The Mask That Always Smiles…

“You’re listening to ‘Iron Fist,’ the best classic rock radio station in New England. I’m Doctor Rock, and I’ll be right back after the break with our ‘Album at 11’ feature. Tonight, we’re going to be playing ‘Ace of Spades’ from rock god Lemmy Kilmister and Motorhead. Get ready to rock. See ya soon.”

The radio’s hard-rock heartbeat played in the background of the Rockin’ Robin diner.

“This is the 11 o’clock news. I’m Elliot Tracy, and I’m Tori Faithe. Our top story comes from the Moreland Park area of Mill City.

“Police are responding to another suspicious clown sighting this evening. The person is wandering around the wooded, inner-city area of Moreland Park. The clown is at least seven feet tall and clutching a bouquet of black balloons. Reports state he is acting in a threatening manner toward pedestrians and motorists.

“Currently, no information is available if the man is dangerous or carrying a weapon. Police are asking the public to avoid the area until further notice.”

*****

Tyler McCain listened to the radio as he dropped another basket of fries down into the hot oil. By day, the 23-year-old was studying for an MFA in Creative Writing. By night he worked in the kitchen and bussed tables at the Rockin’ Robin diner. It was Thursday night – one of the busiest nights of the week – and this Thursday was no exception.

As he put more beef patties on the grill, his mind wandered while he watched the meat steam and sizzle:

“Geez, another clown sighting? What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they know it’s not Halloween yet? I don’t need a stupid giant clown walking home with me.”

He enjoyed his nocturnal walk home and followed the same route each night. Take a right out of the diner, head to the underpass beneath the highway and out into Moreland Park. The walk helped him clear his head (and nostrils) of the hustle and bustle of the diner.

Tyler knew the area like the back of his hand, it was where he grew up. When he was a child, he used to hang out in Moreland Park. He would play make-believe war games with his friends among the dense trees for hours on end. They played in an area they nicknamed ‘the jungle.’

People were always telling him to take another route home. The park was not safe at night, too many weirdos stalking the place. He should walk away from any possible danger, take a longer route home, or buy a car…

“I’m fine. I know the park like the back of my hand. It doesn’t scare me,” was his often-repeated standard reply.

Four hours were left on Tyler’s shift and he would be busy until closing time at 3:00 am. Something about Thursday night drew people out to the local nightspots. If there was a better way to soak up the beer with some good solid greasy food at the Rockin’ Robin, nobody was aware of it.

*****

“Hey Tyler, get your sorry ass home. It’s three o’clock, you can’t sleep here.” Mark Robbins, the diner owner, shouted through to the kitchen as the last customer of the night left.

“Thanks boss, see you tomorrow,” Tyler replied grabbing his coat and making for the door.

Cool air greeted his face when he stepped out to head for home and a few hours of much-needed sleep. As he walked to the underpass, Tyler could see it was in darkness. Once again the lights had been targets of vandalism.

He walked a little faster through the concrete tunnel. His heart rate increased and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Using his cell phone as a light, he noticed it was 3:33 am, Friday the 13th and there was a full moon…

Moonlit tree shadows danced on the underpass walls. They looked like exotic dancers gyrating for dollars. Laughing out loud, he counted the horror-movie clichés mounting up. Tyler McCain had never been the superstitious type. In his opinion, it was all crap. Or rather, it was all crap until he exited the underpass to see a figure darting around in the trees up ahead – in the jungle.

“Trick of the light, it’s only the trees swaying in the wind,” he told himself.

More movement caught his eye. There was someone scurrying around in the shadows. Glancing at the ground, he spotted a dark stream of liquid trailing toward the grass verge on his right. Even in the moonlight, he knew it was not water; the liquid was darker and thicker. He knelt down and ran a finger through it. Much to his shock, he realized it was congealing blood. Fear began to take over his body. He walked faster along the same path, but more movement up ahead caught his attention.

“Oh, shit. It’s a clown.”

But he was wrong. It was two clowns hunched over something on the ground. They were biting into it and feasting. Whatever they were chowing down on was still moving…

“I hate clowns,” he whispered.

His quickening steps became a sprint as panic began to set in. Tyler’s forward progress stopped dead in its tracks. Standing in front of him was a woman dressed as a gothic-style circus ringmaster. She was the most amazing sight he had ever seen.

She sported a half-size top hat with ostrich feathers tucked into the hatband, while a dark lace veil covered a macabre, theatrical mask of white-and-black face paint. Her eyes were hollow and black with red teardrops. Her mouth sported a sneering smile in fierce red lipstick. Splashes of blood surrounded her mouth, causing the clumsily applied white face paint to run onto the pale skin of her neck.

A tattered, sleeveless tail coat revealed an ample display of cleavage – much to Tyler’s arousal. Under her torn jacket she wore a short black crushed-velvet skirt. Fishnets and long-legged biker boots completed the ensemble.

Tyler liked what he was seeing. He was about to make a comment until he became aware of the cane she was holding in her left hand. With a practiced flick of the wrist, she pulled a long, thin sword out of it.

“Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to the show ladies and gentlemen. Welcome, children of all ages. Welcome to the queer and the strange and those who desire a grave.”

She skipped in frantic circles like a whirling dervish around Tyler as she spoke. He tried to move away but his feet seemed to be set in concrete. His heart rate went up a little more but for different reasons this time.

Her bare, muscular arms displayed full-sleeve tattoos. Dainty black lace gloves covered her hands. Draped around her neck was a large snake. Tyler stood transfixed as its tongue flicked in and out, tasting the night air. It could have been a Boa, it could have been a Python. He did not know, and did not care.

“I hate snakes,” Tyler said to himself.

“Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m Absinthe Dark,” she said, flashing an insincere blood-stained smile. “I’m the ringmaster of this smorgasbord of sin – the Circus of the Night.

“Do you like the circus?”

The moonlight glinting off the stud in her tongue captivated Tyler as she spoke.

“You do, don’t you? The voices in my head tell me you do. It’s a feast for your eyes. People are dying to be part of it. Ha, ha. Once you’ve seen the wondrous sights in my never-ending nightmare, you’ll be begging for more. You’ll never want to leave.”

Tyler tried hard to comprehend what was happening around him. A few minutes ago, he was a student walking home late at night. Now he had a leading role in a scene from a Rob Zombie movie. He found it difficult to concentrate. Her blood-flecked breasts rising and falling in time with her breathing distracted him.

“No, no, no! Don’t shrink back. Move in closer. The show’s not over. The voices say it’s not even begun yet, young man. The feelings you’re about to behold will amaze you.

“Seeing is believing. This is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” the diatribe continued.

“Our painted faces are mistaken for masks of evil – which makes the voices mad – but these masks always smile. Underneath, we’re good people. We bring joy to those who need it most. Us!

“It’s not easy being in the circus – too many idiots trying to give us a bad name. This is why we only perform under cover of darkness.

“Do you know what I have to do to survive?” Absinthe said, stopping her skipping to face Tyler and wave the tip of the sword in his face.

“No,” he replied trying hard to look at her face and not let his eyes wander downward.

“I’ll tell you. I’m a freaking kids’ dentist. I hate kids. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them,” she screamed as she stamped her feet like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum.

“I hate inhaling their rancid-smelling breath day after day. Listening to them cry ‘it hurts, mommy’ is the only stinking pleasure I get. I hate their whiny, self-important moms. I hate the way they’re forever jabbing away at their phones and saying how they’re ‘super happy to see me’ when they visit. Bullshit-filled bitches!

“This is what I love – performing on the grand stage.”

A very tall, muscular clown stepped out from the trees. He was holding a bouquet of black balloons in his left hand and stood in silence next to Absinthe.

He wore a mask that covered his large, bulbous bald head. Generous tufts of blood-matted, spiked red hair sprouted from each side. One red, bloodshot eye protruded from his face, while the other eye was ringed with black makeup. His costume could not be described as typical clown wear. He was wearing a black, leather biker-style jacket and denim jeans. In his right hand, he held a cordless chainsaw…

Tyler recognized the clown from the description on the radio. Unfortunately, the newsreaders did not say he was as broad as he was tall. The guy resembled a defensive end. He dwarfed Tyler – who came in at five feet, six-inches and 160 pounds soaking wet – by a long way.

“This is the guy the cops are looking for,” Tyler thought to himself.

Absinthe smiled and beckoned the gargantuan forward.

“Introduce yourself to our trembling companion, my trusty picador.”

Sweat ran down Tyler’s face despite the cool night air.

“I’m Misery,” he said, his red, oversized clown shoes slapping hard on the ground as he stepped closer.

“Would you like a balloon? Have one. Take two. Take three. I love balloons. Don’t you? I like making people jump when I pop them. Sometimes I breathe in the helium and my voice goes all funny and squeaky. Do you do like to breathe helium? What’s your name?”

Tyler gazed at the clown in complete shock and disbelief, unable to discern what he was seeing.

“Would you like a balloon? Take one, NOW! Take a goddamned balloon, motherfucker!” The clown’s demeanor turned from passive to aggressive in an instant like the flick of a switch.

Misery grabbed Tyler’s hand roughly. The knuckles popped like a sheet of bubble wrap. Tyler took two balloons with his good hand to appease the angry giant towering over him.

“Much better,” the clown cooed. “What’s your name? Can we be friends?”

“My name’s Tyler,” he stammered through the pain, tears filling his eyes.

“Hello, Tyler. I like you. Don’t cry. Let me taste your tears…”

Several teardrops adorned Misery’s white-and-red makeup. But the blood spatters made them almost invisible.

“I’m a janitor at a kindergarten. I clean up the little bastards’ puke and piss, but I was born to be a clown. This is my true calling. I’m a funny guy, I’m a carny at heart.”

An evil smile – the sort of smile Freddy Krueger’s nightmares are made of – split his painted face. Tyler spotted two rows of pointed, congealed blood-stained, razor-sharp teeth. They clicked together like Spanish castanets as he spoke.

Misery laughed as he waved the whirring chainsaw blade under Tyler’s nose.

As he leaned away from the vicious tool, Tyler glanced beyond the clown’s ghastly visage. The abhorrent sight of a woman’s mutilated corpse greeted him. She hung from a sturdy tree branch, tied by her feet. The cadaver’s naked body was torn open and covered in bite marks. Bones showed through the chewed flesh. The woman’s severed throat was cut so deep her head was almost decapitated. Blood dripped and pooled in a thick, sticky puddle underneath.

“Bet you’re glad you took the balloons now, aren’t you?” Misery said.

“You people are sick. You’re cannibals,” said Tyler, his voice faint. Despondent panic and mindless bravery taking over, while his heart tried to beat out of his chest.

“Yes, we are,” replied Absinthe, giggling. “Did you know human flesh tastes better when adrenaline courses through the veins?”

The wind rocked the corpse back and forth like a pendulum, causing it to thump against the tree. Thud…Thud…Thud…

“Say hello to Nova. She was quite a dish,” the ringmaster said. “She always wanted to be a trapeze artist.”

Absinthe removed her gloves and dipped two fingers into the gaping neck wound. She lowered her head, trying to beguile Tyler. Her blood-soaked fingers opened into a ‘V’ shape as she licked between them, her lascivious eyes full of lust.

“We had to let her go. She couldn’t hang with us, couldn’t get into the swing of things…”

Misery cocked his head to one side as if listening for a subliminal message in the darkness.

“You’ve had your chance, boy. The ringmaster says you have to perform for us. It’s time for you to bleed.”

The clown whooped with laughter. His manner a menacing precursor to the evil pleasures he was about to unleash. Absinthe ran the tip of her sword across Tyler’s throat, dragging the rapier-like point over his pale skin, leaving a thin red wheal as a reminder.

“We could cut your throat and watch your blood run like a river. We could let you join us in the darkness while we wait for the next act to appear. It’s your choice. Do you want to be an attraction, or do you want to be THE show?” She whispered in his ear.

“Tell me, Tyler. If today is your last day, have you lived the seconds like they were your last? Would you choose the way it ended? What would be the last thing you see before your death?”

“I, I, don’t know. I’ve never thought about it,” he replied.

“It doesn’t matter, idiot,” Absinthe screeched.

“WE decide what you see. WE decide what you do and WE decide when it ends. Not you. This is our show.”

A salacious grin played on her face as she lowered her sword to circle Tyler’s genital area, the sword’s tip drawing closer to his body.

He tried to step back.

“Getting scared? Good! Think I would cut you there? The voices are telling me to do it…

“We’re monsters and we’re real. We’re demons and we’re real. We’re cannibals and we’re real.”

Tyler tried to turn and run but found his escape route blocked by someone standing behind him. The breath – and hope – left his body at the sight of the second clown. Not as large as Misery, but this one was still a big guy. His wore purple-and-white face paint that smiled back at Tyler. The clown’s colossal nose inhaled the essence of his fear.

“Say hello to Anguish,” Absinthe purred.

Anguish was a few inches away. A pair of evil, bloodthirsty eyes stared directly at Tyler, momentarily rooting him to the spot. The clown held a large Bowie combat knife – sharp on one edge and serrated on the other – close to his face. The blade shone eerily in the moonlight, dripping with blood.

“I hate knives,” Tyler said to himself.

He attempted to turn and run away from his captors, hoping for an opening to freedom. The chances of escape were slim, but he needed to try.

Tyler’s attempts to flee ended when a sharp, cutting pain seared into his back – an intense, hot pain. As the chainsaw’s teeth tore through his flesh, a heavy line of blood sprayed onto the back of his neck and into his hair. He fell to his knees and his head dropped. The chainsaw disintegrated his organs, leaving a spray of blood and bone fragments to spatter his face and fill his mouth.

Absinthe danced around Tyler’s genuflecting body, her sword pointing at his heart.

“The voices made the decision for you. Such a shame, we could have been good together. Sorry, no refunds.”

The snake slithered down her arm towards Tyler and clamped its jaws onto the flesh of his upper arm. Tyler tried to scream, but no sound – only blood – escaped from his mouth. Anguish lunged toward him, ramming the length of the Bowie knife’s nine-inch blade deep into his heart.

Tyler fell to the ground, the last vestiges of life leaving his body until only his soul remained. He could hear Absinthe urging the troupe to devour his flesh while it was still warm. Misery tore chunks out of him with his razor-sharp teeth as Tyler’s life ended. The clown ripped at his face, gouging out the eyes and relishing them. When Misery had sated his hunger, Anguish cut himself steak-sized pieces of a thigh. He laughed as he tucked into his meaty repast.

A storm exploded across the night sky as the cannibals gorged. A barrage of rain pelted Tyler’s remains. The scent of blood filled the air. Thunder roared through the trees and nearby branches flailed in the wind. The sky dumped heavy, driving rain on the grim scene below as if the heavens were crying for him.

*****

The cops found the remnants of Tyler McCain’s corpse when the dawn broke. A sneaker and some blood- stained grass next to a tree stump were the only contents of the evidence bag…

The following evening, in another part of the city, two homeless men scoured piles of trash in a back alley. They were looking for empty cans when they uncovered a cardboard box. Inside the box, a gruesome discovery awaited – Tyler McCain’s decapitated head – his face painted white with an oversize smile to resemble a clown’s mask…

**********

Click here for a downloadable PDF of “The Mask That Always Smiles…”

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