“This is going to be a tough crowd.”
Forty children gathered on the large concrete patio that overlooked an acre of gardens, while three high-strung adults swung their arms in big, round motions, trying to get a grip on the situation.
“Now, kids, the clowns are afraid
of loud noises, so we have to be quiet,” tried the mother of the six-year-old with more friends than a politician.“Great,”
Mack said under her breath. “That’s what they need. Motivation to stir the waters.”
Hank only nodded. He was in his mime costume already so he couldn’t speak, but he didn’t have to. Their task was clearly laid out in front of them. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple, smudging his makeup. He was glad they stood in the shade of the house.
Despite the black “blinky” marks on either side of her eyes and the wide, red clown smile, Mack’s expression turned sour. “What mother invites forty
six-year-olds to a birthday party?” she moaned. “Did you hear what they did last year?”
Hank shook his head.
“The father built an actual pirate ship here in the backyard, with two decks and pirates in costumes. It even made cannon sounds.”
Hank thought that sounded cool.
“I heard the kids made the adults walk the plank.”
Birthday parties had come a long way. They did a lot of them, but usually it was just one or two of the Hazards making an appearance, and the parties consisted of ten or so children. This woman had hired the entire family. Now they knew why.
Hank’s other sister, Hayden, stepped out the back door and stood next to them, surveying the children below.
“You okay?” Mack asked her. Hayden tried to smile, but Hank knew it was getting to her. Their oldest brother Mitch, the ring leader–literally–had the stomach flu and wasn’t sure he could do a cartwheel without vomiting.
Hayden had volunteered to step in and help. “The makeup is making my skin itch,” Hayden whispered.
“Didn’t you put on that lotion first?” Mack asked. Hayden sighed. “No. I forgot. I’ve also forgotten exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s been a while.”
Hayden had stepped down from performing when they’d realized she wasn’t an anxious child, just terrified of clowns. It had taken years to discover this, but once they got an official diagnosis, her parents allowed her to work in the office booking events and keeping track of bills.
The family business did well, especially in the warm months. They had everything they needed and plenty left over, which they donated to children’s hospitals, always making special, exclusive clown appearances when they delivered the check. The children couldn’t get enough of it.
At least those
children. The ones squirming on the patio didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic. While Hayden, Mack, and their sixteen-year-old sister Cassie discussed what kind of act they would have to throw together to get these kids’ attention, Hank marveled at the beauty all around him. The house stood three stories high, with exquisite stone work, a marble banister that could be seen through the front or back window, and what seemed like two hundred feet of flower gardens.
A rich, deep green lawn rolled from the steps of the patio like lush carpet. Bright pink and red roses climbed white lattice walls, while full arches of ivy framed paths he wanted to explore. A gazebo peeked through the foliage.
His parents had taught him the dangers of loving money. They lived off what they had and never borrowed a dime for anything, including the van they used for transportation to all of their performances. The siblings were paid good wages for their work, and Hank never felt he had anything to complain about. Yet standing in what seemed like an oasis, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to live with this kind of luxury. His gaze moved to the outdoor fireplace that crackled nearby. It wasn’t nearly cold enough for a fire, but he supposed the slightly cool breeze could justify it.
He tuned back in to his sisters’ conversation. “Great time for Mitch to get sick,” Mack sighed. “He’s the one with the best magic tricks. We’re going to have to make a pig fly to impress these kids.”
“We don’t have to impress them,” Hayden said. “Just entertain them. A lot has changed, but at the end of the day, kids still love to be entertained.”
“Hayden, it’s been a while since you’ve done a kid party. They’re not that easily entertained, and their attention span is all of about three seconds.”
Hayden turned to Hank. “Maybe Hank could do some of those magic tricks with the smoke bombs. Kids like bombs, don’t they?”
Hank smiled. The smoke bomb trick was usually a hit. But it involved some time and he wasn’t sure they could sit still that long.
Cassie gestured toward the mother who had finally managed to get all the children to sit down. “Look how beautiful she is. I wish my hair would do that. It would
do that if Dad wouldn’t have a cow about hairspray. You can’t even see it, but somehow he always knows when I’m wearing it.” Cassie actually whimpered.
“Did you see her nails?”
Mack turned to her. “Cassie, you’ve got to focus. We have to be on today. This is the first time Mom and Dad have taken a vacation–well-deserved, mind you–and we promised them we would handle everything. We’ve got to pull this off, or they might never leave the house again.”
Mitch came out, trailed by the two youngest of the Hazard family, Holt and Avery. A pea soup-colored skin tone bled through his chalky, white makeup. “Are we ready yet? What’s the holdup?”
“Forty six-year-olds who won’t sit still,” Mack said. She pushed on her clown nose. “This is going to take some muscle.
Are you okay? You look terrible.”
“I just can’t jump, roll, bend down, or raise my hands over my head.”
Mack scowled. “Great. You can stand there and wave, then.”
“We’ve got plenty of lawn,” Cassie said. “Maybe Avery and Holt can do their acrobat routine first. Get things rolling. Literally.”
They rolled around like bowling balls. Hank nodded in agreement.
“Good idea,” Mitch said as he held his stomach. “Is it hot out here? I feel hot.”
“Mitch,” Mack said, “go lie down in the van. We can handle it. The last thing we need is you throwing up on kids whose clothes cost more than we’re making today.”
“No. Mom performed three days after her hysterectomy. I’m in, just not in an excitable sort of way.” Mitch raised an eyebrow as Mack frowned. “We’re supposed to be bright and cheery.”
Mack adjusted her nose. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll turn it on when I need to.”
The mother in charge of the party clapped her hands and in a voice sounding as though royalty had just arrived, she introduced the clowns with, “Children, I give you…THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!”
Hank suppressed a smile. That was one way to set them up for disappointment.
Avery and Holt bounded onto the lawn from the patio, back hand-springing their way across the grass with as much grace as Olympic athletes, but it brought little reaction from the kids, who sat slumped on the concrete basketball court, half of them picking their noses, the other half picking on the kid next to them.
Hank saw Holt look over, desperation in his eyes. He grabbed Avery and whispered something to her. Oh no.
“Mack!” Hank whispered.
Cassie’s eyes widened. “Why are you talking?”
“Listen to me–”
“You’re breaking the cardinal rule of miming! You must never talk while in–”
“They’re going to do it!”
“What?” Mack whispered back.
Hank pointed toward Avery and Holt, who were lining up on the far end of the lawn. “The thing they learned three weeks ago.”
Cassie, Hayden, and Mack all turned toward the lawn. Hayden gasped. “No! They’re not ready. They haven’t even done it without spotters yet!”
But it was too late. Sprinting simultaneously, Holt and Avery began with a round off and two back handsprings. Hayden grabbed Hank’s arm and squeezed her eyes shut, her hand over her mouth.
“I can’t believe they’re doing this,” Mack said. “They don’t have enough experience–”
With their arms stretched toward the sky, they both jumped off the ground and did double back flips. Then, without a pause, Holt knelt, Avery stepped on his knee, and Holt rose and lifted her above him. She lowered her feet onto his shoulders, then took his hands. Slowly, beautifully, her feet left his shoulders and she balanced perfectly on Holt’s hands, upside down. They hardly swayed.
Hank glanced at the crowd. The parents began to clap loudly. A few kids joined in. A red-haired, freckle-faced kid sneered, “So what? At the Fear Factor
party I went to last week, a kid had to eat real worms.”
“I can’t believe they did it!” Hayden said as Holt and Avery took their bows to intermittent clapping. Hank glanced back at the sound of Mitch’s cell phone ringing.
Mitch slipped into the house to answer it.
Mack moved next to Hank. “We’re on. We’re doing the magic sequence, right? With the bouquet of flowers and the disappearing stuffed rabbit?”
Hank looked sideways at her. “We’re starting with Plan X.” “This is no time for jokes. And why are you talking?”
“I’m not joking.”
“Of course you’re joking. And talking. You never talk.”
“I’m not. Joking, I mean.” Hank watched the fidgeting children.
Mack adjusted her cowboy hat and folded her arms. “If this gets back to Mom and Dad, they’re going to be mad.” She smiled.
“But this could be fun. Come on.”
Hank and Mack skipped toward the children. Hank waved as Mack shot her pretend gun and rode her pretend horse. With choppy steps and stiff arms, Hank ticked along the front row as a robot. Unfortunately, all he heard was snickering and crude remarks that would have sent him to the bathroom for a dose of soap on his tongue if he’d ever said them.
Hank often played the sad mime, and today it wouldn’t be a stretch. These events were getting harder and harder. Two years ago, they’d added firecrackers to the routine. Mitch, who did most of the magic tricks, attended a magic convention in Las Vegas to learn some of the trickier maneuvers. Short of bringing in circus animals, there wasn’t much more they could do to get kids’ attention.
Battling sugar highs and low attention spans, the Hazards had come to realize they were no match for Donkey Kong, or whatever it was kids played these days. Last year they’d attempted to modernize their clowns by including Darth Vader, who Hayden swore was made scarier than the movie version by the addition of the red smile they painted across Mitch’s face. They also tried the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they assessed that the premise didn’t work well because the concept of ninja turtles was stupid.
Add rainbow hair and a honking nose, and you pretty much have a freak show. Hank was about to begin the bouquet trick when a blond girl on the front row, her hair cascading down her back in soft ringlets, stuck out her tongue. Hank turned to Mack, and they locked eyes. It was time.
In her cowgirl twang, Mack clapped her hands and said, “Boys and girls, listen up. I want you to be very quiet. The mime has something to say.”
“Mimes don’t talk, stupid!” a kid from the back yelled.
“This mime does. But in a very special language.”
Hank made miming motions. Mack pretended she didn’t understand at first, but then she said, “Ooohhh. I get it. He’s thirsty. He says he can’t talk unless he has something to drink. Who can go get him a drink?”
“I will!” A girl popped up and ran to the birthday table. She returned with a can of soda.
Hank motioned for her to open it. She did and handed it to him. The children watched as he guzzled it as fast as he could, making sure to let some dribble out of his mouth and onto his shirt. Mack narrated the situation. “Perhaps his words fall out of his mouth just like his drinks!”
A few people chuckled. Mostly the adults. Suddenly, with big motions, Hank reached upward, stretching his whole body. Then he made horrible gasping noises. Mack rushed up to him. “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
A few of the parents stepped forward, but Hank stopped, stood perfectly still, and shot one finger into the air.
Swallowing one more bubble of air, Hank opened his mouth and let a big one rip, followed by several smaller ones. A total of seven rapid-fire burps echoed in the silence. All forty of the kids’ mouths hung open. And then loud, clamorous laughter burst through the quiet pause as the kids yelled, “Do it again! Do it again!”
Hank was winding up for round two when Mitch suddenly appeared, wigless and holding his honking nose. “I’m sorry, folks. I’m sorry.” He waved his hand to hush them. “We’re going to have to stop our show. I’m terribly sorry.” Mitch looked at Mack and Hank and gestured for them to follow him. He walked quickly through the back door of the home and through the huge foyer toward the front door, with Hank and Mack trailing behind him.
Mack sighed. “Mitch is overreacting. I’ll handle this.”
“It was my idea.”
“No offense, Hank, but you’re not very good at standing up for yourself.”
Hank resented that. Mack was tough, but a little overbearing. All his life Mack had been the one who stood up for him, but she would never give him a chance to do it himself. She didn’t even think he was capable. Hank grabbed her arm and stopped her right before they went out the door. “I can speak for myself,” Hank said, tugging at his white gloves.
Mack studied him. “You know how Mitch can be. He doesn’t back down when it comes to his opinion.”
“Thanks to a virus, he wasn’t the one having to come up with an opening act to entertain children who own stock in Toys “R” Us. Sometimes you just have to use what you’ve got.”
“I agree. But you’re going to get lectured, and he’s probably going to throw in something about taking advantage of Mom and Dad not being here.”
“I can handle it.”
Hayden hurried toward them. “Come on. Mitch wants to talk to all of us.”
By all of us, Hank knew it was going to end up being him.
He knew Mitch must be serious, though, because he interrupted a performance.
They rounded the corner and saw Mitch standing in the large brick driveway. His wife, Claire, stood next to him. She hadn’t been at the party earlier and Hank wondered why she was here now. Mitch didn’t look good. Sick. And…sad? Hank had expected anger.
Hank drew in a breath, hoping his courage wouldn’t slide down the drain of self-doubt. “Mitch, it was my call, okay? I had to do something. I know it’s crude and Mom and Dad wouldn’t have approved, but–”
Hank’s carefully d words came to a screeching halt at the tip of his tongue. Distantly, he could hear the squeals and giggles of the children playing in the back property.
“Who?” Mack asked.
Mitch didn’t say it, but the tears dripping down his cheeks did. With each moment that passed, another of Hank’s siblings began to cry. But he just felt numb.
“You’re talking about Mom and Dad?” Mack finally asked. Mitch nodded, trying to compose himself.
“No! This can’t be true!” Cassie wailed.
Hank’s other siblings wiped their tears, staring at Mitch, who took several attempts to find his voice. “In a hot tub.”
Claire usually let Mitch do most of the talking, but she took his hand in hers and said, “We just received a call from the hotel where they were staying in Las Vegas. It was an unfortunate accident. A man playing a guitar was serenading them. He tripped over the extension cord to some kind of lighting, and well…they…”
Mitch stood a little taller and cleared his throat. “They died instantly. Together. They were apparently holding hands”–a sad laugh escaped–“and drinking piña coladas.”
Hank had certainly felt pain before, but not the lack of pain. Not the lack of any emotion whatsoever. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to talk, but there were no words. All he could do was stand there and try to logically process the entire thing, but even logic wasn’t available. It was as if every gear in his body had stopped turning.
Their attention shifted to the sudden clicking sound behind them. The mother of the birthday boy marched toward them, one hand on her hip, the other pointing a finger sternly at their faces.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. She stopped, then stomped one high-heeled boot onto the concrete. “You can’t just walk out! I paid a lot of money for you! Do you know what is happening out there? They’ve gone crazy! They’re running around, jumping off things, swinging from things, throwing things. Get in there and do your job!”
Hank tended not to err on the side of anger. That was Mack’s trait, and she was good at it. At the moment, he wasn’t really feeling
anger because he couldn’t feel anything, but in his mind, he took a swing at this woman and knocked her backward. Before he could play out his thoughts, though, he found himself lunging toward Mack, who’d reacted exactly the way everyone expected her to. It took four of them to keep her at bay.
“Who do you think you are?” Mack yelled, but regained her control when Mitch told her to get it together. Adjusting his red suspenders, Mitch stepped in front of them and addressed the woman.
“Ma’am, we’ve had a family emergency.”
The woman’s fierce scowl lifted, but only slightly. She glanced over each of them and then turned her disproving expression back to Mitch. “Then I want a full refund.” She whirled and headed for the front door.
“Ma’am,” Mitch said. “Wait.”
“We’ll do it.”
“Mitch!” Mack protested. “What are you talking about?”
Mitch looked at the woman. “Just give us a moment, okay?”
“Fine, but make it quick.” Her eyes grew wide. “I think I smell something burning!” She hurried off as Mack pushed her way in front of Mitch.
“Why would you say that?” With tears still lingering in his eyes, Mitch put a gentle hand on Mack’s shoulder and gazed at each of them. “You know their motto. The show must go on.”
A quiet determination set in. Everyone knew this was what their parents would have wanted. They’d always taught their children to persevere and not give up. They’d taught them a deep work ethic and showed them what it meant to work hard even when it wasn’t convenient or easy. The Hazards had watched their parents work no matter what.
Mack’s jaw jutted forward. “Let’s do it for Mom and Dad.” They all nodded. Cassie pointed out that they needed to reapply their clown makeup and went to the van to get it. Mitch put his arm around Hank. “You okay?”
“Can you do this?”
“Yes.” Hank turned to Hayden. “Holler at Cassie. Tell her to get the flame throwers ready. Apparently this crowd likes fire.”
Excerpted from Skid by Rene Gutteridge. Copyright © 2008 by Rene Gutteridge. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.