Edition 19: Arrest By Hall Jameson
The circus is back in town and a father searches for his missing daughter in a world that doesn’t quite make sense. A wandering clown is the herald of an unwelcome admission. SY
The clown disappeared around the corner of Lady Sapphire’s tent, and I followed. He should not have been there. This was a carnival, not a circus.
But maybe he knew where my daughter was.
The abandoned, ash-dusted carnival grounds reminded me of January, after a weeklong thaw had melted the dirty snow of December and the ground had hardened up again, with a fresh skim of snow covering the asphalt and dead grass. My boots cut blurry prints in the parched lawn with each step.
The halo of smoke surrounding the fairgrounds was thick like a wedge of ice fog. Creaks and groans drifted from the empty stations and booths, boards covering their rainbow faces until their owner’s return. The wind wailed through the spokes and benches of the Ferris wheel and caressed the nose of the zebra on the merry-go-round, his black-and-white striped muzzle wearing a toothy grin.
The smoke stung my eyes as I approached Lady Sapphire’s tent. Lady was new to the carnival this year. Perhaps, after the fire had run its course and everyone returned, I would ask her to reveal my future.
Ash swirled around my ankles and a crackling sound broke the quiet air, and for a moment, I thought the fire had arrived. Then I saw the clown again. He sat on a bench next to the duck pond, his back to me, struggling with an object wrapped in plastic. The bench overlooked the kidney-shaped pond with the small manmade island in the middle, a miniature castle in its center, just big enough for waterfowl. Mallard ducks huddled at the base of the turrets and a plump white goose sat on the drawbridge.
The clown, his rubber nose, the color of tomato bisque, did not notice me standing behind him. His uneven white makeup cracked near his hairline and stubble poked through along his jaw and an olive green substance stained the white ruffle around his neck. Red makeup smeared his front teeth transferred from his exaggerated lips, making it appear as if he had eaten something bloody and raw.
The outer wrapping of the package fell to the ground near his enormous purple boots, revealing a parcel covered with brown butcher paper. He picked at the tape on the plump grapefruit-sized parcel, pasty fingers trembling, muttering to himself.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He jumped and the parcel rolled from his lap, hitting the asphalt with a meaty thud. The tape snapped and the paper unfolded. When I saw the contents of the wrap, I stumbled back. “Oh my God! What is that?”
“What does it look like?” the clown said in a gruff voice. He leaned back on the bench and surveyed me from head to toe. “You freaked me out, Daddy. Sneaking up on me like that.”
“It looks like a…heart.” I grimaced. “A cow’s heart?”
The clown grinned, and I wondered if the red smear across his front teeth was really makeup.
“A cow’s heart—ha! This heart is human.” He reached down and scooped the heart from the ground, cradling it in his hands. “But you already know that.” He extended his hands toward me. “It belongs to you, after all.”
A garbled sound escaped my throat. I pressed my right palm over my left breast and closed my eyes, but felt nothing. My fingertips were cold and numb, even though it was eighty degrees out. My chest wheezed upon each inhalation. I shifted my hand, fingertips pressing, searching for the familiar…
…but there was no movement aside from the rise and fall of my breath.
“Feel anything,” the clown said watching me with interest.
“No. My fingers are numb.” I shivered. “It’s freezing.”
“It’s not. It’s August,” the clown remarked. “Something is wrong with you.” I watched in horror as his fleshy fingers pressed into the heart, blood bubbled up outlining each finger in juicy maroon. A jagged pain tore through my chest.
“You should have left when they evacuated the town,” the clown said. “The fire will be here soon.”
“I’m looking for my daughter,” I said, clutching my chest until the pain subsided. “Have you seen her?”
The clown shook his head, the white makeup on his forehead erupting into a network of creases. I tore my eyes away and looked up toward the sky. The ashes now fell in feathery clumps. They tickled my cheeks and nose as they landed on my upturned face. I remembered when I was young, sliding down Dizzy-drop Hill with my friends, building snowmen and snow dragons, then lopping off their heads with my hockey stick, and constructing snow forts in the high banks at the end of the driveway. Once a fort had collapsed with me inside it and I could not breathe beneath the heavy snow. I thought I was going to die until my brother pulled me out. The more I cried, the harder he laughed. I hated him for that. Then years later, snow angels with my daughter, building a snowman, having snowball fights. It seemed like yesterday.
The clown regarded me with glimmering eyes. “The carnies probably packed her up and took her with them when they broke down the tents, booths, and rides, and went to the next town. Or maybe something else happened, something worse. It’s been years, Daddy. How many years?”
“Eleven,” I said.
“Eleven,” the clown repeated. “Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel. Admit defeat. She’s gone.” His eyes on me, he lifted the heart up to his nose and inhaled, scrunching his shoulders toward his ears in exaggerated ecstasy. A long gray tongue snaked out of his mouth, the tip sweeping over the heart’s exterior, swirling around one pale valve before disappearing back into his mouth. A fluttering rippled through my chest, a hundred moths trapped in my ribcage.
“Stop that,” I croaked.
The clown sneered. “Why do you return every year? The rides have changed, the operators moved on, yet you return to wander the grounds, searching for something long gone. Carnivals are dangerous events. Bad things hide in plain sight, wearing deceptively beautiful skins, until they creep up behind you and snatch something you love.” He giggled. “Besides, you know it’s your fault she’s gone. Your fault…” he said in a singsong voice.
“I know,” I said, my teeth clenched. A burst of cold wind hit my body, almost knocking me over. Ash eddied around my head. My teeth began to chatter. I was so damn cold.
“Aww,” the clown clucked. “Daddy feels bad.” He brought the heart up and opened his mouth wide as if to take a bite, but paused, looking at me with raised eyebrows.
“Go ahead,” I said. The ash had settled in the clown’s purple wig, making him look ancient, subduing the polka dots on his billowy suit, the rusty blotches, the buttons, faded smiley faces.
The clown lowered the heart and frowned. “Nope. You spoiled it for me, Daddy. It’s no fun if you tell me to do it—”
A roar interrupted him. I spun around to see Lady Sapphire’s tent burst into quick orange flames. The clown cackled. “Oh me! Oh my! It’s here! It’s here!” he said, clapping his hands.
“Get rid of that thing!” I yelled, rushing toward him. I grabbed the heart, turned, and hurled it at the flames like a softball. A pain ripped through my chest.
“No!” the clown bellowed, the sound of his voice turning into a roar, blending with the sound of the fire. I turned back toward the bench. The clown was gone. The wind caught the bloody paper that had contained the heart and pushed it across the grass in looping somersaults. I picked up a faded red ball, the clown’s rubber nose, and rolled it between my fingertips while I waited for the flames. It would not be long, sparks danced in the leafy branches of the trees surrounding the pond. I closed my eyes and inhaled the smoke in greedy gulps. I would disappear in the same place my daughter disappeared, the only way we could be together.
My eyes flew open. My daughter sat on the island in the middle of the duck pond, her back propped against the castle. She opened her arms to me.
Daddy, she repeated.
“Casey?” I said, a tremor to my voice. I jumped to my feet and splashed toward her, the pond water pulling at my legs, the muddy bottom trying to swallow my feet. The startled goose scuttled away honking, the mallards took to the water at my approach.
She smiled, her blue eyes shining. Then I was in her arms, they closed around me in a vice-like embrace and I remembered my daughter’s eyes were brown, the color of dark chocolate. I tried to pull away and found myself face-to-face with the clown, a black ragged hole in his face were the rubber nose had been, filled with a substance the color and consistency of molasses.
“Oh Daddy! Did you really think I’d let you off that easy?” the clown said, he stroked the top of my head. “Where’s Casey, Daddy? Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” I said, as a piece of ash the size of a fly landed in my right eye, forcing an involuntary wink.
“Sure you do, Daddy. Whisper it to me if you want. You’ll feel so much better.” The clown’s lips curled up into a leering grin.
“Stop calling me Daddy!” I wriggled, trying to free myself, but his arms held me fast. Flames now circled the pond, dissolving with a soft fizz when they touched the filmy water. Smoke clogged the sky above my head. I couldn’t breathe. I found myself back in the snow fort, the ceiling collapsed on top of me, the snow heavy on my chest and face, the snow slipping into my open mouth and nostrils. I coughed and gagged. The clown grabbed my shoulders and shook me.
“Tell me! Say it!”
“She’s here. Right here!”
“What?” The clown said, feigning shock. He stopped shaking me. “You mean here, on the island? My dear Daddy, what have you done? Are you trying to tell me you buried your daughter out here?”
I glared at him. “You already know.”
“Yes, but I want you to say it,” he demanded, his voice suddenly flat. “Did you kill your little girl, Daddy?”
“Yes!” I shouted, spittle flying from my lips. “I did! I killed her! She couldn’t keep a secret. I should have been more careful. She followed me everywhere, called me her beloved Daddy. I don’t know why she loved me so much. It was…suffocating. She saw things she shouldn’t, then threatened to tell…about the others…I couldn’t have that.” I clamped my mouth shut. Perspiration crawled down my numb face, a drop landing on my arm.
“Yes, the others!” The clown said, shaking a fist. “There, there, Daddy. There, there…” He crooned and embraced me again, grinding the side of my head into his chest, my ear pressed over his right breast, where I heard the sturdy, whup-whup, whup-whup, of his heart.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound. It transitioned into an abrupt, tap-tap-tap.
And I raised my head. I opened my eyes and found myself in a small room with fluorescent lights, the walls painted avocado. The man sitting across from me, a badge on a chain around his neck, wore a wry smile. A lit cigarette in his left hand, he blew a long stream of smoke into my face.
Again the sound, tap-tap-tap.
I recognized it. It was the sound of knuckles striking glass. I looked over the detective’s shoulder and saw my reflection in the one-way mirror, mousy hair in greasy spikes, complexion washed out, jaw stubbly, eyes red-rimmed and watery. Beyond my reflection, I could just make out the shadow of the person standing on the other side.
“I did it,” I whispered again, clutching my left arm as the pain raced toward my wrist.
Hall Jameson is a writer and artist who lives in Montana with her husband and an assortment of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Phobos Magazine, Allegory, Drabblecast, and Fantasy Scroll Mag. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall spends her time kayaking, playing the piano, and cat wrangling.
You can find Hall Jameson over at her website http://www.halljameson.com/blog/ or follow her on Twitter as @HallJameson.