This is a short story from my book River of Dreams (available online in print and ebook formats). We were given a photo and then asked to write a story. This picture shows a line of seven people, possibly family members, some holding red balloons, walking down a street in some town in modern Russia. I don’t think there’s actually any such parade in St. Petersburg, but if there were, this family would fit right in—all except Yevgeniy…
“Hurry up, Yevgeniy! You’re going to make us all late!” Masha was laying out the fish and sliced onions for the afternoon meal, checking the rising dough for the piroshkis, smelling the warm mixture of chopped onions and beef and cabbage for the stuffing.
Yevgeniy Abramofsky stared at the mirror on the wall. His eyes were still red from the tears dried from Omi’s apron. Today was the Parade of the Commemoration of the Soldiers of the Motherland, and all St. Petersburg would be out, dressed in their finery and best shoes, cheering on the marching and the drumming and the music, smelling the fried breads and cookies and the slightly sour-sweet aroma of spilled kvass.
And Yevgeniy would not be there, not in the parade, not on the sidelines, not on the balcony. He had, against all commands and orders, gone into the Forbidden Room where there were Many Breakable Things, and he had opened the closet to check, just one more time, for the delightful props they would be carrying to celebrate Toys and Children, his family and joining their neighbors in solidarity, taking part with all St. Petersburg to honor the new Russia of peace and light and freedom.
And somehow, all of Mama’s careful stacking and neat ordered shelves had come undone, just when he was reaching out to take his very own balloon, and it had all come crashing down. Plates and cups and the metal box with Papa’s tobacco, little porcelain figurines from Paris, the bottle of expensive perfume that no one opened, the shelves themselves somehow coming loose as he attempted to simply pull the box closer and closer, the chair tumbling below him, and everything landing on top of him in one sticky, stinky, muddled mess.
Mama and Papa and Omi had rushed into the room at the sound, his aunts and uncles stood at the door, and there was no speaking. There was nothing to say. Yevgeniy had ruined the family who would now be missing from the grand celebration. In the square block of Russian citizens there would be a conspicuous absence of seven Abramofskys, sure to be noticed by neighbors and block captains and all the citizens lined up on the streets.
He stared at his face in the mirror, a criminal and a thief and a burglar, the words from Mama and Papa and Omi still ringing in his ears. There was nothing to be done now, of course. Six people could not go where seven were expected; seven could not go empty handed where seven red balloons were required. Six balloon were safe, but one—his balloon—was ruined by the spilled perfume, the rubber melting in the alcohol, the sweet smell of lilacs and roses and something that didn’t quite smell at all but simply was tasted at the back of your throat permeated the air still. His hands were pink and raw from the scrubbing Mama had performed to get the cloying aroma off, the faint traces of lanolin and coal tar mixing with the rosewater scent.
Tante Albertina came into the room, carrying a sweet pickle from the tray in the kitchen. “Here, eat this. You’ll feel better.” She sat on the bed next to him. “It’s not so bad, Yevgeniy. The cat is still alive, and the hair will grow back soon.” His Royal Highness Tarlemagne was still sulking somewhere in the apartment, licking the patches where his fur had been cut away to remove the spilled nail polish. There was still a faint outline on the wooden floor where Papa had scrubbed and scrubbed to remove the bright red lacquer. No scrubbing, of course, would remove the same color from the silk rug: it would remain a memory of Yevgeniy’s disobedience unto the seventy-of-sevens generations, his Papa had declared.
She hugged him, tousled his hair, and then leaned close. “I don’t know if you can go with us, Yevgeniy, without your balloon. Everyone will see us, the seven Abramofskys, with six red balloons, and think: something happened to Yevgeniy. But if there were only five balloons…”
And with that Tante Albertina reached into her pocket to pull out her own balloon. “See? My balloon might also be damaged.” She took the scissors from the sewing basket near the window. “Perhaps someone made a careless mistake while darning socks.” She snipped the balloon in two. “And now there are two people with no balloon, which of course is entirely normal and expected. Now dry your tears and come out when you’re ready. We’ll make a sight, the Seven Abramofskys and Their Five Balloons. No one else will be so clever as us.”
Yevgeniy looked up to his aunt and smiled. It was all going to be good. And there would be piroshkis afterwards, and maybe the sweet angel cookies Mama made for special occasions.
Tante Albertina closed the door behind her. He got up from the bed, slicked down his hair, and went to the door.
Then he turned to the dresser next to Mama’s bed. She always kept her gold filigree watch there, and he’d never had the chance to look at it up close.