I hate clowns. They are the worst creatures on the planet. Give me a bucket of spiders, a bag of snakes, a boat load of cockroaches and I will kiss you on the lips. But if I see a clown, a single, solitary clown I will have the most crippling panic attack. Growing up I’ve never really cared for them, but I wasn’t really scared. I couldn’t tell you why I hated them. Maybe it was because of Stephen King or John Wayne Gacy. Even Ronald McDonald made my skin crawl. Really, I couldn’t tell you, but while I don’t know why this fear started, I do know that it was the circus that pushed me over the edge.
I live in the small town of Bakersfield which is in the middle of nowhere with its closest neighbor over fifty miles away. And though we are pretty well removed from major cities, we still get our fair share of visitors including, but not limited to, a traveling circus. Where I live there isn't much to do for people my age so we are often left to our own devices. Living where I do, it’s important to have friends to spend time with. Mike, Tom and Pete were mine friends. I had known then since grade school if not earlier. Even after Mike and I left for different colleges, we still kept in touch with Tom and Peter; both of whom stayed in town keeping with the family business. Tom was working on his parent's farm while Peter was working as a mechanic for Dusty's Auto Shop.
When Mike and I told them we when we were coming back for the summer, they were ecstatic. We had just finished our first year of school and couldn’t wait to get back and see everyone. And though we were apart, the second we got together it wasn't hard to get back into our old pattern. It was like following a well-worn path in the forest. You could wander from it but you could always find your way back.
It was later that evening when one of my friends, Pete I think, who pitched the idea of going to the circus. The others agreed, thinking it may be fun. After all there were rides, shows and games—rigged games but games nonetheless. Mike was down for anything since his brain was fried from finals. I was a bit more reluctant though. My friends knew of my dislike of clowns, and when I told them I wasn’t sure, they did as any good friends would do, they taunted me mercilessly. Eventually they convinced me to go but not before I had a few drinks to make the excursion much more tolerable. The others took to drinking as well, but as young and stupid as we were, we weren't dumb enough to drive without a DD. So, by a staggering loss to rock, paper, scissors, Pete drove while Mike, Tom, and I downed a case of beer that we swiped from Mike’s house.
The fairgrounds were surprising large, with multicolored tents as far as the eye could see. There were vendors for popcorn, candy, funnel cakes, your usual carnival fare—pun intended. And we did as any carnival goer would: we bought overpriced snacks, played impossible games, and decided to finish up our evening by checking out some of the rides. It was during one of these rides that things took a terrible turn. It was so innocuous, so mundane that no one could have expected the night to deteriorate so quickly.
We had just hopped off the Tilt-a-whirl and while the rest of us were feeling fine, Pete was pretty dizzy. We didn’t give him too much of a hard time because even sober that ride would turn anyone’s stomach and he was prone to motion sickness. I, on the other hand, was feeling fine but I attributed that to the fact that I drank fairly regularly. I wasn’t a frat boy by any means but I did partake fairly regularly so I guess my stomach was a bit more tolerant to nausea. It was when the ride was finished that I saw he was pale and spitting a lot; not a good sign. Tom and Mike were ready to go onto another ride but I knew that Pete was a hair away from losing it. So I told them to head out and that we would catch up. They agreed and ran off to the house of mirrors.
I led Pete to the closest trash can I could find asking, "You feeling alright?" He took a seat in the dirt, back up against a wire fence. His head hung low and every few seconds I heard him spit.
"I think I'm dying." Pete said, groaning.
"You'll be fine." I told him patting his back. Instantly a deep, powerful belch erupted from him sending me into a fit of laughter. If roles had been reversed, he would have done the exact same thing so I didn't feel guilty at all.
As Pete fought to keep his dinner down, I took to people-watching. There were just so many people moving around talking, laughing, and crying that I just lost myself in the sea of activity. It was like being back on campus again. If I closed my eyes I could actually picture myself there. It was amid the screaming children, the chatting adults and the rambunctious teens that I saw something odd. Walking out of a nearby tent, shoulders hunched and head hanging low, was a clown. The rosy red cheeks and wide painted smile were a smeared mess. I saw tears cutting trails down his round face, ruining his makeup even further. Curly, sweat soaked hair poked out from underneath the conical pompom hat that remained fixed on his head by virtue of the string straining against his fatty jowls. Even from where I was, it was clear that he was crying, not bothering to hold back the flood of tears.
"Hey Pete, check it out." I said nudging him with my foot. A slight nervous chill ran down my spine, the clown’s presence making me cringe.
"What?" He said with a moan. He looked up at me like a sickly child, but I ignored his obvious illness and pointed.
"What do you think is wrong with him?" I asked. He simply shrugged and we both looked to the clown who at the moment noticed us. His eyes met with ours and as they did, he froze. He gazed at us, stared at us, glared at us. It wasn't until later, after I was sober and replaying the night with a clear head that I noticed something that I hadn't before. The clown's temperament had shifted from extremely distraught to outright furious. His downturned lips were pulled back into a feral sneer and his chest and stomach swelled with deep breaths. I only looked away from this clown when I heard Pete scramble to his feet and throw up in the trash can. When I turned back to the clown, he was gone.
After Pete was finished and some of the color had returned to his face, I collected him and went to find our friends who were in line for the circus sideshow. You know the type: two headed cow and the world's strongest man, the bearded woman and the amazing dolphin boy. The usual bizarre carny types. The show was just as I expected. The aliens in jars were really just dead animal fetuses in formaldehyde, the World's Strongest Man was simply preternaturally strong, and the bearded lady had a hormonal condition as did the El Chupa-thingy Boy. Honestly I think the Internet has ruined a lot of wonder that those shows used to create. Regardless, we were in and out, having our fair share of laughs at the sideshow's expense. To our credit, we didn't openly mock them, keeping our conversations between the four of us.
Stepping out of the last tent of the 'freak show', I was taken aback when I saw the clown again. He was peering around an adjacent tent, only his face visible. The grease paint had deteriorated even further and he looked more like some horrific rendition of the Joker. The wicked sneer I saw before was more prevalent now, his teeth bared like a feral animal. Tears continued to stream down his cheeks, but any sorrow that his eyes once held was gone, leaving nothing but hatred in its absence.
My gaze only broke from his when Mike shoved me and shouted, "Hey!" I guess I was so enthralled by this clown that I didn't hear him calling for me.
"Dude." I said, shoving him back.
"Dave, you alright?" Pete asked.
"Yeah... I'm fine.” I said as I turned back to the clown but once again he was gone. I played my daze off as nothing more than exhaustion and forced a laugh but there was just something about seeing that clown that touched a nerve. It was clear my buzz was fading fast.
After the freak show, and my slight freak out, we decided that it was getting late and we all were fairly tired so we decided to head back to Mike's house to crash. His house was the closest and since his parents were out of town we didn’t have to worry about waking anyone up. I drove feeling the most sober of the group and the trip back home was uneventful. I put on some music, keeping it low. Tom quickly passed out while Mike and Pete just stared out the windows speaking only now and then. As I said we were all pretty tired. It was maybe because I was the one driving that I noticed it but as we went, I thought I saw a car following behind us. I wasn’t certain because there were no headlights but I had the distinct impression someone was there. The highway didn’t have any lights so there were only my headlights to guide the way. I only assumed my mind was playing tricks on me because when we got into town, I didn’t see anyone there.
When we arrived at Mike’s house, we tried waking up Tom to get him inside but he was gone. We considered carrying him inside but in the end it was just easier to let him sleep it off in the car. It was a warm night and there was a blanket in the trunk he could use as a pillow. It was supposed to storm that evening so I cracked the windows a bit to get some air flow before closing the doors to let him sleep it off. Of course we made sure to roll him onto his side; just in case. Once inside Mike stripped to his boxer briefs, his clothes trailing behind him as he stepped into his room and just collapsed onto the bed. With Mike and Tom officially done with the day, Pete and I took to raiding the kitchen in search of food.
"How can you be hungry after throwing up earlier?" I asked as I watched Pete rip open a bag of chips and shovel a handful into his mouth. He shrugged, saying nothing. I rolled my eyes and pulled a pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator. "Hey Pete," I asked, retrieving a glass, "Do you remember that clown we saw after the tilt-a-whirl?"
"Yeah." He said, with a mouthful of masticated potatoes. "Why what’s up?" I replaced the pitcher and took a seat at table across from him.
"I..." I started but before I could finish my thought, the power went out.
“What the hell?” Pete cried.
“Power outage?” I said.
“From what?” He asked me
“Storm maybe.” I told him.
“Well, that’s weird.” Pete said, “As he turned toward the window. “I didn’t see any lightning or anything like that and the street lamps are still on.”
“I don’t know.” I said but I wasn’t really too concerned. I knew the lamps could be on a different grid or for all we knew Mike’s parents forgot to pay the bill. What I did know was that I was tired and ready for some sleep. “I’m going to go check on Tom, before I crash on the couch.”
“What about the power?” Pete asked me.
“That is Future Dave’s problem.”
I stepped into the living room and yawned as my exhaustion finally caught up with me. Three days of finals, a three hour drive and then staying at a carnival until after midnight was more than enough to wear me out. I opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. The neighborhood was quiet, saccades and crickets the only sounds that I could heard save for the light rumble of thunder in the distance. A storm was coming. The moon was overhead, but even in the darkness I could see the pinpoint lights of distant stars being consumed by the rolling darkness. As my gaze drifted away from the ominous sky I paused as I saw that one of Mike’s car doors was open.
"Tom?" I called but only heard an echo in return. I walked over to the car wondering if he was even still inside. If he woke up feeling sick, he may have run into the backyard to throw up or maybe he had to take a piss. It was a possibility but still something didn’t sit right with me.
I moved quickly, the moonlight fading as the clouds rolled in. It wouldn't be long before it was completely swallowed up by the darkness. In the distance, I heard another rumble of thunder as the storm moved closer. It was as I came closer that I noticed something else. Below the opened door there was a pool of something. It was large and dark in the dim light. Seeing it I figured he probably threw up and then passed out again.
“Feel better Tom?” I called, more to myself than him. It was possible he threw up without even realizing it.
The moment I rounded he door however, my stomach dropped and then recoiled as nausea struck me like a fist. I gasped as I stared into the car, fear clenching my throat. Lying in the back seat was Tom, but he wasn’t asleep. He was dead. His eyes wide and glassy, like polished marble. Skin pale, gray I saw that his throat had been slashed open and blood was everywhere: the ceiling, the backseat, the front seat, the floor, the doors; everywhere. He did not have a peaceful death. He looked pained and so afraid.
I don’t know how long I stared at him but it was a loud clap of thunder that finally snapped me out of my paralysis. I immediately reached for my phone but it wasn’t in my pocket. It was then I remembered I emptied my pockets when I went inside. I knew I had to go in, call the cops, and tell my friends what happened but I didn’t want to leave Tom. Even though he was gone, I felt like I was abandoning him. I did find my feet but it wasn’t by choice. It was by necessity. Staring at Tom, my mind reeling from my crumbling reality, I heard a scream; a scream that came from inside. That was when I ran back to the house.
The moment I pulled open the door, I screamed for Pete but heard nothing. I looked down at the small table in the foyer and saw my wallet and keys, but not my phone. “Pete! Mike!” I shouted but heard only a rumble thunder. Brief flashes of light flickered outside, as the lightning erupted overhead. The heavy patter of rainfall drifted through the open door filling the darkness around me. I screamed for Pete and Mike once more, but still I heard nothing.
With lightning as my only guide I ran to check on Pete but the moment I stepped into the kitchen there was a brilliant flash of light that revealed a gruesome tableau. Pete was sitting in the same chair as when I left but the chip bag was on the floor, the tile littered with the fallen snack food. His arms were slack, hanging down at his sides, and though his back was to me, he was staring at me. You see his head was no longer on his shoulders, but instead placed on the table, blood pooling underneath it. In those brief flashes of light I could see that his neck was a ragged mass of flesh.
Before I could even think I heard another scream. This time I heard it clearly: it was Mike. Brief flashes of Pete and Tom crossed my mind and before I even realized it I was bolting for his room. Without slowing my pace I grabbed the doorknob and turned it but I only slammed into the hollow wood. I gripped the knob again and twisted as hard as I could but it refused to turn.
"Mike, open the door!" I screamed.
"Dave, help!" He cried. I didn’t bother banging on the door again, there was no point. Instead, I took a step back and with a deep breath I brought my foot up. The wood splintered easily, sending the door swinging open and in another flash of lightning I saw Mike but he was struggling with a short, heavyset man. Clutched in this man's hand was a soiled, blood stained hatchet.
I wasted no time thinking about what was happening or what to do. I just acted. With everyone ounce of strength I could muster, I rushed the man, throwing all of my weight into him. I managed to knock him off balance and together Mike and I threw him to the floor. The man snarled and screamed at us like a feral dog, never actually saying real words. He was soaked with sweat and blood, making it difficult to keep a strong grip, but I climbed onto his chest, pinning his arms at his side. I ripped the hatchet from him, raising it over my head just daring him to try anything. Mike was on his feet and within seconds his face was lit up by his phone.
"The cops are on the way." Mike said but it did little to slow my thudding heart.
While we waited, I ordered Mike to shine his phone on the man's face. I had to know who this man was. I didn't tell him about Pete or Tom yet, not wanting to distract him in case I needed his help. If this man somehow threw me off, we needed to be able to subdue him again. Mike sorted through his apps and within moments a brilliant beam of light cut through the darkness. Casting it upon the attacker, I felt my stomach drop once more. It was the clown from the carnival. The makeup was an indiscernible mess, ruined by sweat, tears and blood. I guess that Mike saw something in my expression; maybe it was shock, surprise, anger, I don't know. But I remember him asking me if I was okay, but his words were distant. The peels of thunder were barely audible as I came to understand something horrible. The clown that we saw at the carnival had followed us home and killed two of my best friends, almost killing a third.
While staring at this man, this weeping clown, I realized that I still had the hatchet in my hand. While the rest of the world felt so distant, the hatchet had so much weight. It was real, tangible. As I stared at it, the soiled and stained head, a dark inner voice spoke to me, telling me what I should do with it. And it took very little convincing. Mike said nothing, or if he did, I didn't hear him. The clown's expression never wavered, his fury never shifting. It was like he was daring me to do it, and it was a challenge I was willing to accept. With a single, powerful swing I screamed as I brought the hatchet down into the clown's face.
There’s not much to tell after that. The sheriff found us with the body of a clown that had a hatchet in his face and two dead friends. Two days after the funeral of our friends, my parents received a call from the sheriff and they shared the information with me. The clown’s name was Perry Gray and he had been let go by the carnival due to concerns over drinking on the job and numerous violent outbursts. Apparently during the night of the murders, he had been fired. The sheriff didn't know why they chose us as their victims but I told my folks that it might have been because Pete and I were laughing when we saw him. Though it was completely unrelated, he must have thought we were laughing at him. My parents said nothing, only hugged me and helped me through all of this as best they could.
Mike and I are doing alright. We are both still in school and Mike even transferred to mine so that we could keep in close contact. With some pretty intense therapy, he and I are managing. But ever since that night whenever I see someone dressed like a clown, see a picture of a clown or anything that I could perceive as a clown I break down. While I have adjusted to losing my friends, I have never adjusted to that.
And that is why I hate clowns.