When baby-blue walls are the only thing separating you from the degradation of humankind, it’s hard to stay calm. But what choice do I have? My attempts to escape, to continue my plight, have drawn the walls tighter. The threat taunts me in my prison. The memories eat at my conscience.
A line of silly string—pukey green in the yellow light—squiggled down the alley and disappeared behind an industrial bin. I crept forward and tried not to breathe in, but the stench tugged my nostril hairs and threatened to call up my cheeseburger dinner. Nevertheless, I pushed on. I had him. "GIVE IT UP, BOZO.”
A chuckle erupted from behind the bin. A rainbow smelling of popcorn rushed past me. Ill-fitting shoes flip-flopped down the alley, and I chased, my clown extermination kit, cleverly disguised as a briefcase, swinging at my side. When I reached the corner, he’d gone. No circus smells. No flip flops. No crazy blue hair that marked him as a member of the Clown Uprising.
"Damn." Three days into Carnival, and already two people missing. I had to stop him.
My hand dove for the tinkle and jig in my coat pocket. It was my wife and soul-mate, Sarah, calling to tell me we were low on milk. "Sure hon’. Two per cent, right?" On its way back to the pocket, the phone chimed again. I smiled at her forgetfulness, warmed by her child-like simplicity. "Yeah, hon'?"
I frowned at the raspy voice. "I’LL GET YOU, BOZO. I SWEAR, IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO, I’LL GET YOU, YOU MOTHERF . . ." He hung up.
The chuckle tapped me on the shoulder, and I spun to the evil sound marching up the subway stairs. I sprinted across Seventy-Two and bounded three steps at a time into the station’s belly.
Flip flop, flip flop. The blue hair bounced along the platform. The red suspenders shone in the fluorescent light.
"THERE’S NOWHERE TO RUN, BOZO." Shift workers melted into the grubby tiles and poster stands.
Bozo stopped by the tracks, the toes of his shoes extending over the yellow line as a blatant reminder of the clown’s disregard for personal safety. He peered down the tunnel, weighing his chances, until finally, he spoke: "Aw, sure, you got me." The painted smile, a U of red framed by white, appeared thrilled by his surrender.
I strode down the platform and fumbled with the briefcase, snapping the tabs and retrieving the handcuffs.
"You ain’t going to kill me?”
I considered the contents of the briefcase—how easy it would be—but two people had been squirted, and I needed to find them before the anarchy spread. The links tightened with a ratchet of clicks around Bozo's skinny wrists, and I led him back into the streets.
"Where are they?”
Bozo shrugged. "Spreading the love, I guess. That’s our job.”
I yanked on his arm. Bozo flinched, but the ecstatic expression on his face never changed. "There’s more of us, you know. You gonna single-handedly kill us all?”
"That’s the plan.”
"One squirt, and you’ll be one of us. Just like your old man.”
I gritted my teeth against the bait and dragged him on.
"It’s not so bad once you get used to it.”
So why hadn’t he tried to squirt me? I spun him to face me and saw the pin holes in his polka dot shirt. "Where’s your flower?"
Another lazy shrug, but the grin was real this time. "Must have dropped it.”
"But anyone could pick it up—any child or playful adult . . .”
"Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
By the time we reached the shed by the cemetery, I was sick of the popcorny smell of him. "Get in there," I growled, pushing him into the darkness. I checked that enough light filtered through the tiny window and refastened the padlock. "Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”
He started wailing immediately. "NOOO. I CAN’T STAND IT. GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
A minute later, I swung open the door.
Bozo was curled in the fetal position, crying and quivering. His voice shook with fear. "You’re a monster.”
I glanced at the torture devices: the dropped ice cream cone; the empty bag of cotton candy; the popped balloons. I guessed it was the dancing Mickey, not dancing because of flat batteries that drove him over the edge.
"Where are they?”
Slowly, he uncurled and crawled through the doorway, away from tragedy. "One mucks the monkey pens; the other minds the Ferris wheel." Dejected, defeated, he slumped against a headstone.
"Where’s your flower?"
"I told you, man, I don’t know. Must have dropped it in the library."
"Why were you at the—? Oh, never mind." My brain sifted through my options.
"Are you going to kill me? Only four more days of Carnival. Can’t do much without my flower."
True enough, but I couldn’t let him go. I dragged him back into the shed, and then feeling a pang of pity, scooped up the candy bag, balloons, Mickey doll, and the remains of the ice cream cone and dumped them behind the headstone. "I’ll be back in four days."
I was beat. The Carnival would be wrapping up for the night. Monkey man and Ferris-wheel dude would have to wait till the following evening. Capturing Bozo was a big enough achievement for one day.
Sanjay’s Store opened till late. I avoided Sanjay’s chirpiness and arrived home just before twelve. I knew Sarah would be up blending health drinks, confirmed by the weedy smell of zucchini mush and whir of the blender. "Hi darl’," I called as I laid the briefcase and milk on the coffee table. "Good day?"
The buzz in the kitchen died. "Great," she called back. "I picked up a few books from the library. Classics mainly."
A stack of Stephen King books, the top one featuring an evil-looking clown, glared at me from the coffee table. Before I could pick it up to inspect the back cover, Sarah appeared in the kitchen archway. The frizzy blue hair and new style of make-up did nothing for her complexion.
"When I was at the library, I found this." She held a plastic black-eyed Susan. Her eyes narrowed. "Here, take a sniff."
As she stepped forward, awkward in the long shoes, I lunged for my briefcase and sprung the tabs. But this was Sarah—I couldn’t. No!—Sarah was gone. I armed myself and fired. The cream pie smooshed into the red nose. Cream chunks spattered the lounge and dribbled onto the carpet.
The clown dropped. The pie tray tumbled from my hand.
"Dinner time, Mr. Hunter. Here, let me help you."
The nurse who grips my arm reminds me of Sarah; the doctor who drops in once a day looks a lot like Dad, but the smiles and uniforms and walks through the rose garden don't fool me. Beneath the façade beats the evil heart of the Clown Uprising, invading our homes, our schools, our hospitals.
I wish I had my extermination kit. Without it, escape is almost impossible. I turn to the nurse and blink. My eyes get so dry staring at the baby-blue walls.
E. M. Eastick was born and raised in the tropical north of Australia. Her creative efforts ignore genre boundaries: sometimes they glide on the sunshine of happy thoughts and sometimes they wander lost and lonely in dark, squishy places. On productive days, they do both. She currently lives in Colorado with a dog, a cat, and some humans.