The background was a triptych of sorts. The left panel pictured a great tree, and on the ground below it, the inhabitants: two giant sparrows as large as children. The center panel was filled with green fields, painted with pure acrylic green, not at all like real grass, and nestled in the green were two huge bloody strawberries with butterflies dancing in the air above them. The last panel showed only a night sky, navy blue and dotted with pure white stars and a thin yellow crescent moon. Recorded music played quietly. Classical, familiar, but Justin couldn’t name it; he could never keep tunes in his head. . .
The lights in the auditorium switched off, leaving the stage dark. Then, the footlights slowly came on to illuminate the set and the players began to wander on, as if they’d forgotten how to begin.
Some children wore street clothes, their only costume a wreath made of flowers on their heads. Others were completely changed, dressed as birds like the ones pictured in the set piece. A kid walked on stage, its head a bird’s head formed out of papier-mâché, and its torso enclosed in a plump dirt-brown and ash colored costume with wings on the sides. A plain bird: a sparrow. It sat on the stage by the tree and Justin could no longer see its legs. The footlights turned up, yellowish white, and the audience was left in the dark. With the new light, Justin could see the feathers on the bird costume. What kid would sit and glue all those feathers on a costume? And where did the feathers come from. They were not wispy white chicken feathers, or down from a pillow. They looked stiff, like feathers you’d find on the ground on a hike. The stage was silent, and Justin could feel the audience around him shifting with anxiety. Where was the music, when would it start? Children walked onto the stage and wandered around, as if seeing the set for the first time. A girl dressed in a long white gown moved to center stage. She had long blonde hair, braided here and there. She held nothing in her hands, and Justin couldn’t imagine what her function would be.
“What’s going on?” Lilly said.
He thought he could hear everyone’s breath escape at once as the tinkling piano started. Justin imagined Patrick standing behind the curtain, watching the children mill about, giving them hand signals, his finger to his lips to shush the younger actors. The music teacher, an older woman named Donna that Justin had met last year at the Christmas show, sat at the piano and smiled to herself as she played. The song wasn’t familiar to him, and as he watched her play it, he realized, he supposed because of the look on her face, that she had written it. The tune seemed sad to him, but as the children lined up, the tallest in the middle and the shortest at both ends of the line, they smiled. A young boy, one of the fifth graders, wandered onto the stage, shirtless, his arms smeared with mud. A few rows ahead someone took a picture, though earlier they had been warned not to use flash photography. All the children blinked against the lightning flash. The shirtless boy moved in front of the line of other students and they all began to sway to the simple piano. Why was this kid shirtless? Patrick hadn’t said anything about the show before hand. In fact, he’d been so tight lipped about it, and now Justin started to sweat. An unpleasant trickle made a trail from his armpit to his hip. He’s lost his mind, he thought.
The boy sang. All the time the others swayed behind him, and stage left the bird child still sat, his head cocked to the side. Now, he could see its black eyes. The head cocked again, and he was no longer sure there was a child in the costume.
“The sun rises, and makes the sky happy,” the shirtless boy sang. The others repeated it, sweetly. Now, the audience was captivated, because their children were performing. Justin looked at Lilly and she smiled, her hands folded comfortably in her lap.
The girl in the dress came to the young boy’s side and took his hand. Justin thought how strange it was to be a boy in school, a place where no one touched you unless they were going to punch you in the arm. If you touched a girl, you were done for, and if you didn’t brag about touching a girl, you were done for. It was so exhilarating to be touched back then. Once, on the bus on the way home from school he’d sat next to Michelle Vasquez, and the fat part of his arm had touched the fat part of hers. She’d smiled at him and then moved closer to the window to give him more room. She always smiled at him after that, and he wondered if she could hear the thoughts in his head, trying to scream out to her that he wanted to touch boys, not her.
On stage, the girl held the shirtless boy’s hand. The song ended and the chorus behind them dissipated, some of them still milling around or bending down to pick up fruit and flowers that littered the stage. There was muttered dialogue. Justin tried to hear, but there was only a single microphone on a stand in front of the stage. One of the younger girls brought the boy a spade and the girl in the white dress took the little girl’s hand and seemed to move her along. Was the boy a farmer and the girl in white his wife? She took both his filthy hands and led him off stage.
The lights dimmed and a tall man entered from stage right. It was still dark, but it had to be Patrick. As the lights came up, he moved to the front of the stage to show himself to the audience. He wore a pair of overalls and a flannel shirt. His feet were bare. He wore a mask, a paper creation, green as new cicada wings. The music started up again, sinister classical buzzing out of a radio too small to handle the volume, music that would follow a hulking beast in a cartoon. The audience laughed as Patrick thumped around in his bare feet, along to the music, and one by one the children came on stage and then were briefly chased and scared back off by the monster and the audience laughed as the children shrieked.