All we wanted to do was kill a clown.
And not just once, either.
I mean, one clown, sure, one would be enough, one would be plenty. But he was going to die all night.
Dick’s ex was a nurse over at Idalou, and during their two years together, Dick had learned enough doctoring that he figured that he could bring a clown back from flatline a time or two at least. With electricity. With adrenalin stabbed into its heart.
It was going to be perfect.
What Garret had to provide wasn’t medical know-how, but his dad’s old barn out near the Lubbock county line. The one that should have caved in on itself two winters ago.
It would shelter us for one more night, though.
And, out by the county line, there was nothing but livestock to hear a clown scream.
We’d gone out there a few days before, killed the headlights of our trucks and closed the doors to turn the dome lights off as well, and the darkness had been almost grainy, it was so thick. Like we could have stuck our tongues out, let it collect, swallowed it down.
“Perfect,” Dick had said.
Garret had nodded, leaned over to spit just past the toe of his boot, and said, “Hell yeah, son.”
My job was the bait.
Of the three of us, I was the only with a son the right age.
Three weekends ago it had been my weekend with Josh. But, because we were watching the calendar, I’d faked a job for Misty Banta’s father. His spread was half of Crosby County; a good ten percent of my calls are to get his pumps going again, so his cotton will have something to drink.
From our six years together, Tina knew that a call from Deacon Banta wasn’t just a call for that particular pump job, but for all the pump jobs waiting for the rest of the year. When Deacon says jump, you don’t even hesitate.
She bought it, I’m saying.
And she was okay with me taking Josh to the carnival. Talking to her on the phone, there’d even been a pause, like she was thinking maybe she’d go with, that we could be that family again, walking down the midway or whatever it’s called, Josh between us, trying to figure out where to start on this wispy spin of cotton candy.
But she hadn’t said anything, and I hadn’t either.
All the years the carnival’d been coming through Crosbyton, we’d never gone, not even once, not even when Josh came home from kindergarten with a clutch of free tickets.
Tina’s only rule about it was that, if we rode anything fast, I be sure to be in the car with Josh.
It was because every once and again, the Hammer would throw its riders up into the sky and not catch them. Because at some point in the season, the Spinnaker was going to grind some kid’s arm off.
“He’s my son,” I’d said to Tina.
Instead of yes.
“No guns, right?” Garret said in the parking lot, when I pulled up.
Dick was already there, watching the Ferris wheel like it was his nightmare come to life.
It was. For all of us.
“No guns,” I said, both my hands cupped over my son’s shoulders.
He knew Dick, he knew Garret. They’d been there the night he was born, and they’d killed many a beer on our porch, and toasted the sun on its way up.
The first time or two, Tina’d scrambled us some eggs.
Turned out there weren’t enough eggs in the world, though.
There never is.
“What do you want to ride first?” Dick said, pushing away from his truck.
Josh looked up to him, then to me.
“Everything,” he said.
“That’s my man,” Garret said, and socked him soft on the shoulder.
“Everything,” I said.
It might have been what I’d said myself twenty years ago, standing right here, caught between second and third grade, the lights washing across my face.
It was the last time I’d be so innocent.
The Tunnel of Brotherly Love.
That was what the sixth graders had been calling it that year.
Me and Garret and Rich didn’t understand.
Dick was still “Rich” then, a name that would fall away in eighth grade when it got too cruel, from his dad having to go on food stamps.
Legend was that there was one particular second-rate carnival out there, maybe this one, maybe not, that it’s Tunnel of Love was jinxed, but in a special way. If you waited for the darkest part of the ride and then kissed the boy sitting beside you, kissed him like you meant it, not just a peck and gone, then the end of that tunnel would open onto a world that would look the exact same as you’d left, except it would be all different underneath.
Nobody was sure how it would be different, but the way we heard it, it would be like this new place would be stitched through with . . . with something like all your wishes come true. Like, you’d think you sure were thirsty, and then somebody’s give you coke. You’d think it sure is hot, and a cloud would drift over the sun. You’d think you sure hoped your mom didn’t tan your hide for being late, then she’d be on the phone when you sneaked through the front door.
The only problem was the boy-kissing part.
Still, we figured it’d be worth it.
And of course, later, we all figured out it was a scam, that the carnival had probably started the legend itself to sell more tickets.
It didn’t keep us from cramming three into a two-seat car, though, and closing our eyes at what we figured was the darkest part, puckering up.
It didn’t keep the sixth graders stationed behind us from telling everybody, either.
And it didn’t stop the dreams.
Garret was the first of us to halfway remember.
This was sophomore year, about. Freshman for Dick, as he was called by then. He’d failed out of ninth grade. But we were still us.
It had been years since anybody’d spelled out our names in the kissing tree song, too. But it had been good for us. We’d had to learn to scrap younger than most, we’d had to watch each other’s backs in a way other third-graders hadn’t, and we carried that with us now. Even the seniors left us alone for the most part.
But Garret’s dream.
We were out at his dad’s barn when he got liquored up enough to tell it.
The barn was still standing. We’d spent nearly all of that Saturday slapping dark red paint over it, for his older cousin’s wedding. The wood was thirsty, drank it up.
Garret’s dream was of that Tunnel of Love car just clanking along on its chain, the chain pulling the three of us along those two steel rails like a hundred times before.
But there had been that part with the strobe lights, where all the Halloween leftovers were stood up on rods, and hung from the ceiling.
The idea was that a girl would shriek, throw a leg over her guy’s thigh, and he could wrap a protective arm around her. Tunnels of Love aren’t complicated.
In Garret’s dream, though, one of those silver flashes of light, it lit up this out-of-place clown. A clown that, next strobe, had turned its head, was looking right at me and Rich, kissing.
It was like we’d woken it up.
And that was it, the end of Garret’s dream, just looping for him night after night, and sometimes during history or math.
“What does it mean?” Dick asked, draining his beer.
“It means he’s a dumbass,” I said, cuffing the back of Garret’s neck and pushing him away.
There was hay dust floating all around us right then, I remember.
It felt like the world was never going to end.
Because Tina would hate hearing about it, I took Josh up into the Hammer first thing.
It’s important to get the Hammer behind you like that. If you do it after popcorn and slushees and milk duds, the inside of that bullet-shaped gondola can get ugly.
I clamped my hat down and the attendant locked us in, nodded once to me like a bullrider, and up we went, to hell with gravity and logic.
If you don’t scream at least once on the Hammer, then you’re probably not alive.
Josh was laughing so hard when it was done that he was crying. Either that or he’d started out crying, and now it had turned the other way.
He was going to be all right, I figured.
Dick and Garret were waiting like sentries at the exit gate, their eyes everywhere at once.
“Having fun?” Dick said, his lips thin.
I didn’t answer, just pulled Josh past.
For two hours, we rode everything at least once, and then it was hot dogs and ice cream and paper boats dripping with nachos. For all of us.
Clown killing, it’s hungry work.
Finally, Dick pushed his second hot dog away half-finished, looked to Garret and me in a way we couldn’t ignore.
“Enough of this,” he said, and balled his napkin up, rolled it onto the table like he was calling our bluff.
It had all been a good idea two months ago, when the carnival’s flyers first started showing up stapled to telephone poles, taped to the gas pumps, tacked on the bulletin board at the laundromat.
Dick had the make-do medical degree.
Garret had the place.
I had my son.
For the moment, I still did.
I told Josh that Uncle Garret and Aunt Dick were going to ride a ride finally.
Garret leaned over, spit in front of my boot, his eyes on mine the whole time.
“They’ll sit right behind us,” I said to Josh, staring back at Garret.
We were standing in line for the Tunnel of Love. We weren’t tallest—there were some varsity linemen there, with their bubbly dates—but we were the oldest, by about a generation.
We were the least smiley, too.
What had happened sophomore year was that Garret’s dream had made us remember our own dreams.
For a few nights after the Tunnel of Brotherly Love—it’s hard to even talk about. And it was different for each of us, as near as we could compare, that long after the fact.
Garret’s dream pretty much stopped when he saw that clown’s head twitch over, become aware of us, its eyes completely fixed on me and Dick, kissing. It was like his dream was stopping there because that’s where he flinched.
The way it was for Dick was that he woke in his bed for no reason.
He was living in town with his grandparents then, sleeping in the same bed his dad had slept in before him.
Their street was Durham, and it was the same as Dogwood and Emerald and every other street.
A hundred times before, he’d lifted the old-fashioned window of his bedroom, stepped out careful of his grandmother’s prize flowers, and gone off into the night with us, the silver spokes of our bike’s wheels flashing moonlight.
It’s what he thought was happening again. That we’d touched the glass of his window with a twig, were waiting out on the lawn for him.
The way he told it, looking away so we couldn’t make out what exactly was happening to his eyes, he kind of drifted up from bed, ghosted across to the window, dodging the creaky floorboard.
The lawn was empty. Just moonlight on dead grass.
He looked up the street then back again, said it out loud, “Hunh,” and turned to get back in his bed.
Except there was a clown in it. A clown lifting up the sheet, in invitation.
Which is where it cut off for him, the whole rest of that night.
Some people are blessed, I guess.
Where it picked up for me was in the nurse’s office at school.
I was bleeding into my underwear.
From back there.
The Sheriff came down, the district’s counselor drove in, and then Doctor E showed up, a sour look on his face. I was wearing dark green sweat pants from lost and found by then. Doctor E said it was recent, what had happened to me, what had been happening to me. Just a night or two ago, and this was Thursday. I hadn’t been anywhere but home right after school all week.
There was only one answer who it could be.
My dad didn’t know what was waiting for him when he coasted in at seven that night, his hard hat cocked up on the dashboard.
My teacher then was Ms. Willoughby.
She walked right out across the sidewalk in her skirt and cardigan, waited for my father to stand from the truck, his gloves folded in his hands like he’d always taught me—a man’s only as good as his gloves, always take them inside for the night—and she slapped him across the face, then hid her face and ran down the sidewalk.
I know because I was watching from the backseat of my mom’s car, three houses down.
We were supposed to have left, my mom even had a thick clutch of one dollar bills for the motel that night, from a hat the Principal had passed, but she couldn’t do it. She had to see.
The men gathered on the lawn took turns on my father. Boots, fists, knees. When one of them limbered a crowbar up from the side of his leg, though, the Sheriff guided it back down.
My father woke up in jail, and then in court, and then in lock-up in Lubbock, waiting for transfer down to Huntsville. That simple.
I don’t know what ever happened to his gloves.
All I did know, the secret I only ever told Garret and Dick, was that in my bed a few nights later, something caught behind my knee. Something that had been lost in the sheets.
It was a little red ball made from foam. With a slit in the side.
A clown nose.
The car jerked us forward, into the past.
Because this was The Tunnel of Love, the seats weren’t molded for two, but for one, and angled to the center so you slid into whoever you were with.
“Is it scary?” Josh said, his hand on my leg.
“No,” I lied.
Garret and Dick were right behind us. They fit into their car even tighter, were liking it even less. It would have been hilarious, any other night.
Dick said he’d burned the underwear he’d bled into that year.
Garret didn’t have any memory at all. It was like that one silver flash of light had wiped him clean.
Our plan was to ride until it worked, until it happened, until we saw that clown turn its face our way.
My plan was to tip my cap off this first time, so Josh would believe that we were going back for it. And that we were going back for it again, and then I’d just keep losing it over the side of the car.
Meaning this was just a dry run. This was just prep, just casing the place. Seeing if we had the nerve or not.
Still, I held my son close to my side, and he sensed that something was off. I could feel it in his breathing. In the way he was trying to watch everything at once, his head on a swivel.
When he flinched from the first stupid strobe going off like a camera flash, I pulled him closer yet, and, because it’s what you do, I kissed his forehead to keep him safe, and in that instant Garret screamed.
I didn’t know his throat could sound like that. I don’t think he did either. And it wasn’t stopping, either.
Everybody screamed with him.
Me and Josh turned and Garret was trying to fight his way from the car but the crossbar had him pinned at the lap. All he had to crawl out of was his skin, and he was about to.
Dick looked to me like for help, and my face went cold when I saw what had happened, when I saw why Garret was flipping out.
Dick had two black-eyeliner crosses drawn across his eyes, crosses with those diamond tips like a wrought-iron cemetery fence. Like a clown.
“What?” he said, touching where I was looking, his finger coming back dabbed black.
I touched my eyes to be sure, but my fingers came back normal.
Two or three clanks of the car’s chain later, Garret was able to grab onto a prop pitchfork, jam it under his steel wheel to . . . I don’t know. Tip them over, spill him out? Run the plastic tines up under Dick’s jaw, splash them out through his eye sockets?
I was able to turn around enough in my car to wrestle the pitchfork to a standstill.
They had to shut the ride down.
“I—I remember now,” Garret said, and it was like he was crying from his mouth.
His dream had finally moved past that clown’s face. Into the nights after.
He had to breathe into a popcorn bag back by the trashcans for ten minutes before he could talk. I kept my hand on his shoulder, trying to anchor him to this world. He had those greasy popcorn husks all in the stubble around his mouth.
“This is off,” Dick said up to me, his eyes red from scrubbing.
“Like hell,” I told him.
Tina hugged me when I deposited Josh on the porch, and, because I’d once got down a knee to ask her to spend her life with me, she held me a breath longer than necessary, like she was hugging what could have been, too.
“Remember the window,” I told Josh when I bent down to tell him goodnight.
Tina was already inside the house.
Through the door I could see my favorite chair. It had a crochet blanket draped across it now.
Josh nodded his serious nod.
I’d told him I was going to go back to the carnival for one of those chocolate bars, was going to slip it over the sill if I could.
We took shifts staying awake, me and Garret and Dick. Or, Garret and Dick two shifts. I couldn’t shut my eyes. They wanted the clown dead, sure. But it was my son in there.
Tina came in, kissed Josh good night, pulled the chain on his light, and eased his door shut like she always did. The house was old, had high doors so the air could circulate. It was good for staying cool, but the drapes in the living room would move when Josh opened his window, the air from his room pulling down the hall at them.
I held my breath when Josh appeared at the window, his head just cresting the sill, but the blue light of Tina’s television never faltered. Meaning she hadn’t walked in front of it, to check the source of the draft.
“What?” Dick said.
I shook my head no, nothing.
Garret still wasn’t talking.
He did have a gun now, though. The twenty gauge from behind the seat of his truck. We hadn’t been able to pry it away.
All night, not one shadow moved in Josh’s room.
Because it was Saturday, Tina wasn’t up early, either.
I was the only one awake at the curb anymore.
I started the truck, eased us away.
At the Egg Shack, we shoveled breakfast in.
“It was because we didn’t go through enough times,” Garret finally said, just coughing it out all at once.
Me and Dick stopped eating, waited for more, didn’t want to mess him up now that he could talk again.
We’d barely got him to trade Dick’s .38 snubnose for the twenty gauge. The black rubber grip was sticking up from Garret’s pants like a billy club handle in a gangster movie. But it was better than a shotgun.
“We can go back—” I started to say, my soggy toast halfway to my mouth.
I stopped it there.
Dick and Garret looked where I was looking.
A clown was crossing from a booth on the east side of the Egg Shack. He was making for the bathroom.
Regular clothes, but the white was still on his face. Just smeared around.
“No nose,” Dick said.
He was right.
Not no clown nose, but no nose at all. Like, he’d left his foam one in some kid’s bed, and so the one he wore in the daytime, it hadn’t come back, looked all scooped-out now, like on a skull.
Garret’s hand jabbed down for the .38 but I took him by the elbow, guided him calm.
“Get the truck,” I told him, sliding my keys across the table at him.
Dick was already laying a ten and a twenty on the table.
Ninety seconds later, on the east side of the Egg Shack, I managed to sideswipe a waitress, sending her coffee and flapjacks and ketchup bottles crashing all over the floor.
Where nobody was looking for about ten seconds then was at the short hall that fed down into the bathrooms.
Had they been, they’d have seen a thirty-six-year-old man dragging a sleeping clown out the front door, rolling him into the bed of a truck. The clown wasn’t exactly sleeping, though.
I didn’t help pick up the breakfast I’d spilled.
“This is for my dad,” I said, and applied the water pump pliers to the clown’s lower lip and gave it my weight slow, pound by pound.
What Dick had was a horse inseminator, long retired.
Instead of pulling the clown’s pants down, we just cut them up the back, right along his crack.
What Garret had was his fists. I finally made him put gloves on.
It was eleven in the morning. We’d hardly even started.
Dick was right, too. He could bring a clown back from the dead, it turned out.
We splashed water over him and then hid.
He came to slow.
The water hadn’t even washed his white paste off. Maybe if you wear it enough nights, it doesn’t come off anymore.
Once he got his bearings, he reached over for whatever he could grab onto. It was an old pen, like for milking. He pulled himself to it, climbed it like a ladder.
Because Dick was Dick, he’d figured that’s what the clown would do. So he’d broke a green-glass bottle, spread it out along the top of the boards of that milking pen.
The clown fell back, curled around his hands and rocked sideways in the dirt.
When he stood the next time, it was with the help of a shovel handle we’d planted. It was just a handle, because it’s no fun if the whole word is sharp edges.
He used it like a crutch, like an oar, and made his way to the wide door we’d left thrown open.
The clown nodded about all the open space and took off at a hobble across the field. It was winter wheat gone native, all golden and headed out. Garret’s dad had sown it probably twenty years ago, just to hold the topsoil down, keep it from blowing into town.
Thirty yards out, one of the steel traps Dick had bought bit up into the clown’s shin.
We just watched.
The trap wasn’t tied to anything.
The clown fought it for a minute or two then stood again, started clumping to freedom.
Until the next trap.
Dick had thirty of them, all-told.
“Now that’s a funny clown,” he said.
This time we drowned him. Slow.
Because Dick couldn’t guarantee bringing the clown back a third time—the second time had been shaky enough, sparks and the smell of burnt meat everywhere, the needle in the clown’s heart over and over, like looking for the magic spot, the on-switch—I finally flicked my yellow pocket knife open.
It had been my dad’s.
When he’d died in Huntsville, they’d mailed us the envelope of possessions he was supposed to get back.
It was sharper than sin, could cut a hair longways two times if I held steady.
You know how sometimes when you’re eating a roast on a Sunday afternoon, and there’s a dark purple vein in there, and you kind of pull on it and it comes with your fork for a little ways before snapping?
That’s where I was going. That’s what I wanted to burrow around for, pull up into the daylight, show this clown.
“Now hold him,” I said to Dick and Garret.
It was a joke. The clown didn’t have any fight left to him.
I rolled his sleeve up and jerked my head back.
“Now that’s commitment,” Dick said.
The clown’s white make-up was even under his shirt.
None of us said it, but I know it made me wonder what else was white, in his pants. And whether that had rubbed into any of us that one summer, like Desitin.
I ground my teeth together.
Already this clown’s face was a mash of blood and meat, and he was bleeding into what was left of his underwear for sure, and there was battery acid mixed in with that blood instead of horse semen, and one of his feet flopped over now from the teeth of that first trap, but all of that fell away when I saw the fishbelly part of his arm.
“It’s because he’s a freak,” I said, licking my lips to get this cut right. To keep my hand steady.
“And we’re sure he’s the one, right?” Dick said for the second time.
It was because of how old the clown was, or wasn’t.
“They don’t age the same,” I said up to Dick, staring hard at him to make my case.
Not like we could stop now anyway.
“One clown’s as good as any other,” Garret said.
His voice was coming back. His head was starting to work again.
“Just do it,” Dick said.
I did, the blade slipping into the clown’s arm like the arm was made of butter, like the flesh wanted my knife.
The white didn’t stop at the skin, as it turned out.
The clown was paste all the way in.
When I looked up, he smiled at me, dark blood spilling from the low corner of his mouth, and then his whole face bulged up at once, the instant before it burst onto mine.
Garret had had the .38 right to the clown’s temple.
He was pulling the trigger and screaming, screaming and pulling the trigger.
I spit out what I could—it tasted like paint—let the clown slump away.
To finish it, we tied the clown to my truck like we’d promised, dragged him in figure-eights across the other side of the field from Dick’s traps. We kept having to stop to tie onto a different part. He was loose. He was coming apart.
“How many clowns can you fit in a car?” Dick asked, turned sideways to look through the back glass.
“A lot, like this,” I said.
We piled what was left in the barn and burned it.
“Let it go,” Garret said, when the barn itself caught.
If I say we held hands in that firelight, then it was as third-graders, and the light on our faces, it was from the entry arch of a carnival, when the world was a different world.
Because I wanted it to stop with me, I didn’t pass my yellow knife on to Josh like I’d always meant to.
Instead, at work one day I just dropped it down a drain, walked away.
As for Dick, he called his ex three days later, made her listen on the phone when he shot himself.
They found him naked at his kitchen at the table, his dinner dishes drying on the rack. He’d drawn the black crosses over his eyes. With a ballpoint pen, the coroner said at first. But it turned out he’d used a razor blade first, then cracked a pen open, smeared the ink in and washed the extra off.
It was a closed casket.
At the funeral Garret just looked at me, didn’t say anything.
What can you say?
Because nobody else would know to, I looked in Dick’s shed and his truck and even out at the old barn, but his steel traps were all gone. Maybe cocked and loaded out in the scrub now, waiting for some other clown to step into them.
When Josh asked where Aunt Dick was, I let my eyes catch Tina’s for a moment, got the go-ahead from her, and took Josh for a walk, explained a few things.
“Like Rusty,” Josh said.
Rusty my dog I’d had when I married Tina. Rusty, Josh’s first friend. His best friend. Rusty was buried in the church cemetery, now. We’d had to sneak in to do it. Because we loved him. All three of us had been crying. I’d thought for sure we were going to last forever.
“Like Rusty,” I said, and took his hand.
“What?” I said.
“He brought me that chocolate bar last night,” he said, trying not to smile.
I walked for sixteen more steps, replaying this in my head, and when I asked Josh the next question, I didn’t stop and squat down and square him up to me so I could watch his face. I just said it real casual, like we were already talking: “He?”
“Aunt Dick,” Josh said.
“But—” I said.
“His name isn’t Dick anymore, though,” Josh said, and whispered the next part: “It’s Rich.”
My face was hot, then cold. Then numb.
“And he’s not like Rusty,” Josh said. “He said he, that he ran away, that’s all. That he joined the carnival.”
I shut my eyes, walked blind the next three days, the next week.
Where I found Garret was the fairgrounds. It was still trashed up from the carnival.
“It’s just wood and fiberglass,” he said.
He was talking about the Tunnel of Love.
“And electricity,” I said.
“And electricity,” he said, nodding.
Neither of us were standing where the Tunnel had been. We were in line, or would have been, had it still been there.
But I guess it was. I guess it always is.
A popcorn bag blew against my leg. I kicked it loose, watched it leave.
“He’s here, isn’t he?” Garret said.
“You’re not going to—?” I said across to him, holding my gun-finger into my own mouth like Dick had.
“Got this for you,” Garret said back.
It was my yellow knife. From work.
I took it, looked at both sides then up to him.
He looked at me in a way I couldn’t figure. A way that meant everything and nothing both at once.
“Sometimes I think we—that something happened that first time in the Tunnel,” he said then, looking where it had been. “That there was a surge or a storm or a solar flare or lightning, something perfect and terrible,” he went on. “And it like trapped us there, right? And we’re still there, and this is all a dream. This is all what might have been. But it doesn’t have to be. We can still get to the end of the ride, go on to the next one.”
I looked over to him.
“Or just leave the carnival altogether, I mean,” he said, “go home,” and licked his top lip fast, like I wasn’t supposed to see.
“I—” I said, and the reason I didn’t get the rest out was that Garret’s mouth was on mine, my face in his hands.
He was crying as he kissed me.
He was trying to bring us back, he was trying to start us over.
I pushed him away hard enough that he fell, and then, after twenty-five years of watching each other’s backs, of keeping each other’s secrets and believing each other’s lies, I left him there.
Tina said maybe when I brought her my grandmother’s wedding band for the second time in our lives.
It was good enough.
I stayed that night, not the next, not the next either, and then for two days in a row woke up in what had been my own bed, once upon a time. Inside of two months, I’d moved back in.
The first thing I did was take Josh’s closet door off, and nail his window shut.
Tina watched from the doorway.
I hated myself for saying it, but I said it anyway, that I was doing this because there were men out there like Josh’s grandpa had been.
Tina couldn’t argue.
The crochet blanket on my chair wasn’t bad, either.
Me and Tina, we were kids again, edging around each other to the bathroom, barely getting to know each other. Twice I woke to her watching me from her side of the bed, her head propped up on an elbow.
“What are you doing?” I said, my voice creaky.
“This is us,” she said back.
A week later, Josh threw up into his eggs.
It was chocolate, like syrup.
I pushed back from the table and stood all at once, my chair skittering into the refrigerator.
Tina looked at me like I was insane. And maybe I was. But Josh’s eyes when he was throwing up, they never left mine.
After he’d left for school, I checked his window.
The two nails were there on the sill, neatly extracted, the heads not even bent into taco shells like a claw hammer should do. It was like they’d been pushed up from the inside, somehow., Guided out, deposited there, not even hidden.
I called Garret. The phone rang and rang.
Instead of telling Tina anything, I made up a dream I hadn’t had. It was of finding a dead clown on the lawn. Only, when I started rubbing the make-up from its face, it was my dad under there.
It was my way of telling her what we’d done out at Garret’s dad’s old barn.
She was supposed to tell me it was all right, it was nothing.
What she did was just watch me.
“You all right?” I asked her.
“You?” she said.
“I’ve got you,” I told her.
“The carnival’s coming back,” she said.
I could feel my heart beating against my ribs.
“Already?” I said, not sure a year could have passed.
It couldn’t have, could it?
“I think it’s a different one,” Tina said, leafing through the mail. “Or maybe one of their trucks broke, and we’re just on their way home. Doesn’t matter, right? Carnival’s a carnival.”
She looked up to me but I couldn’t make words right then.
“Last time you had to pick Josh up to take him,” Tina said, like charting how far we’d come. “I told you not to let him ride any of the fast—”
“Dick didn’t like the carnival,” I said all at once, talking all over what she was trying to say.
“Dick,” she said, tasting the name. Rolling it around in her mouth. Considering whether the likes and dislikes of a suicide should have any bearing on us.
But she didn’t call me on it.
I stayed up after her that night. Listening for the soft whoosh of clown feet on hardwood.
In the morning there was a new chocolate bar on the seat of my truck, the old-fashioned kind like from the midway of the carnival I knew.
I took Tina’s car to work.
Because I really did have a pump call from Deacon Banta, one nearly all the way over to Idalou, I wasn’t there to keep Tina from taking Josh back to the carnival at the last moment, on a whim. The note on the refrigerator told me where they were. My ticket was under the magnet. She’d got them free at work, surprise.
Like always, she’d scratched a happy face at the bottom of the note.
I fell to my knees in the kitchen, had to hold onto the counter.
What I was seeing was Dick—Rich—watching them under the unsteady lights of the carnival. Halfway hiding behind a turnstile. His teeth sharp, shiny with saliva.
He’ll keep them safe, I told myself. That’s why he’s there. He’s their guardian angel, scurrying through the shadows, a dark little chaperone.
If he remembered who he was.
If he could remember.
I went out to my truck, opened the glove compartment, ate the melted and reformed and melted and reformed chocolate bar.
Across town I could see the very top of the Ferris wheel. It was turning like a saw blade on fire in slowed-down time.
The whole neighborhood was empty.
I walked through the living room, through the kitchen, and walked it again, and again, banging the heels of my hands together.
Twice already I’d been out to the burned barn at the county line, to see if anything had changed. To see if anything had climbed out.
“What what what,” I said, and then made the deal that if I turned on all the lights in the house and kept them on, wasting energy, then that would be enough of an offering, that would keep them safe, that would bring them back to me.
Next I moved the furniture in the living room, walked the shape of the Tunnel of Brotherly Love’s rails, as near as I could remember them. I even closed my eyes at the darkest part.
And then I remembered the basement light.
I raced for it, trying to get there before my deal could get rejected, and when I pulled the door open the light from the kitchen spilled down the stairs ahead of me.
At the bottom of all the steps was Tina and Josh, like they’d been dropped right from where I was standing. They’d tumbled down like scarecrows, like mannequins, fallen in a jumble of angled-wrong arms and legs, their heads too far sideways for the necks not to be broke.
Just as it had been for my dad, I was the only one who’d been here all week.
I shook my head no, please no.
They were dead, obviously dead, both of them. There were cobwebs dusting up from the bridges of their noses and the webs of their fingers, but their faces were still the same. No decay, no sunken cheeks. Eyes dry and staring. Ready to see me if I stepped in front of them.
I threw my chocolate up onto my chest, onto my hands. There were flecks of silver in it, from the foil I hadn’t been able to peel out, had eaten like punishment.
“No no no . . . ” I said, coming down the stairs for them, cradling Josh’s head in my lap, touching Tina’s face, flailing my hand around for the basement light’s chain, to see them better.
The light didn’t help.
They were cold, clammy.
Shaking my head no, I unfolded my yellow knife, slit the inner part of Tina’s arm open as tenderly as I could. Because I had to see. I had to know.
Her arm was red on the inside. And still warm. Seeping down to drip off her elbow, even.
I pushed her away, kicked her away, and kicked Josh away too, and then the basement door sucked itself shut. Because that’s how this old house works. Drafts.
The front door had opened.
There are moments you can’t take back. Moments that keep on going and going. Moments that swallow the world.
One is when you’re standing in line in front of a plastic and fiberglass carnival ride, your two best friends beside you, licking their lips for what they’re about to have to do.
Another is when you’re sitting in the back of a lowslung Bonnevile Brougham at night, three doors down from your own, and you don’t say anything to save your father, even when your principal holds your father’s face down, smears lipstick over his mouth, all around his mouth.
The door opening upstairs was the third, for me.
“Dad?” Josh said, because I’d never have all the lights on if I wasn’t here, and my heart swelled with his voice, but his voice had been wrong, too. Different, slightly. Doubled, echoed, undercut, something.
Dad? he said again, and this time, on accident, just from the way corner of my eye, I saw it.
The second Dad, it had come from the Josh on the floor, the Josh I’d kicked away. His mouth was moving like a puppet with the Josh above. Like tracing that sound. Like a ghost might pretend it still matters, that it’s still connected to the living world.
A lump swelled my throat up, threatened to spill.
When Tina’s footsteps crossed the kitchen to the basement door, I stood awkwardly, switched my knife to my other hand, to the hand closer to the door, and I nodded to myself that it was good I had my knife. That it was good I had it back.
But then I looked harder at that knife. Slower. And—and I flashed on two or three days after dropping that knife down the drain at work, how I’d needed to trim a hangnail, thought that it sure would be nice to have that yellow knife back.
So the world gave it to me.
So, the world gave it to me.
My chest went cold, my face numb, my breath shallow, my eyebrows crowding together on my forehead.
“No,” I said.
But yes. Sitting in the Egg Shack that morning after the carnival, I sure had wanted a clown to kill, hadn’t I? And so one walked right in front of me. And then Dick, who couldn’t wire speakers if the whole world depended on it, he’d been able to restart that clown’s heart, just like I’d been wishing. And when I didn’t want to be reminded of that night anymore, when I wanted it all just to go away, stay part of the past, Dick killed himself, Garret faded away. And, and—I shook my head no, please.
When I wanted Tina back, she said maybe.
I’d kissed my son’s forehead in the Tunnel of Brotherly love, and I’d come out into a different world. Only, only this one had cracks in it. And there were clowns watching me through those cracks. Clowns waiting for me to get it, this big joke.
How many clowns can you fit in one man’s head?
I fell to my knees in the basement, the impact jarring my teeth.
Tina’s hand was to the doorknob at the top of the stairs now, the light on that doorknob already splintering.
I raised my hand to hide my face from her, opened my mouth to tell her not to come down here, but then, instead, my mouth said, “You two have fun?”
But in that doubling way.
The voice was coming from upstairs.
The doorknob gathered its reflected light back, went slack.
“We missed you,” Tina said, her footsteps crossing the kitchen again, to the carpet where I probably was.
“Missed you back,” the me up there said. The one that was up there now because I’d wanted to be a better husband, a better father.
It wasn’t me, though.
To prove it, I held my arm up, cut it longways, elbow to wrist, and deep, deeper than I meant to.
The slit yawned open like stretched rubber. Onto the white flan I was made of. The springy moist foam. The scentless paste.
I tried to swallow, couldn’t, and, because there was nothing else to do, I reached up beside my face, pulled the chain light off one last time, the click in the basement the exact sound of a carnival car on its long chain, clanking forward.
I angled my head up as I think I’d always known I would, waiting for a pair of lips to rush across the basement, and touch mine.
This is the darkest part.
Originally published in Nightmare Carnival, edited by Ellen Datlow.