I decided to share this unusual short story here on my blog, as it has found no other home. I wrote this bizarre tale about a young carnival performer some months ago. It is over 2,500 words. Copyright 2021 K.F. Whatley; offered below for free reading (not re-use).
Trigger Warning: clowns, violence, scary parts, not for everyone.
By K.F. Whatley
Pickles the Clown was calmer than he remembered being in his entire life. Leaning forward in the vanity chair toward the mirror, he carefully drew a rag across his cheek. The thick white makeup and red freckling transferred to the cloth.
He’d been with the traveling carnival for three seasons. During that time, he’d aged from runaway teenager to legal adult. The other members of the troupe had treated him like a grown-up from the beginning. Once he’d been introduced to the company’s peculiar end-of-season rite, Pickles had been given permission to create his own act from scratch and choose his own props.
He winced thinking of that first time he had been ushered into the Big Guy’s tent for the ritual.
All 47 members of the traveling troupe had been jammed into the space. After a short speech thanking the company for their season of service, and before they formed a caravan to drive to their winter homes, the Big Guy had opened a large crate at the back of his tent. Inside it, Pickles had been horrified to see an unconscious young woman — not much older than himself.
She had been wearing tattered jeans and a bright white blouse; Pickles had watched her chest rising and falling, the ruffles on her shoulders fluttering as she breathed. He’d taken a step away, his back pushing against the tent’s canvas, and been pulled forward toward the crate by Rusty Bumbler. Old Rusty was his clown mentor and the one who had ensured there were three meals a day for Pickles and a place for him to sleep. It was an uncomfortable place on a pile of laundry in the corner of Rusty’s tent, but one Pickles had believed more secure than his other options.
“With this, we give thanks for the successful season, and ask protections for the one to come,” the Big Guy had bellowed to the gathering. Then, he had drawn a blade from inside his ornate jacket, holding it up for all 47 of them to see before turning and plunging it into the slumbering woman’s chest. Pickles had screamed. Rusty had pressed his wrinkled hand over Pickle’s mouth. “Shut up,” he’d growled into the teen’s ear. The gravel in the voice had made it clear Pickles must comply.
His terror ignored by all, each member of the troupe stepped forward, removed the blade, and plunged it back into her body. After the first four times, her breaths had ceased; but that hadn’t made the rest of the blows easier for him to watch.
At last, the Big Guy had motioned for Pickles to step forward. “You’ve graced our audiences with wonderfully athletic, comedic performances, young man. We invite you to become a permanent part of our company. You can stay with us to rest for the winter, and travel with us next year with new privileges. Take part in our sacrifice and bind to us as we will be bound to you.” The huge man had shrugged, “Or don’t.”
Those last two words the Big Guy had spoken carried an angry edge that had made Pickles feel like a five-year-old inside. The tone was reminiscent of his father’s voice when he’d used to approach him — back when Pickles was called Eric — with a belt, or worse, in his hands. That tone meant trouble. It meant that he needed to do as he’d been told; not doing as asked was a false option that would lead to pain.
Thinking of that first rite now, two full years later, Pickles closed his eyes, sickening at the memory. He couldn’t shut the memory out, just as closing his eyes back then — as he’d pulled-then-plunged the knife into the dead body — had not shut it out. Warm blood and mush had enveloped his little finger as the knife blade sank. He’d known then, and remembered now, what his actions must have looked like — despite his eyes never seeing them.
There had been a rite at the end of his second year with the carnival troupe, too. The sacrifice then had been a short, thin, middle-aged woman. The Big Guy had again made Pickles go last. Rusty had forced Pickles to keep his eyes open that time, as the teen pulled the blade out and plunged it back into the woman’s un-breathing chest. Then Pickles had thrown up all over the body. The Big Guy had laughed as he sealed the crate with the desecrated, stinking-with-vomit corpse. The troupe had laughed, too, and Pickles’ face had burned red.
After participating that second time, he’d been given free rein to enlist others from the company in his skits, and the audiences had applauded louder and longer the following season.
Now Pickles’ hand stopped, mid-wipe across his forehead. In the mirror, his reflection was suddenly surrounded by the faces of the other clowns, the acrobats, and the rest of the company. A trick of the light, he thought. Absentmindedly, he wiped the mirror with his hand, ignoring the greasepaint-and-red smudge left across the looking glass. Pickles continued wiping makeup from his forehead, and the troupe disappeared from the mirror, replaced by the faces of a laughing audience. He smiled.
During this just-ended season he’d become a headliner, despite his youth. But then, the audiences couldn’t see his youth through the makeup and long, blue wig. The laughter he had raised from the crowds was more rambunctious than for any of the other acts. His strength, honed by regular practice and solitary trips into wooded places to exercise unseen, drew whoops of surprise. Pickles backflipped and cavorted. His ability to go over or under obstacles and land behind his fellow performers — followed by bonking them on the head with a giant rubber hammer or planting a pie on their face — eclipsed the predictable routines of the other clowns. His feats of physical comedy elicited praise from Rusty and the Big Guy, and a showering of respect from the rest.
Pickles’ heart swelled with pride thinking of his success. While his former schoolmates were probably breaking into their first fast-food jobs, or the affluent ones starting college, he was already a well-known performer, his in-costume visage gracing the carnival posters this season.
Carefully removing his wig and wiping off the last patches of his makeup, he saw his reflection in the mirror surrounded by visions of this evening’s laughing faces in the crowd: children with painted flowers on their cheeks; the old couple holding hands; and the group of teenagers who, after bumping people about on the grounds and being jerks, had laughed loudest — whistling their approval as Pickles ended the final skit. Thinking of all the happy faces he’d seen that evening, and the many applauding audiences throughout his seasons with the traveling troupe, he knew he’d earned the right to be proud.
Rite. His mind turned back to the year-end sacrifice. A whisper from Rusty just a few hours ago had informed Pickles he’d have the honor of sinking the knife into their sacrifice as second in line, immediately after the Big Guy.
Honor. It hadn’t felt like an honor to Pickles. When he’d adjourned to the Big Guy’s tent after performing, after the audiences’ faces had gladdened his heart and smiles had filled his sight, the thought of facing the season-end rite a third time had turned his stomach. He wasn’t going to throw up this year, though. His mind had been set on that for the past few weeks. Not this year.
Not ever again.
An hour ago, when the crate had been opened, Pickles hadn’t looked at the sacrifice at all. He was second in line and there were 32 remaining in their little carnival. This season hadn’t been kind, and despite the ritual’s supposed protections, fifteen — the oldest performers — had passed on, their bodies left behind in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia, with instructions for shipment to their winter homes for lonely burials. “They’ll be mourned later, the show must keep moving,” the Big Guy had told the group each time they’d moved on to a new town with fewer hands. The Big Guy had always hired a few locals to help with setup and teardown, but for their latest shows he’d needed to hire dozens.
Standing second in line, Pickles’ eyes had stayed fixed on the Big Guy as he’d pulled out the blade and raised it high overhead. When the blade was turned and held above the crate’s occupant — who Pickles had refused to behold — the young clown had made his move.
It had been easier than he’d imagined. Pickles was strong, yes, but he was also young and had under-anticipated the element of surprise. As if performing, Pickles had seized the Big Guy’s hand and pried the blade away from him, before gripping its handle and shoving it noisily into the Big Guy’s chest. Then, he’d yanked it out, producing a schlooping sound as the large body fell, and spun on down the line. Before the meaning of his twirls and backflips was fully understood by the queued company, ten had been stabbed and dropped dead or dying onto the ground.
Pickles had kept moving, his long wig twirling and swinging. Even those who realized what he was doing could not escape him. Nor did any of them fight back, which raised disgust in his heart. They’d acted so brave when stabbing unconscious sacrifices, yet froze in fear at his approach — as unable to defend against the blade as the sacrifices had been. One-by-one they had fallen to Pickles’ youth, strength, and determination. And his anger.
At the end of Pickles’ one-time-only performance, he stood in the center of the tent catching his breath, gore dripping from his elbow. Hearing moans, he discovered that several troupe members required additional jabs. These he carried out, eyes open, with his final strike going to Rusty.
How fitting, he thought. Rusty who had pulled him back into the fray at that first ritual. Rusty who had taken young Eric under his wing and made him into Pickles the Clown. The old clown had shielded his face with his hands, begging Pickles for mercy, but it was denied.
As Rusty’s blood poured onto the floor and soaked into the garments of the nearby dead, Pickles had surveyed the room. Silence.
He had grabbed a few useful things from the Big Guy’s tent — a lighter, pack of cigarettes, and a watch — but took nothing from the pockets of the dead. Before leaving the tent, he looked down at Rusty once more. Pointing the blade at the unmoving neck, Pickles said, “I’m going to get a place that’s my own now, you monster. Not a smelly corner of your filthy tent. Away from your leering eyes. Rot in hell. Rot and rot and rot.”
Pickles stared into the mirror, his face free of greasepaint and blood now. The imaginary faces were gone from the mirror, leaving only his reflection. Its youth surprised him. He knew he was young, but it had been years since he’d really looked at himself. Meeting his own gaze, “I am Eric,” he said aloud. The one in the mirror wasn’t Pickles. Not anymore.
Not ever again.
Maybe I’ll find a town out west where no one could possibly know me. Maybe I can finish school, Eric thought. He knew that he appeared younger than his legal-adult age. School, or I can put my strength to work at a warehouse or lumber yard. He had so many choices now his head whirled.
He stuffed his wiping rag, makeup, wig, and costume into a backpack. Rising, he pulled on his only warm jacket and retrieved a stack of bills taped to the underside of a dresser drawer. From his weekly wages, not needing to pay for meals, he’d managed to save well over two thousand dollars during the three seasons. He stuffed a thousand in each shoe, splitting the remainder between the front pockets of his well-worn jeans and the left pocket of his jacket. Every penny would be needed to start a new life. Before leaving the tent, he used a t-shirt to wipe the drawer, dresser, and the vanity and mirror. Satisfied most traces of him were erased, he shoved the shirt into the backpack with his other things.
Stepping out into the night, the young man reached into his right jacket pocket. He pulled out the pack of cigarettes and lighter. He didn’t smoke, but they were the only flammable things he’d found in the Big Guy’s tent after stopping the rite forever.
Realizing with shame that he hadn’t freed the unconscious sacrifice in the crate, he ran to the Big Guy’s tent. He stepped over the oozing bodies on his way inside, avoiding the blood for his sneakers’ sake. Dropping his backpack on a clean spot of dirt floor, he used the dirty t-shirt to wipe blood from the blade, then carefully cut her bindings. He dropped the knife and shirt into the pack.
Gently lifting her with both arms, he hugged the child — not even half his age — against his chest and carried her out of the tent. Eric walked across the carnival grounds toward the edge of town, to a park where he’d seen children playing during their opening day parade. He lowered her to the ground beside a bench. In the grass, the girl was so small that she would be out of sight of any two-legged predators roaming the night — any others beyond the now-dead troupe.
Eric knew she was likely to awaken soon. He hoped she would find someone to help her. It was the best he could do for her quickly, as he wasn’t finished with his evening’s work yet. He returned to the silent carnival with its equipment waiting for the teardown crew to arrive in the morning.
They were going to be too late. Eric had decided weeks ago that this carnival would never hold performances again and began the next task he’d set for himself. He wiped his lips as dry as he could and lit the first cigarette. Puffing a few times, he yanked it from his lips and flicked it inside Rusty’s tent — which had also been his tent — where it landed on the only bed. Lighting another, he dropped it into the clothing piled in the corner where he had most often curled up to sleep. He smiled as the first cigarette took hold and flames climbed up, then around, the bed.
Next, he entered the Big Guy’s striped tent. After grabbing his backpack from the floor, he lit and flicked five of the cigarettes around the inside of the tent, aiming and hitting papers on the desk, costumes in a sack, and other flammable messes. He stepped over the bodies to the desk and lit papers, dropping them in every direction except toward the door flap.
Exiting, Eric could feel the heat behind him as the flames grew. He walked back through the carnival grounds, using the lighter to start flames on the other tents and inside the acrobats’ trailers. These were surprisingly flammable, and he grinned despite the burn of the lighter against his thumb.
After upending trash cans along the outside of the trailers and troupe’s vehicles, he lit and tossed the last cigarettes onto the piles of trash, then set fires with the lighter until his thumb blistered.
Smoke plumes billowed upward. He breathed in the smoky, plastic-smelling air, laughed, and then headed toward his final objective. Grabbing a full bag of popcorn from the popcorn machine, he lit the stack of remaining bags, dropped his backpack into the licking flames, and walked away from the carnival grounds toward the road — in the opposite direction from town and the young, sleeping girl. Maybe a nice fireman will find her.
Eric devoured the buttery popcorn as he walked the dark road. My reward, he thought, his stomach thanking him for its first meal of the new day, the salty flavoring coating his fingers and lips. Explosions punctuated his exit as gas tanks met flames.
Side-stepping into the roadside woods while the fire trucks drove past him, he returned to the asphalt when they were out of sight. He walked on, breathed deeply, munched popcorn, and let relief fill him up.
His heart swelled with satisfaction as he thought of how he’d saved the girl and future sacrifices by closing the carnival for good. He laughed boisterously, thinking of the shocked faces of the local teardown crew when they would arrive in the morning to find a smoldering heap.
He walked onward toward wherever this road led, enjoying the calm inside him.
After a while, he couldn’t smell smoke anymore.
Wherever his feet took him now, he would be on his own. He could be himself, with no one’s hold over him. The only demands he’d face would be the ones he made on himself, for himself.
He looked at the expanse of road ahead, and the sky full of stars above stretching forever.
What a beautiful night.