Connor inched his way through the clusters of families lining the sidewalk, Meg and the kids in his wake. For most of the day the sky had been overcast and misting, and Meg, already worn out from other pre-holiday obligations, had hoped the parade would be canceled. But both kids were eager to see Lacey. She was being honored tonight as the official dog marshal—a special one-time designation, Meg assumed, after the week’s events. “Closure” seemed a facile idea, but maybe it would help.
Grace had stopped, mesmerized by the twirler with her red-and-white striped baton. It looked like an electric candy cane, tracing frenetic circles of light each time she tossed it in the air. Leo, four years older, had stopped too but was oblivious, head bent as he played his electronic game. “Let’s keep walking, guys,” Meg said, tapping him on the shoulder.
All around them people were bundled up with blankets and mugs of hot chocolate. A couple of kids dressed as elves were tossing candy canes into the crowd. Both Leo and Grace waved to get their attention and scrambled to pick up the candy.
“Look at how many I got! Can I eat one?” Grace held out her hands to Meg, showing off a bounty of candy canes.
“Sure, honey,” Meg said.
“Leo!” Grace hollered in her brother’s direction. “Mom said we can eat one!” She splayed her fingers, letting candy canes spill into Meg’s open purse for safekeeping before taking a moment to choose one.
At last they found a spot to set up their gear. Settling into her camp chair, Meg realized she was glad to be here after all. She longed to be swept up by the small-town pageantry. It was a testament to the reassurance of tradition. Perhaps that was the point of rituals, to provide a reliable framework no matter what.
They had been running late on Monday, both kids struggling to get back into the weekday routine. From now until Christmas every weekend was taken up with activities and the kids’ final projects for school. Leo had his model volcano balanced on his lap. He’d spent most of the day Sunday reshaping the cone. At his feet was a bag with pre-measured vinegar, baking soda and food coloring for his science class demonstration.
First Grace, then Leo: that was the order for morning drop-off. In the afternoons Meg reversed it, picking up Grace last. “OK, out!” she said as she turned off the ignition. She exited the car and held the door for Grace, who was picking her purple backpack off the floor of the backseat. Grace shrugged it onto her shoulders and reached for Meg’s outstretched hand, hurrying to keep up with her pace.
Grace’s second-grade class always lined up on the blacktop outside their classroom before filing in. Today, though, there were no kids outside. As Meg escorted Grace, she noticed that the row of hooks outside the door, normally crowded with backpacks, was empty. Another mom waiting outside the classroom waved them over.
“They’re locking the doors as soon as they get all the kids inside,” she said, holding the door for Grace.
“Why? What’s going on?”
The other mom held up her index finger, indicating that she’d tell her more in a minute. After closing the door, she rejoined Meg. “There was a robbery a few blocks away and the guy might have a gun. The police just called the principal and said it would probably be best to keep everyone inside.”
“And they think he might come here?”
She shrugged. “Always better to be safe than sorry. By the time they got the call most of the kids were already here, so they decided this was safest. Parents need to leave quickly or stay in the classrooms until they get the all-clear.”
Meg felt a hard knot of panic. It sounded like the burglar could be anywhere. She thought of rushing in to reclaim Grace from her classroom, trying to right a situation that had suddenly veered into dangerous territory. Then she thought of Leo, waiting in the car with his clay volcano balanced on his lap, unaware and alone. She needed to get back to him. She could drive away with both of them to the outskirts of town, far away from this neighborhood and its state of alert. And then . . . what? Drive around, waiting to get the all-clear? No, Leo and Grace would be safest at their respective schools. In all likelihood, the police and the principal were simply reacting with an abundance of caution.
Back at the car, Meg took a deep breath to calm herself.
“Mom? Aren’t you going to drive?”
“Sorry, hon,” she said.
“Is everything OK?” Leo sounded more curious than worried.
“Everything’s fine,” she said. As she drove away, she turned to look out at the empty playground and nearly ran the four-way stop. She took another deep breath and forced herself to focus on driving. She paid attention to the landscape as she drove. It was generally a quiet neighborhood, houses set back from the street and partially obscured by old eucalyptus and oak trees, now thick and permanent. With their cut-stone curbs and old-style lampposts, the streets looked graceful, deceptively safe.
It had been two years since they’d moved here, Connor having unexpectedly found a high-tech job in a town still dotted with orange groves, aging Victorians and palm trees. It was a better place to raise children, they’d decided. Before they’d had kids, the clatter of city living had been more of a background hum; eventually, though, its relentlessness had begun to grate on her. The blaring of early-morning garbage trucks, the rumble of buses: she’d taken to wearing earplugs every night to block them out. She longed for a more spacious sense of quiet.
There had been a brazenness too, an ongoing soundtrack of danger. Meg had started sleeping more lightly, attuned perhaps to the kids’ middle-of-the-night needs, no longer able to block out the city’s sounds. The wailing of car alarms and the periodic thrumming of police helicopters over their duplex had been ongoing reminders that danger wasn’t just an abstract concept. That knowledge had slowly permeated her waking hours, along with an edginess brought on by fragmented sleep. After they moved here, she’d felt a much greater sense of calm, of having left behind not just the noise but the aggressiveness of the city as well.
They’d landed in a well-preserved corner of Southern California. By staying within its borders and avoiding the Interstate that ran nearby, it was easy to imagine that it really was separate from the surrounding area, an anachronism in the midst of inland sprawl. Here, neighbors had fruit stands in their front yards: oranges, avocadoes and grapefruit set out on a card table or in a home-constructed wood kiosk, next to a coffee can where buyers could deposit their money. It was persimmon season now; Meg had been planning to stop at one of the fruit stands near her house after dropping off Leo.
Instead she called Janet immediately, leaving a message when she didn’t answer. Their daughters were close friends. As Meg hung up, she saw a policeman standing up ahead on the left side of the street. She pulled in front of him and lowered her car window.
“Hi . . . my daughter is at the school and they’re keeping everyone inside . . . I was hoping you could tell me what’s going on,” she said in a rush.
“There was a robbery earlier this morning and the guy stole a handgun.” The officer seemed unruffled. “We think he’s hiding out over there”—he gestured across the way—“so we’ve got officers looking for him.” Across from him was a large wooded area with trails where Meg and Janet sometimes walked their dogs.
The officer’s tone was as calm as if he’d been updating her on the weather. “The school’s locked down as a precaution. If you see a guy in his twenties wearing a red plaid shirt, give us a call.”
Driving home, Meg scanned both sides of the street. The only person she saw was a man in a navy coat and a white muffler walking his Sheltie.
She heard her phone ring as she unlocked her front door. It was Janet. “Hi,” Meg said. “Did you know they locked down the school?”
“Oh my God. No. I dropped off Nick and Ava a little early and then came home. What’s going on?”
Meg quickly filled her in.
Janet paused. “There’s a red shirt in our driveway—I don’t know, maybe it’s plaid. I figured it was Nick’s so I didn’t look very closely. Wait—hang on; Lacey’s barking to be let in.”
Meg waited. Holding the phone to her ear, she walked to the front window. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was looking for; another red shirt? She watched as her retired neighbor across the street shuffled down his front walkway, slowly bent to pick up his newspaper and walked back inside. Grace was still sequestered in her classroom, innocent and unaware. Meg knew it was irrational to panic. But having gone along with the school’s rules, she wondered if she’d been naïve. She was irritated at how long Janet was taking. She pictured Lacey, Janet’s Chihuahua, with her bulgy brown eyes and small white ruff of fur fluffed out like a mini lion’s mane. If Janet didn’t let her in they’d have to listen to her shrill barking in the background. She walked back to the kitchen and scanned the backyard. The shirt Janet had mentioned had to be a coincidence. The officer had definitely said plaid.
“OK, I’m back,” Janet said, sounding a little breathless. “Sorry about that—you know how Lacey is.”
“Did you look at the shirt again?”
“I didn’t—I guess I should, though. Do you think it could be that guy’s?
“You should call it in,” Meg said.
“Oh, I don’t know . . . isn’t that being paranoid? I’d hate to bother them if it’s nothing.” Janet had been raised here and was more trusting. She’d been genuinely surprised when she saw the burglar-alarm sign Meg had placed in the flower bed by the front door.
“I think it’s relevant, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Janet said, still hesitant. Meg recognized the slowness of her reaction, the murky sense that this was all somewhat unreal.
Grace had turned toward Meg and was tapping her knee to get her attention. She’d unwrapped the candy cane and was now sucking on it. “Do you know which car Lacey will be in?”
“I’m not sure, honey—we’ll just have to watch for her.”
Grace said something in response, but it was drowned out by the horn of an approaching semi with a flatbed filled with carolers. Further back, Meg could hear the boisterous drumming from one of the middle-school bands. The local antique-car club was coming, led by a black Model-T driven by Santa Claus.
Over the past two years, they’d been slowly drawn into the communal aspect of so many holidays here: neighborhood potlucks for Memorial Day and Labor Day, parades for Christmas and the Fourth of July. How quickly they’d become family traditions.
“Can you check with Ava’s mom to find out where Lacey is?” Grace was standing in front of Meg, doing a little hop from one foot to the other. Each time she landed, the soles of her boots lit up like tiny pink-and-white strobe lights.
“Sure,” Meg said. She texted Janet. When she finished, she noticed Connor looking over at her. He was smiling, charmed, she knew, by Grace’s excitement. Meg was grateful for their shorthand. He reached across the small gap between their camp chairs to take her hand.
The day of the lockdown, he’d called immediately after he’d gotten her text. “No need to come home,” she said after she filled him in. “I turned on the alarm. I just feel like I should have brought Grace back home.”
“It sounds like her school is on top of things. You said the police were there, right?”
Meg sighed. “It’s just knowing that someone could be out there. I guess there are crazy people everywhere.”
Connor had steadied her, bringing her back to the specifics of this particular situation. “That’s true. But it sounds like this was a just a home robbery. I’m sure the school is a safe place for her right now.”
“You’re probably right,” she conceded.
After Grace’s birth, he’d been similarly clear-headed. How quickly the situation had veered into a danger zone after an uneventful pregnancy: early labor, ending with a C-section and several hours in the NICU. Meg hadn’t actually seen Grace when they’d first lifted her tiny body, quickly removing the umbilical cord from around her neck. A tiny bundle cradled by blue-gloved hands, rushed off to the warmth of the incubator. She’d been purplish, Connor later told her, not pink like Leo.
Meg remembered her vigilance during the first few months, her sense that despite doctors’ assurances, Grace might have been damaged somehow. It had been the cord, the part of her body that was supposed to nourish Grace, that had choked her instead. Grace had nearly strangled inside her and Meg had been entirely unaware.
“You need to let it go,” Connor said when Grace was a couple of months old. Meg kept Grace in a bassinet beside their bed, waking even between her feedings to make sure she was OK. “There wasn’t anything you could have done differently. And more important, she’s fine. Really. Look at her.” Grace had been reclining in the crook of his arm, her eyes widening with pleasure as he gently rocked her. Her eyes had already taken on a tinge of green, like his. Watching Connor use his hand to cradle Grace as he swung her back and forth, Meg had known he was right.
“Mom! Look!” Grace was standing up, pointing at an approaching group of roller-skating Santas. She turned back to Meg. “I hope we didn’t miss Lacey.”
“Me too, honey,” Meg said. She thought back to the article that had run in the paper on Thursday. Janet had provided a photo of Lacey sprawled out, asleep, and the paper had run it in full color. Grace used her safety scissors to cut out the picture and trim the ragged edges, then affixed it the refrigerator with a magnet. There was something surreal, comical even, about an eight-pound Chihuahua riding in the parade as the official dog marshal, Meg thought. She wondered if Lacey would be frightened by all of the noise.
As if on cue, another semi blasted its horn. Grace held her pink-mittened hands over her ears. “Why do they have to do that? It’s so loud!”
Meg looked at her daughter, light-brown hair spilling from the fake-fur hood of her silver parka. She’d seemed pretty unconcerned about the lockdown when Meg picked her up after school on Monday, but had shared various bits and pieces in the days since then. She’d stayed in the classroom through lunch but had been released shortly afterwards.
“It was gross when they made the boys pee in the trashcan,” she confided. “Mitchell and Ben really had to go, but the teacher wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom.”
“That is kind of gross,” Meg agreed.
“But it was in the corner and she put the flip chart in front of it so we couldn’t see,” Grace added. “So it was OK.”
Leo, sitting in the chair next to Meg, seemed to have lost interest in the parade; he’d pulled out his electronic game again. Just last year, Connor had walked the entire parade route with Leo’s Cub Scout pack, the boys all wearing flashing red antlers. But Leo was already leaving that behind; Meg doubted that next year he’d want to come at all. Watching the kids from Tumble Tots pass by, every so often attempting a cartwheel, Meg felt a sense of melancholy. The middle-school marching bands, the old-car enthusiasts, the toddler gymnasts: they would grow up, grow old, move on, to be replaced by others. They were all just passing through, the parade simply a marker in time.
Meg felt her phone buzz and figured it was Janet texting back. After Janet had called the police about the shirt, they’d come to retrieve it. Two officers walked the perimeter of the property looking for other signs of the burglar but hadn’t found any. About an hour afterwards, Janet let Lacey out in the yard again, where she started barking. “You should have seen her—her fur was standing on end,” Janet told Meg later. She called the police again, apologizing for seeming overly cautious. When they came back they found the burglar, with a swollen and sprained ankle, crouched in the ivy behind Janet’s house. He was still a kid—just 19, Janet said. He was crying when they found him. “Can you imagine? Apparently it was his first offense.” She sighed. “I sure hope he straightens up.” Meg had pictured someone older, more dangerous and experienced. Even though he’d stolen a gun, she was strangely relieved to find he was still a teenager, and a bumbling one at that.
She pulled her phone from her jacket to read the text. “Grace?” Another school band was marching by, and Grace had turned to watch. Meg reached out and tapped her. “I just got a text from Ava’s mom. She said Lacey got too scared by all the noise, so they ended up taking her home. I’m sorry, sweetie. It would have been fun to see her in the parade.”
“That’s OK,” Grace said. “I figured that might happen.” She’d hunched herself inside her parka; the hood’s fake fur framed her face as she nodded slightly, processing this latest bit of information. “She still got to be famous, though.”
“That’s right, she did,” Meg agreed. Following Ava’s lead, Grace had started referring to Lacey as “the hero dog.” Even now, Grace was making choices that would shape how she remembered the events of the week. For Grace, the lockdown probably had all of the gravity of the school’s annual “drop, cover and hold” earthquake drill, when she was required to huddle under her desk until the all-clear bell rang.
Meg admired the surety with which Grace addressed the narrative of her life. When they’d had to euthanize their cat, Tillie, about a year before their move, Grace insisted on holding a ceremony in their backyard, near the ledge where Tillie used to nap in the sun. “That’s where her memories are,” she told Meg. At dinner that night, she’d talked about wanting another cat, but made it clear that it wouldn’t be a replacement. “If we get another cat, it will be different than Tillie, so I’ll get to add more memories,” she explained. This had been her only experience with death thus far, and she still referred to Tillie occasionally. The week after Halloween, when her class had learned about Día de los Muertos, Grace had asked Meg to buy some cat treats at the grocery store so she could make Tillie an altar. Even now, Grace loved hearing Meg re-tell the story of how they adopted her as a kitten after the neighbor found a litter under his porch. This was the beginning of the story Grace remembered about Tillie’s life, a narrative into which she’d woven the highlights of their life together and her experience of Tillie’s ultimate departure.
What had started as mist was now a light rain. Meg pulled up her hood. “I think we should head home,” she said to Connor, who nodded and began packing up the chairs. At least the kids had gotten to enjoy the spectacle of the parade, Meg thought. As they walked to their car, she could make out the silhouettes of palm trees and the outline of city hall against the darkening sky. The Chamber of Commerce had refurbished some of the old storefronts, restoring faded murals of citrus-crate labels from the town’s heyday. It was part of a decade-long civic effort to reclaim the town’s citrus-growing history and make it central to the town’s identity. Already, the Chamber had replaced most of the street signs downtown with vintage-looking ones decorated with a logo of an orange. She’d heard they were also planning to reinstate the annual citrus bake-off.
Meg was behind Grace now. With each step, Grace’s boots sparkled like tiny jewels in the dark. She was keeping time with the drums from the marching band they’d just left behind, Meg noted, smiling at her daughter’s spiritedness. She admired Grace’s ability to incorporate the lockdown into her experiences. It was in the remembering and the re-telling that the events would become part of their family’s shared history. The whole episode would become—needed to become—part of the stories they told themselves.
Even now the parade was receding into memory, the experiences of the past week being burnished and contained. The alternative was to let the events stand alone, terrifying in their randomness. But that would be too unbearable. Their safety here was a construct, a narrative Meg had created. She stopped, straining to hear the horn section above the receding drums, and waited for the melody to emerge as something recognizable.