Unsure of the why but well practiced in the how, Liam pulled the straps on his father’s kevlar vest tight, jostling the back plate to make sure it didn’t move and expose any vulnerable vertebrae near his neck. Reminders of past years nicked and slashed the thick canvas, letting the ballistic plastic below smile through as a dozen plaque-stained grins.
His father shrugged forward to test his gear, twisting and bouncing like a sprinter preparing for the one hundred meter. He pointed to the machete lazing on a stool next to the fire. Liam lifted the blade, watching the flipped images of the flames dance on its polished face, careful not to cut himself on the edge so recently honed to skin slitting sharpness.
It was too much ferocity for a ten-year old, too top heavy, too awkward and inelegant to be an effective weapon. But in his father’s hands, rough steelworker’s hands, it snapped through the air, a cobra striking with steel fangs. After three quick flicks he slid it into the scabbard already mounted on his hip with a satisfying shlink, like a key settling into a lock. “Dad, why do you have to go out?” Liam studied the flames, trying to scry the answer before his father responded.
“We won the tickets this year. I have to go. We’ve been waiting for this chance since your little sister was born.” He sank into the ochre couch as he bent to tie his boots, the tension in the room tightening with each pull of the black laces. Liam swallowed the mix of fear and tears that filled his little body to emotional maximum. “But…last year…”
His father didn’t look up from his boots. “Last year was different. I was just part of the mob. I thought maybe I could…but we don’t have to worry about that this year. I got tickets. I’ll be right up front. I probably won’t even have to use this.” He pet the machete like it was his loyal pet, man’s best metallic friend. The boots tied, he stood up. Where his lanky, underfed father had stood twenty minutes ago, a soldier stood now, a man made for war, ready to face or deal death, whichever came first.
From the window, Brooklyn looked split in two: slowly dying fires twinkled down the shadowy streets of the burrough, while those few who could still afford electricity blared prosperity from the top of the skyline like a decadent halo. Liam thought he could see into those impossibly high windows sometimes, catch a glimpse of the people in colorful clothes watching little men dance across digital screens, look into, however briefly, the life his father promised to bring home for them every November.
“Why can’t you just stay home? Me and Jess don’t need a TV. We’re OK, Dad.” His father stopped adjusting the filter on his gas mask and met the boy’s unblinking stare. “It’s not that easy, Liam. I want to give you the chance you deserve, and to do that, we have to fit in. One scan shows that we have no TV, no computer, and that keeps me from even interviewing for a better job.” He dashed a pile of high gloss ads off the kitchen table, casting a rainbow of sales across the sparsity of the ground-floor apartment.”We need this stuff, and today is the only day I can get it.”
A scream shattered the glass serenity of the night, the last cry of some unlucky soul falling early to the violence in the streets. His father knelt and put a hand on his shoulder. “It won’t be like last year, Liam. I promise. This time I’ll be there right when the meal ends. Right next to all the stuff. I’ve got a plan to get there, my whole route home. We’ve got the gear and I’m more prepared than ever. This year might mean we can move to the tenth floor next year.” He slung the empty sack over his shoulder, trusting the strength of his own bag more than the thin white plastic with the blue and yellow logo.
He moved towards the door, heavy boots marching out a funeral dirge on the wooden floors. “By why, Dad? Why does it have to be this way?”
His father turned around to take one last look at his son before he put his life, and his money, in the hands of the corporate machine. “Because it’s always been this way, son. There isn’t any other way to make it in this life. Those are the Black Friday rules.”