The Mask That Always Smiles…

The neon sign shone into the dark city streets like a beacon of hope. For the residents of Devil’s Lake, cruise night at Speedy’s 24/7 Diner was the place to be on a sultry, summer Thursday night. Hot rods and customs, classic cars, muscle cars and motorcycles filled the parking lot and surrounding side streets to capacity. Gearheads and college kids mingled, all eager to get the weekend going. If there was a better place to grab a beer and a great burger or hot dog in the area, nobody knew about it.

Inside the polished-aluminum clad diner, black-and-white checkered floor tiles, chrome-legged barstools and red vinyl-covered booths gave the joint a classic, fifties-period atmosphere. Busy bowling-shirt clad servers hustled from tables and booths to the kitchen area as old-school rock-and-roll blasted from the speakers overhead.

The disc jockey spoke over the closing bars of Chuck Berry’s Maybelline.

“I’m Johnny Tempest, and you’re listening to Forever Fifties, the best rock-and-roll radio station on the Internet. I’ll be right back after the news with more hip ‘n’ happening cruise night classics.”

**********

Colby McCain zeroed in on the radio broadcast as he lowered another basket of fries into the fryer. By day, the cocky, sometimes arrogant 23-year-old was studying for a degree in engineering. By night, he worked in the kitchen and bussed tables at the diner. His mind wandered as he placed more beef patties on the grill, watching the meat steam and sizzle.

“This is the 11 o’clock news and I’m Tori Faithe. Tonight’s headline story comes from Devil’s Lake. Police are responding to another suspicious clown sighting in the wooded, inner-city area of Moreland Park. The clown is at least seven-feet tall and clutching a large bouquet of black balloons. Reports state the clown is acting in a threatening manner toward pedestrians and motorists. Currently, no information is available if the person is dangerous or carrying a weapon. Police are asking the public to avoid the area.”

Mark ‘Speedy’ Speed, the diner owner, lifted a basket of cooked fries out of the hot oil.

“Hey Colby, don’t you walk through Moreland Park on your way home?”

“Yeah, I’ve walked and played in that area since I was a kid. Never had a problem. What can I say? The walk clears my head. No doubt it’s some crackhead from the East Side getting his jollies scaring people.”

“I’d say with more and more of these sightings, you might want to think about changing your route, Colby. Keep away from any possible danger for a while, or buy a car…”

“Thanks, boss. A longer route would take another hour. Anyway, I can’t afford a car on the wages you pay me!”

Mark laughed aloud as he scooped fresh fries into a cone before ringing the order bell to bring a runner to the counter.

“Order ready! Table six – three loaded six-five-special cheeseburgers and fries. Table four – two banana Speedy Shakes and a black coffee.”

Since Colby started working at Speedy’s, he had enjoyed his nocturnal walk and followed the same route home every night. Take a right out of the diner, walk past the cellphone store, cross the street and head to the underpass beneath the highway and into Moreland Park. When he was a kid, he used to hang out in the park with his gang of friends. They played make-believe war games among the dense trees – in an area they nicknamed ‘the jungle’ – for hours on end and the bad guys always lost.

**********

3:00 am. The last stragglers had headed home leaving the diner quiet and deserted after another hectic, but profitable, Thursday night. All that remained were several bagfuls of trash. As Colby grabbed a couple and went outside to dump them in the skips, he noticed a new set of tire marks in the parking lot where a lead-footed patron had performed a burnout for a group of whooping and hollering onlookers.

Colby came back inside and started wiping the tables clean.

“Hey kid, why are you still working? Get your sad, sorry ass home. You can’t sleep here,” said Mark, as he walked out of the kitchen wiping his hands on a towel.

“Oh, bummer, I was looking forward to crashing out in one of the booths.”

Colby grabbed his rain jacket from the back of a chair and walked toward the door.

“Thanks, boss. See you tomorrow night.”

“Be safe and try to avoid Pennywise!”

Colby rolled his eyes and laughed as he exited the diner.

Smartass.”

Crossing the street, Colby approached the underpass. It was in complete darkness. The lights, once again, targeted by vandals.

Great, have these morons got nothing better to do?

Heavy black clouds sprawled across the night sky as he headed home for a few hours of much-needed sleep before classes later in the morning. A storm was brewing. He could feel the suffocating humidity in the air. A low crackle of thunder rolled across nearby rooftops and destroyed the silence. Everything stopped. Even the wind held its breath. A pattering of raindrops followed. His pulse quickened and, despite the rain, beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he entered the obsidian concrete passage.

Bang!

What the fuck?

A rock hit the ground and bounced off his foot into the darkness. He spun around expecting to see Mark at the underpass entrance trying to prank him. No-one. Colby’s jangled nerves ramped into overdrive. He walked faster.

Bang!

Another rock landed in front of him. He turned on his heels again. No-one. He fished his phone out of his pocket and used it as a flashlight. The screen read 3:33 am, Friday the 13th… and there was a full moon. As the exit drew closer, moonlit tree shadows danced on the underpass walls, looking like exotic dancers gyrating for dollars. He laughed out loud and counted the horror-movie clichés as they increased.

Now I’m in a Rob Zombie horror movie. Can my life get any better?

Colby McCain had never been the superstitious type. In fact, he thought it was all crap. Or, it was all crap until he exited the underpass to see a shadowy figure darting around in the dimness straight ahead – in the jungle.

Trick of the light, Colby. It’s only the trees swaying in the wind.”

He stuffed his phone back into his pocket and stepped out of the underpass. Weak cones of orange sodium light beamed onto the asphalt from the old-school lamps dotted along Moreland Park’s pathway. Staring at the ground as he walked, Colby stopped dead. A dark stream of goop trailed toward the grass at the edge of the pathway. Even with moonlight as his only source of illumination, he knew straight away the trail was not water – this was much darker and thicker in consistency. Curiosity got the better of him. He knew he should keep on walking, but he dropped to a knee and took a closer look. He ran a finger through the sticky liquid, raised it to his nose, and smelled the distinctive coppery, metallic scent.

Oh shit, it’s blood.”

The dark crimson, sanguine fluid released a tidal wave of fear. It surged through him until his nerve endings throbbed. This was more than a few drops of blood from a cut or a nosebleed. This resembled a jagged, reddish-brown river. His body convulsed as the violent electrical current continued to pulse through him. On shaking legs, Colby stood and decided to make a bee-line for the exit and the safety of home. He walked faster and faster, his pace increased in speed until he was jogging.

Get your ass the hell out of here.”

Another movement in his peripheral vision distracted his attention. Breathless, he blinked sweat from his eyes and stared at a small clearing in the trees. A shadow. He tried to see what or who it was, and wished he had not…

What the fu…It’s a clown.”

Wrong.

There were two figures dressed as clowns hunched over something on the ground. Colby could not discern what it was, but the clowns looked to be biting, gnawing and feasting. Whatever they were chowing on was still moving…Colby stepped backward, hoping to become invisible.

I hate clowns.”

Eyes wide open, he clenched his hands into fists. His fingernails left crescent-moon-shaped dents in his palms. The oxygen flooded in and out of his lungs, but he was not aware of his ragged, harsh breathing as he tried to flee the harrowing scene. Panic filled his soul, his progress halted before it started.

The most amazing sight he had ever seen – a woman, no, a vision, dressed as a gothic-style circus ringmaster – blocked his path. Standing around six-feet tall, she sported a black, half-size top hat with a plume of white ostrich feathers tucked into the band. A dark lace veil covered her macabre, theatrical mask of black-and-white face paint. Her black eye makeup shed red teardrops and her full sensual lips wore a fierce, blood red smile. Her long, dark hair fell in layers onto a tattered, red sleeveless tailcoat. The half-unbuttoned jacket exposed an ample display of cleavage as her breasts spilled out of a chainmail bikini top – much to Colby’s interest and arousal. His fear subsided but his heart rate increased again, this time for a very different reason…

“Hello handsome, looking for some fun?” she said, her purring voice smoother than oak-casked bourbon.

Her toned, muscular arms displayed two full-sleeve tattoos with dainty black lace gloves covering her hands. A short black crushed-velvet skirt revealed shapely legs adorned with fishnet stockings, suspenders, and long-legged biker boots to complete the outfit. Colby smiled and opened his mouth to speak but the words stuck in his throat when he became aware of something else – something that chilled him to the core. Draped around her neck was a large snake.

Oh God, it’s a snake. I freakin’ hate snakes.”

Its forked, reptilian tongue flitted into the air every few seconds, tasting Colby’s fear, his cologne, his sweat, and the humid night air. It transfixed Colby, rooting him to the spot. Was it a Boa, a Python, a Cobra? He did not know and he did not care.

She smiled at Colby and for a split second, he forgot everything going on around him. Her smile changed her from someone menacing to someone Colby wanted to know better, much better. She took a theatrical curtsey and lifted her head to look deep into his eyes. Confidence oozed from every pore. She had him where she wanted him.

“Please allow me to introduce myself, lover. I’m Absinthe Dark.”

Shards of moonlight glinted off her studded tongue as she spoke.

“What’s your name?”

“Colby, Colby McCain.”

Light on her feet, Absinthe skipped in frantic circles around Colby like a whirling dervish. She stopped in front of him, studying every inch from head to toe. He noticed she carried a cane in her left hand. A practiced flick of her wrist released a long, thin sword from within the wooden sheath. Colby gasped.

“Hello, Colby. Do you like the circus?”

“Well, I…”

“You do! Excellent, I knew you would. The voices in my head said no, but I knew.

“I’m the ringmaster of the cornucopia of carnal contentment known as the Circus of the Night. Let me tell you, Colby, people are dying to be part of my circus. Yes, they are!”

Absinthe laughed at her own joke, put her arm around Colby’s shoulder and pulled him closer. The rise and fall of her breasts in time with her breathing diverted his attention.

Damn. They look good.”

“It’s a veritable feast for the eyes.”

Yes, they are.”

“Once you’ve seen my freaks of the flesh, my never-ending nightmare, you’ll never want to leave.”

He swallowed hard as she whispered in his ear.

“You’ll be begging for more.”

He pushed the idea of putting his arm around her waist out of his head and took a step back.

“No, Colby! Move closer. Let me enjoy your heat.”

Her grip tightened around his shoulders, pushing her breasts against his arm.

“The show’s not over, it’s not even started, my young stud. Step right up. The sights you’re about to behold will amaze you like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Shit, she’s off her head. She’s tapped. Why do I always get the hots for crazy chicks?

“You see, Colby, without exception, people think our painted faces are masks of evil – and that makes the voices mad, very mad – but our masks…our masks always smile. Underneath, we’re good people, very good people. We perform a service and bring joy to those who need it most. Us!”

“Wait, you said us. Who else is there?”

Absinthe brushed his question aside and continued with her babbling diatribe.

“The circus isn’t for everyone. It’s not an easy life. There are too many idiots out there who have tried to give us a bad name. But we’re smart. We only perform under cover of darkness.

“Do you know what I have to do to survive, Colby?” Absinthe said, waving the tip of the sword in his face.

“No,” he said, trying extra hard to keep focused on her face and not let his eyes wander to her chest.

“I’ll tell you. I’m a freakin’ kids’ dentist. I hate kids. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them,” she said, screaming and stamping her feet like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum.

“Hearing them cry ‘No! It hurts, mommy’ is the only stinking pleasure I get. I hate inhaling their rancid-smelling breath day after day.

“I hate their whiny, self-important moms. I hate the way they’re forever jabbing away at their phones with their beautiful manicured fingernails and saying how they’re ‘super happy to see me’ when they visit.

“Bitches, bullshit-filled bitches!”

The rant ended. Absinthe took a deep breath and gave Colby an angelic smile.

“I love performing here, on the grand stage.”

A rustling sound in the trees broke the tension when a very tall, muscular man appeared. He was holding a bouquet of black balloons and stood in silence next to Absinthe. A creepy, latex mask covered the gargantuan’s large, bulbous head. Tufts of blood-matted, spiked red hair sprouted from both sides of the mask’s scarred, bald pate. One red, bloodshot eye protruded from the face, while black makeup ringed the other cold, lifeless eye. He wore a black, leather biker-style jacket, dirty denim jeans, and clown shoes. In his right hand, he held a gas-powered chainsaw…Colby trembled as he recognized the clown from the description on the radio.

Holy shit…this is the guy the cops were looking for.”

The news report did not say he was as broad as he was tall, though. The guy resembled a defensive end. He dwarfed Colby – who came in at five feet, nine-inches and 180 pounds soaking wet – by a long way. Absinthe beckoned the colossus forward.

“Where are your manners? Introduce yourself to our shivering companion, my trusty picador.”

Colby blinked sweat from his eyes.

“Hello, I’m Misery.”

The soft voice was an unexpected surprise and did not match the giant frame of a man who looked like he had a million very good reasons to shout. His oversized, red clown shoes slapped hard on the ground as he stepped closer, offering the morbid bouquet to Colby.

“Would you like a balloon?

Shock and utter disbelief filled Colby as he gazed at the mass of humanity facing him.

“Would you like a balloon?” He said.

“Take one. Take two. Take three. I love balloons. Don’t you? What’s your name? Please tell me your name.”

Oh, hell. This guy’s out with the fairies. He’s a freakin’ nutjob.”

In the time it would take to flick a light switch, the clown’s demeanor turned from passive to aggressive, his voice now laden with malice and bad intentions.

“Take a goddamned balloon, motherfucker! NOW!”

Misery’s hand appeared from nowhere and grabbed Colby’s hand and wrist and tightened his white-knuckled vice-like grip. His skin resembled worn leather. Colby’s bones snapped and cracked in protest. He took two balloons with his free hand to appease the angry giant who towered over him.

“There, that’s better,” he cooed.

“I like you. What’s your name? Can we be friends?”

The clown’s voice returned to its natural soft state as his demeanor switched back from aggressive to passive in an instant.

“My name’s Colby,” he stammered as tears of pain filled his eyes.

“Don’t cry. You’re my newest friend, Colby. Let me taste your tears…”

Oh, please God, let this hell on earth be a bad dream.”

Colby spotted two rows of blood-stained, razor-sharp teeth as a malicious smile – a smile that could fuel Freddy Krueger’s nightmares – split the abomination’s masked face. They clicked together like Spanish castanets as the clown spoke.

“I’m a janitor in a kindergarten. I clean the little bastards’ puke, piss, and shit. I was born to be a clown, though. This is my true calling. I’m a funny guy!”

Misery’s maniacal laughter echoed through the trees as he pulled at the chainsaw’s starter cord. It roared into life and he waved the chattering, whirring blade at Colby. Scared witless, the color drained from Colby’s face as he tried to put some distance between his body and the vicious tool.

“See, told you I’m a funny guy! Ha, ha, ha!”

As Colby turned away, he noticed something horrifying beyond the clown’s sick, ghastly visage. A scene of ghoulish slaughter hung from a sturdy tree branch – a woman’s mutilated corpse, tied by her feet, burned its abhorrent image into his psyche. A cry of distress formed and died in his throat. Bite marks covered the cadaver’s naked, lacerated flesh. A thick, red fountain of blood flowed from her severed jugular into a sticky puddle beneath her. The strengthening wind rocked the dead body back and forth like a pendulum, causing it to thud against the tree trunk. Thud…Thud…Thud…

“Bet you’re glad you took the balloons now, aren’t you?” said Misery, licking his lips as he stared at the woman’s carcass.

While his heart tried to beat out of his chest, mindless bravery engulfed Colby.

“You people are fucking sick. You’re…you’re freaks. You’re cannibals.”

Oh shit. Did I say that out loud?

“Yes, we are,” Absinthe acknowledged in a pragmatic, matter-of-fact way.

She giggled like a schoolgirl after her first kiss. Her face looked innocent, but she possessed a nerve-wracking chill as she clutched Colby’s genitals and massaged him with her thumb. His body tried to recoil, but his groin had other ideas and wanted to stay where it was…

Absinthe looked at the swinging corpse to her left.

“Say hello to Nova. She was a dish. She always wanted to be a trapeze artist, but we had to let her go. She couldn’t get into the swing of things…”

Absinthe released her genital death grip and skipped a few steps to where the body hung. She removed her lace gloves and dipped her fingers into the gaping neck laceration. She opened two blood-soaked fingers into a ‘V’ shape and her tongue – sweet, but venomous, like a cookie sprinkled with rat poison – darted between them, licking. Her lascivious eyes stared straight at Colby.

Misery turned his head to one side, pensive, and listened for a voice in the night – or in his head – to send him a subliminal message. The air hung heavy and still as the clown held his breath, expectant. The colossal clown erupted into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, shattering the silence. The reverie stopped when Misery turned and scowled at Colby – his disposition a menacing precursor to the evil pleasures he was about to unleash.

“Are you sure? Now?” He muttered as he stared at the sky.

“Time’s up. You’ve had your chance, boy. It’s time for you to perform.”

I’m fucked.”

Absinthe ran the tip of her sword across Colby’s throat, dragging the rapier-like point over his skin, leaving a thin red wheal as a reminder of what she was more than capable of doing. She licked her lips, kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear.

“I like you, and I know you like me. You grew mighty big in my hand. We could pleasure each other in so many ways. What fun it would be. Are you ready to join me in the darkness?”

“I don’t know.”

“What are you afraid of, my love? Afraid of our future, or your past? Neither exists in any place but your imagination.”

“I could slit your throat right here, right now, and let Misery gorge on your warm flesh as the blood gushes like a river. It’s your choice, my love.

“Come on, do you want to be an attraction…

“Or do you want to be THE show?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. Sweat drenched his skin, his eyes throbbed, and his heart thumped in his chest.

“Come on! Your indecision is infuriating. Let me help you, Mon Cheri.”

Absinthe undid the last button on her jacket. Colby’s gaze dropped to her breasts.

“Look at these, Colby. Do you want them to be the last thing you see before you die? Would you say you’ve lived your short life to the fullest? Do you want me to choose the way it ends?”

“I, I, don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Your mouth says one thing but your lust betrays you, Colby McCain,” Absinthe said, her voice screeching into the night.

“Too late!”

She buttoned her jacket.

“I decide what you see. I decide when your life ends. Not you. This is MY show and remember when you take your last breath, all this could have been yours.”

A salacious grin played across her face as she lowered her sword to circle Colby’s genitals, the sword’s tip drawing closer to its still-enlarged target.

“Did you know human flesh tastes better when adrenaline courses through the veins?

“Are you scared? Think I would cut you? The voices are telling me to do it.

“Yes! We’re freaks. Yes! We’re cannibals. But above all else, we’re real and we’re right here…”

Colby turned to run but found his escape blocked by someone standing behind him. The oxygen – and all hope of survival – left his body at the sight of a second clown. Not as large as Misery, but he was still a big guy.

“Say hello to Anguish,” she said.

Anguish stood close to Absinthe. Evil, bloodthirsty eyes stared at Colby, rooting him to the spot. The clown’s purple-and-white painted face smiled to reveal blood-stained teeth. His round, purple nose inhaled the fear exuding from his prey. Anguish held a large Bowie combat knife – razor-sharp on one edge and serrated on the other – close to his face. The blade shone in the moonlight and dripped with blood.

I hate knives.”

Colby knew his chances of escaping from his captors were slim but he still had to try. He attempted a run for freedom, but his futile attempt ended when Misery rammed the chainsaw into Colby’s back. A heavy spray of blood lined his neck and hair as an intense, sharp, cutting pain seared through his body. His head dropped and he fell to his knees. The chainsaw disintegrated his organs and burst out of his chest, leaving a spray of blood and bone fragments to spatter his face and fill his mouth.

A grinning specter of death, Absinthe danced around Colby’s twitching body. She stopped her manic cavorting and pointed the sword at his heart.

“We could have been good together. Sorry, no refunds.”

The snake slinked its way along the sword, its beady, abyss-like eyes never leaving its target. It clamped a black mouth full of fangs deep into Colby’s upper arm and injected a fatal amount of venomous poison. He tried to scream. Silence. Only blood escaped from his mouth.

“End it. Put him out of our misery.”

Absinthe sighed and released an orgasmic moan as Anguish lunged forward and nine inches of cold steel pierced deep into Colby’s heart.

“Come on, boys. Eat while it’s warm.”

Misery knelt by the body, tearing chunks of flesh and muscle with his razor-sharp teeth. The troupe devoured Colby and the last vestiges of life dissipated from his body until only his soul remained.

“Now, now, boys. What have I told you? We have to chew our food slower, or we’ll get a stomachache.”

Anguish cut steak-sized pieces from a thigh. He laughed as he shoved the fresh meat into his mouth and savored the succulent repast. Misery slowed his chewing speed and sated his hunger.

Lightning. A brilliant shock of white forked in the graphite sky to hit the unsuspecting ground. A thunderous boom echoed through the park as thunder roared through the trees and nearby branches flailed in the wind. The scent of blood and a summer storm filled the air. The sky was crying in pity…

A few hours later, Enzo Cicchetti – always an early riser – left his wife, Simona, sleeping. He washed, dressed and took his dog out for a walk in Moreland Park, his usual early morning routine. As he walked through the park, something unusual caught his eye. Blood, and lots of it. He called it in to the cops. When they arrived a few minutes later, they discovered someone’s remains – a sneaker, a few pieces of bloody flesh and bones, some blood-stained grass and a bouquet of black balloons tied to a tree stump…

**********

The following evening, two homeless men scoured piles of trash in an alley behind several closed businesses in the less-than-salubrious East Side of Devil’s Lake. The target of their search was empty cans and bottles they could recycle to buy a bottle of cheap hooch to help them forget their problems for a while.

As they foraged through the overflowing dumpsters, they discovered a cardboard box. Hoping it would contain something sellable, they opened the package and dropped it at their feet in horror. One of the men turned and puked on the ground, the other stared, unable to move as if he was hypnotized by the gruesome discovery. Colby McCain’s decapitated head stared back at them. His white-painted face – frozen in a mixed expression of fear and agony – wore a red, oversized smile that resembled a clown’s mask…

**********

Thank you. I know time is your most precious resource and I’m very appreciative that you spent some of it reading my work. I welcome all feedback. If you liked a story tell me. If you disliked a story definitely tell me about it. I want to improve as a writer and you are my best resource to do that. Honest reviews are a godsend to all authors – please take a couple of minutes to tell me what YOU think of my work – REVIEWS MATTER!

**********

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