confident it was abandoned, but she’d learned the hard way you can’t be too careful living on the streets.
The police had been hanging around her usual sleeping place under the bridge. She didn’t stick around long enough to find out why. She scoped out this abandoned building weeks ago for just such an emergency. She couldn’t tell exactly what it might have been in the past. Some sort of business, maybe a neighborhood bar or small restaurant. The fact that it wasn’t raining, it was a full moon, that she’d located this place previously, and that she’d seen the cops before they’d seen her was all good fortune. She’d had worse nights. Much worse.
In the quiet and cool of the night she nearly fell asleep immersed in the silence. It had been a long day. She’d been on her feet walking all day, tracking down some job leads, looking for food. She’d miss her secure little hidey-hole under the bridge. It was surprisingly clean, dry, and well-hidden, but right now any place to lay her head would work.
She crept quietly around the building to the back door. The door wore a giant padlock, but the bottom had been kicked out at some point and covered with a sheet of plywood. It looked secure, but when she investigated weeks ago it only took a gentle tug to separate the plywood from the door to allow her to slide inside.
She pulled the plywood away and paused again to listen. Silence. She set her backpack on the ground and slipped through the narrow opening. She crouched, tense, preparing to defend herself. It was pitch black inside and she concentrated with all her might. Silence. She lifted her lighter above her head and spun the roller with her thumb.
This was the scariest part. Even though she’d seen no sign of habitation when she’d investigated earlier, it could be somebody’s shelter now.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she saw the eyes. Lying in the corner, covered with a hodge-podge of blankets and clothes, Lily made out a pair of bright eyes in a lined face topped with a shock of dirty white hair.
The lighter burned her thumb and she let it go out.
“Hi,” Lily whispered. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I need a place to sleep and I thought this building might be empty.”
“It’s not,” the old lady whispered back. Her voice sounded like dried out cardboard.
“I see that now, but do you mind if I crash here? I’m really tired and there’s no place to go.” Lily tilted her head, listening closely for noises indicating movement. The old lady might not be alone. Or, despite appearances, she could still be a threat.
“I’m thirsty,” the old lady replied with a raspy voice.
“Do you want me to get you some water?”
“I don’t have any. I just drank all of mine, but I can get you some.”
“Yes. I’m thirsty.”
“OK. I’ll get you some water. And then I can stay here?”
Lily pushed the plywood away and slipped out into the moonlight. She couldn’t believe how tired she was. She pulled the empty plastic bottle from her backpack and walked down the street and around the corner to the edge of the neighborhood. She would use someone’s hose or faucet to fill the water bottle.
Other than being so desperately tired, Lily loved nights like tonight. She stayed away from the parts of the city that attracted people who wanted to be out at night. She preferred the quiet neighborhoods where everyone was asleep. It felt like the whole world belonged to her. She could exist and be free without worrying.
Three houses into the block she spotted a faucet without a hose attached. She swiftly moved to the faucet and quietly turned it on. As soon as the water started to pour a loud barking shattered the silence. Lily flinched and dropped the water bottle. She thought the dog was right next to her. After a moment she oriented herself and saw the dog standing right beside her, behind the living room window of the house whose faucet she was using. She shut off the faucet, grabbed the bottle, and ran down the block. She hid in the shadows for a few moments to make sure the dog hadn’t prompted any follow-up action.
Once the quiet returned she located another faucet, filled the bottle, and returned to the abandoned building.
This time she pulled her backpack into the building with her.
“I’m back,” she whispered. “I’m going to light a candle so we can see.” Lily dug into her backpack and pulled out the stump of a white candle and lit it. The room was now dim rather than pitch black, but it was enough for her to make her way to the old woman huddled in the corner.
Lily crouched beside her, placed the candle on the ground, and handed the woman the bottle of water. The bottle slipped out of the woman’s hand and fell onto a towel that made part of her bed.
Lily picked up the bottle before it tipped over and spilt the water. She held the bottle to the woman’s mouth and watched her drink greedily. From this distance Lily could see how frail the woman was. She looked skeletal and her thin white hair lay matted on top of her head. Lily pulled the bottle away after the woman had drunk half. She reached out for it feebly.
“Don’t drink too much too fast,” said Lily. “Give it time to settle.”
The woman nodded and licked the moisture from her lips.
“How long have you been here?” asked Lily.
The woman shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. A few days.” She spoke with an accent Lily
could not place.
“Have you been living her for a few days? Or, you haven’t been out of this building for a few days?”
“I’ve been here. I’m tired. I think I’m going to die soon.”
“Do you need me to get help? Do you want me to call 911?”
The woman gripped Lily’s forearm. “No,” she hissed. Lily was certain the grip would leave bruises on her forearm. She was surprised by the strength. Where had that fierce grip come from?
“Okay, okay. You can let go. You’re hurting me. I won’t call anyone.” At least not right now, Lily thought. “How’s your stomach feeling? Do you think you’re ready for more water?”
The woman slowly let go of Lily’s arm. She nodded.
Lilly parceled out the rest of the bottle. “I’ll get us some more in the morning. And something to eat. But, I have got to go to sleep now. I’m exhausted. I can barely keep my eyes open.”
Lilly moved away from the woman and found a cleanish spot on the floor and rested her head on her pack.
“I was born in a country that no longer exists. For decades I never thought of it, but now it is all I can think of. I spend my days lost in memory.”
Lily sighed quietly to herself. All she wanted was to go to sleep. She didn’t want to listen to this woman’s life story, but she wasn’t going to shush her. As far as she knew the woman might be dead in the morning. Lily wondered if she’d feel guilty if the woman was dead when Lily woke up. Possibly. But, Lily also believed that people should be allowed to live their lives the way they wanted, which included dying the way they wanted. She’d watched her mother go through too many heroic measures that destroyed her quality of life the last few years before she died. Frankly, Lily would rather die on her own terms than surrounded by hospital nurses and machines.
“The first time I saw the night parade was when my mother died.”
That’s a weird coincidence, thought Lily since she’d just been thinking about her own mother’s death.
“It was wonderful. And terrifying. I didn’t realize then that it would become a part of me, that it would be a part of my life. There’s no way I could have known how much I would hate it, how much I would love it, how much I would run from it, and how much I would yearn for it now at the end of my life.”
The old woman’s voice was giving out. Lily felt sleep creeping over her. She was exhausted, she couldn’t help it.
“Do you think there’s a chance?”
Lilly realized this wasn’t the first time the woman had asked her a question. She roused herself.
“Do you think there’s a chance the night parade will return? Will return for me?”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I don’t know what the night parade is. I really want to stay awake and listen to your story, but my body just won’t do it. It’s been such a long day, and I’m so tired. Can you tell me in the morning?”
“My mother would pray. She prayed all the time. Her life… our life… was so desperately hard, and she prayed constantly that it could be less hard. Her prayers were never answered, but I understand the impulse. I want to pray now. I am not a believer, but I want to pray. I wish, with everything that I am, I wish I could bend the universe to provide me with one favor.”
Lily fell asleep. She was so exhausted she never felt the pain in her chest.
The conversation was a part of her dream. She was disoriented, unable to remember exactly where she was. Even as she awoke she felt she might be dreaming.
When she realized she should not be hearing any conversations, that she should be in a room with only one other person, a frail old lady, she came completely awake and aware. She opened her eyes and looked around the room.
A man crouched in the corner near the old lady. The room was lit, barely, by a glowing pale blue orb in his hand.
There was an intensity and urgency to his voice, though Lily could not make out the words. She reached stealthily into her backpack to pull out her small canister of pepper spray. When she heard the old lady whimper Lily stood up and made her presence known.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man spun on his heel, remaining bent, and held the blue orb high so it illuminated the whole room. For a second Lily could see his face. There was something wrong with it, it was distorted somehow. But, before she could identify what was wrong with it, he dropped his hand and extinguished the light.
Lily heard a scuttling, but didn’t know what to do. She hunkered down and listened as closely as she could. She couldn’t tell if the man moved away from her or toward her.
“Leave her alone, Cassius,” said the old lady.
“No. I like her. She’s pretty.”
Lily shivered. She couldn’t tell where the voice came from. It was a quiet voice, full of menace.
“Leave Cassius. You’ve completed your task, now go.” The woman’s voice was stronger now. Louder.
“I think I’ll stay.” This time Lily could tell the voice came from right beside her. She cringed, her muscles tightening. She didn’t know where to turn, where to run. She lifted her pepper spray.
“I said, Go!” A bright light flooded the room. Lily saw the man was immediately to her right. She turned the pepper spray and squeezed, flooding his eyes with pain. He flinched and ran away. The room returned to darkness. It had been only a flash, as if a bolt of lightning struck inside the room. Lily heard the plywood panel move and then there was silence.
“He’s gone now,” said the woman. Her voice weaker now than before, barely audible.
She didn’t want to, but Lily felt the tears fall from her eyes as her body released the tension and fear she’d been holding.
“Come over here by me dear. We’ll be safe now.”
Lily realized she was a little surprised the woman and her bed didn’t stink. Given the look of the woman’s hair and the knowledge that she’d spent the last few days in her bed waiting to die, Lily expected foul smells. Instead, the smell made her think of a mountain meadow after a shower. Even though she’d never been in a mountain meadow, the smell of the woman and her bed conjured up the image distinctly.
It felt good to rest on the pile of stuff after sleeping on the hard floor. It felt like a cozy down mattress. The old woman brushed Lily’s hair away from her face. Despite the fright she’d just been through she felt herself falling asleep again.
“My mother died when I was young, too,” said Lily. “It wasn’t at a parade though. She died in a hospital. Nothing’s been right since then. My father gave up on life after that. A couple of years ago he just vanished. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I don’t know if he just went away or if something horrible happened to him. I don’t even know if I care or not. It was like he turned into a ghost when my mother died, instead of her turning into a ghost.”
“And now you have no home.” It wasn’t a question. It was an assertion.
“No. I don’t have anything.”
The old lady began humming softly. A song. A lullabye. Lily could almost recognize the tune. Within moments she fell asleep. For the first time in years she felt cozy, comfortable and protected. She dreamed of her mother and her father. She was young, a toddler, and they were happy. She remembered her mother’s laugh. She thought she had forgotten that laugh. After she was diagnosed with cancer she never heard her mother laugh again. And in the dream she saw her father’s smile. After her mother was diagnosed with cancer she never saw her father smile. But, none of that had happened yet. The future did not exist. There was only that moment where all three were happy and Lily felt content, secure, and loved.
“Wake up. The night parade is almost here.”
Lily didn’t want to leave her dream, and when she awoke she felt sad. She wished she could stay asleep and stay in that dream forever.
“There’s a parade?” Lily felt out of sorts. It had been a long night. It had been a long day. It had been a long life.
“It’s not any kind of parade. It’s the night parade. It’s almost here.” It was pitch black inside the room. The old lady whispered, but Lily didn’t think she could speak much louder even if she wanted to. “Can you help me get outside.”
“Sure,” Lily mumbled. She pulled her lighter from her pocket and used it to find the candle next to her pack. “Who was that man who was here?” His visit was so weird that for a moment Lily wondered if it had been part of dream. She could see his face clearly, etched into her mind during that strobe-flash light. The mouth was overly wide and the nose pushed up like a pig’s nose, the whole face slightly off-kilter and the teeth gross and brown. And, where had that light come from? Did the old lady have a strobe-light, or a camera with a flash hidden in her pile of stuff?
“He’s from the night parade. That’s how I know it’s coming.”
“You know him?”
“Yes. He’s a horrible little monster, but I used to work with him. We were colleagues of a sort.” The old woman held out her hands, waiting for Lily to help her out of her pile of rags, sheets, towels, and clothes.
“I don’t think there’s supposed to be any parade tonight. Plus, it’s too late. It’s the middle of the night.”
“It’s the night parade dear. It’s not like any parade you’ve ever seen.”
Her arms were frail, and when she stood she looked skeletal. She wore a long dress with a pale flower pattern. The dress was much too large for her, and the hem had been ripped off so it fell to just below her knees. Under the dress she wore two or three t-shirts. Her feet were bare and filthy. It looked as if she hadn’t worn shoes for years.
Lily made sure she had her pepper spray before they left. She could see the woman would have trouble sliding out the door so Lily removed the plywood cover completely.
The woman started tottering toward the street before Lily could get through the door. Once Lily was outside she moved quickly to the woman’s side and took her arm. Lily had the feeling that a fall would be catastrophic.
The woman led her to a bus stop bench and sat. Lily sat on the other side of the bar that divided the bench into two spaces. The woman patted Lily’s thigh. “It’ll be here soon,” she said.
Lily toyed with the idea of calling 911. The woman seemed to be suffering from some sort of dementia. On the other hand, Lily had seen the odd little man in the building. But, at this point, out in the fresh air of the late night/early morning, with the glow of the full moon, the visit from the scary little man seemed more and more like a dream.
The moon was gold and looked strange. Lily looked closely. It flickered and looked like it might be on fire. How odd, she thought.
The neighborhood was empty and asleep. Not even any cars disturbed the silence. This was Lily’s favorite time of day. She felt safe in the open city. The world seemed magical.
“Do you hear it?” asked the woman, smiling gently at Lily.. The woman’s thin dry hands clasped themselves around Lily’s hand, holding it firmly.
Lily smiled and shook her head. “I don’t hear anything,” she whispered, unwilling to harm the silence.
To humor the woman Lily listened. For a moment she thought she heard something. The power of suggestion, she thought. Then she realized she really was hearing something. It was getting louder.
Lily couldn’t make out what she was hearing. It was noise, not altogether unpleasant noise, but certainly not music. It sounded like rain and a crackling fire, accompanied by a low moan that could either be pleasure or pain. As the sound grew louder she heard a horn, or maybe it was a bird or a frog.
The sound, she now recognized it as a type of music, grew louder. The music sent a cold shot through the center of Lily’s stomach. It frightened her. She twisted her head back and forth looking up and down the street, looking into the trees and into the darkness of the neighborhood streets, trying to determine the source of the music. Whichever way it was coming, Lily wanted to run in the opposite direction.
“Do you hear it now?”
Lily nodded. She felt the panic rise.
“There,” the woman removed one hand from Lily’s and pointed down the street. “There. I see it.”
Lily followed the pointing finger. She thought she could see a faint blue glow in the distance. A blue glow the same color as the blue light the creepy little man held in his hand.
“What is the night parade?” asked Lily.
“Spirits, angels, demons, monsters, the other, psychopomps. They have many names. The night parade is a band of travelers that move between worlds, across dimensions.”
The glow grew larger, the music louder. Lily could make out shapes moving in the blue glow. The music brought goosebumps to her skin.
The parade came closer. The woman held Lily’s hand tighter. The music was almost deafening. Lily felt paralyzed.
The parade began moving past. The members played instruments Lily had never seen before, some of which seemed to be alive. Raven-headed women walked beside squat hopping toad men. Long-legged skeletons slinked by, shimmying to the music. Lily tasted sweetness. A flash of light illuminated the members of the night parade, freezing them for a moment into a nightmarish tableau.
Lily understood. She turned to the woman.
“They’re here for you.”
The woman shook her head slightly and with a deep, mournful sigh said, “Lily. They are here for you.”
The gnomish man with the broad smile, thin lips and brown nubby teeth stepped out of the parade. The woman put Lily’s hand in his. He pulled her to her feet and pulled Lily into the night parade.